Tuttle on The Promise of Lutheran Ethics

[1] Lutheran theological ethics has often seemed more impoverished than full of promise. Core concepts of the Lutheran tradition – justification by faith, the law-gospel distinction, the so-called “two kingdoms” doctrine, and the concept of vocation – have been read in ways that bifurcate Christian faith from social and personal ethics. Justification is an act of divine grace, and reintroducing any essential ethical component into the life of faith raises the danger of “works-righteousness,” of requirements other than the believer’s faith in divine grace. The gospel brings freedom from sin, not bondage to the law or other ethical demands. But this gospel pertains only to the inner life of Christians and to their life in the world to come. In external matters of this world, including family, work, and civil government, the gospel is silent. Law governs the external world, which is filled with sin’s violence and chaos, and the Christian’s sole duty in this realm is to uphold the existing social and political order.

[2] The Promise of Lutheran Ethics gathers seven essays that put to rest this caricatured, though once quite common, reading of Lutheran theological ethics. The bifurcation of faith and morals – and its resulting ethical quietism – give way in these essays to “faith active in love,” a conviction that justification must lead to moral responsibility for the neighbor and the world. The divine love received in faith bears fruit in the believer’s love for others. The authors differ markedly, however, in their understandings of the method and substance of this link between justification and ethics.

[3] The essay by Larry Rasmussen and Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “The Reform Dynamic: Addressing New Issues in Uncertain Times,” brings a liberal theological method to the question of the link between faith and morals. They extract from Luther a “Protestant principle” of liberation from “systems of bondage that entrap and hold us” (133). The gospel relativizes all claims upon believers (apart from the reform imperative), and directs and energizes believers to break free of existing structures that fail to respond adequately to the needs of the moment, to “suffering and oppression that need not be” (143). For Luther, the penitential practice and Scholastic theology of the Catholic Church were the site of bondage. For our world today, Rasmussen and Moe-Lobeda argue, that bondage takes shape in practices that degrade the environment and have led to an “unsustainable way of life” (133). Liberation requires rethinking and reconfiguring our practices, including our theological commitments, to help create a more sustainable world.

[4] Richard Perry’s contribution, “African American Lutheran Ethical Action: The Will to Build,” also relies on the “Protestant principle” of liberation from oppression, but locates the primary moral source of this principle in the experience of African Americans (92-96). The bondage of racism did not end with the Thirteenth Amendment, but remains entrenched in the structures of economics, law, and culture. Responsible ethical action entails solidarity with the oppressed and active resistance against the institutions that oppress. Taken together, the essays by Rasmussen/Moe-Lobeda and Perry offer useful amendments to traditional liberal Protestant ethics. Both essays attend to the practices necessary to sustain the reform dynamic, and Perry identifies moral exemplars in the African American Lutheran experience who model the virtues required for those practices (83-89). However, the essays fail to address the standard critique of this liberal model: the bondage/freedom analysis is formal, with the content of both bondage and freedom supplied primarily by the believer’s context, rather than by scripture or tradition.

[5] Though expressed in a provocative and sophisticated exegesis of the Pauline epistles, David Fredrickson’s “Pauline Ethics: Congregations as Communities of Moral Deliberation,” carries parallel implications for ethics. In Fredrickson’s reading, the central moral thrust of Paul’s letters is the creation of what Jürgen Habermas would call an “ideal speech situation,” one in which each person is free to disclose herself to others, and the disclosure provides an occasion for mutual and open “testing” of what has been disclosed (117-120).1 Like the liberal method employed by Rasmussen/Moe-Lobeda and Perry, Fredrickson’s dialogic model emphasizes the primacy of contextual engagement (though with others in the community, rather than the experience of “oppression” in the world at large) over any received form of the Christian moral life. That said, Fredrickson’s close reading of the Pauline texts provides a richer vision of an ideal, liberated Christian community (see especially 124-128).

[6] The contributions by James Childs, “Ethics and the Promise of God: Moral Authority and the Church’s Witness,” and Robert Benne, “Lutheran Ethics: Perennial Themes and Contemporary Challenges,” reflect a more traditional Lutheran approach to Christian ethics. Both provide helpful accounts of the core elements of the tradition, especially the Two Kingdoms teaching and the concept of vocations, and also explain how those both inside and outside the tradition came to misunderstand these elements as warrants for Christian quietism and moral disengagement (see Benne at 12-17, Childs at 98-104). As such, the two essays are ideal for readers looking for a general introduction to Lutheran ethics. The essays are also both useful and illuminating in their point of major disagreement about the Lutheran tradition: Childs stresses the centrality of the church’s prophetic witness in society, while Benne is critical of the church’s public voice, out of a concern that the church lacks the competence to speak about specific, highly nuanced, policy judgments. This disagreement reveals not only the authors’ different political orientations, but fundamental claims about the nature of lived reality. For Childs, that reality is defined by eschatological hope: the experience of being justified in Christ offers a vision of a healed and renewed creation, and prompts Christians to hopeful action in light of that promised future. Benne, on the other hand, draws on Luther’s simul justus et peccator – a sense that the hoped-for future must contend with the dangerous and complex realities of this world. Deeply indebted to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism, Benne is skeptical of claims to transform the world into the image of the anticipated kingdom; not only are the practicalities of such claims outside the church’s technical competence, but such claims frequently imperil the relative order and justice necessary for human life.

[7] Although his essay offers a thicker and better grounded reading of the Lutheran tradition, Childs shares some of the liberal method, particularly in his understanding of the relationship between love and law. Rather than invoking the empty formula of the Protestant principle, however, Childs’s liberal turn comes in his reinterpretation of the decalogue:

[8] The Decalogue speaks to love’s concerns for the neighbor. I have attempted to translate the content of the commandments into five general rules that embody love’s concern for the neighbor and the world: respect for autonomy, commitment to justice, respect for the sanctity of life, truth-telling, and promise-keeping (including fidelity in marriage) (110).

[9] Further specification of these rules comes through dialogical encounter within the church and the broader human community (112). Though Childs’s eschatological perspective (like Fredrickson’s close reading of scripture) provides some normative structure to the liberal approach, the content of the Christian witness still rests heavily on contemporary cultural understandings of human flourishing and freedom.

[10] The true gem of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics is Reinhard Hütter’s essay: “The Twofold Center of Christian Ethics: Christian Freedom and God’s Commandments.” Hütter contends that the Lutheran tradition is peculiarly susceptible to misinterpretation by moderns because of its celebration of freedom. The Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith and distinction between law and gospel were stripped from the full context of the Reformers’ teachings, and inflated in ways that displace or marginalize all other aspects of the confession. Justification, in this inflated sense, means that the believer is free from all external demands; the gospel demolishes the law’s power to bind (33-34). Thus understood, Christian freedom is a perfect correlate of the modern’s account of negative liberty – the autonomous self’s transcendence over rules and norms that are not self-chosen. “Spontaneous love for the neighbor” constitutes the sole “principle” of Christian ethics. The only content that this principle can carry is that which reinforces the self’s autonomy, such as the liberal virtues of unconditional respect for and acceptance of the other (36-37).

[11] The consequence of this misconstrual of Christian freedom as the modern self’s negative freedom from heteronomy is not simply an error of intellectual history: it is a profound denial of the Christian’s call to discipleship, formed in the image of the one who calls us to that life. For Hütter, the gospel’s freedom has a definite shape: “Christian freedom is the embodiment of practicing God’s commandments as a way of life” (33). Hütter continues:

[12] God’s commandment is nothing else than the concrete guidance, the concrete social practice that allows us as believers to embody our communion with God in concrete creaturely ways (43).

[13] In a compelling exegesis of Luther’s interpretation of the Decalogue, Hütter shows how the Christian’s freedom in Christ takes shape in practices of worship, meditation on Scripture, prayer, and chastity. This Christian ethics offers no “method” to be applied by autonomous moral agents, but forms the believer in a life of obedience – the antithesis of modernity’s antinomianism (51-52).

[14] Martha Stortz’s “Practicing Christians: Prayer as Formation” elucidates one aspect of Hütter’s thesis, the moral implications of Christian practices of prayer. In daily prayer, Stortz contends, we embody virtues of discipleship: responsiveness to God’s address to us; gratitude at the “experience of the boundless goodness of God” (68); modesty in repeated penance (one might also say chastity or humility); and finally joy in the richness of life in Christ (68-69). This daily prayer also shapes perception, an essential component of discipleship. The practice of lifting up the neighbor in prayer requires us to attend to the neighbor and his needs, to see the neighbor as gift (rather than intrusion or limit on my freedom) (71-72). Through these practices and their attendant virtues, prayer furthers the formation of Christians necessary in any era, but especially important in an age that celebrates the negative freedom of the desiring self.

[15] The book as a whole presents a representative picture of American Lutheranism today, with its diversity of approaches to moral reflection and positions on basic issues facing the church (such as the authors’ discussion of the ordination of non-celibate gays and lesbians, found in a “Table Talk” that follows the essays) (168-173). The essays of Childs and Benne offer solid descriptions of traditional Lutheran ethical teachings, but Hütter and Stortz point Lutheran scholars toward the most promising avenue for reclaiming the Reformation tradition from the weaknesses of modern mainstream Protestantism.

Reprinted with permission from The Journal of Law and Religion, 16:261 (2001).

See Karen Bloomquist’s response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.
See John Stumme’s response to reviews of The Promise of Lutheran Ethics.

End Notes

1 See Stephen K. White, The Recent Work of Jürgen Habermas: Reason, Justice & Modernity 56-57 (1988) (describing “ideal speech situation”).