Mahn on Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics by William Lazareth

[1] Two years ago, I attended a graduate seminar that surveyed the social ethics of foundational Christian thinkers, using Troeltsch’s Social Teachings of the Christian Churches as a roadmap. For our week on Martin Luther, we read “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants,” “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved,” “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” and other political works from the Reformer. I was asked to present a paper and initiate the class conversation. When doing so, I found myself making an apology – in both the theological and everyday senses of the word – for Lutheran tenets such as the bondage of the will, the simultaneity of sinner and saint, and, especially, for Luther’s “doctrine” of the two kingdoms. At that time, I intuited that Luther’s distinctions between God’s will and the human will, between sinner and saint, and between the worldly and temporal kingdoms were complex and dialectical rather than categorical and dualistic. However, it was difficult for me to configure this complexity and to recommend a critical retrieval of Luther’s theology for contemporary social ethics. Had I been familiar with William Lazareth’s life-long defense of Luther’s thought as a resource for a critical-realistic social ethics, my task would have been easier and much more convincing. My “apology,” in other words, would have been less an embarrassed concession to the quietistic and conservative aspects of Luther’s otherwise revolutionary theology, and more a theological defense for the continuing political relevance of Luther’s biblical thought.

[2] In Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Fortress Press, 2001), William H. Lazareth makes a non-apologizing apologetic for Luther’s use of scripture as a relevant norm for contemporary social ethics. I highlight the apologetic nature of Lazareth’s work, first because Lazareth himself frames the work as a defense of Lutheran public responsibility against the charges of Luther’s “social conservatism,” “law-gospel quietism,” “Augustinian dualism” and “cultural defeatism” (chapter 1). I also perceive a more fundamental defense running throughout Lazareth’s substantive chapters on the world’s two kingdoms (chapters 3 and 4) and God’s two-fold rule (chapters 5-8). There, Lazareth methodically but eloquently saves Luther’s divisions (between law and gospel, and between existence coram dei and existence coram hominibus) from being understood as dualisms or dichotomies. Over and against much of our romanticist cultural ethos that sees all division as fragmenting an otherwise wholesome existence, Lazareth implicitly defends critical thought, including Pauline-Augustinian-Lutheran thought, as itself a way to open “third options” between secularism and clericalism, legalism and libertinism, and a theology faithful to the Gospel and one relevant to ethical reflection.

[3] The distinction by Luther most important for Lazareth’s retrieval is between two other distinctions. More specifically, Luther divides the two-fold rule of God (law and gospel) and the two realms in which this rule is enacted (the external, historical realm of fallen humanity and the internal, eternal realm of redemption). While Lazareth notes that the early Luther conflated the two distinctions (p. 139), and concedes that his language is not always consistent, by highlighting this distinction between two distinctions, Lazareth is able to recognize the distinctive, “dialectical way in which [Luther] witnesses to God’s temporal twofold rule by law and gospel within each of these two kingdoms of fallen creation and renewed redemption” (116). To use a spatial metaphor, Lazareth distinguishes the line between law and gospel from the line between the historical and the eternal. He then crosses the two, making a quadrant and thereby opening a “space” not only for two uses of the law (theological and political), but also for two uses of the gospel (justification and sanctification). Dispelling the suspicion of some Lutheran theologians that talk of sanctification would either extenuate God’s justification extra nos or entail a third use of the law, Lazareth shows how sanctification occurs in a different realm than justification but through the same “right hand” of God in Jesus Christ.

[5] This “second or parenetic use of the gospel” (244) is arguably the most significant implication of the divisions by Luther and the systemization of those divisions by Lazareth. The latter writes that the “climax of Luther’s theological ethic is better expressed by God’s gospel than by the law” (199). That the Gospel “sanctifies in society” (chapter 8) is asserted over and against those Lutherans who only make a single division, that between gospel and law, and who subsume ethical reflection under the latter. It is also against those who thereby criticize Lutheranism for the quietism and conservatism such a single division would entail. Positively, recognizing the sanctifying function of the gospel opens the opportunity to describe the shape of Christian freedom and to exhort Christians to pattern their lives on the “mandates” that, before and after the law, shape the Christian life.

[6] Lazareth’s apologetic for the relevance of Luther’s biblical theology for a critical and realistic social ethic is clear, systematic, and persuasive. Like apologetics for the Christian faith in general, of course, it is not beyond controversy. One might question whether systematizing Luther according to the above double-division, and thus categorizing his thought (rather evenly) according to the uses of law and gospel in the realms of the historic and the eternal, does not finally mitigate the force and function of Luther’s polemical language. At worst, these objections betray the romanticists’ fear that spiritedness dies by division. However, at best, they guard against flattening Luther’s situated, pastoral language into an abstract typology of God’s interactions with the world.

[7] Lazareth, however, does not seem unaware of the function of Luther’s polemics. Nor is he unaware of the function of his own apologetic, convinced as he is that Luther’s lack of opposition to political and economic injustice now needs major correction (171) and that Lutherans now should answer the call to be coworkers with God in society (234). Lazareth explicates Luther with the twenty-first century in mind, and this creative side of his retrieval cannot be overlooked. Perhaps the impetus in our day is to recognize those “spaces” in Luther’s theology that are relevant to the transformation of society, and not simply faithful to the Gospel. Or – truer to the critical thought of Lazareth – we should recognize that relevance for social transformation and fidelity to the Gospel are two distinct sides of the same coin.