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The Arminian Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

For the sake of the following argument, I would like to grant the premises of Max Weber’s idealist argument: religion and culture (superstructure) are causative agents in socio-economic change. As is well known, Weber argued that Calvinism acted as a crucial vanishing mediator for capitalism. It provided the cultural, behavioural and religious framework that enabled capitalism to establish itself and gain ground.

For the sake of the following argument, I would like to grant the premises of Max Weber’s idealist argument: religion and culture (superstructure) are causative agents in socio-economic change. As is well known, Weber argued that Calvinism acted as a crucial vanishing mediator for capitalism. It provided the cultural, behavioural and religious framework that enabled capitalism to establish itself and gain ground. He looked in particular to the Netherlands, where the first commercial empire was established in the sixteenth century, and then to England, where the Puritans enabled a similar feat some time later. Frugal living, hard work, self-discipline, delayed satisfaction and reliance on the inscrutable grace of God – these and more were the factors that enabled the accumulation of primitive capital and then the expansion of the new system. Then, having achieved its task, Calvinism retired or vanished from its preeminent role.

Weber is of course wrong, but I would like to suggest he is wrong even if we accept his premises. Why? It was the Arminian heresy and not Calvinism that provided the cultural framework for capitalism. The reason is simply that the key agents in establishing capitalism in the Netherlands – or the United Provinces as it was then called – were Arminians, not Calvinists. Let me explain, by focusing on the thought of one of the earliest theorists of capitalism, Hugo Grotius (1683-1645). The crucial elements turn out to be the assertion of a free-willing individual, who has the power to choose good or evil, and to accept or reject God’s grace.

Rereading the Fall

The biblical text upon which all these arguments turn is that of the Fall in Genesis 3. This requires working through some of the key points of the theology of Jacobus Arminius (Harmenzoon),[1] whom Grotius followed closely.[2] Arminius, of course, set out to oppose Calvin’s doctrine of election and double predestination. In doing so, he ensured that the Fall was not such a catastrophe. He argued that through the Fall human beings are depraved and corrupted. So also did Calvin, but now Arminius veers away from Calvin, specifically through his theory of “prevenient grace” – the groundwork of the Holy Spirit, which removes the guilt of the first sin. This grace renders a person capable of responding to the call of salvation. Even so, Arminius is careful to say that this capability is not inherent to human beings, for it is a gift of God’s grace:

Though we always and on all occasions make this grace to precede, to accompany and follow; and without which, we constantly assert, no good action whatever can be produced by man. Nay, we carry this principle so far as not to dare to attribute the power here described [free will] even to the nature of Adam himself, without the help of Divine Grace both infused and assisting.[3]

Yet the implications are momentous, for prevenient grace opens up a wide space for free will. That is, the Holy Spirit comprehensively covers all bases: its preparatory work affects all people and the entire person. The outcome is that everyone has free will, a power that God grants to human beings (and thereby limits God’s own power).[4] It should not be difficult to see what this means for salvation. God’s grace is no longer irresistible but resistible; human beings exercise their free will by either accepting grace or resisting it. A similar pattern of moving from the universal to the particular operates in Arminius’s Christology, for although Christ dies for all in an atonement that is made potentially for every human being, his atonement is effective only for who accept the call of God to salvation. Even more, the exercise of free will means that one may at some time accept that call of grace and then at another reject it. One may therefore lose one’s faith and no longer be one of the elect – salvation may well be lost.

We are now far from Calvin’s doctrine of predestination according to which one is always one of the elect or the damned. This is to be expected, since Arminius set out to undermine precisely that doctrine: through prevenient grace and free will, human beings cooperate with God in the process of salvation. What happens to the central doctrine of election? This becomes conditional, depending upon the human response. Yet now Arminius gives election an intriguing twist. Although salvation involves the human response to God’s election, God foreordained who was to have such faith. In other words, God knows beforehand who will believe, who will exercise free will and choose to accept. As Arminius puts it, “the decree of God by which, of Himself, from eternity, He decreed to justify in Christ, believers, and to accept them unto eternal life, to the praise of His glorious grace.”[5] This twist may seem to bring Arminius back to Calvin, for if God knows beforehand who will have faith, does that not really mean that God predestines who is to be saved? Not quite, for God operates within the limits of foreknowledge: as omniscient, God may be able to peer ahead, as it were, and determine who is going to respond favourably. God may even limit election to those who will answer the call. But this is a far cry from predestining those who, before the creation of the world, are of the damned and of the saved.

Arminius was, therefore, a true theological liberal before liberalism became fashionable. However, I would like to focus on the questions of evil and the Fall, for these take us directly to Grotius. Arminius found Calvin’s predestination unacceptable, for he saw it attributing evil to God. If God arbitrarily saves some and condemns others to hell, then God becomes a monster and a tyrant. Even more, if God predestines people before the Fall, they have no free will and their evil acts can have only one source – God. For Arminius and Grotius following him, the source of evil is instead free will. Of the three biblical options for dealing with evil – God is responsible, an evil being bears the blame, or it is human free will – Grotius opts clearly for the third.

While this may be a drearily common position today, it was less so in the time of Arminius and Grotius. The intriguing question is then how one deals with evil. For Grotius, evil does not have a real existence: it is a negative, an absence of good, or a “defect” as he puts it.[6] The gains of this position are heavily outweighed by the losses. It is easy to show that evil as a defect is not in the nature of God and that it is not a distinct being. But the position also hobbles Grotius’s thought. He desperately tries to make up ground, suggesting that God provides ample laws (including natural law), threats and promises, reward and punishment after death, states and empires for good order. Yet, the best argument he can muster is that the free individual is the cause of evil, the one who through the exercise of that free will may choose to do evil. While free will is in itself good, no less than an attribute of God bequeathed to human beings, the exercise of that free will may result in moral evil: “liberty of acting is not in itself evil, but may be the cause of something that is evil.”[7]

So, Grotius (following Arminius) sought to soften the Fall, finding as a result that an individual does have free will, that this is the source of evil and good, indeed that one may deploy that free will to accept or reject God at any point. In short, the individual agent or entrepreneur begins to shake off the mud of his medieval collective existence, in order to become the creator of capitalism. This individual entrepreneur may set out by ship to make a profit, may establish a company to expand such efforts, may run shipyards or factories, may accumulate capital, may on his own volition foster good and punish evil. And in all this, God will bless him.[8]

Arminianism and the Dutch Ruling Class

All this is very well, but how influential was Grotius’s thought? Were Arminians like him outsiders, easily defeated by the Calvinists in the struggles of the sixteenth century? Not at all. Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange, might have ended up leading the Calvinists to victory at the Synod of Dort (1618-19), but these events took place after the Dutch Empire had been established. Instead, it was precisely people like Arminius[9] and Grotius who were crucial in turning the small size and marginal status of the United Provinces into a hub of European commerce. In other words, they were part of a rising commercial ruling class. Grotius’s family counted itself among the regents of the town of Delft, part of the new oligarchy that remembered vividly the struggle of the United Provinces against Spanish colonial dominance. This ruling class status was not due to some tattered aristocratic lineage, but to being beneficiaries of the Dutch Baltic trade, as well as the more illustrious but less profitable work of the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), which set the initial example for the relatively (at the time) vast corporations that would fuel European colonialism. The result of the amalgamation in 1602 of a number of the smaller companies, the VOC in its first year had more revenue than the English government. As shareholders in the company, the De Groots were on the board of its Delft “chamber.” As van Ittersum has argued, much of Grotius’s work was both in service to and stimulated by the new issues that arose from the vigorous activities of the VOC.[10]

Given such a background, Grotius inevitably gained a typical humanist education, read the texts from ancient Greece and Rome, studied rhetoric, and spoke and wrote with his fellow humanists in Latin. Apart from these signals of ruling class assumptions, he was also a champion of liberal tolerance, seeking to unite the various political and theological groups that were often at odds with one another. In the same vein as Arminius’s 1606 address, “On Reconciling Religious Dissensions among Christians,” Grotius wrote that like the early Christians who knew of no sect or faction, he sought to show that “there was no one sect that had discovered all truth, nor any but what held something that was true.”[11] Only by finding a common ground and eschewing such factional struggles could the truth be found. This motive underlies his writing of The Truth of the Christian Religion, which even sought to unite Protestants and Roman Catholics. It should come as no surprise that in his last years he took up the task of ambassador for Sweden. A good, liberal project, is it not? Yet liberal tolerance is always proposed by “men of good judgment, and of no small learning,”[12] that is, from a position of ruling class power, for tolerance seeks to leave the status quo as it is. Toleration, sure, but only so far you recognize our position of influence. Or, more perniciously: tolerance yes, but on our terms.

The implications for Weber’s thesis concerning capitalism should by now be clear. I have, for the sake of my argument, granted Weber’s methodological assumptions, but even according to those assumptions he has missed his target. Those who took up a Reformed position (Calvinists) were not the agents of the Dutch commercial empire. They tended to come from the poorer, peasant and new working class areas of the United Provinces, precisely those that had been so enamoured with the radical and revolutionary currents of Anabaptism not so long before. Instead, it was Arminianism that was popular among the commercial ruling elite, among whom Grotius was a leading ideologue. Here are to be found the entrepreneurial doctrines of the free willing individual, the agent responsible for good and evil, the one who is powerful enough to resist even God’s grace. Men of this ilk were thoroughly offended by the Calvinist position that all their strivings, all their good works, counted as nothing before God. After all, was not the wealth and power they had created also good? In this light, it is perhaps better to speak of the Arminian ethic and the spirit of capitalism.


Arminius, Jacobus. The Complete Works of James Arminius.  Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986 [1853].

Grotius, Hugo. Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty. Translated by John Clarke. edited by Martine Julia Van Ittersum Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006 [1868].

———. The Freedom of the Seas.  Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2000 [1609].

———. The Rights of War and Peace. Translated by John Clarke. edited by Richard Tuck3 vols Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005 [1625].

———. The Truth of the Christian Religion. Translated by John Clarke.  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012 [1627].

Haentjes, A. H. Hugo de Groot als godsdienstig denker.  Amsterdam: Ploegsma, 1946.

Nellen, Henk, and Edwin Rabbie, eds. Hugo Grotius, Theologian: Essays in Honour of G.H.M. Posthumus Meyjes. Leiden: Brill, 1994.

van Ittersum, Martine Julia. Profit and Principle: Hugo Grotius, Natural Rights Theories and the Rise of Dutch Power in the East Indies 1595-1615.  Leiden: Brill, 2006.

[1] Jacobus Arminius (Harmenzoon), born in 1560, was minister in Amsterdam for some fifteen years before becoming professor of theology at the University of Leiden from 1603 until his death in 1609. The Remonstrant position is so named due to a position statement published – the “five articles of Remonstrance” – soon after Arminius’s death by those who followed him.

[2] For useful studies that recognise the importance of theology for the nature of Grotius’s thought, see A. H. Haentjes, Hugo de Groot als godsdienstig denker  (Amsterdam: Ploegsma, 1946); Henk Nellen and Edwin Rabbie, eds., Hugo Grotius, Theologian: Essays in Honour of G.H.M. Posthumus Meyjes (Leiden: Brill, 1994).

[3] Jacobus Arminius, The Complete Works of James Arminius  (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986 [1853]w far from Calvin’s doctrine oa title=”” href=”file:///C:/Users/Iosef/Documents/Eruditio%20(non-refereed)/2013/2013%20Arminian%20Ethic/Arminian%20Ethic%2003%20(archive).docx#_ftnref4″>[4] “The providence of God is subordinate to creation; and it is, therefore, necessary that it should not impinge against creation, which it would do, were it to inhibit or hinder the use of free will in man.” Ibid., II: 460.

[5] Ibid., III: 311. Note also: “God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing[prevenient] grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.” Ibid., I: 248.

[6] Hugo Grotius, The Truth of the Christian Religion, trans. John Clarke (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012 [1627]), 1.9.

[7] Ibid., 1.8.

[8] Grotius also constructs one of the first myths of the development of capitalism, a myth that accounts for the origin of property, law, commerce, states, and of those areas of the world that are neither private nor public property. This myth is both a thorough retelling of the myth of the Fall and a story that would be embellished by John Locke, Adam Smith, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo, among others. The myth appears in the twelfth chapter of Commentary on the Law of Prize and Booty, ed. Martine Julia Van Ittersum, trans. John Clarke (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006 [1868]), 315-21; The Freedom of the Seas  (Kitchener: Batoche Books, 2000 [1609]). A more disjointed version appears in the second book of the later De jure Belli (Grotius 2005 [1625], II.2.2-3)

[9] Through his marriage to Lijsbet Reael in 1590 Arminius entered the circles of Amsterdam’s most influential families.

[10] Martine Julia van Ittersum, Profit and Principle: Hugo Grotius, Natural Rights Theories and the Rise of Dutch Power in the East Indies 1595-1615  (Leiden: Brill, 2006), li-lv.

[11] Hugo Grotius, The Rights of War and Peace, ed. Richard Tuck, trans. John Clarke, 3 vols. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005 [1625]), I. Prol. 43.

[12] Ibid.

9 thoughts on “The Arminian Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

  1. Thanks, Roland. This is an intriguing argument, but I have to say that, as a student of this period, I have significant misgivings about its theological accuracy. For one thing, Arminianism and Calvinism at this time were not logical contraries, but vague (usually polemically-distorted) categories designating different points on a spectrum of broadly Reformed opinion. Arminius himself was probably working closer to the center of that spectrum than most of his Remonstrant followers were, and they were still closer than their opponents usually made them out to be. Accordingly, while there are some real differences between say Arminius himself and Calvin himself, they are, it seems to me, on much finer points than those you identify. They affirmed most of the same core principles; the devil was in the details.
    For instance, Calvin and most intelligent Calvinists of this period would have affirmed the existence of something called free will—they were not determinists. And the insistence that God was not the author of evil, and the concept of evil as something negative, inhering in the human will as a defect, were, it seems to me, theological commonplaces among Calvinists. So I’m not sure what you refer to when you say, “While this may be a drearily common position today, it was less so in the time of Arminius and Grotius.” Even on points like Arminius’s doctrine of prevenient grace, the resistibility of grace, and the idea of temporary faith, you would’ve found moderate Calvinists willing to espouse versions of these ideas, without thereby abandoning Calvinist orthodoxy.

    1. Brad, good to so early from you (and great to debate with the manager of the blog!). To be sure, Arminius presented himself as faithful interpreter of Scripture, even suggesting that he was very much part of Calvinism. He was certainly careful in his formulations to avoid seeming like he was stepping outside. But I do think that the Synod of Dort picked up rather astutely on the implications of the Remonstrant arguments, which was to bend away from the core ideas of Calvinism.
      It seems to me that you are bending the sense of Calvinist when you state that moderate Calvinists would have accepted prevenient grace, resistability of grace, and temporary faith. That would place them among the Remonstrants, which would then entail arguing that the latter were indeed Calvinists as well. My sense is that you would want to argue that.
      I would like to add, though, that a class perspective is important here. The Remonstrants tended to be of the humanistically educated commercial ruling class, precisely the ones who had established the Dutch empire. Of course, there are plenty of delicious complications, since board members of the VOC were also Calvinists. Yet Grotius is the key, for he was really the first theorist of capitalism, and his theological positions are a good way from Calvin. On the other side, I am intrigued by the way the proper Calvinists (and I think the term ‘hyper’ is a dismissive one) tended to be stronger in the poorer, norther provinces. Why? Because Calvin’s position actually challenged ruling class assumptions concerning self-worth and the value of one’s achievements.

      1. Thanks, Roland. No, my purpose is not to argue that the Remonstrants were in fact Calvinists. My concern is to resist any perpetuation of the stereotype that what we had, up to 1600, was this hard, unflinching, unqualified Calvinism with which Arminius then began to tinker and make fundamental alterations. Rather, most of the sorts of distinctions that dominated the Arminian debate—e.g., between the active and permissive will of God, the different senses in which the human will could and could not resist God’s grace, the efficiency and sufficiency of the atonement, etc.— were already in the air, and already a part of the mainstream of orthodox Calvinism before Arminius. Arminius and the Remonstrants after him take up some of these qualifications and develop them in a one-sided way, with the result that they find themselves outside the bounds of Reformed orthodoxy. But it is simply not the case that Arminius and Grotius are doing something new in using the notion of sin as a privation in the human will in order to avoid making God the author of evil, as you seemed to suggest here (in fact, I heard a very interesting paper just today at the Sixteenth Century Society on this argument in Peter Martyr Vermigli). With “prevenient grace,” we need to be careful, of course. Arminius’s use of the concept is indeed a new turn, but he is adapting existing Calvinistic notions of common grace. With the resistability of grace and particularly temporary faith, I think you’ll find that there were Calvinists who espoused these concepts without thereby becoming Remonstrants—the devil, again, is in the details. In any case, while I would likewise try to avoid the term “hyper-Calvinist” in this context, I wouldn’t call the Gomarists the “proper Calvinists” either—their supralapsarianism was a decidedly minority position.

        But I don’t mean to unnecessarily complicate the discussion—certainly these are deep and complicated theological waters, and few readers may be interested in following us out into these depths. Your point about the class differences certainly is intriguing, and there is no doubt that, however one parses all the theological distinctions, the tone of Grotius’s theology is much different, and much more optimistic, than Calvin’s. So you may well be onto something there.

  2. Interesting thesis. It resonates with what I discovered about the role of the Nonconformists, especially the Quakers in the First English Industrial Revolution. The Quakers rebelled against authority of all kinds whether it be religious or secular. Religiously they rejected that of the Church (Catholic) and Text (Protestant), accepting only the Book of John and the Sermon on the Mount to guide them to the “authority of the spirit”. This made them the least dogmatic of all the Christian sects. The emphasis on learning by doing, discovery and a zeal for reform made them most successful commercial and social innovators, contributing out of all proportion to their numbers. You can read more about them here: http://www.davidkhurst.com/the-spirit-of-capitalism-the-quakers-and-the-first-industrial-revolution/

    Weber’s theory is far too abstract and when one drills down into the details one finds a particular kind of small-group dynamics that I call “hunting” behaviour. One finds it in the Parsees and Jains in India, in the Bahai in Iran, in the Overseas Chinese, the Jewish diaspora and in many other non-Christian peoples.

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