Morals and Theology at the start of the Reformation

In the years just before the Reformation, a great number of Christian leaders saw the need for moral reform in Europe. The church was corrupt and the gap between biblical precepts and daily life seemed far too great for an ostensibly Christian society

     Before the Swiss pastor Ulrich Zwingli inaugurated the reformation in Switzerland in 1519, he protested the way young Swiss men signed up in numbers to serve as mercenaries both for the armies of France and the pope. He was a chaplain for Swiss mercenaries of the pope in 1513 and 1515. When he saw young men maimed and killed in battle for modest pay, he attacked the system that destroyed naïve young men while the organizers of war got rich.

     The Reformation came to Zurich in 1519 because Zwingli began to preach through Matthew, then Acts – something no one had done for centuries. As he preached, he noticed contrasts between the wealthy churches of Zurich and the simple churches of Acts. It led him to dismantle gilded images of saints and to re-use the wood to create a prominent pulpit. He also noticed the gold chalice and communion plate. He knew Jesus surely used ordinary dishes, so he offered the gold to the city on condition that much of it be given to the poor.

     Calvin's social reforms also seem almost spontaneous. For example, Calvin gets credit for providing the theological or moral basis for Western banking. How so? When Protestant refugees flooded into Geneva, they needed jobs, which meant the need to create opportunities. Calvin studied biblical laws on loans and concluded that the law's prohibition of interest applied to personal loans to needy family and neighbors, not all loans. This cleared the way for investments in new ventures to flourish through proper financial support.

     Thus acts of reading the Bible with fresh eyes led to aspects of the Reformation. Moral reformation is always possible when we study the word and apply it to our world. But the Reformation's greater social reforms rested directly on the gospel.

      For centuries, church tradition offered to find a modicum of certainty of salvation, even though Catholic theology explicitly declared (and still declares) that one can have assurance in the present, as one walks with God, but cannot have assurance about the future. As my first blog noted, Gabriel Biel, an influential medieval theologian, said the best idea is to "do what is in you," especially by using the means of grace, chiefly the sacraments. The best way to find grace was to become a monk or priest, since that gave most frequent access to the sacraments.

     Luther certainly believed that the sacraments offer grace, but Luther said the gospel grants assurance of salvation. Further, in one of his most radical concepts, he said all believers are priests, with access to God, his word, and his grace. If all believers are priests, then all of life is, or can be, sacred. That means the distinction between sacred and secular work disappear and farming is not uniquely sacred or secular. Everything depends on the disposition of the farmer.

     Thus, Luther famously declared that the farmer shoveling manure and the maid milking her cow please God as much as the minister preaching or praying. All honest work is holy and pleases God. Further, as we labor in our God-given station in life, we become God's agents. Indeed, God milks the cows through the vocation of milkmaids. Moreover, God answers the prayers of his children through our labor. We pray for daily bread at night, and faithful bakers rise in the morning to bake it. By our work, we clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick. Luther said God "gives the wool, but not without our labor. If it is on the sheep, it makes no garment." Men must sheer, card, and spin.

     Luther grounds all this in his soteriology and his dispute with monasticism. Priests and monks claimed the term vocation because, in theory, monks had a unique opportunity to complete their faith through good works and so to gain assurance of salvation.

     Luther countered that monastic works are vain and self-centered, since they seek assurance of salvation by monastic practices, rather than by faith in Christ. Luther then argued that every Christian has a vocation – to believe the gospel and to serve God and man in their station in life. Whatever someone's station may be, faith transforms it into a vocation. Every vocation is a divine commission and all please God equally.

      This applies to all work, even if menial or unsavory – farming, cleaning, fighting. Luther loved strong language, so he said that if there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges or soldiers and a disciple believes he is qualified, he should offer his services. So the active life is as noble as life in the monastery.

     By our work, the naked are clothed, the hungry fed, the sick healed. Through our work, we please our Maker and love our neighbor. All honest work is a calling. Everyone can complete their faith through good works and gain assurance of salvation as they serve in their God-given station in life.

     Luther's view of work is praiseworthy because it dignified all labor. God summons everyone to a "station" where they serve. This is a great consolation to all who feel trapped at work. Our restless age needs the call to labor in our place, instead of constantly asking "What's next?"

     But Luther's emphasis on place misses part of Scripture's teaching. Consider this: If every legitimate task is a divine calling, how can anyone take a new position or reform abuses in the workplace? Luther's teaching, followed rigidly, vitiates the motives for ongoing reform of labor.

     For Luther, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24 was essential: "Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called." But Luther missed half of what Paul said. 1 Corinthians 7 is for people who are stuck in one of three conditions: 1st, unhappy marriage or singleness. 2nd, the "wrong" ethnic status. 3rd, enslavement.

     To people miserably married, Paul said that believers must ordinarily stay where they are, although they are free if an unbelieving spouse deserts them (1 Cor. 7:10-16). Second, Paul addressed enslaved people. God created all mankind free, but there were many slaves in Greco-Roman society. A few became so poor that they sold themselves into slavery to avoid starvation. Paul forbade that, saying, "Do not become the slaves of men." He also told slaves to serve where they are, in the position you had when called. Yet he also said "But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity" (7:21). That is, do it.

     In each case, Paul said believers should stay where they are, unless…unless irrevocable abandonment ends a marriage, unless a slave can gain his freedom. We see therefore that "Stay where you are" is an important principle, not an absolute principle.

     Furthermore Luther's view of calling fit a static society, but not so well in western societies marked by rapid economic change. How can we stay in our station if it is liable to disappear through layoffs or relocation?  

     Beyond that, if all honest work is a divine call or station, how can we question dehumanizing forms of work? If it's divine work to shovel manure, that's comforting. But if shoveling manure is a divine call, who dares to ask if there is a better way to do it? Luther's ideas can blind us to the way work can be legal but misshapen and in need of reform.

     In short, we need the principle of Semper Reformanda – always reforming. We give thanks for the sixteenth century Reformation and the way it established reform through the gospel, but the work is not yet complete. We must explore new ways to put the faith to work (and hope to do so in future blogs).

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.

Dan Doriani