Against the Infinite Stimulus of Greed

Martin Bucer's Reformation of Welfare

Brad Littlejohn
Bradford Littlejohn is a senior fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation and president of the Davenant Institute. He is the author of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty (Eerdmans, 2017) and numerous other writings in the areas of Christian ethics, political theology, and Reformation history. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

I. Introduction

In the clarion call of the Reformation, Luther writes, “man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others and not for himself.”  Because one of the primary dimensions of earthly existence is economic—buying, selling, owning, giving, and taxpaying—Protestants keen to understand and apply this legacy of the Reformation must understand the Reformers’ economic thought.

Unfortunately, seen through the laissez-faire eyes of modern conservatism, this thought is often seriously misrepresented. True, against the backdrop of the medieval spiritualization of begging and mendicancy, the Reformers did stress the importance of hard work and the need to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. But they did not call for the privatization of charity—in fact, since mendicant beggars exploited private charity most effectively, they often sought quite the opposite. Many Reformers called for bold institutional action involving both church and state to care for the poor, lift them out of poverty, and even, in some cases, to regulate the economic activities that were driving increasing numbers into poverty.

One of the boldest voices belonged to Martin Bucer, who called for the English crown to enact robust policies regulating economic activity and providing strong, institutional poor relief mechanisms; the crown should, he argued, aim to ensure the survival, welfare, and flourishing of every member of society without giving quarter to voluntary idleness.

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