Lazareth Reviewed: A Review of Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible and Social Ethics

[1] Over the past four decades, William Lazareth has shown himself to be one of the most able and articulate of the American Lutheran voices doing theological ethics. In print, lecture, sermon, and ecumenical discussion, he has sought to unpack the ethical implications of the gift of the gospel. In this volume, Lazareth draws upon a lifetime of theological learning and reflection in relating the gift of Christian freedom to Luther, scripture, and social ethics. Lazareth believes that the stakes are high: “Is sanctification in Lutheran theological ethics finally governed by the law or the Spirit of God?” (240)

[2] Lazareth declares that a major objective of his rather ambitious book is to “focus on the Biblical norms of Martin Luther’s theological ethics” and to seek why it is that Luther’s theological ethic “rightly endures as a classic authority” (vii). According to Lazareth, Luther’s ethic rightly endures because, among other things, it proclaims that the Holy Spirit is really at work in sanctification, changing the private and public conduct of believers. In view of this, he rejects “societal indifference” or “dualistic quietism” in favor of a socially engaged, transformational ethic emphasizing “God’s twofold rule within the world’s two kingdoms” (ix). Because the Word works faith from which love flows, God’s Word itself is the vehicle of social transformation.

[3] Although Lazareth asserts that he wrote this book “to serve as a basic text or reference work” for courses in “the history and theology of Christian ethics,” and “to guide interested theological students . . . through the rather formidable primary and secondary sources involved in . . . serious Luther research today” (ix), it is difficult to take this claim seriously. Clearly, this volume is neither a reference book nor a textbook; it is not comprehensive enough to be the former, and it presupposes too much to be the later. Moreover, it does not successfully orient readers to serious Luther research; it neither consistently engages the Luther secondary literature nor regularly cites the Weimar Ausgabe (the critical edition of Luther’s works), both of which are the sine qua non of serious Luther research.

[4] That is not to suggest, however, that the book lacks value. Read as a constructive systematization of Luther that demonstrates the redundancy of the “third use of the law” (tertius usus legis), it is quite successful. Quoting Luther, “As far as [a person] is flesh, he is under the Law; as far as he is spirit, he is under gospel” (243). For the justified person insofar as she is justified, there is no law, but only the activity of the Holy Spirit sanctifying through gifts and exhortations (parenesis).

[5] Christians in Society is divided into three parts totaling eight chapters. (In addition, Lazareth adds a Preface, Afterword, and two helpful indices.) While Part One deals with the post-Nazi critique of some nineteenth century readings of Luther’s ethics (social conservatism, law-gospel quietism, Augustinian dualism, and cultural defeatism) and explores Luther’s scriptural hermeneutics, Part Two deals with the Two Kingdoms (duo regna) of God and Satan as they appear in creation and the fall. Part Three is the longest segment of the book comprising four chapters. Here Lazareth details God’s twofold rule (zweierlei regimente) within both of these kingdoms, discussing first God’s opus alienum of the law in its theological use (judging coram deo) and civil use (judging coram hominibus), and then his opus proprium effecting both justification (coram deo) and sanctification (coram hominibus). Especially significant is the last chapter in which Lazareth discusses the gospel’s “paranetic function” in grounding both individual and social transformation upon an ethics of love.

[6] Throughout the book, Lazareth’s ecumenical interests, involvements, and expertise are manifest. Clearly, he understands his task as helping to prepare the “necessary ecclesial reception” for both the Lutheran-Reformed and Lutheran-Catholic convergences by emphasizing the complementarity of love and law for the former, and justification and sanctification for the latter. Moreover, he obviously wants to advance the current ELCA ecumenical program by construing Luther’s biblically-based theological ethics so as to “reconcile differences,” and “facilitate more common societal witness” among the various churches.

[7] Perhaps the most significant constructive proposal of the text is Lazareth’s reading of Luther’s teaching on the “two kingdoms” or “governments.” Lazareth believes that Luther actually presupposes the Pauline-Augustinian distinction between the grace-filled Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan governed by sin. Within this basic dualism of kingdoms, however, God remains a unitary actor, ruling in each with both his left and right hands. In the kingdom of God, his left hand convicts believers of sin and drives them to Christ (the theological use of the law), while his right hand justifies through Christ. Within the kingdom of the world, his left hand checks human sinfulness and preserves society from lawlessness and chaos (the civil use of the law), while his right hand sanctifies both individually and corporately. Thus it is that God’s left hand is the province of law (either in its first or second senses), and his right hand gospel (either in its justificatory or sanctificatory operations).

[8] Throughout the text, Lazareth attempts to overcome some of the Phillipist-inspired effects of Lutheran orthodoxy. Accordingly, justification and sanctification are not, for Luther, two separate processes, but justification includes both the forensic and the sanative. Following the new Finnish Luther research, Lazareth declares that the grace of imputation and the gift of sanctification form a unity in the indwelling Christ. (Christ is both the grace that forensically covers the sinner and protects her from God’s wrath, and the gift that internally renews the sinner and makes her righteous.) Furthermore, Lazareth holds that Luther rejects any supralapsarian view of law as God’s eternal, immutable will, and embraces instead an infralapsarian view in which the goodness of loving instruction (Gebot) only becomes the accusing law (Gesetz) after the Fall. Because the law always accuses the sinner, justified/sanctified man and woman are no longer subject to it. Just as Adam and Eve lived out their paradisaical lives freely in relation to God and each other, so the faithful are liberated to live out their justification freely and spontaneously in the sanctified life. The situation is this: a person is both righteous and sinful at the same time (simul iustus et peccator). Insofar as she is righteous, she needs no law because she leads her sanctified, transformed life freely. But insofar as she is sinful, she remains under the law’s accusations. In other words, the civil and theological uses of the law are quite enough for the old Adam and Eve within us. However, with respect to the new being that daily rises within us; no law is necessary at all. In other words, the author of Christ’s acts in me is not I.

[9] While the book is successful as in articulating a Lutheran theological ethics grounded in Luther, and while it does offer a constructive systematic reading of Luther’s thinking on the two kingdoms, I have some frustrations with it. To begin with, I believe that the book suffers from not citing the relevant secondary literature. The reader likely wants to know what is new in Lazareth’s Luther interpretation. Unfortunately, apart from an introductory survey chapter, the author makes no mention of the Luther secondary literature in the rest of the book. One would like to know, for example, how Lazareth locates his own anti-quietistic interpretation of Luther’s social ethics with respect to other commentators rejecting it. Simply put, how exactly does Lazareth’s interpretation advance the discussion beyond Forell’s Faith Active in Love? Moreover, since Lazareth is offering a creative interpretation of Luther’s two kingdoms, it would aid the reader if he were to orient and evaluate his own interpretation over and against others, particularly those done in the last twenty years or so (e.g., Härle, Asendorf, Hagen, etc.). It would also be helpful were Lazareth to cite the Weimar along with the American Edition of Luther’s Works. (Was it an editorial decision not to do so?)

[10] More substantively, if indeed an important motivation for writing this book is to further the “necessary ecclesial reception” for ecumenical convergence, Lazareth should spend more time showing precisely how the results of his inquiry accomplish this. While it may be salutary for the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification that justification includes sanctification for Luther, does the different anthropology presupposed by the Reformer not still create considerable problems for a convergence on justification? A more extended discussion of the ecumenical advantages for the Lutheran-Catholic dialogue of Lazareth’s conclusions is welcome. Moreover, it would be helpful to know how exactly the parenetic gospel, functioning as the gospel’s temporal rule in Satan’s kingdom, connects to the third use of the law such that “Luther and Calvin, along with Melanchthon and Martin Bucer, do all finally unite together in endorsing a biblical ethic of norms based on a theology of grace” (245). Given that the primal command of love (Gebot) is experienced as accusing law (Gesetz) by the unrighteous, and as sanctifying faith active in love by the righteous, how precisely is that divine command related to the rejected third use of the law? Can one consistently conceive an irreducible tertius usus legis without assuming an eternal, immutable divine will? How this question is answered determines the degree of convergence Lutherans and Reformed can hope for with regard to theological ethics.

Dennis Bielfeldt

Dennis Bielfeldt is Professor of Philosophy and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.