Recovering Luther on the ‘Institutions’ of the Living Word

A review of The Promise of Martin Luther’s Political Theology: Freeing Luther from the Modern Political Narrative
by Michael Laffin (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016), the early form of material submitted to The Expository Times.

Critical genealogies of modernity have brought an excessive set of charges against Martin Luther. Luther allegedly holds a dualistic ‘doctrine of the two kingdoms’, which entails an autonomous political sphere given to authoritarianism; he construes the relation of divine and human agencies competitively, emphasising the ‘passivity’ of the latter while dismissing the possibility of ‘pagan virtue’; his thought is in thrall to nominalism and voluntarism, joint causes of contemporary social fragmentation. For many political philosophers and theologians, such contestable theses have become the received wisdom; nails hardly seem needed to post them.

In a refreshing counter-argument, Michael Laffin claims that such depictions are a ‘caricature’. To demonstrate the incongruity between Luther’s texts and the manner in which he is represented, Laffin focuses on two formidable contemporary projects: John Milbank’s ‘confrontational metaphysical politics’ and Jennifer Herdt’s ‘engaged virtuous politics’. His thesis is that Luther is ‘a resource for the modernity critics rather than a hindrance to be overcome’ (22). Further, he boldly claims that Luther offers ‘a more fully theological political ethics’ than Augustinian traditions which view politics as a necessary constraint on sin or Aristotelian, then Thomistic and Erasmian, traditions which hold a more optimistic portrayal of humans as ‘naturally political animals’ (154). For instance, Luther’s variation on Augustine highlights divine activity by casting societies as ‘not generated in the first instance by human love, but rather by the Word to which humans attend either in faith or in unbelief’ (87).

Posing a ‘genuine alternative’ to these dominant traditions requires serious backing. Laffin rises to the challenge with lucid treatments of Luther’s biblical expositions, including the reformer’s evocative work on Genesis 1-5 and the Magnificat, in order to cast new light on well-known ‘political’ essays. Such primary source work is informed by the interpretive writings of Oswald Bayer, Hans Ulrich, and their students. Laffin is thereby equipped to show both that Luther depicts God holding a ‘unitary, two-fold governance’ (106-7) and that this distinction is relativised by the greater interest Luther shows in the three ‘institutions’— ecclesia, oeconomia, politia (175).

The book’s shift to a political ethics of ‘the three’ is animated by a dynamic theology of the Word and a careful distinction between justification and sanctification. This combination frees the reader to swim against currents in ecclesial and virtue ethics insofar as they disregard these vital elements of Luther’s thinking. Based on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Aberdeen, this is a strong debut by a promising scholar.


© David Robinson, 2018