The society believes that God approves of several character traits related to work and productivity

In 1904-05, German sociologist Max Weber published an influential essay that later became a book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.30 Weber argued that certain character traits that were inculcated by Protestantism were responsible for the remarkable economic development of Northern European nations and the United States.

More recently, Landes has concluded that, in spite of much scholarly criticism of Weber, he was essentially correct. At one point in his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor, Landes says, with respect to the idea that culture makes all the difference in economic development, “Here Max Weber was right on.”[1] [2] In Landes’s words, “The heart of the matter lay indeed in the making of a new kind of man—rational, ordered, diligent, productive. These virtues, while not new, were hardly commonplace. Protestantism generalized them among its adherents.”[3]

Landes mentions two special characteristics of Protestants:

The first was stress on instruction and literacy, for girls as well as boys. This was a by-product of Bible reading. Good Protestants were expected to read the holy scriptures for themselves. . . . The second was importance accorded to time. . . . In that place and time (northern Europe, sixteenth to eighteenth centuries), religion encouraged the appearance in numbers of a personality type that had been exceptional


and adventitious before; and . . . this type created a new economy (a new mode of production) that we know as (industrial) capitalism.33

Landes also says, “Weber’s point is that Protestantism produced a new kind of businessman, a different kind of person, one who aimed to live and work a certain way. It was the way that mattered, and riches were at best a by-product.”34

Many of the aspects of this “Protestant” approach to work and productivity will be explained in the pages that follow. But at this point, we can mention several factors. It includes pursuing one’s job as a calling from God; being able to read; and being honest and diligent at work, because one is working “as for the Lord and not for men” (Col. 3:23). In addition, workers should be thrifty in time and money (which they have as a stewardship entrusted to them from God). They should see the creation and production of goods from the earth as a calling from God (according to Gen. 1:28), and something they can do joyfully and with thanksgiving. They should not be superstitious but realize that God made an orderly world that is subject to rational investigation. They should think that new inventions of products from the earth are to be received as wonderful blessings from God.

It should not be surprising that a belief that God approves such things, once it spreads throughout a society, leads to greater economic growth in a nation. It is not surprising, therefore, that Harrison has compiled a remarkable table of various nations categorized according to the dominant religious backgrounds that influenced their cultures in the past. It shows that countries with primarily Protestant backgrounds influencing their cultural values score the highest in terms of per capita gross domestic product (GDP).

Religious background to culture of nations Per capita GDP

Protestant $29,784 Jewish $19,320 Roman Catholic $9,358 Orthodox $7,045

Ibid., 178.

Ibid., 175.

Confucian $6,691 Buddhist $4,813 Islamic $3,142 Hindu $2,390[4]

At this point, we also need to make clear that when we talk about belief in God and certain moral standards, we are definitely not affirming the “health-and-wealth gospel.” That is a teaching in some Christian circles that if you have enough faith, God will reward you with material prosperity. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert rightly criticize this view:

At its core, the health and wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth. When stated this way, the health and wealth gospel is easy to reject on a host of biblical grounds. Take the case of Job, for example. He had enormous faith and lived a godly life, but he went from riches to poverty because he was righteous and God wanted to prove this to Satan. . . .

The poor could be poor due to injustices committed against them. . . . [During a visit to the massive Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya,] I was . . . amazed to see people . . . who were simultaneously so spiritually strong and so devastatingly poor. Right down there in the bowels of hell was this Kenyan church, filled with spiritual giants who were struggling just to eat every day. This shocked me. At some level I had implicitly assumed that my economic superiority goes hand in hand with my spiritual superiority. This is none other than the lie of the health and wealth gospel: spiritual maturity leads to financial prosperity.[5]

What we are saying throughout this book is that obedience to biblical teachings in the conduct of government and economic systems in a nation leads to increasing prosperity, and that belief in biblical values also contributes to prosperity in the lives of individuals and nations. But poverty is the result of many factors. Individual poor people may be spiritually mature and still materially poor because of injustices committed against them, because of personal tragedies or misfortunes, or because of the destructive systems, laws, and policies in the nation in which they live.

  • [1] Published in English as Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons(1930; repr., Los Angeles: Roxbury, 1996.
  • [2] Landes, Wealth and Poverty, 516. See also the perceptive analysis of Weber’s theory by H. F. R. Cather-wood, The Christian in Industrial Society (London: Tyndale Press, 1964), 114-26.
  • [3] Ibid., 177.
  • [4] Harrison, The Central Liberal Truth, 88-89.
  • [5] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor— and Yourself (Chicago: Moody, 2009), 69-70.
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