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  • Profit, Penury, and the Impieties of Inequality? A Retrospective on Martin Luther’s “On Trade and Usury” for Our Times
  • C.N. Biltoft

The potential evils of wealth are legion—this was a well-varnished truth in Christian doctrine, long before the German theologian Martin Luther vernacularized the precept in his sermon, “On Trade and Usury” (1524).1 Many pre-Reformation religious orders, those founded on vows of poverty, had repeated as liturgy the ways in which earthly riches posed an almost insurmountable obstacle to spiritual salvation.2 For some, it was difficult to the point of physical impossibility, as that oftcited and ambitious camel that tried but never managed to pass through the eye of a needle.

In the sixteenth century, Luther, the first protestant before Protestantism had a name, saw it fit or necessary to reflect once again on the spiritual risks of a burgeoning merchant revolution, born of expanding trade networks and nascent financial instruments.3 There is a reason that Max Weber dubbed John Calvin, not Martin Luther, the master weaver who bespoke a fusion of Christian doctrine and behaviorism, which in turn befitted the spirit of [End Page 1] capitalism.4 For unlike Calvin, Luther preached equality above competition and the ties of a modest fraternity above the (predestined) social distances born of accumulation, whether gained through saving or investing. In the transmogrification of capital as it flowed from regional markets and then outwards along the ever more diffuse pathways of global exchange, Luther seems to have pulled sharply away from the competing eschatology of wealth acquisition and its display.5

There is a way in which current debates on the nature and especially the ethics of economic inequality appear in a different hue once refracted through Luther’s religious political economy, born as it was concurrently with modern capitalism itself. And indeed, “On Trade and Usury” allows us to trace the outlines of Luther’s frontal critique of capital. At first, he began with a catholic (pun intended) and trans-historical principle in quoting from I Timothy 6:9: “Those who desire to become rich, fall into temptation and the toils, and into many vain and harmful desires which sink people into destruction and damnation.”6 But then, that preacher of Christian patois moved quickly from scriptural axioms to historical circumstances. For, if the desire for wealth always posed a danger to the human soul, he acknowledged that the mechanisms of wealth-seeking changed from age to age. Luther never advocated for the end of commerce as such, so long as it was born of a certain work-a-day and humble intimacy. He stated: “But now, this cannot be denied, that buying and selling is a necessary thing which we cannot do without, and which can be used in a Christian manner, especially in those points serving need and honor, for thus also the patriarchs sold cattle, wool, butter, milk, and other goods. They are gifts of God which he gives out of the earth and distributes among men.”7 Much later, another German theologian, Karl Marx, would assign mathematical notation to convey the salutary qualities of such goods: “Sub-division a, Necessities of Life: v = 400; s = 400; hence a quantity of commodities in consumer necessities of the value of 400 v + 400 s = 800, or IIa (400v + 400s).”8

The trouble and danger afoot in early modern Germany, as far as Luther saw it, was tied to the various vanities wrapped up in any number of foreign [End Page 2] luxuries.9 He continued: “But foreign merchandise which brings from Calicut and India, and the like places wares such as precious silks, and jewels, and spices, which serve only love of show and no useful purpose, and drain the land and people of their money, should not be permitted if we had a government and princes.”10 To complete the previous problem set, Marx too gave an equation to express the deleterious effects of luxury goods, which were typically only consumed by the “capitalist class” and whose surplus value never accrued to the proletariat: “(Sub-division b, Articles of Luxury: of the value of 100 v + 100 s...


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