Lazareth on Luther

[1] Writing in the season of Lent, I might helpfully begin with an act of confession. My first published comments engaging the work of William Lazareth included a vigorous critique. Writing on the topic of sexuality and the Lutheran church, I challenged Lazareth’s strong position against blessing gay unions and ordaining those gay and lesbian clergy who live under promises of fidelity to a life-partner.

[2] Although I stand by my criticisms, the very understanding of Luther and Lutheran theological ethics that undergirds my criticism I learned in no small measure from Lazareth himself. When in college I questioned the social relevance of my Lutheran faith, my home pastor and various professors pointed me to Lazareth’s energetic arguments for Christian social responsibility. When I chose Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms for a senior thesis, I learned from his careful historical reconstruction of Luther’s views. And when in graduate school, I turned to examine Lutheran marriage theology, I found his powerful work on the Luther and the Christian home. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet this vibrant and fiery man. Let me begin this review, then, not with critique but with deep appreciation and respect for this man’s remarkable life of service to the church catholic. Disagreement on some issues of social ethics does not erase deep agreement in theological ethics and still deeper unity in our mutual public ministry to the Gospel (as pastors) and ministry for the Gospel in the world (as fellow baptized members of the body of Christ).

[3] Just after disavowing critique, I need to immediately take it up again. Christians in Society is indeed about Luther and the Bible, but it is decidedly not a book on social ethics, despite what the title proclaims. This, however, is not a bone to pick with Lazareth but with Fortress press and with a media culture that thrives on consumption of “controversy” presumably more likely in a book on social ethics than in a book on theological ethics. But theological ethics, as Lazareth notes in the first line of the preface, not social ethics, is the aim of this work.

[4] The great virtue of this book is that Lazareth, who has spent the better part of half a century attempting to recover a viable Lutheran understanding of the Christian in society now in his retirement sat down to pull this lifetime of thought together. Its virtue lies not in the cleverness of constructive work, but in the faithfulness of historical work; not the messily episodic (even if doctrinally coherent) theology of an active pastor but the elegantly systematic theology of a scholar freed from the responsibilities of everyday teaching and preaching and caring for souls.

[5] Lazareth himself was a product of German immigrant parents in New York City, and as a young man, he spent the years after World War II aiding the resettlement of refugees in war-torn Europe. Like many of his colleagues in the 1950s, Lazareth had an existential tie to the German Church’s experience, as well a keen awareness of the embarrassment of, for example, the Ansbach Resolution and deep sorrow over German Lutheran complicity in carrying out Hitler’s demonic vision. Yet, it was precisely this embarrassment and sorrow that wrested American Lutherans out of their ethnic ghettos and forced a reevaluation of Luther’s public theology in response to its portrayal as impotent at best, but more likely a heretical precursor to Nazi atrocity.

[6] Christians in Society hinges on chapter five. Here, in the beginning of the third and final section of the book, Lazareth pays on his claim (in chapter one) that Luther’s theological ethics is not socially conservative (Troeltsch), quietistic (Barth), dualistic (Henkel), or defeatist (Niebuhr). The middle section of the book, constituting chapters two and three, lays out the idea of the two kingdoms. Were Lazareth to stop his exposition at this point, he would leave Luther at an early stage of his development, and vulnerable to critique and dismissal. But beginning with chapter five, Lazareth focuses in on the mature Luther’s view that God rules in both kingdoms, working in dialectical fashion through the law and gospel.

[7] The best books offer the whole skeleton of the argument’s progression in the preface, without the elaboration needed to make the case fully. Lazareth does this admirably, powerfully even, situating his call for a renewed evangelical ethic in the context of recent ecumenical agreements by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In fact, the 250 pages are summarized in narrative form on page x and then recapitulated in a clever diagram on the facing page. The rest of the book might be said to be nothing more than an opportunity to sit at the feet of Luther, expositor of sacred scripture, unfolding the biblical basis for an organic paradigm for understanding the totality of life lived before God and within society.

[8] Even, and maybe especially, the best books leave readers wishing for more. I wished for more on two counts, one internal to the project and one beyond it. First, Lazareth leaves unsystematized Luther’s dependence on his pastoral experience in the work of scriptural interpretation and theological reflection. I have come to understand this as fundamental to Luther’s method. Understanding the role of conscience, or even simply quotidian Christian experience, is essential in working out Luther’s way of doing theological ethics. Yet the terms “pastor” and “experience” do not appear in the index, under Luther, or as their own headings.

[9] Yet, Lazareth admits the importance of both when he notes in his afterword that Luther wrote pastorally, dealing with Christians in crisis. Such active pastoral ministry led Luther to learn, develop and change his view over time, shifting and shading his views in response to new circumstances and experiences. Does the fact that Lazareth only mentions this aspect of Luther in his apologetic for systematizing Luther mean that systematizing Luther strikes out the role of experience? It is as if Lazareth has fallen victim to the same crime Pierre Bourdieu so clearly describes in the work of structural anthropologists who, in mapping the totality of a ritual process leave out the element of time, tempo, and thus agency. Does making a map of Luther’s theological ethics eliminate the essential feature of experience in theological ethics? I hope this is not the case, but Lazareth left this dangling feature outside his system. My pastoral instincts say it needs retrieval and evaluation as an essential feature of evangelical ethics.

[10] Second, a critique beyond his argument, and it is not that I want him to come clean on all our hard social issues. Rather, I want his engagement with contemporary theological ethics. It is really quite stunning to see a full four page scriptural index in a work of theological ethics. This could be because almost every footnote is to Luther. Luther was, after all, Professor of Bible, and so much of the material Lazareth draws on is exegetical. It is refreshing to see a solid work on Luther, one that moves beyond the stereotypical works of the early 1520s like “On Secular Authority” and “The Freedom of the Christian.”

[11] Yet there is almost no engagement with recent work in Lutheran theological ethics, especially, for instance, the new volume on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics. I very much see connections between chapters in that work and the position Lazareth argues for in Christians in Society (for example, Reinhold Hütter provocative portrayal of the role of law in Christian growth). Asking for Lazareth to bring such a theological ethic into play with contemporary positions in theological ethics amounts to asking for another book, but doing so in this volume might have made the book less a work of historical theology and more a salvo in the midst of contemporary debates dominated by the ubiquitous influence of Aristotle and his most prominent American disciple, Stanley Hauerwas. As one example, Lazareth’s discussion on page 83 could really engage Hauerwas’s position on the uniqueness of Christian ethics, not simply as Jesus’ story, but the story of creation and its Creator’s command of love, now lovingly imaged by a Christian in the process of being restored in Christ.

[12] I close this review with a return to my initial stance of profound gratitude. The church needs this book, and we needed Bill Lazareth to write it. I hope my words here are read as an enthusiastic encouragement to take and read this powerful presentation of our common faith and witness. For this is exactly what we need in a time when our common witness needs the clarity and power to counter a culture bent on proclaiming other gods: namely, money, sex, power, violence, pleasure, and most of all the whims of the unfettered self.