Fortress Press, 2008. 169 pp.
The explosion of new research on the New Testament has been a lot of fun for those who read such things. N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, and Ben Witherington III’s Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary are examples of books that have sparked my imagination and challenged long-held notions. Quite frankly I had no idea that the same kind of work was being done on Luther and the Reformation. I had read Richard Marius’ book on Luther, a stinging commentary rife with new insights, but his conclusions seemed so biased (he sees Luther and the Reformation as a tragedy in Western history), that I considered it an interesting read filled with fascinating trivia, but fundamentally flawed in its conclusions.
Samuel Torvend is a member of the Department of Religion at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington, and a former Luther Leaguer in Paul Blom’s first parish. His dad was Paul’s colleague (senior pastor). Torvend digs deep to provide us with new insights on the Reformation, but comes up with completely different conclusions than Marius. Most pastors are tutored in the theological and maybe even the political implications of the Reformation, but Torvend opened my eyes to Luther’s social agenda. I found myself seeing old texts (like the 95 Theses) with new eyes, and looking for applications for congregations today.
Torvend spends some time helping the reader understand the socio-economic realities of late Medieval Saxony. Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences, which spurred the 95 Theses and eventually the Reformation, was not just theological. Who but the wealthy could afford to purchase the paper indulgences that the Church said were necessary for eternal life, when 50-60% of the people were living on the edge of subsistence? Where did this leave the huge population of working poor, landless, destitute, and homeless who could not afford to endow churches, commission religious artwork, or purchase indulgences? That ones place in heaven was determined by one’s wealth on earth was more than Luther could bear, theologically and socially. “Now,” he wrote, “the church fishes for the wealth of men.” Widows, orphans and the hungry poor could not participate in the spiritual economy of the late Medieval Christianity.
The poor would spend money they didn’t have buying themselves and their dead relatives out of purgatory. This spiritual economy actually perpetuated poverty, Torvend argues, by taking resources that could alleviate hunger and homelessness and using it to finance the Church, which already had more wealth than ancient Rome. The Church lifted up poverty as a virtue; Luther saw poverty as a something to be eliminated, not emulated.
The church was using superstition to gain wealth. Luther felt poor Christians should not be using their meager financial resources to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The wealthy should redirect their resources to alleviate poverty as opposed to building mansions in heaven. Christians should be taught that it is better to give to the poor than to buy an indulgence. Those who ignore the poor, he says, and spend their money on church parchment purchase nothing but the wrath of God.
Perhaps Luther, responding to his intense biblical studies, his conscience and his Anfechtung could not have foreseen that challenging the spiritual economy was also challenging market economy of his day and all who benefitted from it. Within a very short time, his ideas would be condemned by those in power. You don’t sock people in the wallet and get away with it.
Luther called for the sale of monastic, mendicant and ecclesial properties, so that the money could be kept in a common chest to be used for the poor. The chest was to be administered by a board of directors that consisted of two people from the parish congregation, two from city council, three town citizens and three peasant farmers. These orders were put in place in Wittenberg and Leisnig within six years of the 95 Theses.
Torvend also shows that all of Luther’s key theological points had social ramifications:
Luther’s theology of the cross meant that God is revealed in the suffering Christ on the cross. God is present where least expected, in humility, shame, weakness, suffering and death. In Luther’s commentary on Matthew 25 we see that Christ invites his followers to encounter him in the hungry, the stranger, the homeless. A church that wants to encounter God must be willing to encounter the suffering in their community.
Luther understood of sin as individuals and communities encurvatus in se (turned in upon themselves). Self-centeredness was inbred, so we should not be surprised that greed usually wins the day, even in the church since we’re all simul Justus et peccator.
Grace is free, passive, alien, but true grace at work in the life of the Christian has the power to turn people and communities inside out (curvatus ad extram). Communities that were not outwardly focused were simply not Christian. Luther critiqued the fraternities of his day as being self-serving. I wonder how our congregations would fare under his scrutiny.
The Sacraments had social and economic implications. Sharing one bread and one cup meant being one body: becoming part of a community that has all things in common so that no one has need. He grieved that many gladly share in the benefits of the sacraments, but were not willing to share in the costs, like serving the poor, working for justice, especially at personal risk. “They are self-seeking persons, whom this sacrament does not benefit.” Luther linked sacramental practice and social welfare. “Learn that this is a sacrament of love.”
While Luther’s early theological writings have had much play (The Freedom of the Christian, Letter to the Christian Nobility, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, but during this same period Luther published works on trade, international commerce, banking practices, state regulation of business and so on. I was impressed to hear Luther critiquing predatory lending, what he calls usury, loaning money at high interest rates, and asking payments that only cover only interest, not principle, so the poor are kept in perpetual poverty.
Torvend pushed many buttons for me. I’ve had many stewardship conversations in past years about how church dollars are used. If I give money to my church, how much of it is used to help those in need? Luther’s critique of human nature holds true: If people come into money they are much more likely to spend it on themselves (we need new carpet after all) than to use for the thousands of people that will starve to death today. Churches fall into the same trap. 50% of a congregation’s income will go pay for pastor and staff in most settings. If another 25-30% goes for facility (mortgage, utilities, repairs, etc.), and 20% is used for program (Sunday school curriculum, paper, copiers, and the like), then only 5-10% is left for giving. As a Christian I have always needed to give to my congregation. As someone who is concerned about poverty, I have always felt a need to give beyond the congregation, since such a small percentage of the congregational budget is used to help those in need.
What percentage of our budgets go to alleviate poverty locally? What percentage is used to alleviate global suffering? How much goes to global mission? (“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”) As a child, I remember our congregation supported a missionary. How many congregations do today? We trust our synod benevolence will handle this for us. But how much is that? If my congregation gives 5% to the synod, and churchwide uses 5% of that for global mission, then only one fifth of a cent is used for global mission for every dollar I put in the plate. I can’t live with this.
What is our generosity quotient of our congregations? How might we limit internal spending so that we can share more? There are congregations that give away 25% of their income, but this is not the norm by any means. This is not to say that all internal spending is self-centered. But it is very easy for any organization to become incurvatus in se. This was Luther’s critique. Too much of Christian “benevolence” was going to make the pope richer. And too much of fraternal spending was just people serving themselves in the name of God.
This book was a delight to read. It educated and challenged me. It alternated between the familiar writings of Luther and some less familiar texts that have been overlooked because we’ve looked at the Reformation with theological tunnel vision. Additionally, the book is sprinkled with delightful woodcuts and other artwork that emphasize the Zeitgeist and what we always underestimate: the unthinkable social, political and economic upheaval that Luther unleashed.