Martin Luther was a German priest, theologian, author, composer, former Augustinian friar, and is best known as a seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation and as the namesake of Lutheranism.
It was natural that the Reformation, which was a revolt in favor of a more inward and spiritual worship, should begin in Germany, where the Teutonic love of personal independence and a contemplative and mystical attitude of mind were most pronounced. While most of Europe was interested in the new geographical discoveries and in the quest of wealth and empire, a German monk started a theological controversy which followed out relentlessly the logic of the Humanists, applied successfully the methods attempted by Wyclif and Huss, and finally split Europe into rival religious camps, with far-reaching results on political and international issues.
The chief contributions of Martin Luther (1483-1546) to political thought were the clear distinction he made between political and spiritual authority, the emphasis he laid upon the secular as against the ecclesiastical power, and the importance he placed upon passive obedience to the established order in state and society.
Martin Luther followed Wyclif and Dante in placing civil power above the ecclesiastical system; he followed Marsilius and Ockam in finding the ultimate source of church authority in a general council rather than in the pope. He attacked the clerical hierarchy and the system of canon law as unscriptural devices of the church to gain temporal importance and wealth. In his contest with the papacy he appealed to German national sentiment against the Italians and to German opposition to the financial exactions of Rome.
His ideas were not always consistent. He was at first interested in correcting specific abuses in the church and had no plans for a general reconstruction. The logic of events made him the central figure in the Reformation movement and forced him to expand and modify his philosophy.
Similarly, his doctrine of passive obedience encountered practical difficulties when the contest broke out between the Protestant German princes and the emperor, Charles V.; and Luther then taught that self defense was permissible to Christians, especially in case of tyranny. If, therefore, the emperor disregarded the laws, his subjects were no longer under obligation to obey him. This phase of Luther’s doctrine came into prominence in the later revolutions in opposition to the theory of divine right.
When some of his writings, criticizing the wrongdoings of secular rulers, fired the insubordination of the peasants who, for social and economic reasons, were in tumult from Switzerland to the Baltic Sea, Luther, frightened by their excesses, at first counseled moderation, but finally threw in his lot with the German princes and urged the suppression of popular revolt.
While he sympathized with the grievances of the peasants, he did not believe in resistance to governmental authority, nor did he wish his doctrines to be associated with a decision based on force. He had no sympathy with the idea of equality. On the contrary, he asserted the necessity of inequality of rank in the civil state.
On the other hand, the excesses of some of the fanatical sects that arose on the fringe of the Reformation movement led Luther to modify his original doctrine that the state should not interfere in matters of belief, and forced him to permit the political authorities to fix the limits of toleration and to use force in putting down heresies.
Luther’s dislike of the monastic ideal helped to usher in the contempt for poverty and the placing of emphasis on material success, so distinctive of the modern in contrast with the medieval world. It also helped to explain his belief that no social groups should exist apart from the state. The feudal idea of a community of communities was replaced by the modern conception of centralized sovereign states.
Being essentially practical, and interested in German independence and in the success of the Reformation movement, Luther associated himself with the German princes, the only power that could accomplish his purpose; and while he had a real interest in individual freedom, by this process he assisted in promoting despotism. He viewed the state as sacred. Its ruler was responsible to God alone. By applying these doctrines in practical politics, the Reformation substituted once for all in men’s minds the authority of the state for the authority of the church.
The supremacy of the law cf the land over every one within its borders, including the clergy, now triumphed universally By transferring the idea of nonresistance from the imperial to the royal and princely authorities, and from the ecclesiastical to the political systems, Luther gave to the doctrine of the divine right of kings enduring prevalence. By his emphasis on the literal interpretation of the Scriptures, he made the texts concerning nonresistance to temporal authority the chief dependence of royalist writers for several centuries.
To Martin Luther, the state was essentially holy. Accordingly, he paved the way for the exalted theory of the state held later by Hegel and by recent German theorists. The purely secular theory of the state came down through the followers of Calvin and“through the utilitarian doctrines of the Jesuits.