The Right to Property and Daily Bread: Thinking with Luther about Human Economic Rights


[1] The right to property stands at the cusp of legal and economic rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[1] It also stands, therefore, at the cusp of personal life and the public dimensions of life lived in the economic and political spheres of society. Enjoying a right to property is not only a personal blessing or advantage. Exercising one’s right to property is a way of interacting with and serving others, helping to provide others with their daily bread. The right makes possible, in other words, certain kinds of both personal and moral agency and the fulfillment of certain kinds of moral obligations to others. Rights to property also have to do with livelihood, escape from poverty, freedom from hunger, and abilities to make positive contributions not only to one’s own well-being but also to the well-being and wealth of one’s neighbors and the community you share together.[2] Whether and how people use property and wealth to fulfill obligations to others is partly a function their moral and religious imaginations, and partly a function of the capacities and resources they have[3], the constraints they face, and the opportunities they seize. It is one thing to imagine the needs or rights of strangers or of people in general; it is another to imagine and recognize the rights and needs of one’s immediate neighbors.[4] Both make moral claims on oneself, one’s livelihood, and one’s property. Whether one recognizes those claims as rights-claims is also partly an act of moral and religious imagination.

[2] This article will examine the human right to property and related economic rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights through the lens of Luther’s religious and moral imagination. Luther seems, at first, to be an unlikely candidate for doing so. References to rights are rare in Luther’s writings. Some of the most well-known references he does make are either dismissive of rights or are made in passing in such a way that, while acknowledging peoples’ rights claims, show that Luther thought such claims were rather unimportant in relation to other theological and ethical issues at stake. For example, Luther told the peasants in Swabia who were revolting to regain their rights[5] that in calling themselves a “Christian association” they were violating the second commandment, which ”threatens you, as well as us and all others, with God’s wrath without regard to your great numbers, rights, and terror.”[6] And he dismissed their militant advocacy for their rights, saying, “For no matter how right you are, it is not right for a Christian to appeal to law, or to fight, but rather to suffer wrong and endure evil; and there is no other way (I Corinthians 6 [:1-8]).”[7]

[3] Luther’s writings can easily discourage those looking for support for human rights and related matters in the Lutheran tradition and Confessional writings. Especially when confronting his writings and actions during the Peasants’ Revolt, thinking with Luther about human rights seems to be an especially daunting challenge. Theologians such as Moltmann and historians such as Martin Brecht find no support for human rights either in Luther’s writings or in the Lutheran Confessional documents.[8] One is tempted in either case to ignore Luther’s writings and behavior and to attempt to pass as one from some other Christian tradition while searching elsewhere for theological support for rights. Or else, one may be tempted to uncritically “marry” one’s Lutheran commitments to secular arguments and causes for human rights while ignoring embarrassing aspects of Luther’s own thought about rights.

[4] Are there good Lutheran reasons for supporting human rights? Does it matter? Diane Orentlicher thinks it does matter. She regards it as a “crucial fact” that “universal acceptance of the human rights idea depends upon its legitimation within diverse religious traditions, and not just alongside them.”[9] Papers by Pfrimmer and Simpson earlier in this consultation deal with how human rights have been or may be legitimated within Christian churches. If Lutherans—and Lutheran churches—are to support human rights, they must have sound biblical and theological reasons for doing so that make sense from within the Lutheran tradition. (This is not to claim that the only valid justification for supporting human rights must be a Lutheran one. Rather, it is to claim that Lutherans also need reasons that make sense from within their theological heritage for doing so.)

[5] Luther imagines property in the context of God’s gracious, ongoing creative activity of providing daily bread for human beings. Seeing human beings as simultaneously saint and sinner, he also looks at property in light of God’s law in the form of the commandment, “You shall not steal.” Although Luther would affirm that owners have a right to their legitimate possessions under civil law, he generally does not, however, discuss property using the language of rights. Rather, his own Christian moral imagination appeals to the notion of duties we owe our neighbors because of our relations both to God and to them.

[6] I believe, however, that there are sound Lutheran reasons for supporting human rights. The challenge of Lutherans today is to see property and economic rights with double vision[10] from Luther’s expansive vision about daily bread and serving the neighbor and the equally expansive vision about the interconnectedness of property and other rights in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One fruitful way for Lutherans to take up this challenge is to wrestle with Luther and the Reformers as strenuously as Jacob wrestled with the angel to win Luther’s ‘blessing’ for human rights. When we do so, we will find that Luther changed his mind and found that we have better reasons than he originally thought for supporting people’s rights. So do American Lutherans. Although many Lutherans in the Lutheran world communion have made the imaginative move to human rights, [11] American Lutherans imagine and discuss their individual and corporate action in society as advancing or protecting human rights only inconsistently.[12] We have good Lutheran reasons to become more consistent in our advocacy of human rights.

[7] The plan of this paper is this. After examining the right to property in the context of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I will discuss Luther’s understanding of property in the context of his expansive vision of daily bread. Looking at both the Universal Declaration and Luther’s thought with “double vision” will provide an initial critique of both, including Luther’s early disregard of rights. But we will also look at how Luther changed his mind about rights so that it becomes possible for Lutherans to understand his views on property and daily bread from the perspective of human rights.

Property in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights[13]

[8] Articles 17 and 12 of the Universal Declaration place property at the cusp of legal and social rights in such a way that they are also at the cusp of personal and social life. Article 17 states:

1) Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.

2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

The first clause recognizes property as an economically productive possession. It does so without regard to the kind of economic system in which it may be found. Thus, the clause may cover not only the small business of an individual proprietor or professional but private partnerships, joint-stock companies, co-operatives, non-profit corporations, communes, and state-owned enterprises as well. It is equally applicable to a capitalist, a socialist, or a mixed economy. The second clause intends to protect owners of action by states to deprive people of personal or other property arbitrarily for political reasons.[14] Article 12 had already spelled out in detail the rights of the person against personal interference for political reasons: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honor or reputation. Everyone has the right to protection against such attacks.” In the context of the Universal Declaration, the duty to protect personal privacy falls largely on the state.

[9] Article 29 asserts a person’s right to intellectual property for their creations and discoveries: “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”

[10] These rights in the Universal Declaration are not unlimited or absolute, for there are correlative duties to the community and to other persons expressed in Article 29:

1) Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.

2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedom of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order, and the general welfare in a democratic society.

3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

These duties are owed not just by human persons but by legal persons—i.e., corporations—as well.[15] One of the reasons positive law should be obeyed is so that the rights and freedoms of each member of the community is recognized and respected. The reference to the just requirements of morality and public order implies a transcendent standard not only over individual behavior but also over society, the state, and positive law.[16]

[11] The rights of owners and economic entities are also seen in relation to the rights of workers in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration, which asserts that:

1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

The references in the third clause to remuneration ensuring an existence worthy of human dignity and “other means of social protection” are partly spelled out in Article 25:

1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

[12] The important powers of owners in the Universal Declaration, therefore, are not absolute and unqualified, but are set in a network of mutual rights and obligations that are infused within human relationships in society. The claims of Articles 23 and 25 have implications, of course, for the obligations of private and public owners and managers of commercial and industrial property as well as of public officials in the state. The right to housing is a kind of property right, claiming a right to be sheltered in a dwelling appropriate for human dignity.

[13] The Universal Declaration asserts other rights as well to such things as freedom of conscience, opinion and expression, freedom of association and assembly, political participation, religion, education, marriage and forming families, rest and leisure, and participation in cultural life in society.

[14] Because the rights of the Universal Declaration are seen as a mutually supportive and mutually qualified set, they present a holistic vision of the essential qualities of a dignified human life in society. And it is within that vision and this holistic network of rights that the human right to property is set.

III. Daily Bread and Property

[15] Luther gave his basic and most succinct definition of “daily bread” In his explanation of the Fourth Petition of The Lord’s Prayer in The Small Catechism. Daily bread is

everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright (i.e., honest, capable) spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors.[17]

[16] Luther’s understanding of the conditions necessary of a dignified human life daily bread is therefore quite expansive, even more expansive than that in the Universal Declaration. It includes much more than literally the food we eat from day to day. It includes as well all the things that make human life possible. It presumes that God gives these things abundantly for all, not that they are inherently scarce and available only for some. It assumes that there is a holistic relationship between individuals, God, and others in a human community that is both mutually responsive and mutually responsible. His view of daily bread also presumes that there is a natural mutual dependence of human beings on God and each other for the things needed for human life. Furthermore, it sees human life and whatever is needed to sustain it as a gift of God and therefore as good. This includes

personal and productive property such as land and other physical possessions
human relationships within and outside of the family—the neighbor—and the processes by which those relationships are lived daily
other non-human creatures
the natural environment
social institutions including government and law
social conditions—e.g., civil order and justice, and international peace
ethics, morals and character among human beings—decency, honor, faithfulness, honesty
human capacities or skills that contribute to human flourishing.

Indeed, Luther saw daily bread as an extravagant expression of God’s grace. He claimed that “God gives daily bread without our prayer, even to all evil people.” Yet he still exhorts us to pray for it so that we might recognize God’s grace to others and to us, and that we may receive our daily bread with thanks. He also notes that when Christians pray this petition they not only pray for daily bread but also “against everything that interferes with enjoying it.”[18]

[17] Note for our purposes here that this understanding of daily bread includes both personal possessions and economically productive property—distinguished from “house”—and including farm, fields, livestock, and money. Moreover, it involves people’s relations with hired labor which in Luther’s day were the household and other servants or the peasants who worked the land on large estates.

[18] When God gives daily bread, it is often done with us and through us even when we do not always pray for it… When we pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are also called to discern, therefore, how God calls us to help as God gives daily bread to our neighbor. For Luther the social and political institutions, organizations and businesses, and processes which order and affect our lives and in which we participate daily are among the means through which God gives our daily bread. But individuals, singly or in groups, also have a role to play in providing their neighbor with daily bread. For not only do the actions of human beings make those social and political entities work, but apart from them people also act personally and privately in ways that give daily bread to others—or withhold it from them.

[19] How people both use their own property and act with respect to the property of others affects how a portion of their daily bread is provided them. Those who produce crops or goods for market, who provide services to others, or who lend them money all play a part. And in turn the income they receive for their products, work, or service helps to provide their own daily bread. Everyone’s behavior toward others in these exchanges affects the quantity and quality of what they receive. People have both negative duties to avoid and prevent harm to the neighbor’s property and positive duties to promote the neighbor’s benefit and interests, as Luther explained what was required to fulfill the commandment against stealing.

We are to fear and love God so that we neither take our neighbor’s money or property nor acquire them by using shoddy merchandise or crooked deals, but instead help them to improve and protect their property and income. [19]

Just as their ethical responsibilities extend not only things they are to refrain from doing as well as to things they ought to do, Luther was also clear that people are also morally responsible for things they fail to do as well.[20]

[20] Moreover, Luther extended these negative and positive duties about others’ property and economic relationships to people’s desires with respect to what is their neighbor’s in the commandments against coveting because these desires affect how people treat their neighbor. These commandments forbid seeking to gain their neighbor’s property “under pretext of legal right” or estranging or enticing away those who are in economic or other relationships with them. Instead, Luther argued, people should “be of service and help” to neighbors so they keep their possessions, and should encourage those who are in their employ, service, or other relationships to remain in them.

[21] As they fulfill their duties under all these commandments, people help to provide “daily bread” in Luther’s robust sense of it to their neighbor.

[22] Luther’s basic positions on daily bread carry over into how he treats matters of wealth and poverty. Luther had a positive view of wealth within the context of this expansive vision of daily bread. He saw property and wealth as God’s good gift. Luther argued against both the monasticism of his day and the asceticism of his time which renounced material goods or wealth.[21] Against both movements, Luther held that property and wealth are means not only to provide daily bread for oneself and one’s family, but also are means to further the legitimate interests of one’s neighbor.

[23] People can use wealth and property in this way through commerce as well as through good government and law to regulate commercial transactions. In the commercial sphere, Luther applied the same structure of negative and positive duties that he stated in his explanation to the Seventh Commandment:

“The rule ought to be, not ‘I may sell my wares as dear as I can or will,’ but, ‘I may sell my wares as dear as I ought, or as is right and fair.’ For your selling ought not to be an act that is entirely within your own power and discretion, without law or limit, as though you were a god and beholden to no one. Because your selling is an act performed toward your neighbor, it should rather be so governed by law and conscience that you do it without harm and injury to him, your concern being directed more toward doing him no injury than toward gaining profit for yourself.”[22]

[24] Because commerce was a way of providing the daily bread of one’s neighbor as well as one’s own, it could and should be conducted in a way that enhanced both. Luther’s life-long skepticism about, and attacks upon, the emerging international capitalist economy of his day focused not on commerce as such but upon the particular practices of trade and lending then commonly used.[23] Luther also complained that the poor were defrauded daily in the marketplace.[24] Commerce for Luther was not a way of extracting one’s own daily bread from another by means which deprived the neighbor of hers. He exhorted Christians to “seek a modest living, not the goals of greed.”[25] Rather He urged people to spend their money on necessary, life-sustaining things rather than on exotic luxury goods imported from afar.[26] If one had wealth, Luther counseled that one should use it to serve the neighbor out of love and be prepared to give it up if God calls him to do so rather than to be in bondage to it. But abandoning one’s wealth to become a mendicant was not required.[27]

[25] Luther’s understandings of both justification and daily bread led the Reformers to new approaches to dealing with poverty. For these positions meant that “[t]here is no salvific value in being poor or in giving alms.”[28] Begging was forbidden. Among Luther’s followers, addressing poverty became a public responsibility. The Lutheran cities of Germany began to set up and finance public community chests to deal with the poor in their midst so that the poor might have their daily bread on a different basis than before. Whenever other sources of funds were insufficient, the citizens who were not poor would be taxed to support the chest.[29]

Seeing Daily Bread and Human Rights to Property with Double Vision

[26] From the perspective of Luther’s understanding of daily bread one can appreciate the importance of the broad scope of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It declares an extensive set of needs which people ought to have satisfied in order to live dignified lives in society. Implicitly, it makes a moral claim upon whoever in particular cases is in a position to satisfy these needs. In doing so, one serves the neighbor. Such claims and responsibilities apply as well to civil rulers. In exercising their authority, they are the means through which “God gives us food, house and home, protection and security.”[30]

[27] From Luther’s perspective on daily bread, of course, the Universal Declaration is of rather smaller scope. It is concerned primarily with human rights needed for a dignified human life. But in providing daily bread, God provides things that human rights do not and cannot, the natural environment and non-human creatures, the social conditions and social institutions which make both the exercise and honoring of human rights possible, and the human capacities that contribute to human flourishing. But one also may take this contrast too far because, as we noted, God often provides daily bread to humans through other humans, including the social institutions and conditions they create for their common life.

[28] While recognizing and affirming its assertion of the limitations on rights and duties to society, Luther’s perspective would also criticize the Universal Declaration for it’s primary reliance on asserting rights to make the case for what people need and how that is attained. That is partly because of Luther sometimes expressed a patriarchal view of civil authority[31] in which magistrates were viewed as “the father of the community” against whom rights-claims by subjects were not permitted. But more important is Luther’s emphasis on service to the neighbor. “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[32] This implied for Luther, says Brecht, that “liberated Christians are under the obligation of serving love to their fellow human beings—an obligation which is comparable to the concept of civic duties, not to human rights. Christians do not thereby acquire their being; rather they conform to the being already given them.”[33] Moreover, Luther viewed humans as simultaneously saint and sinner, ever prone to assert self-interest and personal desires in face of the needs of the neighbor, and thus to abuse whatever rights one may have. In light of this, Luther’s own perspective might argue that the Universal Declaration has too optimistic a view of human nature.

[29] Luther also was acutely aware, of course, that civil authorities also abuse their power and may act in wicked, unjust, and oppressive ways and may unjustly take the property of their subjects.[34] But rather than assert their rights, Luther argues that the gospel “speaks of our life in the world in terms of suffering, injustice, the cross, patience, and contempt for this life and temporal wealth. How, then, does the gospel agree with you? . . . Therefore you must take a different attitude. If you want to be Christians and use the name Christian, then stop what you are doing and decide to suffer these injustices.”[35]

[30] From the perspective of the Universal Declaration, Luther’s comprehensive understanding of daily bread as those things needed for human life would be affirmed. Not only does Luther claim that human beings need personal property and economically productive property, but he also is sensitive to how these are set in a network of wider relations and obligations in society. Moreover, Luther seems to appreciate the importance of the relations and obligations of owners to hired labor even though labor unions did not exist in his day. And he was also aware of the tendency of civil authorities to abuse their power.

[31] From the Universal Declarations point of view, however, Luther fails to appreciate the importance of rights as a means by which the daily bread may be provided and the obligations of people to respect the property and other interests of people may be effectively secured. Although Luther is aware that people may abuse their property and other rights for personal advantage, he apparently fails to appreciate the extent to which the enforcement of rights also entails the enforcement of their limits and the obligations of right holders as well. And while he is aware of the tendency of civil authorities to abuse their power, his point of view tends to under-appreciate how the assertion and impartial enforcement of people’s rights may work to constrain the oppression and injustice he laments. Brecht argues[36] that Luther did not extend his understanding of Christian freedom to political freedom to the extent that people were free to assert rights against others in society or against civil authorities themselves.

[32] But I will argue, against Brecht’s judgment, that as Luther and the Reformers wrestled with their own challenge over rights, Luther did, in fact extend his understanding of Christian freedom to the freedom to assert rights both against civil authorities and against other private persons. And this opens up space within the Lutheran theological-ethical worldview for human rights.

Wrestling with Luther on Rights toward Rulers and the Neighbor

[33] While good government was for Luther one of God’s gifts of daily bread to Christians and other humans, rights were not one of them—at least not in a way that was usually very significant. Luther recognized, of course, that people had various kinds of rights appropriate to their place in society, including certain rights in relation to rulers. But his interpretations of Romans 13 and his writings on civil authority[37] leave subjects and inferior authorities with few, if any, active claim-rights or powers over the actions of rulers. Although Luther was also aware that under civil law persons had various rights in relation to other subjects, he exhorted Christians not to exercise them, as we have seen in his response to the Swabian peasants in Admonition to Peace above.

[34] In 1530 Luther and the Wittenberg Reformers changed their views of civil authority over a six month period. As late as April, 1530[38] Luther argued for his now familiar view of civil authority in his commentary on Psalm 82. (See note 35) Only God—or God’s representative, the clergy—was in a position to hold rulers publicly accountable for their actions.[39] As Quentin Skinner has shown,[40] the fallout from the Diet of Augsburg led Luther and his colleagues to change their minds. Melancthon presented the Augsburg Confession at the Diet in June, 1530. Emperor Charles V ordered a Refutation to the Augsburg Confession to be prepared which was subsequently orally read at the Diet. The breaking off of further debate between Protestants and the Catholic majority, the demand by the Catholics that Protestants return to the Catholic church by the following Easter, and the formation of a league for defense of the empire all created a real threat of military force against Protestant territories. This sent the Reformers, their princes, and legal advisors into intense deliberation and discernment about how to respond. They wrestled with the question of whether they had any right to resist by force. Luther and the other Reformers were finally persuaded that they had a legally valid right to resist the Emperor with force and signed a statement to that effect in late October.[41]

[35] Two arguments convinced the Reformers of their right to resist Imperial authority by force. One was the argument of the Saxon jurist, Brück, that there is legal precedent for resisting authority by force when that authority is acting unjustly because when an official behaves in this way, he forfeits his authority and is acting as a private person. In exceeding his civil authority by acting on spiritual matters at and after the Augsburg Diet, Brück argued that Charles V had done just that. And, it is lawful for someone to actively resist violence perpetrated by another private individual.[42] The second argument by Hessian jurists, and championed by Osiander and Bucer, focused on the terms of the imperial constitution of the Holy Roman Empire. While agreeing that the powers that be are ordained by God (Romans 13:1), these powers are given to all magistrates, not just the Emperor. If the Emperor oversteps his authority by persecuting the Gospel or threatening other magistrates, the argument ran, he violates obligations he assumed at his election and may be lawfully opposed by other Electors and authorities.

[36] What does this mean for Lutheran arguments for a right to property and other economic rights? People may assert rights against public authorities when they abuse anyone’s rights. But how far does this extend? And, does it extend to private parties, such as individuals, banks, businesses, and the like? Luther commonly said that Christians should not assert their claims to their civil rights, as we saw in his comments above to the Swabian peasants. In his 1531-1532 sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, he preached similarly:

But Christ teaches you in addition that you should still be willing to let everything be taken away from you, and do so gladly, doing good or contributing or lending where you can, and submitting to violence not only with regard to your property but also with regard to your life, as was said in the preceding text. Especially should you be willing to do so for the sake of the Lord Christ, if you are threatened on account of the Gospel. In such a case you should be willing to surrender not only your coat but your cloak as well, not only your property and reputation but even your very life.[43]

But here Luther preaches with more nuance and qualification: “for the sake of the Lord Christ, if you are threatened on account of the Gospel.” Moreover, he acknowledges a distinction between such a case and ordinary life under secular imperial law.[44]

[37] This proves crucial because with it Luther invokes a distinction between the human being as a baptized person and as a natural person.[45] And just as in the midst of the extremities of 1530 Luther and the Reformers found legal justification for their right to resist the imperial threat from Emperor Charles V, so also now in the immediate shadow of that crisis Luther discerns moral justification for Christians as natural persons in society to assert their civil rights:

It is permissible for you to use orderly procedure in demanding and obtaining your rights, but be careful not to have a vindictive heart. . . . Now, where this is not the case and you are simply seeking to use the law for your protection and self-preservation against violence and malice, rather than for your vindictiveness or malevolence, you are not doing wrong.[46]

Luther now realized that there is legitimately another way than simply suffering wrong and enduring evil when one’s rights are violated. His view of the agency of the Christian as a natural person for their civil rights has implications as well for the moral agency of the baptized person for the rights of his or her neighbor.

[38] In the context of invoking Christ in the hymn of Philippians 2:5-8 as the model of the Christian justified by grace through faith, Luther in his 1520 tract, The Freedom of a Christian, sets forth the moral motivation for good works; we are set free in Christ to love and serve the neighbor. “Therefore he should be guided in all his works,” Luther argues, “by the thought and contemplate this one thing alone, that he may serve and benefit others in all that he does, considering nothing except the need and advantage of his neighbor.” Luther also quotes Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”[47] If a Christian is to fulfill his calling to serve the neighbor with his property, employment, wealth, etc., then his rights to those things matter, not only for himself but for the neighbor’s sake. And if the neighbor’s calling matters similarly, then her rights matter for the same reasons.

Discerning Human Rights to Property and Daily Bread in Lutheran Ethics

[39] Ishmael Noko, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, finds Lutheran understandings of neighbor love, God-given human dignity, and Christian freedom and service to the neighbor to be “mirrored” in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[48] But with Luther’s and the Reformers’ increased appreciation for the legitimate importance of rights in personal, political, and social life after 1530, one may be emboldened to say that not only are some of the rights of the Universal Declaration mirrored in Lutheran theological ethics but also that they are implicit within it’s understanding of property and daily bread and perhaps entailed by it.

[40] In the crucible of 1530 when Luther and the Wittenberg reformers discerned a right of active resistance against the emperor, their theory of civil authority did not necessarily change, but their understanding of the subject’s relation to authorities who abused their power did change. We also find a change as well in Luther’s understanding of people’s relation to ordinary citizens who do not fulfill their moral (or legal) duties to others, or who violate their rights. For Luther now counsels that Christians may actively assert their rights in their relations with others.

[41] Luther was much more apt to talk of natural law than natural rights, although by his day the two were related in theological and philosophical discourse. For him, the natural law was given by God and known through conscience. Typical of Luther is this comment from his 1535 lectures on Galatians: “All men have a certain natural knowledge implanted in their minds (Rom. 2:14–15), by which they know naturally that one should do to others what he wants done to himself (Matt. 7:12). This principle and others like it, which we call the law of nature, are the foundation of human law and of all good works.”[49] The other principles like it included the Ten Commandments. Luther assumed that even though their reason is clouded by sin, all people were capable in any situation of imagining what they, were they to be in another’s circumstances, would want to be done to them and then to do it themselves for their neighbor.[50] In this way, he believed that we comprehended our natural duties in all situations. In his discussion of the commandments, such as those involving theft, killing, and covetousness, his explanations spelled out in general terms what those natural obligations are. Luther believed that people had the capacity for moral judgment which helped them to discern how to act and live out those general duties in the specific situations of their lives.

[42] Inherent in Luther’s method as well was the implicit assumption that these natural duties are the moral or legal claims our neighbor has on us. This is true whether these natural duties are negative (i.e., things we should refrain from doing to our neighbor) or positive (i.e., things we should do for our neighbor). Ordinarily, Luther treated these natural duties as passive moral claims. That is, they are claims my neighbor morally has upon me, but which my neighbor does not actively assert. In other words, Luther did not ordinarily treat these as active civil or natural rights claims[51] until 1531.

[43] But the language and conceptuality for treating them as either passive or active natural rights claims was available and familiar to Luther, although there is little evidence that he ever used this particular language himself. The development of the idea of natural rights had been under way since the twelfth century.[52] This development began with a group of canon law commentators on Gratian’s Decretum who are now called the Decretists. The Decretists had a concern for the rights persons could exercise in everyday life and came to realize that the classical language of natural right (ius naturale) “could be used to define both a faculty or force of the human person and a ‘neutral sphere of personal choice’.”[53] Later centuries of theological, legal, and philosophical debate developed this idea in various directions so that by the sixteenth century robust theories of natural rights were starting to be developed.[54] A continual topic of debate throughout the development of natural rights theory down to the present day is whether, and to what extent, natural rights are active as well as passive. Luther was aware of these intellectual debates and knew the work of some of these thinkers, including William of Ockham and Jean Gerson.[55]

[44] The issue of whether the rights of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its attendant conventions[56] assert either passive or active rights is alive today. Both the form and origin of the Universal Declaration as a United Nations project suggest an interpretation of these as passive rights which the member states accept as duties to protect. But increasingly, vulnerable, poor, or relatively powerless people and their allies are treating them as active rights which they may assert in the forums of public life and opinion against recalcitrant states, unresponsive international institutions, or multinational corporations. Churches and ecumenical organizations increasingly are providing such forums themselves or are intervening in them on behalf of poor, endangered, or oppressed peoples.[57]

[44] For Lutherans today, the fact that Luther increasingly appreciated the importance of active assertion of one’s civil rights after 1530 provides support either for their own sense that they must assert their own human rights when necessary or for their sense of responsibility to defend and advocate for the human rights of others.[58] Luther undoubtedly had persons’ rights under civil and criminal law in mind in his sermons on the Sermon on the Mount. But he also understood that the laws of particular civil societies were specific applications both of the comprehensive principles of God’s law as given in such expressions as the ten commandments, and of God’s expectations that the calling of civil authorities is to both restrain evil and also provide conditions of just peace whereby daily bread may be provided to all.

[45] So, although there is little evidence that Luther used the rhetoric of natural rights in his writing or preaching, Lutherans today can with justification understand his teaching to have what we would call human rights in view. Therefore, the following rephrasing of Luther’s explanations of the seventh commandment and the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer from the Small Catechism is offered here in the form of the language of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[46] A Rights-based Approach to the Commandment against Theft:

Everyone has a right to money and property, to have others restrained from stealing them, and to be protected from dishonest trade or dealing in shoddy merchandise.
Everyone has a right to the help of others to improve and protect her/his income and property.

[47] A Rights-based Approach to Daily Bread:

Everyone has a right to those things needed to satisfy their basic bodily needs—food and clothing, house and home, money and property, productive assets by which they may earn a living, spouse and children, good and faithful rulers, good government, peace and health, order and honor, true friends, faithful neighbors, etc.

[48] Max Stackhouse argues in an important study of the significance of religion for human rights that the Swabian peasants had a better insight into the implications of Luther’s theology than Luther himself did.[59] But during 1530 and 1531, Luther himself realized some of those implications. For he changed his mind about the significance and functions of rights in social life, not only regarding whether the Reformers could resist by force an emperor whom they believed had exceeded his authority, but also regarding the legitimate role of rights in social and economic life for ordinary people trying to live out their callings in daily secular life. This has significance for how Lutherans now read their obligations to others in the commandments and with regard to the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer.


[1] Articles 1 through 15 outline political and civil rights. Articles 16-29 cover social, economic, and cultural rights. Articles 16 and 17 concern marriage and property, respectively. See (Accessed January 27, 2009) The role of the right of property as a link between the two classes of human rights is conceptual, but this significance is also expressed spatially. These placements of marriage and property in the Universal Declaration of Human rights are not accidental; they are intentional in situating these rights on the boundary between private and public life. Moreover, Article 17 is linked conceptually to Article 12 which deals with a civil and political right partly concerning the privacy of one’s home.

[2] This, rights to property, employment, etc. are not only rights that are important for personal agency and personal advantage for their own sakes, however valuable those things may be in their own right. They also have a bearing on how persons contribute to others in society. For an important philosophical treatment of economic rights and property focused primarily on their importance to personal agency, see Alan Gewirth, The Community of Rights (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1996).

[3] The relation between rights, freedom, and capacities in economic life and development is explored by Amartya Sen in, Development as Freedom, (New York: Random House, 1999).

[4] Thomas W. Lacquer, “Moral Imagination and Human Rights,” in Michael Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, Amy Gutmann, ed. (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 2001) 134-135.

[5] For a sympathetic account of the Peasant’s Revolt in the context of a discussion of the relation between Luther and Thomas Müntzer, see Jürgen Moltmann, “Reformation and Revolution,” in Martin Luther and the Modern Mind: Freedom, Conscience, Toleration, Rights, Manfred Hoffman, ed., Toronto Studies in Theology, v. 22, (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985) 163-190.

[6] Luther, “Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia” (1525) Charles M. Jacobs, tr., rev by Robert C. Schulz, Luther’s Works v. 46 The Christian in Society, III, Robert C. Schulz, ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) 24.

[7] Ibid., 31.

[8] See above, note 5, and Martin Brecht, “Divine Right and Human Rights in Luther,” in Martin Luther and the Modern Mind: Freedom, Conscience, Toleration, Rights, Manfred Hoffman, ed., Toronto Studies in Theology, v. 22, (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985) 61-84.

[9] Diane F. Orentlicher, “Relativism and Religion,” in Ignatieff, Human Rights as Politics and Idolatry, 155.

[10] I use this term as Mirsoslav Volf does to denote seeing something from two (perhaps radically) different perspectives in a mutually critical way. See his discussion in Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996) 212-220 and 250-253.

[11] See the special edition of Lutheran World Information marking the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the Lutheran World Federation at See also Ishmael Noko, ‘Human Rights in the Context of Globalization,” presentation to the Evangelical Theological Faculty, University of Vienna, November 20, 2001, Online at _Context_of_Globalization_20-11-2.pdf; Faith and Human Rights: Voices from the Lutheran Communion, Documentation 51, ed. Peter N. Prove and Luke Smetters, eds., (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press for the Lutheran World Federation, 2006); and Karen L. Bloomquist, “Why a Faith Basis for Human Rights,” Thinking It Over . . . Issue # 16 (Geneva, LWF Dept. for Theology and Studies, June, 2007).

[12] The ELCA sometimes appeals to human rights, and sometimes does not when it could. It’s most authoritative appeal to human rights is in its social statement, “For Peace in God’s World” (1995) (accessed January 31, 2009. Referring to the Universal Declaration, the ELCA statement declares: “Human rights provide a common universal standard of justice for living with our differences, and they give moral and legal standing to the individual in the international community. We therefore will continue to teach about human rights, protest their violation, advocate their international codification, and support effective ways to monitor and ensure compliance with them.” It declares an intention to advocate for providing basic necessities to the poor, as well as to protest against violations of human rights and to defend the rights of marginalized groups. But later social statements on economic life, (see health and health care (see, and education ( do not mention human rights in connection with those topics. It’s Task Force on Health and Health Care expressly declined to state that health care is a human right during its deliberations on the grounds, as many members mistakenly felt, that to do so necessarily meant claiming rights that are unrelated to any responsibilities in the part of anyone.

[13] Provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are found at

[14] Johannes Moresink, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Origins, Drafting, and Intent (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania, 1999) 134-142.

[15] Ibid., 155.

[16] Ibid., 250.

[17] Luther, The Small Catechism, in The Book of Concord, Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) 357. Luther expressed corresponding elaboration of these themes in The Large Catechism, The Book of Concord, Theodore G. Tappert, tr. and ed., (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959) 430-432. There, he explicitly points out that the petition covers “all kinds of relations on earth.”

[18] Luther, The Large Catechism, 430 (emphasis added).

[19] The Small Catechism, explanation to the Seventh Commandment, 357. See also his explanation to this commandment in The Large Catechism, p. 420. Luther wrote about the abuses of trade and lending in some detail in his 1524 treatise, Trade and Usury, Charles M. Jacobs, tr., rev. Walther I. Brandt, Luther’s works, vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962) 231-310.

[20] “If you send a naked person away when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone who is suffering from hunger and do not feed her, you have let her starve. . . . It will be of no help for you to use the excuse that you did not assist their deaths by word or deed, for you have withheld your love from them and robbed them of the kindness by means of which their lives might have been saved.” The Large Catechism, explanation to the Fifth Commandment, ibid., 412.

[21] Carter Lindberg, ”Luther on Government Responsibility for the Poor,” Seminary Ridge Review, 7:2 (Spring 2005) 9.

[22] Luther, Trade and Usury, 248.

[23] Carter Lindberg, “Property and Poverty in the History of the Church,” in Christian Ethics—Property and Poverty, Report of an International Consultation for Europe, Purkersdorf-Vienna, 1984, ed. Bela Harmati (Geneva: Lutheran World Federation Department of Studies, 1985) 44.

[24] Luther, “The Ten Commandments,” The Large Catechism,” 397.

[25] Luther, Trade and Usury, 250.

[26] Lindberg,”Luther on Government Responsibility for the Poor,” 12.

[27] Luther, The Sermon on the Mount, tr. Jaroslav Pelikan, Luther’s Works, vol. 21, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1956) 15.

[28] Lindberg, “Property and Poverty in the History of the Church,” 42.

[29] Ibid. 43. For a detailed history, see Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993). For the provisions of the municipal agreement for a common chest at Leisnig, see “Fraternal Agreement on the Common Chest of the Entire Assembly at Leisnig,” Walther I. Brandt, tr., Luther’s works, vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II, J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, eds. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962)

[30] Luther, “The Ten commandments,” The Large Catechism, 385.

[31] Ibid. at p. 384, where Luther states that “Out of the authority of parents all other authority is derived and developed. . . . In the Scriptures [these other authorities] are all called fathers because in their responsibility they act in the capacity of fathers and ought to have fatherly hearts toward their people.” On 387 Luther writes, “Thus we have three kinds of fathers presented in this commandment [to honor parents]: fathers by blood, fathers of a household, and fathers of the nation.” Elsewhere Luther writes that “Such a man [i.e., a ruler] should bear with honor the three divine offices and names; therefore he should be called a savior, father, deliverer. . . . By the second virtue, the administration of just laws, he supports all his subjects, as a father supports his children; for, as has been said, if it were not for law, no one could keep anything from another.” Psalm 82, C.M. Jacobs, tr. Luther’s Works v. 13 Selected Psalms, II, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., (St. Louis, Concordia, 1956) 58. For a brief discussion of Lutheran patriarchalism, see Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, vol. 2, Olive Wyon, tr., Library of Theological Ethics, R. Lovin, D..F. Ottati, and W. Schweiker, eds., (Louisville:Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992) 541-542. John Witte, Jr., argues, however, that Luther had no settled view of the forms of political office, but appealed at different times to various conceptions. More important than political forms, says Witte, were the status and functions of government. “Between Sanctity and Depravity: Law and Human Nature in Martin Luther’s Two Kingdoms,” The Journal of Lutheran Ethics ( republished from Villanova Law Review (2003), 727-762. Luther’s patriarchalism was not unusual in his day but was, instead, rather common. Various explicitly patriarchal theories of authority were potently used for various purposes well into the 17th century. They may be distinguished from the patriarchalism which feminist theorists and theologians often find implicitly operative in the church and other aspects of life today.

[32] Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, in Martin Luther’s Theological Writings, Timothy F. Lull, ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989) 585.

[33] Martin Brecht, “Divine Right and Human Rights in Luther,” in Martin Luther and the Modern Mind: Freedom, Conscience, Toleration, Rights, 66.

[34] See, for example, Luther, Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia, (1525) 19, 22-23, 25.

[35] Ibid. 35-36.

[36] Brecht, 77, 82.

[37] See Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523), tr. J. J. Schindel, rev. by Walther I Brandt, Luther’s Works, v. 45, The Christian in Society, II, Walther I. Brandt, ed., (Philadelphia: Fortress Pres, 1962) 85-86. See also Luther’s commentary on Psalm 82, where Luther writes (also referencing Romans 13), “For where there is no government, or where government is not held in honor, there can be no peace. Where there is no peace, no one can keep his life or anything else, in the face of another’s outrage, thievery, robbery, violence, and wickedness. Much less will there be room to teach God’s Word and to rear children in the fear of God and His discipline (Eph. 6:4). God will not have the world desolate and empty but has made it for men to live in, to till the land and fill it, as is written in Genesis 1:29, 30. Because this cannot happen where there is no peace, He is compelled, as a Creator, preserving His own creatures, works, and ordinances, to institute and preserve government and to commit to it the sword and the laws. Thus He may slay and punish all those who do not obey it, as men who also strive against God and His ordinance, and are not worthy to live.” Notice his identification here of the enforcement by the rulers with God’s own enforcement of law. Luther, Psalm 82, (1530) C.M. Jacobs, tr. Luther’s Works v. 13 Selected Psalms, II, Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., (St. Louis, Concordia, 1956) 45.

[38] Jaroslav Pelikan dates the completion of the commentary on Psalm 82 by this month. “Introduction to Volume 13,” LW v. 13, Selected Psalms, II, x.

[39] My thanks to Gary M. Simpson for pointing out this significance of Luther’s argument in Psalm 82. Simpson discussed Psalm 82 in the context of God’s publicity in his paper, “God’s Publicity and Earthly Sovereignty: The Question of American Empire and the Hope of International Humanitarian Law in Light of Luther, Grotius, and Niebuhr,” paper given at the 50th Annual Meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, January 10, 2009, Chicago, Illinois. Luther writes in his commentary on Psalm 82, “For it says here: “God stands in His congregation and judges the gods”; that is, He rebukes them. For He keeps the upper hand over them and the right to judge them and does not make them gods in such a way as to abolish His own Godhead and let them do as they please, as if they alone were gods over God. . . . Where, then, is God? Or how do we become sure that there is a God who thus rebukes? Answer: You hear in this place that ‘He stands in the congregation.’ Where His congregation is, there you will find Him. For there He has His appointed priests and preachers, to whom He has committed the duty of teaching, exhorting, rebuking, comforting, in a word, of preaching the Word of God.” Psalm 82, 48-49.

[40] Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, Volume Two, The Age of Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978) 191-206.

[41] The text of this statement is translated in Martin H. Bertram’s “Introduction,” to Dr. Martin Luther’s Warning to His Dear German People, Luther’s Works v. 47 The Church in Society, IV, Franklin Sherman, ed., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971) 8. It was signed by Luther, Melancthon, Jonas, and Spalatin.

[42] Luther also referred to this argument in 1831 in his Warning to His Dear German People.

[43] Luther, Sermon on the Mount, (1531-1532) Jaroslav Pelikan, tr., in Luther’s Works, v. 21, Pelikan, ed., (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956) 116. (For details of the circumstances surrounding their preaching and of the dating and assembly of these sermons, see Pelikan’s “Introduction to Volume 21,” xix-xxi.)

[44] Ibid., 115.

[45] My thanks to Mary Gaebler for suggesting the importance of this distinction.

[46] Sermon on the Mount., 111. Earlier, he also preaches, “Do you have a government? Then register a complaint [against your malicious neighbor], and let it see to it. The government has the charge not to permit the harsh oppression of the innocent.” (p. 25). And also: “This also means that if you are the victim of injustice and violence, you have not right to . . . start getting even and hitting back; but you are to think it over, try to bear it and have peace. If that is impossible and you cannot stand it, you have law and government in the country, from which you can seek legitimate redress. It is ordained to guard against such things and to punish them. . . . Therefore leave the vengeance and the punishment to your judge, who has the command. . . .” (p. 40)

[47] The Freedom of a Christian (1520) W. A. Lambert, tr., rev. Harold J. Grimm, in Luther’s Works, v. 31 Career of the Reformer, ed. Grimm, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1957) 365.

[48] Noko, ‘Human Rights in the Context of Globalization,” p. 6.

[49] Lectures on Galatians, 5-6 (1535), Jaroslav Pelikan, tr., Luther’s Works v. 27, Jaroslav Pelikan and Walter A. Hansen, eds., (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956) 53.

[50] “Now he that wants to take this commandment seriously and wants to apply it must not depend on ‘acts elicited’ from within himself, but he must refer the works, words, and thoughts of his whole life to this commandment as to a rule, and he must always ask himself with respect to his neighbor: ‘What do I want him to do for me?’ With this before him, he will immediately treat his neighbor in the same way.” Luther, Luther: Lectures on Romans, Wilhelm Pauck, tr. & ed., Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961) 368.

[51] At least one contemporary Lutheran church, the former Lutheran Church in America, understood a similar point but saw the matter differently than Luther when it made the correlation between the Christian’s duties to the neighbor and the neighbor’s rights when it wrote in a 1978 social statement on human rights, “One person’s duties not to kill, to commit adultery, to steal, or to bear false witness thus give rise to another person’s rights to life, property, fidelity, and reputation. For a person to insist upon vindication of these latter rights is not necessarily to act out of self-love. It is also to act out of neighborly love. To claim one’s own right is in part a charitable act to induce one’s neighbor to discharge his or her divinely ordained duty. Lutheran Church in America, “Human Rights: Doing Justice in God’s World,” social statement, 1978, (, accessed January 31, 2009).

[52] Brian Tierney, “Origins of Natural Rights Language: Texts and Contexts, 1150-1250,” History of Political thought, X:4 (Winter, 1989) 615-646.

[53] Ibid., 646.

[54] Richard Tuck, Natural Rights Theories: Their Origin and Development, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

[55] Ibid., 22-24, 30-32. Luther had read Gerson and was critiquing his work in 1515-1516. Gerson’s theology and theory of natural rights assumed that God and man had essential the same relationship to the world, Gerson believed that man could become the same kind of being as God and that their relationships was essentially a reciprocal relationship between equals. Obviously, Luther’s views are radically different.

[56] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (effective, 1976) (online at , accessed October 12, 2008), and the International covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (effective, 1976) (online at, accessed October 12, 2008).

[57] The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Corporate Social Responsibility program employs human rights criteria and has a human rights policy based on the ELCA social statement, “For Peace in God’s World,” when it deals with corporations. See

[58] The 1978 social statement of the Lutheran Church in America, “Human Rights: Doing Justice in God’s World,” stated, “As God’s liberated people, we are free to advocate the rights of persons without fear or favor.” (accessed January 31, 2009). The 1995 social statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) stated, “We therefore will continue to teach about human rights, protest their violation, advocate their international codification, and support effective ways to monitor and ensure compliance with them. Our priorities are to: . . oppose genocide and other grievous violations of human rights such as torture, religious and racial oppression, forced conscription (impressment), forced labor, and war crimes (including organized rape); . . . [and] defend the human rights of groups most susceptible to violations, especially all minorities, women, and children.” (p. 14) (accessed January 31, 2009).

[59] Max L. Stackhouse, Creeds, Society, and Human Rights: A Study in Three Cultures, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 54.

Ronald W. Duty

Ronald W. Duty is the former Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society at the ELCA, and is now a private scholar.