So, capitalism. Thumbs up? Thumbs down?

I’ve been asked to prepare half a side of A4 on “the Lutheran view of capitalism” for one of our denominational committees. It’s intended as one of a series of short statements setting out “the Lutheran view” on various topical issues.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. Would be interested to know what people think – though do bear in mind the context and limitations of the remit (he said, carefully 😉 )…

The Lutheran view of… capitalism

“Capitalism” is an umbrella term for a wide range of economic systems that have developed since the end of the middle ages, all of which have varying degrees of public and private-sector involvement in their economies.

The Bible is not an economics text book, and Lutherans (and other Christians) disagree over the extent to which Christians can or should support any given economic system. However, Lutherans (as with other Christian traditions) have had a profoundly ambivalent relationship with capitalism, and with money and wealth more generally – as would be expected from followers of the One who said “you cannot serve both God and Mammon”.

Luther condemned in characteristically strong terms the early capitalism that was developing in 16th century Germany, writing: “Daily the poor are defrauded. New burdens and high prices are imposed. Everyone misuses the market in his own willful, conceited, arrogant way, as if it were his right and privilege to sell his goods as dearly as he pleases without a word of criticism.” Elsewhere, he went even further: “Little thieves are put in the stocks, great thieves go flaunting in gold and silk.”

However, Luther was also critical of those (such as St Francis of Assisi) who had advocated the total renunciation of wealth by Christians. He asserted that “silver and gold … are good creatures of God” – the problem was their misuse, not their existence. “If God has given you wealth, give thanks to God, and see that you make right use of it”.

What does it mean to make “right use” of our wealth? Lutherans understand this in terms of vocation. This is our belief that the Christian life is one in which we use our abilities and wealth to serve our neighbours in the ordinary spheres of human existence in which we find ourselves: as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees, and as citizens (including, today, as voters).

For some, this service of neighbour through our vocations may include working to change aspects of the political or economic system that are unjust. For others, perhaps most, the priority will be serving our neighbour within whatever economic system we find ourselves living in.

(Note: the main sources quoted above are this and this, though this also looks quite fun.)

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6 thoughts on “So, capitalism. Thumbs up? Thumbs down?”

  1. Is it worth balancing ‘working to change the unjust’ with ‘defending the just’? Regardless of what one thinks falls under either head, both are worthwhile: as it stands it seems a bit one-sided with regard to the tension between development and conservation.

  2. I’ve heard some argue that Capitalism is less prescriptive than descriptive. So that other systems of economics still answer to the demands of supply and demand, eventually, whether they like it or not. Hence, the fall of Communism. I’m not sure how this relates, but I think you are right in that Lutherans tend to be ambivalent about that on which Scripture is silent (or speaks very little).

  3. I would be interested in hearing any thoughts that you may have on practices and doctrines that are essential to Lutheranism that serve to cultivate a certain pre-ideological attitude towards capitalism and its various forms, an attitude that can later find more explicit ideological form.

    Your explicit description of the Lutheran position here seems to rely upon statements from Luther himself. A person might argue that what we see in Luther is a sort of hangover from pre-modern ways of viewing the economy. Indeed, one finds pre-modern approaches to such matters in Reformed theology as well, approaches that were later generally shrugged off. For instance, the Westminster Larger Catechism has statements like the following, which seem to come from a rather different perspective on the marketplace than that which prevails in many Reformed contexts today:

    Question 142: What are the sins forbidden in the eighth commandment?

    Answer: The sins forbidden in the eighth commandment, besides the neglect of the duties required, are, theft, robbery, man-stealing, and receiving anything that is stolen; fraudulent dealing, false weights and measures, removing land marks, injustice and unfaithfulness in contracts between man and man, or in matters of trust; oppression, extortion, usury, bribery, vexatious lawsuits, unjust enclosures and depopulations; engrossing commodities to enhance the price; unlawful callings, and all other unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor: What belongs to him, or of enriching ourselves; covetousness; inordinate prizing and affecting worldly goods; distrustful and distracting cares and studies in getting, keeping, and using them; envying at the prosperity of others; as likewise idleness, prodigality, wasteful gaming; and all other ways whereby we do unduly prejudice our own outward estate, and defrauding ourselves of the due use and comfort of that estate which God has given us.

    I wonder whether our attitude with regard to capitalism is in many respects a posture that involves an implicit Eucharistic theology, and that, conversely, a Church that fosters a particular attitude with regard to the Eucharist will thereby create a certain pre-ideological attitude towards capitalism. The Eucharist is the most fundamental paradigm for communal exchange and our theology of the Eucharist will affect our view of the character of the community’s shared life, whether it is a matter of signs mediating between private individuals, or a common participation in a present reality. It also comes with a theology of the relationship between sign and reality (which I suspect has HUGE implications for our understanding of money and the abstractions of the market). It involves a particular relationship between the particular and the universal (which creates a posture towards globalization). Etc. The place of the law and faith would also seem to have a crucial role in the formulation of attitudes in this area.

    Anyway, I would love to hear any thoughts that you might have on this front.

    1. One reason for quoting Luther is precisely because he reminds us that there is a pre-modern voice to be heard – that there was a time when capitalism didn’t seem the “obvious” and “natural” system that it does now. It’s not that Luther should have the last word on capitalism; just that we benefit from the reminder that there are words to say about it.

      This is perhaps an especial issue for Lutheranism, which has a tradition of being somewhat “apolitical” – which unfortunately can lead to a somewhat unthinking acceptance of the status quo, which can become even more unfortunate depending on what the status quo happens to be.

      As for the link with the Eucharist: very interesting. Though I suspect that pretty much any eucharistic theology can be made compatible with capitalism. Even a “high” view of the eucharist (such as the Lutheran belief in the real presence) can be “commodified”, so that the eucharist becomes a “product” that we employ to achieve a specified outcome. The Small Catechism’s statement that “in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given to us” can easily be distorted in that direction.

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