Christians and politics: “reformation” vs “betterment”

Martin Luther and his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German NationThe House of Bishops’ pastoral letter on the 2015 general election has stirred up a great deal of discussion, both on the merits of the document itself and on the propriety of Church of England bishops “interfering in politics” in the first place.

I should probably admit right from the start that I haven’t read the pastoral letter yet, so I can’t comment on its content. My interest at this stage is on the second question, of whether it’s legitimate for the bishops to issue such a document at all. One comment I saw suggested that the letter “violates Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms”. Others have suggested that the bishops have failed to realise that justice is principally a matter of “eschatology”, not something that can be achieved in the here and now; or that following the example of Christ means refusing to be “derailed or side-tracked” by the “provisionality” of earthly politics.

Now, Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms is a highly contested area of theology. However, Wikipedia summarises the essence of it quite succinctly:

The church should not exercise worldly government, and princes should not rule the church or have anything to do with the salvation of souls.

There’s a difference, though, between rejecting the notion of the church’s “temporal authority,” and saying that church leaders should be silent on political topics. Certainly Luther cannot be invoked as an authority for the latter claim, as Heiko A. Oberman makes clear in his book, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. In his second chapter, Oberman describes the distinction that Luther made between “reformation” and “betterment”. It’s a distinction that I think may be helpful in understanding how Christians (including pastors) are to engage with politics.

Oberman observes that “reformation” was a familiar word in the early 16th century. “Everyone was for it” (just as everyone today is for “democracy”), but no one was really sure how to implement it. Essentially it meant a return to the ideals of the early Christian church, of a community united again in love (p.50). Successive waves of reform movements from the eleventh century onwards had attempted to realise this vision of a renewed church.

Luther, however, did not think that what he was doing was “reformation”, let alone “the” Reformation. He rejected late medieval millenarian dreams of a “reformed” church. Rather, he saw what he was doing in the light of Jesus’ prophecy:

And the gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then the end shall come. (Matthew 24:14, quoted on p.72).

In other words: Luther saw it as his role not to “reform the church”, but to preach the gospel. The preaching of the gospel would provoke a furious reaction from the devil, which in turn would be followed (as he saw it) by the Great Reformation of the Day of Judgement.

However, this didn’t mean that Luther taught a quietism in which Christians just sat around enduring persecution and waiting for the end to come. Nor did he see it as his job solely to preach the gospel while leaving politics to the professionals. On the contrary: a great deal of his efforts were “directed toward order and improvement in the world”. As Oberman says:

It is of lasting significance that Luther’s rejection of historical utopias did not entail abandoning the Church and the world to chaos: Christians are threatened but not helpless, under attack but not defenceless. (p.76)

So Christians can, and should, be hard at work in trying to improve the civic and political order:

But for this dimension he used the sober, secular, practical, temporal and above all relative term betterment rather than the glorious Reformation. In short: Reformation is the work of God, betterment the task of Adam and Eve. (p.76)

An example of the “betterment” advocated by Luther can be found in his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, written in 1520. Oberman summarises Luther’s message of political reform in this treatise as follows:

Ostentatious luxury, “through which so many noblemen and wealthy people are impoverished,” must be curbed; trade must be regulated so that “German money [cannot] leave the land”; usury is “the greatest plague of the German nation … Should it last another one hundred years, it would not be possible for Germany to keep one single penny.” Business monopolies are equally immoral: “The Fuggers and their ilk should be brought under control”; and finally, “Is it not wretched that we Christians continue to allow public whorehouses”! (pp.78f.)

I’d love to know what people’s response would have been had the Church of England bishops released a document as strongly anti-capitalist as that. Not that Luther’s social programme is necessarily a template for them to have followed:

Though often misunderstood, Luther’s suggestions for improvement should not be regarded as Christian ethics in the sense of timeless directives. Luther did not leave governments and societies an unalterable plan for all times and all centuries […]. Faith shatters any claim to eternal validity, opening instead the eyes of the faithful for what is the most needful service to others. […] God entrusted the world to man and woman, and they must discharge their duties to the very last; in this and this alone can they be of help to God. (pp.79f.)

Luther’s eschatology is alien to most of us today, even to most Christians. But his distinction between “reformation” (God’s eschatological work in establishing final justice and restoration) and “betterment” (the “sober, secular, practical, temporal and above all relative” work of making life that bit better now, of identifying and fulfilling “what is the most needful service to others”) is a valuable one. What we can achieve through worldly politics is limited; perfect justice is unattainable. But we can, and should, be using what wisdom we have to try to make things better, and Christian pastors and leaders can play a role in helping encourage this process of “betterment”.


2 thoughts on “Christians and politics: “reformation” vs “betterment””

  1. Bishops patient with voters choosing parties seem to have denied the latter any partisan choosing of facts. Valid policies address generally-known circumstances according to traditionally held values. If a party’s manifesto foolishly posits an alternate reality or a transformed society, that is not the fault of the bishops. The spiritual sword defends reason when the temporal sword has taken leave of its senses.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s