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The Ten Commandments and good work

Right from the outset, Luther’s attack on works righteousness was criticised for the implication that people were thereby released from the obligation to do good work. The logic of this criticism was that people will stop doing good work if doing good work has no influence on their salvation. Simultaneously, the religious obligation placed on the authorities has been seen as an obligation to maintain social order by defining certain actions negatively as sinful and thus criminal. However, to gain a more complete picture of the impact of Lutheranism on societal development, it is crucial to include the positive obligation to do good work on a personal and societal level.

[Translate to English:] Poor Panel from Sct Peter’s Church in Næstved from 1633 urging people to give to the poor with the promise of God’s blessing – but this should be understood as a blessing in this world. The obligation to give to the poor followed from the seventh commandment (By the courtesy of Museum Sydøstdanmark).

The duty to do good work
The Confession of Augsburg (§20) reveals that the connection between Luther’s attack on works righteousness and his understanding of the Christian obligation to do good work has always been controversial:

Our teachers are falsely accused of forbidding Good Works. For their published writings on the Ten Commandments, and others of like import, bear witness that they have taught to good purpose concerning all estates and duties of life, as to what estates of life and what works in every calling be pleasing to God.  

The duty to do good work was important enough to be addressed at length in the central confessional document of the Evangelical-Lutheran church. The Ten Commandments were regarded as central in defining good work to be done through the doctrine of the three estates, and according to the individual’s position in society.

The Ten Commandments and the definition of sin
In 1665 the absolute king of Denmark committed himself to observe the Augsburg Confession in the King’s Code, a code that confirmed the validity of absolutism, introduced five years earlier. His commitment to the Augsburg Confession not only concerned his personal belief, but was a political commitment to ensure that the Danish kingdom was a Christian kingdom in accordance with the confession.

This commitment has rightly been interpreted as an obligation to ensure the Christian life of his subjects by punishing sinful behaviour. When the Danish Code, a national piece of legislation, was published in 1683, it criminalised every sin against the Ten Commandments. The definition of good work in the Augsburg Confession, however, allows another interpretation of the religious obligation of the king and the influence of the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments and good work
Luther’s Small Catechism was supplemented with two explanations during the 18th century: Erik Pontoppidan’s pietistic Truth unto Godliness in 1737, and Bishop Balle’s more enlightened, rationalistic Textbook in 1791. Both were authorized by the king, and both encountered resistance from different groups in society. Both developed the explanations of the Ten Commandments and the obligation to do good work in different ways.

Pontoppidan’s explanation was closest to Luther’s own catechism, and adopted the structure of Luther’s Large Catechism in explaining the doctrine of the three estates as part of the fourth commandment (honour your father and your mother). Here not only the obligation to honour was central; the Catechism also underlined the social obligation of the authority in each estate. The seventh commandment (do not steal) was interpreted as an obligation to work and as a prohibition of begging; but it was also regarded as constituting a duty to help your neighbour in need. In other words, the failure to give alms was a violation of the seventh commandment.

The notion of social responsibility was developed by Balle. He did not explain the Ten Commandments one by one, but included them in a chapter on Man’s duties towards God, his neighbour and himself. Man had obligations regarding the soul, the body and the earthly welfare of his neighbour. Care for earthly welfare was related to the seventh and eight commandments. Man must not inflict losses on other people, but must help those in need and prevent their destruction. Man should show mercy towards those in need owing to weakness, age, childhood or helplessness; and towards those who cannot provide for themselves despite their hard work. On the other hand, beggars who can work should be given work and no alms (this work could take place in workhouses).

Balle developed the idea of social responsibilities embedded in the seventh commandment in particular in accordance with the ideas of enlightenment, but also in accordance with Luther’s understanding of the double command to love and to do good work. Balle was also in accordance with the definition of the deserving poor and the social obligations embedded in the Poor Law of 1708, renewed in 1799 for Copenhagen and in 1802/03 for the rest of the country. 

An alternative to secularisation?
In the 17th century, God was present in the world as a punishing – and rewarding – God. But in the 18th century, God gradually withdrew from this world. Simultaneous, the notion that the king was obliged to ensure the wellbeing of his citizens grew. This development has often been described as the result of Enlightenment, creating a completely new understanding of the individual and social responsibilities that led to a break with the religious obligation of the prince to punish sin, and subsequently resulted in secularisation. If we include good work into the understanding of a Christian society and of the obligation of authority, another understanding of the impact from Lutheranism on societal development, follows. Then religion and specifically the Ten Commandments continue to be a guideline for societal development, for individual social obligations and for the obligation to create social order placed on the prince.

Further reading
The notion that the Ten Commandments can be regarded as guidelines for good work, and the possible consequences of this in terms of societal influence, are developed further in:

Nina Javette Koefoed: “Authorities Who Care: The Lutheran Doctrine of the Three Estates in Danish Legal Development from the Reformation to Absolutism”. In Scandinavian Journal of History, 2019,1.

Nina Javette Koefoed: “Gode kristne og gode borgere”, in Koefoed, Holm & Stopa (eds.), Religion som forklaring? Kirke og religion i stat og samfund. Aarhus University Press 2018, pp. 213-230.