A Lutheran Ethical Tradition: Distinguishing Features and Discernible Threats

[1] Is there a Lutheran intellectual tradition?[1]

[2] When my academic dean, Bill Craft, invited me to answer this question I decided to run some quick keyword searches in a couple of databases. The results were not very encouraging. When I searched for “Lutheran” and “intellectual” in an on-line database for periodical literature in religion, I only turned up 40 hits, and many of these were just book reviews of Alister McGrath’s, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation. A similar on-line search in an international database of books only yielded 21 volumes. These 61 total possibilities paled in comparison to the 796 responses I got when I searched for “Catholic” and “intellectual” in the same databases. Lutherans do better in other areas, however. Searches for “Lutheran pietism” and “Lutheran hymnody” produced more than ten times the number of hits compared to our Catholic brothers and sisters!

[3] So what does this mean? Are Lutherans only good at being pious and singing hymns? Do we have to leave the heavy thinking to others? Surely there must be a Lutheran intellectual tradition. After all, there are 28 Lutheran colleges and universities in North America! Even though, sometimes, our schools are better known for the quality of our choral ensembles or the success of our athletic teams, thousands of students don’t enroll in our schools just to play ball or sing sacred music. They come to our colleges and universities because we have a reputation for challenging their minds, nurturing their faith, and preparing them to serve with distinction for the common good.

[4] But do our students encounter a uniquely Lutheran intellectual tradition as they pursue their studies? Do Lutheran academics bring a unique intellectual tradition to bear on their various academic disciplines? In the remainder of this paper, I want to sketch what, to me, are (or should be) distinguishing features of a Lutheran intellectual tradition.[2] I also want to identify briefly a few things that I think pose a danger to the integrity of such a tradition.

Distinguishing Features
[5] My selection for the first distinguishing feature of a Lutheran intellectual tradition may surprise you. It is Luther’s apocalyptic worldview. Luther truly believed that God is locked in mortal combat with Satan for the welfare of God’s creation and the souls of humanity. The late Heiko Oberman expressed the importance of this apocalyptic perspective in the title of his biography, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil.[3] Everywhere he turned, Luther saw the work of Satan in the corruption of the papacy, the failure of the princes to seek the welfare of their subjects, and in the rebellion of peasants hell-bent on social change. One only needs to recall the verses of A Mighty Fortress to recall how pervasive this apocalyptic mindset was for Luther.

[6] Now, I don’t know about you, but it is not my impression that many of my colleagues at Luther College have a discernibly apocalyptic worldview. Unlike brother Martin, few of us seem to view ultimate reality as a battle between the forces of good and evil. To be sure, some biblical scholars have chosen to specialize in this genre, and some political scientists and sociologists have developed expertise about apocalyptic cults or movements, but I can’t recall the last time I had a rousing discussion about the work of the devil over lunch in the faculty dining room. When I ask students in my classes whether they believe that Satan exists, or whether there is a force of radical evil at work in the world, only about half raise their hands.[4]

[7] These results should not surprise us. Ever since the Renaissance we have tended to chalk evil up to ignorance. People just don’t know any better. If they were better educated, they wouldn’t do these terrible things. Since human minds are just blank slates, tabulae rasae, they can be educated out of the evils of ignorance and into the blessings of civilization. So, if evil arises from ignorance, the educated certainly don’t want to talk about something as superstitious as evil. The concept of Satan offends our Enlightenment rationalism, not to mention post-modern predispositions to relativism.

[8] Were Luther with us today, one can only imagine how vehemently he would “smite, slay, and stab” this misguided worldview.[5] While there certainly are evils related to ignorance, there is a huge difference between believing that these evils can be eradicated through our efforts at education and Luther’s conviction that only the forces of God can defeat “sin, death, and the devil.” There are also dangers related to demonizing one’s enemy, but, with Paul, Luther urges us to consider the “principalities and powers” of this world.

[9] Thus, a distinguishing feature of a Lutheran intellectual tradition is the perception that all of life is caught up in an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of good and evil. As much as I abhor the contentious and belligerent disposition of some Lutheran theologians, I must admit that Luther’s apocalyptic worldview does require a certain “battlefield mindset.” The life of the mind can never be lived in some ivory tower but rather serves either God or Satan in the cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil.

[10] A second distinguishing feature of a Lutheran intellectual tradition is related to Luther’s view of human nature. Caught in the middle of this apocalyptic struggle, Luther believed that baptized Christians remain subject to the forces of “sin, death, and the devil,” despite the fact that they have been redeemed by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This notion that human beings are simultaneously saints and sinners (simul justus et peccator), leads Luther to develop a realistic view of human nature which treads a middle path between optimists who view humans as blank slates that can be molded into righteousness and pessimists who view human beings as utterly depraved. While the gifts of reason and love are clouded by sin, Luther believed that Christians are freed by the gospel to love their neighbor and fight the forces of evil by securing greater measures of peace with justice. At the same time, Luther was always alert to the ways that sin can corrupt human motivations and turn us in upon ourselves rather than outward toward our neighbors.

[11] Empowered with this view of human nature, Lutheran intellectuals can extol a politics of service while at the same time harboring a “hermeneutic of suspicion.”[6] With regard to the latter, intellectuals laying claim to the heritage of Martin Luther should always challenge ideologies that deify or reify human agendas and leave little or no room for the work of God. In the previous century, the challenge was to discern the threat of various totalitarian and racist ideologies; a test which some Lutherans failed miserably. In the 21st century, the challenge of racism endures. In addition, unfettered capitalism threatens the welfare of the planet through insatiable consumption and malforms moral character by converting into virtues age-old vices like acquisitiveness and the pursuit of self-interest.[7] A Lutheran view of human nature will critique ideologies like these in order to bring out the best in human beings while protecting us from the worst of which we are all too capable.

[12] A third distinguishing feature of a Lutheran intellectual tradition involves what are variously termed the orders of creation, the three estates, or the divine mandates. Here’s how they work. In order to fight the forces of Satan and contend with the conflicted nature of human beings, God has established three institutions that structure life on earth. These three institutions are the church, marriage, and civil government. Through the means of these three institutions God fights the devil, restrains the forces of evil, and promulgates the gospel.

[13] How are these three orders, estates, or mandates related to a Lutheran intellectual tradition? The answer is that they emphasize God’s activity in all aspects of life, not only in the affairs of the Church. At a time when many regard politics to be a god-forsaken enterprise, the intellectual heirs of Martin Luther insist that God has chosen to restrain evil and protect the common good through expressions of government that range from the chambers of city hall to the security council at the United Nations. When functioning properly, God is at work in these institutions of government.

[14] Similarly, Luther’s expansion of the estate of marriage to include family, labor, and business indicates that God is at work in the world when spouses love each other and care for their children, when employers and employees honor their obligations to each other, and when merchants trade fairly with their customers. Here Luther is referring not only to Christian spouses, employees, or merchants. Through the creation of these institutions, Luther believes God has structured life in such a way as to protect the welfare of all people, not just Christians.

[15] The reason these ideas are significant for a Lutheran intellectual tradition is because they establish foundations for public discourse and a civil society. When the affairs of government, the bonds of family, and the exchanges of commerce serve the common good, God’s will is carried out through the work of these institutions. This means that a battle-field mindset and realistic appraisal of human nature must be accompanied by a conviction that God is at work in the public sector (albeit in hidden ways) to protect the welfare of all that God has made.

[16] It is within this context that Luther views the appropriate role of human reason. While he vehemently repudiated reason as a threat to the gospel that Christians are justified by grace through faith, Luther believed that God bestowed the gift of reason upon each human being to foster well-being in society. Luther writes:

Here you must separate God from man, eternal matters from temporal matters. Involving other people, man (sic) is rational enough to act properly and needs no other light than reason. Consequently, God does not bother to teach men how they are to build houses, or make clothes, or marry, or make war, or sail a boat. For all such matters, man’s natural light is enough.[8]
[17] This confidence in the power of human reason to govern human affairs leads Luther to prefer “a wise Turk over a foolish (Christian) prince” when it comes to assessing political leadership. Just because you are a Christian doesn’t mean that you are smart. In fact, people who don’t share your religious beliefs may be smarter than you are. Luther’s affirmation of the universal gift of human reason and his implicit affirmation of human diversity constitutes a fourth distinguishing feature of a Lutheran intellectual tradition. Secure that eternal salvation is an unmerited gift received by faith, the intellectual heirs of Martin Luther seek truth and wisdom wherever it may be found.

[18] A fifth distinguishing feature of a Lutheran intellectual tradition is that, on occasion, it may require speaking truth to power. Certainly Luther did this when he posted his 95 theses and confronted Rome with his understanding of the gospel. He also lambasted princes for failing to address the poverty and interests of their subjects. Like the prophets, he rebuked merchants for cheating customers and condemned usury, the practice of loaning money at excessive rates of interest. In sum, Luther used his intellect to critique ecclesial, political, and economic institutions that, in his mind, were no longer serving the will of God. It is no secret that Luther mounted these criticisms at considerable risk to his life, yet he had the courage to persevere and say what he thought needed to be said. The virtues of courage and justice should be distinguishing features among proponents of a Lutheran intellectual tradition.

[19] Other distinguishing features in a Lutheran intellectual tradition can also be found in Luther’s emphasis on paradox and dialectical thinking, his understanding of the incarnation, and his confidence that the Church is always in a state of perpetual reformation. I will leave exploration of these ideas to another time, however, so that I can address briefly what I perceive to be some threats to a Lutheran intellectual tradition.

Discernible Threats
[20] The first major threat is intellectual complacency. After all, we don’t have to be smart in order to be saved. We are justified by grace no matter what we do or how well we think. This impoverished view about the relationship of faith and reason drinks from the same cup of cheap grace that too often cripples the ethical witness of Lutherans as individuals and communities. Luther had more respect for the cunning of the Devil than he had for the limp and facile reasoning of Christian dullards. Lutheran institutions of higher education have a duty to give intellectual complacency a swift kick in the pants wherever it occurs among our students, but also among our faculty and staff.

[21] Another major threat to a Lutheran intellectual tradition occurs when Lutherans separate rather than distinguish God’s work in the world through the church and the state. For various reasons, Lutherans have not always lived in the dialectical tension between these two realms of God’s activity and as a result have often succumbed to the moral failures of either social quietism or blind patriotism. Christian pietism and fervent nationalism have contributed to both of these intellectual and moral failings and they continue to pose a threat to a Lutheran intellectual tradition.

[22] A third threat occurs when we insufficiently distinguish between Luther’s theological ethics and his social ethics. We must let Luther be a person of his day. His social ethics were contextual. While he ushered in ideas that would provide foundations for the modern world, Luther remained a medieval man. We see this clearly in his conservative views regarding social reform and in his patriarchal assumptions about the distribution of power and authority in the three estates. Those laying claim to Luther’s intellectual heritage must think for themselves as they apply his theological ethics to the set of issues we face in our own contextual reality.

[23] Finally, it seems to me that Luther’s bellicose and often cruel attitude toward those with whom he disagreed poses another important threat to a Lutheran intellectual tradition. One can have a battle-field mindset and a realistic assessment of human nature without being mean and unnecessarily contentious. Certainly Paul calls all Christians to don the “breastplate of righteousness” and to wield the “weapons of the Spirit,” but this preparation for spiritual warfare does not include demeaning those with whom we disagree. Too often, Lutheran theological discourse in the United States is marked by acrimony and ad hominem attacks that never serve the interests of truth and always sully the name of Christ. We need to do better than that.

[24] There are other threats to the integrity of a Lutheran intellectual tradition, but I want to close by offering a positive summary of the distinguishing features I identified earlier: Proponents of a Lutheran intellectual tradition realize that the life of the mind can serve the interests of good or evil. Armed with a realistic view of human nature and a confidence that God is active in the affairs of the world, Lutheran intellectuals value the universal gift of human reason and seek truth wherever it may be found. In the service of this truth, and in order to defend the interests of God rather than Satan, there may be times when Lutheran intellectuals will have to muster the courage to speak truth to power.

Works Consulted

Bloomquist, Karen L. and Stumme, John R., eds., The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, Fortress Press, 1998
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Ethics, Macmillan Publishing Company, Touchstone edition, 1995.
Gerrish, Brian. Grace and Reason: A Study in the Theology of Martin Luther, Oxford University Press, 1962.
Lazareth, William. Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics, Fortress Press, 2001.
Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther’s Theology: It’s Historical and Systematic Development, Fortress Press, 1999.
Luther, Martin. Various selections from Luther’s Works, edited by Jaroslav J. Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, Fortress Press, 1955-86:
“The Bondage of the Will,” (1526), LW 33: 3-295
“Lectures on Genesis,” (1535),
“How Christians Should Regard Moses,” (1526),
“Lectures on Romans,” (1516),
“Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” (1523)
“Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants,” (1523), LW 46:
Marius, Richard. Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999.
Oberman, Heiko. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989.
Rasmussen, Larry. Moral Fragments and Moral Community: A Proposal for Church and Society, Fortress Press, 1993.
End Notes

[1] This paper was presented originally at the Annual Meeting of Lutheran Chief Academic Officers in Chicago, Illinois on November 19, 2001.
[2] Note that I seek to identify characteristics of a Lutheran intellectual tradition rather than characteristics of the tradition. I am uneasy about monolithic claims and prefer to acknowledge that there are likely multiple ways to conceive of a Lutheran intellectual tradition.
[3] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
[4] It is clear, however, that apocalyptic discourse is growing in our culture. Since the terrible events of September 11, President Bush has referred to the terrorists as “evil-doers” and has declared a “war” on the evils of terrorism. At the same time, it is impossible to peruse bestseller shelves and not come face to face with the several volumes in the Left Behind series. While apocalyptic perspectives are unfashionable in academic circles, they are alive and well in popular culture. Having said this, I don’t mean to imply that all apocalyptic literature and perspectives are alike. Luther would whole-heartedly challenge the earth-denying eschatology of the Left Behind series even while he would affirm its apocalyptic worldview.
[5] Here I allude to Luther’s famous diatribe in “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants” (1525), Luther’s Works, Vol. 46, pg. 50.
[6] Here I borrow a concept first developed by Latin American liberation theologians. Even though some of these theologians have been “suspicious” of Luther’s conservative views regarding social change, I think Luther would embrace the concept insofar as it seeks to identify any and all things that serve to oppress human beings.
[7] For a fuller discussion of this thesis, see Larry Rasmussen, Moral Fragments and Moral Community: A Proposal for Church and Society (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).
[8] From the German collection, Martin Luther’s Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, WA 10/1: 531; translated and cited by William H. Lazareth in Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 169-170.

Jim Martin-Schramm

Jim Martin-Schramm is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.