- Theology and Economic Ethics: Martin Luther and Arthur Rich in Dialogue by Sean Doherty
This erudite, dense, and difficult book is part of the remarkable series of monographs published by Oxford University Press on fairly arcane subjects; Schelling’s Theory of Symbolic language, Heidegger’s Eschatology, and The Story of Israel in the Book of Qohelet are examples. This one—comparing the theological methods of Martin Luther and Arthur Rich in making judgments about ethical behavior in economic life—is a revision of a doctoral thesis, as are most monographs in the series. It reads like a top-flight doctoral thesis. It is highly nuanced, detailed, careful, ponderous, and challenging to read. Its author, Sean Doherty, is a bright young scholar and curate in the Church of England who has delved deeply into the mainly British conversation about ethics and economics.
Chapter one plumbs Luther’s theological method in his early work on usury (Sermon von dem Wucher [1519, 1520]). Luther’s method is a simple and direct exegesis of Jesus’ commands in the Sermon on the Mount. The absolute commands of Jesus are “three different degrees or ways of dealing fairly and righteously with temporal goods” (13). The three are: relinquish goods freely when someone attempts to take them; give freely without expecting return; and lend without charge or interest (13). Luther upholds the medieval Catholic prohibition against taking interest on loans, which was breaking down amidst the stirrings of early capitalism as well as a result of theological critiques of that prohibition. (Calvin famously dropped it.) To his credit, Luther was responding to the debt crisis experienced by peasants who lost crops and had to borrow money, sometimes at exorbitant interest rates.
The second chapter is a seemingly unending examination of the magnum opus of Arthur Rich (1910–92), a fairly obscure Swiss theological ethicist, who concluded his Wirtschaftsethik in the early 1980s. It was finally published in English in 2006 as Business and Economic Ethics: The Ethics of Economic Systems. Rich was an exceedingly careful scholar who attended to every possible issue in developing his method of relating Christian ethics to economic theory [End Page 457] and systems. In being so fastidious, Doherty claims, Rich “fails to live up to his own desire for a radical Christian ethic” (71).
In chapter three Doherty analyzes Rich in the light of Luther, claiming that Luther gives far more guidance to a Christian operating in economic life than Rich. This is a curious judgment, considering that Luther was a pre-modern man making economic judgments before modern economies and economic science appeared. The Luther of the sermon on usury seems to me a man who had not yet shed his monastic view of worldly activity. At that stage in his life he thought an economic actor should be willing to give up all his wealth when asked or coerced. “Self-interest rightly understood” (de Tocqueville) and responsibilities to others were far from his ethical reflections. Sacrificial love was the sole guiding principle.
That was a fine approach until Luther became responsible after his marriage for a former monastery and all its lands. He casually squandered their wealth by unheeding generosity until Katy put the brakes on. He was no longer acting as a sole individual but as the inhabitant of several Amts—head of a family, businessman, and tax-paying citizen. The responsibilities that came with those offices meant that strict obedience to the commands of the Sermon on the Mount was no longer feasible or even moral.
In sum, the Luther which Doherty extols seems strangely irrelevant to economic actors in a dynamic market economic system who have to take both their worldly responsibilities and the teachings of Jesus seriously. The argument I make in my Ordinary Saints is that his radical teachings operate indirectly on worldly responsibilities as a “lure” or “summons” to “responsible risk.” That approach seems to me to be more useful to modern Christians than that of the pre-modern Luther preferred by Doherty or of the convoluted Arthur Rich...