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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther’s Teaching and Practice of Charity and Social Ethics

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Martin Luther, charity, economy, greed, hunger, justice, politics, poverty, social ethics, social justice

Luther’s Experience

Luther biographies narrate the reformer’s birth to parents who struggled financially early in their marriage. Autobiographical anecdotes indicate that Luther grew up in a household where food seemed scarce at times. Receiving a mother’s harsh discipline for taking a nut or a cookie from the common table would impress upon a young boy the insecurity associated with food scarcity. As a grammar school student, Luther sang in the streets with other students and begged for coins; he was thus familiar with the mendicant orders he would come to denounce and the roaming beggars who increasingly coursed through the growing towns and cities of early modern Germany. While his father became a successful mine owner, his parents’ desire that he enter a lucrative legal career was motivated in part by the absence of social assistance for the elderly: without children to care for aging parents, the elderly were left to fend for themselves on the street or to beg lodging with other relatives. Later in life Luther noted that his spouse, Katarina von Bora, chided him for giving generous amounts of money to the hungry and the homeless who walked the streets of Wittenberg. A minority of the population could afford medical assistance, while the majority relied on home remedies and prayers to the saints. But even medical assistance was little help in the presence of the plague that struck down two of the young Luther’s university friends and his daughter, Magdalena.1

While natural and deadly insults to life abounded during the reformer’s career, he was engaged in issues of economic, political, and social import. The Peasants’ Uprising (also called the Peasants’ War) found Luther at first in sympathy with their demands for economic justice, but when his writings were used to justify murder, he ironically and terribly urged the nobles to put down the uprising with lethal force. At the same time, he decried economic abuse in the form of the price gouging and price fixing he experienced in Wittenberg, the growing power of international corporations to dictate government policy, the unwillingness of political leaders to regulate banks and industry, and the alarming increase in begging and homelessness as peasants flocked to cities in search of work.2 He wrote with alarm of the Ottoman army’s advance into Austria and supported armed imperial defense of western Europe. He pondered whether soldiers, trained to kill other human beings created in the image of God, could be saved. While Luther is studied as a biblical scholar and theologian—a student of the text—his experience of the domestic, economic, political, and social fabric of life in early modern Europe merits further assessment, for experience itself became a source of his theology and ethical commitments.

Luther on Charity

“Why doesn’t the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with money of the poor?”3 This question, embedded in Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, was asked in 1517, only a few years after Luther was admitted to the professoriate at Wittenberg. While his many theses called into question the sale of indulgences and their approval by the papacy, they also reveal Luther’s awareness of the poor multitude living in Germany, who could not afford such spiritual favors or, out of fear, purchased them and thus suffered the loss of funds needed to sustain domestic life. Could the Theses not also serve as a criticism of the “spiritual economy” of the late medieval period—“spiritual” in that this system focused the Christian imagination on the life of the world to come, and “economic” in that it sanctioned the purchase of spiritual goods in order to gain favor with God and the church? Indeed, late medieval Christians were encouraged to invest their funds in good works, an “investment,” they were told, that could accrue “benefits” as they worked out their salvation with fear and trembling.4

It was Luther’s discovery of Saint Paul’s teaching on justification by grace alone that called into question this “spiritual economy” and its theological underpinnings. This Pauline teaching focused on the “righteousness of God,” a term that had bedeviled Luther for years: “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul wrote, “[for] it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘the one who is righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:16–17). As a student, Luther had been taught that the “righteousness of God” was the power of God to condemn and punish sinful human beings. It was a term, Luther wrote, that terrified him, for he did not know if he had worked sufficiently to become “right” with God. Methodical study of the text at last brought him relief as he began to recognize that it is God who brings people into a right relationship with God out of sheer love for them—by grace alone—and thus frees them from needless worry about their eternal destiny and the commonly held view that one must work diligently to gain divine favor. In other words, the scriptural insight relieved Luther of “anxious religion.”5

What, then, of the church’s admonition to be charitable toward those in need and so give evidence of one’s cooperation with the grace offered by Christ in the sacraments? Would giving coins to the beggar, caring for one’s elderly parents, or donating money to a religious order actually contribute to one’s status in the eyes of God? Luther began to wonder: if God and God alone justifies regardless of one’s condition in life, then no human action, no claim to the privilege of one’s gender, ethnicity or social status, and no “godly living” could be used to gain the favor of God. Thus, the Pauline insight possessed a profoundly egalitarian implication that would prove unsettling in the stratified culture and religious community in which Luther lived. It also called into question charitable motivations: Is charity of primary benefit to the charitable giver, a contribution to his or her eternal destiny “in heaven,” or is charity to be focused on the person in need who lives “on earth?”6

Luther taught a twofold dimension to Christian righteousness as explicated in an early sermon: “The righteousness of Christ is alien, instilled from without. This righteousness is given to people in baptism … The second kind of righteousness is our proper righteousness, not because we alone work it but because we work with the first and alien righteousness … This righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor.”7 Here Luther offered a Pauline interpretation of the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart … and to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29–31). In effect, Luther argued that God is always advancing toward human beings with grace and mercy. This “advance” furthermore continues into the world of daily life through Christians who love and care for the neighbor in need. No longer, argued Luther, need one assist the neighbor in order to gain supernatural advantages (thus using the neighbor for one’s own personal gain). Rather, the Christian is called to share that which he or she has already received: the grace and mercy of God. The theological claim—Christ’s righteousness is offered freely and without condition—thus holds a social mandate: “As love and support are given you [by Christ in Holy Communion], you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones. You must feel with sorrow all … the unjust suffering of the innocent with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, and pray.”8

Rather than spend one’s life and energy working to gain the reward of immortality “in heaven,” Luther argued that the Christian can direct those energies toward life “on earth,” toward the amelioration of suffering and the diminishment of injustice.9 This was a complete reversal of the spiritual world in which he was raised. Rather than striving for union with God, he argued, the teaching on justification by grace claimed that God is the One who seeks out humans wherever they find themselves in the world. “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace … Hence a Christian is ready and glad, without compulsion, to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything … And thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate burning and shining from fire.”10

For Luther, Jesus Christ is “the gift of God” who enters into an intimate relationship, a mystical marriage, with the newly baptized. The gift of justification, of Holy Baptism, is the wounded and risen Christ, the bridegroom, to use Luther’s image, who becomes one with the bride, the Christian soul (anima). But the Christ who gracefully joins himself to the Christian is none other than the One “who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Phil. 2:6–7a). In one of his Palm Sunday sermons, Luther preached that “whatever Christ did, he did it for us and desired to be ours, saying, ‘I am among you as one who serves’ (Luke 22:27).”11 As the German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer would write some four hundred years later, it is from the vantage point of the dispossessed and the vulnerable—the view from below—which is the vantage point of the cross,12 that Christ the servant enters this world: a powerful critique in Luther’s era of the awesome judge who was thought to reign in a heaven far removed from earth.

It was Christ’s earthly life that garnered much of Luther’s attention, for the Christian who had received the “gift” of Christ in Holy Baptism could learn in the Spiegel or mirror of the gospels how to imitate him as an “example”—to serve the neighbor in need.13 Thus, Christ invited, even commanded, his followers “to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, welcome to the stranger, clothing to the naked, care to the sick, and companionship to the imprisoned” (see Matt. 25:31–46). Would such an admonition not resonate deeply in the young boy who experienced some measure of hunger, who sang and begged in the street for coins, who suffered chronic illness, who yearned for companionship with God? And would such an admonition not cast light on the failure of the late medieval church and its many religious orders to meet the pressing need of a population in which at least 50 if not 65 percent were living on the edge of subsistence, unsure each day as to where they would find an adequate supply of food, a population in which at least 25 percent were chronically underfed?14

The teaching on justification by grace offered in Holy Baptism, its explication as alien righteousness and proper righteousness, and the image of Christ the servant who fed and healed thus offered the foundation for an alternative understanding and practice of charity, a practice that was realized in the reform of social assistance.

An Experiment in Charity

With his Wittenberg colleagues, Luther asked for the suppression of monastic and mendicant houses because, in their eyes, religious life was viewed as a holier form of Christian life and thus superior to that of the baptized lay person who lived in the world. But with that suppression, the thousand-year network of social welfare administered by religious orders was dismantled in one fell swoop. Thus, there emerged from parishes and towns that accepted “evangelical” or Lutheran reforms, a body of legislation called the “church order” (Kirchenordnung), which transferred responsibility for social welfare to city councils and congregations, a religious and a civic initiative. The city of Wittenberg approved the earliest church order in 1522, an order that called for the reform of the liturgy and social assistance.15

At the same time, the people of Leisnig, south of Wittenberg, asked Luther for advice as they created an order for the reform of the Mass and the reform of welfare. Luther’s Preface to the Ordinance of a Common Chest and the Fraternal Agreement on the Common Chest of the Entire Assembly at Leisnig became the foundation of many other early Lutheran church orders.16 Their proposal recognized a relationship between communal worship and social welfare: the ensemble of words and actions called the Mass mediated the presence of the wounded and risen Christ who nourished the community through the word of God and the Holy Communion. The Leisnig community also claimed that the reformed Mass oriented them for daily living and inspired a charitable project of structured generosity in their city. In his Preface to the Ordinance, Luther praised the community for establishing a new order of common worship and a common fund or chest inspired by Luke’s description of the early Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles. Set next to and flowing from “the breaking of the bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), Luther invoked the charitable work of the early Christians: “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45). Next to the proclamation of the gospel of grace and the free, nondiscriminatory, and equitable sharing of the Lord’s Supper was set the sharing of all things with those most in need.17

The Leisnig assembly thus established a common chest, an actual chest in which deposits were made of incomes drawn from Masses for the dead (Masses brought to an end in Leisnig), donations from townspeople and farmers, the sale of monastic properties and treasures, and the imposition of a municipal tax upon all citizens. A board of directors elected by the people and representing the various socio-economic classes in the region supervised the distribution of funds and food. “All gifts and loans from the common chest [are to] be made in Christian charity to all the needy in the land, be they noble or commoners,” wrote Luther. “Now there is no greater service of God than Christian love which helps and serves the needy, as Christ himself will judge and testify at the Last Day, Matthew 25:31–46.”18 The funds of the common chest were distributed to orphans in newly founded orphanages, poor children, the elderly who had no familial support, the chronically sick who needed shelter, food, and medical assistance, the homeless, and the hungry poor. For those who became unemployed, funds were allocated for job retraining and loans were offered to assist them and their families as they learned a new trade. Inspired by the biblical story of Joseph, who supervised a large supply of Egyptian grain, the Leisnig assembly allocated funds to purchase and store grain for the general welfare of the entire city in the event of flood or drought. As well, the fund supported newly created schools open to all children in the city and surrounding rural area.19

Comparative Views of Charity

In effect, the Leisnig project became the model of structured generosity that was implemented throughout Lutheran regions of Germany and Scandinavia. Many of the church orders continue to be collected, archived, and translated. Together they comprise a remarkable corpus of charitable initiatives that reordered social assistance as a communal and civic responsibility shared by the citizens of a city or a region. How these many church orders shaped poor relief and the eventual secularization of charitable activity in Lutheran regions and countries holds potential for future research, thus drawing attention to the biblical, sacramental, and ethical sources of contemporary state-sponsored social assistance, sources often forgotten or overlooked in the contemporary era as church influence declines.

Of equal interest is how early Lutheran initiatives compared to those sponsored by Catholic and Reformed communities.20 In Catholic regions, the reform of charity was marked by the emergence of urban religious orders focused solely on care of the urban poor and indigent. At the same time, these orders, in particular the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), encouraged and organized wealthy citizens to sponsor various charitable efforts.21 Little stigma was attached to poverty, since Catholic spirituality honored the poverty of Jesus and the many ascetic saints who claimed imitation of the poor Christ. There was little interest among Catholics in ceding charitable initiatives to government, in contrast to their eventual secularization in Lutheran and Reformed territories.

While Luther and his followers banned begging for theological reasons (i.e., almsgiving earned no merit God’s eyes) and provided assistance through the church orders for unemployed persons, the Reformed tradition inspired by John Calvin demanded that all who are capable must work: no begging and no charity without work. Indeed, the Calvinist teaching on predestination inspired Reformed Christians to look for tangible signs of such election, which were frequently associated with a morally rigorous life that sustained hard work and financial success. Thus, it was not difficult to interpret achievement in secular work and the accrual of great wealth as signs of one’s election; but what, then, of the poor? Were the poor and needy damned by virtue of their alleged laziness and what some called their “sinful” behavior—their failure to sustain hard work?22 Consequently, in regions that came under Reformed influence, the workhouse became a dominant symbol of social assistance in which charity was construed as state-enforced work. For Catholics, the alms box served as a symbol of charity; for Lutherans, the common chest; and for the Reformed, the workhouse. Do these differing theological views continue to shape, often subtly and unconsciously, contemporary views of social assistance, especially in areas influenced by European and American colonialism?

The spread of Lutheran charitable endeavors in the 16th century and the history of charity in Lutheran regions remain relatively unknown in academic and ecclesial circles. While chronicles of charitable initiatives have appeared over the past 500 years as a sort of admiring if not apologetic narrative, the scholarly study of Lutheran charity has been minimal in comparison to the work accomplished in Catholic charities. That the followers of Luther readily accepted his invitation to let “faith become active in love” is well known through the work of the Lutheran World Federation, Lutheran World Relief, and the many national agencies that promote Lutheran social assistance. Yet how these initiatives emerged throughout the world, how they have been embodied differently in light of cultural histories, social values, and challenges, and how they have been aligned with or opposed to state policies and practice remain areas of inquiry yet to be explored fully.

Luther on Social Ethics

One strains to find a systematic construction of theology or ethics in Luther’s writings. Perhaps his most ordered treatment is found in the Large Catechism, published in 1529, in which he comments on the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Holy Baptism, and Holy Communion. A close reading of his commentary will disclose an ethical sensibility flowing from the core elements of his reform. At the same time, the student of Luther must gather fragments of his thought scattered throughout sermons, biblical commentaries, hymns, liturgical texts, treatises, letters, and the artwork he commissioned. As a student of the medieval university and the humanist project, he was familiar with the scholastic study of moral philosophy (while rejecting most of its Aristotelian foundation) and the humanists’ desire to incorporate the study of ethics in university curricula. He would not have been familiar with the term “social ethics.” And yet, the reformer wrote and preached on many of the pressing social issues of his day: military service, the legitimacy of war, political authority, the economic and social obligations of rulers, medical assistance during epidemics, literacy and education for the poor, marriage and sexuality, banking practices, mercantile capitalism, business and trade practices.

Luther rejected two competing strains of reform and their views of social issues. On the one hand, he opposed the Radical stream of 16th-century reform with its insistence on adult baptism as initiation into a Christian community that viewed the dominant culture as profoundly corrupted by sin. Luther did not accept their pacifism, profound suspicion of political authority, refusal of public service, community of shared goods, and vivid manifestations of the Holy Spirit. In his eyes, the Radicals were tempted to form a lay version of the Catholic religious order he had left and suppressed, which he considered a community of the spiritually elite who transformed God’s gift of justification into a human decision and action. On the other hand, he was deeply suspicious of the Reformed dream of transforming society into a theocratic reality in which biblical law would replace civil law and Christian ministers would become the de facto rulers of society in their role as interpreters of scripture. Neither Christian withdrawal from society nor the Christian imposition of biblical law would do. Both reforming strains alarmed him because they presented in his mind a return to the late medieval ethos he set out to reform: Christian elitism and the transformation of gospel into law. The reformer’s understanding of the human being as caught in the urge toward self-aggrandizement (incurvatus in se) prompted his suspicion of both experiments.23

Luther offered a third way influenced by his social context. While he recognized the Jewish minority in “Christian” Europe, albeit with devastating anger, and opposed the Ottoman (thus Muslim) military advance toward Europe, his known world was largely Christian. After all, many Christian rulers supported his reforms, and a cadre of “evangelical” pastors was developing in the many regions that had become Lutheran. In this context, Luther distinguished between the kingdom or government of Christ, in which the gospel is preached and the sacraments are celebrated by the church’s pastors, and the kingdom or government of the world, in which civil law governs and agents of the law (e.g., rulers, judges, magistrates, city councils) attend to the economic, political, and social well-being of the people. Neither withdrawing from society nor establishing a theocracy, this third way encouraged Christians to engage and influence their civic or temporal leaders with the values of the gospel: persuasion was preferred to withdrawal or coercion.24

As some contemporary scholars have argued, Luther’s distinction between the two governments, while theologically helpful, ran the risk of cultivating ecclesial quietism in the face of life-threatening economic and social practices employed by political leaders allergic to persuasion and caring little for the gospel of mercy.25 Aware of National Socialist atrocities, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wondered if German passivity was cultivated by a distinction between church and world that was too idealistic or simply out of date.26 In The Freedom of a Christian, which he considered his greatest work, Luther argued that that faith bestows freedom—freedom from conformity to church laws and the law of “works” to gain divine favor; faith also offers freedom to serve the neighbor through loving care. Such emphasis on love for the neighbor—the hungry, thirsty, sick, illiterate, unemployed, and migrant neighbor—animated charitable activity.

What, then, of the conditions or institutions that produce human misery, suffering, and injustice? Is it possible that Luther’s emphasis on charity and its subsequent center in Lutheran social assistance eclipsed his writings on the various factors that produce human misery? Does this point to a lacuna in Luther studies: overlooking those writings on the Christian in society, writings that have infrequently entered the curricula of universities and seminaries?

The reformer’s writings that can be classified under the term “social ethics” reveal Luther’s awareness of the conditions that diminish the “life, health, and salvation” Christ desires for all creation.27 Indeed, these writings hold a variety of questions asked by the reformer, questions that expand his sense of social and ethical issues. For instance, are the poor the anonymous objects of Christian charity, essentially insignificant in the dispersal of financial contributions? Are they able to express their needs among those who seek to assist them? Does a charitable distribution of funds benefit the reputation of the donor rather than call attention to the deplorable plight of the poor, homeless, and hungry and why they suffer so terribly? In times of crisis—drought, famine, war, natural disasters, and epidemics—is it the responsibility of political leaders to act swiftly and generously as advocates for those who suffer, especially those who have no means to recover from the effects of human-made or natural disasters? Should the Christian voice be heard publicly and in protest when lobbyists line the pockets of political leaders in order to direct their attention solely to the interests of businesses or corporations? Who will prevent bankers from charging injurious interest rates on loans, allowing the bankers to keep in perpetual servitude those who need a home, seek to start a small business, or respond to an unexpected crisis? Is it not the duty of political leaders to regulate banks and thus prevent corrupt banking practices? In a state of emergency (e.g., war or natural disaster), who will stop merchants and corporations from artificially increasing prices on basic necessities? Should the gift of water, given freely and abundantly by God to the whole creation, be controlled by private interests and sold for a high price? Who will ensure an equitable sharing of food and drink based on need rather than social status or wealth? If the goal of mercantile capitalism is the accrual of unlimited amounts of capital or wealth by the individual or the corporation alone, has this economic system not become a new god who demands the heart’s loyalty? “Greed,” wrote Luther, “is a disobedient and unbelieving scoundrel, a ravenous consumption of what rightly belongs to all.”28

Given the many questions Luther raised concerning the economic, political, and social conditions that produced suffering in early modern Germany, it is not surprising to hear him claim that unbelief (Unglaube), failing to entrust oneself to God and God’s commands as they order human life, is the root of all injustice (Ungerechtigkeit) in society (See Eph. 5:5).29 Indeed, in his various commentaries on the Ten Commandments, Luther held together two movements: trust in God expressed in the faithful worship of God (encompassing the first three “theological” commandments) directs the Christian in his or her interactions with others (encompassing the seven “social” commandments). Where there is no living faith that transforms human self-interest into commitment to the well-being of others, there, claimed Luther, greed abounds and “evildoers eat up people just as they eat bread.” Indeed, he claimed that greed and avarice are the manifestations of the self turned in on the self alone, whether that be an individual, a corporation, a church, or a nation. “I have been urged to touch upon these [social] evils and expose them,” he wrote, “so that … at least some people—however few they are—may be delivered from the gaping jaws of avarice. For it must be that some belong to Christ and would rather be poor with God than rich with the devil.”30

It should not surprise students of Luther that one of the primary metaphors he used for the Christian life was battle or struggle: the struggle between grace and sin, between a self-directed and other-directed life, between faith and injustice. Indeed, the spirituality that developed from Luther was marked by the reform of a congenital absorption in self-seeking, a self-seeking of both personal and social dimensions that could be turned toward others by the presence of the indwelling Christ mediated through the word of God and the sacraments of grace. The Christian community is not a haven from the world, he taught, but rather the body of Christ at work in the world, a body in which faith gives birth to love (caritas) and claims solidarity with “the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short, [with] those who suffer.”31

In that solidarity—in the experience of the Christ who suffered with others—the voice of the social prophet emerges. At his death, Luther was acclaimed the Propheta Germania, the prophet of Germany. He was known for giving away his wages to the hungry poor as well as calling into the question the predatory power of institutions that profited from the poor person’s labor. The latter calls out for even greater reflection, study, and action.

Review of the Literature

Since the mid-20th century, European, North American, and Latin American scholars have explored the relationship between the Reformation and changes in charitable activity and social ethics prompted by Anabaptist, Anglican, Calvinist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic schools of reform. Influenced by the New Social History in Britain and North America and the Annales school in France, historical studies of Luther increasingly shed light on the economic, political, religious, and social dimensions of his writings on charity and the concrete application of these writings in various projects: the creation of public schools, the establishment of comprehensive programs of social welfare, and his insistent critique of corporate influence in economic and political institutions. Under the impress of Marxist theory, social historians continue to study poverty, food insecurity, dislocation of populations, popular uprisings, and the economic and political influences that shaped theological reform, the reversal of a standard hermeneutic in Luther studies that focused almost solely on how the reformer’s theological insights influenced economic, political, and social life. Such studies have also challenged a purely theological or apologetic interpretation of Luther’s writings and social projects.

The Radicalizing Reformation project led by the German scholar Ulrich Duchrow has produced five volumes of studies by scholars from around the world that highlight the biblical, sacramental, ethical, and theological questions opened by Luther but “unfinished” in the 16th century; a number of these studies focus on charity and social ethics.32 Indeed, Duchrow has been a leader in reclaiming the social ethical writings of Luther.33 The Brazilian scholar Walter Altmann explores the theological, political, and ethical dimensions of Luther’s liberating tradition in his work on Luther and liberation.34 Carter Lindberg published the first major study in North America on Luther’s revolutionary reform of social assistance.35 His work has inspired others who have reclaimed Luther’s social ethical writings, which have been infrequently studied in schools of theology and seminaries.36 Paul Althaus and, more recently, William Lazareth have produced significant studies of Luther’s theological ethics.37

Further Reading

Althaus, Paul. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Translated by Robert Schultz. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1972.Find this resource:

Altman, Walter. Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective. Translated by Thia Cooper. 2d ed. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016.Find this resource:

Braaten, Conrad, Carter Lindberg, and Paul Wee. The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation. Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Duchrow, Ulrich, and Martin Hoffmann, eds. Radicalizing reformation, vol. 3: Politics and Economics of Liberation/Politik und Okonomie der Befreiung. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015.Find this resource:

Lazareth, William. Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.Find this resource:

Lindberg, Carter. Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993.Find this resource:

Torvend, Samuel. Luther and the Hungry Poor: Gathered Fragments. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.Find this resource:


(1.) For critical biographies of Luther, see Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York and London: Meridien/Penguin, 1995); the three-volume work by Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483–1521, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532, and Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, 1532–1546, trans. James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia and Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985, 1990, 1993); Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015); Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New York: Image Doubleday, 1992).

(2.) A portion of his economic writings is found in “Trade and Usury,” in LW 45:233–310; WA 15:293–322.

(3.) LW 31:33.

(4.) Samuel Torvend, “The Church Fishes for Wealth,” in Luther and the Hungry Poor: Gathered Fragments, ed. Samuel Torvend (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 13–23.

(5.) Luther’s autobiographical fragment, incorporated in the Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin writings (LW 34:336–337; WA 54:179–187), narrates the illumination he received in his study of Paul’s text.

(6.) LW 35:69.

(7.) Martin Luther, Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 158.

(8.) LW 35:54.

(9.) “Because salvation [was] now perceived as the foundation of life rather than the goal and achievement of life, the energy and resources poured into acquiring other-worldly capital [could] now be redirected to this-worldly-activities”; Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 97.

(10.) “Vorrede auff die Epistel S. Paul an die Romer,” in D. Martin Luther: Die gantze Heilige Schrifft Deudsch 1545, vol. 2, eds. Hans Volz and Heinz Blanke (Munich: Roger & Bernhard, 1972), 2254–2268.

(11.) Luther, Basic Theological Writings, 156.

(12.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years: A Reckoning Made at New Year 1943,” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. Robert Coles (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 114.

(13.) LW 35:120.

(14.) See Catharina Lis and Hugo Soly, Poverty and Capitalism in Pre-Industrial Europe (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities, 1979), 53–69. Concerning the study of poverty in late medieval Europe, consider Thomas Riis, ed., Aspects of Poverty in Early Modern Europe I (Alphen aan den Rijn: Sijthoff, 1981), and Aspects of Poverty in Early Modern Europe II: Les réactions des pauvres à la pauvreté (Odense: Odense University Press, 1986); Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 17–67; Friedrich Luetge, “The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries in Social and Economic History,” in Pre-Reformation Germany, ed. Gerald Strauss (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 316–379; Michael Mollat, The Poor in the Middle Ages, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986); Merry Wiesner, “Making Ends Meet: The Working Poor in Early Modern Europe,” in Pietas et Societas: New Trends in Reformation Social History, eds. Kyle Sessions and Phillip Bebb (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1985), 79–88.

(15.) Lindberg, Beyond Charity, 200–202, provides an English translation of the Wittenberg Order.

(16.) LW 45:169–194; WA 12:11–30.

(17.) LW 45:169–176; see Samuel Torvend, “Common Property for All Who Are Needy: Eucharistic Practice in the Midst of Economic Injustice,” in Politics and Economics of Liberation/Politik und Okonomie der Befreiung, eds. Ulrich Duchrow and Martin Hoffmann (Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2015), 139–154.

(18.) LW 45:172–173.

(19.) LW 45:185–191.

(20.) Sigurn Kahl, “The Religious Roots of Modern Poverty Policy: Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed Protestant Traditions,” Archives Européennes de Sociologie 46.1 (2005): 91–126.

(21.) Lance Gabriel Lazar, Working in the Vineyard of the Lord: Jesuit Confraternities in Early Modern Italy (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2005).

(22.) Franz Borkenau, Der Übergang vom feudalen zum bürgerlichen Weltbild: Studien zur Geschichte der Philosophie der Manufakturperiode (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1934/1980).

(23.) Consider Luther’s theological anthropology with its emphasis on the human as curved inward on the self-alone to the exclusion of God and the neighbor: LW 25:291–292, 313, 344–345; WA 56:305–306, 325, 355–356.

(24.) For the classic and now critiqued study of these forms, see H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1951).

(25.) See the critical reviews of Luther’s theory of “Two Kingdoms” in Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics, ed. William Lazareth (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001), 2–30.

(26.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. Reginald Fuller (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 58.

(27.) Those writings include but are not limited to the Lecture on Psalm 82, Lecture on Amos, sermons on The Sermon on the Mount, Treatise on the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body and Blood of Christ and the Brotherhoods, Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, The Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, The Large Catechism, Sermons on the Ten Commandments, Treatise on Good Works, Trade and Usury, Preface to the Ordinance of a Common Chest, The Fraternal Agreement on the Common Chest of the Entire Assembly at Leisnig, and the Admonition to Clergy that They Preach against Usury.

(28.) LW 45:170.

(29.) See Ricardo Reith, “Luther on Greed,” Lutheran Quarterly 15 (2001): 336–351.

(30.) LW 45:241.

(31.) Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years,” 114.

(32.) Duchrow and Hoffmann, Politics and Economics of Liberation.

(33.) Consider Ulrich Duchrow’s contribution to Liberating Lutheran Theology: Freedom for Justice and Solidarity in a Global Context, ed. Karen Bloomquist (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011); Ulrich Duchrow and Franz J. Hinkelammert, Property for People, Not for Profit: Alternatives to the Global Tyranny of Capital (London: Zed, 2004); Ulrich Duchrow, Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action (Utrecht: International Books, 1995, 1998); Ulrich Duchrow and Gerhard Liedke, Shalom: Biblical Perspectives on Creation, Justice and Peace (Geneva, Switzerland: World Council of Churches, 1989).

(34.) Walter Altmann, Lutero e Libertação: Uma releitura de Lutero em perspectiva latino-americana (Sao Paolo: Editora Atica, 1992); published as Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective, trans. Thia Cooper (2d ed.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016).

(35.) Carter Lindberg, Beyond Charity: Reformation Initiatives for the Poor (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993).

(36.) Samuel Torvend, Luther and the Hungry Poor: Gathered Fragments (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008); Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee, eds., The Forgotten Luther: Reclaiming the Social-Economic Dimension of the Reformation (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2016).

(37.) Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, trans. Robert Schultz (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1972); William Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).