Lutheran Theology and the Shaping of Society

The Danish Monarchy as Example

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Bo Kristian Holm, Nina J. Koefoed
Refo500 Academic Series
  • Bristol, CT: 
    Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht
    , June
     365 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Many a toast at last year´s quincentenary celebrations claimed the Reformation’s vital importance to the development of modern society—at least in the North Western parts of Europe. However, the specific or more concrete role of Protestantism was seldom specified.

There are good reasons for the lack of smoking guns, since the connections between theology and society can be difficult to assess. In Lutheran Theology and the Shaping of Society: The Danish Monarchy as Example, Bo Kristian Holm explains: “[w]hen it comes to explicit social doctrines, Lutheranism appears to be relatively sparse compared to other confessions like Roman Catholicism or the Reformed traditions” (85). Martin Luther was occupied with problems of theology and church, and wrote little—and indirectly—about politics and the economy. His target was a reformation of the church and Christianity, not a revolution of society. Nevertheless, history shows that Lutheran theological renewal was followed by changes in society. After years of materialistic or Marxist historiography, a renewed interest in intellectual history and ideas as the drivers, or even reasons, for social changes and developments has made Reformation theology of interest to an expanding range of disciplines, including both social and cultural historians and political scientists.

Lutheran Theology and the Shaping of Society satisfies this interest and examines the justification for these celebrations—namely, an intimate connection between Lutheran theology and subsequent societal developments. The Danish monarchy constituted a stable, well-defined mono-confessional Lutheran society from 1536-1849 and therefore, is a good case study for this subject matter. At the same time, the theme and research questions of the book are of relevance to Lutheranism in general and has a much wider scope. This is also reflected in the group of contributors, as more than one-third are not Danish, only magnifying the fruitful perspectives for non-Danish readers.

Editors Holm and Nina Javette Koefoed come from two disciplines—Holm’s from systemic theology, Koefoed history—and represent different approaches to the key question of “Lutheranism’s impact upon society and mindset” (10). Ideas and specular elements of Lutheran Protestantism are examined alongside concrete and material manifestations and developments in society. This structure works well and is mirrored in the book’s individual contributions. For example, systematic theologian Svend Andersen and church historian Mattias Skat Sommer develop intellectual and practical consequences for the work of Danish Lutheran theologian, Niels Hemmingsen. In another example, Agnes Arnórsdóttir, Søren Feldfos Thomsen, and Koefoed give detailed accounts of changes in social teachings as well as the legal, administrative, and emotional changes in the daily lives of the public emanating from Luther’s theology and a subsequent creation of confessional culture.

Laura Katrine Skinnebach’s “Family Matters” marks the point of departure for several of the chapters in which Luther’s teaching of the three estates—ecclesiapolitia and oeconomia—are examined. The role of the household as a key unit in Lutheran society and state-building is investigated from different perspectives. This is a refreshing change from the focus on the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which dominates most of 20th century literature on the impact of Lutheran theology upon society. The emphasis on oeconomia overshadow the spheres of ecclesia and politia, but also help to focus the collection. This foci is described in the introduction as “using social relations and obligations of the Lutheran household as a case study, the doctrine of the three orders as a general perspective, and the historical development of Denmark as a treasure chest for illuminating examples” (10). The inconsistencies regarding the use of the three orders/three estates approach illustrates the challenges of translating these questions, as well as the freshness of the method.

Many of the contributions align with Thomas Kaufmann’s idea of confessional culture. Kaufmann himself writes a chapter on the role of universities and academics in the formation of such a culture. Lutheran universities contributed to state-building and, by providing educated Lutheran pastors, distributed the new ideas to local communities. As Theodor Dieter’s chapter illustrates, this was not only a matter of abandoning old practices, such as indulgences, but “triggered the development of the understanding of subjectivity,” thereby giving Lutherans a modern understanding of the self (43).

Though the book is limited to the Danish monarchy from 1536-1849, it has relevance for a wider audience. It examines the contested dynamics between Lutheran Christianity and the shaping of modern society and would have been a welcome addition to the quincentenary celebration.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Tine Reeh is Associate Professor of Church History at the University of Copehagen.

Date of Review: 
February 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bo Kristian Holm is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Center Director at Aarhus University, Denmark.

Nina Javette Koefoed is Associate Professor of History at Aarhus University, Denmark.


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