Orthodoxy and Lutheran Social Thought

“For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.” Colossians 1:19-20

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In 1987, rock star, sex symbol, and later literal symbol Prince released a song replete with apocalyptic overtones: “Sign o’ the Times.” The events of the year provided a powerful backdrop—the AIDS crisis (“In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name”), gang violence, drug addiction, natural disasters (“Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling off a church and killed everyone inside”), desperate poverty and inequality (“A sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it/ And yet we’re sending people to the moon”), the Cold War, and the space shuttle Challenger explosion (“It’s silly, no?/ When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly”). 

Yet in a recent short documentary on the song, commentators expressed bewilderment at Prince’s conclusion:

Sign o’ the times mess with your mind

Hurry before it’s too late

Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby

We’ll call him Nate

If it’s a boy

The song spends three and a half minutes cataloguing all the ways the world is falling apart through tragedy, injustice, and evil, and Prince ends it with an exhortation not to a one-night stand but to family life. What gives?

While in his last fifteen years Prince actually became a Jehovah’s Witness, I think “Sign o’ the Times” embodies one of the core convictions of Lutheran social thought. A saying attributed to Martin Luther, but that more likely comes from the German Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche) that resisted the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s, captures this: “If I knew the world was to end tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.” The statement may not come from Luther, but it represents a more palatable presentation of the sentiment behind the Protestant Reformer’s infamous exhortation to his more mild-mannered friend Philip Melanchthon: “sin boldly.” 

Luther had many faults, and truth be told I think I flatly do not like the man, but to be charitable the idea behind the exhortation is this: The world has fallen into sin. Rather than deny that reality, admit that one is a sinner and only capable of doing good by the grace of Jesus Christ. Despite Luther’s characteristically bombastic rhetoric, it is actually an exhortation to do good, whatever the “sign o’ the times” may be in our world lying in darkness. Hence, he concludes that one ought to “pray boldly,” knowing oneself to be a sinner. It is an ethic flowing from the central Reformation doctrine of justification by faith.

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While there are significant differences between an Orthodox understanding of salvation and certain core Protestant commitments, one must acknowledge that Luther, among others, explicitly rejected any antinomian interpretation of his soteriology, writing that “good works neither can nor ought to be absent” from the Christian life. All need Christ, and through faith the sinner receives Christ’s righteousness, which cannot but bear good fruit. Bemoaning the clericalism of his day, he argued that “all we who believe on Christ are kings and priests in Christ,” expanding the idea of vocation to all walks of life. 

Regarding the sacred character of everyday work, with direct application to the “social question” of how best to serve the poor today, Luther wrote, “It is the part of a Christian to take care of his own body for the very purpose that, by its soundness and well-being, he may be enabled to labour, and to acquire and preserve property, for the aid of those who are in want, that thus the stronger member may serve the weaker member, and we may be children of God, thoughtful and busy one for another, bearing one another’s burdens, and so fulfilling the law of Christ.” As Lutheran theologian Gene Edward Veith put it, for Luther “the purpose of every vocation is to love and serve our neighbors.”

Moving from Luther to the Confessing Church responsible for the apocryphal saying about the apple tree, we can see how this understanding of vocation fits into a broader theology of society in the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s times were far more apocalyptic than Prince’s. He witnessed vast swaths of Christians fall captive to a fascism and antisemitic conspiracy theories that led to one of the largest mass murders in human history. Indeed, Martin Luther’s own violent antisemitism was literally put on a pedestal by the Nazis

Bonhoeffer and others like him put the Protestant ideal of semper reformanda above further perpetuating this darkest legacy of the first Reformer. Today nearly all—if not all—Lutheran churches and organizations not only reject antisemitism but explicitly disavow Luther’s antisemitic works. In hindsight, the German Confessing Church won the war, even if they lost the battle in their own day, in some cases costing them their very lives. In fact, Bonhoeffer was arrested for his involvement in the Abwehr resistance and executed at Flossenbürg concentration camp just two weeks before its liberation by Allied forces.

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Following the Lutheran rejection of a strict sacred and secular divide, Bonhoeffer argued in his Ethics, his unfinished magnum opus, that in Christ the world, despite all its darkness, has been reconciled to God. Thus: “A world which stands by itself, in isolation from the law of Christ, falls victim to licence [sic] and self-will. A Christianity which withdraws from the world falls victim to the unnatural and the irrational, to presumption and self-will.”

For Bonhoeffer, building upon the Lutheran doctrines of the three creational estates and natural law, this reconciliation finds expression in four divine mandates: “labour [elsewhere ‘culture’], marriage, government and the Church.” He uses the term “mandate” because “the word mandate refers more clearly to a divinely imposed task rather than to a determination of being.” It concerns what these institutions ought to do

In particular, labor fulfills the command “‘to dress and to keep’ the Garden of Eden.” It is the mandate of production through all forms of creative work. 

Marriage and the family must fulfill the mandate of procreation, “not only a matter producing children, but also of educating them to be obedient to Jesus Christ.” 

Government must fulfill the mandate of preservation and protection of labor and marriage, since it “presupposes” both as pre-state institutions. “Government cannot itself produce life or values…. It preserves what has been created….” Furthermore, “It protects” the order established by God “by making law to consist in the acknowledgment of the divine mandates and by securing respect for this law by the force of the sword.”

Lastly, the Church is “concerned … with the eternal salvation of the world.” Far from a matter of mere private faith, the Church participates in all other mandates to the extent that Christians participate in them: “it is the Christian who is at once labourer, partner in marriage and subject of a government.” He concludes that “here … all the lines converge in the reality of the body of Jesus Christ, in which God and man became one.”

What can we Orthodox learn from this? For one thing, despite our theological differences, I find it admirable that Lutheran social thought, to the extent Bonhoeffer is representative, puts Jesus Christ clearly in the center, more successfully so, in my assessment, than its Roman Catholic and Neo-Calvinist counterparts. Christ is Savior of all the world from all evil—every Christian should believe this. But finding a framework of action by which to carefully bring the Gospel into dialogue with modern societies and problems is not easy to do well. Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran ethic of four divine mandates only offers an outline, but that outline could serve as a foundation for more faithful reflection and fruitful ministry.

By way of criticism, though the difference may partly be semantic, I have often found Bonhoeffer come close, but fall short, of what the Fathers would say concerning the reconciliation between God and humanity in Jesus Christ. For example, he writes, “Man becomes man because God became man. But man does not become God.” Contrast this with St. Athanasius the Great, who wrote that the Son of God “assumed humanity that we might become God.” 

Both agree that the Incarnation means the recreation of humanity in the image of God, but St. Athanasius is able to theologize boldly (if I may) because an Orthodox understanding of salvation as theosis has more to say than can be said within the limits of a Lutheran framework. That said, Lutherans and others deserve credit for showing us that being able to say more about God ought to empower us to say more about the world he so loves and sent his Son to save. For the time being, however, that must remain the topic for another essay.