Acton Institute Powerblog

Christian Reason and the Spirit of Capitalism

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Here’s a far-ranging essay that has a central thesis which is quite possibly fatally flawed but still touches on some very important points: “A series of developments, in which reason won the day, gave unique shape to Western culture and institutions. And the most important of those victories occurred within Christianity. While the other world religions emphasized mystery and intuition, Christianity alone embraced reason and logic as the primary guides to religious truth.”

In “How Christianity (and Capitalism) Led to Science,” Baylor University Professor Rodney Stark examines the role that Christianity, especially rational Christianity, played in the flowering of Western civilization. Stark points out the flaw in Max Weber’s thesis that capitalism was founded on the Protestant work ethic (“the rise of capitalism in Europe preceded the Reformation by centuries”).

Stated elsewhere, Stark’s modified thesis is this: “But, if one digs deeper, it becomes clear that the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason.” This “faith in reason” was most importantly manifest in Christianity, which, according to Stark, held a consistent dominant view from the church fathers, through the Middle Ages, and up through the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Quotes from Augustine and Tertullian are used to shore up his claim that “from early days, the church fathers taught that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase understanding of Scripture and revelation.”

Stark does debunk many pervasive myths in addition to the Weber thesis, such as that the supremacy of the West was based on the secularization and “overcoming” of religious barriers to progress. “Nonsense,” he writes. “The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations, and the people who brought it about were devout Christians.” Stark also exposes “the incredible fiction that, from the fall of Rome until about the 15th century, Europe was submerged in the Dark Ages — centuries of ignorance, superstition, and misery — from which it was suddenly, almost miraculously, rescued; first by the Renaissance and then by the Enlightenment.”

Still, Stark’s depiction of the role of reason in the great history of Christian theology is rather markedly simplistic. There are a great many strands of different approaches to the relationship between faith and reason, and not all of them can be disposed of simply by juxtaposing “mystery” and “reason.” Augustine’s view of reason seems particularly distorted by Stark.

Stark makes no distinction between the rational Christianity of the Enlightenment, for example, and the view of reason in Christianity in the dominant Augustinian traditions in the Middle Ages and Reformation. One key aspect that is overlooked is the Christian regard not just for reason in general, but with the reason of regenerate Christians, as opposed to the fallen reason exercised by the unregenerate.

It may well be, in fact, that “the truly fundamental basis not only for capitalism, but for the rise of the West, was an extraordinary faith in reason,” but from this it does not follow that there is a unanimous Christian approach to reason throughout church history, or that the modern scientific age was not ushered in by an increasing emphasis on reason and rationality as external norms for Christian theology (something quite foreign to most premodern approaches to theology).

All in all, Stark’s piece is a valuable one, but should be approached with some critical caution. He is at his strongest when debunking myths about the rise of capitalism and doing good economic history and analysis: “Tyranny makes a few people richer; capitalism can make everyone richer.” He does a good job of tracing interest in science and technology to a general Christian regard for human reason. He stumbles, however, in his depiction of reason in relation to the enterprise of Christian theology. Stark’s contention that a univocal “faith in reason” existed throughout the last 2,000 years of Christian theology falls flat.

Update: A discussion of this piece is developing over at Mere Comments.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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