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Images of justification and the care of the poor

In early Lutheranism, sermons, confessions and catechisms were not the only avenues through which the new doctrine of justification spread. At the same time, artists such as Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer and Hans Schäufelin were working on visual forms that expressed the Reformation faith. These visual expressions had quite a strong influence on the shaping of Lutheran confessional societies.

19.02.2020 | Professor Dr Christian Neddens, Lutherisch Theologische Hochschule, Oberursel

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Christ Blessing the Children © Sammlung Würth & Ivan Baschang, München/Paris ; Licence: CC BY-NC-SA


The social imaginary

The doctrine of justification might be seen as the heart of the Lutheran social imaginary. For Cornelius Castoriadis and Charles Taylor, the social imaginary is what forms the society and defines what is ‘real.’ In Charles Taylor´s social theory, the term ‘social imaginary’ means “the ways in which people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations.”1 For Castoriadis, the scenes of the imaginary are built by ‘images’ deriving from a wider range. The imaginary “immediately establishes and develops an articulated system of relationships, in which the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ are set, separated and united; it outlines the possibilities of acting and perceiving, [ . . . ] decides on value and worthlessness, is the source of all later symbolic meaning.”2

Justification theology and close social relations

Bo Holm has shown that Luther, like Melanchthon, expressed the doctrine of justification primarily through metaphors of close social relations such as husband–wife or parent–child. As a result, however, even these close social relations were now strongly influenced by the doctrine of justification.

The strength of meaning of close social relations as metaphors for justification finds its correspondence in the Reformation images portrayed by Cranach and his contemporaries. Next to the Meditation on the Crucified, Cranach invented the Asymmetrical Marriage image (after John 8) and the Blessing of the Children image (after Mark 10) as central expressions of justification by faith. In the marriage image, the loving relation between Christ and the sinner is crucial – as is the solidarity of all sinners, who remain dependent on God’s grace. The image therefore depicts esteem for everyone, and it encompasses the reintegration of the sinner into the community. Likewise the parent–child image, expressed also in the Caritas motif, shows a relation of unconditional love and a spontaneous and unsolicited care. Here, rather than being associated with extraordinary good works, charity refers to the natural sharing of life that arises from trust in the Creator’s care.

Justification theology and the shaping of social responsibility

If we look at the basic texts for establishing care for the poor in Lutheran territories, the connection between justification theology and social responsibility immediately catches the eye. Already in his preface to the Leisnig community chest ordinance, Luther justifies the installation of a common chest in the community to care for the needy, remembering God´s ‘mercy’ cited in 2 Cor. 1:3, which establishes an intimate familial community of God´s children through participation in Jesus Christ. In the Braunschweig church order of Johannes Bugenhagen we can also see the tight connection between sharing and caring: preaching the Gospel, teaching children, and caring for the poor are the three main goals of this order.

‘Poor panels’ as expression of the social imaginary

It was not just social welfare that was undergoing reorganisation in the Protestant territories. The community ‘common chests’ were often fitted with picture panels which exhorted citizens to support the poor.  The Württemberg alms order, for example, prescribes that a plaque should be attached to the alms box, so that all could be admonished to give.

For the artists, however, this admonition seems to have been difficult to relate to the core of the social imaginary in Lutheranism: the doctrine of justification and its metaphors of familial relations. The justification image of the asymmetrical marriage was no longer in use in the field of ethics, while the parent–child or Caritas image was becoming associated once again with extraordinary works of mercy rather than everyday family life.

Most of the ‘poor panels’ of the late Reformation and Baroque remind us – as does the Gdansk Caritas – of the well-known connection between works and reward, a connection that is hardly compatible with the Lutheran doctrine of justification. On a sixteenth-century alms panel from Möckern, the passage quoted suggests an immediate connection between doing and receiving: “Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.”

Closing the gap between justification theology and ethics

A possible way to resolve such problematic ambiguity between justification theology and the ethics implicit in biblical images was to disambiguate the stories or their pictures artificially. A painting from the Protestant church of Mellenthin, for example, showing the good Samaritan after Lk 10:30–37, is inscribed with the text “Our wounds are cured by God alone.” While it is characteristic of the biblical parable that the listener takes on the role of the Samaritan as well as that of the beaten traveller, so that the parable has an active ethical as well as a passive soteriological component, this image reduces this ambivalence to the aspect of being cured through Christ.

But there is a third possibility. The emphasis in parables such as Lk 10 or Mt 25 could be placed not on the aspect of heavenly ​​reward, but on that of relationship. On Lutheran alms panels a type of representation can be found that connects the nearness of Christ and the encounter with the needy in a way that highlights not the individual’s own work, but the love of Christ. On an alms panel from Schleusingen (1546), for example, Christ makes us aware of the needy without associating caring for the needy with good works or heavenly reward. The clearly visible plaque on the wall, quoting Lk 6:36, remembers God’s mercy and emphasises the sola gratia: “Be merciful as your father is in heaven.”

On an alms panel from the Lutheran church at Bad Überkingen (1604), the emphasis is on the presence of Christ within the poor and needy. An inscription promises: “inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). The combination of the brotherhood of Christ with care for the poor resonates strongly in yet another motif, that of the poor man Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31).

Justification images shaping social welfare

To what extent did these metaphors and images actually affect the perception and shaping of the social? It will be difficult to prove this empirically. What is certain, however, is that much effort has been made in Lutheran imagery to anchor social welfare at the core of justification – sometimes more convincing, sometimes less.

1   Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Durham and London 2004, 23–30.

2   Cornelius Castoriadis, Gesellschaft als imaginäre Institution. Entwurf einer politischen Philosophie, Frankfurt am Main [1975] 1990, 245 [translation by the author].