Religion & Liberty Online

That Time Obama Quoted Luther

DSC_0700This is a post about that time that President Obama quoted Luther (Martin, the reformer, not the anger translator). Okay, maybe the President didn’t quote the monk with a mallet, but suspend your disbelief for a few more paragraphs at least.

Remember the kerfuffle when President Obama uttered those infamous words, “You didn’t build that”? It was, granted, a long time ago (3 years, in fact). But as I argued at the time, there was some truth in the basic sentiment, even if there was some ambiguity about the President’s intended antecedent.

Lately I ran across this striking passage from one of Martin Luther’s sermons, where he raises the stakes, so to speak, regarding the necessity of civil government for social flourishing. In a 1528 sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, Luther has this to say about the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread”:

When you pray this petition turn your eyes to everything that can prevent our bread from coming and the crops from prospering. Therefore extend your thoughts to all the fields and do not see only the baker’s oven. You pray, therefore, against the devil and the world, who can hinder the grain by tempest and war. We pray also for temporal peace against war, because in times of war we cannot have bread. Likewise, you pray for government, for sustenance and peace, without which you cannot eat: Grant, Lord, that the grain may prosper, that the princes may keep the peace, that war may not break out, that we may give thanks to thee in peace. Therefore it would be proper to stamp the emperor’s or the princes’ coat-of-arms upon bread as well as upon money or coins. Few know that this is included in the Lord’s Prayer. Though the Lord gives bread in sufficient abundance even to the wicked and godless, it is nevertheless fitting that we Christians should know and acknowledge that it comes from God, that we realize that bread, hunger, and war are in God’s hands. If he opens his hand, we have bread and all things in abundance; if he closes it, then it is the opposite. Therefore, do not think that peace is an accidental thing; it is the gift of God. (LW 51:176-177)

There’s a great deal going on in this exposition, but let’s focus briefly on one of Luther’s notable rhetorical flourishes: “Therefore it would be proper to stamp the emperor’s or the princes’ coat-of-arms upon bread as well as upon money or coins.” In the background here is that time the Pharisees and scribes tried to trap Jesus by asking whether it was licit to pay taxes to Rome. The denarius coin had Caesar’s face inscribed on it, and Jesus answered them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

In his characteristic way, Luther tweaks that biblical lesson to teach us something more about how God uses the institutions of social life to our benefit. Without the protection of princes and kings, for instance, there would be no peace, and with no peace, there would be no ability to grow crops, mill grain, bake bread, and buy and sell in the marketplace. “Bread cannot come to me if there is no peace,” says Luther. “The Lord does indeed give bread, but he also wants us to pray, in order that we acknowledge it as his gift. This again is a great need, which pertains to the body.”

In this way, Luther is following a long line of thought going back to Augustine and the apostle Paul before him, who pointed out that good government is a divine blessing. So whether it is Caesar’s image on a coin or a corporate logo on a bun, Luther helps us recognize and give thanks for all the unseen gifts of God that we usually overlook that lie behind all the material blessings we enjoy. Through these gifts we are to look to their ultimate source, the giver of all good gifts, God himself. “Do not think that peace is an accidental thing; it is the gift of God.” Amen!

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.