Reviewing Lazareth’s Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics

[1] Justification lies at the heart of Martin Luther’s theological contribution. But the radical freedom it entails leads to questions, questions Roman Catholics and Reformed Christians have asked Lutherans and Lutherans have asked themselves: Can Lutherans be ethical? How is Christian freedom related to love and the law?

[2] William Lazareth attempts a response by depicting the second or parenetic use of the gospel (usus pareneticus evangelii) to describe the way the Spirit empowers “the Christian righteousness of loving persons to break out into the realm of renewed creation (iustitia Christiana)” (p.198). This focus on the “second use of the gospel” is clearly Lazareth’s signature contribution to Lutheran ethics. Yet, in my view, this book’s major contribution is the interpretive scheme it offers for understanding not only Luther’s ethics but also his theology as a whole. The scheme drives at the heart of Luther’s eschatological conception of the theological task-the task of distinguishing God’s dramatic and dynamic work in the world by way of the classic Lutheran distinction between law and gospel. And it does so in a fashion that holds in tension distinctions that many less agile interpreters would separate and turn into false dichotomies.

[3] Rejecting the “third use of the law” (tertius usus legis) found in the Formula of Concord, VI, Lazareth explicitly sides with the Gnesio-Lutherans who opposed the Philippists (the followers of Philip Melanchthon who endorsed the “third use of the law”). Like the Gnesio-Lutherans of the sixteenth century, he refuses to exchange Luther’s appropriation of Paul’s eschatological categories (e.g., love, command, sin, wrath, curse, gospel, and the Holy Spirit) for a “frequently casuistic and scrupulous guiding rule of law for the regenerate (in renati)” (p.240). The Philippists, he observes, “opened wide their evangelical back door to later pietistic (and Calvinistic puritanical) legalism” (p.240). Nonetheless, Lazareth does not remain silent about ethics. Frequently drawing on Luther’s depiction of the “joyous exchange” (froehliche Wechsel) – whereby Christ takes on himself our sinful self and grants us his innocent and victorious self – he maintains that faith alone justifies. But once we have been justified by faith – which we receive “passively” – we enter the “active” life, a life that enacts works of love toward the neighbor. Yet that life is governed by the gospel and not by any law or ethical perfectionism (pietism). Neither legalist nor antinomian, it is governed solely by a “hidden spiritual fidelity to God’s loving will (piety),” a fidelity characterized by growth in God’s grace through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

[4] This conception of the second use of the gospel must be understood within the context of Lazareth’s overarching interpretive proposal for reading Luther. In his early conflict with Roman Catholic semi-Pelagianism, Luther stressed the dualism and antagonism between God’s reign of grace and the devil’s reign of sin. By the mid-1520s, in reaction to more antinomian radical Protestants, he expands but does not replace this earlier dualistic model with a more dialectical conception of God’s twofold rule (as law and gospel) of the two kingdoms (spiritual and temporal). God’s “strange work” (through the law) takes two forms: the “civil” use (pertaining to the law’s political function to promote justice in society) and the “theological” use (pertaining to the law’s theological function of exposing sin). God’s “proper work” (through the gospel) also takes two forms. Christ’s justification of sinner before God is the only theological ground of Christian righteousness. In turn, the Holy Spirit’s sanctification of believers within society transforms them with accompanying “fruits” and “gifts” (Galatians, Romans, I Corinthians). And here we arrive at Lazareth’s distinctive contribution. Justification and sanctification (gospel and gifts) are complementary dimensions of the way the ubiquitous risen Christ is personally present in the lives of Christians. (Note that the “theological use of the law” and “justification” have to do with where we stand before God [coram Deo] whereas the “civil use of the law” and “sanctification” have to do with how we deal with other human beings [coram hominibus].)

[5] Why is this significant? It addresses a key issue that has plagued Lutherans ever since the initial sixteenth century debates over the third use of the law (debates that have taken on many forms through the centuries in conflicts between confessionalists and pietists). Not only an intra-Lutheran concern, this issue has also been at the heart of Reformed criticisms of Lutheranism. Some of Europe’s most prominent theologians have called Lutherans “socially conservative” and “quietist” (e.g., Troeltsch and Barth), criticisms that unfortunately were borne out with Lutheran orthodoxy’s tragic association with Nazi Socialism.

[6] Moreover, although Lazareth does not address contemporary issues, his framework for interpreting Luther has tremendous contemporary relevance. The phenomenon of globalization has ironically led not to the disappearance of religions and interest in spirituality – as many had predicted – but to their proliferation. Ever changing forms of individualized expressions of spirituality (what sociologists call “reflexive spirituality”) will continue to emerge alongside the resurgence of more conservative forms of communal belief and practice (what sociologists call “desecularization”). Sophisticated theological reflection is needed for understanding how we might live together in such a religiously diverse world. We will not all agree on how best to evaluate either the justice of our rapidly changing transnational economies or the goods we are pursuing and their impact on family patterns, ways of raising children, sexual behavior, the environment, and so on. A clearheaded understanding of how theology and ethics are related – but radically different – will be key for addressing these concerns, especially since our chief social conflicts (whether with fellow Christians or those of other faiths) will probably revolve around matters of religious and ethical practice.

[7] Lazareth’s interpretive scheme brings to the fore the distinctive contributions a Lutheran approach to theology and ethics has to offer this public debate (both within the church and in our societies at large), contributions that are neither quietist, on the one hand, nor sectarian or theocratic, on the other. (1) It offers a dynamic – and complex – way of perceiving and enacting God’s activity and presence in history by drawing on Paul’s conception of the conflict between the “old age” in Adam and the inaugurated but not fully consummated “new age” in Christ (or elsewhere the NT, the “kingdom of God”). (2) This entails a dynamic and paradoxical style of interpreting the “Word of God” as the Scriptures are orally proclaimed, a “Word” that enables one to perceive with the eyes of faith what often seems contrary to historical expectations and appearances (sub contrario). (3) In this mode of interpreting history and Scripture, the “theological” use of the law offers a means for understanding how religious and ethical ideals may be used for demonic purposes. (Here Luther anticipates-at least formally, if not in substance-key themes in contemporary critical theory, from the great “masters of suspicion” [Nietzsche, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Freud] to more recent liberationists and deconstructionists.) (4) Its conception of justification stresses the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ, which always is also the presence of Christ, is a gift; it cannot be earned or manufactured. (5) Although the eschatological conflict between the two realms – of God and evil – lies at the heart of this worldview, it does not negate the goodness of God’s created world. The “civil” use of the law affirms the capacity of human reason to perceive and enact justice and the good-even if that reason is distorted by sin. Thus, it affirms a basis for working with both Christians and non-Christians to promote justice and the good in human societies. (6) Finally, its conception of sanctification (the second use of the gospel) affirms that the Holy Spirit actually does transform Christians, enabling them to live out God’s command of love (which fulfills God’s intended patterns in creation before the fall). This sanctification is enacted communally, in the church’s proclamation of the forgiveness of sins and in the complexity entailed in living out one’s vocation in the world (in the family, at work, and in all the rest of one’s commitments as a public citizen-economic, political, and so on). Not merely a matter of personal piety, this conception of vocation entails active involvement, in line with the command to love, in working toward creating communities and institutions that are good and just, especially for those with the least power. Most importantly, this “second use of the gospel” is neither triumphalist nor potentially theocratic since it is enacted not through power but by taking up the cross-through suffering and dying to self-and in that way enacting the wisdom and power of Christ’s new age (I Cor 1:18-2:5).

[8] Of course, whether Lutherans can help address this century’s most pressing religious and ethical questions in both public and personal ways is contingent on whether they can actually converse with others, whether Christian (or even fellow Lutheran) or not, about matters of pressing theological and ethical import. And that is contingent on addressing yet another deep issue in Lutheranism, which Lazareth does not explicitly address. Lutheran rhetoric (of the two “ages”) gives one tremendous power to demonize those with whom one disagrees (whether fellow Lutherans, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, etc.). Although another theologian will need to deal with that problem, he or she now has a highly fruitful yet subtle paradigm for thinking – and talking and writing – about the issue in deeply Lutheran ways.