The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation (Lutheran University Press, 2016)

[1] In his piece in this book, Carter Lindberg quotes Luther from his commentary on Deuteronomy: “’The poor you always have with you,’” quoting John 12:8, “just as you will have all other evils. But constant care should be taken that, since these evils are always in evidence, they are always opposed.”[1] Thus, for Luther, poverty is not something to be merely passively suffered, endured, or observed, but something Christians should actively do something about. Explaining the Seventh Commandment in his Small Catechism, Luther told Christians that they had a positive duty to help neighbors “improve and protect [their] property and means of making a living.”

[2] This timely book reclaims for us the rich heritage of Luther’s social and economic thought and how it is related to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. A consistent theme of these lectures is that these economic concerns were not ancillary to Luther’s theology or practice, but were a constant practical issue for him throughout his life. Already in 1520, barely three years after posting his 95 Theses, Luther was helping the city of Wittenberg develop a community chest to help the town’s poor people.[2] And, at the end of Luther’s life in 1546, Luther was trying to mediate a labor dispute between copper miners and political authorities.[3] Luther understood that a practical consequence of his attack on the Medieval theology of poverty, according to which people earned moral and spiritual merit by giving to the poor, was that the church and public authorities had to deal with poverty and poor people differently if they were not to starve en masse.

[3] This book grew out of the “Forgotten Luther” Symposium held for laity and clergy in 2015 in Washington, D.C. The symposium’s purpose was to address the concern of congregations about the poor in their midst and how they might not only provide some immediate relief but also address the root causes of the poverty they saw around them, much as the ELCA World Hunger Program and its Domestic Hunger component are trying to do. To help equip them with some of their Lutheran heritage, the symposium was organized and Lutheran theologians who had addressed similar questions in their scholarly work were invited to share what they have learned from the tradition and to think out loud about the import of the Lutheran theological and ecclesial traditions for addressing economic justice today. In addition to Carter Lindberg, talks were also given by Samuel Torvend, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Jon Pahl, Tim Huffman, and Ryan Cumming.

[4] Together, these presentations now in written form provide a rich feast from the Lutheran tradition in lively ordinary language about various aspects of Luther’s thought about economic and social life and their possible implications for today. The book is intended for congregational study and discussion, and there are helpful discussion questions for each chapter to get conversations going. There is also an excellent select bibliography for those who want to read further and in greater depth. But the book is also suitable to introduce college undergraduates and seminary students to the social and economic implications of the Reformation and how these questions figure in Luther’s own thought, especially when used along with some of Luther’s own writings.

[5] In lieu of trying to summarize these talks, perhaps it’s best to tantalize potential readers with some of the statements made during these talks to entice them to delve into this book with curiosity.

  • Torvend asks: “Is it possible that well-intentioned Christians might ‘engage the world’ or ‘serve the neighbor’ by responding with charity to pressing need and yet find it difficult to discern why their charitable activity is needed in the first place?”[4]
  • Moe-Lobeda writes: “For Luther, that norm of neighbor-love pertains to every aspect of life for the Christian, including economic life. . . . Economic practices that undermine the wellbeing of the neighbor (especially of the vulnerable) are to be rejected and replaced with alternatives. About this Luther was vehement and specific.”[5]
  • Jon Pahl observes: “In short, in Luther’s Catechisms, critique of economic idolatry is the first and most crucial point. He amplifies this emphasis with typically colorful invective. The idolaters Luther has in mind are ‘rich potbellies’ and defiant ‘blockheads.’ But his intent is ultimately pastoral—to build empathy.”[6]
  • Tim Huffman asserts: “Others have pointed out that economics was reflected directly in some of the Ninety-five Theses, a fact often missed by Lutherans reading with only a theological lens. To that we should add that the Ninety-five Theses should be understood as a challenge to the entire system of economic injustice imposed by the powerful of church and empire upon their mostly preliterate and impoverished subjects.”[7]
  • Ryan Cumming notes: “Whether we recognize it or not, relief is never ‘merely’ charity; it is a witness to the shortcomings of our conceptions of justice. The problem if we don’t recognize this is that relief can enable injustice to continue. . . . Relief remains the most prominent response of Lutherans to hunger and poverty, but it also remains perhaps the most vulnerable to a failing vision that misses the tangled systems that underlie hunger and poverty. When relief is done right, when it is shaped by a clear perception of these underlying systems, it can be a powerful expression of justice.”[8]
  • It is possible, of course, for Lutherans to study these talks at only a rational level in which they remain mere information. But, for those who take Luther to heart that the evils of poverty and hunger “are always to be opposed,” this book is a call to action and an encouragement to those who want to act.


[1] Carter Lindberg, “Luther and the Common Chest,” in The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation, ed. Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016) p. 19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tim Huffman, “Luther: Forgotten, but Not Gone,” in The Forgotten Luther, p. 68.

[4] Samuel Torvend, “’Greed is an Unbelieving Scoundrel,’” in The Forgotten Luther, p. 32.

[5] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “The Subversive Luther,” in The Forgotten Luther, pp. 45-46.

[6] Jon Pahl, “An Economic Reading of Martin Luther’s Catechisms,” in The Forgotten Luther, p. 61.

[7] Tim Huffman, “Luther: Forgotten, But Not Gone,” p. 69.

[8] Ryan Cumming, “A New Vision,” in The Forgotten Luther, p. 82.

Ronald W. Duty

Ronald W. Duty is the former Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society at the ELCA, and is now a private scholar.