Wielding the Word: Martin Luther on Temporal Authority

[1] Since the sixteenth century the argument has been made, and is made today, that any Christian participation in the public square is properly personal and private altogether. The business of the church, as the corporate body of Christ on earth, is to be concerned with matters reflecting the kingdom of God’s right hand. The argument construes Luther’s two-realm teaching (Zweireichenlehre) in strictly dualistic terms, sealing off from each other the temporal and the spiritual. This conduces to an oft-criticized[1] Lutheran quietism and removes the church’s voice from the urgent moral contentions of the day.

[2] By contrast, the ELCA has understood itself as a community of moral deliberation and an avowedly “public” church. This self-understanding appears as one of five strategic commitments adopted ten years ago, although the Church in Society program unit in the Churchwide Organization has disappeared. This line of thinking was already present pre-merger. George Forell, in Faith Active in Love (1954) claimed that for Luther social thought was “an integral part of his thinking and in the context of his entire approach to life.”[2]

[3] The church’s memory of Fr. Martin quickly skips over his boyhood, but we might pause to note that in the fifteenth century the economic position of the peasantry and the lower classes was growing worse along with a rise in the cost of living.[3] However, his father Hans was able to take advantage of opportunities present in nascent mercantile capitalism to advance his economic position such that he could dream of his gifted son becoming a professional player in the emerging system. But then came the vow to St. Anne, the filial betrayal of paternal hopes, the Anfechtung (spiritual struggle) and Turmerlebnis (tower experience) and the celestial light shining from Romans. Therefore his admirers have tended to anchor the source of the Reformation in Martin’s tentationes (difficulties) regarding God and faith in cell and cloaca. Yet when he burst onto the world stage, it was not as a direct result of his posting a lengthy list of debate points on the door of the castle church. No one down south in Rome would have been agitated by the author’s description of the Christian life as one of constant repentance. Rather, it was the troublesome monk’s direct threat to Rome’s revenue stream.

The economics of indulgences

[4] From Luther’s point of view, the indulgence controversy was first and foremost a matter of the soul, although he did advise the faithful to fund their local parishes rather than letting the coin clink in Tetzel’s coffers. And he criticized his fellow Wittenbergers’ “running their gulden to Jüterborg” to buy indulgences and thereby diminish contributions to the common chest.[4] His major concern, however, was with the damage done to a Christian’s relationship with Christ and reliance on God’s unconditional grace offered through Christ’s death and resurrection. Such monetization of salvation, for which Luther also blamed the Scholastics, abetted the monstrum incertitudine (terrible uncertainty) that bedeviled medieval consciences.[5]

[5] Yet when Luther got rolling with his polemical homiletics, what arrested the papal court’s attention was the potential drying-up of its south-flowing cash pipeline. This dispute about indulgences lay at the heart of the corruption of the church in the late Middle Ages. Yet while it is true that “…the Reformation was accompanied by…the end of the Constantinian era of Christian-Catholic hegemony over Western culture,” the church in Luther’s day was still a power on the global scene.[6] Capitalizing, literally, on the fiction that the German territories were still part of the now-anachronistic Holy Roman Empire, the Roman church, more secular power than spiritual entity, made increasing financial demands on those in its sphere of influence. St. Peter’s must be completed, benefices doled out, opulence maintained, wars fought. It was Rome’s mendacious lust for money that riled the reformer. Thus the Reformation, albeit importantly rooted in Luther’s experiences of the soul, was political from the very beginning.[7] There was, of course, a biblical, evangelical and pastoral component to the reformer’s outrage at the indulgence traffic. He preached that only the gospel had the power to soothe troubled consciences.[8] But it was his raid on their wallets and, by extension, their very legitimacy that so disturbed the prelates.[9]

[6] A very large dimension of the north-south polemic was nationalism. The French and English were centralizing and rationalizing their political structures and this aroused envy among fragmented Germans. Luther himself shared in the widespread nationalistic sentiment. Speaking of the church as an economic actor, he observed “Now that Italy has been sucked dry, the Romanists are coming into Germany.”[10]“Why,” he asks, “do we Germans let them make such fools and apes of us?”[11] In fact the Wittenberger identified the financial rapacity of the southerners as the heart of the matter, citing their “sharp practices.”[12] In high nationalistic dudgeon, he wrote extensively and in detail about the foreign exploitation of his people, thundering “They think that those half-witted Germans will always be gullible, stupid fools, and will keep handing over money to them to satisfy their unspeakable greed.”[13] Summarily dismissive of the prelates’ ostensible goal of their campaign, Luther writes of these “wolves in sheep’s clothing” that the money they collect “doesn’t fight the Turk; it all goes into their bottomless bag.”[14]

[7] Contention over indulgences was not an isolated incident. It fit into a larger and long-running effort on Rome’s part to consolidate imperial power to the detriment of German national aspirations. All we have, Luther lamented, is the name and insignia of empire. The pope has all the treasure and authority. In the professor’s judgment, the “German nation [has been] praised throughout history for its nobility, constancy and fidelity.”[15] Yet appallingly, the Romanists “have always abused our sympathy to serve their own arrogant and tyrannical designs. They call us crazy Germans for letting them make fools and monkeys of us as they please.”[16]

The two kingdoms and temporal authority

[8] Turning from the indulgence conflict to other aspects of social and economic analysis, we see that Luther’s thinking on these topics is controlled throughout by the two-kingdoms idea, two kinds of authority based on Romans 13 and Augustine’s “two cities.”[17] God exercises divine rule through the church and its preaching and sacraments: God’s “proper” work, the rule of love (persuasion). His “alien” work is coercive, carried out by civil officials who wield the sword, the rule of law “used for the punishment of the wicked and protection of the upright.”[18] On the face of it, such a template could be interpreted dualistically, the right hand having nothing to do with the left. Indeed, the protean reformer’s own words could reflect this view. “If your possessions, aye, your life and whatsoever you have, be taken from you by those in power, then you are to say: I give it to you willingly,” the sole exception being government suppression of the gospel.[19]

[9] But when the whole of Luther’s writing and career is taken into account, the judgment of Paul Hinlicky seems sound: he warns against a “dualistic, Cartesian-Kantian reading” of the two-kingdoms notion, with the secular sphere ruled strictly by reason and the spiritual understood in completely private, inward and emotional terms.[20] The reformer himself, the “public Christian, intervened in the volatile politics of his day.”[21] Just now there is much discussion on the role of government in regulating commerce and industry, sparked especially by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. While we cannot retroject this debate back into the sixteenth century – Luther had no concept of modern democracy to which his priesthood of all believers idea could have pointed – we can say that he expected the rich and powerful to abuse their positions to the detriment of the common good if left to their own devices.[22]

[10] “Look,” wrote Luther, “there are plenty of good works to be done. Most of the mighty, most of the rich, and most of their friends are unjust and exercise their power over the poor…The more powerful they are, the worse their deeds.”[23] If danger is being done to the common weal by the powers that be, Luther, following Aquinas, allowed for resistance. Although the kingdom of the left hand has its own integrity by divine decree, it is not thereby totally autonomous. “Luther,” argues Walter Altmann, “would never have defended the autonomy and self-regulation of the economy, the political system, and the social order disconnected from the gospel.”[24] In the same vein, Hans-Martin Barth notes Luther’s insistence that, at times, “the church must separate itself from economy and authority and, when needed, wield the Word against them.”[25]

[11] Broadly speaking, the reformer was at odds with emerging capitalism at certain points. His first reference in treating the Seventh Commandment is corrupt business practices and corporate greed.[26] He wrote trenchantly against monopolies aided by princes that “controlled prices and supply and ruined small traders,” and was highly critical of usury, following canon law and, again, Thomas.[27] When such evils are encountered, it is incumbent on the church to speak out, and this very definitely involved political preaching. Luther admonished the clergy that “it would be rebellious if one who preaches the gospel did not chastise the vices of the authorities. For such is the behavior of lazy and useless preachers.”[28] Under certain circumstances he even allowed for civil disobedience, a stance seemingly at odds with his deep conservatism and monarchism.[29]

[12] Of the troublesome priest, many things can be said. He had no notion of democratic institutions, as mentioned above, or of the American separation of church and state. He evinced no modern sense of progress; in fact, he thought Satan was almost vanquished and he was living in the end times.[30] You cannot find in Luther’s thought the kind of vigorous sacramental reflection on the social order typified by Anglo-Catholicism, although themes of the American Social Gospel tradition are not without resonance in his corpus. His grasp of the socio-economic problems of his time was less than sure-handed. His support for the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasantry (1525) was weak. Nonetheless, the public, political activity of the church that bears his name has precedence in Martin Luther’s writings and actions. He understood, in a kind of Niebuhrian sense, that evil infects not only individuals but institutions as well.[31] His teaching on Beruf (vocation) likewise extended beyond the individual; not only holiness but justice must be pursued.[32] This was a necessarily collective and political calling. His burning of the books of canon law undermined the feudal order as divine, signaling “the emergence of a new order.”[33] Christian social action was not an insignificant concern of his thought.[34]


[13] Luther had to overcome an extremely negative view of the world assumed by his monastic vows to see Christian vocation precisely in the world. And overcome it he did. The ELCA is following Luther’s lead because he believed the church, corporately, had a political task. As Barth puts it, “It must be engaged in order to see that an unsatisfactory state of things is not simply continued…on behalf of the weak in the interests of constant improvement of living conditions and strengthening of human rights.” (35) This means that the church does not stop at deliberation; it rises up in moral indignation and action.

[1] Quoted in Piety, Politics and Ethics, ed. Carter Lindberg (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1984) 158.

[2] Represented famously by Karl Barth, Troeltsch, Niebuhr and Marcuse. Dolan traces this mistake back to Luther’s first significant biographer/hagiographer Johannes Mathesius. John P. Dolan, History of the Reformation. (New York: Desilee Company, 1965). For reflection on the ELCA as a community of moral deliberation after twenty five years, see Gary M. Simpson, “Church a Community of Moral Deliberation,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, March 2014. Also Roger Willer, “Community of Moral Deliberation and an Emerging Responsibility Ethic,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, April 2014 and David Friedrichson, “Pauline Ethics: Congregations as Communities of Moral Deliberation” in Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme, eds., The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) 115-128.

[3] Roy Pascal, The Social Basis of the German Reformation, (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1933 [reissued 1972]) 129. The author is well worth reading, although he tends to be reductionistic, as when he identifies Luther as “primarily and fundamentally the representative of the petty bourgeoisie.” 180

[4] Pascal, 46. Luther’s social concern and threat to Vatican fundraising was already adumbrated in Thesis 66 “…he who gives to the poor and needy does a better deed than if he buys an indulgence.” 48

[5] Ibid., 19. ​

[6] Jaroslav Pelikan, in Dolan, xv.

[7] Scott C. Hendrix, Martin Luther, A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) 59.

[8] At its heart, Luther’s theology was essentially pastoral. See Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment, ( Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 488.

[9] H. G. Koenigsberger notes that it was “the financial and political implications of Luther’s attack on the sale of indulgences that brought a hostile reaction from his opponents.” Luther: A Profile, (New York: Hill and Wang), xiii.

[10] Luther’s Works, American Edition, vol. 44, ed. James Atkinson, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 141.

[11] Ibid., 142.

[12] Ibid., 143.

[13] Ibid., 144.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 193.

[16] Ibid., 208.

[17] Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. III, ed. John Lemker, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 35. Luther also cites I Peter 2:13-14.

[18] Thus Luther in “Secular Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed” (1523). See John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 367.

[19] Lenker, vol. 5, 305.

[20] Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2018), 335.

[21] Hinlicky, 338.

[22] Barth, 55; 90.

[23] Treatise on Good Works, paragraph 30. He also wrote “You must know that from the beginning of the world a wise prince is a rare bird indeed…therefore one must expect the worst from them.” Quoted in Dillenberger, 388.

[24] Walter Altmann, trans. Mary M. Solberg, Luther and Liberation: A Latin American Perspective, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 9. Luther’s theology never envisions abandoning “the temporal sphere to its own devices.” Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003/08), 311.

[25] Barth, 329.

[26] Atkinson, 106.

[27] Pascal, 16.

[28] Quoted by Gordon Rupp in Koenigsberger, 144.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Bayer, 177.

[31] Paul J. Tillich, The Recovery of the Prophetic Tradition in the Reformation; “Three lectures, delivered in Washington, DC, 1950” [in typescript].

[32] Altmann, 7.

[33] Altmann, 10.

[34] Permitting poverty, Luther preached, was an abominable sin, a form of violence. For more examples, see Kirsi Stjerna, “Demons of Violence: Searching for Theological Responses with Luther,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, November 2013.

Bruce Wollenberg

Rev. Bruce Wollenberg, PhD. is a retired pastor living in Santa Barbara.