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date: 19 August 2017

Martin Luther’s Perspective on Political Life

Summary and Keywords

Luther’s position on the duties of rulers to preserve social order and on the obligation of subjects to obey them for the sake of civil tranquility is scripturally grounded, principally in Romans 13:1–7, and presupposes an anthropology in which humans are so sinful as to need worldly government. The foundations of Luther’s thought about politics can be located in two sources: his doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and his understanding of the Pauline precept in Romans 13 to obey worldly authorities. Woven into each of these positions is a theological anthropology that holds that fallen humanity is too sinful to survive without divine aid. In the political realm, this aid takes the form of civil government; as a correlate, the authority of the church for Luther is limited to spiritual matters only and has no influence in the governance of the people. Luther’s defense of the social order and civil government set him in sharp opposition to the leaders of the Peasants’ War and led him to support the Protestant princes in their opposition to the Holy Roman Empire (founded on the spurious authority of the Roman Catholic Church in political affairs) after the 1530 Diet of Augsburg. In his defense of obedience to worldly powers and his grounds for justified resistance to impious rule, Luther left a seemingly ambiguous legacy that manifested itself after his death in a division over advocates of obedience to a conciliatory ruler (who wished to reintroduce elements of Roman worship) and purists who insisted that such obedience was a violation of Luther’s intention.

Keywords: Martin Luther, Romans 13, Peasants’ War, resistance, two-kingdoms doctrine, visitations, Magdeburg

Political Life

Alternately praised and vilified for his place in the history of political thought, Luther is associated with the emergence of a new form of polity, the demand for obedience to the state, the suppression of unrest, and the denial of the temporal sovereignty of the Roman Catholic Church. Each of these, while supportable with evidence from Luther’s writings, has been subject to misunderstanding and controversy. With secular matters as with theological ones, Luther’s thought is rarely captured in concise formulas; and in the absence of treatises that all can recognize as the ideal and fixed statements of his positions, the work of interpretation requires discovery and reconstruction. For all he wrote and despite all that has been written about him, Luther remains out of the reach of interpreters.

Luther never saw himself as anything but a theologian and churchman, yet the domain associated with the “secular” was never far from his mind because it was included within a religious worldview; both in separate works and in sections of texts ostensibly about other matters, we find the components of a cogent and coherent theory of the state and of the Christian’s duties within it. Luther’s reflections on politics are not deviations from his theological work: they are extensions and applications of concepts that governed his approach to the reform of piety. Approaches to Luther’s political writing that construe his “secular” realm in the modern sense (that is to say, as “disenchanted”) overlook the essential fact that the worldly or secular kingdom, however flawed and impious, is nevertheless under divine sovereignty and is the means by which God governs sinful persons.

In keeping with the generally accepted early modern sense of a secular world still enchanted, the following discussion seeks to locate Luther’s understanding of the political realm within the scope of his religious thought. Attempts to interpret his work as a moment in the secularization of the West overlook Luther’s insistence that participating in civil society, no matter one’s place in it, is a pious duty.

Luther through the Ages

In the history of Christian political thought, Luther has been something of a mirror of the times. Condemned by his Catholic contemporaries and their successors as a rebellious spirit who undermined the ecclesiastical foundations of secular power, Luther was accused of introducing disorder into the political realm by freeing civil rulers from obedience to the church in secular matters. For the same reasons, Luther was lauded for liberating government from the dominance of the Roman church, deemed a “tyranny” insofar as it was regarded as a usurper of powers outside its proper (that is, spiritual) jurisdiction. Luther’s affirmation of the secular ruler’s legitimate power through divine institution ensured a secure “top-down” governance of states, particularly in the monarchical form. The aristocratic patrons of the great Weimar edition of Luther’s works, begun in 1883 on the 400th anniversary of the Reformer’s birth, in their own way created a Prussian Luther, progenitor of an independent Protestant empire.1

In the 20th century Luther was still for many a heroic figure, a model of the Germanic ideal: untainted by alien influence, a man of the people, a master of the German language, and a model of native Teutonic virtues—uncritical obedience to authority seemingly being one of them. The question of Luther’s view of resistance to unjust or illegitimate rulers rose during the 1930s, and generated a division between those supporting obedience to a ruler technically legitimate by virtue of a legal election and a resistance faction holding rulers and their parties to moral and religious norms. In technical terms, the dilemma was over whether tyranny was to be understood structurally (the question being the legality of a ruler’s ascension to power) or functionally (the criterion of legitimacy being the norms by which a ruler governs). Both sides of the question had already been defended in Luther’s own century.

In the postwar decades, Luther’s position on political matters has not been an urgent theological question so much as an issue for debate among historians of social thought.2 (In eastern Europe he was a symbol of bourgeois authoritarianism, not unjustly, given his polemics against the peasants.) Luther was either a forerunner of the modern secular state for breaking away from the dominance of the Roman Catholic Church, or a continuer of the medieval Christian society in his insistence upon divine governance of human affairs and the divine command to obey the ruler, for worldly authority comes from God. The broad historiographical category of “early modern” for the period c. 1500–1700 suggests that the Reformation represents the dawn of a new “modern” age. In the realm of politics, however, when the word “modern” is typically understood to denote secular liberalism, Luther is more in continuity with medieval political culture—the “church type” described by Ernst Troeltsch—than one anticipating the modern state.3


Luther’s search for an understanding of divine righteousness, pursued through intensive study of scripture and critical engagement with the late medieval theological tradition, resolved itself in an understanding of original sin far more radical than the teachings of the late medieval church, which he associated with the Pelagians of Augustine’s time. The absence of merit in fallen humanity and the corresponding operation of unmerited grace as the sole means of righteousness mean that humanity is incapable of any works that God will regard as meritorious. The primordial disobedience of the divine command, and the consequent estrangement from God, resulted in an ignorant and unruly humanity bent on fratricide (Cain) and discord (Babel).

In Luther’s view, humanity since the Fall, incapable of knowing or obeying the divine will, is sinful to such a degree that God established institutions to regulate behavior and prevent social chaos. Specifically, Luther describes civil government as part of the divine ordering of society for the sake of preserving humanity from the effects of its own sinfulness. Divinely ordered yet in human hands, the institution of government, and rulers themselves, are inevitably flawed; yet they must be obeyed both for the sake of the common good and out of obedience to the Creator.

The beginnings of Luther’s views of the political realm can be found in the lectures on the latter chapters of Romans that he delivered in the summer of 1516. The Pauline injunction to be submissive to the governing authorities at Romans 13:1 (“Let every soul be subject to the higher authorities, for there is none that is not under God, and the powers have been appointed by God”) means, according to Luther, that persons must recognize that these powers, established by God, cannot be disobeyed without God also being disobeyed.4 Luther’s sense that civil authorities were more responsible than the ecclesiastical ones of his time underscored his view that secular government possessed a legitimacy that the contemporary church did not. As Luther saw it, secular powers, punishers of crimes, were more effective than the ecclesiastical ones who were destroying the church by appointing incompetent clergy to positions of power. “[T]he secular powers are carrying out their duties more successfully and better than the ecclesiastical rulers are doing,” Luther states. “Perhaps it would be safer if the temporal affairs also of the clergy were placed under the secular power”5—a foretaste of his position that temporal activities of the church were under the control of the temporal powers.

In the earliest steps toward what would be his doctrine of Two Governments (or Kingdoms), Luther holds that God speaks immediately to persons in the promise of salvation (that is, the gospel), and indirectly through social institutions, occasionally referred to as the “left hand” of God’s governance of creation. His intention was to disarm the Roman Catholic Church, traditionally understood as having its authority directly from Christ via the power of the keys (Matt. 18:18), with the state being subordinate to it. In its place, Luther assigned ecclesiastical affairs, matters involving institutions and external works and hence part of the material world, to the temporal powers. In his 1520 treatise To the Christian Nobility Luther calls it “deceit and hypocrisy” for the hierarchy of the church to be called the “spiritual estate” and the secular rulers their inferior “temporal” counterpart.6 These roles are distinct only in the work they perform, and not because of some qualitative differentiation: “[T]here 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.”7

With scriptural revelation as his guide, Luther explains to the civil rulers what their duties as Christians are. All Christians, according to Luther, participate in the priesthood: they share in the duty, each according to his or her vocation, to be a holy people. Generally known by the term “priesthood of all believers,” or “universal priesthood,” this “priestly” status neither levels difference in social ranks nor elevates any believer to the clerical state. Rather, it invests each person’s role in society with a religious quality, imposing on each the duty to sanctify one’s vocation by being a “Christ,” that is Christ-like or self-sacrificial, toward one’s neighbor. Each vocation is a calling to glorify God in whatever one does, be it as a soldier, a preacher, or a ruler. Luther is countering the traditional Catholic view of his time that the sanctified life is limited to those with a religious calling. (For example, he considered monks, in their search for perfection, examples of pride, not piety.)

In the same appeal to the rulers, Luther indicates that matters concerning the church fall within their jurisdiction. Matters concerning appointments and finances (temporal matters in his view) are not to be adjudicated by the ecclesiastical hierarchy but by the temporal authority—that is, the civil nobility whom he is addressing in this treatise.8 Luther is here expanding upon his sentiment in the Romans commentary that the capability of the secular rulers speaks to the legitimacy of their position, just as the incompetence of church leaders undermines their claim to divine authority.9 Luther exhorts the secular authorities, those to whom Paul commands obedience, to reform the church and the universities as well as trade and sumptuary laws (which would have been under their usual jurisdiction).

Although for Luther the gospel proclaims freedom from the law, he did not mean that civil law was in any way less binding for the Christian than for those in need of moral guidance and restraint. While no longer in fear of damnation for failing to meet the divine demand, a believer is not free to behave in any way imaginable, unrestrained. On the contrary, for Luther the faith of a believer includes an awareness that God has instituted civil government, so that one does willingly what the nonbeliever, unaware of the divine agency in establishing secular powers, does only reluctantly. “Good words do not make a good man, but a good man [the justified Christian] does good works,” he says in The Freedom of a Christian (1520).10 The Christian, though free through grace alone, “does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God and considers nothing except the approval of God, whom he would most scrupulously obey in all things.”11 Since obedience toward the ruler is associated with obedience to God—this is not new with Luther—the pious believer, even though free, is still to observe the laws:

Christians should be subject to the governing authorities and be ready to do every good work, not that they shall in this way be justified, since they already are righteous though faith, but in that liberty of the Spirit they shall by so doing serve others and the authorities themselves and obey their will freely and out of love.12

Luther would underscore the importance of obedience to the law in the exposition of the Decalogue in his "Large Catechism (1530). He includes obedience to civil government under the commandment to honor one’s parents, the estate of fatherhood being in his view “the most comprehensive of all relations.”13 “He who is obedient, willing, ready to serve, and cheerfully gives honor where it is due,” says Luther of obedience to government, “knows that he pleases God and receives joy and happiness for his reward,” the opposite being true for one who “despises or rebelliously resists authority.”14

Luther’s programmatic statement on political obedience is On Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1522). This work is once again a defense of civil government as a power instituted by God for the preservation of sinful humanity. Luther distinguishes the worldly regiment or “sword,” wielded since the beginning of the world, from the spiritual kingdom proclaimed in the Gospel and received in faith. Given its purpose as an “emergency ordinance” for the benefit of a race disobedient and fratricidal from the beginning, civil government is a product of divine benevolence and thus an institution to be obeyed out of piety. (The divine authority of kingship had been a commonplace of medieval political thought, and disobedience to the ruler was considered disobedience to God.) Luther’s treatise is both prescriptive and limiting: the Christian is bound to obey secular authority, for which one need look no further than Romans 13:1–7.

Like many of his works on the social order, On Temporal Authority is addressed to a sovereign, in this case Duke John of (Ernestine) Saxony. Luther, concerned that temporal rulers, unmoved by the 1520 Address, will “never become Christians,”15 declares that he will resist those rulers who continue to follow the Holy Roman Empire (which had condemned him at Worms) and suppress the gospel.16 In this text Luther separates humanity into the kingdom of God and that of the world. Inhabitants of the godly kingdom, by which he means Christians, have no need of temporal law, being instructed by the Holy Spirit “to do injustice to no one, to love everyone, and to suffer injustice and even death willingly and cheerfully at the hands of anyone.”17 Inhabitants of the worldly kingdom—that is, those who are not Christians—are under the law so that “they are unable to practice their wickedness, and if they do practice it they cannot do so without fear or with success and impunity.”18 Each kingdom has its own government, says Luther: the spiritual and the temporal.19

The Christian, who does not need the temporal sword, is nevertheless required to “serve and assist the sword by whatever means,” since it is “beneficial and essential for the whole world and for your neighbor.”20 The believer must always be aware of inhabiting both realms, recognizing that the governing authority is an agency of God. Nevertheless, the individual Christian is not to wield the sword in self-interest, but only in the service of legitimate temporal authority.

Temporal authority, for its part, is bound by precise limitations. Temporal laws, according to Luther, “extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth, for God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul.”21 Thus temporal authority has no power over matters of faith. The soul is governed immediately by God, and the body through the mediating institutions of temporal authority, the human authority that cannot extend to souls. Luther suspected that there were few authentic Christian rulers; thus his restriction of their jurisdiction was meant to keep them from interfering in matters of faith. The role of worldly rulers is to be useful and beneficial to their subjects. In cases in which a ruler departs from God’s will, the subject is not bound to follow. As Luther puts it, citing Acts 5:29, “It is no one’s duty to do wrong; we must obey God (who desires the right) rather than men.”22


The evangelical proclamation of freedom, combined with an understanding of “law” that Luther had not intended, prompted antinomian and seditious movements scattered throughout the German territories, a number of which espoused violent revolt. As early as Thomas Müntzer’s 1521 Sermon before the Saxon princes, sectarian movements intent on liberation from oppressive hierarchies became attached in the popular imagination to the religious reform centered on Wittenberg. The degree to which Reformation-era Radicalism shares Luther’s teachings or deviates from them is less a concern for this discussion than the fact that the rhetoric of evangelical liberty drew on the language of freedom from law that Luther had drawn from his reading of Paul.

Luther’s ideal for political activity is best described as measured, and in a specific sense, authoritarian. Claims of special revelation, supposedly used as the common justification for dissent and misrule, struck him as excuses for deviating from the order willed by God and preserved through civil institutions. For example, in response to uprisings in Wittenberg by students and townspeople, Luther with prophetic sternness states that “no prayers can save them now,” for “an inexpressible severity and limitless wrath has already begun to break upon them.”23 Luther sees social unrest of this sort as the work of the Antichrist and exactly what “duly constituted authority” was established to prevent.24

In addition, the “rebellious spirits” who became agitated over the Eucharist in Strasbourg in 1524 fomented “dissensions, sects and errors” among Christians and thereby introduced discord into the community.25 At about the same time but closer to Wittenberg, Andreas Karlstadt began teaching about works in a way that Luther deemed a false effort at righteousness. Luther responded in 1525 that God appointed chiefs, magistrates, and temporal authority before he gave the law, “and in many places he teaches: One is to try, judge, and punish in all cases with justice, witnesses, and in an orderly way. Otherwise, why have judges and magistrates in the land?”26

In Luther’s view there can be no biblical justification for refusing to recognize the law and civil government or for replacing it with the law handed down in scripture, as some were attempting. “Now that we are under our princes, lords, and emperors,” Luther writes, “we must outwardly obey their laws instead of the laws of Moses.” The Mosaic laws that are still binding on persons, in Luther’s view, are the natural law “written” on the heart (Rom. 2:15): the precepts of the Decalogue. Luther refers to the fact that the Christian is guided by an indwelling sense of what is right, which the external law merely confirms. However, the tendency toward sin in all persons prevents that law from being perfectly obeyed, thus the need for enforcement by means of civil laws and governments.

Unity in faith was essential to social harmony, and Luther grouped Karlstadt with the “factious and murderous spirits” who made the people “arrogant and restless.”27 Dissent in matters of religious practice—ethical issues in the broad sense of the term—was dissent about issues within the temporal sovereigns’ jurisdiction; and, in Luther’s view, Karlstadt and his fellow “prophets” were intent on obeying the law in reverse—eating meat on a day meant for fish, doing intentionally that which was prohibited.28 For Luther such practice amounted to nothing other than a rebellious legalism that could turn against the civil authorities as readily as against the church.

The Peasants’ War

It has been a matter of dispute among scholars whether Luther’s fundamental position regarding obedience to secular authority changed after 1525. There is little question that his rhetoric did. The Peasants’ War, a product of the confluence of various forces (one of which was proclamations of evangelical liberty), was an illustration of one way the idea of Christian freedom could be used for subversive purposes. Freedom from law, as the Radicals imagined it, was liberation from restraints imposed by the state and submission to an order they associated with primitive Christianity. For Luther, separating from the state for the sake of following a biblical precedent in one’s outward life represented a fundamental error, the confusion of law and gospel. Specifically, the impulse to adhere to a form of life found in the scriptural canon amounted to adopting the contingent social order of the biblical world as a divinely imposed norm. One needed, in short, to disregard the divine work of instituting civil government in order to replace it with a biblical model. The purpose of biblical law, for Luther, was to afflict the conscience with demands that none can fulfill. That a pious people once lived according to the model found in the Hebrew Bible did not mean that there was greater holiness in living according to it in Luther’s time.

Luther had already insisted steadfastly that evangelical freedom did not liberate one from civil law, and he never deviated from his understanding of the Pauline injunction to be obedient to the higher authorities. When civil unrest broke out in Swabia, Luther in his 1525 Admonition to Peace bade the disruptive evangelicals to endure their rulers, no matter how evil they might seem.29 Even if the rulers against whom they fight are impious rather than Christian, it is not permitted to attack them, and they prove themselves not to be Christian in their resistance. “If you were Christians you would stop threatening with fist and sword. Instead, you would continually abide by the Lord’s Prayer and say ‘Thy will be done’ and ‘Deliver us from evil, Amen.’”30 Luther also exhorts the nobility to attend to their duties as preservers of social order. The peasants’ rebellion, Luther states, is a sign of God’s wrath toward the rulers for their failure to allow the preaching of the gospel, one of the demands in the Twelve Articles.31 Luther affirms the peasants’ enumerated grievances while holding the rulers accountable to God. At the same time, Luther admonishes the peasants that, no matter how justified their grievances, it is not their role to punish the rulers for their wickedness and injustice.32 It is against natural law and equity, as well as against Christian law and the gospel, to usurp the place of rulers and avenge oneself. That is the work of God (and the divinely appointed rulers); and the rebels are acting far worse than their wicked rulers when they “not only suppress God’s word, but tread it underfoot, invade his authority and law, and put [themselves] above God.”33

Luther’s fear that bloodshed would ensue34 came true in the months that followed, and his rhetoric reflected his consternation. In Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants he condemns their error about freedom and community of goods: “Baptism does not make men free in body and property, but in soul.”35 The peasants, who have become “faithless, perjured, disobedient, rebellious murderers, robbers, and blasphemers,”36 are subject to the harshest punishment within the ruler’s jurisdiction. Invoking Romans 13 yet again, Luther reminds rulers that they are God’s ministers and servants of wrath, and that the sword has been given to them to use against such people.37 Violent suppression of the rebellious in the interest of maintaining order, in other words, is the ruler’s godly duty whether the ruler is godly or not. “If anyone thinks this is too harsh, let him remember that rebellion is intolerable and that the destruction of the world is to be expected every hour.”38

The Peasants’ War was in some ways a turning point for the Reformers, in points of rhetorical emphasis if not in the substance of their teachings. Identifying evangelical freedom with antinomianism, the agitators had only a spurious claim to unity with Wittenberg, but the popular perception was short enough in theological nuance that the rebellious peasants were associated with the Reformers. Luther’s response, in several writings, underscores his idea of the kingdoms through which God governs the world and in so doing reinforces a point of continuity with the old order according to which civil institutions are anything but “secular” in the modern sense.

Luther’s denunciatory rhetoric intensifies with the escalation to widespread violence. Without retracting his claim that the revolt is a specimen of divine wrath against bad rulers, Luther defends the actions of the nobility in combating the revolt. Because the rulers have been appointed by God, those who defend them are performing a holy work to such a degree that dying in defense of these rulers is a form of martyrdom.39 In resorting to violence against the social order, the peasants have aligned themselves with the Devil, a conceptual association that rhetorically adds value to the godly work of subduing them. “A more blessed death can never be yours,” Luther tells the rulers, “for you die while obeying the divine word and commandment in Romans 13[:1, 2], and in loving service of your neighbor, whom you are rescuing from the bonds of hell and of the devil.”40

In defending his position, Luther expands on his discussion of the Kingdoms by explaining that the worldly kingdom is one of “wrath and severity … [it] is nothing else than the servant of God’s wrath upon the wicked and is a real precursor of hell and everlasting death,” harsh by nature.41 Yet, in Luther’s view, the “sword” is not entirely meant to be punitive, since the protection of the innocent from “murderous scoundrels” is an example of God’s mercy.42 Those who defended the peaceful from the attacks of the seditious peasants were, in Luther’s view, participating in the godly work of preserving the social order.43


With jurisdiction over the churches in their territories, civil rulers were authorities empowered to reform religious life. Thus, in 1527–1528 Luther and Melanchthon composed instructions for visitations to dioceses, carried out by secular agents to ensure proper worship and teaching in the churches. Few things more clearly represent the sovereignty of the civil powers over the material life of the churches. Penance (the penitential disposition, not the sacrament), the Decalogue as a framework for prayer, the sacraments: these are among the topics that were intended to be addressed during these inspections. The churches were to be under the governance of a superintendent, a title that translates the Greek episkopos (“overseer”) and in Latin became the word for “bishop.” Included also in the visitation was supervision of schools and ensuring that marriages were properly recorded. While civil sovereignty over the church has been considered the beginning of later forms of the Protestant state church, for Luther it was part of the ruler’s vocation as a Christian. “While His Electoral Grace is not obligated to teach and to rule in spiritual affairs, he is obligated as temporal sovereign to so order things that strife, rioting, and rebellion do not arise among his subjects,”44 religious dissension being among the forms of strife which the ruler must try to quell. Like Constantine, Luther continues, the good ruler seeks to “preserve unity in teaching and faith.”45

There are indications within this text that supervising the reform of church life devolved to the civil authorities by default of those properly charged with the task: the higher clergy. (Luther had already indicated this in his Romans commentary and in On Temporal Authority.) In his preface to the Instructions, Luther states that bishops (the original episkopoi) had been responsible for the church but had turned their sees into “a show of secular pomp,” so that, through stages of neglect, “[n]o attention is paid to how one teaches, believes, loves, how one lives a Christian life, how to care for the poor, how one comforts the weak, or punishes the unruly, and whatever else belongs to such an office.”46 In the absence of leadership within the hierarchy, Luther holds that the civil powers are observing a precedent set by Constantine in ensuring unity in worship.47 The visitations, which would continue for decades, illustrate the Lutheran conception of civil authority over ecclesiastical affairs and exemplify the meaning of the term “Magisterial Reformation” that would describe the descending model of religious reform.

Rulers and Subjects

Luther comes across as a reluctant and deferential correspondent with the secular rulers on whose protection he relied and on whose support the success of the Reformation depended. In Luther’s thought, the legitimate authorities to whom obedience is due are those whom God has instituted for each population according to what was suitable for it. (The influence of Aristotle’s tripartite typology of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy looms in the background of Lutheran political theory, much of which was formulated by Melanchthon.) From this viewpoint, final authority in temporal matters resides in the secular territorial sovereign; the Holy Roman Empire, with its ecclesiastical foundation in the papal coronation of Charlemagne, is a fiction, unable to exercise a power it does not legitimately possess. The church has no power to create or depose monarchs, and properly speaking is subordinate to the state. As we have seen, Luther’s inversion of the hierarchy of church and state gave temporal lords powers previously held by ecclesiastical authorities.

Much of the history of Luther’s Reformation is the chronicle of differences over the definitions and boundaries of worldly and godly realms, and of the ways in which Luther and his contemporaries negotiated those differences. Thus, the separation of “kingdoms” notwithstanding, Luther was present at Worms and condemned for teachings over which an imperial Diet had no legitimate jurisdiction, just as Melanchthon at Augsburg a decade later presented the evangelical cause to a body convoked by an emperor recently installed, like his Carolingian predecessor, by a pontiff without power to do so. Luther’s supplication to Charles V in 1520 for protection so that he could continue his work is an appeal to the emperor’s duty to Christ to protect the truth: complying with Christ’s demand “would be the greatest mark of distinction for your Empire.”48 From one perspective, the territorial prince held final sovereignty; from another, the emperor. According to the prevailing order, the empire was a legitimate power, and despite an alternate conceptual construct, Luther and his fellow Reformers were bound to recognize it. This Luther did, for example, in a 1529 letter to Elector John of Saxony, in which he acknowledges that the emperor is the “lord and governmental superior” of the territorial rulers.49 (It is the Holy Roman Empire that is a fiction, according to Luther. The German Empire has a claim to legitimacy.)

Dependence on the support of the civil rulers for the reform of the church meant providing counsel in matters where rulers lacked the theological expertise to make correct decisions. In 1529, for example, the evangelical landgrave Philip of Hesse sought Luther’s support in forming an alliance of Protestant states in defense against possible military action on the part of the empire. However, persistent disagreements between Lutherans and Zwinglians over the Eucharist prevented the churches in these territories from presenting a unified front in a central doctrine. Thus Luther wrote to Philip in 1529 to warn him that opposition on this doctrine from the Zwinglians will not only prevent the forming of an alliance but will allow the Zwinglians to blame Philip and the Lutherans for the failure. In his letter Luther asks Philip to inquire of the Zwinglians whether they are willing to compromise, for “all discussions are futile and the meeting vain, if both parties come with the intention of conceding nothing.”50 Should violence erupt—Luther was anticipating the actions that he would address in his Warning—it would be the fault of the “enthusiasts,” agitators like Karstadt and Müntzer for whose deeds “we have been found totally innocent.”51

Leaders in places where the Reformation took hold found themselves needing to provide services previously controlled by the church; and it is from this need that we find the beginnings of civil ordinances governing the duties of municipal agencies. The idea of a common chest, for example, was intended to support the church and those previously dependent on it, but was under the control of representatives of both clergy and laity. In a 1523 preface to one ordinance concerning church property, Luther advocates appropriating monastic property and placing the resources in a common chest for the benefit of the poor, for “there is no greater service of God than Christian love which helps and serves the needy.”52 Likewise, the Consistory established at Wittenberg in 1539 took up many of the disciplinary tasks of the Catholic Church but operated under the authority of the secular ruler.

For Luther, the fact that civil agencies of this sort had been instituted for the preservation of fallen humanity meant that service to government in the interest of preserving order was a godly calling, but no more or less godly than any other vocation. For others, notably the Radicals who denied the legitimacy of the worldly realm as a proper setting for their Christian vocation, service to secular government was incompatible with the pious life. In the Roman Catholic Church, a godly calling was understood as a vocation to religious life in withdrawal from the worldly realm.

Whether life under arms was an acceptable calling for a Christian was a question in the minds of many, including some in the service of the nobility responsible for preserving social order. One such was Assa von Kram, a professional soldier troubled over his vocation. In Whether Soldiers, Too, May be Saved (1527) Luther defends military life as a calling that should not trouble the conscience, even though it may involve acts of violence seemingly in contradiction to the commandment against killing. Luther mentions the instances of battle in the Hebrew narrative and the New Testament warrants for the use of the “sword.” The need to punish the wicked justifies the use of the sword, which in Luther’s view gives legitimacy to the military calling.

The Later Luther and His Legacy

Although the point at which Luther entered a “late” phase remains debatable, in the realm of political activity there can be little doubt that the reform movement centered on Wittenberg reached maturity after the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. In the wake of the Catholic Refutation of the Augsburg Confession (normative to this day in the Lutheran tradition), Emperor Charles V condemned the Protestant princes (the Diet was an imperial event, not an ecclesiastical one) and threatened military action to bring them back into the Holy Roman Empire. The use of force for the preservation of unity, religious unity in particular, was warranted; and the Reformers understood this, having said as much five years earlier.

In his Warning to His Dear German People (1531), Luther argues that the reform program of the Protestant princes that was presented at Augsburg provided a justification for resistance. It was a difficult position to take, given his support for the authorities articulated in 1523 and in the wake of the Peasants’ War. Luther exhorts his readers to endure their suffering patiently, for their enemies are the enemies of God, whom Christians need not fear. Luther, who anticipates his own martyrdom, tells the evangelicals that they are to keep their consciences clear; it is the papists, he says, who will be subject to God’s wrath.53 At the same time, Luther states that he will not blame “those who defend themselves against the murderous and bloodthirsty papists,” because “in truth it is no insurrection to rise against them and defend oneself.”54 (He had used terms like “murderous and “bloodthirsty” to describe the peasants in 1525.) A critical point of difference for Luther is his sense that they “have no law, divine or human, on their side.”55 Both pope and emperor (whose power was conventionally seen as deriving from the pope) are without divinely grounded power of the sort that Paul acknowledged. They are illegitimate rulers, usurpers, whose fate is in God’s hands. For Luther, the Diet of Augsburg and its immediate aftermath ushered in a structural tension between powers of good and evil.

Although the Reformation is often said to have become a political event after Augsburg—that is, an issue for rulers as well as for theologians—it was in fact one before then, if not with the conversions of rulers like Philip of Hesse in the mid-1520s, then with the formation of the Schmalkald League and their issuing, at the Diet of Speyer in 1529, of the Protest that gave Protestantism its name. With the formation of the League, rulers acted on their responsibility, as articulated by Luther in 1520, for their worldly domains, including the material life of the church within their territories. Princes who embraced this augmentation of their jurisdiction found themselves replacing traditional Catholic liturgy and preaching with evangelical forms that might not have been universally welcomed. They themselves may have had reservations about the changes they were expected to institute.

With the calling of a council by Pope Paul III, theologians from Protestant and Catholic camps began to meet for the purpose of clarifying doctrinal differences and identifying commonalities. The differences, whether clarified or not, persisted; but attempts at synthesis began to appear in the realm of liturgical practice. Whether in order to avoid antagonizing the emperor or to preserve familiar pious customs that Luther had insisted be abolished, rulers began to reintroduce (if they had done away with them at all) elements of worship reminiscent of the Roman church and associated with the Catholic theology of meritorious works. In the Schmalkald Articles (1537), composed in anticipation of an ecumenical gathering, Luther rejects as “sheer mockery and fraud” the various acts of “baptizing” and consecrating ordinary artifacts and goods.56 In the reform of worship, Luther insisted, no compromise was acceptable. The unifying efforts of certain rulers threatened, in his view, the cause of religious reform.

The dilemma created, on the one hand, by acknowledging rulers’ sovereignty over a material realm that included the life of the visible church, and on the other, by the need to ensure the purity of the religious reform with which rulers were entrusted, was resolved by appealing to a specific interpretation of Romans 13, in which the powers to be obeyed were themselves bound to a godly purpose. While pagan sovereigns had been instituted by God for the purpose of maintaining civil order, Christian rulers had the additional responsibility of ensuring that the faith would be taught and practiced correctly.

Concerns over the role of law never fully disappeared. In a 1539 dispute over the role of biblical law in the church, Luther reaffirmed his view of the force of the Decalogue for the pious Christian. It is the universal message of the church, according to Luther, that the atonement does not nullify the law. Without the law, there is no sin, and hence no need for divine forgiveness, which Luther understands as a continuing need.57 Luther is of course referring to that use of the law by which the divine command terrifies the conscience and sends the panicked sinner to the consolation of the gospel. In this controversy Luther reaffirms his initial reading of Romans, whereby the law reveals wrath, the gospel justifies, and the law remains in effect as a reminder of one’s sinfulness. The continuing power of the worldly authorities as a restraint upon conduct is implied in Luther’s position.

In the final years of Luther’s life, questions that had emerged in the early 1530s returned with new urgency. Efforts at conciliation between Protestants and Catholics in matters of liturgy reached something of a peak after Luther’s death during the reign of Duke (later Elector) Maurice of Saxony, himself the product of a mixed Protestant-Catholic union. In the interest of harmony between Catholic and evangelical forms of worship, and in anticipation of a definitive ruling from the Council of Trent, the Saxon monarch authorized an “interim” position in which Catholic parasacramental rites like the blessing of candles would be permitted. The controversy that ensued pitted equally adamant parties against each other: the followers of Philip Melanchthon on the one hand, who in the interest of conciliation were willing to allow such practices as indifferent matters (adiaphora)—that is, neither meritorious nor harmful. On the other hand were those who claimed fidelity to the authentic teaching of Luther (they called themselves gnesiolutherani or “genuine Lutherans”) and rejected these remnants of the old system, as Luther had in the Schmalkald Articles of 1537, as a compromise antithetical to Luther’s intention.

The episode illustrates the two ways in which Luther’s teaching about political order can be interpreted. Maurice was a legitimate territorial ruler, a rightful heir in a position that by the thinking of the day had been instituted by God for civil order—which his measure had been intended to promote. Understood structurally, Maurice had the authority to institute these reforms and his subjects were bound to accept them. Thus the “Philippists” (the followers of Melanchthon) were correct to endorse the Elector’s actions. On the other hand, the Gnesiolutherans interpreted Romans 13 in such a way as to hold the Christian ruler to the pious purpose of preserving the gospel uncontaminated. By this view, the role of a Christian (by which was meant evangelical) ruler was qualitatively different from that of the pagan ones of Paul’s time. The Gnesiolutheran conception of Christian rule held the monarch to the functional criterion of preserving and promoting piety; the advocates of this position withdrew to Magdeburg as an opposition party to a ruler whose actions had undermined his claim to be a Christian prince.

Although these events occurred after Luther’s death, they illustrate the firmness with which later generations insisted that fidelity to Luther’s legacy demanded resistance to rulers allegedly intent on compromising the integrity of the reform program. Promoting the gospel for Luther was more likely to have meant allowing evangelical clergy the freedom to do the work of word and sacrament than interfering with liturgy in the interest of religious harmony. Persistent popular loyalty to the Catholic church, which Luther could not have anticipated in 1520, indicated to rulers like Maurice that some form of accommodation would be necessary in the interest of civil order.

The Christian Civil Realm

When discussing political life for Luther, the essential point to acknowledge is that for him, and for other reformers, the material realm of actions and institutions was fully “political” insofar as there was no qualitative separation between the life of the church and the other operations of civil society. On account of the distinction between realms or “kingdoms,” ecclesiastical activity was essentially political. For the purpose of this discussion, however, the political realm is the one that Luther and his peers would have called the civil sphere. Within this sphere, instituted by God for the sake of preserving order among disobedient and unruly persons, the sovereign acts as the instrument of the divine will, empowered to maintain harmony among persons. That primary task never excluded care for the church: attention to the physical life of the church was as much within the jurisdiction of rulers as the proper governance of any other institution.

The sociological typology associated with Ernst Troeltsch by which Lutheranism is labeled a “church type” polity has withstood almost a century of scrutiny; and the later term “Magisterial Reformation” captures the fact that reform is instituted “from above” by civil powers seen as ordained by God to govern. Luther’s reform, grounded in a Pauline precept, preserved earlier conceptions of temporal governance as being divinely instituted while denying that the church was the source of its power. Luther’s distinction between godly and worldly realms, far from secularizing political life, invested involvement in civil affairs with a new mode of godliness.

Review of the Literature

Scholarship on the question of Luther’s views of political life entered the secular mainstream in 1928 with the work of J. W. Allen, whose survey of the Reformers’ contributions to political thought became the standard narrative for decades.58 (Calvinism, because of its role in religious wars, had been seen as the more interesting or important political position.) During the same decade, Ernst Troeltsch argued for the continuity of the Magisterial Reformation with the political structure of medieval Christendom: the term “church type” for the top-down control of religious life (which is what “Magisterial” refers to) is associated with Troeltsch, whose work also remains a classic.59 Among more recent grand narratives, Quentin Skinner treats Luther among the canonical authors of “modern” (usually equivalent to “secular” in this literature) political thought, an interpretation that suggests that Luther’s political position is separable from his theology.60 More sensitive to the religious aspect of Magisterial political theory is Francis Oakley’s chapter in the Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450–1700.61

The central topic for interpreters of Luther and the state is the Two Kingdoms doctrine, a focus of theological controversy and scholarly discord. Early interpreters like Hermann Jordan held that the earthly realm was independent of the godly one but nevertheless a divine creation and thus moral, with the mandate and means to resist evil.62 (Troeltsch articulated a similar position around the same time.) In Germany in the 1930s, the autonomy of the secular realm led to an idealization of the state, a positon reinforced by an attitude to government which prohibited resistance. These theologians were opposed by those who saw this Nazi-aligned position as antithetical to Luther (and the gospel).63

The tension between obedience and resistance has drawn serious scholarly attention in recent decades, notably from David Whitford and Nathan Rein in their studies of the Magdeburg phenomenon.64 The comprehensive modern overview of Luther’s thought by W. D. J. Cargill Thompson is eminently readable and continues to serve as a reliable introduction to the problems that Luther’s writings raise.65

Further Reading

Cargill Thompson, W. D. J.The Political Thought of Martin Luther. Edited by Philip Broadhead. Brighton, U.K.: Harvester, 1984.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:

Frostin, Per. Luther’s Two Kingdoms Doctrine: A Critical Study. Lund: Lund University Press, 1994.Find this resource:

Gänssler, Hans-Joachim. Evangelium und weltliches Schwert: Hintergrund, Entstehungsgeschichte und Anlass con Luthers Scheidung zweier Reiche oder Regimente. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1983.Find this resource:

Loewen, Harry. Luther and the Radicals: Another Look at Some Aspects of the Struggle between Luther and the Radical Reformers. Waterloo, ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1974.Find this resource:

Oakley, Francis. “Christian Obedience and Authority, 1520–50.” In The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450–1700. Edited by J. H. Burns and Mark Goldie, 159–192. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991.Find this resource:

Whitford, David M.Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2001.Find this resource:


(1.) A useful survey of the variegated reception of the Reformation legacy is A. G. Dickerns and John Tonkin, The Reformation in Historical Thought (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985).

(2.) Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, vol. 2 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1978), was perhaps the first to locate Luther and the other reformers in a trajectory originating in the Renaissance and culminating in the secular Enlightenment.

(3.) Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, trans. Olive Wyon, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1960).

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(58.) John William Allen, A History of Political Thought in the 16th Century (London: Methuen, 1928).

(59.) Troeltsch, Social Teaching.

(60.) Skinner, Foundations.

(61.) Francis Oakley, “Christian Obedience and Authority, 1520–1550,” in The Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450–1700, eds. J. H. Burns and Mark Goldie (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 159–192.

(62.) Hermann Jordan, Luthers Staatsauffassung: ein Beitrag zu der Frage des Verhältnisses von Religion und Politik (Munich: Müller & Fröhlich, 1917).

(63.) For a useful survey of the controversy see William J. Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms: A Response to the Challenge of Skepticism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), chapter 1.

(64.) David M. Whitford, Tyranny and Resistance: The Madgeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 2001); Nathan Rein, The Chancery of God: Protestant Print, Polemic and Propaganda against the Empire, Magdeburg 1546–1551 (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2008).

(65.) W. D. J. Cargill Thompson, The Political Thought of Martin Luther, ed. Philip Broadhead (Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1984).