Luther and the Hungry Poor

[1] Luther has always been a difficult read, as Martin Marty has informed us.[1] His worldview changed repeatedly. It follows that his writings are filled with contradictions and paradoxes.[2] Samuel Torvend appears to have missed the counsel of Benne, Marty and Edwards for he sees Luther as a whole intellect from the pounding on the door at 1517 to his last writing. This is unfortunate, for the unified constructions that he sees prove inconsistent with Luther’s regular inconsistencies. In matters economic this is more than unfortunate, for we are given to read a sequentially constructive set of Luther’s thoughts on matters economic (and their links to the political and sociological elements of his time).

[2] This book is about a careful reading of Luther’s view of the care for the poor mandated by Christian faith, and the consequences of this view.[3] As such it is constructive. As such this book must have a model. The model looks like this:

P: predicates (labeled as FOUNDATIONS) with these elements—

Early awareness of the hungry poor
Social implications of justifications by grace
Worldly trajectory of baptism

Q: consequents (labeled as DEVELOPMENTS) with these elements–

Biblical invitation to feed the hungry
Eucharist and social welfare
Failure and promise of structured generosity
The construction is this: P is the collected set of Luther’s references not only to the poor, but to larger economic matters. And Q is the author’s collection of instructions on both lists.

It follows, using first-order predicate logic, that if P then Q. Given that Augsburg Fortress Press does not provide authors with such clear logical argument structure in matters of economics, this book might be celebrated.[4]

[3] Unfortunately, if P then Q proposal falls apart immediately. It becomes apparent the Torvend is concerned with Q as a premise, and goes to a collective set of modern economic concerns—particularly as these relate to the poor.[5] Read this: Torvend believes Q, and then tries to sort through Luther’s tealeaves to find elements of P.

[4] Now we know Luther to be a great theologian and a great, understanding pastor. In matters of politics and economics, we know him to be uninformed—and often misguided.[6]

[5] Most confusing in the Torvend book is his treatment of Luther’s view of German brotherhoods. Might this derive from a failed translation of these German words: Innungen, Bruderschaften, and Liga? Certainly, Luther would have been aware of the great “gains to trade” implicit in the Hanseatic League (read Hanse), where the result would have been the largess to support the “hungry poor”. I can find no document that supports my conjecture, but cannot believe that Luther failed to appreciate the trade gains that come from specialization—nor the associated spread of Lutheran faith in the Baltic territory of that League and time.

[6] In short we have a carefully-delivered book that goes to its author’s view of the modern economic world. That view is a construction that misses the modern view of a world of (a) well-defined property rights, (b) the rule of law, and (c) civil, religious, and economic liberties. In such a world the “hungry poor” will be well dealt with. It is a world that Luther could not, with his “end-of-civilization” view, imagine. But it is here just in front of us. It is a view I believe he would approve of.

[7] The hungry poor are present every day of our lives, and they grow in number these days. As any Christian ought, I care for them, but I also know that the route from their poverty is not to be found in my largess or anyone’s paternalism – especially that of the state, but rather in the path of their own design and achievement. It may be the case that the last job was bad, and the next one might be also; but through dint of their desire, their ambition, their hard work, saving, and the “can do” determination mentioned by President Obama, they have the hope of making a livelihood for themselves and a better start for their children. They live in a country in which they are free to pursue their goals and employ their grit to improving their lot and the lot of their children. In the case of Luther, ever thoughtful of the work ethic, he might just be in concurrence.

[1] Martin E Marty, Martin Luther: A Penguin Life (Penguin, 2004).

[2] Robert Benne, “We Need Help: A Review of Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Vol.2. No. 3 (2002); also see Mark U. Edwards, “Luther’s polemical controversies” in Donald K. McKim, The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (2003).

[3] Notably it is based on New Testament readings. Like Luther, it neglects the Torah. Cf., Benne (2002).

[4] Kathryn Tanner, Economy of Grace (Augsburg Fortress, 2005). Ms. Tanner proves innocent of the “new institutional economics” that goes to themes of Protestant constructions in the economic growth of Northern Europe and North America. In as much as this is a long-standing debate, one must conclude that the author failed to find this intellectual load, within a decade—at the least—of its foundation.

[5] I cannot say that he is selective in his review of Luther’s texts, and that is to be celebrated. What I will later argue is this: something has been lost in the translation (not uncommon amongst Luther scholars) for the German language has changed.

[6] See Carter Lindberg, “Luther’s struggle with social-ethical issues” & Edwards in McKim (2003). By comparison with Torvend’s focus, Lindberg gets to the fullness of the nearly complete set of issues. In the process one gets a fuller perspective on Luther’s thoughts in this larger arena.