Misunderstanding the cultural influence of the Reformation


The cultural influence of the Reformation is getting lots of attention on this 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses.  But the topic is often treated with a theological ignorance that is surprising to find in works of scholarship.

The Nation has a long article on the subject, quoted and linked after the jump, which is essentially a review essay of several new books on Luther and Protestantism.   As the article observes, the Reformation is often credited or blamed for opposite influences:  for a new personal piety and for the rise of secularism; for recovering the Bible and for launching modernity; for the rise of individualism and for the rise of the nation state; for inventing freedom and for capitalist oppression, etc., etc.

The article by Elizabeth Bruenig, drawing on the books she is reviewing, says that what Luther did was to make religion a private, inward matter.  Whereas the external world–including the state, the society, the economic order–was irrelevant spiritually.  Therefore, it was allowed to run along on its own without a religious context (as in Catholicism).  Thus the rise of secularism, modernity, science, and a world that does not need to consider God.

Meanwhile, the inner spiritual life that Luther encouraged had the additional effect of questioning all external authority, making a space for freedom and undermining institutions, which also had a secularizing and eventually revolutionary effect.

But this analysis, while citing Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms,  completely misunderstands what it means–to the point of interpreting it to mean its opposite.  And it utterly ignores one of Luther’s greatest and most culturally influential theological contributions, the place where he directly addressed the value of the “secular” realm and to the role it plays in the Christian’s faith; namely, his doctrine of vocation.

What other examples of theological illiteracy do you see in this article?  (Hint:  Did Luther really teach a theology based on inwardness, with individuals going inside themselves for a purely interior relationship with God?)

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Run it like a business?

business-1137397_640President Trump is reported to be understandably frustrated that the government can’t be run like a business.  In his company, Trump could simply given an order and his underlings would do it.  But as president, he gives an order but he has to contend with the courts, Congress, semi-independent agencies such as the Pentagon, a vast bureaucracy, and state governments, each with its own complicated workings.

I’ve listened to a pastor explain how he is trying to run his church like a business.  He is the CEO, he explained.  His members are his employees.  He said he doesn’t do hospital visitations or evangelism calls.  That is the work of his members/employees.

I do think the government and churches can learn some things from businesses.  For example, you need to balance the budget, be efficient, give good service, etc.  But the very nature of these institutions prevents them from being interchangeable in the way they operate.  [Read more…]

Vocation as the foundation of culture

I learned some things at the Two Kingdoms conference I spoke at, sponsored by Jordan Cooper at Just and Sinner.  Jordan commented that our vocations–in the family, the economy, the church, and the state–are no less than the foundations of culture.

He studied the first chapters of Genesis and concluded that the so-called “cultural mandate” (by which human beings are given the authority and the ability to rule the earth), should more properly be called the “vocational mandate.”

UPDATE:  You can hear Jordan’s complete presentation here.

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