مرکزی صفحہ Dialog Embodying Confident Agency: Luther's “Three Estates” as a Resource for Virtue Theory

Embodying Confident Agency: Luther's “Three Estates” as a Resource for Virtue Theory

آپ کو یہ کتاب کتنی پسند ہے؟
فائل کی کوالٹی کیا ہے؟
کوالٹی کا جائزہ لینے کے لیے کتاب ڈاؤن لوڈ کریں
فائل کی کوالٹی کیا ہے؟
جلد:
56
زبان:
english
رسالہ:
Dialog
DOI:
10.1111/dial.12362
Date:
December, 2017
فائل:
PDF, 127 KB
Conversion to is in progress
Conversion to is failed
0 comments
 

To post a review, please sign in or sign up
آپ کتاب کا معائنہ کر سکتے ہیں اور اپنے تجربات شیئر کرسکتے ہیں۔ دوسرے قارئین کتابوں کے بارے میں آپ کی رائے میں ہمیشہ دلچسپی رکھیں گے۔ چاہے آپ کو کتاب پسند ہے یا نہیں ، اگر آپ اپنے دیانتدار اور تفصیلی خیالات دیںگے تو لوگوں کو نئی کتابیں ملیںگی جو ان کے لئے صحیح ہیں۔
428

Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 56, Number 4 • Winter 2017 • December

Outside the Theme

Embodying Confident Agency:
Luther’s “Three Estates” as a
Resource for Virtue Theory
By Stewart W. Herman
Abstract: Martin Luther’s social writings (volumes 44–47 in the American edition) provide a robust

account of human agency that might help Lutheran social ethics address contemporary crises of confidence. When Luther addresses concrete moral issues, he enriches his two-kingdoms frame with a focus
on particular social roles such as ruler, merchant, soldier, parent, etc. This (often tacit) “three-estates”
approach creates room for a distinctly Lutheran contribution to contemporary virtue theory by focusing
on the functions served by particular social roles more than on individual self-chosen pathways of moral
improvement. It also supports a prophetic affirmation of vocation against the contemporary breakdown
of expectations and confidence in social roles.
Key Terms: virtue theory, Martin Luther, three estates, human agency, moral agency, Reformation ethics

Is it Possible to Grow Virtue
Theory in Lutheran Theological
Soil?
An influential movement in Christian ethics during the past thirty years has been the rediscovery
of character and virtue as a way of accounting for
moral goodness and wickedness in the human social
world. It provides a marvelous framework for expressing confidence in human moral agency, given
its core assumption that agents can envision and
enact dispositions oriented to a complex interweaving of individual and common good, and can render themselves reliably good agents by cultivating

habits of goodness through their own efforts. This
movement has been particularly strong in Roman
Catholic moral theology, and has aroused interest
among Lutheran ethicists as well. But can virtue
ethics take root in Lutheran theological-ethical soil?
Virtue ethics presupposes a robust account of human agency.
Unlike Aristotle, Lutheran theologians are unwilling to concede much potency for good in auton; omous human decision and action. Doing so
suggests the kind of immodesty and pride that
is antithetical to the passive righteousness that is
the cornerstone of the Lutheran vision of redemption from sin and alienation. To be sure, there are
calls to joyous service of neighbor, but in Lutheran
theology, confidence in moral efficacy first must

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg College, Minneapolis, after retiring from the
Department of Religion at Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.

C

2017 Wiley Periodicals and Dialog, Inc.

Embodying Confident Agency: Luther’s “Three Estates” as a Resource for Virtue Theory • Stewart W. Herman

be anesthetized with law before being revived by
gospel.1 In short, it seems difficult for Lutheran
theologians to articulate a vision for the robust human moral agency needed to undergird an ethic of
character and virtue.
The reasons for this skepticism go back to
Augustine but receive striking expression by Martin
Luther himself. According to Jennifer Herdt in
her landmark 2008 study of how virtue has been
appraised in Western culture, Luther not only
picks up but amplifies Augustine’s rejection of the
(pagan) virtues. The human pursuit of virtue is
bankrupted from the start by sinful trust in one’s
own abilities—the refusal to recognize that our external performances possess no goodness, and that
human agency is utterly enslaved to sin. For Luther,
the only way forward is the utterly passive reception of grace, relying upon God’s agency to humble
in us what we cannot, and enter into the happy
exchange with Christ.2 A slow and deliberate transformation of the self indeed is possible, but only
through the “gift” that enables good human action,
rather than any self-driven habituation in virtue.3
The efficient cause of good action is to be found in
divine rather than human agency. In sum, Luther’s
position “makes it difficult for him to develop anything but a paradoxical account of growth in human virtue,” thanks to his “exaggerated insistence
on passivity arising out of a competitive understanding of human and divine agency.”4
In Herdt’s survey of the Western tradition,
Luther stands as one particularly jagged example of
Christian skepticism toward the pagan virtues, but
in her view, that does not invalidate the revival
of virtue ethics now underway. She concludes
that contemporary Christians have found a way
to ease the deeply rooted historic discomfort by
re-envisioning character formation as a central
function of the church. Influenced by Stanley
Hauerwas, a generation of Christian ethicists have
argued that catechesis, sacraments, and rituals are
practices (in the rich Aristotelian sense) for shaping
distinctively Christian character. Major recent
Lutheran proposals have taken just this approach.
Martha Ellen Stortz recovers Luther’s extensive
advice on prayer, commending it as a personal
and congregational practice for shaping vision, disposition, and action.5 Joel D. Bierman constructs

429

a distinctively Lutheran “creedal framework” to
ground a virtue ethic for character formation in
and by the church.6
Surely these ventures will enrich the church’s vocabulary and heighten the significance of its historic practices, as well as reinforce confidence of
church members in their institution. Yet what about
outside church walls—in other institutional settings,
professions, and social locations? Formation occurs
in homes and summer camps, in statehouse legislatures, schools and universities, military and police barracks, battlefields and oilfields, hospitals and
prisons, small businesses and big box superstores.
Already in Roman Catholic ethics, virtue ethics is
being extended into social ethics.7 Might Lutheran
ethics provide a helpful way to think about the
ways that character is shaped in a variety of social
contexts: how confidence develops as dispositions
are formed, virtuous habits inculcated, and vicious
tendencies addressed?

Luther’s Social Writings:
Confidence Derived from
Social Functions and Roles
The obvious place to start is Luther’s own “social”
writings: those treatises, tracts, sermons, and other
writings in which he offers specific moral counsel to princes, peasants, soldiers, merchants, parents, and others in their particular situations. In
the American edition of Luther’s Works, most of
these writings are to be found in volumes 44–47.8
Considering these writings chronologically, Luther
manifests what seems to be a keen and growing
interest in how Christians carry out their social
roles; this provides a first and vital point of contact with ethics of character and virtue. Rather than
focus on the dramatic contest between passively received grace and damnably active works righteousness charted by Herdt, he offers mundane counsel tied to particular social functions. Rather than
crush his readers in the jaws of the law in order to revive them to unspecified if joyous service
to neighbor, he addresses them with explicit commands expressing God’s word for their situations.

430

Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 56, Number 4 • Winter 2017 • December

Where little guidance from the Bible is evident, he
provides his own advice.
Sometimes his counsel is very specific as he
works through moral challenges with close casuistic attention to counterarguments. Sometimes he
aims to shape dispositions rather than address the
concreteness of particular moral dilemmas. Often
he responds to actual or imagined conversation
partners. He models a “community of moral deliberation” where moral questions are raised and
addressed dialogically.
When read through a specifically ethical interpretive lens, Luther’s social writings make it clear
he wants his listeners and readers to develop a robust sense of moral agency. His method of argumentation presupposes that his listeners have moral
character, at least to the extent that they can hear,
absorb, and act on the copious commands and advice he provides. Some are so talented that Luther
stands in awe of their gifts for leadership; his own
prince Frederick receives high marks, for example.9
In contrast, greedy merchants fail miserably, and
to them Luther commends a complete change of
heart. He has particular scorn for princes and clerics
who seek to usurp each other’s roles. He is gentler
with other agents who are unsure, or who remain
to be persuaded of the value of their roles, such
as monks unsure about marriage in The Estate of
Marriage, or the rulers he addresses in On Temporal
Authority, or the soldiers he addresses in Whether
Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved? Luther encourages all
of these to greater confidence in the roles they are
commanded to perform.
In effect, Luther seems to table his Augustinian
reservations about the capacity of agents to discern
and pursue the good, at least in the worldly realm
of vocation, in contrast to his unsparing condemnation of human moral potential in his soteriology.
Is there room in Luther’s thought, then, for cultivating virtue and shaping character, specifically selfcultivation aimed at moral excellence? A guarded yes
seems appropriate.
Luther’s social writings suggest that he has
inklings of moral excellence in the worldly sphere
of vocation, but the behaviors he sees as morally
excellent generally have more to do with the fulfillment of roles (ruler, soldier, parent, etc.) than
with the intentional personal cultivation of virtue.

For him, social roles set the circumference for what
counts as virtue; virtue is possessed, as it were,
mainly if not only in carrying out the function
defined by the role. Goodness is generated as
agents narrow the distance between what they do
and what their roles demand. Luther’s contribution to virtue theory is highly relational rather than
individualistic.

The Wider Relevance of a
Lutheran Virtue Theory
Any retrieval of virtue theory from Luther must be
selective, given his premodern horizon. He makes
little room for individuals to choose their roles,
let alone to claim excellence outside those roles.
He fails to anticipate how modernity has liberated
individuals from inherited roles into a nova-like explosion of choices in the social division of labor.
Yet by turning to social roles as the focal point of
goodness in human action, he provides a vehicle
to develop virtue theory beyond the walls of the
church, and so to enrich the church’s capacity to
speak about life outside itself. The Lutheran tradition proclaims “vocation” as the proper shape of the
Christian life. A sense of calling ought to include
confidence about one’s moral agency, particularly in
this era of challenged and diminished confidence.
If virtue from a Lutheran perspective is so dependent upon social roles, we might ask how
much deep harm is done when whole classes
of people lack the power to embody meaningful
roles in their lives. We might then gain prophetic
moral leverage against economic and political forces
that have deprived millions of Americans of their
homes, jobs, and social status. A Lutheran emphasis upon roles and functions might lead us to
assess those roles and functions themselves, particularly as they contribute to destructive economic and political forces. In short, Lutheran virtue
ethics offers surprising potential for radical social
critique despite its premodern origins, and this
might provide a point of contact with listeners
today for whom the doctrine of vocation might
carry no more interest than Christian notions of
salvation.10

Embodying Confident Agency: Luther’s “Three Estates” as a Resource for Virtue Theory • Stewart W. Herman

Luther’s Moral Framing: Two
Kingdoms as Enriched by the
Three Estates
Any exploration of Luther’s ethics must take account of his two-kingdoms theory, which long has
served as a major grounding of Lutheran social
thought. Early in his public career Luther himself
declared the two kingdoms to be his framework
for understanding God’s rule.11 But his account of
confident human moral agency cannot be derived
from the two kingdoms theory alone, particularly
when it is seen as God’s providential way of rescuing Christians from sin, death, and the devil. Theologian Vitor Westhelle recently distinguished two
broad contemporary paths for interpreting Luther’s
approach to ethics: one accenting law and gospel in
their dialectical relationship; and the other focusing
on the orders of creation.12 Both are to be found in
Luther, and both are indispensable. But the first offers only a rudimentary account of human agency,
for two reasons.
First, when the two kingdoms or “realms” are
regarded primarily as soteriological expressions of
law and gospel, the human agency required for
the exercise of vocation is completely overshadowed
by divine agency.13 Individuals, whether Christian
or not, need to have their own agency chastised
by law if they are to be admitted into the kingdom of God. To see how limited this view is for
vocation, consider the fourfold typology of “men”
Luther proposes in his 1520 Treatise on Good Works:
the truly righteous who need no law; the lazy who
abuse their freedom from law; the wicked; and the
childish, who need to be enticed and coaxed.14
Here the only aspect of human agency of concern
here is the human response to God’s influence via
law and gospel.
Second, the agency exerted by believers in
Luther’s kingdom of God has more to do with
soteriology than with vocation. For Luther, this
kingdom is populated by individual souls rescued
by Christ from sin and despair. The kingdom
of God is egalitarian and homogenous to an extreme: it is the assemblage of individual Christians

431

who together have been condemned by Christ and
forgiven.15 While their bodies are on earth, their
hearts and souls are lofted to heaven by the word.16
In this realm, experienced in moments of undivided faith, Christians are undifferentiated by social
status or role. “I want to establish a kingdom in
which all are regarded alike,” says Luther’s Christ.17
These subjects of Christ are equally subject to the
most stringent justice.18 There are no distinctions
of merit.19
Indeed, sins against the first table of the Decalogue with its unitary focus on God are more
serious than sins against the second, with its attention to multiple ways the neighbor might be
harmed.20 Their moral agency is expressed in readiness to engage in forbearance and self-sacrifice,
motivated by pure dispositions of meek, nonresistant love inspired by Christ—a kind of agency for
which Christians can take little credit, and that
offers us frankly little of value for ethics, with
its broader scope of how to negotiate the push
and pull of daily life. Oswald Bayer rightly warns
that interpreting social issues through the two kingdoms without reference to the three estates encourages simplistic, abstract, or artificially dichotomized
discussions.21
A more robust view of human agency emerges
in his social writings, where Luther takes up life in
the kingdom of the world. When viewed with an
eye to orders of creation, the worldly kingdom is
populated with Christians and non-Christians in
all their social relationships and roles.22 As will
be seen shortly, Luther advises rulers how to navigate the treacherous waters of their courts. He
works through various scenarios to advise soldiers
on when their soldiering is appropriate. He advises
citizens to become engaged in administering the resources of their communities. He advises merchants
to resist avarice through prudence and generosity.
Luther stands for the freedom of men and
women to choose their own marital partners, and
explores the many permutations of how public and
private engagements might go awry. Here he endorses not only social hierarchy but inequality as
necessary to the viability of the social order.23
While the kingdom of God offers only monotonic flat terrain for moral analysis, the kingdom

432

Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 56, Number 4 • Winter 2017 • December

of the world is lumpy with variety and interactive
complexity.
The basic argument of this article is that Luther’s
social writings yield a robust view of human agency
needed for virtue theory, because there he fleshes
out his soteriologically oriented two-kingdoms theory with the vocationally oriented orders of creation. From the early 1520s on, Luther complexifies and enriches his basic two-kingdoms model by
invoking the “three estates” of household/economy,
church, and government.24 These encapsulate the
core institutions of the social order he inherited—
as obvious to him as the vastly more differentiated
array of institutions are to us today.
Unlike two kingdoms, which Luther proudly
claims to have rescued from obscurity, the “three
estates” is a medieval trope he inherited without much creative addition or amendment.25 The
place of the three estates in his theology was wellestablished by 1528, when in his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper he declares them the three
venues through which God hallows human life.26
His 1535 lectures on Genesis 1 and 2 make it
clear that the three estates are the basic institutions of creation. Nonetheless, the three estates
have received little attention from North American
Lutheran theologians and ethicists, perhaps because
Luther never offered as compact and coherent account of them as he did for the two kingdoms in
his 1522 On Temporal Authority—and of course because the idea of fundamentally distinct, separated,
and fixed “orders of creation” was discredited for
contributing to the rise of Nazism.

Luther’s Prescriptions for
Confident Human Agency in his
Social Writings from 1519 to
1539
Virtue theory rests upon robust assumptions about
confident human agency. Because Luther’s account
of human action and character is so easily overshadowed by soteriological two-kingdoms thinking,
this section shows how the three estates provide

Luther a vehicle for explaining how human agency
plays out in particular social functions and roles.
Indeed, the more he delves into particular roles
and functions, the richer becomes his account of
confident worldly vocation over the first decade of
his public career. As will be seen, however, what he
emphasizes is not self-directed capacities and skills
for achieving virtue, but the functions and roles
that present vocationally minded Christians with a
moral frame and motivation for their agency.

The Freedom of a Christian (1520)
and Treatise on Good Works (1520):
The Emergence of Confidence and of
Mutual Responsibility in Social Roles
An early baseline is provided by Luther’s 1519 The
Holy and Blessed Sacrament of Baptism—apparently his
first significant mention of the three estates.27 He
grimly refers to the institutions of matrimony, clerical office, and temporal rule as cells of self-denying
discipline, where “men learn to exercise themselves
and to suffer,” to orient themselves away from “love
of this life” to eternal life.28 So far, his account of
agency is minimal and void of earthy confidence.
In contrast, his 1520 The Freedom of a Christian
takes a remarkable turn toward a winsome, even
idealistic vision of the potential for human action.
The three “powers” of faith propel the Christian to
escape the condemnation of the law, to trust God,
and to rely upon Christ’s atonement to neutralize
the power of sin and damnation.29
God’s agency is responsible for all three, of
course; it is the word that energizes human faith,
much like the blacksmith’s fire that heats an
anvil to a bright red glow. Such faith enables
the Christian to live in the kingdom of God
by honoring the First Commandment; effortless
obedience to the remaining nine commandments
then follows like good fruit grows from a good
tree.30 This inspired inner faith liberates energy in
the outward self, encouraging the pursuit of virtuous self-discipline and overflowing in enthusiastic
service to neighbor—as close to an endorsement of
(monastic) character development as Luther gets.31

Embodying Confident Agency: Luther’s “Three Estates” as a Resource for Virtue Theory • Stewart W. Herman

The Freedom of a Christian firmly links Luther’s
soteriology and vocation in a radiant vision of confident agency. To be sure, the “neighbor” so far
is simply a relational abstraction, void of concrete
social reference. That evolves, also in 1520, when
Luther invokes the three estates as a conceptual device for social prescription in his Treatise on Good
Works, his early commentary on the Decalogue. In
an exposition otherwise dominated by attention to
the first table, he dramatically expands the Fourth
Commandment from the honoring of parents to
the honoring of household, church, and government. Each of these estates involves social roles
that require obedience keyed to distinctive orbits
of responsibility and mutuality; already Luther is
showing awareness of the moral interactivity of the
social world.
Parents break the self-will of their children to
secure their obedience, but these parents demonstrate their own obedience to God by protecting
their children against the lures of the world.32 Servants obey masters; their obedience is to be reciprocated with “considerateness,” where masters must
overlook their failings.33 In the governmental estate,
subjects are to obey their rulers, who reciprocate by
protecting their subjects against social evils, injustice, and onerous obligations.34 As for the churchly
estate, parishioners are to obey the “spiritual authorities,” who in turn are obligated to stick to
their roles of teaching, preaching, and disciplining
the souls entrusted to their care.35
Already the three estates provide Luther an embryonic conceptual means to differentiate and interrelate the moral agency of parents, servants, rulers,
church members, and prelates. The point may seem
obvious, but Luther here is expanding and enriching his own cherished but rigid notion of social order. His enduring baseline is a unitary hierarchical
order of authority and obedience.36 In this simple
form of social organization, hierarchy is preserved
through obedience that serves to validate and reinforce authority, while disobedience is neutralized
by coercion.
But when interpreting the Fourth Commandment through the three estates, Luther prescribes
various kinds of obedience, which are neither simple nor absolute. He differentiates the various kinds

433

of obligation and obedience appropriate to each estate. Each estate involves a mutuality of responsibility and obligation rather than a one-way top-down
flow of power. And such mutuality is the wellspring of moral confidence.

On Temporal Authority (1521):
Enriching the Worldly Function
and Role of Rulers
The next year (1521) Luther in On Temporal Authority widens his field of analysis from the personal psychology of the individual Christian (as
seen in On Christian Freedom) to the social function
of rulers. While generally regarded as the locus classicus of two-kingdoms thinking in Luther’s ethics,
this treatise illustrates how the three estates enrich
his dualistic thinking, even when not explicitly acknowledged. He tailors the imperatives of obedience and obligation to the very particular contours
of princely ruling; this opens up a way for him to
speak of goodness and even excellence in performing particular roles.
The treatise is intended to ease the consciences
of rulers who wonder whether and how a Christian
can govern coercively, given Jesus’ commands to
forebear from the exercise of violence. In effect, the
rulers are concerned about their salvation. Luther
responds by using the two kingdoms to separate
their lives as Christians, who have little stake in
the fate of the world given their orientation to
salvation, from their earthly roles as rulers, who
must care a great deal about the welfare of their
principalities. But he then moves quickly from the
two kingdoms as a soteriological device to the three
estates as a vocational device.
In the first of three sections, Luther makes a
functional argument for the inescapable need for
coercive governance by the “sword.”37 In the second section, he chastises secular and churchly authorities for failing to attend to the specific functional sphere of action to which God’s word has
assigned them.38 The stability of the world depends upon bishops and rulers carrying out their
defined roles by serving their assigned functions.

434

Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 56, Number 4 • Winter 2017 • December

By insisting that they stick to their roles, Luther
effectively argues that Christians in the estate of
governance cannot afford the luxury of indifference
to the world. In the third section, Luther moves
even further in a three-estates direction by attending to the moral demands of rulership. He imparts
practical counsel to rulers who want to carry out
their roles conscientiously. He counsels rulers to
rely upon their own judgment, attend to the benefit of their subjects rather than their own, exercise
restraint when punishing the wicked, and pursue
peace with neighbors.39 Rulers are enmeshed in relationships that require finesse. They cannot simply
slap down offenders with coercive law; they must
think interactively, anticipating the reaction of their
subjects, and so tailor their application of influence
or coercion for each situation.
By the end of On Temporal Authority, Luther
shows the strong gravitational pull of the three estates as he derives responsible moral agency from
the requirements and constraints of the ruler’s function and office itself. His moral argumentation is
mixed; he draws upon the wisdom derived from
the practice of ruling as well as God’s commanding
word.

Two “Mirrors” (1530, 1534): Tempered
Confidence for Princes
Luther’s interest in the functions and roles characteristic of the three estates continues to deepen.
In 1530, and again in 1534, he uses two Davidic psalms (82 and 101) to present a “mirror” for
princes desiring to rule well. He begins his exposition of Psalm 82:1 with the breathtaking assertion
that rulers are “gods.” God stands both with and
against them, endorsing their office while chastising them for marring its function with their own
self-will.40 Preachers therefore have the prophetic
office of rebuking errant rulers.41 Both rulers and
preachers should feel confident in their roles, because their roles are clearly defined and God’s will
is unmistakable.
Princes are to exercise three “virtues”: securing justice for the faithful, supporting the vulnerable, and making peace by guarding against

violence.42 These “virtues” are less habituated dispositions than the duties and actions called forth
by the roles they occupy. The corresponding triptych of vices similarly focuses upon the perversion
of roles, implying a perversion of character as well.
Princes abuse their offices when they exercise selfwill rather than advance God’s word, or when they
leave the poor without protection, or when they
live only for themselves.43 In short, Luther defines virtue and vice more in terms of what their
roles demand and what behavior they exhibit than
what disposition and capacities should mark their
characters.
Four years later, it appears the princes are no
longer “gods.” Luther’s 1534 commentary on Psalm
101 cautions against overestimating what rulers can
achieve, even with the best of intentions. Human
notions of justice are far less efficacious than the
powers of nature. Luther advises rulers to exercise humility, to quell the natural temptation to
overconfidence in the power of reason and good
intentions.44 A prince “has to rule through people
whom he does not know and manage with people
whose attitude he cannot perceive.”45 Rulers should
prioritize the dispensation of mercy over that of
rigid justice. “To achieve [moderation] is an art;
indeed it is a matter of God’s grace.”46
To be sure, there are rulers remarkably gifted
by God to be outstanding leaders. His own Duke
Frederick is a prime example of a ruler who wisely
and boldly navigates a court littered with brash advisors, fools, and other obstacles.47 Such paradigms
of confident agency are rare. Those who would
imitate them are indeed fools, for natural wisdom
is distributed unevenly. Only modest imitation of
great leaders is called for, and even these leaders
need to attribute their successes to God.48 Such humility falls far short of the exuberant confidence the
younger Luther commends in On Christian Freedom;
humility is the remnant of idealistic confidence that
survives in the Christian prince who embraces the
gritty function of ruling. What Luther sketches is
not promising terrain for individuals to establish
their own characters through the disciplined pursuit
of heroic virtue, but he does affirm that confidence
is warranted where God has provided a ruler the
needed capacity.

Embodying Confident Agency: Luther’s “Three Estates” as a Resource for Virtue Theory • Stewart W. Herman

Selective Encouragement of Citizens,
Peasants, and Soldiers (1523, 1525,
1526)
Princes are not the only actors in the governmental
estate. In late 1523 Luther endorses the plan of a
congregation in the small city of Leisnig to take
over local monastic properties with their streams
of income. He encourages these citizens to craft
their own moral agency in self-governance by setting up and administering a “common chest” to
disburse the funds.49 However, the civic space for
self-governance is not permitted to those who challenge existing political authority.
In 1525, Luther turns viciously on a rising
movement of peasants when they take up arms
against abuses by their overlords. His argument
shows how rigidly unhelpful the two-kingdoms approach is when applied without the nuance afforded
by the three estates. Both peasants and rulers are
wrong, he acknowledges, but there is a brute difference: armed rebellion threatens both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world; it
answers to no higher authority, while the violence
of overlords protects the social order and is authorized by God.50 A fundamental asymmetry results.
The rebels are authorized only to act as citizens
of Christ’s kingdom, rather than press their claims
according to the worldly logic of natural law.51
They must suffer injustice—or emigrate.52 Interestingly enough, it is just this dualistic framing that
Luther abandons when turning to the three estates
as a rhetorical means to endorse the resistance by
princes against the emperor and pope in 1539, as
will be seen shortly.

Confidence in the Vocation
of Authorized Killing (1526)
The three estates are evident in Luther’s social writings particularly when he enriches his moral reasoning beyond the dualistic framing of the two kingdoms. Luther’s stated aim in Whether Soldiers, Too,
Can Be Saved (1526) is to inspire knights and soldiers who are distressed by their bloody work to the

435

point that they have lost their faith. He launches
his discussion in a two-kingdoms frame, with its
unambiguous endorsement of violence in the service of social order. Then he softens the blunt coercion of the worldly kingdom with considerations
of justice and wisdom.53
Soldiers, or at least knights like Assa von Kram,
to whom Luther is writing, must exercise reason
as well as listen to God’s command when deciding
when and how to fight. Luther devotes most of
the tract to reviewing three possible confrontations:
equals against equals, overlords against subjects, and
subjects against overlords. Each requires its own
kind of reasoning. Rebellion by subjects cannot be
just because it usurps God’s sovereignty over rulers,
even against patently unjust rulers.54 War between
equals requires a casuistry that turns on the distinction between wars of necessity and wars of
desire.55 As for the third category, overlords may attack their subjects only in response to rebellion, but
Luther qualifies this permission by setting it within
a tightly linked chain of authority and accountability that runs down from God and requires overlords
to “exist for the sake of the community.”56
Luther allocates authority strictly according to
location and function, as when he endorses the
complementarity of soldiers and farmers who defend and feed each other, respectively.57 Once
again, he enriches the stark dualism of the two
kingdoms with a tacit appeal to the three-estates
frame, with its emphasis on roles and functions in
their interrelationships.

On Trade and On Usury (1524): From
Avarice and Arrogance to Prudence
and Discipleship in the Economic Estate
So far, these examples from Luther’s social writings concern only the estate of government. Luther
commends confident human agency in the other
two estates as well. In 1524, he turns his attention to the practice of commerce in two tracts: On
Trade and On Usury. Commerce presents a chaotic
scene of unbridled greed, which issues both in harm
to neighbor and presumption against God’s control
of the future. But Luther cannot simply point to

436

Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 56, Number 4 • Winter 2017 • December

existing functions and roles as expressions of God’s
will, for this tainted field of human action lacks the
chain of divinely mandated authority enjoyed by
government and its soldiers to maintain the social
order. Luther does not and perhaps cannot claim
divine approval, let alone agency, for the role of the
merchant as he can for that of rulers; he must find
another moral benchmark for appropriately channeled and confident human agency.
Not surprisingly then, the flavor of his argument
changes. Without government in its clearly defined
regulatory role, Luther applies the strenuous demands of the kingdom of God more insistently to
commerce than to any other social function, and
carves out an emphatic role for virtuous character
in the business of buying and selling. Indeed, the
seedy world of commerce brings Luther closer to a
virtue ethic than any other of his social writings.
According to On Trade, avarice is the besetting
vice of commerce. Rather than preach virtue in the
abstract, Luther reviews a series of morally perverse
practices. This empirical method of moral reasoning emphasizes human agency, without reference to
divine agency. He advises merchants not to mark
up prices to whatever the market will bear but
to instead set prices according to a standard of
justice that will not harm the neighbor.58 Consideration of the neighbor finds expression through
prudence and self-restraint as well. A Christian merchant provides for his family before lending from
surplus, minimizes risk by selling only for cash, and
avoids responsibility for the debts of others.59 Further, a Christian merchant fights avarice through
self-restraint: not using credit to gain more profit
than through cash sales, not cornering the market,
not driving hard bargains through deceit, and not
coalescing in oligarchies or trading companies to
take advantage of the neighbor.60
Perhaps because there is no divinely instituted
role in the world of commerce as in government,
Luther does not hesitate to bring in the kingdom
of God, as both a soteriological and vocational
compass. Salvation is at issue not only because
it is threatened by avarice,61 but more insidiously
by the presumptuously constructed confidence of
merchants. They resist God’s control of the future by arranging insurance for their ventures.62

Luther commands them to entrust their commerce
to God by obeying the self-sacrificial requirements
of the kingdom ruled by Christ: letting themselves
be robbed, by giving to any needy person, and
by lending without expectation of return, as per
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.63
In On Usury, Luther develops these stiff requirements even more insistently. He reviews and rejects clever devices through which human agents
fulfill the letter but negate the spirit of Christ’s
command.64 Not only do self-sacrificial commercial practices lead to a peaceful earthly life in the
kingdom of God, but they also prepare one for
heaven through detachment from worldly goods.65
In short, achieving the confident human agency
God desires in commerce is particularly challenging, because the marketplace not only is a hothouse
for avarice, but engenders a false confidence in human control over the future. Moral discourse in
commerce therefore exhibits two distinct forms not
easily harmonized: the language of human virtues,
such as prudence and generosity, and the more exigent language of discipleship and divine command.

The Estate of Marriage (1522) and On
Marriage Matters (1530): Rekindling
Confidence in the Estate of Marriage
The institution of marriage offers a strikingly different role-based definition of good human agency.
Luther addresses the “estate of marriage” directly in
his eponymous treatise of 1522 and in his 1530
On Marriage Matters. In this estate, divine agency
recedes entirely into the background; in the foreground are myriad questions for human decision:
who may marry, under what conditions of privacy
and publicness, and when divorce is permissible.
In On Marriage Matters, Luther locates marriage
within the two kingdoms as a public estate, subject
to regulation by secular authority in the temporal
realm.66 Yet it does not fit within the hierarchical command-obedience model, for as Luther avers,
marriage is and must be the result of free choice between man and woman—rather than, say, the dictate of parents, let alone the state. Nor does Luther
have biblical commands tailored for the many

Embodying Confident Agency: Luther’s “Three Estates” as a Resource for Virtue Theory • Stewart W. Herman

questions that come up. So he falls back on his
own advice to address worried consciences.67
In The Estate of Marriage, Luther works
through—and rejects—more than a dozen constraints on who might marry whom.68 Eight years
later, in On Marriage Matters, he takes up one particular violation of the public nature of marriage:
secret engagements. He works laboriously through
all permutations of entanglement: secret promises,
public betrothals, absent and returning spouses,
consummations in and outside of public marriage,
and so on. This earthy moral reasoning appeals
variously to common sense,69 conscience,70 law,71
justice,72 the wisdom of elders,73 and supreme
above all of course, God’s word,74 and not surprisingly yields tempered moral judgments.
Delicate questions cannot be answered by the hierarchical application of command and obedience.
Rather, responsibility must be apportioned thoughtfully. For example, Luther says that God’s word
takes away parental authority to force children into
marriage, yet daughters must take responsibility for
the vows that parents or others have pressured them
to accept.75
Luther’s discussions of marriage show the influence of the three estates far beyond the highly dualized structure of the two kingdoms. While marriage is a secular institution subject to regulation
by temporal authority, it is based on free decision.
As such, it must be informed by, and triangulated
within, the full range of society’s moral resources
and interests, as illustrated by Luther’s variegated
discourse. Marriage is a very human enterprise. The
word commands, but there is a complex array of
very human relationships and issues that must be
taken into account. There is also scope for virtue in
marriage—the kind of virtue tied to performance
of roles that express God’s will.
This theme emerges at the end of The Estate
of Marriage, where Luther reveals that his purpose
is to rekindle human confidence in marriage as an
institution—to make it attractive to the generations
of men and women who have found the celibate
life more to their taste.76 Luther affirms that God
smiles when men and women take on the roles of
husband and wife. They make marriage the occasion for human delight as well when performing

437

their roles in the conviction that this is precisely
what God wants them to do.77 Of course, this
role-based virtue is far superior to the “habitus”
monks take on in regulating their own single lives,
for it is developed in a role commanded by God.

“Three Hierarchies” Disputation (1539):
Resistance Grounded in the Three
Estates
The most dramatic signal of Luther’s reliance on
the three estates comes late in his career, in a 1539
disputation aimed at clarifying whether Lutheran
princes have the authority to resist the emperor
and pope by force of arms.78 Luther arrives at an
affirmative answer by moving emphatically beyond
a two-kingdoms to a three-estates frame. His assigned point of departure is Jesus’ command to the
rich young man: to sell all and thereby gain treasure
in heaven, surely a prescription for life in the kingdom of God (Mt 19:21). Luther begins by asserting
that monastic vows of poverty and celibacy violate
the second table of the Decalogue, for Christians
inevitably are embedded in a material world of consumption and relationships.79 Living according to
the first table involves following Jesus’ command
to abandon worldly entanglements; it corresponds
to living strictly in the kingdom of God. But he
insists the second table must be honored as well. A
Christian as “citizen of this world” must obey the
government in its police function of resisting evil,
as per the Fifth Commandment.80
This two-kingdoms argument based in the Decalogue proves to be of limited use, however. If a
government turns on its own Christian citizens in
persecution, all that a good Christian citizen can
do is emigrate.81 In effect, the sharp distinction between the first table and the second table, between
the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the
world, closes the door to resistance against unjust
authority.
Then Luther suddenly and dramatically turns to
the three estates for moral leverage. He denounces
the pope for destroying the order provided by the
three estates: the church, through blasphemy and
failing to carry out his office; the state, by usurping

438

Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 56, Number 4 • Winter 2017 • December

the role of civil rulers; and the family, by enforcing celibacy.82 Deploying the lurid imagery of a
village threatened by a werewolf, he calls for resistance by armed “villagers”—evidently “princes, king
and emperor.”83 Note that the pope here is a werewolf, enemy to the worldly kingdom, rather than
the antichrist, enemy to God’s kingdom.84 Here the
worldly kingdom, as interpreted through the three
estates, fills Luther’s moral horizon. By the end
of his public career, the preservation of the social
world, as embodied in these three institutions, has
moved to center stage, perhaps rivalling or displacing the priority on individual salvation exhibited in
his early two-kingdoms thinking.85
In sum, Luther enriches his two-kingdoms
framework when interpreting the worldly kingdom
with reference to the three estates. His use of the
three estates is signaled when he articulates what
particular social roles require, and how they are
best enacted by willing, morally serious agents. His
discourse broadens to make positive use of human
reason, and to tap the conventions of moral discourse. His aim is to instill confidence in those
who are unsure of how to carry out their roles—as
well as humility and caution in those who are too
confident.

The Prophetic Affirmation
of Vocation
Lutheran social ethics typically starts with and perhaps must start with a law-and-gospel approach
to the two kingdoms in reconstructing human
confidence. Claims about what God is doing are
indispensable to a Lutheran theology aimed at explaining the full height and depth of human experience. Paradoxical claims about human sinfulness
and divine grace, judgment, and justification are
key to faith in the God who both destroys and
reconstructs human confidence. Indeed, they continue to be of value to emergent varieties of theological ethics today.86
However, two-kingdoms theory alone is a thin
resource for ethics, precisely because of its emphasis

on divine agency and its rudimentary account
of human agency in each of the two kingdoms.
These emphases have a sharp and appropriately
prophetic bite when the presenting problem is
human pride and moral pretension to virtue, as
Jennifer Herdt explains in her history of Western
reflection on virtue. But ever since Valerie Saiving
challenged Reinhold Niebuhr’s elevation of pride
to central place in sin—and with it, the entire
Western tradition that placed pride at the root
of all vice—it has become increasingly evident
that lack of confidence can be just as serious a
symptom of character failure.87
Confidence involves more than individual
effort—more than individual faith and conviction,
more than the triumph of will over circumstance. It
is nourished by expectations grounded by a stable
social order. Yet for more than three decades, the
functional building blocks of the North American
middle and working classes have been cracking and
crumbling.
Hard work no longer guarantees employment.
A college education no longer yields access to the
middle class. Earnest parenting cannot protect kids
against drugs and violence. Civilized behavior no
longer is answered with civilized response. Prisons
harm rather than rehabilitate. Wounded soldiers
cannot re-enter the society they risked their lives
and sacrificed their limbs to protect. Working-class
and middle-class expectations have been manipulated, degraded, and shattered, and the allure of
the American dream as a foundation of futureoriented confidence now is yielding to nativist
paranoia.
Contemporary crises of confidence call for
the prophetic affirmation of vocation. An ethic
influenced by Luther’s social thought is wellpositioned to speak concretely and forcefully—even
prophetically—to the breakdown of expectations
that undergird confidence. He was keenly aware
that the three estates as basic social institutions
were vulnerable to damage and destruction due
to human greed, shortsightedness, incompetence,
and malevolence. In this spirit, a Lutheran ethic
of virtue might evaluate various functions and roles
themselves according to their contribution to social
good.

Embodying Confident Agency: Luther’s “Three Estates” as a Resource for Virtue Theory • Stewart W. Herman

For example, Luther in 1524 asserts that
commerce might be practiced in a “Christian”
manner if “commodities serve a necessary and
honorable purpose.”88 A Lutheran ethic might
delineate criteria for the “necessary and honorable”
functioning of particular roles, distinguishing of
course between incumbent persons and the offices
themselves. Some occupations might be found to
be more predatory or parasitical than productive.
In addition to such social criticism, the principal
task is to reconstruct a genuine, robust confidence.
Here Luther’s own use of the three estates is worth
recovering because it focuses attention on human
agency, categorized and analyzed according to social roles and relationships. This venerable trope
provides a template for speaking about and to the
whole social world, not just the church.89 It seems a
particularly valuable resource for speaking about vocation in concrete detail, for explaining how goodness happens in the human social world.
The key Lutheran insight is that in explaining the development of virtue, what happens outside the agent is at least as important as what
happens inside. The key question is how moral
agents develop resilient confidence. Character develops as much with reference to the externally defined functions and roles as from self-chosen pathways of moral improvement. Here is an opening
for a specifically Lutheran twist on virtue theory,
one that reaches beyond the walls of the church by
speaking to human beings in their inter-relations as
well as in their individual capacities, dispositions,
and skills. And that seems critical for extending the
reach of virtue theory and understanding the erosion and reconstruction of confident human agency
today.

439

5. Martha Ellen Stortz, “Practicing Christians: Prayer as Formation,”
in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, ed. Karen L. Bloomquist and John R.
Stumme (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 55-73.
6. Joel D. Biermann, A Case for Character: Towards a Lutheran Virtue
Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2014), esp. chap. 5 and 6.
7. For example, see Brian Stiltner, Toward Thriving Communities
(Winona, Minn.: Anselm Academic, 2016).
8. This paper also draws upon his two “mirrors” for princes in vol.
13, and a 1539 “Disputation.”
9. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, 55 vols., ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St.
Louis: Concordia, 1955-1986), 13:158-160, and 46:119-120. Hereafter
cited as LW.
10. The primary inspiration for the argument that follows is Oswald
Bayer’s bold retrieval of the three estates in Luther’s thinking. See Bayer,
Freedom in Response, trans. Jeffrey F. Cayzer (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2007), chap. 7 and 8; and Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, trans.
Thomas Trapp (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008), chap. 6 and
14. This article spells out one line of implications for Luther’s ethics.
H. Richard Niebuhr’s account of “responsibility” provides a further lens;
see Niebuhr, The Responsible Self (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), esp.
chap. 1.
11. LW 46:95, 99; LW 45:258.
12. Vitor Westhelle, “Pugnacious Words: Justification and Justice in
Luther,” Lutheran Theological Journal 48, no. 2 (2014): 81.
13. For a priority on divine agency in two-kingdoms theory, see Paul
Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972),
45-62; and Robert Benne, “Law and Gospel,” 260. Risto Saarinen draws
on the medieval distinction between God’s absolute power and ordered
(self-limited) power to locate humans as secondary, instrumental causes
even in the framework of the three estates. See Risto Saarinen, “Ethics
in Luther’s Theology: The Three Orders,” in Moral Philosophy on the
Threshold of Modernity, ed. J. Kraye and R. Saarinen (Norwell, Mass.:
Springer, 2005), 201-203. In the estates of governance and household
God carves out a space for human agency via voluntary self-limitation
through the divine covenant (see Saarinen, “Ethics in Luther’s Theology,”
199, 205-206). The third estate of the church involves a “spiritual” agency
beyond human capacity (Ibid., 206). In his social writings, Luther does
not explain the boundary between divine and human agency explicitly,
but explains the functions and roles in a way that suggests human beings
are indeed causally responsible.
14. LW 44:35-36.
15. LW 23:312, 316 (1530-2). Since it is hazardous to paste together
an argument from references scattered across years of Luther’s voluminous
writing, references in this paragraph are identified by year of publication.
16. LW 12:104-105 (1532).
17. LW 24:155 (1537).
18. LW 12:288 (1532).
19. LW 21:287 (1532).
20. LW 23:317 (1530-2).

Endnotes
1. For a recent example, see Robert Benne, “Law and Gospel, Personal and Political,” Lutheran Quarterly 28 (2014): 249-265.
2. Jennifer Herdt, Putting on Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2008), 174-178.
3. Ibid., 185.
4. Ibid., 188.

21. Bayer, Freedom in Response, 94-96.
22. For a similarly strong contrast between individual and social
existence, see James Cargill Thompson, The Political Thought of Martin
Luther, ed. Philip Broadhead (New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1984), 4243, 59. The two kingdoms (including regiments) as outlined thoroughly
by Thompson (Ibid., 42-50) constitute the baseline theory that Luther
seems to enrich in his social writings, as argued here.
23. Outside of his social writings, Luther endorses the division of
social labor and inequality in his 1537 Sermons on the Gospel of St. John
(LW 24:155). See also his 1535 Lectures on Galatians (LW 26:97-98), and
not surprisingly, his comment on Galatians 3:28 (LW 26:356).

Dialog: A Journal of Theology • Volume 56, Number 4 • Winter 2017 • December

440

24. For a compact even if late statement of what Luther means by
the “three estates,” see LW 3:217 (1535).
25. LW 46:95.
26. LW 37:364-365.
27. F. Edward Cranz, An Essay on the Development of Luther’s Thought
on Justice, Law and Society. Harvard Theological Studies IX. (Cambridge,
Mass.: Harvard University, 1959), 154.
28. LW 35:39.
29. Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian, trans. Mark D. Tranvik (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 59-64.

59. Ibid., 45:259-260.
60. Ibid., 45:264-273.
61. Ibid., 45:245.
62. Ibid., 45:252-255.
63. Ibid., 45:255-256.
64. Ibid., 45:280-289.
65. Ibid., 45:277-279.
66. Ibid., 46:265-268, 316-317.
67. Ibid., 46:267.

30. Ibid., 64-75.

68. Ibid., 45:22-30.

31. Ibid., 79-84.

69. Ibid., 46:269-270.

32. LW 44:83-86.

70. Ibid., 46:273.

33. LW 44:97-99.

71. Ibid., 46:279.

34. LW 44:92, 94-95.

72. Ibid., 46:288.

35. LW 44:87-89.

73. Ibid., 46:287, 304.

36. In 1533, Luther celebrates Paul’s three terms—rule, authority,
and power—as the integrated order of those who command, those who
carry out commands, and those who are commanded (LW 28:127-128).
In 1534, he offers a similar hierarchical vision of consistent, egalitarian
obedience up and down the line (LW 13:195-196). See Thomas A.
Brady, Jr., “Luther’s Social Teaching and the Social Order of His
Age,” in The Martin Luther Quincentennial, ed. Gerhard Dunnhaupt
(Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1985), 279-80. See also
Brady, “Two Kingdoms or Three Estates? Tradition and Experience
in Luther’s Social Teaching,” Lutherjahrbuch 52 (1985): 204-205 for
a compact account of Luther’s understanding of hierarchy organized
around patriarchal authority.
37. LW 45:83-104.
38. Ibid., 45:109, 115-6.
39. Ibid., 45:118-129.
40. Ibid., 13:44-48.
41. Ibid., 13:49-51.
42. Ibid., 13:52-55.
43. Ibid., 13:59-61, 68-69.
44. Ibid., 13:147-149.
45. Ibid., 13:152.
46. Ibid., 13:153.
47. Ibid., 13:157-159.
48. Ibid., 13:160-165.
49. Ibid., 45:169-176.
50. Ibid., 46:26.
51. Ibid., 46:29-30, 34, 39-40.
52. Ibid., 46:36.
53. Ibid., 46:101-103.
54. Ibid., 46:108-116.
55. Ibid., 46:118-125.
56. Ibid., 46:125-126.
57. Ibid., 46:128-129.
58. Ibid., 45:247-252

74. Ibid., 46:277, 305.
75. Ibid., 46:304-310.
76. Ibid., 45:36-48.
77. Ibid., 45:38-43.
78. The 1539 Disputation appears in the Weimar edition under
the title “Seventy Final Statements,” but not in the American edition of
Luther’s works (see Martin Luther, Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesammtausgabe [Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1883-2009], 39/II, 44-51. Hereafter cited
as WA). For a translation, and an introduction that amplifies the argument made here, see Stewart W. Herman, “Disputation on the Three
Hierarchies,” Lutheran Forum 51, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 37-41.
79. WA, 39/II, 1-6, 11-20.
80. Ibid., 30-34.
81. Ibid., 35-42, 45.
82. Ibid., 53-55.
83. Ibid., 61-65, 68.
84. See Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 325, for a similar interpretation.
85. In his interpretation of the 1539 Disputation, Bayer argues that
Luther holds “radical discipleship” and the ethic of responsible “householding” in a productive paradoxical tension (See Bayer, Freedom in Response, 129-137; see also Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology, 105). The Disputation might mark the collapse of this tension.
86. For example, see the essays by Caryn D. Riswold and Mary
E. Lowe in Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist and
Mujerista Perspectives, ed. Mary J. Streufert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,
2010).
87. Valerie Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” The
Journal of Religion 40 (April 2, 1960): 100-112. For lack of confidence
(pusillanimity) as a contemporary vice, see Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung,
Glittering Vices: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins and Their Remedies
(Grand Rapids, Mich.: Brazos Press, 2009), introduction.
88. LW 45:246.
89. Cranz argues that for Luther, the three estates were a template
of the Christian world, not intended to extend beyond the calling of
Christians (see Cranz, An Essay on the Development of Luther’s Thought,
177-178). My effort to project three-kingdoms thinking more broadly
involves relaxing this constraint in Luther’s thinking.