Acton Institute Powerblog

What Is Protestant Social Teaching?

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Most Christians, especially those involved in social justice issues, have heard of Catholic social teaching, including the papal encyclicals that gave it life. But how many have heard of its Protestant version? Does it even exist? If not, is such a thing possible given the varieties of Protestantisms?

Read More…

The point of departure for Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction is an observation set forth by Stephen J. Grabill in the pages of the Journal of Markets & Morality: “Neither magisterial Protestants nor evangelicals have a theologically unified body of social teaching.”

As Steven Wedgeworth contends in the volume’s introduction, “This book is an answer to Professor Grabill’s challenge.” Protestant Social Teaching can in one sense thus be judged on its own terms as an answer to the task Grabill identifies. In that sense it must be judged to be a failure, however, resulting in no small part from the exact nature of the challenge Grabill articulated: “When I urge that Protestant theologians need to build a body of social thought, what I mean is that the first order of business is to settle on a theological infrastructure before attempting to resolve specific social questions.”

Protestant Social Teaching opts for the latter rather than the former, and thereby provides not so much an answer to Grabill’s challenge as a diversion. Wedgeworth’s first rejoinder to Grabill’s call is to point to the existence of much historical Protestant teaching with respect to social ethics. Thus, writes Wedgeworth, “The sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries featured a coherent collection of moral and social teachings grounded in basic Protestant doctrinal understandings of God, revelation, law, and humanity. This is now largely forgotten. But it is not truly lost.” He goes on to point to, among other things, the Davenant Institute’s praiseworthy efforts to recirculate and republish much of that older material.

But, of course, Grabill himself was—at the time of his challenge to develop a body of Protestant social thought as well as afterward—likewise involved in efforts to translate and publish older material at the intersection of Christian theology and political economy, in the Journal of Markets & Morality as well as in the Sources in Early Modern Economics, Ethics, and Law, which I had the privilege to serve along with him as co–general editor.

So the question really isn’t about whether there is relevant or sufficient source material in history for the development of a contemporary body of Protestant social thought. It really is about the nature of the task: what it would require and how it ought to be executed. Simply pointing to historical sources, even providing some level of interpretation, introduction, and explication, is certainly necessary but not at all sufficient for the kind of project that Grabill envisioned. This volume does a good job of the former, but doesn’t consistently make the leap from historical sources (not only in the Reformation era but in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries) to manifesting a principled framework for contemporary application—much less actually making that application.

This false start is no reason to dismiss the volume, however, even if it is cause for chastened expectations for the inauguration of a new era of principled Protestant ethical reflection. Protestant Social Teaching presents no unified “theological infrastructure” or explication of Protestant social ethical principles. Rather, the topical contributions proceed in three main parts: 1) Law, Justice, and Punishment; 2) Marriage, Life, and Death; and 3) Property, Wealth, and Poverty. Before briefly evaluating the volume’s substantial contributions, some further attention to the structural elements of the project is warranted.

Grabill’s challenge was issued in the context of reflections on the value of modern Catholic social teaching (CST), especially in what at that time was the latest offering, Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical letter Caritas in Veritate, promulgated in 2009. Thus Grabill had in mind whether something analogous for Protestants to what Roman Catholics had accomplished was worthwhile, or even possible. Among the salient differences that Wedgeworth notes between Protestant and Roman Catholic approaches to social teaching is that “there is no central institution, no magisterium, which intervenes to resolve moral and social teaching for Protestants.” Instead, writes Wedgeworth, “Protestant Social Teaching exists more like a common law, an ongoing but nevertheless ascertainable collection of consensual exegesis of the Scriptures and moral philosophy, a philosophy built upon Protestant principles.”

Alas, the engagement with CST in this volume essentially concludes there. As many differences as there are on important ethical questions and principles between Protestants and Roman Catholics, there are a great deal of shared concerns as well as conclusions, and Protestants have much to learn from Catholics in this regard. This is a claim I have made elsewhere and so shall not explicate here. But a striking feature of Protestant Social Teaching is that (other than a few stray comments akin to those already quoted) it proceeds as if there were no such phenomenon as modern Catholic social teaching, inaugurated with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch Reformed theologian and statesman, observed that there was much to learn and to motivate Protestants to action from this document in his own important address on the problem of poverty later that same year:

We must admit, to our shame, that the Roman Catholics are far ahead of us in their study of the social question…. Thus Catholic activities should spur us on to show greater energy…. [Rerum Novarum] deals solely with those principles that all Christians hold in common and that we too share with our Roman Catholic fellow countrymen.

In its earliest iteration, Kuyper thus found Catholic social teaching to be a worthy dialogue partner and a spur to greater and more principled work among Protestants. Protestant Social Teaching would have been improved by a more sustained engagement with the much more developed and mature tradition represented in CST in the intervening century.

Indeed, one of the areas that Kuyper highlighted for prioritization was the identification and explication of principles for social thought and action. In his estimation, too much of Protestant social thought “fails to penetrate to the fundamental principles involved.” In this sense Protestant Social Teaching continues in a long line of serious but flawed attempts to articulate a coherent body of Protestant social ethical reflection. Because the volume does not take its point of departure in the first principles of social ethics, there is much unity that remains obscured and coherence that remains underdeveloped in the various contributions.

It is of course certainly understandable and even praiseworthy that there is diversity and even difference in the concrete conclusions reached by various authors working within a larger tradition. As Jesus might say to Protestants who revel in the riches of the primary source material from Luther, Calvin, and their contemporaries, however: “There is one thing you lack.” In this case, it is a coherent and systematic presentation of the principles of social thought within which diversity and dialogue can truly be productive. Here again is a place where engagement with CST might have been helpful. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, for instance, expounds “Principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine,” notably including the common good, the universal destination of goods, subsidiarity, and solidarity. Which of these might Protestant social teaching also affirm? Which might Protestant social teaching deny? And which might Protestant social teaching amend or translate into some other idiom?

Another way of putting the challenge is to echo Grabill’s own question: “How should theology, Scripture, and church history inform the project of bringing definition and coherence to the conflicting strands of Protestant social reflection?” This volume does not directly address the foundational importance of Protestant understandings of authority, whether scripture or various (and variegated) sources of tradition. Neither does it establish sufficiently natural law and its corollaries in solidarity and subsidiarity as principles for Protestant social thought, even though, as Brad Littlejohn rightly remarks in passing, the substance of the doctrine of subsidiarity “was a core contribution of Protestant Social Teaching long before” its codification in modern Catholic social teaching.

Even if Protestant Social Teaching does not do justice to the challenge of articulating and developing coherent first principles of Protestant social ethical reflection, that does not mean there is nothing to learn from the volume. The failure of an endeavor to do something that has not been done before does not negate all value. One goal of the volume is to catalyze further reflection, and it is sure to do that and with some important contributions to the ongoing discussion. In addition to exploring first principles as such, topics missing from this volume as fundamentally important to social ethics as anthropology (including race) and ecclesiology would be worth exploring in future studies.

As with any collection of this kind, there are contributions that are better and a few that are worse, and only one that is truly bad. The chapters in this way are variegated—if not uneven—and are characterized by a diversity of approach. Some are more historical while others are more analytic. Some engage Luther and Calvin, and some make only passing reference if at all to distinctively Protestant sources.

I have asserted that this kind of project would be well served to have a more constructive engagement with the phenomenon of Catholic social teaching going forward. This would have a number of salutary effects, including to help clarify where there are both differences and agreements between the various traditions. It would also help offset what passes for engagement with Catholicism in this volume, which is pretty much exclusively negative.

Many of those assessments are on points where I am in agreement with the critical evaluation of the Roman position. But there is a kind of eccentric ecumenism at play in a project where CST is essentially ignored except as a very occasional foil; the tradition of neo-Calvinism and Kuyper and Bavinck are substantially absent (except for a notable engagement in the penultimate chapter, a worthwhile contribution on taxation and welfare by Allen Calhoun); and the contributors to a Protestant social ethical project construed along magisterial lines—Lutheran and Reformed—are for the most part identifiably Presbyterian and Anglican. Omitted (or nearly so) are figures including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ernst Troeltsch (whose Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen would seemingly be an important touchstone for exploring Protestant social teaching), Emil Brunner, C.S. Lewis, J. Gresham Machen, and Martin Luther King Jr.—among many other notables. This underscores the volume’s strong bias toward Reformation-era sources and scant engagement with more recent Protestant social thought (including that of ecumenical movements and groups).

I have said a lot about what the volume should have done in my estimation and did not do, and in some ways it is a type of criticism that is too easy. The task of developing Protestant social thought is significant enough that some wrangling over first principles and methodological concerns is unavoidable and indeed necessary. All my foregoing complaints do not mean that there are not very valuable contributions in this volume, however. In this regard the contributions from E.J. Hutchinson on “Law and the Christian,” Glenn Moots on “Resistance and Rebellion,” Steven Wedgeworth on “Abortion,” Eric G. Enlow on “Private Property,” and especially Allen Calhoun on “Taxation and Welfare” are particularly worthwhile.

In sum, this volume is a helpful resource as an introduction to some of the sources from the Reformation era and a bit beyond that are relevant for the retrieval of Protestant social thought. But there are too many gaps, both substantive and methodological, for it to serve on its own as a reliable introduction to Protestant social teaching.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.