I begin my review of this estimable book with a quibble over
the title. "Social ethics," in William Henry Lazareth's usage in
this book, refers to the embodiment of Christian moral convictions
in the time-bound culture of any given age. As such, Christian
theological ethics need not, and in some cases, ought not, be
beholden to those relative formulations. Theological ethics are far
less time- and space-bound than social ethics (222). If that is the
case, then this book is about theological ethics, not social
ethics. Lazareth's intent is to draw theological and moral notions
from Luther's writing that are perennially relevant to all
Christians, but especially to Lutherans. Thus, "theological ethics"
should have been substituted for "social ethics" in the title.
 That said, Lazareth deserves high praise for the great
contribution this book makes to the education of a new generation
of Lutheran scholars, pastors, and theologically interested
laypersons. Few persons in these last twenty years have delved into
Luther's writings on ethics with the thoroughness and erudition
that William Lazareth has demonstrated in this book. Others may
indeed be capable of this kind of scholarly work but none have
pulled it off. This is as full and systematic an account of
Luther's theological ethics as we have had in English in a
 He begins the book by introducing a new generation to the
controversies over Lutheran ethics-the critiques of Troelstch,
Barth, Heckel, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Most of these have been
forgotten as the church has moved on to other issues, but it is
important to bring them up again, to discern how others have
critically viewed our heritage. Such discernment has helped us to
develop stronger approaches to theological ethics, as this book,
along with many others, demonstrates. My graduate school years were
spent grappling with a number of these critiques. Lazareth's
account of them brings back vivid memories of us Lutherans trying
to demonstrate to our fellow students that Lutheran ethics was not
an oxymoron. Alas, that task is not yet complete.
 The author then moves to the substance of his account. He
begins with the biblical and theological bases of Luther's ethical
writings, proceeds to examine Luther's view of God's Law before and
after the Fall, outlines how Luther interprets the two uses of the
Law-the political and theological-and concludes with how Luther
develops the two uses of the Gospel in the Christian life. He adds
an afterword in which he takes up continuing controversies over the
two kingdoms doctrine and over the third use of the Law.
 Lazareth admits that his attempt to systematize Luther is
unsuccessful because Luther's writings themselves were "occasional,
polemical, paradoxical, and dense" (235). Luther remarked toward
the end of his life that his work as a theologian was the product
"not of reading and speculation, but living, dying, and being
condemned" (235). Yet, oddly enough, or should I say,
unsurprisingly enough, Lazareth tends to make Luther's theological
ethics sufficient unto itself.
 Implicit in the book is a kind of Lutheran chauvinism that
elevates Luther to the be-all and end-all of Lutheran ethics, if
not of Christian ethics. It's as if we need no one else. Indeed, if
we get Luther straight we also have Paul straight, and who could
ask for anything more? It is instructive that after Lazareth lays
out the sharp criticisms of thinkers like Barth and Niebuhr in the
first chapter, he concludes, not that we should and could learn
something from them, but rather that such critiques have finally
driven us "back to the biblical foundations of Luther's theological
ethics" (30). In addition to this clarification of what Luther
really argued, perhaps we need help from our fellow Christians in
developing our Lutheran ethics.
 Moreover, this chauvinism leads to formulaic stereotyping of
other theological ethical perspectives that is irritating, if not a
bit embarrassing. Pietism is tersely categorized as "demonstrable
ethical perfectionism" (201). Reformed perspectives are neatly
summed up as "Calvinistic puritanical legalism" (240) or
"legalistic activism" (241). These neat characterizations are often
not terribly accurate nor do they make for good conversation with
those who hold different perspectives. But if Luther is sufficient
for Lutheran ethics, then we don't need such conversations.
(Actually, I suspect some of the material in the book dates from
the author's seminary teaching in which such shorthand analyses are
helpful in getting seminarians to understand competing positions.
However, they aren't helpful in a scholarly conversation that takes
other perspectives seriously. Of course, Lazareth knows all this,
witness his fine work in ecumenical dialogue. His later history
makes these characterizations seem out of place.)
 More seriously, Lazareth's account of Luther, which is no
doubt accurate, reveals Luther's recklessness with regard to the
Old Testament, as if it is not really needed for Christian ethics.
Luther writes "This text (of the First Commandment, Ex. 20:1),
makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us.
For God never led us out of Egypt, but only the Jews" (157).
Lazareth even employs the awful phrase, "de-Judaized Decalogue," to
talk of Luther's appropriation of the Ten Commandments (152). There
seems to be a whiff of Marcionism in Luther's ethical construal of
the Old Testament. In my opinion we need those Old Testament moral
roots very badly. Without them Christian morality can easily drift
off into an airy antinomianism, as seems to be happening today.
("All you need is love.") Lutheran ethics needs help from the Old
Testament, which is an essential part of our Christian narrative,
not only that of the Jews.
 In Luther's view we are to accept the Old Testament
Decalogue only if it jibes with the "universal natural law," which
is written on the heart of all humans. That might have been all
well and good in the late Middle Ages when reason and natural law
were embedded within a Christian worldview, but such a confident
and exalted notion of the "universal natural law" hardly carries
the day in the contemporary world. Pope John Paul II seems to have
a more solid approach when he argues that finally, for Christians,
the natural law is revealed most clearly in the Biblical narrative.
I suspect we ought to follow the Pope on this score rather than
Luther. Maybe we need help from the Pope in developing a
contemporary Lutheran ethic.
 Finally, it seems to me that Luther's ethics needs ongoing
reflection, interpretation, and revision by Lutherans as we grapple
with other Christian traditions and with the challenges before us.
This need is obvious when you observe the massive untidiness of
Luther's construal of Christian love in the Christian life.
Sometimes Luther sounds as if his ethic is purely dispositional-the
Gospel transforms our wills so that our spontaneous love
automatically does the right thing (232). What, then, of actions
that take careful deliberation about ambiguous issues? Do they lose
their Christian character because they are not spontaneous?
 At other times Luther sounds as if Christian love is an
ordered love. "The Ten Commandments also cease, not in the sense
that they are no longer to be kept or fulfilled, but in the sense
that the office of Moses in them ceases; it no longer increases
sin" (230). After all, when Luther explicates the Christian life he
amplifies the positive meanings of the Ten Commandments along with
their negative bite (226). Yet Lazareth vehemently denies a third
use of the Law (239ff.). But what is Luther's explication of the
Ten Commandments but a "necessary guide for producing good works by
regenerated Christians," which is Lazareth's definition of the the
third use (239)?
 Sometimes Luther's ethics seems radically situational-the
Christian does what the neighbor needs. But what does the neighbor
need? Sometimes it is obvious; many times it is not, as any parent
knows when dealing with children. At other times Luther argues that
we simply do the duties that our worldly roles thrust at us, only
we do them gladly and better. There seems to be no transformative
effect on our worldly places of responsibility.
 All of this is meant to corroborate Lazareth's remark that
attempting to synthesize Luther's ethical writings tests one sorely
(238). In my view it is impossible to do so. In order for
Lutheranism to have a coherent ethical tradition we have critically
to extend and complement Luther with other sources, both modern and
ancient. We need to appropriate insights from Catholic and Reformed
thought, among others, as we construct a contemporary Lutheran
ethics. (Of course, this assumes that the ELCA will find a place
for authoritative moral teaching in its life, an assumption that is
not at all obvious.)
 Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we jettison
the basic theological and moral framework that Luther has
bequeathed us. If we are to continue to call ourselves Lutheran, we
have to pay serious heed to what William Lazareth has researched so
well for us. But we are not sufficient unto ourselves. We are a
reforming movement within the church catholic. We need the church
© March 2002
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 2, Issue 3