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God’s Most Precious Jewel on Earth

God and Government: Martin Luther’s Political Thought. Jarrett A. Carty. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.


These are good times for Luther scholars, or indeed for anyone interested in the Lutheran heritage.  The 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 saw an outpouring of new work on Luther and his age, from biographies, to studies of the Reformation and its lasting influence, to various topics in Luther’s own thought.  Germany celebrated the Lutherjahr with a wave of exhibitions and events (making 2017 a banner year for Lutheran tourists as well).  Among the many offerings to mark the occasion is a new book-length study of Luther’s political thought by Jarrett Carty, who has already done scholars and teachers of political theory a service with his recent, extensive, and much-needed anthology of Luther’s political thought (Divine Kingdom, Holy Order: The Political Writings of Martin Luther, Concordia Publishing House, 2012).  Carty’s new volume follows nicely upon that earlier anthology and constitutes, as he himself puts it, an “extension of that same project” (xiii).

In a concise 175 pages, Carty offers a thoughtful and thorough discussion of the key topics in any study of Luther’s political thought, striving to take Luther’s own words seriously and to understand them on their terms.  After an introductory chapter briefly describing the key political and religious controversies that formed the backdrop to Luther’s career, Carty begins by examining the foundational concept of Luther’s political thought, his idea of the “two kingdoms,” developed especially in the early essay on Temporal Authority (though also, Carty demonstrates, present in Luther’s thinking even before that essay).  He then devotes a chapter to exploring the roots of Luther’s political ideas in his understanding of Scripture, insisting that Luther’s various biblical commentaries should also be taken seriously as sources of his political thought.

Carty follows this with a turn toward the more practical side of Luther’s political theory.  First comes a chapter on what one might regard as the two real problems in assessing Luther’s political ideas: his response to religious radicalism and in particular the Peasants’ War, and his endorsement, late in his career, of a qualified right of resistance toward imperial authorities seeking to stamp out the Reformation.  In both cases, Carty argues for a broad consistency in Luther’s attitude toward temporal authority over time—a case that is considerably easier to make with respect to the Peasants’ War than with his endorsement of a limited right of resistance.  The next chapter explores certain applied topics in Luther’s political theory and issues of political reform: his writings on political oversight of the church, the policing of blasphemy and religious opinion, education, aid to the poor, and marriage.  The book concludes with chapters on the relation of Luther’s thought to political ideas in other strands of the Reformation, and on the lasting significance of Luther as a political thinker.

The central theme of Carty’s interpretation—a claim that runs through the entire book, uniting its various parts, and that also represents its real contribution to Luther scholarship—is that Luther consistently held a very high view of the value and importance of temporal government.  Luther himself, Carty repeatedly points out, held his own political thinking in high regard, claiming to be the first person since the ancients or the apostles—or perhaps, at the latest, St. Augustine—to have restored a proper understanding of temporal authority.  Carty quotes, for example, Luther’s boast in the essay Whether Soldiers, Too, Can be Saved: “I might boast here that not since the time of the apostles have the temporal sword and temporal government been so clearly described or so highly praised as by me” (56).  This sounds like a bombastic overstatement—one of Luther’s own contemporaries, after all, was Machiavelli—unless we recognize “the whole of Luther’s political thought as a restorative project to return temporal authority to its place as a precious gift of God that brings law and order to the world” (56), an assessment that had been lost beneath the misunderstandings of both popes and emperors.  Temporal government, Luther writes, is God’s “most precious jewel on earth” (177).

This emphasis on the great value of temporal governance is part of Luther’s argument about the two kingdoms.  By distinguishing between a temporal and a spiritual kingdom—an outer kingdom in which sinful human beings require protection and restraint through the “sword” of coercive authority, and an inner kingdom in which true Christians do of their own accord and from love all that could be asked of them without the need of law or coercion of any sort—Luther hoped to clarify two distinct ways in which God governs and provides for his people.  Just as the spiritual kingdom exists to work salvation of souls, so too does God in his great love for us provide temporal government to protect the innocent and punish the wicked in our fallen condition.  Seen in this light, as an expression of God’s providential care for his creation, temporal authority is worthy of our support, honor, and praise.

This recurring emphasis on Luther’s praise of earthly government—which Carty, in an innovative interpretation, finds even in Luther’s commentary on the Song of Songs—supplies the cornerstone of Carty’s interpretation, because it enables him to tie all of Luther’s thought into a more or less coherent and consistent whole.  The ferocity with which Luther reacted to the peasants’ revolt becomes more understandable when we realize that he saw them threatening God’s precious gift of temporal authority.  Similarly, government as the appointed upholder of earthly order appropriately takes charge of the various “outward” elements of earthly life, from education, to marriage, to even limited ecclesiastical oversight, in order to ensure that churches, for their part, are doing their own job appropriately.  (Unlike many of his followers, Luther endorsed such oversight only as a temporary measure.)  Most importantly, this emphasis allows Carty to argue that Luther retained a kind of higher-order consistency of approach even in the most vexed problem of his political thought: his acceptance of a (limited) right of resistance.

Luther had always maintained that Christians need not actively obey or assist government commands that exceeded the bounds of legitimate temporal authority—a command, for example to hand over copies of Scripture so that they could be destroyed.  But he was insistent and unambiguous—both in Temporal Authority and elsewhere—that Christians were not to resist government.  Here the commands to turn the other cheek and not resist violence took precedence.  Temporal authority is God’s divinely appointed mechanism for protecting the neighbor; on one’s own behalf, however, the Christian should suffer violence for the sake of the gospel.  There seems little room in this for any theory of resistance, and even Carty must admit that on the narrow question of whether resistance can be justified, Luther reversed course, “even if his turn . . . was quite piecemeal and very cautious” (104).  But if Luther changed his view on the specific issue of resistance, his changing thought nevertheless, for Carty, exemplifies a broader and more general consistency:

[T]o conclude that Luther was merely pushed by the pressures of political events rather than guided by enduring principles . . . is to miss the greater and more basic consistency of his evolving views on resistance with his career-long defence of temporal government as a precious gift of God, made clear once again by the evangelical reform of the church. . . . [B]y the 1530s . . . the threats of imperial war were making resistance theory necessary for the sake of respecting temporal authority.  Of course, political events were shaping and guiding Luther’s views.  But behind those events was his enduring view that the restoration of temporal authority was one of the fruits of evangelical reform, and increasingly the emperor posed a direct threat to the restoration of the two kingdoms.  Therefore, Luther’s evolving thoughts on resistance, despite how it may have appeared or sounded to many (both then and now), were consistent with the core of his political thought and his stalwart theological defence of the temporal kingdom. (104-5, emphasis in original)

This is a clever argument, and Carty successfully shows that Luther throughout his career praised temporal authority in these terms.  By emphasizing this theme and using it to frame his overall presentation of Luther’s political thought, Carty has made a genuine contribution to scholarship in the area and thrown light on the topic from a new angle.  He is able to demonstrate an overall consistency in Luther’s thinking, a claim that is particularly appealing on the issue of resistance, where such consistency may seem most elusive.  I retain some doubts, however, about whether the recasting of Luther’s thought along these lines is entirely persuasive, or at least whether it does not require important qualification.  We can see this by beginning with that issue of resistance.  Carty persuasively shows, I think, that it is possible to develop a defense of limited resistance—on the part of what would later come to be called “inferior magistrates,” and in order to uphold the rule of law against abuses by governing officials—that accords with the spirit of Luther’s account of temporal authority.  And he shows, rightly, that Luther is at least groping in precisely that direction in his late Dr. Martin Luther’s Warning to His Dear German People.  But this argument is certainly not well developed in the Warning (in which Luther seems still to be sorting out his own thoughts).  The argument for resistance is more a retrospective reconstruction along lines hinted at by Luther than one that Luther himself spells out with any clarity.  It may be both more helpful and more forthright simply to admit that on this score Luther is not fully consistent—even if we can see how his ideas might be developed so as to make room for a limited right of resistance without abandoning the two kingdoms framework and the earlier arguments of Temporal Authority.

I think, however, that there are also deeper reasons to be cautious about making the praise of temporal government as “God’s most precious jewel” the guiding principle of an interpretation of Luther’s political thought.  We can see this by reflecting upon the basic rationale for earthly government as Luther explains it already in Temporal Authority.  Temporal authority exists because humans are sinful, and God has therefore instituted government to protect the innocent and restrain the wicked.  Were all people true Christians, we would need neither law nor force.  To borrow a line from James Madison, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Government, on Luther’s telling, is a response to sin and therefore would not have been necessary without the Fall.  If it is one of God’s most precious gifts to us, therefore, it is so only in a highly contingent sense.  In an ideal world, it would not need to exist at all.  This does not mean, of course, that we should not praise and thank God for having thus provided for us in our fallen state.  But it does mean that temporal authority, however necessary now, remains always a kind of second-best solution—and one, moreover, that will one day disappear, having outlived its own usefulness.

We can see this even more clearly if we consider the other institutions by which God has provided for his creatures.  Temporal government, after all, is only one of two kingdoms by which God governs his creation.  There is also a spiritual kingdom by which we are brought to salvation.  Although this heavenly kingdom is not the same thing as the church, the church is certainly the earthly institution that most nearly embodies it.  In addition, Carty points out that later in his life, in particular in his Lectures on Genesis, Luther spoke not simply of two kingdoms, but rather of three orders or estates.  In addition to the temporal authority of government and the spiritual authority of the church, Luther here spoke also of the family or household as, in Carty’s words, a kind of “holy order” (83).  Referring to these lectures, Carty writes, “Instead of two kingdoms, Luther there distinguished three estates comprising clergy, marriages and households, and political authorities” (46).  Thus the household joins the more familiar two kingdoms as “another means by which God had brought order to the world” (84).

Whether we focus on two kingdoms or three estates, it seems clear that temporal authority cannot have quite the same status as its partners.  The family, or household, is not a mere response to sin.  Men and women would have formed families and raised children even without the Fall; the complementary creation of male and female was an original part of God’s divine order for human life.  By the same token, there seems no reason to view spiritual authority or the church as a consequence of the Fall.  Pure, unfallen men and women would have joined together in collective worship; the church does not arise to restrain sin.  Temporal government, however, is different.  It is the only one of the two kingdoms, or of the three estates, that is postlapsarian.  It may indeed be a precious gift of God, but it can be so only in an ambivalent sense.

Recognizing this is important because it helps us to see how Luther’s political thought is one of the important seeds that will develop into the modern political world in which secular authority comes to be ever more clearly distinguished from other forms of authority or ordering principles (religious, familial, cultural, economic).  Carty makes a point of denying simple narratives that anachronistically portray Luther as the forerunner of certain aspects of modernity such as the separation of church and state, or—worse—statist totalitarianism.  He is right to do so.  Though he stood at the cusp of modernity, Luther himself was a late medieval figure.  But, still, he did stand at the cusp.  And one of the most important respects in which he did so was precisely his conception of temporal politics—a conception which valued government as a precious gift of God, to be sure, but which was also, always, a chastened conception.

Despite my reservations about Carty’s emphatic focus on Luther’s positive conception of government, this is a fine book that students of Luther’s political thought will want to read.  There are few recent treatments of Luther by political theorists, and some of the best studies of Luther’s political ideas, by scholars such as Paul Althaus and Heinrich Bornkamm, are by now quite old (Bornkamm’s short work on Luther’s two kingdoms, surprisingly, does not appear in Carty’s otherwise thorough bibliography).  Carty’s book not only offers a different angle on Luther’s political theory, but it also has the non-negligible virtue of being clear and concise, suitable for undergraduates but nevertheless of interest to scholars.  It should prompt reconsideration of Luther as the important political thinker that he claimed himself to be.

Peter C. Meilaender

Peter C. Meilaender is Professor of Political Science at Houghton College in New York. He is author of Toward a Theory of Immigration (Palgrave, 2001) and is completing a book on the political thought of Jeremias Gotthelf and a co-edited volume of essays on the Swiss scholar Peter von Matt.

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