Pastor, theologian, ethicist, ecumenist, bishop: William
Lazareth's lifetime of service in the church is reflected in the
concerns and conclusions of this important book. The theology of
Martin Luther, he contends, endures as a "classical authority" for
the church as it continues to adapt new programs of Christian
social ethics. Focusing on the biblical norms of the Reformer's
theological ethics, Lazareth sees the result to be a pastoral and
hermeneutical "paradigm" for the comprehensive interpretation of
human life. The author seeks to demonstrate that Luther's ethics
and theology were "wholly determined by Scripture" and that they
reflect his Christocentric reading of the Old and the New
 Lazareth acknowledges that the systematic construction of
Luther's theological ethics which he provides was never attempted
by Luther himself, and that much of what the Reformer wrote was
"occasional, polemical, paradoxical, and dense."2 Nevertheless, he presses
forward, convinced of the ethical and ecumenical significance of
his project. "Our proposal," he summarizes, "builds exclusively on
Luther's societal application of God's primal command of love, the
Spirit's ecclesial and vocational sanctification, and the renewed
dominion-sharing service (Gen.1:28) of the universal priesthood of
baptized Christians within the divinely mandated ordinances of
church and society."3
 It is a tribute to the author that a full critical review of
this book would require the competencies represented in Reformation
studies, dogmatic theology, and social ethics. These questions,
therefore, would seem to be appropriate. Does Lazareth's historical
description of Luther's theological ethics reflect current
scholarly consensus or are there significant alternative views?
Does his presentation of Luther's theological views - including
supporting biblical interpretation - remain convincing for our time
or does it contain serious problematical elements? Finally, what is
the usefulness of Lazareth's proposal for the tasks of Christian
social ethics today?
 This review will not respond to all of these questions. It
will offer reflections on several fundamental issues of importance
to theological and social ethics. In so doing the reviewer will
seek to honor the commitment to evangelical theology, the insight
into the life of Christians in society, and the concern for social
justice which characterize the author of this stimulating
 In view of the particular requirements of theological ethics
as it relates to the life of Christians in society, what are some
of the emphases in Lazareth's presentation that demand attention?
The following are problematic for this reviewer.
 General revelation and natural law. Lazareth is fully aware
of the misuse of the notion of general revelation by the "German
Christians" during the Nazi era. He does not abandon the concept,
however, insisting that Luther accepted "a limited general
revelation of God's law in reason, conscience, and nature." This
"universal law of love," though corrupted by sin, can be known
through conscience and right reason, norms all human laws, and
functions in all of God's mandated societal structures. Lazareth
claims that for Luther "natural law (lex naturae) means solely the
revealed law of God the Creator (lex creationis), ultimately love
in its various expressions."4 The political application of
this natural law makes it possible for love to employ reason and
power to attain relative justice and good order in
author joins Luther in claiming Pauline authority (Romans 1:18-23
and 2:12-16) for this understanding of a universally binding and
knowable natural law.
 Natural law is the child of natural theology and functions
as a second source (in addition to the Christ event) of the
knowledge of God. Its adherents insist that the validity of its
requirements can be established independently of that event. They
agree that natural law has no soteriological value, but they claim
that it has moral utility, notably in establishing common ethical
purpose with non-Christians.6 Others, however, object to
this concept on several different levels. They argue that
acceptance of this understanding of law is the first step in moving
inevitably toward a social ethic in which Christological concerns
are absent or at best secondary. They would contend that the
adoption of such a creation-based ethic results in limiting the
lordship of the risen Christ to the consciousness of the individual
believer and the realm of the church. The insistence on a "two-fold
revelation"- a natural universal law and Christ - and their
separate spheres of operation relativizes the inclusive
significance of Christology. In brief, the "kingdom of the left
hand" is excluded from the direct and effective rule of Christ.
Karl Barth has frequently claimed that the covenant of God with
humanity in Christ is the inner meaning of creation, but a social
ethic dependent upon "natural law" can hardly acknowledge
dependence upon either covenant or Christ. Trinitarian theology
would seem to be an accompanying casualty of this approach to
theological ethics.7 There are also predictable
social consequences of this approach. Given the history of the
concept of natural law, it is hard to deny that adherence to a
scheme of natural law would tend to reflect the hegemonic influence
of dominant social groups or, to put it another way, would provide
ample opportunity for the corrupting influence of power and social
 General revelation and biblical ethics. Lazareth presents
Luther's understanding of a pre-fall, primal command of love,
eschatologically restored for Christians, as replacement for the
"historically interim divine law of wrath" in fallen
"Eschatologically" would seem to refer to the Spirit-renewed life
of believers in the present and, further, the restoration of this
primal command as somehow normative for Christian ethics. In other
words, the primal love command is the real foundation of natural
law, a claim that seeks to secure its biblical relationship. That
means that "for Christians, natural law can still regulatively
demonstrate what love alone normatively motivates."9 Lazareth concludes, "While
sin-corrupted reason universally governs all human morality, its
governance by renewing love and guiding natural law is the hallmark
of Luther's theological ethic for righteous
Avoiding any "third use of the law," Lazareth calls for "the second
or parenetic use of the gospel, that is, justifying faith active in
sanctifying love and justice, that the Holy Spirit calls and
empowers us with new gifts to fulfill our new obedience to God's
primal command of love."11 In what does that obedience
consist? "It is the continuous reapplication of the Lord's primal
command of love to ever new situations, and thereby righteously
'making it new,' that distinguishes Luther's contextual and
non-legalistic approach to the natural law embedded in the
 What then of the Mosaic Decalogue and the parenetic material
in the New Testament? What authority do they have? What role do
they play in the moral life? Because of reason's corruption by
original sin, "it became necessary for the Mosaic Decalogue to
clarify, summarize, and rearticulate essential dimensions of the
natural law's witness to God's eschatological command to love
within the human heart."13 The biblical law thus
becomes a "second word," a repetition, and not the first expression
of the command of God. Despite sin, the authority of the natural
law, "written upon the heart," is unchallenged. The Ten
Commandments do provide us with a "mirror of our life," but
"Christians are to obey the moral law of Moses only when he agrees
with the universal natural law of the Creator (Rom.2.14-15). . . .
Then they (the commandments) reveal the eternal love of God's will
(Decalogus est aeterna)."14 And what of the rigorous
ethic of the Sermon on the Mount? Luther, says Lazareth, holds that
"the ethical absolutes of the Sermon on the Mount related only to
disciples in personal relationships with their fellow believers in
the Kingdom of God (Gebot). They do not seek to prescribe moral
conduct for a sinful and unjust society-at-large
Gesetz for the fallen creation, Gebot for the community of the
 Here, indeed, is a slippery slope for theological ethics!
Our concerns are as follows. First, eschatology becomes protology;
the work of the Spirit is to re-establish the primal command of
love for Christians. What of the "newness" that Christ brought and
is? Does the pre-historical, however its truth is to be
established, take precedence over the historical inauguration of
the Kingdom of God in the Christ event? Where is there room for
Christian hope, together with love, in the shaping of our ethical
response to the demanding social situations in which we find
ourselves? While Luther, Lazareth claims, has room for a "gracious
liberation faith," he rejects an "egalitarian social
would seem to follow from the essentially conservative conclusions
of his theological ethics. Secondly, the primacy of natural law
over the biblical expressions of law apparently relies on the
assumption that the instrumentality of human reason and the
intuitions of the human "heart" provide the most reliable access to
God's preserving will for his human creation. This form of
theological subjectivity may give Christians the questionable
advantage of less conflictual accommodation to the prevailing
culture, but in the process they lose their necessary grounding in
both the promise and demand of biblical ethics. In Lazareth's
reading of Luther, does the Word of God - as law and gospel - any
longer refer directly to the biblically-attested law of God?
Thirdly, scriptural attestation for natural law is much more meager
than for explicitly-stated biblical law. (One could argue that in
Romans Paul is more interested in demonstrating universal human
complicity in sin and evil than in establishing a universal basis
for ethical action.) However we deal with the problems of biblical
law (and this seems to be a recurring problem for Lutheran ethics),
does the New Testament really rely on natural law as in some sense
foundational for Christian ethical response? What judges what?
While the commands of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be given
direct juridical standing and political enforcement in
"society-at-large," they certainly can point Christians to the
direction that a just (and, parabolically, an eschatologically
hopeful) society ought to take. Prescription, no; example and
demonstration and encouragement, yes!
 Finally, because of the author's reliance on a
creation-based ethic dependent on natural law, the essential
theological emphases of covenant, Christ, and Kingdom have not
found their rightful and indispensable places in this presentation
of Luther's ethics. Both Christology and eschatology suffer
impoverishment through this approach.
 Nevertheless, this book is an impressive achievement.
William Lazareth has provided all of us with information and
insight, theological stimulus and ethical provocation. Other
reviewers and readers will join the necessary dialogue to which he
summons all who are concerned for the church's social witness and
action. It is true, of course, that this book brings us only to the
beginning stages of our reflections on Christian social ethics
today. That we in the Lutheran Church in the United States have
come even this far, however, is due in large measure to his
writings, his personal example, and his devotion to the theological
and ethical legacy of Martin Luther. We are grateful.
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 2, Issue 3
1 William H. Lazareth. Christians in Society. Luther, the
Bible, and Social Ethics. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).
2 Ibid., 235.
3 Ibid., 199.
4 Ibid., 148.
5 Ibid., 152.
6 See A.D. Mattson. The Social Responsibility of
Christians. Knubel-Miller Lectures for 1960. (Philadelphia: Board
of Publication of the United Lutheran Church in America, 1960.
71,72. "Natural law is a description of the activity of God in his
world. By virtue of its existence, all men can distinguish between
right and wrong - and do so, in a greater or lesser degree. . . .
Only on the basis of what is involved in the concept of natural law
can we find a basis for cooperation for the Christian and the
non-Christian. Only on the basis of some such common agreement
among men can the Christian speak to the social problems and needs
of the world with any degree of hope." Luther drew a similar
conclusion, according to Lazareth, in his evangelical
interpretation of the law: "he makes common cause ethically with
both Jews and all other human beings on whose hearts the essentials
of God's natural law of love are still universally written, in
however sin-corrupted a form." 229.
7 Lazareth may be aware of this danger when, in another
context, he insists that:
"Luther drives the mystery of the relation of faith to love back
into the perichoretic interaction of the three persons of the
Trinity, the external works of whom are indivisible within creation
(opera trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt) (italics added). 187.
Augustine's dictum would also apply to the present lordship of
Christ in both church and society. The one God - Father, Son, and
Spirit - is active in the totality of history, including both of
Luther's two kingdoms."
8 Lazareth. Ibid., 75.
9 Ibid., 225.
10 Ibid., 232.
11 Ibid., 244.
12 Ibid., 229.
13 Ibid., 230.
14 Ibid., 157.
15 Ibid., 166-7.
16 Ibid., 202.