Martin Luther’s Teaching and Practice of Charity and Social Ethics
- Samuel TorvendSamuel TorvendPacific Lutheran University
Luther not only wrote about charity and social ethics throughout much of his life; he also experienced the conditions that were the object of Christian generosity and ethical reflection. This essay suggests that his study of the Bible and Church Fathers was not the only source of Luther’s writings and revolutionary programs. His experience of deprivation as a child and a monk, his encounters with the homeless poor of Wittenberg, and his observation of corrupt business practices and failed political leadership played significant roles in his sensitivity to the scriptures and the history of ecclesial care for the poor. The rise of social history and the use of social scientific methods have drawn attention to the economic, political, and social context in which Luther lived and to which he responded throughout his life. The reformer’s works on charity and social ethics did not emerge in a vacuum. His initial public foray focused on the “spiritual economy” of the late medieval church, which discriminated against many of Luther’s poor parishioners.
While the Ninety-Five Theses raised serious questions about the sacrament of penance, the role of indulgences, and the authority of the pope, the text also reveals Luther’s early concern for the poor, who were frightened into buying spiritual favors for themselves or their dead relatives. In addition to theological problems, Luther recognized the ethical dimension of this large-scale sales campaign that benefited archbishops and the Vatican treasury. Luther’s rediscovery of the Pauline teaching on justification by grace alone reoriented Christians toward life in this world. Rather than spend effort or money on spiritual exercises that might win one God’s favor in the afterlife, human energies could be directed toward alleviating present suffering.
A dialectical thinker, Luther insisted on holding together two seemingly irreconcilable claims, two disparate texts, two discordant images in order to raise the question: How is one related to the other? His teaching on justification claims that God always advances toward a suffering humanity first and that this advance is revealed with utter clarity in the person and work of Jesus Christ, who incarnates God’s desire to free human beings from the deathly presence of anxious religion and give them “life, health, and salvation.” But such freedom must be used for the good of one’s neighbor who suffers within the economic, political, and social fabric of life. The advance of God, who is mercy and grace, continues into the world through Christ and his body. This essay suggests that while Luther animated significant contributions to biblical studies and theology, a body of ethical teaching has been harder to discern among his followers. Perhaps this hesitancy arose out of fear that an emphasis on ethics would be construed as a lapse into what Luther called “works righteousness.” This essay considers a number of the ethical questions and crises that faced Luther, which have not subsided and ask for contemporary investigation.
A remarkable achievement of Luther’s reform was a revolutionary change in social assistance. The monastic communities of western Europe had long served as centers of hospitality and charity, and the order in which the young Luther made his vows was a reforming order committed to austerity of life and care for the urban poor. For theological reasons, Luther promoted the suppression of the monasteries and vilified the mendicant orders, but this left a gap in care for the growing population of homeless peasants seeking work in urban centers. The reform of social assistance undertaken in the small “Lutheran” town of Leisnig, Germany, in the early 16th century would become the model for many church orders throughout Germany and Scandinavia, influencing today’s state-run and tax-funded assistance to needy families.
Recently, ethicists and Luther scholars have reassessed his reform of charity to ask how the reformer’s social teaching might support engagement with a wide range of present-day social movements. Increased study of Luther’s social writings and the study of evangelical “church orders,” previously marginalized in the academy, offers promising avenues for continued research. This essay also compares three forms of charity—Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Reformed—illustrating the symbiotic relationship between social ethics and theology and underscoring the role of theological priorities in the conceptualization of social assistance.
Finally, this essay considers Luther’s writings on social ethics. Frequently, interpreters of this focus on “faith active in love,” or the utility of his distinction between two kingdoms or governments. Such studies offer a biblical or theological grounding for Lutheran ethics yet frequently overlook the actual crises or practices he encountered. Luther was not a “systematic” theologian, and one must search through his many writings to discover his “ethical” teachings. Luther scholars and historians of social ethics are increasingly interested in the specific ethical questions he was asked to discuss by those who had accepted his reform. The growing popularity of his reform movement and the seismic shift in Christian thought and practice it animated left Luther little time to construct a well-ordered corpus of social teaching, yet many of his concerns are vitally alive in the world today albeit within a different context. Many of his concerns were enlightened by his study of scripture, in which he recognized a mirror of his own turbulent era.