Luther on politicians

The conventional wisdom is that Luther taught total submission to government authorities.  But you’ve got to read what he actually wrote about those government authorities.  Dr. Matthew Phillips usefully quotes from Luther’s most important treatise on earthly government and the Two Kingdoms, in which he makes the Tea Partiers sound mild.

From Dr. Matthew Phillips, God Makes Rulers Mad | Steadfast Lutherans:

“For God the Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do–and order their subjects to do–whatever they please. And the subjects made the mistake of believing that they, in turn, are bound to obey their rulers in everything. It has gone so far that rulers have begun ordering the people to get rid of books, and to believe and conform to what the rulers prescribe. They are thereby presumptuously setting themselves in God’s place, lording it over men’s consciences and faith, and schooling the Holy Spirit according to their own crackbrained [sic] ideas.” Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, pp. 83-84. [Italics added]

In this work (1523) Martin Luther explained the limits of the authority of worldly rulers. In 1522 Duke George of Saxony (cousin and rival to Luther’s own ruler, Frederick the Wise) had begun confiscating and destroying Luther’s books. Dr. Luther explained his famous teaching on the two kingdoms (or governments) in this text also. God has established a temporal government to rule the world and a spiritual government “by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians.” (Ibid., p. 91) While Luther certainly recognized that God had established temporal authority, he never hesitated from criticizing rulers publicly. For example, here he rebukes rulers for their greed and lack of true ethics:

“…the temporal lords are supposed to govern lands and people outwardly. This they leave undone. They can do no more than strip and fleece, heap tax upon tax and tribute upon tribute, letting loose here a bear and there a wolf. Besides this, there is no justice, integrity, or truth to be found among them. They behave worse than any thief or scoundrel, and their temporal rule has sunk quite as low as that of the spiritual tyrants. For this reason God so perverts their minds also, that they rush on into the absurdity of trying to exercise a spiritual rule over souls, just as their counterparts try to establish a temporal rule. They blithely heap alien sins upon themselves and incur the hatred of God and man, until they come to ruin together with bishops, popes, monks, one scoundrel with the other.” Ibid., p. 109. [Italics added]

Notice how Luther describes God as working against sinful rulers. In fact, he portrays the confusion of temporal and spiritual rule as God’s judgment on these rulers. In this section of the work Luther also attacks bishops who act as worldly rulers and not shepherds of souls. God’s judgment exposes the misuse of both governments. In light of this judgment, did Luther believe temporal rulers could act justly? For Luther it was unlikely. At best rulers could keep social order and punish criminals. Consider the following statement:

“You must know that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince even rarer. They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good, especially in divine matters which concern the salvation of souls. They are God’s executioners and hangmen; his divine wrath uses them to punish the wicked and to maintain outward peace.” Ibid., p. 113.

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