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The Political Implications Of Luther’s “Priesthood Of All Believers” (Jordan J. Ballor)

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The following article is the second of a special symposium on the legacy of the Protestant Reformation in the month of its quincentennial.  The first article can be found here.

The eminent historian Thomas A. Brady Jr. once observed that “in the history of political thought, Martin Luther’s role is a small one.”(31)  Usually Luther is understood as giving theological sanction to the rise of political absolutism.

As Quentin Skinner writes, “there is no doubt that the main influence of Lutheran political theory in early modern Europe lay in the direction of encouraging and legitimating the emergence of unified and absolutist monarchies.”(113)  At the same time, however, Skinner observes that there lay the seeds of revolutionary and dynamic political thought in Luther’s ideas, such that these ideas, including radical submission to political authorities, “were destined to exercise an immense historical influence.”

A brief survey of some of Luther’s earliest political writings will illustrate both that his ideas were to have “immense historical influence” but that this influence was not always or precisely in support of political absolutism.

Certainly the idea of the two kingdoms, articulated so brilliantly and formatively in Luther’s thought, could be construed in ways that radically subsumed Christian theology and practice to the reigning political orthodoxy. This was in many ways the case during the Third Reich in Germany, and why so many, notably including the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, opposed what they understood to be an abuse and corruption of Luther’s true understanding of the two kingdoms.

In his 1520 appeal to the German nobility we see in Luther an articulation of the complex realities at the beginning of early modernity and how new sensibilities were necessary to respond to these developments. The inherited institutions of pope and emperor were no longer sufficient to respond and effectively govern the spiritual and temporal kingdoms of Europe.

The legal historian Harold Berman describes the turn of the half-millennium in this way: “Everywhere in Europe, however, royal power over the feudal nobility was increasing, secular authority was asserting itself against ecclesiastical authority, and territorial loyalties were intensifying. Everywhere in Europe strong voices were advocating reduction of ecclesiastical power and reformation of both church and state. Everywhere the cities were seeking greater autonomy.”(38)

The supremacy of the papacy which was the norm after the Papal Revolution of the eleventh and twelfth centuries was under enormous strain, and Luther’s appeal to the emperor along with the nobility (and ultimately the entirety of the people) demonstrates this.

Luther implores the emperor to undertake what he sees to be the necessary reform of the church, and pointing to predecessors like Constantine, to behave as an emperor ought to behave in such circumstances. “Even the Council of Nicaea, the most famous of all councils,” writes Luther, “was neither called nor confirmed by the bishop of Rome, but by the emperor Constantine. Many other emperors after him have done the same, and yet these councils were the most Christian of all.”(390) Luther wants Charles V to call a council and do what is required by his position of responsibility to reform the abuses of the papal church.

Contained in Luther’s appeal, however, is an implicit logic of devolution of both spiritual and temporal authority. As a theologian, Luther understood his vocation to be the exposition and application of the word of God. Luther’s biography Scott H. Hendrix writes that “when that application challenged the authority of the pope and his theologians, Luther’s defense was simple: his doctorate mandated him to expound the ‘sacred page’ as he understood it, regardless of the consequences.”(48)

By being true to his vocation, Luther was compelled to call others to be true to their responsibilities. If the pope would not listen to him, then Luther would appeal first to the emperor and then to other secular authorities to take on the responsibilities of their offices. In this way Luther’s reformational movement is one both of and according to his understanding of vocation.

Thus, writes Luther, “when necessity demands it, and the pope is an offense to Christendom, the first man who is able should, as a true member of the whole body, do what he can to bring about a truly free council. No one can do this so well as the temporal authorities, especially since they are also fellow-Christians, fellow-priests, fellow-members of the spiritual estate, fellow-lords over all things.”(47) The “first man” capable of doing so is a last resort, but one which must be appealed to in times of crisis.

And if the emperor is to fail in his calling to pursue reform, then the next person who is able must take up the call. Even if he does not work out the implications systematically himself, we see here the same logic that would undergird the later Reformed development of the “lesser magistrate” argument. In this case, Luther’s concern is reform of the church, and if the pope and emperor fail, then the lesser authorities must be faithful.

Luther follows this logic all the way down through the hierarchies and classes of influence and authority of his day to the individual Christian. “It is the duty of every Christian to espouse the cause of the faith, to understand and defend it, and to denounce every error,” he writes. Ultimately every Christian is called to pursue proper reform of his or her own life and within his or her own sphere of influence. “A cobbler, a smith, a peasant—each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops,” contends Luther.(46)

This is the ultimate devolution of politics from the pope as “head of Christendom” to the simple and mundane calling of every individual Christian. While there remain differences and distinctions of temporal authority and responsibility, the priesthood of all believers is one of Luther’s ideas that must be understood as having, in Skinner’s words, “immense historical influence.”

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the Free University Amsterdam as part of the “What Good Markets Are Good For” project. 

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