Luther's moral theology
A proper understandingof Luther's ethical thought is hampered in two ways. First, contemporary ideas of ethics as a discipline in its own right, when projected back on to Luther, are likely to fail, as his ethical thought cannot be separated from doctrinal considerations within the whole scope of his theology. Instead of singling out his“ethics, ” then, we must rather explore his“moral theology, ” the web of theological thought of which the texture of his moral ideas is composed.
The second complicating factor is that Luther's ethic has elicited a degree of passionate apologetic and repudiation rare among theological ethics, and thereby has been exceptionally exposed to one-sided and distorted interpretations. Consequently, no account of his moral theology can be given without some engagement with those interpretations and their problematic claims.
A look at the history of the reception of Luther's theology arouses our suspicion of monistic accounts such as Hegel's Luther of“freedom, ” Karl Holl's Luther of“conscience” or many a theologian's Luther of“justification.” These fall short not because they overemphasize one aspect of Luther's thought to the disadvantage of others, but because they fail, in most cases, to do justice to the very concept focused on. Hegel, for example, was not wrong to present Luther's theology as a theology of freedom; rather, his account of freedom was flawed because his portrayal of Luther as the foundingfather of modern individualism by virtue of his supersedingtraditional authority could not be reconciled with Luther's strongtheological concept of authority.
Over against monistic explanatory schemes, we are assuming that Luther's theology must be understood as having its unity, or (to hazard a musical metaphor) its harmony, at the grammatical level. Its coherence lies less in the formal domain, in terms of a systemic relation of parts, and more in the harmonious way in which the different language games it engages resonate with one another. Hence, if we allow for a variety of appropriate