The Political Theories of Martin Luther

The Political Theories of Martin Luther – Luther Hess Waring

After a description of the Germany of Luther’s day, the author enters upon various important topics in political science and endeavors to show by citations from Luther’s writings the positions taken by that reformer. His views are not formulated in any connected treatise on the theory of the State but a compilation of detailed expressions exhibit the principles upon which he seemed to act. The author organizes the matter in a final summary, by which it appears that Luther was of the opinion that the State was of divine origin but its form was a matter for human determination. The sovereignty of the State is exclusive, not shared by the Church, and, furthermore, the State is not simply a sword in the interest of the Church. The object of the State is to maintain peace, and its powers should be used in the interest of all, not for the benefit of special classes. It is the duty of the State to educate youth both in secular and religious matters. It should care for the poor, protect the people against monopolies and extortion, and should suppress gambling and immorality. Freedom of conscience, liberty of speech and of the press are inalienable rights of every individual. It is important to know the political views of the man who wrought such changes in religious associations, and the author has performed good service in assembling Luther’s expressions, but it is difficult to count him as a contributor to political science.

The Political Theories of Martin Luther

The Political Theories of Martin Luther.

Format: eBook.

The Political Theories of Martin Luther.

ISBN: 9783849658212.


Excerpt from the text:


ARISTOTLE, in a sense the founder of political science, 2 declares that man is by nature a political animal 3 and that the state is natural and necessary to him. It comes into being for the sake of mere life, but it continues to exist for the sake of the good life. It has no more important function than that of securing intellectual culture and physical training to its youth. Whether the sovereign power reside in one, in the few, or in the many, the true end of the state is the perfection of all its members. Government conducted in the exclusive interest of any part, though a majority of its citizens, is a perversion. The law is superior to the individual man, and its sovereignty is above every form of personal sovereignty.

The ancient state, in general, was everything. It included and interfered with all the relations in life. Without it, the citizen was nothing, and he had no individual freedom. The idea of the state embraced his entire life “in community, in religion and law, morals and art, culture and science.” 4 Religion and government, or church and state, were identical, and continued so in theory and generally in fact to the time of Constantine. 5

In the history of Rome there was a time when the word of Caesar was the law and the worship of Caesar was the religion of the world. As Pontifex Maximus he was the high priest of the national religion. He held control of both church and state in his own person. Indeed, in a large sense, he was the state, and he was the church.

Identity of worship, among ancient civilised peoples, constituted the unity of the state. Throughout antiquity the essence of religion was associated with nationality, and the religious community was contained in the political community of the state. 6 This identity of two great institutions so generally distinct in modern life, this fusion and confusion of church and state, arose from the common germ from which they both sprang, i.e., the family. 7

Aristotle wrote: “The care of the public sacrifices of the city belongs, according to religious custom, not to special priests, but to those men who derive their dignity from the hearth, and who in one place are called kings, in another prytanes, and in a third archons.” 8 The sacerdotal character of primitive royalty is clearly shown by ancient writers. The-office of king and priest was united in one. “Just as in the family the authority was inherent in the priesthood, and the father, as head of the domestic worship, was at the same time judge and master, so the high priest of the city was at the same time its political chief. . . . From the fact that religion had so great a part in the government, in the courts, and in war, it necessarily followed that the priest was at the same time magistrate, judge, and military chief. . . . This royalty, semi-religious, semi-political, was established in all cities, from their foundation, without effort on the part of the kings, without resistance on the part of the subjects.” 9

The Romans gave a more definite form to law, as distinguished from morality, and thus limited the jurisdiction or the sphere of the state. Furthermore, they declared the will of the people to be the source of all law. 10 Great as they were as administrators and lawgivers, they have left us nothing of importance in the history of political theory. 11

With the introduction and early extension of Christianity, whose Founder and early followers were persecuted to the death by various governments of their day, another limitation was placed upon the sphere of the state. The church as an organisation was viewed and kept separate and distinct from the state. 12 “The words of Christ, ‘My kingdom is not of this world,’ mark a crisis in history, the birth of a new movement which was to assign to each of the two powers, the state as well as the religious community, their separate province.” 13 The entire religious life of the community was felt to be essentially independent of the state, although not altogether withdrawn from its care and influence, and the state was limited to the field of politics and law. The dualism of church and state became most marked. 14 The historian Gibbon viewed the church, as it became during Constantine’s reign and remained for years after his death, as a republic or state within the state; but it was rather a superordinated genus embracing all the civil functions of the state. For a period of fifteen hundred years, one great question that more than any other in this field of government clamoured for a solution was the relation that properly exists between these two great institutions, the church and the state. “The whole life and character of western Christendom consists of the incessant action and counteraction of church and state. ” 15

Galerius, as early as 311 A.D., issued an edict, which also bears the names of Constantine and Licinius, declaring paganism to be the religion of the state, but tolerating Christianity, provided its adherents took no action against the established laws, religion, and government of the state. 16 Two years later, Constantine, Emperor of the West, and Licinius, Master of the East, issued the famous Edict of Milan, 17 granting absolute freedom of worship, giving full and free power to the Christians of exercising their own religion. The same free and unrestricted liberty of worship, according to the dictates of the individual conscience and reason, with a view to peace, was likewise conceded to all others as to their own religion or observance, that each might have the liberty of the worship he preferred. Church property that had been confiscated or sold from the Christian communities was ordered to be at once restored, without consideration. Neander declares that this new law implied the introduction of a universal and unconditional religious freedom and liberty of conscience a thing, in fact, wholly new. 18 In issuing this edict, Constantine expresses the hope that in granting this liberty he may have Heaven’s blessing; but there is nothing in the language of the document showing any recognition of the right of the individual to freedom of conscience or liberty of worship. Tertullian, writing in the preceding century, asserted that ‘ ‘ the rights of man and the law of nature give everyone’ the power of worshipping as he thinks proper; and the religion of one man neither injures nor benefits another. Force is indeed foreign to religion.” 19

Constantine’s Edict of Toleration of 323 A.D. recognised freedom of conscience and of worship. He summoned church councils to settle questions of religious doctrine, and published their proceedings. He banished dissenting ecclesiastics, prohibited assemblies of heretics, and confiscated their houses of worship. He paid salaries to the Christian clergy from the imperial treasury and bestowed certain judicial functions on bishops. 20 It is asserted that after he made Constantinople his capital, he prohibited immoral forms of pagan worship and their ordinary public forms of sacrifice, but this has not been definitely established.

During Constantine’s reign another voice is heard in behalf of religious liberty. Lactantius, tutor to the Emperor’s son and a Christian convert, asserted: “Religion cannot be compelled; it is by words rather than wounds that you must bend the will. Nothing is so much a matter of free will as religion. Our God is the God of all, whether they will it or no; but we do not desire that anyone should be compelled to worship Him. . . . Religion is the one region in which liberty has fixed its domicile and home.” 21 In 353 Constantius ordered all heathen temples closed, and declared further: “We will that all abstain from sacrifices: if any be found doing otherwise, let him be slain with the sword.” 22

It did not require centuries, after the removal of the seat of imperial government from the Tiber to the Bosporus, for the old Roman Empire, as a unit, to disappear. The Bishop of Rome naturally acquired leadership in the West. He defended that city and its people against the northern barbarians, but he also won these same barbarians to Christianity. The universal temporal dominion of the old empire passed away, both in theory and in fact, but it was superseded by the idea of universal spiritual dominion. As early as the end of the fifth century, Bishop Gelasius (492-496) declared that “the See of St. Peter has the right to decide and judge in all matters concerning the faith; no .one dare criticise its judgment; as the canons determine that persons from all parts of the world can appeal to it, no one, on the other hand, can appeal against it.” 23 “It is just at the moment when the Roman Empire is breaking up and disappearing”, says Guizot, “that the Christian church gathers itself up and takes its definite form. Political unity perishes, religious unity emerges.” 24

The year 754 was a turning point in the relation of church and state in Western and Southern Europe. Pippin, King of the Franks, accepting a proposal of the Pope, overthrew the Lombards, who were pressing the eternal city, and presented Rome and the surrounding territory to the Pope. 25 Twenty years later, his son Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, assumed the iron crown and ruled as protector of Rome for a score of years. He was nominally, however, under the power of the Roman Emperor until the close of that century. On Christmas day, in the year 800, the Pope, in St. Peter’s at Rome, placed on Charlemagne’s head the crown of the Caesars, and he was acclaimed as “Charles Augustus, Emperor, crowned of God.”

The capitulary of Charlemagne of 802 has been well termed, in a certain sense, the foundation charter of that Holy Roman Empire that continued for more than a thousand years. 26 Although the ideals and principles there set forth were never fully realised, they nevertheless set forth functions and objects of civil government worthy of note. The Emperor chose the most prudent and the wisest of his nobles to make diligent inquiry and report to him where any provisions were contained in the law otherwise than according to Christian right and justice, that he might better it, and to fully administer law and justice according to the will and the fear of God, whether the matter concerned the church, or the poor, or wards and widows, or the whole people. Where these imperial appointees, with the assistance of the counts of the provinces, found themselves unable to adjust a difficulty or render justice with regard to it, they were directed to refer it, with their reports, to the Emperor’s court. All the people of the empire were exhorted to live together according to the precept of God, in a just manner, under just judgment, in mutual charity and perfect peace. Every male citizen, layman and ecclesiastic alike, down to those under twelve years of age, was required to take the oath of allegiance to the Emperor. Charlemagne declared that he himself, after God and His saints, had been constituted the protector and defender of the holy churches of God, of widows, of orphans, and of strangers. He commanded that judges should judge justly, according to the written law, and not according to their own judgment. 27 This first great Emperor of the new regime brought together under his authority and government the territory now included in Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, France, Belgium, and all of Italy except the southern part. 28


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