by Martin Luther
HT: Bill Gross, Onthewing
Luther faced a condition, not simply a theory. He faced the theory of the temporal power of the Church. He also faced the fact that he had protested against the one and defied the other at Worms. Now matters were to be put to the test. The diet had put Luther under the ban of the empire. The Council of Regency, by edict of January 20, 1522, demanded that severe measures be taken to carry out the edict of Worms. It gave assurance of temporal aid. It was now over a year since Luther’s books had been burned. In the Netherlands adherents of Luther had lately been imprisoned and threatened with death.1 Only that Autumn, after the appearance of his translation of the New Testament, the Dukes of Bavaria, the Elector of Brandenburg, and Duke George of Saxony issued strict orders against the sale and use of the book. Luther knew that the princes were plotting against his life. How should a Christian conduct himself toward such rulers and their power? This set Luther thinking on the questions involved in our treatise.
Again, during his absence at the Wartburg the question had arisen in Wittenberg concerning the interpretation of passages like Mat 5:39 and Rom 12:19.2
The Roman Catholic interpretation was that these are counsels for the perfect,3 not precepts for all Christians. His answer to Melanchthon from the Wartburg was that the Gospel had nothing to do with the power of the sword, that secular authority was not necessary if all were Christians, but that it must be maintained because of sin. Whence then is the Church’s secular authority? In the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility he had denied this authority, and had there defined the separate and distinct spheres of Church and State. It was necessary to reaffirm what he had said then, and also to maintain the divine character of the State against the fanatics who forbade civil offices to Christians.4 The basis of our treatise is to be found in the third and fourth of the six sermons preached October 19, 24, 25 and 26, 1522, at Weimar, in the presence of Duke John of Saxony. At the request of the court preacher, Wolfgang Stein, Duke John, and others, Luther undertook the publication of the material. He could not commence the work before the middle of December. Duke George’s order against the sale of Luther’s New Testament, dated November 7, 1522, may have hastened Luther’s efforts.
That material grew under his pen into our present treatise, dedicated to Duke John and dated New Year’s Day, 1523. By New Year, Luther undoubtedly means Christmas, as he does in his Christmas hymn, “Vom Himeel hoch.” The date of the treatise, then, is December 25, 1522. It did not appear, however, until March, 1523, for Duke George complains of it to Elector Frederick on March 21st of that year.5 The treatise is divided into three parts. In the first part Luther shows, as he had in the Open Letter to the Christian Nobility, that secular authority is ordained by God. Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount are binding on all Christians and refer to personal revenge. They do not forbid even Christians to bear the sword for the sake of others, and to curb wickedness. Like the oath, the sword is not needed among Christians.
The main line of discussion is contained in the second part. This takes up the question, in how far secular authority should be obeyed. Its sphere is the kingdom of the world over against the kingdom of God. It is not to invade the latter sphere. Faith is a matter of the individual conscience. God alone bears rule over the soul. God is to be obeyed rather than man. Bishops rule by applying God’s Word. Christians are to be ruled by nothing but God’s Word.
In the third part are found the remnants of the sermon preached at Weimar. Here Luther instructs the princes how to conduct themselves toward God, toward their subjects, toward their counselors, and toward evil doers. He speaks as the father confessor of the prince.
Our treatise is of political as well as religious significance. It maintains the right of private judgment over against Church and State. It is the first ethical defense of government over against the current Roman Catholic conception, which traced all authority to the Church. It gave the world a new theory of the State, separated State from Church, and made the function of the State the service of its people.
The text of the treatise is found in the following editions: Weimar Ed., xi, 259 ff.; Erlangen Ed., xxii, 6o ff.; Walch Ed., x, 456 ff.; St. Louis Ed., x, 374 ff.; Berlin Ed., vii, 224 ff.; Clemen, ii, 360 ff. This translation is based on the text as given in Clemen.
J.J. SCHINDEL. ALLENTOWN, PA.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
LETTER OF DEDICATION
SECULAR AUTHORITY – PART ONE: TO WHAT EXTENT IT SHOULD BE OBEYED.
1. Establishing Secular Law and the Sword
2. Non-Resistance to the Law
3. The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World
4. The Government of Non-Christians
5. Christians’ Subjection to Secular Authority
6. May Christians Bear the Secular Sword?
SECULAR AUTHORITY – PART TWO: HOW FAR IT EXTENDS
1. Two Classes, Two Kingdoms, Two Kinds of Laws.
2. Commandments cannot be imposed where there is no power.
3. Every man is responsible for his own faith.
4. Only God has power and authority over souls.
5. The Church and not the State is the arbiter of heresy.
6. The State and not the Church wields the Sword.
SECULAR AUTHORITY – PART THREE: HOW IT SHOULD BE USED
1. The Secular Ruler must consider his subjects.
2. The Secular Ruler must beware his counselors.
3. The Secular ruler must take heed that he deals justly with evil doers.
4. The Secular Ruler must subject himself to God.
A FINAL WORD ABOUT RESTITUTION.