We Need Help: A Review of Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics

[1] I begin my review of this estimable book with a quibble over the title. “Social ethics,” in William Henry Lazareth’s usage in this book, refers to the embodiment of Christian moral convictions in the time-bound culture of any given age. As such, Christian theological ethics need not, and in some cases, ought not, be beholden to those relative formulations. Theological ethics are far less time- and space-bound than social ethics (222). If that is the case, then this book is about theological ethics, not social ethics. Lazareth’s intent is to draw theological and moral notions from Luther’s writing that are perennially relevant to all Christians, but especially to Lutherans. Thus, “theological ethics” should have been substituted for “social ethics” in the title.

[2] That said, Lazareth deserves high praise for the great contribution this book makes to the education of a new generation of Lutheran scholars, pastors, and theologically interested laypersons. Few persons in these last twenty years have delved into Luther’s writings on ethics with the thoroughness and erudition that William Lazareth has demonstrated in this book. Others may indeed be capable of this kind of scholarly work but none have pulled it off. This is as full and systematic an account of Luther’s theological ethics as we have had in English in a generation.

[3] He begins the book by introducing a new generation to the controversies over Lutheran ethics-the critiques of Troelstch, Barth, Heckel, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Most of these have been forgotten as the church has moved on to other issues, but it is important to bring them up again, to discern how others have critically viewed our heritage. Such discernment has helped us to develop stronger approaches to theological ethics, as this book, along with many others, demonstrates. My graduate school years were spent grappling with a number of these critiques. Lazareth’s account of them brings back vivid memories of us Lutherans trying to demonstrate to our fellow students that Lutheran ethics was not an oxymoron. Alas, that task is not yet complete.

[4] The author then moves to the substance of his account. He begins with the biblical and theological bases of Luther’s ethical writings, proceeds to examine Luther’s view of God’s Law before and after the Fall, outlines how Luther interprets the two uses of the Law-the political and theological-and concludes with how Luther develops the two uses of the Gospel in the Christian life. He adds an afterword in which he takes up continuing controversies over the two kingdoms doctrine and over the third use of the Law.

[5] Lazareth admits that his attempt to systematize Luther is unsuccessful because Luther’s writings themselves were “occasional, polemical, paradoxical, and dense” (235). Luther remarked toward the end of his life that his work as a theologian was the product “not of reading and speculation, but living, dying, and being condemned” (235). Yet, oddly enough, or should I say, unsurprisingly enough, Lazareth tends to make Luther’s theological ethics sufficient unto itself.

[6] Implicit in the book is a kind of Lutheran chauvinism that elevates Luther to the be-all and end-all of Lutheran ethics, if not of Christian ethics. It’s as if we need no one else. Indeed, if we get Luther straight we also have Paul straight, and who could ask for anything more? It is instructive that after Lazareth lays out the sharp criticisms of thinkers like Barth and Niebuhr in the first chapter, he concludes, not that we should and could learn something from them, but rather that such critiques have finally driven us “back to the biblical foundations of Luther’s theological ethics” (30). In addition to this clarification of what Luther really argued, perhaps we need help from our fellow Christians in developing our Lutheran ethics.

[7] Moreover, this chauvinism leads to formulaic stereotyping of other theological ethical perspectives that is irritating, if not a bit embarrassing. Pietism is tersely categorized as “demonstrable ethical perfectionism” (201). Reformed perspectives are neatly summed up as “Calvinistic puritanical legalism” (240) or “legalistic activism” (241). These neat characterizations are often not terribly accurate nor do they make for good conversation with those who hold different perspectives. But if Luther is sufficient for Lutheran ethics, then we don’t need such conversations. (Actually, I suspect some of the material in the book dates from the author’s seminary teaching in which such shorthand analyses are helpful in getting seminarians to understand competing positions. However, they aren’t helpful in a scholarly conversation that takes other perspectives seriously. Of course, Lazareth knows all this, witness his fine work in ecumenical dialogue. His later history makes these characterizations seem out of place.)

[8] More seriously, Lazareth’s account of Luther, which is no doubt accurate, reveals Luther’s recklessness with regard to the Old Testament, as if it is not really needed for Christian ethics. Luther writes “This text (of the First Commandment, Ex. 20:1), makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us. For God never led us out of Egypt, but only the Jews” (157). Lazareth even employs the awful phrase, “de-Judaized Decalogue,” to talk of Luther’s appropriation of the Ten Commandments (152). There seems to be a whiff of Marcionism in Luther’s ethical construal of the Old Testament. In my opinion we need those Old Testament moral roots very badly. Without them Christian morality can easily drift off into an airy antinomianism, as seems to be happening today. (“All you need is love.”) Lutheran ethics needs help from the Old Testament, which is an essential part of our Christian narrative, not only that of the Jews.

[9] In Luther’s view we are to accept the Old Testament Decalogue only if it jibes with the “universal natural law,” which is written on the heart of all humans. That might have been all well and good in the late Middle Ages when reason and natural law were embedded within a Christian worldview, but such a confident and exalted notion of the “universal natural law” hardly carries the day in the contemporary world. Pope John Paul II seems to have a more solid approach when he argues that finally, for Christians, the natural law is revealed most clearly in the Biblical narrative. I suspect we ought to follow the Pope on this score rather than Luther. Maybe we need help from the Pope in developing a contemporary Lutheran ethic.

[10] Finally, it seems to me that Luther’s ethics needs ongoing reflection, interpretation, and revision by Lutherans as we grapple with other Christian traditions and with the challenges before us. This need is obvious when you observe the massive untidiness of Luther’s construal of Christian love in the Christian life. Sometimes Luther sounds as if his ethic is purely dispositional-the Gospel transforms our wills so that our spontaneous love automatically does the right thing (232). What, then, of actions that take careful deliberation about ambiguous issues? Do they lose their Christian character because they are not spontaneous?

[11] At other times Luther sounds as if Christian love is an ordered love. “The Ten Commandments also cease, not in the sense that they are no longer to be kept or fulfilled, but in the sense that the office of Moses in them ceases; it no longer increases sin” (230). After all, when Luther explicates the Christian life he amplifies the positive meanings of the Ten Commandments along with their negative bite (226). Yet Lazareth vehemently denies a third use of the Law (239ff.). But what is Luther’s explication of the Ten Commandments but a “necessary guide for producing good works by regenerated Christians,” which is Lazareth’s definition of the the third use (239)?

[12] Sometimes Luther’s ethics seems radically situational-the Christian does what the neighbor needs. But what does the neighbor need? Sometimes it is obvious; many times it is not, as any parent knows when dealing with children. At other times Luther argues that we simply do the duties that our worldly roles thrust at us, only we do them gladly and better. There seems to be no transformative effect on our worldly places of responsibility.

[13] All of this is meant to corroborate Lazareth’s remark that attempting to synthesize Luther’s ethical writings tests one sorely (238). In my view it is impossible to do so. In order for Lutheranism to have a coherent ethical tradition we have critically to extend and complement Luther with other sources, both modern and ancient. We need to appropriate insights from Catholic and Reformed thought, among others, as we construct a contemporary Lutheran ethics. (Of course, this assumes that the ELCA will find a place for authoritative moral teaching in its life, an assumption that is not at all obvious.)

[14] Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we jettison the basic theological and moral framework that Luther has bequeathed us. If we are to continue to call ourselves Lutheran, we have to pay serious heed to what William Lazareth has researched so well for us. But we are not sufficient unto ourselves. We are a reforming movement within the church catholic. We need the church catholic.

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.