Response to John Pahl’s “An Economic Reading of Luther on the Eucharist, or How a ‘Sacramental Economics’ Made Matter Matter in New Ways”


[1] Two brief words regarding the format of this response: given the nature of the gathering, I thought it best to respond to John Pahl’s paper with questions to prompt further discussion. That format is preserved below. Think of this response as a way to probe Pahl’s claims and their implications. Also, my questions and critique assume the Lutheran confessional writings as authoritative, hence my implicit appeal to them in the final paragraph.

[2] The first series of questions regard Pahl’s selection and exegesis of Luther. In addition to the writings Pahl selected, I suggested that “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods” would be better suited to Pahl’s concerns.[1]  I was also unclear on portions of Pahl’s exegesis of Luther. On pages 3 and 4, Pahl quotes Timothy Wengert thusly: “Luther’s earliest concern [regarding] indulgences was not that heaven and the gospel were for sale but rather that escape from judgment and from the law were.” Pahl then uses this quote to pivot from theological to ethical matters. This raise two questions. First, which sense(s) of the law are at work here? This is important given that Pahl premises his ethical reading of Luther on this and similar quotes. This quote, though, could reference the law’s second use. And if this is so, I am not sure it does the work Pahl supposes. This brings up a second question. How does Pahl distinguish theology from ethics? I’m not sure what either term means for Pahl, how they are related, or if the distinction is his or Luther’s. Finally, it was not clear to me if, in Pahl’s Luther, there is a difference between economic concerns and theological concerns expressed in economic language. To be sure, the practice of indulgences muddies the boundary, and so invites the readings of the sort Pahl offers. However, it would be helpful to know how, for instance, the 95 Theses are both a critique of a certain economic practice and a critique of certain theological assumptions, and how these two things relate.

[3] My second set of questions regard one of Pahl’s big constructive moves, the turn towards matter. Pahl wants to convince his readers that, owing to Luther’s understanding of the sacraments, matter matters in new ways. When Pahl begins to think of these new ways, he frequently turns to the work of princes and civil governments. Fair enough, but he also notes the individual’s centrality for Luther earlier in the piece. Why does Pahl not discuss vocation as mattering in new ways? One suspects that Pahl’s constructive aims and contemporary concerns overshadow his exegesis at this point. Second, Pahl is right to point out God’s intimate relationship to matter for Luther. However, Pahl fails to note that Luther further distinguishes this relationship along law/promise lines. This distinction matters for how we think of and experience God’s relationship to matter. Not just that, but how, God relates to matter is key for Luther. Here, Mary Gaebler’s “U.S. Property Law Reconsidered in Light of the Lutheran Finitum Capax Infiniti” could bring some clarity to these issues.[2]

[4] My final series of questions regard Pahl’s discussion of contemporary issues. Pahl recommends social and economic programs that, for Christians, would incarnate Christ even more than our weekly practices of communion. The specific economic programs are laudable, but like above, he misses the law/promise distinction. He also misses the fact that, as Lutherans, we confess Christ is present by virtue of his word and promise to us. Certainly, his presence at the Eucharistic table empowers the sort of behavior and vision Pahl suggests. But to suggest that we can find Christ by virtue of these behaviors, or “incarnate” him through them, is to miss the Eucharist’s power: that Christ comes by grace and promise. Second, I wonder what role eschatological hope plays for Pahl, especially given the dreary assessment that ends the piece. Absent an eschatological vision, what hope does Pahl think possible for those who will continue to live materially impoverished lives? Or those who have already died under such conditions?

 

Rev. Dr. Justin Nickel is pastor of Living God Lutheran Church in Honey Brook, PA.



[1] Martin Luther, “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods” (1519) in Luther’s Works, vol. 35, trans. By Jeremiah J. Schindel, rev. by E. Theodore Bachman (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), pp. 45-73.

[2] Mary Gaebler, “U.S. Property Law Reconsidered in Light of the Lutheran Finitum Capax Infiniti” in Ronald W. Duty and Marie A. Failinger, eds., On Secular Governance: Lutheran Perspectives on Contemporary Legal Issues (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016), pp. 79-101.


Articles published in the journal reflect the perspectives and thoughts of their authors and not necessarily the theological, ethical, or social stances of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


© April/May 2019
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 19, Issue 2