Wayne C. Stumme on Lazareth’s Christians in Society

[1] Pastor, theologian, ethicist, ecumenist, bishop: William Lazareth’s lifetime of service in the church is reflected in the concerns and conclusions of this important book. The theology of Martin Luther, he contends, endures as a “classical authority” for the church as it continues to adapt new programs of Christian social ethics. Focusing on the biblical norms of the Reformer’s theological ethics, Lazareth sees the result to be a pastoral and hermeneutical “paradigm” for the comprehensive interpretation of human life. The author seeks to demonstrate that Luther’s ethics and theology were “wholly determined by Scripture” and that they reflect his Christocentric reading of the Old and the New Testaments.1

[2] Lazareth acknowledges that the systematic construction of Luther’s theological ethics which he provides was never attempted by Luther himself, and that much of what the Reformer wrote was “occasional, polemical, paradoxical, and dense.”2 Nevertheless, he presses forward, convinced of the ethical and ecumenical significance of his project. “Our proposal,” he summarizes, “builds exclusively on Luther’s societal application of God’s primal command of love, the Spirit’s ecclesial and vocational sanctification, and the renewed dominion-sharing service (Gen.1:28) of the universal priesthood of baptized Christians within the divinely mandated ordinances of church and society.”3

[3] It is a tribute to the author that a full critical review of this book would require the competencies represented in Reformation studies, dogmatic theology, and social ethics. These questions, therefore, would seem to be appropriate. Does Lazareth’s historical description of Luther’s theological ethics reflect current scholarly consensus or are there significant alternative views? Does his presentation of Luther’s theological views – including supporting biblical interpretation – remain convincing for our time or does it contain serious problematical elements? Finally, what is the usefulness of Lazareth’s proposal for the tasks of Christian social ethics today?

[4] This review will not respond to all of these questions. It will offer reflections on several fundamental issues of importance to theological and social ethics. In so doing the reviewer will seek to honor the commitment to evangelical theology, the insight into the life of Christians in society, and the concern for social justice which characterize the author of this stimulating study.

[5] In view of the particular requirements of theological ethics as it relates to the life of Christians in society, what are some of the emphases in Lazareth’s presentation that demand attention? The following are problematic for this reviewer.

[6] General revelation and natural law. Lazareth is fully aware of the misuse of the notion of general revelation by the “German Christians” during the Nazi era. He does not abandon the concept, however, insisting that Luther accepted “a limited general revelation of God’s law in reason, conscience, and nature.” This “universal law of love,” though corrupted by sin, can be known through conscience and right reason, norms all human laws, and functions in all of God’s mandated societal structures. Lazareth claims that for Luther “natural law (lex naturae) means solely the revealed law of God the Creator (lex creationis), ultimately love in its various expressions.”4 The political application of this natural law makes it possible for love to employ reason and power to attain relative justice and good order in society.5 The author joins Luther in claiming Pauline authority (Romans 1:18-23 and 2:12-16) for this understanding of a universally binding and knowable natural law.

[7] Natural law is the child of natural theology and functions as a second source (in addition to the Christ event) of the knowledge of God. Its adherents insist that the validity of its requirements can be established independently of that event. They agree that natural law has no soteriological value, but they claim that it has moral utility, notably in establishing common ethical purpose with non-Christians.6 Others, however, object to this concept on several different levels. They argue that acceptance of this understanding of law is the first step in moving inevitably toward a social ethic in which Christological concerns are absent or at best secondary. They would contend that the adoption of such a creation-based ethic results in limiting the lordship of the risen Christ to the consciousness of the individual believer and the realm of the church. The insistence on a “two-fold revelation”- a natural universal law and Christ – and their separate spheres of operation relativizes the inclusive significance of Christology. In brief, the “kingdom of the left hand” is excluded from the direct and effective rule of Christ. Karl Barth has frequently claimed that the covenant of God with humanity in Christ is the inner meaning of creation, but a social ethic dependent upon “natural law” can hardly acknowledge dependence upon either covenant or Christ. Trinitarian theology would seem to be an accompanying casualty of this approach to theological ethics.7 There are also predictable social consequences of this approach. Given the history of the concept of natural law, it is hard to deny that adherence to a scheme of natural law would tend to reflect the hegemonic influence of dominant social groups or, to put it another way, would provide ample opportunity for the corrupting influence of power and social privilege.

[8] General revelation and biblical ethics. Lazareth presents Luther’s understanding of a pre-fall, primal command of love, eschatologically restored for Christians, as replacement for the “historically interim divine law of wrath” in fallen creation.8 “Eschatologically” would seem to refer to the Spirit-renewed life of believers in the present and, further, the restoration of this primal command as somehow normative for Christian ethics. In other words, the primal love command is the real foundation of natural law, a claim that seeks to secure its biblical relationship. That means that “for Christians, natural law can still regulatively demonstrate what love alone normatively motivates.”9 Lazareth concludes, “While sin-corrupted reason universally governs all human morality, its governance by renewing love and guiding natural law is the hallmark of Luther’s theological ethic for righteous Christians.”10 Avoiding any “third use of the law,” Lazareth calls for “the second or parenetic use of the gospel, that is, justifying faith active in sanctifying love and justice, that the Holy Spirit calls and empowers us with new gifts to fulfill our new obedience to God’s primal command of love.”11 In what does that obedience consist? “It is the continuous reapplication of the Lord’s primal command of love to ever new situations, and thereby righteously ‘making it new,’ that distinguishes Luther’s contextual and non-legalistic approach to the natural law embedded in the Decalogue.”12

[9] What then of the Mosaic Decalogue and the parenetic material in the New Testament? What authority do they have? What role do they play in the moral life? Because of reason’s corruption by original sin, “it became necessary for the Mosaic Decalogue to clarify, summarize, and rearticulate essential dimensions of the natural law’s witness to God’s eschatological command to love within the human heart.”13 The biblical law thus becomes a “second word,” a repetition, and not the first expression of the command of God. Despite sin, the authority of the natural law, “written upon the heart,” is unchallenged. The Ten Commandments do provide us with a “mirror of our life,” but “Christians are to obey the moral law of Moses only when he agrees with the universal natural law of the Creator (Rom.2.14-15). . . . Then they (the commandments) reveal the eternal love of God’s will (Decalogus est aeterna).”14 And what of the rigorous ethic of the Sermon on the Mount? Luther, says Lazareth, holds that “the ethical absolutes of the Sermon on the Mount related only to disciples in personal relationships with their fellow believers in the Kingdom of God (Gebot). They do not seek to prescribe moral conduct for a sinful and unjust society-at-large (Gesetz).”15 Gesetz for the fallen creation, Gebot for the community of the redeemed!

[10] Here, indeed, is a slippery slope for theological ethics! Our concerns are as follows. First, eschatology becomes protology; the work of the Spirit is to re-establish the primal command of love for Christians. What of the “newness” that Christ brought and is? Does the pre-historical, however its truth is to be established, take precedence over the historical inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the Christ event? Where is there room for Christian hope, together with love, in the shaping of our ethical response to the demanding social situations in which we find ourselves? While Luther, Lazareth claims, has room for a “gracious liberation faith,” he rejects an “egalitarian social ethic.”16 That would seem to follow from the essentially conservative conclusions of his theological ethics. Secondly, the primacy of natural law over the biblical expressions of law apparently relies on the assumption that the instrumentality of human reason and the intuitions of the human “heart” provide the most reliable access to God’s preserving will for his human creation. This form of theological subjectivity may give Christians the questionable advantage of less conflictual accommodation to the prevailing culture, but in the process they lose their necessary grounding in both the promise and demand of biblical ethics. In Lazareth’s reading of Luther, does the Word of God – as law and gospel – any longer refer directly to the biblically-attested law of God? Thirdly, scriptural attestation for natural law is much more meager than for explicitly-stated biblical law. (One could argue that in Romans Paul is more interested in demonstrating universal human complicity in sin and evil than in establishing a universal basis for ethical action.) However we deal with the problems of biblical law (and this seems to be a recurring problem for Lutheran ethics), does the New Testament really rely on natural law as in some sense foundational for Christian ethical response? What judges what? While the commands of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be given direct juridical standing and political enforcement in “society-at-large,” they certainly can point Christians to the direction that a just (and, parabolically, an eschatologically hopeful) society ought to take. Prescription, no; example and demonstration and encouragement, yes!

[11] Finally, because of the author’s reliance on a creation-based ethic dependent on natural law, the essential theological emphases of covenant, Christ, and Kingdom have not found their rightful and indispensable places in this presentation of Luther’s ethics. Both Christology and eschatology suffer impoverishment through this approach.

[12] Nevertheless, this book is an impressive achievement. William Lazareth has provided all of us with information and insight, theological stimulus and ethical provocation. Other reviewers and readers will join the necessary dialogue to which he summons all who are concerned for the church’s social witness and action. It is true, of course, that this book brings us only to the beginning stages of our reflections on Christian social ethics today. That we in the Lutheran Church in the United States have come even this far, however, is due in large measure to his writings, his personal example, and his devotion to the theological and ethical legacy of Martin Luther. We are grateful.

End Notes

1 William H. Lazareth. Christians in Society. Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001). vii,x,31.

2 Ibid., 235.

3 Ibid., 199.

4 Ibid., 148.

5 Ibid., 152.

6 See A.D. Mattson. The Social Responsibility of Christians. Knubel-Miller Lectures for 1960. (Philadelphia: Board of Publication of the United Lutheran Church in America, 1960. 71,72. “Natural law is a description of the activity of God in his world. By virtue of its existence, all men can distinguish between right and wrong – and do so, in a greater or lesser degree. . . . Only on the basis of what is involved in the concept of natural law can we find a basis for cooperation for the Christian and the non-Christian. Only on the basis of some such common agreement among men can the Christian speak to the social problems and needs of the world with any degree of hope.” Luther drew a similar conclusion, according to Lazareth, in his evangelical interpretation of the law: “he makes common cause ethically with both Jews and all other human beings on whose hearts the essentials of God’s natural law of love are still universally written, in however sin-corrupted a form.” 229.

7 Lazareth may be aware of this danger when, in another context, he insists that:

“Luther drives the mystery of the relation of faith to love back into the perichoretic interaction of the three persons of the Trinity, the external works of whom are indivisible within creation (opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt) (italics added). 187. Augustine’s dictum would also apply to the present lordship of Christ in both church and society. The one God – Father, Son, and Spirit – is active in the totality of history, including both of Luther’s two kingdoms.”

8 Lazareth. Ibid., 75.

9 Ibid., 225.

10 Ibid., 232.

11 Ibid., 244.

12 Ibid., 229.

13 Ibid., 230.

14 Ibid., 157.

15 Ibid., 166-7.

16 Ibid., 202.