Martin Luther to the German Nobility – Theology Essay
Power. Throughout the extensive tale of human history, there have been few factors that have influenced the construction and rise of civilized and happy nations, and even fewer that have enticed the destruction and tyrannical corruption of peoples than has the possession of power.
The word itself is vague at best, a term we use with such indiscriminate promiscuity that its very definition is scattered across the realms of religion, politics, law, philosophy, and all the natural and physical sciences. Ethically, the concept is innocent and splendidly neutral—to make a moral judgment requires not the condemnation or endorsement of power itself, but of its wielder. Power can make a man (or a god) a momentous influence for the righteousness and happiness of those over whom he has power; it can also spawn an influential corruption that can degenerate even the greatest of heroes. Martin Luther, in his treatise, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” fueled by his love of the Gospel as taught by Christ and armed with a relentless determination to inspire the Catholic Church and its power-wielding leaders of his day to turn from corruption to the true pursuit of the Lord’s teachings, seeks to appeal to the political leaders of the Germanic people in order to convince them of their rights as independent Christians and their ability to influence change in the Church.
Despite the eventual creation of the “Lutheran” Church and the vast amount of other sects inspired by the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther does not write his treatise with an attitude of breaking off the Catholic Church. The whole work rather is written with the ardor and aim of a medical doctor; it is an attempt at a repair rather than any sort of amputation preceded by simple condemnation. But why would an attempt at renovation of the clergy be directed at the political ruling body? Luther explains his apparent misdirection in the opening of his epistle: “I am carrying out our intention to put together a few points on the matter of the reform of the Christian estate, to be laid before the Christian nobility of the German nation, in the hope that God may help his church through the laity, since the clergy, to whom this task more properly belongs, have grown quite indifferent” (7, italics added).
The point then, is that the clergy are quite comfortable in their follies and not interested in their own reform; Luther is thus appealing to the political powers to assist in bringing about his improvements. There is a problem with this, however. The root of corruption, according to Luther, is the church in Rome—the pope and his clergy—and its members have declared themselves both infallible and possessing final authority over any political entity. Thus, if laity were to attempt any reform, Rome quickly responds by declaring that laity are not priests and thus have no authority for any such alteration. If the laity tries to prove their case by the scriptures, Rome replies that only they can interpret the scriptures. It is a logically impossible circular argument, a variation on the classic “infallible authoritarian” argument: “Rule 1—Rome is always right. Rule 2—If Rome is wrong, see Rule 1.” In reaction to this claim to supreme authority, Luther has two basic responses.
First, he makes the argument that his audience, the temporal political nobles of Germany, if they be just Christians, are priests with the same authority as any of the clergymen. It is a fallacy that the clergymen of Rome belong exclusively to the “spiritual estate” and that anyone who is not a member of the clergy is only a part of the “temporal estate.” In other words, anyone who is a Christian is a priest with the same authority as any man wearing the clerical robes; being Christian is synonymous with being part of the “spiritual estate.” The difference then, is not one of power or authority, but of office and responsibility. Essentially, Luther is giving the men to whom he writes justification to effect reform in the Church—he is telling them that they have the authority, just like any member of the laity, to have a say in clerical and religious matters. Scripturally and historically, they have the power to take action such as to elect and appoint bishops and monks, just as the laity of Hippo appointed St. Augustine.
Second, he makes a sharp division of labor between politics and religion. He says, “The pope is not a vicar of Christ in heaven, but only of Christ as he walked the earth” (54). The image of Christ in heaven, then, is a king—with a throne, ruling majestically on high—omniscient and possessing all power. The King of Heaven and of Earth is certainly a political station. However, Christ needs a man like St. Peter, who will represent Him how He was on the Earth. Jesus certainly held no political power when He walked the streets of Jerusalem—neither did Peter or the other apostles. Their responsibility was to serve the children of God; they were to care for the poor, sick, and needy in both body and spirit. In other words, they were to carry on the work of Christ. Martin Luther clearly declares that a true representative of Christ cannot effectively hold any political power. For, indeed, how can a man pay full attention to the body of the Church, and at the same time rule an political entity such as a city—much less an empire? The distinction then is clear. We need political officers, and we need church leaders, but in order to do their jobs effectively, they cannot be the same person or group of people, and neither can claim authority over the other in the other’s realm, e.g., the clergy cannot claim the right to control or suppress a king’s acquisition of territory.
It is clear throughout the treatise that Luther writes from the most sincere position—he wants to effect changes for the good of God and his fellow men—not to secure power or position for himself or his friends. He constantly quotes scripture and uses precedents and examples from Christ’s own life and the lives of the apostles to make his justifications for reform. Although he could not have possibly realized the scope of the division his movement would create in Christianity, his efforts are certainly exceptional enough to bestow upon him the title of Father of the Reformation.