The Limitation of Law in Luther’s Reform

[1] Without a reformation early Lutherans feared that the gospel as they understood it might have been lost. We cannot make a historical judgment about that fear, but we can be reasonably sure that without the law the Reformation would have been lost. John Witte’s book, Law and Protestantism, demonstrates the extent to which the survival of the Reformation in its Lutheran form depended on the law. Without legal regulations to transpose early evangelical theology into new forms of church and civic life, Protestant pastors would have preached their hearts out without substantially altering the religious institutions and practices which they decried as idolatrous and unchristian: monastic vows, compulsory clerical celibacy, private masses and the sacrificial theology underlying them, the cult of the saints, satisfactions and indulgences, and the marital provisions of canon law. By redirecting assets from ecclesiastical foundations to schools and social welfare, Protestants not only preached that love of neighbor was more pleasing to God than misguided religious activity, but they also embodied what they preached in legal structures that lasted. As Witte phrases it: “. . . it was the combination of theological and legal reforms that rendered the Lutheran Reformation so resolute and resilient.”[1]

[2] It is hard to overestimate the importance of law to the Reformation. Is it possible, however, that the cost was too high? Could the gospel have been lost among the new Protestant laws that guaranteed the survival of the Reformation? Since the 1520s both theologians and historians have insisted that such was the case. Pastors like John Agricola (1494-1566) and his sympathizers, dismissed as antinomians by Luther, feared that preaching the law would undercut the evangelical message and its power to effect repentance and engender faith. Historians have argued that Luther’s endorsement of parish oversight by civil and clerical officials subverted both Christian freedom and the right of parishes to judge the preaching of pastors whom they were entitled to call and dismiss. The present tendency to evaluate the outcome of the Reformation by the process of confessionalization usually culminates in a negative judgment. The early spontaneity of the evangelical movement gave way to church orders and consistories that regimented the behavior of believers and subjected them to rulers who were interested mainly in their obedience.

[3] Such criticisms of the impact of law on the Reformation are too harsh and in some cases wrong. To the extent that Luther’s reforms could be installed by civil and ecclesiastical law, the new regulations did provide structures of worship and piety that were consistent with evangelical theology. Those structures, however, did not guarantee that Protestant believers who lived within them would internalize the evangelical message and conform to the template of the ideal Christian drawn by Luther in his treatise on Christian freedom (1520). According to that model, the Christian was through faith the freest ruler of all and through love the most dutiful servant of all.[2] Faith in Christ led spontaneously to love for the neighbor and enabled believers to direct all their energy toward securing the welfare of others. This model of Christian ethics depended on the efficacy of the gospel to awaken faith, to embrace forgiveness for the sake of Christ, and to stimulate love of neighbor so deeply that believers acted as Christs to one another. The law was not absent from this model; the Word of God was both law and promise, and law was needed to lead people to repentance. As the basis of structures that abolished the old piety and protected the preaching of the gospel, however, the law could only go so far. It could create space for the evangelical message, but it could not guarantee that the message would be imprinted on the hearts and minds of its hearers.

[4] In other words, as valuable as the law was to the Reformation, its effect on Lutheran belief and ethics was limited. Theologians proposed different theoretical means of facilitating the impact of the law on Christian conduct: two kingdoms, three orders, three uses of the law, and simul iustus et peccator. The last-named concept was perhaps the most teachable. Since Luther argued that believers after baptism were never free of sin, the law was deemed useful for inspiring continual repentance and for controlling the effects of sin in the lives of the redeemed. Explanations of the Ten Commandments in the catechisms provided guidance both for behavior that should be avoided and for conduct that would express God’s will. Whether that guidance should be called a third use of the law was sharply debated by theologians, but while they debated it seemed that people in the pews were not getting the message. Luther and other reformers lamented the fact that laity were being told they did not need the law at all. In his 1535 homiletical handbook, the Lutheran superintendent of Lower Saxony, Urbanus Rhegius (1489-1541), blamed naïve young preachers for leading people astray:

In striving to present Paul’s teaching about the law and its office, some preachers brazenly teach the following: “The ten commandments were not given for us to obey.” Here they abruptly stop the sermon and move on to another topic, although they should explain in detail why the law was given at all since it cannot justify the sinner. Unless they already understand Paul perfectly, people who hear such things cannot avoid taking offense. Right away they think that meditating upon the law, keeping it, and doing good works are unnecessary and that it is permitted to steal and to commit adultery and murder. For one hears these things said publicly by people who have listened to such foolish sermons.[3]
[5] Nowhere was the law’s limitation more evident than in the writings of Luther that treated Christian living within the framework of two kingdoms. Consider, for example, the question of whether parents should be able to prevent or compel the marriage of their children. In the dedication of his 1524 treatise on this question, Luther recalled that he had previously written (in opposition to canon law) that “obedience to parents is so important that a child should not become engaged or marry without their knowledge and consent, and that if this does occur the parents have the authority to dissolve such a union.”[4] Luther had indeed written in late 1522 that obedience to parents obliged children to seek their consent so that the perils of secret engagements could be avoided.[5] Now he claimed that parents had gone too far and were arbitrarily preventing their children from marrying or, in the one specific case about which he had been consulted, compelling their children to marry someone they did not love. Luther quickly acknowledged that parental authority was strictly limited by God’s authority, that is, the “very highest authority” to preach the gospel and to govern souls in a way that builds up and does not destroy (2 Corinthians 10:8). By this standard parents who forced children to marry someone they did not love were flouting God’s authority and, like tyrants, wreaking destruction on their children.[6] The fourth commandment did not give parents the right to abuse their children.

[6] The appeal to a higher authority did not resolve the issue, however, because there remained the question whether children should resist such tyranny. According to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-41) evil should not be resisted, and consequently children should obey their tyrannical parents and accept the injustice imposed upon them.[7] Luther responded to this reasoning with the same answer that he frequently gave to ethical questions. True Christians, those who complied with the gospel, “would by all means neither refuse nor resist such a forced marriage.” They would react like Jacob after Leah was forced upon him: he kept her against his will even though he was under no obligation to do so (Genesis 29:21-30).[8] Although Luther implied that few such “hardy” Christians existed, Christ’s command could not be escaped, and “weak Christians” who could not follow it should appeal to civil authorities to prevent injustice and restrict parents to the proper use of their authority.[9] Except for these courses of action – non-resistance, appeal to governmental enforcement, or escape to another jurisdiction – Luther had no other advice to give “a Christian.” As for those who were “not Christians,” Luther left them to do what they could “within the temporal laws.”[10]

[7] In the case of parents compelling their children to marry, two limitations on the law were disclosed, both of which overrode the fourth commandment. One limitation was imposed by a higher divine command to build up and not to destroy, the other by the specific behavior required of Christians in the Sermon on the Mount. The first limitation was often applied directly on the basis of Acts 5:29 (“We must obey God rather than any human authority”), or with discretion through the principle of equity that Lutheran jurists adapted to their legal systems.[11] The second limitation, however, disclosed a fundamental tension between the law and the Christian life that was not easily resolved even by the model of two kingdoms.

[8] The development of this model in Wittenberg in 1522 produced the distinction between true Christians who lived by the Sermon on the Mount and others who lived by the law. In his treatise, Temporal Authority, Luther attempted to reconcile the non-resistance enjoined by Matthew 5 with the imperative of Romans 13 to be subject to the governing authorities ordained by God. His solution was to divide humanity into two classes, the first belonging to the kingdom of God, composed of true believers in Christ and living under Christ and the rule of the gospel. The second class, all who were not Christians, belonged to the kingdom of the world and lived under the law. “There are few true believers, and still fewer who live a Christian life, who do not resist evil and indeed themselves do no evil. For this reason God has provided for them a different government beyond the Christian estate and the kingdom of God.”[12] If the world were filled with true Christians, then no law would be necessary, since in themselves Christians did not need the law or the sword.[13] Because, however, “the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name,” the world can never be ruled in a Christian or evangelical manner. Instead, people must be restrained by the law given by God for that purpose.[14]

[9] The sharp divide created by Luther between the kingdoms does not lend itself easily to the common Lutheran affirmation that Christians “live in both kingdoms.” On the contrary, Luther is saying that Christians live in the kingdom of God ruled by the gospel and Christ’s commands, and that non-Christians live in the kingdom of the world ruled by the law. That uncomfortable position can be eased, however, by the doctrine of simul iustus et peccator, which seems to be compatible with Luther’s admission that so few true Christians exist and that the baptized masses can be regarded as un-Christian. On the ground that all baptized believers still sin and therefore cannot conform to the Sermon on the Mount, one could presume that no true Christians exist and that Luther’s version of the two kingdoms was an ideal construct that can be spiritualized so that all Christians can fit into both kingdoms. Insofar as they believe in Christ by the power of the Spirit and their sin is forgiven, Christians live in the kingdom of God or the spiritual kingdom; insofar as they still sin, require restraint, and seek earthly justice for themselves and others, Christians are governed by the law in the worldly kingdom and can govern others according to the law.

[10] That adjustment reduces the dis-ease caused by Luther’s conception and affirms the political and theological uses of the law, but it does not eliminate the tension from Luther’s ethical vision or capture its radicality. Luther expected more from Christians for their life in the world than the law could provide. Although he conceded that baptized believers still waged war with sin and that only a few, if any, true Christians could be found, he persistently held up biblical paradigms like the Sermon on the Mount as the proper path for those who would live under Christ and the gospel. Christians should not rest content with life within the law but exceed its limitations and risk living by the gospel. For example, Luther not only supported regulations for marriage that would fit his theology and apply to all, but he urged Christians to conduct their marriages in a loving and equitable manner that grew out of their faith.[15] The rule of love (lex charitatis) should govern the lives of believers, even though that rule allowed Christians to obey civil government and its law on behalf of others.[16]

[11] In spite of his gibes at jurists and legalistic religion,[17] Luther extolled the law and its value for social, political, and ecclesiastical order:
“Since the government in our German lands is supposed to be guided by the imperial law of Rome, and this law is our government’s wisdom and reason, given it by God, it follows that this government cannot be maintained and will inevitably perish unless the law is maintained. Now who will maintain it? Not fist and weapons; heads and books must do it. People must learn and know the law and wisdom of our worldly government.”[18]

[12] In addition, Luther appreciated the concept of equity and realized that the application of law to specific cases required both realism and fairness.[19] In the end, however, the law could not create what Luther desired more than a legally established Reformation: Christians empowered by the gospel to live in faith and love.

[1] John Witte Jr., Law and Protestantism (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 4.

[2] Martin Luther, The Freedom of A Christian (1520), in Luther’s Works, American Edition, 55 vols. (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955-1986), vol. 31, p. 344 (LW 31:344).

[3] Urbanus Rhegius, Formulae quaedam caute (1535), in Preaching the Reformation: The Homiletical Handbook of Urbanus Rhegius, ed. Scott Hendrix (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2003), 31.

[4] Martin Luther, That Parents Should neither Compel nor Hinder the Marriage of Their Children, and That Children Should Not Become Engaged without Their Parents’ Consent (1524), LW 45: 385-386.

[5] Martin Luther, The Estate of Marriage (1522), LW 45: 29

[6] Luther, That Parents Should neither Compel nor Hinder the Marriage of Their Children, LW 45: 386.

[7] Ibid. (387-388).

[8] Ibid. (388)

[9] Ibid. (388-389)

[10] Ibid. (389)

[11] Witte, Law and Protestantism, 14-15.

[12] Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed (1523), LW 45: 88, 90.

[13] Luther, Temporal Authority, in LW 45: 89.

[14] Ibid (91).

[15] For this interpretation, see Scott Hendrix, “Luther on Marriage,” Lutheran Quarterly 14:3 (2000): 335-350; reprinted in Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2004), 169-184.

[16] Johannes Heckel, Lex Charitatis: Eine juristische Untersuchung über das Recht in der Theologie Martin Luthers, 2nd ed., ed. Martin Heckel (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1973), 287-289.

[17] For examples, see Witte, Law and Protestantism,, 119; also H. G. Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 285-287.

[18] Martin Luther, A Sermon on Keeping Children in School (1530), LW 46: 239.

[19] Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography, 346: “Epikeia was Martin Luther’s final reconciliation of law with humanity in the business of the world.”