Lessons from Luther on Christian social teaching for Reformation Day

While a good portion of Indianapolis will be dressing up as ghosts, witches, vampires, and other creatures to ask for sweets from their neighbors next Tuesday, the Lutheran community will be celebrating Reformation Day. The festival commemorates the day the German monk and church reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Saxony, in hopes that it would spark debate over the Catholic Church practice of selling indulgences, which were meant to relieve the temporal punishment of sin. As such, it is traditionally dated as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. 

“The true Christian Church is founded upon the enduring Word of the Lord, and endures forever because the Word endures forever. This Church is always in need of reformation,” said Pastor Seth Mierow of St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church (LCMS). “Back to the source of truth, the source of life, the source of forgiveness and salvation… always back to the Word of the Lord, the sole source and norm of all Christian doctrine for faith and life.” 

St. Peter’s will be hosting a celebratory Divine Service at 7 p.m. on Tuesday for the Indianapolis community to attend, with Gemütlichkeit (a party) afterwards. The LCMS-U at IUPUI, which meets every Monday at 12:00 pm in the Campus Center cafeteria to discuss the writings of Lutheran theologians, will also be in attendance. 

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In view of the holiday, The Collegiate Commons took a look at some Lutheran contributions to Christian social teaching and economic thought.

At the time, theology was considered the “queen of the sciences,” so it should not be surprising that a popular theologian and minister like Luther would comment on things stretching from philosophy to economics and political theory.

Rejection of Usury and Manipulative Inflation

While many students have likely felt the weight of the 6.5 percent overall inflation in 2022, Luther had some strong words to say about the likely around 1.5 percent inflation faced by the Holy Roman Empire in 1529.

“How much trouble there is now in the world only on account of bad coin,” he said in his Large Catechism, “yea, on account of daily oppression and raising of prices in common trade, bargaining and labor, on the part of those who wantonly oppress the poor and deprive them of their daily bread!”

Inflation in the modern day is due to a number of causes, some of which include “​​volatility of energy prices, backlogs of work orders for goods and service caused by supply chain issues due to COVID-19, and price changes in the auto-related industries,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve also points to government spending as a source of inflation. 

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, the price of candy also rose by about 13 percent and the price of beer rose about 5.9 percent this year, while real wages decreased by about 1.1 percent, making celebrating both Halloween and Reformation Day more financially strenuous. Indiana has the 18th highest demand for candy of any state in the nation, albeit the 11th lowest demand for beer. 

Inflation during the time of the Reformation, however, was largely due to the influx of new gold and silver from the Americas into Europe by the Spanish. The King of Spain, Charles V, was also the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Additionally, Europe in general was dealing with a great deal of population growth, which also contributed to inflation. 

Alongside these causes of price increase, an emerging capitalist economy in Europe brought lending, especially exploitative lending, or usury to the forefront.

“Usury lives off the bodies of the poor,” said Luther.

To combat this, Luther implemented the Wittenberg Church Order of 1522, which provided for interest-free loans and certain welfare policies.

“He who has nothing to live should be aided. If he deceives us, what then? He must be aided again,” he said, in response to those who pointed out that the system could be taken advantage of.

Two Kingdoms

Luther also articulated the doctrine that there are two kingdoms, spiritual (the church), and temporal (the nation), which are rightfully separate and have distinct roles in society.

“God has therefore ordained two regiment(s): the spiritual which by the Holy Spirit produces Christians and pious folk under Christ, and the secular which restrains un-Christian and evil folk, so that they are obliged to keep outward peace, albeit by no merit of their own.”

This attempt to define distinct spheres of authority and purpose of governing authorities would later be taken up by Dutch statesman and neo-Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper, forming the basis of the doctrine of sphere sovereignty.

“An earthly Sovereign possess[es] the power to compel obedience only in a limited circle,” Kuyper said, “a circle bordered by other circles in which another is Sovereign.”

Similar to the Catholic conception of subsidiarity, it became an essential part of Christian social teaching.

The doctrine of Christian vocations and relational economics

The doctrine of Christian vocations (seen in the table of duties in Luther’s Small Catechism), as another example of Luther’s theological commentary leaking into economics, framed every job, whether that be a shoemaker or a priest, as a ministry of service to the neighbor, of equal worth and value. 

“Vocation is ordained by God to benefit, not him who fulfills the vocation, but the neighbor who, standing alongside, bears his own cross for the sake of others,” Luther said, and “the Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

This sort of relational service view of economics eventually found its way into organized Christian social teaching. It stands in contrast to the modern view long considered orthodox by neoclassical economists, that self-interest should be the motivating factor for economic relationships. Instead, Christian social teaching posits a higher role for justice and service to the neighbor in the affairs of men. 

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So, when you are purchasing candy to give to strange children and complaining about inflated prices and the reduction of the labor to ‘cogs in a capitalist machine,’ remember that you could celebrate with a beer afterwards, in true Lutheran fashion.*

*If you are over 21

Note that The Collegiate Commons is a non-sectarian and non-partisan publication, and this article should not be taken as an endorsement of any particular theological tradition by the publication.

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