Global Perspectives on the Reformation

Interactions between Theology, Politics and Economics

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Anne Burkhardt, Simone Sinn
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Evangelische Verlagsanstalt
    , September
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


“What is the kind of relationship between theology, politics and economics that would advance the common good, and make another world possible?” (124). This question posed by Mary (Joy) Philip, author of one of the final pieces in Global Perspectives on the Reformation, could be the animating question of the entire volume. The thirteen essays in this volume are by scholars representing a dozen different countries from the global south and the global north and are the fruit of a 2015 Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Conference in Windhoek, Namibia. While many publications commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation have taken the significance of this moment as a given, LWF General Secretary Martin Junge opens this volume with an earnest set of questions about whether or not the Reformation is still relevant. Justification was a core message of Luther’s theology, Junge notes, but “what do people wrestle with today?” Even though this volume is decidedly oriented toward the present and the future, Junge’s opening essay sets the stage for the ongoing relevance of the Reformation by insisting that it can only be explained “in light of the political and economic environment” of Luther’s time. Junge argues that hegemonic powers of the time were dressed in “religious clothing” by religious and political leaders (and sometimes by Luther as well) in order to serve the powers of the day, and signals that this volume is committed to using resources from the Reformation to interrogate politics and economics to form a non-triumphalist theological approach to current global contexts where political and economic capital reign supreme.

As with many volumes that emerge from conferences, the essays in the collection are held together only loosely by the conference theme. The first section focuses on theology and politics and reflects on Luther’s theology of two kingdoms or two realms, with several authors reinforcing the point that Luther’s thinking about these realms did not become a “doctrine” until the 20th century. This means, they suggest, that there’s a more elastic application of Luther’s insights than much recent interpretation of his thought has permitted. This focus on the two realms is also joined by attention to Luther’s three “orders of creation”: the household or the oeconomia, the political, and the ecclesial. The most distinctive essay in the first section is, “Just Peacemaking:  Christian Pacifism as a Form of Political Responsibility,” written by US Mennonite John Roth. Roth begins by stressing how heavily Anabaptists borrowed from Luther’s sola scriptura approach. Unlike Luther, however, the Anabaptists did not embrace the just war tradition, but rather the “gospel of peace” that functions for them in ways similar to how Luther’s doctrine of grace functions in his theology. Roth then connects the Anabaptist rejection of violence to the abduction of 275 girls in Nigeria and the reality that over 170 of them were members of an Anabaptist-related church that embodied the practices of lament and hope and the gospel of peace inherited from sixteenth-century Anabaptists. In contemplating the ongoing relevance of the Reformation, this essay generates new thinking.

The second section focuses on theology and economics, a topic that receives far less attention in Lutheran and Reformation circles than politics often does. The essay in this section by Guillermo Hansen, who grew up in Argentina and now teaches in the US, offers a compelling re-framing of Luther’s critiques of indulgences. In “Economy and Grace: A Lutheran Approach to Money, Religion, and Debt,” Hansen insists that rather than seeing Luther’s case against indulgences primarily as a critique of church abuses, it is important to understand it as a reaction against a logic that casts sin as debt and God as demanding repayment. Luther rejects this logic, offering an alternative logic that moves beyond the paradigm of guilt and debt to a new understanding of subjectivity in which Christ living in the Christian is expressed in everyday living. Hansen demonstrates that Luther’s rejection of the logic of debt and repayment influenced his critiques of the emerging capitalism of his day. Hansen argues that the ongoing relevance of the Reformation be seen in contemporary preaching of the gospel that addresses the idolatrous faith of capitalism.   

In the final section of the volume on theology and life in abundance, Mary (Joy) Philip’s essay, “Three Sisters’ Garden: Living Together for the Common Good,” notes that Luther’s three orders of creation are all spaces where humans cooperate with God. Philip, a native of India, draws on a creation myth of the First Nations people of Canada, where she currently lives and works, and weaves a lovely tapestry of Luther’s three orders and the three sacred plants of the First Nations—corn, beans, and squash—to illustrate how the three orders draw on one another. She links the ecclesial order—the realm of theology—to the squash, the one that gets planted on the margins and occupies the middle spaces, spaces that give rise to something different, something new. Drawing on the work of Homi Bhabha, Philip envisions theology as a “third space” that is called on to “reform, reshape, reconfigure, replant our way of thinking and living and worshipping” and ensure that the political and the economic are spaces that provide enough nourishment for human life and flourishing.

This slim volume offers several innovative approaches to the ongoing relevance of the Reformation. It will leave those who have wanted this 500th anniversary to be a time to simply honor a sixteenth century monk for his achievements with much to contemplate about how the global inheritors of the Reformation attempt to capture its underappreciated resources to enhance the common good in a world too often focused on political and economic gain.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Deanna D. Thompson is Professor of Religion at Hamilton Universit in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2018



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