Calvin's Meme: What Made Calvinism So Sticky

Alistair McGrath's book Christianity's Dangerous Idea, argues that the Protestant Reformation, unleashed a powerful, organic, and ultimately uncontrollable force within Christianity, when it's leaders argued that each person ought to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. 

One of the most successful and dynamic strains of Reformation thought was Calvinism. It spread faster, further, and rooted more deeply than the programs of  either Zwingli or Luther.

McGrath shows that Calvinism's competitive edge came from a several innovations which, to use Heylighen's terminology,  facilitated its mimetic assimilation, retention, expression and transmission. These innovations were,
  • Incorporating marginal notes into the Geneva Bible
  • The Innovation of Congregationalism
  • The embrace of capitalism
Let's look at some quotes from the book that support this conclusion.

Marginal Notes

The innovation of marginal notes helped in the assimilation and retention of early Calvinism by making the newly liberated "Word of God" comprehensible to the average person. This in turn fueled the expression and transmission by turning the laity into a distribution network.

"Where earlier English Protestants, such as William Tyndale, had assumed—not a little optimistically, as it turned out—that the Bible, once translated, could easily be understood by any plowboy, the Geneva Bible explicitly recognized that there were “hard places”—that is, passages of the Bible that needed more than a little explanation. The marginal notes of the Geneva Bible provided its readers with clear explanations of the meanings of important yet potentially obscure biblical texts."
McGrath, Alister (2009-10-13). Christianity's Dangerous Idea (p. 135). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


Congregationalism helped the transmission of Calvinism, empowering the network of lay distributors by discarding the antiquated notion of Confessionalism. Confessionalism had tied the idea of the church to state patronage. In addition to fueling religious wars, Confessionalism also limited the spread of the Gospel to the boundaries of its patron state.

(T)he most important outcome of the Puritan commonwealths of the 1630s and their revitalization a century later was political. A radical alternative was established to the European model of Protestantism as a regional or national religion.

     The rise of confessionalism in Germany led to state-sponsored Protestant churches defining the religious establishment. Lutheranism was the state religion in certain parts of Germany and Scandinavia, Reformed Christianity in certain other regions of Europe, and Anglicanism in England and the British colonies—including the Carolinas and Virginia. Catholicism, of course, was firmly established as the state religion in France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain, as well as in the newly established Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Central and South America.

     The congregationalism of the Puritan commonwealths offered an alternative model that had no real precedent in Europe: an understanding of religious “establishment” that did not involve preferential state support for any one specific ecclesiastical body. The Puritan experimentation in defining church-state relationships was driven as much by hatred for the English model of a state church, which both patronized and oppressed alternative forms of Christianity, as by a longing for individual and corporate freedom. Yet during the first half of the eighteenth century, this was merely a local model, appropriate to the commonwealth of Massachusetts and a few other locations in New England. It would take a revolution to make it the norm for America as a whole. As events unfolded, it turned out that such a revolution lay to hand."
McGrath, Alister (2009-10-13). Christianity's Dangerous Idea (pp. 159-160). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

"In America, competition encourages religious entrepreneurship and vitality. As Steve Bruce, professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen, points out: “Free-market capitalism explains why Americans are rich; free-market religion explains why Americans are church-going.”
McGrath, Alister (2009-10-13). Christianity's Dangerous Idea (pp. 255-256). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

"Alexis de Tocqueville noted the implications of this fact and suggested that the American separation of church and state was directly related to the American interest in religion—in stark contrast with the situation he knew back in Europe."
McGrath, Alister (2009-10-13). Christianity's Dangerous Idea (pp. 327-328). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


Capitalism helped the retention of Calvinism by smoothing out economic turmoils for its adherents. By giving them a visible assurance of God's favor.
One of the most visible differences between Protestant and Catholic Europe in the early seventeenth century was the marked economic superiority of the former over the latter. For example, consider Flanders, which was torn apart in the second half of the sixteenth century by Protestant revolt and Catholic reconquest by the Spaniards. For the best part of two hundred years thereafter, the Protestant zone was bustling and prosperous, and the Catholic area depressed and unproductive. Even in robustly Catholic nations, such as France and Austria, economic entrepreneurialism was primarily due to Calvinists. Capitalism and Calvinism were virtually coextensive by the middle of the seventeenth century.
McGrath, Alister (2009-10-13). Christianity's Dangerous Idea (p. 330). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The “Weber thesis,” developed by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920).36 Weber set out a complex argument, not entirely justified by the evidence he assembled, to the effect that a new “spirit of capitalism” emerged in the early modern period and seemed to be associated with Protestantism—more specifically, with Calvinism.37 Weber set out to identify the characteristics of “modern” capitalism by comparing it with what he termed the “adventurer” capitalism of the medieval period. This earlier form of capitalism, he argued, was opportunistic and unscrupulous; it tended to consume its capital gains in flamboyant and decadent lifestyles. The forms of capitalism that emerged in the early modern period, however, possessed a strong ethical basis, which was often linked to personal asceticism in respect to material goods. Under Catholicism, the accumulation of capital was seen as intrinsically sinful; under Calvinism, it was seen as praiseworthy. In Weber’s view, this fundamental change in attitude was particularly well illustrated by a number of seventeenth-century Calvinist writers such as Benjamin Franklin, whose writings combined commendation of the accumulation of capital through engagement with the world with criticism of its consumption. Capital was seen as something to be increased, not something to be consumed. Calvinism, according to Weber, thus generated the psychological preconditions essential to the development of modern capitalism.
McGrath, Alister (2009-10-13). Christianity's Dangerous Idea (pp. 330-331). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Calvinism, is a meme-complex that contains several successful innovations beyond its doctrine. It adapted in a way that reinforced the spirit of liberation brought on by the Reformation. Rather than retaining older customs, it embraced new ones. The Geneva notes, for instance, were not only empowering because they made a difficult text comprehensible - emboldening the laity to go out and convince others. They also constrained individual interpretation by their authoritative presence within the text, providing a safeguard against excess.  Congregationalism allowed Calvinism to spread through the social networks of individuals, rather than waiting for the state to change its allegiance. This is what restricted the growth of Lutheranism. Finally early capitalism promised (and for many delivered,) a new prosperity that gave those who embraced the new belief system security.

I think the lesson we can learn from this, is that just like roads, sea travel, and the Pax Romana allowed for the spread of early Christianity (by making travel easy and safe), the innovations embraced by Calvinism made the spread of it's reformed ideas easy and safe. We are still at the dawn of the digital age. Already it is beginning to transform how we live. The way we choose to embrace this change will determine how well we adapt to the new social landscape.

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