After reading this article you will learn about the history and political ideas of Martin Luther.
History of Martin Luther:
Martin Luther was mainly a reformer and political agitator and not a political philosopher or thinker in the conventional sense. It is not known to us if he had any clear conception about the various aspects as well as the end of the state or nature and working of society.
He was primarily a theologian and his approach to politics was secondary; and it was wrapped with theology. Luther may not have been a political philosopher like Hobbes or Rousseau; he was undoubtedly a political theologian.
He was also a great agitator and reformer. Luther revolted against Papalism and vehemently opposed the usury and was against the mechanisms of finance.
The revolution against Papalism commenced in October 1517 when Martin Luther pasted his ninety-five theses on the church door at Wittenberg. This move of Luther created, for obvious reason, a good deal of commotion in the church circles.
The medieval church claimed that it was the ultimate arbiter of all temporal questions and this claim was based on the sacramental conception of the church the church also occupied a special position between man and God. Only through the sacraments of churchmen could people find salvation. The church claimed that it was authorised by God to perform the miracles. It could offer the body and blood of Christ as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
Martin Luther challenged the claim of the church and rejected the sacramental claims. Luther enthusiastically propagated that people had the right to follow scriptures and take decision on the basis of knowledge they could follow and adopt faith.
He declared that priests had no right and power to forgive the people for their sins. Forgiveness of sins was dependent upon the repentance and not on priestly absolutions.
He put forward the doctrine of Priesthood of All Believers-the belief that there was no essential distinction between priests and laymen. All the true believers were entitled to mercy of God Church had nothing to do with mercy.
Martin Luther also challenged the papal doctrine of the two swords, with its claim that Pope was the ultimate source of all authority temporal as well as spiritual. The temporal authority derived its power from God and its functions were purely spiritual.
It is evident from his works and ideas that Luther was essentially a medieval thinker. Renaissance had very little influence upon his thought. He belonged to the late medieval German piety.
His conception of theology is the origin of the political ideas. His leading ideas of politics are to be found in the Sermons on Good Works and the Address to the Christian Mobility. His political treatise is Of Temporal Government. It is to be noted here that the scripture is the basis of his theology and politics.
Treatise on Christian Liberty, Secular Authority, To What Extent It Should be Obeyed etc. contain Luther’s other aspects of political ideas. But all are based on religion. Luther’s politics is not separate from religion.
Political Ideas of Martin Luther:
1. Doctrine of Two Regiments or Kingdoms:
Martin Luther’s doctrine of two Regiments or Kingdoms is highly significant not simply because it is central to his theology, but because it is related to his thought about politics and society. In a word, the doctrine of two Regiments is central to his entire philosophy.
At the centre of the doctrine there is the idea that Cod has created two kingdoms or regiments in the world and through these two kingdoms. He governs the world. One is the spiritual world and the other is the temporal world or regiment.
The spiritual kingdom is governed through word and without any sword and in this kingdom men become righteous and godly only through the word. In the spiritual world there is no need of sword or law and only word is enough.
All the habitants of the spiritual kingdom are true Christians or believers of Christianity. The activities of the true Christians are fully governed by the spirit of godliness and spirituality. They are above law and princes.
The spiritual Regiment is essentially an inward government of the soul’ whose purpose is to lead men to everlasting life. God rules through Holy Spirit and word. The Government of the spiritual kingdom is invisible.
Men act and lead their spiritual life only through the sermons preached by human ministers. In the spiritual world there is no place of the use of force and the whole system is based on simply voluntary rule.
The nature of temporal Regiment is quite different. People of this kingdom are not true Christians or ardent believers of Christianity. Their main concern is worldly enjoyment and pleasure as well as possessions.
People of this Regiment cannot be governed only by word because word carries very little significance and, in most of the cases, its impact upon the people of temporal Regiment is not worthy to mention. Sword and law are essential instruments by which God governs this kingdom.
For the maintenance of peace and order God has awarded the government of the temporal kingdom with manifold sources of enjoyment and luxury. So God is himself the founder, lord, master, promoter and re-warder of both forms of righteousness, temporal as well as spiritual.
There is a very close similarity between Luther’s doctrine of Two Regiments and St. Augustine’s City of God. Both offer us interesting narratives of world of God and world of Devil. All are children of Adam. But they are divided into two classes.
One lives in the kingdom of God and the other in the kingdom of world or Devil. Martin Luther says that God has created the Regiment of Devil to punish its inhabitants for their sins.
The two kingdoms are loosely connected. In between these two worlds there is God who keeps a close watch over them all. The temporal kingdom is dominated by conflict, quarrel and strife and human nature is vicious. Self-interest stands in the way of attaining the mercy and blessings of God.
The two Regiments are the weapons which God employs in the struggle against the Devil’s kingdom. The first Regiment is at first God appeals through words to the hearts of men in order to ensure obedience to him and if it fails he uses sword against the obdurate and punishes them.
Martin Luther drew a distinction in order to emphasise that in the temporal world God created the post of a king or governor to maintain law and order and punish the wrongdoer. The simple implication is a political system was created by God. In this idea religion and politics ate mixed.
2. State and Its Relation to Church:
W. D. J. Cargill Thompson in his essay Martin Luther and the Two Kingdoms published in Political Ideas makes the following remark:
“Luther’s theory of the state or to be more precise his theory of government, followed naturally from these theological assumptions. Like Augustine, Luther held that government was both a consequence of the sinfulness or human nature and a divine institution. It exists because vast majority of men are evil if all men are Christians the sword would be superfluous, since the true Christian is ruled by word”.
So we can say that the state according to Luther is a mechanism devised by God to punish the evil-minded people. From theological point of view the state has a necessity.
It is the primary duty of the temporal government, with help of sword, to force his people to lead a spiritual life. Otherwise it will have no utility at all. It was the firm belief of Luther that the king or temporal power performs all duties or actions in according to the directives sent through the church.
In this process the king himself has no personal liking or disliking, God’s wishes are final. This ultimately led to the autocratic rule.
We have already noted that Luther’s political views are couched with theological considerations. His state is sacred and ordained by God. The ruler is responsible to God alone. God is the source of all monarchical authority and power. By this doctrine Martin Luther has permanently substituted the authority of the state for that of the church.
This is no doubt a great contribution of Reformation. Luther’s state is not only an instrument to punish the people for their sinful activities, but also a way which will save them from inevitable destruction.
Martin Luther has said that princes, magistrates and other officials of the state apparently act according to their own initiative. But this is not so. God directs them and they simply carry out the order of God. They are merely the instruments of God.
For high-handed usurpation of temporal power and perversion of Christian belief, faith and principles Luther held the church responsible. He demanded a radical reform of the whole system of the church and for this he proposed the institution of a general council.
He looked to the secular power for the reform of the church. Luther formulated twenty-seven points of reforms and he said that these reforms would be effected by the secular power or general council.
One of these points was all the revenues and all the jurisdiction of the Pope in the regions outside the estate of the Roman Church would be abolished. All the matters of money or material interests would be left to the secular authority.
It would be absolutely unbecoming on the part of the church if it involves itself in the acquisition of earthly wealth and possessions.
It should try to satisfy itself with religious or spiritual considerations. Pope, priests and bishops are merely officers for the regulation and promotion of Christian principles. Under no circumstances they are to be related to secular affairs. Commenting on the reform initiated by Luther Dunning says “the practical outcome of the distinctively Lutherean reform was the appropriation by the secular authorities of much of that paramount influence in ecclesiastical affairs which was taken away from the papacy.”
The purpose of his agitation was to dislodge the universal church from its coveted position and to suppress the monastic institutions.
The ultimate result was that the checks upon the secular authority were removed and the church started to function as an institution under the secular authority. This is not an ordinary gain. Through his movement he succeeded in establishing absoluteness of political power. We can say Luther was an originator of absolutism in politics.
Martin Luther apprehended that his writings might be misinterpreted by the secular rulers. They would be inclined to encroach upon the spiritual affairs. To remove this possibility he clearly stated that the princes and magistrates had nothing to interfere in spiritual matters. They were concerned with life and goods and also everything external on earth. God cannot and will not allow anyone to rule the soul except himself alone.
He was strongly opposed in theory to any attempt to promote spiritual ends by temporal means. This implies that Luther was in favour of the division of duty. The secular authority was designed for earthly affairs.
The spiritual problems would go to the church. But the objective of both the kingdoms would be to bring about peace and salvation. The prince would punish the sin after which people would be fit for receiving the blessings of God. In Luther’s conception the state and the church are not completely separated from each other.
3. Obedience to Secular Authority:
In his analysis of obedience to the secular authority, Luther has again taken the help of scripture. He says that the Christians among themselves need no law or sword, because it is neither necessary nor admissible for them. But this does not imply that they will disobey the secular authority or violate the man-made laws.
According to Luther a true Christian lives not for himself alone, but for his neighbours. It is the primary duty of a true Christian is to obey the laws of the secular authority and act in accordance with the law made by such authority.
The obligation to the authority as well as its law is the duty of a Christian. This idea later on has given the birth of an important political theory—political obligation. He has also said people must pay tax and perform other duties.
A true Christian should serve the state as well as society spontaneously and with undiluted love. That is, his obedience to secular authority must come out of love. While obeying the state he should not bring the question of material gain under his consideration.
A true Christian cannot prevent a man from obeying the law of state and if he does, it would be his unchristian act.
Martin Luther has emphasised that a secular government is ordained by God and the subjects; therefore, it must obey the rules and orders. To disobey government is to disobey God. It may be that the rules and decisions are unjust and behaviour is cruel. But that should not be the lookout of the subjects and cannot be a reason of withdrawing obligation.
The divinity of the secular government unfolds his conception of non-resistance and horror of rebellion.
Rebellion against authority, even against a tyrant, could not get the support of Luther. Because, in his opinion, the tyrant came to power to fulfill the wishes of God.
Luther once said in a famous passage “I will always hold by that party which suffers rebellion, however unjust its cause, and be opposed to that party which makes rebellion, however just its cause may be, for there can never be rebellion without the spilling of innocent blood and other atrocities.”
Martin Luther propagated that rebellion was the worst type of sin and on that ground he did not approve it. He thought that rebellion threatened the very foundations of civil society. The net consequence of rebellion is anarchy.
His idea about rebellion is to be found in the following passage:
Rebellion is not just plain murder; but it is like a great fire which sets a land ablaze and lays it waste; therefore, rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed; it creates widows and orphans and destroys everything, like the greatest of all disasters.
Martin Luther got an opportunity to witness a great rebellion of peasants on economic and social reasons and it spread in many parts of Europe. Being frightened by horror and anarchy of rebellion he strongly opposed it and supported the king’s attempt to suppress it ruthlessly.
He was not unsympathetic to their grievances, but he thought that rebellion was not the proper way of remedy. Luther’s attitude to rebellion unfolds the idea that he did not recognize people’s right to protest against injustice and all sorts of wrong-doing.
This is a reactionary attitude and later on paved the way for capitalist exploitation. Of course his apathy to democratic rights does not surprise us. He was not democratic minded and had no feeling for democracy.