Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction

This article is the introduction to the latest book from the Davenant Press, Protestant Social Teaching: An Introduction, which is out now.

“Protestant Social Teaching,” the title of this collection, is guaranteed to invite debate. Is there such a thing? Which voices and positions should be included? Who has the right to decide? These sorts of questions are endemic to Protestantism in the modern world. And while Protestantism will always have an inherent diversity, as its shape is more of a constellation of schools than a singular institution, it once had a remarkable unity on matters of moral theology.

Additionally, many readers will see in the name “Protestant Social Teaching” a sort of imitation of “Catholic Social Teaching.”[1] Rhetorically this is true—the title was chosen with that parallel in mind. Catholic Social Teaching has proven to be an incredibly powerful mechanism for offering moral guidance to Roman Catholics and for providing an alternative to the more common offerings in magazines, talk radio, or cable news channels. Importantly, Catholic Social Teaching claims to offer a unified and coherent body of moral discipleship that integrates doctrine and practice. Many Protestants lament their lack of such a unified body of teaching. Indeed, in 2009, Stephen J. Grabill asserted, “Neither magisterial Protestants nor evangelicals have a theologically unified body of social teaching.”[2] He then encouraged them to build such a body of thought, though he confessed that it would not be an easy task.

This book is an answer to Professor Grabill’s challenge. We do not, however, accept his premise. Indeed, we hope to offer a unified body of social teaching not by way of creation but recovery. The sixteenth through 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. The sources are still there, in so many catechisms, bodies of divinity, systematic theologies, and practical works. New publishing ventures and the continuing improvement of e-books has made the recovery of such works more accessible than ever before. It has been the central mission of the Davenant Institute to bring the fruits of this recovery to the broader public.

The relevant sources are quite literally immense. Richard Baxter’s massive A Christian Directory is subtitled A Sum of Practical Theology, and Cases of Conscience, and it covers both questions of personal piety and matters of social and political concern. All major Protestant catechisms and doctrinal manuals included commentaries on the Ten Commandments with particular applications. The Westminster Larger Catechism is perhaps the most detailed of the major confessional documents, but it was not unique in its approach or philosophy. It was simply one of the later productions. Zacharias Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism contains a detailed explication of the moral law contained in the Decalogue, with forays into the death penalty, warfare, property rights, and more.[3] William Ames’s The Marrow of Theology devotes half of its space to “observance,” which it defines as “the submissive performance of the will of God for the glory of God.”[4] Among these latter chapters, Ames discusses distinctions among loves, duties, and justice. Works of this sort were entirely common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Martin Luther and John Calvin certainly have their catechetical discussions of the law of God, but both also offer fascinating moral discussions in their biblical commentaries. Less obvious sources also provide important moral casuistry. Martin Chemnitz’s four volume Examination of the Council of Trent begins with basic doctrinal polemics, but moves into a discussion of sexual ethics, particularly virginity, chastity, marriage, and divorce.[5]

As one continues into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in the United Kingdom and its colonies, Protestant moral and political thought influenced the development of the common law. William Blackstone’s Commentaries of the Laws of England is typically thought of as a sort of “secular work,” and not the sort of thing that one would immediately connect with ecclesiastical writers. But the Protestant imagination of the time did not divide up the intellectual world in such neatly opposed categories. When read in conversation with thinkers like Samuel von Pufendorf, John Selden, or Niels Hemmingsen, the basic family resemblance becomes apparent.

This should also help to explain what we mean by “Protestant.” It is true that the word means relatively little in the twenty-first century. It is mostly a negation—not Roman Catholic. But this was not its intended meaning. Originating with the “protest” at the Diet of Speyer in 1529, the name Protestant initially applied to Lutherans. Fairly quickly the churches and theologians now known as “Reformed” were also included in this broader grouping. Indeed, Strasbourg was one of the original cities involved in the protestation, and so the term “Protestant” applied to both the Reformed and Lutheran churches.[6] It did not, however, extend to the Anabaptists, who viewed themselves as a refounding rather than reforming movement and who also had unique positions on anthropology and law. This use of “Protestant” for the Lutheran and Reformed churches can be found in the seventeenth century itself.[7] While Lutherans and the Reformed did not see themselves as a united church, and while they had certain important disagreements, they largely did agree on prolegomena (which is to say the role of reason and revelation), the doctrine of God, anthropology, the natural law, and most matters of politics. Where disagreements did arise, they could also be found within each community rather than merely as Lutherans against the Reformed or vice-versa.

So, the “Protestant Social Teaching” of this book is a common understanding of the moral law, a shared exegesis of relevant biblical texts, and the continued reception of earlier Christian writers on the part of both Lutheran and Reformed theologians and statesmen. The foundations of this teaching are found in the Reformation era, namely the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but its legacy continued on into the nineteenth centuries among select writers and thinkers. Among the most select, it continued even into the twentieth.

This framework also explains the scope of our sources. We have prioritized what is common to the Protestant Reformation. This usually means what is most basic among the thought of its writers and churches. While many of the chapters in this volume do extend their discussion into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they do not interact with movements which began in those centuries. Writers who are uniquely bound to contemporary issues are avoided entirely. Political debates limited to the United States or time-bound cultural disputes are deprioritized in favor of more principial and abiding matters. In this sense, our Protestantism is resolutely catholic. We are attempting to uncover and pass along perennial and ecumenical Protestant truths. Later topics and more specific ones, including controversial and divisive ones, are entirely appropriate items for discussion and investigation, but they must wait for future installments. The present study is introductory. But if we succeed in our task, many of the categories needed for such future essays will be uncovered by our work here.

This approach also shows how our understanding of Protestant Social Teaching differs from Catholic Social Teaching. The content will be strikingly similar. It is the form which differs. There is no central institution, no magisterium, which intervenes to resolve moral and social teaching for Protestants. Our churches do not say, as Rome does, that they are “the authentic guardians and interpreters of the whole moral law.”[8] Rather, 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.

One of these principles is that of the natural law and original righteousness.[9] A basic moral guidance can be discerned in virtue of humanity’s rational nature. Sin causes men to repress this morality or misuse it, but it is never fully lost to the human consciousness. The work of Christ, too, is a restoration of the original righteousness possessed by mankind due to his having been created in the image of God. Protestant Social Teaching, then, does not point man beyond a rational morality towards a new and heretofore unknown frontier. Rather it redirects him back to his own rational morality. The Reformers taught that the human conscience can and eventually will grasp God’s truth. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the human conscience, as it is renewed, will be grasped by God’s truth. As a human being grows in a truer and better knowledge of God, he grows in the knowledge of himself, and as he grows in a truer and better knowledge of himself, he grows in the knowledge of God. Thus, rather than retreating to a final ecclesiastical interpreter, Protestants equip men to progress in understanding.

No claim can be made to a “seamless garment,” in Protestant Teaching, at least not if that means that there is never moral disagreement between pious and serious Christian thinkers. Indeed, as Aquinas would remind us, “the more we descend to matters of detail, the more frequently we encounter defects.”[10] Where a matter is closer to the basic principle, greater clarity and agreement should be expected. As a moral question becomes more specific and dependent upon circumstance, greater diversity of judgment should be expected and greater liberty allowed. And so we do not look to a final ecclesiastical interpreter who intervenes to put a stop to difficult questions. The boundaries of Protestant Social Teaching are not so much institutional as they are categorical. The authority derives from recognizing the truth of the moral argument itself.

It is because of this framework that it should go without saying that the various contributors to this volume do not pretend total agreement with one another. Indeed, some authors register their own disagreement with certain aspects of the Protestant tradition they are explaining! Certain chapters are predominately historical and descriptive. Others are more constructive. Some are critical. It is our hope that this approach will allow the actual truths of the tradition to speak louder than any individual voice, and that it will invite the reader into this critical engagement, so he can see which arguments truly persuade. Even so, we believe a basic and compelling unity is there to be seen.

In fact, readers will notice that the majority of our essays do not begin with the Protestant Reformation but rather the early church and even pre-Christian writers. In this, we are merely following in the example of our Reformation forefathers, for they too pointed beyond themselves to the older sources and ultimately to the truth and authority of God’s Word. And so, at the end of all our studies, it is our goal to use the traditional interpretations and arguments to more clearly highlight the content of God’s two books, the Holy Scriptures and the light of nature. As understood by its own articulators, Protestant Social Teaching is merely Christian Social Teaching. May our world discover it afresh.

  1. For a scholarly overview of Catholic Social Teaching, see David J. O’Brien and Thomas Anthony Shannon’s “Introduction: Roman Catholic Social Teaching” in their Catholic Social Thought: Encyclicals and Documents from Pope Leo III to Pope Francis, 3rd ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2016), 1–6; for an attempt at a full systematic presentation of Roman Catholic social teaching, see Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Washington, DC: USCCB Publishing, 2006).

  2. Stephen J. Grabill, “Protestant Social Thought,” Journal of Markets and Morality 12, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 1.

  3. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1852 reprint), 586–87, 596.

  4. William Ames, The Marrow of Theology, trans. J. D. Eusden (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997), 219.

  5. Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent Parts II & III, trans. F. Kramer (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2007) Part II, 717–66; Part III, 15–226.

  6. See Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003), xx, 171–79.

  7. For instance, William Chillingworth, The Religion of Protestants, A Safe Way to Salvation (London: Lichfield, 1638).

  8. Paul VI, Humanae Vitae: Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, On the Regulation of Births I.4, Vatican Website 1968, accessed August 31, 2022 https://www.vatican.

  9. See the discussion of mankind’s original righteousness and its implication on ethics in Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, trans. J. Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 544–46.

  10. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I–II, q. 94, a. 4, co.


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