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Does faith affect society today? The long-term impact of Lutheranism

In May, at the “Heavenly Days” festival in Roskilde, Denmark, the head of the LUMEN centre at Aarhus University, Bo Kristian Holm, was part of a trialogue with Miroslav Volf and Tom Holland under the headline “Christianity and Society: Does Faith Affect Society Today?” The essence of Holm’s presentation is outlined below.

Tom Holland, Miroslav Volf, and Bo Kristian Holm in conversation with Mogens Mogensen at the Danish Church Days, “Himmelske dage,” in Roskilde, May, 2021. Photo: Kåre Gade

Faith affects modern society most in areas in which religion is most invisible. This is my main point.

The Danish welfare state is based on a series of basic principles such as universal social welfare and free education. The high level of trust that Danes place in their state and state institutions has attracted international attention. Denmark also sees itself as a forerunner of gender equality, and has something of an international reputation in this area, too. The self-discipline of the Danish people helped to conquer the many challenges arising in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic. In comparison with non-Scandinavian countries, there were very few objections to the restrictions introduced by the Danish government.

The development of the Nordic welfare state is often seen as a result of political processes and decisions made in the 20th century. However, it is rather difficult to explain why these decisions were made in the Nordic societies and not elsewhere, or why the Nordic countries chose to develop the welfare state instead of other forms of society.

One common feature among the Nordic societies is their shared Lutheran legacy, which has been part of the mentality behind political decisions in the Scandinavian region.

As head of LUMEN: Center for the Study of Lutheran Theology and Confessional Societies, in recent years I have been part of a collective, interdisciplinary research project on Lutheranism and societal development in Denmark. We have been focusing on how authority was understood and understood itself from the 16th to the 18th century, and more generally how Lutheranism impacted the social imaginaries of both individuals and society, thereby shaping the way in which legitimate actions and motivations were perceived.

The Lutheran reformers believed that all worldly activity should be oriented towards the common good of human beings as well as society both spiritually and corporally. Our research shows how this idea slowly shaped all areas of Danish society from the court to the farmhouse.

Here I will highlight five interconnected features of present society in which the Christian faith in general, and the Lutheran confession in particular, have helped to shape modern Denmark. My point is not that these characteristics are necessarily specifically Lutheran; my point is that a Lutheran confessional culture has shaped these characteristics as well as strengthening them.

  1. Care for the common good
  2. The expectation that the authorities are benevolent
  3. The idea of vocation
  4. The idea of the priesthood of all believers and of equality
  5. The role of fundamental trust

1. Care for the common good

The mere idea of the one God indicates that we all live in a common world, as the concept is used in the American pledge of allegiance: one nation under God.

What is important, however, is the way this kind of universalism is mirrored in society.

In St. George Church in Eisenach in Germany, a town which lies below Wartburg Castle, two enormous paintings were hung in the chancel just across from the seat of the local duke. In these paintings the duke could see the prince-electors from the Reformation (Friedrich the Wise and Johann the Steadfast) kneeling and receiving the Lord’s Supper just like any other forgiven sinner.

The impact of the Reformation on the idea of rulership can hardly be overestimated. We know that the ideal of the benevolent ruler was emphasised by Seneca and other stoic philosophers in ancient Rome, as well as being widespread among Renaissance humanists.

Luther mixed this idea of the benevolent ruler with the ideals of royal wisdom in the Old Testament. He believed that benevolent rulers were obliged to solve dilemmas by issuing just verdicts, and that in return citizens were obliged to respect these judgements. In other words, he regarded the relationship between the authorities and their citizens as the same as the relationship existing between parents and their children. And the Fourth Commandment underlines that children should honour their father and their mother.

When the connection to the Roman Church and canon law was cut, the obligations of temporal authority increased dramatically: it was now the duty of the prince or king to take care of both the spiritual and temporal welfare of their subjects.

When Denmark’s absolutist constitution was issued in 1665, King Christian V was not bound by anyone or anything but the Augsburg Confession. In my opinion, this self-binding of authority is an important part of the picture. Especially because it was formed by ideals taken from Luther’s doctrine of the three estates (church, household and government).

The use of the parent-child relationship as the dominating social imaginary corresponded with Luther’s understanding that above the three fundamental orders of society (church, household and government) was the common order of Christian love. All members of society were bound to reciprocal relations, tied together not only by power and submissiveness, but also by an obligation of a higher order: Christian love. This obligation was also part of the self-binding of the King to the Augsburg Confession.

2. The expectation that the authorities are benevolent

Historical sources reveal that the authorities were almost universally expected to be benevolent – although not in a modern sense. Harsh punishment was also an act of neighbourly love, according to Luther. But government was more than just harsh punishment. When Bugenhagen came to Denmark and helped the Lutheran King Christian III in the Reformation of Denmark, he distinguished in the preface to the Danish Church Ordinance between the ordinance of God and the ordinance of the king. And Bugenhagen, who from the very beginning had been interested in faith that is active in love, included in the ordinance of God not only preaching the word and distributing the sacraments, but also payment for pastors, schools and poor relief. These aspects of life belonged to God, and the king could not alter these obligations but had to comply with them.

In my view – and the historical sources also point in this direction – there is a straight line leading from this duty of temporal authority to the role of fundamental trust today and the general understanding of the state’s responsibility. I will come back to this point at the end of my presentation.

3. The idea of vocation

When Cranach painted the altar in St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, he put the Lord’s Supper in the centre. Here in ordinary bread and wine, Christ gives himself to the people taking part. Christ is present in ordinary bread and wine, and this was important for Luther. Only the God who is incarnate in a human being on a cross and present in ordinary bread and wine can be trusted as a benevolent and gracious God. This was the key point for Luther. Cranach reveals this in his painting, but he also reveals the consequence. Behind the altar scene there are some open windows. And through these windows we can see fields, farmland, a castle, a village. If God is present graciously in the Lord’s Supper, humans can also see the gracious God in the ordinary life of the world.

Here God’s call can be heard. Here Christian life should be lived.

The idea of divine presence in worldly realities gives Lutheranism a specific work ethic. It is the goal of every human being to contribute his or her work to the wellbeing of society.

Consequently, in Denmark the king concluded that the duty to take care of the poor meant establishing workhouses. We should not overstate this. These workhouses were not summer camps. They were not in themselves specifically Lutheran. However, it is quite important that Lutheranism emphasised that the time spent in the workhouse had two aims. The inmates were expected to learn their Catechism, and they were expected to learn a trade. The goal was spiritual and temporal welfare for all. Each individual was expected to learn to receive everything from God and to contribute both to his or her own sustenance, and to society in general. Poor relief included education to prepare people to work, and the workhouses supported this aim.

In terms of faith, the workhouses encouraged their inmates to trust in both heavenly and earthly authorities.

We still believe that each individual has a duty to get an education, and to work, although it could be argued that work has now become the main goal of most individuals in modern society.

4. The idea of the priesthood of all believers and of equality

The Reformation abandoned the qualitative distinction between clerics and laypersons by developing the idea of the priesthood of all believers. The egalitarian tendency in Lutheranism was strong, despite its very hierarchical understanding of the three estates. The fact that a pastor could have a family, and the fact that even the prince and the king had to kneel as forgiven sinners to receive the Lord’s Supper, underlined that in the eyes of God there was no difference between individuals. When the absolutist King Christian V gave secret advice to his successors, he underlined that favouritism should not be accepted by the law and that both rich and poor should be met with justice.

To God, all human beings were equal because they were all sinners, and this equality before God continued in the court system. It was the duty of the government to punish sin and to treat every human being equally. Consequently, the universality of sin turned women into independent legal subjects. The punishment for sexual sins became the same for men and women. The positive value of human sinfulness for society (based on the notion that everyone is fundamentally equal and nobody is perfect) seems to have been generally forgotten. Instead, we are now burdened with performance anxiety and the people’s court on the internet.

5. The role of fundamental trust

What remains is a society in which mutual trust plays a fundamental role. All Danish citizens have a digital ID, and although this system does not work perfectly, there are no major demonstrations against it on the Danish streets. And although we have a minority government that is heavily criticised politically, people still think that what the state does is done with a reason and for the sake of the common good. There is no doubt that the way Denmark handled the pandemic had a lot to do with the kind of fundamental trust in the government that can be traced back to the self-restriction of secular power.

In the present situation, this could give reasons for a debate on what will happen when the last traces of the common religious background behind the main structures of society (in which religion is still invisibly present) disappear.

We live in a situation where the fight for individual rights and identity often clashes with the idea of a common world and a common society binding us together. This clash remains one of the main challenges facing both society and religious faith today.

Literature: Pligt og omsorg – velfærdsstatens lutherske rødder, ed. Nina J. Koefoed & Bo Kristian Holm, Copenhagen: Gads Forlag 2021 (Authors: Nina J, Koefoed, Bo K. Holm, Gorm Hasten, Sasja Stopa, Maria N. Pedersen).