The redistributive logic of Luther’s theology

For Luther, as for Aquinas, material goods are subject to redistribution because they are, in the final analysis, held in common. Luther’s grammar of distribution and redistribution, however, began with Christ and his work, whereas Aquinas saw redistribution as a human activity undertaken in response to natural law. Aquinas wrote that “(c]ommunity of goods is ascribed to the natural law.”5’ He also stated:

Things which are of human right cannot derogate from natural right or Divine right. . . Wherefore the division and appropriation of things which are based on human law, do not preclude the fact that man’s needs have to be remedied by means of these very things. Hence whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.56

Luther, on the other hand, wrote:

In this sacrament [of the Lord’s Supper], therefore, man is given through the priest a sure sign from God himself that he is thus united with Christ and his saints and has all things in common, that Christ’s sufferings and life are his own, together with the lives and sufferings of all the saints. . . . But in times past this sacrament was so properly used, and the people were taught to understand this fellowship so well, that they even gathered food and material goods in the church, and there—as St. Paul writes in I Corinthians 11—distributed among those who were in need.57

In what Luther called the third “power of faith,” the human soul is united through faith with Christ “as a bride is united with her bridegroom.”’8 “[I]t follows,” Luther wrote, “that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.” The poor become rich through the power of faith in a spiritual distribution from Christ to sinner: “Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness.”59

The communicatio idiomatum

This “happy exchange” (fröhliche Wechsel) in Luther’s theology’ between

Christ and the believer is based on the originally Christological doctrine of the

Martin Luther’s redistributive theology 171 communicatio idiomatum (communication of attributes).60 The doctrine is not original with Luther, but he placed it in the center, not just of his Christology, but of his whole theology.61 As a result of the communicatio, Luther wrote, “whatever is said about [Christ] as a human being must also be said about him as God, namely, “Christ has died,” and, as Christ is God, it follows that ‘God has died.” Likewise, “whatever is said of God must also be attributed to the human being. Thus ‘God created the world and is almighty,’ and the human being Christ is God; therefore, the human being Christ created the world and is almighty.”62

Luther’s understanding of relationships among believers mirrors his Christological formulation of the communicatio idiomatum.'’* The exchange between bridegroom and bride (Christ and the believer) models the exchange between the two natures of Christ.64 Thus, according to Luther, Christ distributes to Christians the “prerogatives” of “priesthood” and “kingship” that he obtained. The prerogative of kingship is a spiritual kingship that means that the believer is, in the space of faith and liberty, subject to none. Christ “obtained” this prerogative, and the believer receives it because Christ “imparts” and “shares” it through the legal consequences of the act of “marrying” the believer.65 This sharing of all things comes about in Christ’s action rather than in human action that responds to an underlying created order, as Aquinas would have it.

The grammar of redistribution applies as well to the other prerogative that Christ has won and now distributes: priesthood. However, priesthood itself implies a redistribution of what is received. By virtue of the priesthood of all believers—bestowed on Christians by Christ—Christians in turn distribute to others what they have received.66 The grace of being a distributor is, as it were, distributed.

The believer, who is distributee as well as distributor, lives in a place of abundance, free from all the anxieties that her own distributing of good things would cause her if she were in a place of scarcity. Faith is “produced” through the preaching of “why Christ came, what he brought and bestowed, what benefit it is to us to accept him.” This preaching, in turn, “is done when that Christian liberty which [Christ] bestows is rightly taught.”67

The force of this freedom to distribute, and the starting point of the place of abundance that it implies, is thrown into relief by the material scarcity that characterized Luther’s setting. The economy of rural and small-town Germany at the beginning of the early modern period was a zero-sum game, dependent on a fixed set of naturally given resources. The land was capable of supporting only so much material wealth; there came a point at which increased production could no longer support higher consumption, and the only way to support one person’s higher level of consumption was to take the resources that had previously gone to someone else.68 In Warde’s words, Luther’s was “a world profoundly worried about the scarcity of resources.”69

Population grew more rapidly than food supplies in the sixteenth century, and peasants consequently could no longer rely on local regulation to survive. Their lives were increasingly absorbed into the “broader political economy of market controls” and poor relief. Warde demonstrates that, in Württemberg, ordinancesaddressing poverty and begging began to appear in 1531 and “from 1562 onwards dearth and its consequences became a regular concern of the central government.”70 These measures were the result of a certain “moral panic” that settled in when it became apparent that the decision-making processes of village life could not grapple successfully with new forms of the “limited good.” Warde writes that “the impetus was thus created for the development of a poor-relief system to pick up this slack of poverty.” Nevertheless, the responses were deeply conservative. Even though the distribution of taxable wealth did become marginally less unequal in the century following Luther’s time, “at no point did this society collectively alter the balance of land use on any scale, reorganize holdings, or move systematically to shift the balance of livestock and cultivated land.”71

The tenor of the Leisnig ordinance and Luther’s preface is all the more striking against their pervasive backdrop of scarcity. Universal applicability and regular imposition of the annual tax, along with the Leisnig assembly’s apparent concern to tailor the amount to the exact needs of the common chest, explicitly arose from a restoration of “the true freedom of the Christian spirit.”72 Faith is liberty because faith is the place where law is not needed.73 Luther’s believer renounces not only her legal rights but all rights as superfluous and unnecessary.74 The connection between the “Christian spirit” and the scarcity or abundance of material resources is dissected in the following discussion.

Freedom, faith, and love

All the good things Christ has won he distributes to believers, who receive them by faith, and that by having this faith a believer dwells in a place of freedom from law and obligation because Christ has fulfilled the law and has distributed to the believer the benefits of that fulfillment. The faith and liberty bestowed by Christ would represent the entirety of Luther’s distributive narrative if humans were nothing but spiritual beings. Because of the outer person, however, Scripture contains “commandments” as well as the “promise.” The commandments are for the outer person, who is called to obey and conform to the inner person. Works are necessary for the outer person to control the body and, thus, accomplish this conforming. The “spirit of faith . . . with joyful zeal. . . attempts to put the body under control and hold it in check.”75

From the discussion of “works in general,” Luther’s perspective in “The Freedom of a Christian” shifts to “the works which a Christian does for himself.” The perspective then shifts a second time when Luther turns to those “things which [a Christian] does toward his neighbor.”76 Even here, Luther insisted, works arise from the place of liberty:

Although the Christian is thus free from all works, he ought in this liberty to empty’ himself, take upon himself the form of a servant, be made in the likeness of men, be found in human form, and to serve, help, and in every way deal with his neighbor as he sees that God through Christ has dealt and still deals with him.77

In Luther’s theology, all believers become like Ockham’s spiritual Franciscans.

A Christian’s obedience to the political authorities follows the same pattern. “Christians should be subject to the governing authorities and be ready to do even’ good work,” Luther wrote, “not that they shall in this way be justified, . . . but that in the liberty of the Spirit they shall by so doing serve others and the authorities themselves and obey their will freely and out of love.” The Matthew 17 passage on paying the Temple tax appears at this point in Luther’s explanation. “This incident,” he wrote, “fits our subject beautifully for Christ here calls himself and those who are his children sons of the king, who need nothing; and yet he freely submits and pays the tribute.” The Christian should voluntarily be subject to the government by paying taxes (as in other ways), because in being subject the Christian is doing works that “are free and are done only to serve others.”78

From the perspective of the subject who lives without faith, taxation is an obligation in the full sense of the word. It is for Luther part of the reality of temporal authority, falling in the same category as the “temporal sword,” thus restraining “the un-Christian and wicked so that—no thanks to them—they are obliged to keep still and to maintain an outward peace.” The sword “is not a terror to good conduct but to bad. And Peter says it is for the punishment of the wicked.”79 It is a heavy burden whose purpose is to be precisely that—a burden.80 The burden of taxation also functions as a kind of restraint, an enforcement of moderation, working against the non-Christian’s natural tendency toward luxury and excess.81

The believing subject, on the other hand, submits to taxation but is not burdened by it, as with all aspects of temporal authority. Luther developed the paradox of the believer’s freedom most comprehensively in “The Freedom of a Christian,” where he wrote:

To make the way smoother for the unlearned—for only them do I serve—I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and bondage of the spirit: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.82

To explain this paradox, Luther offered the “contradiction” that each human being has two “natures”—a spiritual nature and a bodily one.83 This twofold nature explains why Scripture contains both commandments (which tell us what we ought to do) and promises (which supply the power that the commandments lack).84 Luther goes so far as to say that “this diversity of nature” makes Scripture “assert contradictor}’ things concerning the same man, since these two men in the same man contradict each other.”85

Taxation is an instrument from the believing subject’s perspective.86 The Christian “uses” taxation to express and implement love for others and to act for their benefit. Both the burdens and the benefits of taxation itself are irrelevant to Christians because for them taxation is “not essential.” They can and should, however, use it to benefit non-believers.87 “[The Christian] uses the forbidden sword to serve another,” Luther wrote concerning the Christian.88

The only-for-others quality of the outer person’s actions in community both frees the Christian from worrying about benefits received in return for serving others and allows the Christian to serve the neighbor without concern for how much the neighbor deserves to be served: “For a man does not serve that he may put men under obligations. He does not distinguish between friend and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness, but he most freely and most willingly spends himself and all that he has, whether he wastes all on the thankless or whether he gains a reward.”89 Luther’s rejection of reciprocity in acts of neighbor-love lies at the heart of his criticism of medieval charity, which he regarded as centered on the “sin-redeeming quality” of almsgiving and the benefits that accrued to the donor instead of the needs of the recipient.90 Medieval theology had interpreted the second table of the Decalogue in line with natural law and the golden rule, thus reading it as implying reciprocity. Luther, in contrast, offered a sharp alternative: “either self-love or love of neighbor.”91

Luther’s preface to the Leisnig ordinance refuses to distinguish between the “worthy” and “unworthy” poor.92 The ordinance itself contains remnants of those distinctions—anticipating, for instance, disbursements from the common chest to those “who are impoverished by force of circumstances.”93 It also refers to the “needy poor,”94 however, and in this it echoes Luther himself.

Luther made no distinction in the preface between principles that drive the spiritual realm and those that operate in the temporal sphere. In addressing the question of redistribution from the standpoint of the believing subject, he wrote that those “inmates” of the monasteries who did not wish to remain should be provided with enough funds “to make a fresh start in life,” even if they brought nothing with them when they entered the monastery. As for those who did bring something with them when they entered, “it is no more than right in the sight of God that they should have it returned to them, to each his own portion, for here matters are to be determined by Christian love and not by strict human justice.”95 If a monastery' founder’s heirs are “impoverished and in want,” it is “in harmony with Christian love that the foundation revert to them.”96 Luther anticipated the objection that acting out of Christian love in this context “‘is opening the door too wide; on that basis the common chest will receive precious little, for everyone will claim the whole amount and say that his needs are so great.’” In response, he reminded his readers that he assumed he was addressing Christians and “Christians only.” “We have to expect,” he added, “that greed will creep in here and there. So what?”97

The way in which we frame the connection between faith and love in Luther’s theology' determines whether we will understand his political stance to be qui-etistic or “characterized by' deep engagement in political life directed particularly' at one’s neighbor (i.e., at the local level).”98 Love, Laflin argues, is properly regarded as faith’s “tool” in Luther’s theology. Luther puts the connection perhaps most forcefully in “The Freedom of a Christian”:

We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbor. Yet he always remains in God and in his love."

Faith and love are, in Laffin’s words, an “organic unity.”100

Luther’s distinction, in his commentary on Galatians,101 between “abstract” and “incarnate” faith goes some way toward clarifying the connection between faith and love in his theology. Abstract faith alone justifies; it is the faith that joins the bride and bridegroom, the means by which the believer passively receives an “alien” righteousness. Incarnate faith, on the other hand, is faith working through love.102 This is the faith that is in complete unity with love, by which the believer “descends beneath himself into his neighbor.” Luther’s concept of faith, consequently, is much broader than the medieval fides caritate formata (“faith formed by love”), according to which love has to “perfect” “mere” faith. Luther reverses the medieval formula. For him, faith is not only an “inner” state; it is “a ‘work’ in its own right: an inner movement that cannot rest.”103


In the outward focus of the outer person, the believer is free of the burden of reciprocity and of the demands of human justice, the calculating of what is due (or not due) to the believer’s neighbor. Running just beneath the surface of this theme is the theme of need. Now, however, the idea of necessity is not rooted in a measure of debt or of the just amount of goods a person should possess (as in Aquinas), let alone the payment rightly and cheerfully rendered to the ruler for the common good (as in Ockham), but rather consists in the neighbor’s necessity that can now become the sole, consuming focus of the believer. For Luther, the goods of the church are (or should be) common property, not explicitly because of a pre-existing state of communal ownership, but because “there is no greater service of God than Christian love which helps and serves the needy.” The common chest, therefore, is “for all who were needy among the Christians.”104

Historian Renate Blickle brilliantly summarizes the role of the concept of material need—nécessitas domestica—in late medieval and early modern Germany. “Domestic necessity,” Blickle writes, was a legal norm, not just a moral and social norm (though it was that), dictating that economic resources in what was a society of scarcity should be distributed according to the principle of need.105 “Need” referred to the subsistence of a household, but subsistence was not the same for every household. “Need” encompassed the ideas of “fitness” and “suitability” as well as of subsistence. It was both an expansion and a constraint, a sword against lords who lived too luxuriously to the detriment of others and a shield against poverty for peasants.106 Nécessitas domestica was an egalitarian principle—one to which all households of all ranks could appeal—but it was not tied, and must not be tied retroactively, to class.107

Nécessitas or “need” ( Notdurft in German) was, in fact, one of the two main ways of justifying claims in early modern Germany. The claim that one had a basic “right” to subsistence was encapsulated in the idea of Notdurft. Even the quantities of wood that households could purchase might be limited by Notdurft, but, again, those quantities depended on the size of a household’s “economy.”108 A claim of need was rarely so crass as to omit reference to the wider good, the gemein nutz or “common weal.” Warde notes that it was easy in this culture of reciprocal services and protection for the duke to refer to thegemein nutz in justifying his actions; but the poor also made use of the concept, claiming the maintenance of good order required that their needs be met for the gemein nutz.109 The legitimacy of any legal procedure rested on the fact that Notdurft or the gemein nutz was being satisfied.110 Indeed, as the emerging states came to realize, even the power of “custom” could be broken when it was shown that custom could not guarantee necessities, or when it was demonstrated that customary practices had to be changed for the benefit of the common weal.111

“Need,” Blickle writes, gained legitimizing power through the concept of “subsistence,” just as freedom would later be justified by the idea of “property.” Need and property are both answers to the question “to whom do the goods of the world legitimately belong?”112 To those who need them, or to those who possess them legally but do not need them? The question remains the same; the two answers are based on different foundational principles.

Blickle argues that the legitimizing concept of subsistence gradually gave way to the legitimizing principle of property because of the tension inherent within the early modern German concept of “divided property.” The background to that tension was that a farmstead “usually belonged to two proprietors.” The sei-gnorial lord was the dominus directus (superior proprietor), while the peasant was the dominus utilis (using proprietor).113 Direct right to the soil itself, dominium directum, belonged to the lord. Usufruct or the right to use (e.g., the right to farm the land in the form of a tenancy), dominium utile, belonged to the lord’s subjects.114

The result was predictable: a conflict of property rights, even though the rights theoretically operated on different planes. Each party

wanted to enjoy sole proprietorship, free from encroachments by the other .... Around the middle of the eighteenth century this goal was reached. At that time,. . . the property both parties were contending for . . . was parceled up and the actual parcels were portioned to the contestants. From this point on the rights of both proprietors were no longer qualitatively different; now they were identical.115

“Property as a private right,” according to Blickle, no longer included “any kind of responsibility toward another person. It was the legitimate right of its owner regardless of the needs of others.” From there, property became “a material guaranty and a manifestation” of the civil individual’s freedom, with the consequence that property was finally “elevated into a sacrosanct human right.”116

Luther lived before those developments, and his thinking bore the imprint of nécessitas domestica. It did not do so to the exclusion of property rights, of course.

His treatment of the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” in the Large Catechism is expansive, comprehending “all kinds of advantage in all sorts of trade to the disadvantage of our neighbor.” But the “far-reaching” impact of the commandment lies in its import, not for Christians, but mostly for “knaves and scoundrels, to whom it would be more fitting for judges, jailers, or [the executioner] to preach.”117

With respect to Christians, Luther regarded material goods as something to be held lightly. In his treatment of the Magnificat, Luther described Mary’s “low estate” as a place of material poverty that we must not spiritualize.118 Luther wrote: “The word ‘low estate’ has been translated ‘humility’ by some, as though the Virgin Mary’ referred to her humility and boasted of it ... . But that is very wide of the mark, for no one can boast of any good thing in the sight of God without sin and perdition.”119 If Luke refers to Mary as “humble,” Luther continued, that is because “humility” in Scripture “is nothing else than a disregarded, despised, and lowly estate, such as that of men who are poor, sick, hungry, thirsty, in prison, suffering, and dying.”120 God, without warning, can make of Luther’s believer an Ockhamite renouncer of goods.

Luther’s interaction with the redistribution of property, through taxation in the case of the Leisnig ordinance, is noteworthy not simply because it centers on the idea of nécessitas but more because of the theological content with which Luther infused that idea.

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