Friday, 15 January 1999

From "Luther and the Justifiability of Resistance to Legitimate Authority"

By Cynthia Grant Shoenberger.

[...] the writings translated, collected, and anthologized for academic use are those which Luther wrote during the early years of his clash with the Roman church and the associated notion of a universal Christendom represented by the Holy Roman Empire. Reading, for example, the 1523 work, Temporal Authority, the student finds that Luther was concerned to "provide a sound basis for the civil law and sword, so no one will doubt that it is in the world by God's will and ordinance."[...] The image of the political system which pervaded the work was of a hierarchical order of authorities established by God. Power flowed downwards, and those in inferior positions were obligated to obey those set above them in the hierarchy. The implications for the possibility of resistance in Germany were clear: although the use of force might be permissible against an equal or inferior authority, a prince could never justly wage war against his overlord, the emperoror. It without saying that a private subject might never actively resist the authorities set over him, but Luther nonetheless allowed for the possibility of refusal to obey in cases when the prince trespassed upon the jurisdiction belonging of right only to God. Under such circumstances the Christian's two duties, to God and to his prince, might come into conflict; and the proper response to such a dilemma was that which Saint Augustine had prescribed-passive resistance, that is, to disobey but submit to whatever punishment might be assigned for disobedience.

What is often forgotten about Temporal Authority is that it was written out of Luther's concern about the excessive interference of the Catholic Church in secular affairs, during a period when he had not yet abandoned hope that the Emperor Charles V might support him in that concern.

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