A New Work Ethic and the Development of Capitalism

One of the more distinctive features of early Protestantism was its rejection of the medieval distinction between the “sacred” and “secular” realms. While this can easily be interpreted as the desacralization of the sacred, it is important to note that it can equally well be understood as the sacralization of the secular. As early as 1520, Luther had laid the basic conceptual foundations for creating sacred space within the secular. As we noted earlier, his doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers” asserted that there was no genuine differ- ence of status between the “spiritual” and the “temporal” order. All Christians were called to be priests – and could exercise that calling within the everyday world.


This had significant implications for the notion of “calling.” During the Middle Ages, the Latin term vocatio (“call” or “calling”) was understood to mean a call to the monastic life, which involved leaving the world behind. Those who chose to remain in the world tended to be regarded as second-rate Christians, who lacked the commitment to enter the religious life. Luther’s abolition of the distinction between the “spiritual” and “temporal” estates forced a revision of the notion of vocation.

The idea of “calling” was thus affirmed, yet fundamentally redefined, by Protestantism. No longer was it about being called to serve God by leaving the world; it was now about serving God within the everyday world. Inevitably, this core principle led to a rejection – or at least marginalization – of any form of monastic life within Protestantism. It served no useful purpose, and distracted believers from their real sphere of responsibilities and activi- ties – in the world.

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