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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther’s Theology of Authority

Summary and Keywords

Martin Luther’s reforms involved complicated questions of authority. On one hand, Luther defied the greatest authority figures of his day: the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; on the other hand, he can be accused of setting himself up as a new authority or of defending the status quo at the expense of more sweeping reform. The theological and practical rationale behind Luther’s views of authority will be investigated.

Luther’s critique of power and view of social systems grew out of his theological conviction that God alone rules creation and liberates people from sin and death. Because the Bible is the primary place of Christian knowledge for who God is and what God does, Luther’s view of scriptural authority also requires examination of the principles Luther developed to help Christians understand and live out their faith in biblically grounded ways. On this point, Luther had to address critiques from Rome that he interpreted the Bible subjectively and individualistically, even as he sought to curtail this same tendency among more radical reformers. Luther’s biblical interpretation uniquely combined elements he received from late-medieval monastic life, scholastic theology, and humanist scholarship.

How these theological and scriptural influences informed Luther’s conflict with papal authority will be examined. As has often been remarked, Luther did not set out to attack the papal church. Nevertheless, his Ninety-Five Theses (1517), which questioned the theology and practice surrounding the sale of indulgences, invited questions of papal authority with respect to money, the penitential system, and the afterlife. Early opponents of Luther like Sylvester Prierias and John Eck quickly identified such affronts to the authority of the church hierarchy and its dominant theologies, turning the discussion of indulgences into a broader controversy about papal authority. With writings including To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate and Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (both written in 1520), Luther confirmed the depth of his critique, which further escalated issues of authority related to theology, biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, and politics.

By what authority could an Augustinian brother and small-town university professor make such bold assertions? Luther believed that his job to serve as pastor and professor made him duty-bound to focus on central matters of faith, even if the institutional church opposed his insights. His method of biblical interpretation and view of church authority extended to reforms concerning “the office of the keys,” a historical term that, in a broad sense, describes the scriptural foundations of authority within the church and, more narrowly, refers to the particular means by which sins are forgiven through the church’s ministry.

Finally, these challenges took place in the context of a politically established European Christianity known as “Christendom.” Luther therefore also addressed how the spiritual message of the gospel related to the political realities of his day. His approach to this topic—also visible in the work of his colleague Philip Melanchthon—offers a perspective that is at once specific to the early modern period and stands as an enduring contribution to European political theory. In summary, Luther’s multifaceted engagement with questions of authority provides a fascinating matrix through which to explore and understand his work.

Keywords: Martin Luther, authority, biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, political theology, tradition

Divine Authority

Discussing the First Commandment in his Large Catechism, Luther expressed a radically theocentric worldview. Reflecting upon this command to have no other gods, Luther asked, “What does ‘to have a god’ mean, or what is God?” He continued,

A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.1

From this perspective, all authority begins with the Lord God who made heaven and earth. People live in a right relationship with the Creator and the rest of creation when they “fear, love and trust God above all things”—Luther’s summary of the First Commandment in his Small Catechism.2 While love and trust understandably belong to a right relationship, Luther included fear of God in order to emphasize God’s total power over all life; on the positive side, the fear of God liberates people from all other sources of fear, coercion, or domination, for instance, idolatrous desires for money, self-justification, or power over others. Honoring God above all else rightly reorients human relationships, instills care for creation, inspires thankful attitudes, and promotes willing service to others. As Luther put it, “everything proceeds from the power of the First Commandment.”3

The same explanation of the First Commandment discusses the inevitable ruin that comes from trusting in anyone or anything else for life: “Even now there are proud, powerful, and rich potbellies who, not caring whether God frowns or smiles, boast defiantly of their mammon and believe that they can withstand [God’s] wrath. But they will not succeed. Before they know it they will be ruined, along with all they have trusted in, just as all others have perished who doubtless thought themselves so secure and mighty.”4 If God’s authority alone endures, then all other powers are relativized and dethroned. This distinction between divine and human authority propelled his conflicts with diverse opponents like the papacy, scholastic theologians, the Holy Roman Empire, and popular revolutionaries. Put into positive use, however, this distinction also provided a flexible guide that early Lutherans used when shaping their own theological, ecclesiological, and political principles: without deifying human systems, people can and ought to engage social structures for the common good.

Luther further identified God’s sovereignty with Jesus Christ. He wrote in the Small Catechism, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father in eternity, and also a true human being, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.”5 The capitalization of “Lord” in Luther’s text connects the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth with the holy name of God, as in Philippians 2:5–11 and Matthew 28:18. While itself a traditional Christian affirmation of the Son’s full divinity and full humanity within the Godhead, Luther’s emphasis on “my Lord” put a strong personal emphasis on Christ’s authority in the lives of believing individuals and communities. For Christians, Christ’s lordship is identical to the command to love God above all else: Christ alone rules the hearts of believers.

In Luther’s theology, this “high Christology” does not elevate Christ above human experience but rather—because he is a crucified Lord—unites Christ with the sins, suffering, and death of fallen humanity. In two works of early 1518 (the Heidelberg Disputation and the Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theses), Luther identified a “theology of the cross” as trust in the goodness and authority of a crucified Lord, in contrast to worldly ideas of power and glory. “A theologian of the cross (that is, one who speaks of the crucified and hidden God), teaches that punishments, crosses, and death are the most precious treasury of all.”6 Practical effects of the theology of the cross included seeing God’s saving work in humble, despised, and sin-filled lives (rather than in earthly power or infallible institutions), serving others without care for reward, and trusting God’s power to bring life and goodness to the darkest realities of creation and human lives. When evaluating authority, Luther believed it was fair to look for the cross: are those in authority serving others selflessly as Christ served, or are they serving their own ends?

Far from being left out of this theocentric and Christocentric worldview, for Luther the Holy Spirit plays the central role of divine agency: “the Holy Spirit alone” teaches the wisdom of the crucified and hidden God.7 Luther could also say in the Large Catechism that the creed’s words about the Holy Spirit constitute “the article that must always remain in force. For creation is now behind us, and redemption has also taken place, but the Holy Spirit continues its work without ceasing until the Last Day, and for this purpose has appointed a community on earth, through which the Spirit speaks and does all its work.”8 The Holy Spirit calls Christian communities into existence, creating saving faith through the preaching and hearing of God’s word.9 Further, the Holy Spirit’s activity in people’s lives leads to good works of service: a faith active in love. As Luther wrote,

Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that believers would stake their lives on it a thousand times. This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes people glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and all creatures. And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith. Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to do good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God who has shown them this grace.10

Created and empowered through the power of the Holy Spirit, faith (trust in God) looks to a merciful Lord for all life. In Spiritus Creator, Danish theologian Regin Prenter described this as a “realistic” view of the Holy Spirit in Luther’s theology. “That the Holy Spirit is doing [its] creative work by making us conform to Christ in his death and resurrection can signify only one thing: the Holy Spirit makes the crucified and risen Christ such a present and redeeming reality to us that faith in Christ and conformity to Christ spring directly from this reality.”11 In terms of authority, then, the Holy Spirit alone leads people into the saving relationship of trust in God that orients believers’ lives. The Spirit’s authority also includes the authority to surprise people about the power and nature of faith and grace.

In themselves, these teachings are not unique to Luther or the Lutheran tradition. They reflect the consensus of early orthodox Christianity and maintain continuity with both the Roman Church and most other Protestant groups. Taken together, however, Luther’s view of divine authority offers unique points of emphasis within the Christian tradition. First, Luther’s definition of what it means to have a god identifies idolatry and self-righteousness as primary obstacles to a saving relationship with God, an emphasis that excludes any deification of either church systems or personal righteousness. Second, Luther’s theology of the cross says that God is not found among the high people, places, and triumphs of the world but among the lowly, lost, and despised; as with the previous point, this theology challenges people or institutions that elevate or justify themselves. Third, Luther’s theology of the Holy Spirit personally connects believers with God and inspires good works without putting the burden of believing enough, doing enough, or being holy enough on fallen creatures. In these ways, Luther’s view of divine authority describes a worldview in which God alone creates, redeems, and sustains life; through faith—a trust in God that is given freely and received passively—believers are drawn into this saving relationship and empowered for both freedom and service. In summary, this theology rejects any personal or institutional authority that sets itself in the place of God, intentionally or not.

Scriptural Authority

Though Luther based this theocentric theology on intense study of the Bible, it is incorrect to say that Luther rediscovered the Bible after a supposed medieval period of scriptural darkness. When Luther first entered the monastery, for instance, he received a Bible for personal use during his novitiate, which was common practice.12 Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s superior in the Observant Augustinian order, also gave the young brother the assignment of memorizing the entire Bible, a task that Luther took to heart: by the end of his first decade of teaching, Luther supposed that he had read the entire Bible about twenty times, about twice a year.13 More broadly, the Bible shaped monastic life, with regular scripture readings several times a day, and deeply influenced the worldview of Christendom.

Luther’s engagement with scripture, however, combined a unique set of influences. First, as an Augustinian brother, Luther heard scripture readings throughout the day in a devotional setting, meant to inform his spiritual relationship with God. This regular contact with scripture likely pushed Luther’s struggles to understand the righteousness of God (iustitia dei). To this point, a description of brother Martin wrestling with the righteousness of God appears in a passage written by his colleague Johannes Bugenhagen, who reported Luther saying, “I abhorred and reluctantly sang from the Psalms, ‘In your righteousness, deliver me, O God’ [Ps. 31:1].”14 Luther’s searching questions about God as known through scripture were not abstract but took place in the personal and devotional setting of monastic piety.

Second, Luther belonged to an early generation of northern European scholars who had access to the linguistic tools of humanism. Erfurt—where Luther studied and entered the monastery—also contained a group of humanists, including Nicholas Marschalk, Conrad Mutian, and Justus Jonas.15 With the motto of ad fontes (back to the sources), humanist scholars looked for knowledge from classic literature, including the Bible. This new learning involved a willingness to reopen questions of scriptural interpretation, separating Bible study from the intellectual presuppositions of medieval scholastic theologies.

The rise of northern European humanism in the early 1500s meant that new tools for literary study were being published just as Luther began his academic career. Humanists like Marschalk and Johannes Reuchlin published Hebrew textbooks; Erasmus of Rotterdam’s edition of the Greek New Testament provided the basis for Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German. By the early 1520s, a group of colleagues like Jonas, Bugenhagen, and Philip Melanchthon had established careers in Wittenberg, bringing humanist interests to their reforms of the university and local churches.

Third, in addition to monastic and humanist factors, Luther’s formal theological education added another element to his interpretation of the Bible: scholastic theology. While Luther asked questions about God’s righteousness and mercy to monastic superiors like Staupitz, he also consulted scholarly books on these same topics. Made as early as 1509, Luther’s notations on the margins of Augustine’s De Trinitate and Peter Lombard’s Sentences reveal that his interest in faith and righteousness had already arisen during his doctoral studies. A handwritten comment on De Trinitate, for instance, reads “For [Christ] himself is our life, our righteousness, and our resurrection through faith in his incarnation.”16 Luther’s early lectures on the Psalms and Romans show similar integration of biblical study, theological authorities, and spiritual reflection.

Having engaged these monastic, literary, and theological resources since his time in Erfurt, Luther’s developing biblical theology provided a firm foundation for his work as a reformer. From the early days of the indulgence controversy through his papal excommunication and imperial condemnation, Luther asked to discuss his theology on the basis of scripture, tradition, and clear argumentation. His preface to the Ninety-Five Theses begins by invoking “love and zeal for the truth.”17 Similarly, at the imperial diet of Worms (1521), Luther refused to recant his writings unless he were “convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by plain reason.”18 Because the indulgence controversy escalated so quickly into a controversy about the nature of papal authority, Luther did not receive an open debate with church authorities about his work, either before or after his excommunication.

Built upon these spiritual, linguistic, and scholarly sources, how did Luther interpret the Bible? What authority did it have for him? Luther embraced a Christocentric view of scripture, in which the Bible’s main point is to give sinners the righteousness of God, received through faith in Christ; this identification of a rhetorical center to the Bible is another effect of humanism, which preferred to study literary effects more than doctrinal systems.19 Luther identified this central witness as the gospel. “The gospel is a story about Christ, God’s and David’s Son, who died and was raised and is established as Lord. This is the gospel in a nutshell.”20 Rather than being a subjective conclusion, Luther based this declaration on rhetorical points provided in the biblical texts themselves. In The Freedom of a Christian, he posed the question, “What then is the Word of God, and how shall it be used, since there are so many words of God?” He then replied,

The Apostle explains this in Romans 1[:1, 3]: the word is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies. To preach Christ means to feed the soul, make it righteous, set it free, and save it—provided it believes the preaching. Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the word of God.21

Luther’s elevation of this gospel message above all other points in the Bible provided the scriptural foundation for his reforming work, even when it put him on a collision course with the Roman ecclesial authorities. It also meant that Luther valued the interpretations of earlier theologians like Augustine or Jerome based on the centrality of “Christ alone” in their work.

This experiential, personal way of reading the Bible synthesized Luther’s monastic piety, the humanist emphasis on literary effects, and the scholarly search for reliable theological principles. It also based biblical authority on the Holy Spirit’s speaking to believers through the announcement of law (the truth about sin) and gospel (the truth about God’s mercy) rather than on any other theological or ecclesiastical systems, especially the papal claims to be the final interpreter of scripture. On this point, Luther invited Pope Leo X to discuss the gospel with him, adding the daring caveat: “I acknowledge no fixed rules for the interpretation of the Word of God, since the Word of God, which teaches freedom in all other matters, must not be bound [2 Tim. 2:7].”22

If Luther criticized the papacy for setting itself as judge over scripture, he also encountered the tendency of more radical reformers to interpret the Bible on their own terms. He thus sought to avoid the extremes of either authoritarian judgements or personal subjectivity. Although free of the interpretations imposed by the Roman hierarchy, Luther still believed himself to be ruled by scripture’s authority, declaring at the diet of Worms, “I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”23 For Luther, being bound by scripture meant living under the lordship of God in Christ, as summarized in the creeds of the church:

For in these three parts [of the Apostles Creed] everything contained in the Scriptures is comprehended in short, plain, and simple terms. Indeed the dear Fathers or apostles (or whoever they were) thus summed up the teaching, life, wisdom, and learning that constitute the Christian’s conversation, conduct, and concern.24

Without oversimplifying, Luther’s view of scriptural authority can be understood in terms of basic catechesis: the faith taught in the creed (itself a summary of scripture) serves as the norm and authority for Christian life, including biblical interpretation. As a duly called professor and preacher, Luther believed that this theocentric concern formed the basis of his work, even when it meant entering into conflict with the church hierarchy.25 This principle allowed Luther to see himself bound both to scripture’s authority and to the general consensus of the church that came before him; it also gave him freedom to interpret the Bible in light of the gospel. At the same time, identifying the creeds as a summary of the Bible’s gospel message provided a way to avoid the overly subjective readings that Luther saw in more radical reformers.

Church Authority

Luther taught that God alone justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). And yet, the idea that salvation comes from God’s free gift of grace did not constitute a break with late medieval theology; on the contrary, this high view of God’s radical grace to sinners undergirded the scholastic theologies and medieval piety that Luther learned. As represented in the papal insignia of the keys to heaven (Matt. 16:19), the church had come to view itself as the dispenser of God’s grace, teaching that people reached salvation by cooperating with grace and participating in the God-given sacraments of the church. It was therefore not a theology of grace but rather Luther’s emphasis on people receiving grace by “faith alone” that created conflict.

Both the via antiqua rooted in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and the via moderna of nominalist theology emphasized the sovereignty of God, who alone saves a fallen humanity by grace.26 In Aquinas’s teaching, God created people in such a way that when God rewards human acts of love and faith, God is simply rewarding a quality that was already graciously implanted in baptism. Nominalist theologians taught that God graciously created an orderly, rational world that included the human capacity to will and to act according to God’s desire; for that reason, divine reward for right action belonged to God’s righteousness (iustitia) as a good creator. Without overlooking the significant differences between these two outlooks, both involve God bestowing righteousness as a reward for human cooperation, even as that cooperation is made possible only by God’s grace made available through the church’s “office of the keys.”

As a young scholar and member of a monastic order, Luther experienced the internal contradictions of this system: people were at once required to plumb the depths of their sinfulness in penitential confession while also grow in their cooperation with God’s holy will.27 Furthermore, in scholastic theologies, “Justice in its deepest essence as form and norm is a product of God’s wisdom, and its standard is therefore right reason.”28 Because God is just, wise, and orderly, humans can trust that their pursuits of justice, wisdom, and order provided in scholastic theology and the church’s means of grace reliably match God’s intentions. Luther, however, came to suspect that such ecclesiastical and philosophical confidence had overextended itself in idolatrous ways.

Rather than locating God’s power to save in philosophical, ecclesiastical, or ethical systems, Luther categorically separated divine righteousness from any form of human good. If God’s power to save is completely beyond human cooperation, then “justification by faith alone” meant receiving divine righteousness by trusting God’s unmerited gift of salvation to sinful people; any other work, internal disposition, sacramental action, or cooperation with grace would undermine Christ’s authority as the sole mediator of God’s salvation. Further, scholastic theology taught that the church’s sacraments were effective means of grace ex opere operato (by the mere performance of the rite), even when received without faith, a view that Luther criticized as antithetical to justification by faith in Christ alone.29 This “justification by faith” theology (which appeared already in his 1515–1516 lectures on Romans) intentionally contrasted all forms of human righteousness—including Aristotelian virtue ethics and the theology of cooperation with grace—with a divine righteousness received passively through faith.30 Luther’s theology therefore de-centered the institutional church, the clergy, the sacramental system, and the human will. For Luther, the church’s ministry ought to serve saving faith, rather than creating or dispensing it. This marked a major challenge to dominant views of the church, authority, and salvation.

Despite his far-reaching critique of medieval church systems, Luther had not raised these issues de novo; instead, his challenge reopened longstanding questions about the nature of church authority, especially as posed by the conciliarist movement and reforming theologians—both orthodox and heterodox—like Bernard of Clairvaux, John Wycliffe, and Jan Huss.31 Also, Luther’s desire to revisit the theology, biblical interpretation, and worship practices of earlier centuries shared in the call of humanist contemporaries to go “back to the sources” in order to renew church and society. For these reasons, Luther’s comments touched still-raw nerves in the papacy, contributing to the severe responses against Luther.

The conflict between Luther and the church hierarchy culminated in the papal bull of excommunication published in the summer of 1520. Instead of despairing at his excommunication, Luther experienced it as freedom. He wrote in a 1520 letter, “Already I am much freer because I have finally received the certainty that the Pope is the Antichrist and has been publicly exposed as the seat of Satan. May God preserve His own so that they may not be led astray by his most godless pretense [of holiness].”32

Luther’s harsh language about the papacy stemmed from the conviction that a denial of justification by faith alone equaled a rejection of Christ as the sole mediator and savior. The scriptural basis for this use of Antichrist arises in 1 John and 2 John, regarding those who deny Jesus as the messiah.33 Similar passages appear in 2 Thessalonians 2, which identifies a “lawless one” within God’s temple who will usurp God’s authority, and 2 Timothy 4, which warns of the “teachings of demons” to “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods.” On the basis of these verses, then, Luther’s writings against the papacy had origins in specific New Testament texts, including the identification of opponents within the church who would insist upon practices like clerical celibacy and mandatory fasting.

In To the Christian Nobility (1520), Luther identified “three walls” that the papacy used to preserve its authority: the papacy stands above secular authorities, only the pope can interpret scripture, and only the pope can call a council of the church.34 Luther then dismantled each of these arguments by showing that church authority is about sharing the gospel (not wielding secular power), that interpretation belongs to all Christians, and that all Christians have equal authority to discuss the truth and challenge wrongdoing. Luther revisited this theme in the Smalcald Articles (1537), allowing that the church could freely establish a single head of the church for the sake of good order but that such an authority would not be infallible, would be elected by all the people, and must never interfere with Christ’s lordship.35 Though he did not believe that such a single head would be either advantageous or approved by most Christians, Luther could imagine such a figure serving by human right (de iure humano) without that figure serving in the place of God (de iure divino). Philip Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope from the same year makes similar arguments about the nature of church authority.36

The Office of the Keys

For Luther and his colleagues, de-centering the hierarchy did not mean doing away with the institutional church but rather meant re-centering the church’s gospel ministry. Maintaining respect for offices of ministry, Luther taught that those who serve in the church are “charged with the administration of the word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office.”37 In this, ministers and bishops share equal spiritual status with all baptized Christians even as they are set apart to serve in particular ways, just as cobblers, smiths, peasants, parents, children, servants, masters, and political authorities each serve their neighbors through their daily work.38 The Augsburg Confession (1530, composed mostly by Melanchthon) described the work of pastors and bishops in article 28: “the power of the keys or the power of the bishops is the power of God’s mandate to preach the gospel, to forgive and retain sins, and to administer the sacraments.”39

Lutherans implemented their views of church authority incrementally. Believing that monastic vows and vows of celibacy were not spiritually binding, some monastic communities voted to disband and priests began to marry in the early 1520s. Although the imperial edict of Worms outlawed Luther’s teaching within the Holy Roman Empire, local governments slowly began to reform parish practices by means of church orders (church orders were local church constitutions that usually included statements of faith, description of pastoral duties, oversight of parish finances, and the establishment of a “common chest” to address social needs like poor relief, education, and public health).

Church orders were often written by theologians and then approved by local political bodies. In Electoral Saxony—the state to which Wittenberg belonged—a “visitation” of local congregations began in 1527, as teams of theologians and political advisers visited parishes in order to evaluate their finances, teaching, and worship. After some experience with these visits, Melanchthon wrote the Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony, which set standards for doctrine, worship, an office of oversight (superintendents or bishops), and schools. In the preface that was published with the Instructions, Luther based the authority for these visits on scriptural passages like the itinerant ministries of prophets and apostles and the historical examples of early Christian bishops.40

In Christendom, the office of bishop often included secular as well as spiritual oversight. For this reason, Lutherans in Germany avoided naming new bishops, which would have been politically provocative. Instead, they established the office of superintendent (a Latin equivalent for the Greek episkopos). Superintendents would oversee the doctrine and practice of local communities, working with consistories made up of local parish representatives. In places like Denmark and Sweden where entire countries adopted the Reformation, the title of bishop was retained without controversy.

Many of the first Reformation pastors had begun their careers as priests, which meant that a process for ordaining new ministers was not immediately necessary. By the mid-1530s, however, Lutherans started ordaining pastors apart from the Roman hierarchy. Wittenberg’s superintendent Bugenhagen presided at most of these ordinations, an authority stemming from his appointment by local secular officials and the support of Wittenberg’s theological faculty.41 Luther defended this practice of ordaining without the approval of Roman bishops in the Smalcald Articles, saying that if Roman bishops would not allow evangelical preachers, then local communities could ordain suitable pastors themselves.42

For Luther and his colleagues, this authority of local church leaders to train and ordain new pastors belonged to God’s work of spreading the gospel through the office of preaching. As the Augsburg Confession put it: “To obtain this [justifying] faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments.”43 The Lutheran reformers viewed the “office of the keys” as the work of announcing gospel forgiveness. While this ministry of reconciliation primarily happens through the work of ordained pastors,44 the Lutheran reformers also taught that all Christians can and ought to forgive the sins of others on the basis of the common priesthood of all the baptized and the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”45 Pastors and bishops announce God’s forgiveness within their callings to preach the gospel; laypeople use the keys when they forgive others in the contexts of their daily vocations.

For Lutherans, the office of the keys belongs to the church at large, not to a priestly class or a particular institution. Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles, “The keys are an office and authority given to the church by Christ to bind and loose sins.”46 Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope similarly states,

it must be acknowledged that the keys do not belong to one particular person but to the church, as many clear and irrefutable arguments show. For having spoken of the keys in Matthew 18[:18], Christ goes on to say: “Wherever two or three agree on earth . . .” [Matt. 18:19–20]. Thus, he grants the power of the keys principally and without mediation to the church, and for the same reason the church has primary possession of the right to call ministers.47

In terms of Luther’s view of authority, these ecclesiastical practices center on the gospel message to announce life and reconciliation through faith in Christ.

Secular Authority

While Luther limited the authority of the church to spiritual matters, he affirmed the rights and obligations of secular leaders to oversee political life, a perspective based on his discernment of three biblical “estates” (Stände): church, family (including household-based economic life), and government. In contrast to the medieval church’s system of spirituality classifying people in terms of those who had taken religious vows (e.g., priests, monks, and nuns) and those who had not, Luther taught that being baptized gave all Christians membership into a single spiritual estate. This equality of baptized believers is often called the priesthood of all believers: “there is no true, basic difference between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, between religious and secular, except for the sake of office and work, but not for the sake of status.”48 Further, while all Christians are spiritually equal before God, Luther affirmed the variety of godly ways people serve their communities, including through political office, which Luther viewed as a God-given way to care for bodies, souls, and communities. In this way, Luther sanctified daily work, whether carried out by a good political leader overseeing the well-being of the populace, by members of a household who care for those around them, or by church leaders who serve people with the gospel: “the holy orders and true religious institutions established by God are these three: the office of priest, the estate of marriage, the civil government.”49

This view challenged papal claims of the church’s authority over secular estates and governments. As the Augsburg Confession put it,

Since this power of the church bestows eternal things and is exercised only through the ministry of the Word, it interferes with civil government as little as the art of singing interferes with it. For civil government is concerned with things other than the gospel. For the magistrate protects not minds but bodies and goods from manifest harm and constrains people with the sword and physical penalties. The gospel protects minds from ungodly ideas, the devil, and eternal death.50

Early Lutherans believed that ministry ought to be free from secular pressure, while remaining accountable to external standards of spiritual faith and social well-being. They also affirmed the right of political authorities to do their work without mistaking political life on earth for the kingdom of God. This distinction between gospel ministry and secular service has been called Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, or the two kinds of divine governance.

Rather than minimizing concern for social systems, Luther saw a mutual benefit to distinguishing the proper goals of faith and politics: healthy faith communities nurture people who value service to the common good; healthy states provide external conditions in which its people may flourish in body and soul.51 Following Romans 13:1–7 to assert that Christians need to obey secular authorities, Lutherans also developed rationale for civil resistance, based especially on Acts 5:29: “we must obey God rather than any human authority.”52 Also, while Luther wrote a few tracts explicitly about the relationship between church and state, he discussed this theme systematically in relevant biblical commentaries, for instance, in his works on Psalm 82 and Psalm 101.53 Himself personally famous—or infamous—for rejecting papal bulls and imperial edicts, Luther taught a careful balance of personal freedom, care for others through service in daily life, and mutual accountability with respect to civic order and the common good.

“Faith Alone” and Luther’s Theology of Authority

Luther’s early conflicts with the Roman hierarchy reveal a dedicated scholar and pastor who longed for serious conversation about key spiritual matters like faith, righteousness, repentance, and grace. As clashes intensified, Luther reminded himself and others that he had been trained, publicly called, and duly installed to discuss exactly these points. By the time of his excommunication, the hierarchy’s refusal to consider questions about how Christ saves sinners led him to identify the papacy with New Testament warnings about opposition to faith that comes from within the church. The Roman resistance to Luther’s ideas over the next quarter century consolidated this view for the rest of his life. Despite this antipathy for the papacy, Luther did not see himself standing above or apart from church authorities but as someone called to fulfill a particular role within the church: namely, to preach and teach. The reforms of worship, church leadership, social welfare, and education that came from Wittenberg bore Luther’s stamp inasmuch as they kept “faith alone” central to Christian life.

Luther’s view of secular authority gave flexible guidelines for both order and change in political matters. For Luther, secular authorities like princes or city councils have God-given authority to oversee the safety and well-being of their subjects; they should be obeyed in most cases. Further, because of the power of sin in individuals and institutions, it would be wrong to expect perfect justice in this world or to mistake social realities with the kingdom of God. Nevertheless, Christians ought to work for justice through accountable public laws and social systems, because these are means for doing God’s holy work of serving the neighbor. On the basis of care for neighbors, Christians and citizens have the right—and sometimes the duty—to criticize rulers and work for justice.

In conclusion, rooted in the centrality of faith in God, Luther’s views of authority provided flexible yet consistent principles for evaluating theology, criticizing power, and holding people mutually accountable. Luther aimed to avoid either a rejection or deification of religious or secular authority. On the contrary, he provided a framework for putting God first, interpreting the Bible through the lens of the gospel, supporting the common good through accountable institutions, and setting people free in body and mind for the sake of their own good and the well-being of their neighbor. Taken together, these principles created a unique framework for understanding and using spiritual, ecclesiastical and political authority.

Review of the Literature

Numerous quality studies exist on the topics discussed previously, including Luther’s theology, his biblical interpretation, and his views of church and secular authority. Nevertheless, these subjects are rarely integrated: for instance, works of theology do not often connect “justification by faith alone” with concrete institutional reforms; sociopolitical studies of the Reformation sometimes minimize insights from the theology or biblical interpretation of the period. While such focused studies offer their own rewards, they can also create a certain fragmentation about Luther’s own priorities, values, and views of authority. Luther’s theology can appear to stand apart from practical concerns, his institutional reforms may seem “occasional” rather than principled, and his biblical interpretation and views of church authority can appear “subjective” rather than consistent. The works listed represent scholarly contributions that lend themselves to interdisciplinary studies of Luther and authority.

Further Reading

Dieter, Theodor. “Luther as Late Medieval Theologian: His Positive and Negative Use of Nominalism and Realism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Luther’s Theology. Edited by Robert Kolb, Irene Dingel, and L’ubomír Batka. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Edwards, Mark U., Jr.Luther and the False Brethren. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1975.Find this resource:

Edwards, Mark U., Jr.Luther’s Last Battles: Politics and Polemics, 1531–1546. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983.Find this resource:

Estes, James M.Peace, Order and the Glory of God: Secular Authority and the Church in the Thought of Luther and Melanchthon, 1518–1559. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.Find this resource:

Hamm, Berndt. The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation. Translated by Martin Lohrmann. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.Find this resource:

Hendrix, Scott H.Luther and the Papacy: Stages in a Reformation Conflict. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981.Find this resource:

Karant-Nunn, Susan C.Luther’s Pastors: The Reformation in the Ernestine Countryside. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1979.Find this resource:

Lohrmann, Martin J.Book of Harmony: Spirit and Service in the Lutheran Confessions. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016.Find this resource:

Rittgers, Ronald K.The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Smith, Ralph F.Luther, Ministry, and Ordination Rites in the Early Reformation Church. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.Find this resource:

Vercruysse, Jon E. “Schlüsselgewalt und Beichte bei Luther.” In Leben und Werk Martin Luthers von 1526 bis 1546, vol. 1. Edited by Helmar Junghans. Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1983.Find this resource:

Wengert, Timothy J.Priesthood, Pastors, Bishops: Public Ministry for the Reformation & Today. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008.Find this resource:


(1.) BC 386, 1–3.

(2.) BC 351, 2.

(3.) BC 430, 327.

(4.) BC 390, 36.

(5.) BC 355, 4.

(6.) Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, eds. Jaroslav Pelikan et al. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1955–) [hereafter LW], 31:40, 31:225.

(7.) BC 440, 68.

(8.) BC 439, 61, emended for inclusive language.

(9.) BC 355, 6.

(10.) LW 35:370–371, emended for inclusive language.

(11.) Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator, trans. John M. Jensen (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1953).

(12.) Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 35.

(13.) Heiko Augustinus Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 136, 173.

(14.) Martin Lohrmann, “A Newly Discovered Report of Luther’s Reformation Breakthrough in Johannes Bugenhagen’s 1550 Jonah Commentary,” Lutheran Quarterly 22 (Autumn 2008): 325.

(15.) Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, 30–32.

(16.) WA 9:17, trans. Martin Lohrmann, Bugenhagen’s Jonah: Biblical Interpretation as Public Theology (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2012), 129.

(17.) LW 31:25.

(18.) LW 32:112.

(19.) Timothy J. Wengert, Human Freedom, Christian Righteousness: Philip Melanchthon’s Exegetical Dispute with Erasmus of Rotterdam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 52–56.

(20.) LW 35:118.

(21.) LW 31:346.

(22.) LW 31:341.

(23.) LW 32:112.

(24.) BC 385, 18–19.

(25.) Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 210.

(26.) Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963; reprint, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000), especially 141–145; and Berndt Hamm, “Martin Luther’s Revolutionary Theology of Pure Gift without Reciprocation,” Lutheran Quarterly 29 (Summer 2015): 125–161, especially 130–135.

(27.) Berndt Hamm, The Early Luther: Stages in a Reformation Reorientation, trans. Martin Lohrmann (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013), 35.

(28.) Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, 90.

(29.) LW 35:62–65.

(30.) WA 56:171, 26–172, 15; and LW 25:151–153.

(31.) Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: The Rise and Development of Reformed Orthodoxy, ca. 1520 to ca. 1725, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 51–62; and Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology, 361–393.

(32.) WA BR 2:195, 22–24, no. 341, trans. in Hamm, The Early Luther, 175.

(33.) 1 John 2:18, 22 and 4:3; 2 John 7.

(34.) LW 44:126.

(35.) BC 307, 1–310, 16.

(36.) BC 330–344.

(37.) LW 44:130.

(38.) “A cobbler, a smith, a peasant” appear in LW 44:130; political authorities, parents, masters, and servants are discussed in BC 405, 141–407, 151.

(39.) BC 93, 5.

(40.) LW 40:269.

(41.) Ralph F. Smith, Luther, Ministry, and Ordination Rites in the Early Reformation Church (New York: Peter Lang, 1996), 68.

(42.) BC 324, 3.

(43.) BC 40, 1–2.

(44.) BC 92, 8–9.

(45.) LW 44:127–129 and BC 453, 93–98.

(46.) BC 321, 1.

(47.) BC 334, 24.

(48.) LW 44:129.

(49.) LW 37:364.

(50.) BC 93, 8–11.

(51.) LW 7:312; LW 37:365; and LW 45:109–111.

(52.) LW 44:111; BC 51, 7.

(53.) To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, LW 44:123–213; Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, LW 45:81–129; Psalm 82, LW 13:42–72; and Psalm 101, LW 13:146–224.