Luther’s Ethic In Present Day Crisis -- By: Gotthold Müller

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 16:4 (Fall 1973)
Article: Luther’s Ethic In Present Day Crisis
Author: Gotthold Müller

Luther’s Ethic In Present Day Crisis

Gotthold Müller*

The title of this essay could cause the reader some misgivings; these misgivings could occur on a variety of levels. Let me articulate some of them. First, what does Luther have to do with today’s world? Have we not often made Luther a Protestant Pope who could speak on any given topic with a unique kind of authority? Second, what does Luther’s theology have to do with ours? He was, after all, a medieval man. He read the Scriptures differently than we do today. Third, Luther’s ethical concerns were different from ours! Luther formulated his ethic from the spirit of the Gospel in contradistinction to the work-righteousness of the Middle Age. Ethics meant for him the counter-part or result of the Gospel and not accomplishments of designated “good works.” Finally, we must notice, no matter where we stand theologically, or in what church tradition, that his situation was radically different from ours. He lived in a world which was permeated throughout by Christian and religious thought. The institutional church had a monopoly even on the realms of science and politics.

Can a bridge between ourselves and Luther be constructed? Perhaps it is only confessional narrowness or stubbornness that is behind our assertion of dependence on Luther. Have we become guardians of “Luther museums”? Nothing dare be lost because it is a valued rarity and antiquity? But if it is old, does it have anything to say today? We must face these questions and these misgivings, even though such a confrontation may not be very comfortable. The acceptance of this confrontation prevents us from looking at Luther in a simple and routine way. We must not use Luther thoughtlessly by citing his thought out of context so that we can use him to support our own preconceived positions and opinions. Luther’s thought must not be diluted into small “portions” and then used arbitrarily.

With these cautionary thoughts in mind, let us proceed step by step and attempt to get at Luther’s ethic. First, we want to discover its center; second, we want to examine how this center can speak to our situation with reference to present day life and decision-making. Doing it this way, we shall avoid prematurely “actualizing” and “modernizing” Luther. This approach shall enable us to remember Luther’s essential insights as we focus on the question: “To what extent do Luther’s insights bind and obligate Its today?”

*Prof. Dr. Gotthold Muller (Dr. Theol.-Marburg; Dr. Theol. Habil.-Basel; LiC. Theol.-Copenhagen; Dr. Phil.-Vienna). Dr. Muller is presently Professor of Protestant Theology at Wurzburg University, West Germany. This essay was translated by Dr. Manfred Kwiran, Assistant Professor of Theology, Concor...

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