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“The Ethics of Martin Luther” Book Review

imageBook review of The Ethics of Martin Luther by Paul Althaus, translated by Robert C. Schultz. Augsberg Fortress Press, 1972. Retail: $18.00.

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Most of literature I have read on Martin Luther quickly brushes over his “Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms” likely because it is difficult to understand and to explain. Not so with Paul Althaus’ work The Ethics of Martin Luther originally written in German in 1965, but available for us monolingual Americans as well in a 1972 translation by Robert C. Schultz. Althaus’ primary focus is an explanation of Luther’s “Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms” – Luther’s view on the role of government and its relationship to Christians.

It is couched in the understanding of the Doctrine of Justification that Luther forms his Ethics. It is because of the freedom we have in Christ through his death on the cross for our sake that we are not burdened by God’s ethical demands. We are not called to be ascetics or moralizers, but to be free to love God and our neighbor.

Althaus writes, “Thus faith sets the Christian free. He is free to do his work with joy, in contrast to slavish worry, insecurity, and unhappiness of the man who has no faith, doubts how he stands with God, and does not know how he will satisfy God.”

The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is to Luther’s way to explain the relationship of man to government. This doctrine should be of particular interest to Libertarian Christians as Luther argues for the separation of Church and State (against the Roman model of the times) and for government to be limited to its proper Biblical roles of punishing evildoers and keeping order in society.

Luther’s views can be summarized as follows:

1) Government is to punish evildoers (as the Left hand kingdom of God).
2) The church, The Right Hand Kingdom, is not to be involved in government itself, but in preaching the gospel.
3) The church and the government shouldn’t cross roles. People are never to be coerced into belief.
4) Christians must submit to the governing authorities. Christians should never rebel against a government even when the government commits crimes.
5) A person should never use violence as a person, but it is allowed when used in its office. This “office” can be either in the government (executioner, judge, soldier, etc) or in the family (the parents).
6) Laws should be formed by “reason.”
7) Christians are not necessarily better at government than non-Christians.
8) There is no “best” form of government.

Althaus also does a superb job explaining Luther’s views on vocation, marriage, and economics. His views on economics obviously predate marginal utility theory by centuries so he shouldn’t be condemned to strongly for suggesting a way of arriving at a reasonable price based on the cost of materials and the risk taken by the businessman. Despite this view, Luther argues “that Christ has not given us specific direction in the area of buying and selling but has left the regulation of this area to reason.”

I recommend Althaus’ Ethics of Martin Luther for its in-depth treatment of the difficult areas of Luther’s ethics. The book wasn’t persuasive enough to convince me of all of Luther’s views on government, but significantly improved my understanding.

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