Widerstand: Luther and the Freedom to Resist Unjust Authority
Matthew Phillips, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Concordia University, Nebraska; Matthew.Phillips@cune.edu
“An unjust law is no law at all.” These words famously appeared in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in August 1963.1 While various individuals and groups have appealed to this phrase for their cause (usually attributing it to Rev. King), most do not refer to King’s source. In fact, he cited Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas in this letter. He wrote this letter to answer critics of the non-violent protests against Birmingham’s segregation laws. In so doing, Dr. King adhered to a long Christian tradition to justify the liberty to violate unjust laws (in this case a court injunction against protests and demonstrations.)2
This article examines how this tradition of resistance3 to unjust laws evolved during the sixteenth century and its relationship to the idea of Christian liberty, both for Luther’s time and for today. According to the New Testament, Christians should follow laws established by temporal authorities for the sake of their consciences (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:19–20). However, the earliest Christian church began at odds with both Jewish leaders and Roman rulers. The first persecution of the church in Jerusalem led Peter and apostles to proclaim the primary text for Christian resistance to unjust authority: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Martin Luther expressed his theological ideas in a rich variety of terms, including Christian liberty. In 1520 Luther explained the spiritual freedom of the Gospel and the true nature of Christian priesthood. According to Luther, inwardly the believer becomes righteous, free, and devout through faith in God’s Word. Simultaneously, says Luther, the believer is freed by this faith and trust in God to act outwardly as a servant to his or her neighbor.4 Additionally, Luther proclaimed that all baptized believers are priests before God, and he excoriated the papal priests as idolaters and wolves. While he never equated spiritual liberty with political freedom, Luther’s focus on Christian liberty combined with his anti-clerical attacks on the Roman priestly hierarchy inspired many to question established secular authorities in addition to ecclesiastical leaders.5
Here I Stand
At the Diet of Worms in 1521 an imperial edict identified Martin Luther’s status as an outlaw in the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation. The papal ambassador to the imperial court wanted Emperor Charles V to enforce Pope Leo X’s excommunication (January 1521) against Luther. However, the princely delegates to the Diet decided to give Luther a hearing at Worms. On April 18, 1521, Luther gave his famous speech in which he did not recant but rather defended his writings on the basis of Holy Scripture. During that speech and in subsequent conversations with ecclesiastical and secular rulers, he stated unequivocally that he would not obey papal or imperial authorities in theological matters unless they demonstrated Luther’s errors from the Scriptures. Following the Christian tradition, Luther refused to obey an unjust law.6
Luther departed Worms in late April and eventually ended up at the Wartburg Castle under the protection of his prince, Elector Frederick III of Saxony (called Frederick the Wise). Meanwhile, Charles V proclaimed the Edict of Worms on May 26, 1521. This document condemned Luther as a heretical teacher and forbade “anyone from this time forward to dare, either by words or by deeds, to receive, defend, sustain, or favor” him. However, Charles did not seek to enforce the edict in Saxony because of his personal relationship with Frederick and for political expediency. Nonetheless, the edict remained a legal threat against Luther and any of his supporters.7
When Luther returned to Wittenberg in March 1522 after ten months in hiding at the Wartburg, he did so against the wishes of Frederick. Luther asserted that his call to the congregation and the need to lead the nascent reform in Wittenberg superseded the Elector’s demands. However, Luther further advised Frederick to turn him, Luther, over to the imperial government for punishment, if Frederick had no other option. In the early 1520s Luther practiced passive resistance to ecclesiastical and temporal authorities, but he did not want anyone to defend him by force. Luther did not advocate rebellion or war to defend the Gospel nor did he believe anyone should do so.8 Rather, as we will see, God has his own ways for dealing with over-reaching rulers and their injustices.
Charles V did not force Frederick to turn Luther over to the imperial authorities at that time, but the papacy and some Catholic German princes did call for the enforcement of the Edict of Worms at various times for the rest of Luther’s life. In early 1523 Frederick requested a theological opinion from the Wittenberg theologians on the issue of military resistance to any invasion by the Emperor or other German princes into Electoral Saxony to enforce the Edict of Worms. Luther stated that Frederick may in good conscience fight a defensive war against his princely equals, but he should submit to the emperor as his overlord. It should be noted that Luther’s colleagues did not agree completely with him on this issue in 1523. For instance, Nicholas von Amsdorf argued that Frederick as a public officeholder had the right to defend his land from any unjust invader.9
Luther had already completed his treatise, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, in December 1522, but it was not published until March 1523. We should understand Luther’s ideas within the context of the fear of invasion, particularly from Duke George of Saxony, Frederick’s cousin and antagonistic neighbor. Additionally, Luther preached on the subject of government and the Gospel numerous times during 1522. Dedicating his treatise, On Temporal Authority, to Duke John of Saxony (Frederick’s brother and successor), Luther here defined his teaching on the two kingdoms. He stated that God had established two governments: one to keep order and rule the temporal realm, the other a spiritual government by which God makes sinners righteous.10
While he advised obedience to temporal authorities, Luther mocked evil rulers in the first paragraph of Temporal Authority when he wrote, “For God Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do—and order their subjects to do—whatever they please.”11 He explained that subjects are not obligated to obey their rulers in all matters, especially regarding the command to turn over Luther’s books to temporal authorities. Referring to Acts 5:29, Luther explained that Christians owed obedience to temporal authorities in earthly matters, but they should not willingly turn over books. However, if the authorities searched their homes and confiscated their property, they must suffer as Christians and not resist forcibly.12
Later in Temporal Authority, Luther addressed resistance to unjust rulers. He explained that a prince may fight against a political equal or inferior, but not against the emperor. That prince should speak the truth against the superior but not resist him by force. Even when war is unavoidable, Luther asserted that a prince should fight to defend his subjects and not for personal gain. Additionally, he argued that Christian soldiers should serve in a war unless the soldier knew his prince had commanded him to fight an unjust war. In that case, Luther plainly instructed soldiers to disobey the prince, “… for it is no one’s duty to do wrong; we must obey God (who desires the right) rather than men.”13
The Peasants’ War
In the 1520s, peasants and a growing number of urban workers engaged in protests and ultimately war against the nobility in Germany.14 In this context of political ferment, Luther’s theological opponents blamed his promotion of Christian liberty for provoking the Peasants’ War (1524–1525) and similar unrest during the early sixteenth century. Scholars now refer to these events as the “Revolution of the Common Man.” Several revolts of the common folk had taken place in the late Middle Ages throughout Europe. In the early sixteenth century, social and economic conditions led to numerous local disturbances in German-speaking lands. Many leaders of the common man’s revolt did, in fact, appeal to the ideal of Christian liberty combined with strong anti-clericalism.15 However, Luther, like many of his contemporaries, feared disorder in society and charged temporal authorities to keep public order.
In March 1525 a large group of peasants banded together and wrote the Twelve Articles that summarized their ideals. Written by a lay reformer and a pastor from Memmingen, this text circulated widely in the Holy Roman Empire and called on Luther and Philip Melanchthon as judges for their cause. The authors appealed to the Bible and traditional Germanic common law against the more recent imposition of papal laws and decrees of the Holy Roman Empire. They wanted land and hunting rights, the end of oppressive taxation, the abolition of serfdom, and the right of local congregations to call (and depose) their own pastors.16
Luther responded to this document with his Admonition to Peace. While he rejected any specific biblical rationale or agenda for social reform or revolution, Luther denounced the nobility’s sinful oppression of the common people. He blamed the violence and rebellion on their sins and exhorted the princes to listen to the peasants’ grievances and negotiate with them. However, Luther told the peasants not to violently attack or resist the temporal authorities because “Christians do not fight for themselves with sword and musket, but with the cross and with suffering, just as Christ, our leader, does not bear a sword, but hangs on a cross.” The message was clear: the liberation of the Gospel did not include social disorder or violence. He added another shorter paper, Against the Robbing, Murdering Hordes of Peasants, to another printing of the Admonition to make clear that he opposed violent revolution. In this work he exhorted the princes to stop the rebellious army of the common man with all military power available.17
Soldiers, Just Wars, and Disobedience
The Peasants’ War had compelled Luther to write against active resistance to oppression by temporal authorities. In these writings he demonstrated intellectual consistency with his earlier views. Throughout the 1520s he maintained these positions. In response to a question from a soldier who had fought against the peasants, Luther wrote Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved. Published in March 1526, Luther described how a solder could participate in a war with a good conscience. He reiterated his rejection of violent rebellion with historical examples from Old Testament events, ancient Greece and Rome, in addition to contemporary examples in Switzerland and Denmark. God may impose a wicked tyrant because of the people’s sin, but God may also punish the tyrant through foreign invasion or internal rebellion. 18 One should never trust a mob because overthrowing tyrants usually leads to worse circumstances.19
In the next section of Whether Soldiers, Dr. Luther explained clearly his understanding of just war and being a proper soldier. Princes or soldiers should never instigate a war. Wise rulers are not belligerent and draw the sword only in self-defense. Most importantly, Luther restated his earlier position that only equals may fight each other, but only after attempting to solve the matter through peaceful arbitration. A ruler may wage war against a rebellious subject, but must do so in the fear of God. The prince must know that even if his cause is just, he may be defeated. Luther explained that a Christian soldier may serve in good conscience under the proper circumstances and with the correct attitude. However, he stated that a soldier must not follow his lord in an unjust war. The soldier should passively resist through refusal to participate, though this will certainly lead to loss of reputation and property.20
During the 1520s Luther’s understanding of obedience to temporal authorities, resistance to unjust decrees, and reticence toward warfare in general remained consistent. His experience with civil disturbances and the Peasants’ War demonstrated how the mob could also quickly become worse than a bad prince. Luther affirmed the duty of a Christian to disobey and passively resist in good conscience, whether faced with some condemnation of Gospel (such as at the Diet of Worms), the confiscation of books advancing the Gospel (such as Luther’s translation of the New Testament), or being ordered to partake in an unjust war. However, the Christian must know that this could lead to loss of reputation, property, and even martyrdom.
From Passive to Active Resistance
In the late 1520s political events compelled the Lutheran authorities to face the issue of active resistance to the emperor. At the Diet of Speyer in 1529 Ferdinand of Austria (Emperor Charles V’s brother) demanded that the Edict of Worms be enforced, an end to all changes in religious practices, and the restoration of the jurisdiction of the traditional bishops in Lutheran territories. This prompted the Lutheran leaders’ formal protestation against these proposals. During this time Luther continued to oppose any military resistance to the emperor, but some of his theological colleagues and legal theorists disagreed with him. Charles V decided to settle the religious and political issues the following year at the Diet of Augsburg.21
Beginning in 1530 Luther’s attitude toward active resistance began to gradually change. As late as March 1530 he wrote to Elector John of Saxony to condemn military force against the emperor, but by the end of that same year Luther seemed to change his mind. The political context played a central role in that change. On June 25, 1530, the Lutheran princes and political leaders presented their confession to Charles V at the Diet of Augsburg. After the Papal theologians presented their refutation of the Lutheran confession and further negotiations, Charles declared a recess and ordered the Protestant princes to restore Catholic religious practices and Roman episcopal authority—or suffer the consequences in six months.22
In late October at a meeting in Torgau, Luther and Philip Melanchthon agreed to support resistance against a potential Imperial invasion of Protestant lands. Luther, Melanchthon, and other theologians agreed to the legal argument that Emperor Charles V was elected under certain conditions of Imperial law. That is, the emperor had voluntarily limited his own authority in formulating and adjudicating laws, that is, man-made positive law as distinct from natural law. Therefore, if he acted outside of his jurisdiction, the Protestant princes (though not individual Christians as Christians) may actively resist as a matter of self-defense against the unjust laws of men. Thus, the theologians, particularly Luther, accepted the Saxon jurists’ argument as a matter of positive law, but still rejected active resistance based merely on theology or natural law.23 At that time another of the princes, Landgrave Philip of Hesse, asked Luther to write a treatise regarding the idea of resistance. Luther did publish a treatise, Warning to His Dear German People, in April 1531. Although he continued to have reservations toward the idea of active resistance to imperial authority in 1531, Luther set a defiant tone in the Warning. This text began with an overview of the recent history. After reminding his readers that he had consistently rejected rebellion and war, Luther argued that his side had sought peace and political compromise at Augsburg. However, the Roman clergy and princes responded with threats of violence and war. According to Luther, if war or rebellion emerged, the papal supporters would be the instigators, not the Lutherans. That is, the Romanists would become the real insurrectionists and disturbers of the peace. Luther was also willing to suffer persecution and accept his own death, but he stated God may “raise up a Judas Maccabeus” (a Jewish military leader from the Hanukkah stories) to defend the Lutheran cause and smash “Antiochus” (meaning the pope and his military supporters).24
In the following section of the Warning, Luther argued that as a preacher he would not call for war, but rather he spoke against war and for peace. He knew the pro-papal German princes pretended to be putting down religious rebels. However, Luther wrote, “… if war breaks out—which God forbid—I will not reprove those who defend themselves against the murderous and bloodthirsty papists, nor let anyone else rebuke them for being seditious, but I will accept their action and let it pass as self-defense.” He asserted that the papal supporters were the potential murderers and warmongers and, therefore, resisting them would be legitimate self-defense. In Luther’s position here, we have a classic statement supporting active resistance against aggressors: the Roman side acted maliciously during the Diet of Augsburg and did not really want peace.25
Later in the Warning Luther explained in detail the rationale for supporting resistance. He set forth a more thorough statement when he wrote:
If the emperor should issue a call to arms against us on behalf of the pope or because of our teaching … no one should lend himself to it or obey the emperor in this event. All may rest assured that God has strictly forbidden compliance with such a command of the emperor. Whoever does obey him can be certain that he is disobedient to God and will lose both body and soul eternally in the war. For in this case the emperor would not only act in contravention of God and divine law but also in violation of his own imperial law, vow, duty, seal, and edicts.26
In these sentences Luther set forth a powerful assertion of self-defense. Notice, Luther argued that, in this case, obedience to the temporal authority is disobedience to God. While he did seek to blame Pope Clement VII and the pro-papal princes for the strife, Luther affirmed self-defense based on positive law against an Imperial invasion. He even insisted that obedience to an unjust command brought death and damnation. As it turned out, the Imperial invasion did not take place in the early 1530s. Negotiations ended in the Nuremberg Standstill in 1532 that granted a truce and allowed princes to implement the Reformation in their own territories until the mid-1540s.27
More Active Resistance
In the late 1530s Martin Luther moved toward a stronger position in favor of active resistance to Imperial aggression. In 1536 and 1538 Luther and the major Wittenberg theologians signed formal opinions that supported active resistance on the basis of positive law and natural law. They stated that the Protestant princes were allowed to defend their lands from papal-inspired invasion because of their left-hand kingdom obligations to the commonwealth and protection of their people. They also affirmed the German princes’ natural right to repel unjust military aggression with just force. For instance, in 1538 they compared the princes’ potential resistance to the Emperor to a father who protects his family from harm. Significantly, the theologians supported the princes’ duty to maintain the Christian religious practices against the forceful restoration of the Roman liturgy and rules. Similar to Luther’s Warning, they compared any papal attempt at this restoration to the evil Antiochus against the righteous Maccabees.28
In 1539 Luther made two significant statements on the topic of resistance to the Emperor. He wrote a letter to answer Pastor Johann Ludicke’s inquiry regarding legitimate resistance. In the event of an Imperial invasion, Luther argued, the emperor would be acting as the pope’s soldier and robber to impose false religion on the Lutheran territories. Therefore, the German princes may resist the emperor because he had no legitimate reason to invade. If it was legitimate to fight the aggressive Turks (who had invaded Vienna in 1529), then certainly the blasphemous papal party could be opposed with force. In fact, any efforts to impose their blasphemy would justify the resistance. Luther again appealed to the example of Judas Maccabeus. Finally, Luther agreed with the constitutional argument that the emperor was not an absolute monarch but ruled in common with the princes.29
Following this letter, Martin Luther wrote several theses for debate on the question of resistance in April 1539. These theses contained his final statement concerning active resistance to unjust authority. He again focused on the pope as the real enemy who stands outside God’s established orders of the family, government, and the church. Using an apocalyptic interpretation of Daniel, Luther identified the pope (and the emperor if he followed his instructions) as a monstrous tyrant called a “Beerwolf.” The image is a wolf-like creature so full of evil that it overthrows all moral order in society. As noted earlier, according to Luther, God has his own ways for dealing with over-reaching rulers and their injustices in his left-hand kingdom. Luther described the situation dramatically:
For we cannot allow the damnation of souls. I am obliged to lay down my life for the emperor, but not my soul. If the emperor defends the pope, who is a wolf, one is not to yield or stand for it, but one must attack him …. Self-defense is the natural course. The princes must resist the tyrants, a thing which the First Table [of the Decalogue] also requires.30
According to Luther, the only reasonable response from society was to destroy the wolf before it devoured everyone. In a similar manner—and this is a remarkable development in Luther’s thought—all imperial subjects, not just princes, should actively resist such a demonic enemy.31
A Theology and Practice of Resistance
Ironically, the war between the Protestant princes and the Imperial forces took place the year after Luther’s death on February 18, 1546. In April 1547 Charles V triumphed over the Protestant defensive alliance, called the Schmalkaldic League, at the Battle of Mühlberg. Charles imprisoned Elector John Frederick of Saxony and Philip of Hesse. In 1548 the emperor imposed the Augsburg Interim that reinstated Roman teachings and liturgical practices, but it allowed the continuation of married clergy and communion in both Roman and Lutheran liturgies. While Melanchthon justified this compromise by arguing that it only related indifferent matters (adiaphora), many Lutherans resisted it, and this resistance coalesced in the city of Magdeburg.32
In 1550 a group of pastors published the Magdeburg Confession that contained an extended section on the right to resist unjust authority. Nicholas von Amsdorf, Luther’s fellow theologian who had supported active resistance since the early 1520s, and Nicholas Gallus were the main authors. Matthias Flacius, a brilliant young theologian and former student of Melanchthon, was also a central leader and propagandist against the Augsburg Interim. These men wanted to preserve the teachings of the Reformation and exhorted Lutherans in Magdeburg to resist any imposition of Roman doctrine and liturgy.33
The second section of the Magdeburg Confession set forth a detailed justification for active resistance to the Imperial imposition of papal theology and liturgy. The authors set forth an argument based upon the Bible and Luther’s documents, particularly his Warning. The Magdeburg writers argued that they had not violated any laws, the emperor and his allies were the real lawbreakers, and the Lutherans had not received a fair hearing. Therefore, the emperor’s imposition by force of Roman religious practice at the behest of the pope was unjust. Following Luther’s example, the Magdeburg confessors compared themselves to the Maccabees against an evil ruler who attempted to force idolatry upon them. They explained their position in the following manner:
We will show from Holy Scripture that if a higher magistrate undertakes by force to restore popish idolatry and to suppress or exterminate the pure teaching of the Holy Gospel, as in the present instance, then the lower godfearing magistrate may defend himself and his subjects against such unjust force in order to preserve the true teaching, the worship of God together with body, life, goods, and honor.34
By denying his people the right to the Gospel and even forcing false worship upon them, these confessors asserted, the emperor had become more than a petty tyrant, but demonically-inspired tyrant on the level of Luther’s “Beerwolf.”35
Conclusion: What Does This Mean for Us?
When Martin Luther King wrote that unjust laws were not laws at all, he was appealing to a long-standing Christian tradition. The apostles established the basic principle that Christians must obey God rather than worldly authorities in certain situations. Authoritative Christian theologians such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas explained why Christians should disobey certain laws. Following this tradition, Luther disobeyed temporal authorities when he continued to proclaim the Gospel through the preached and written word in 1521. Through the Bible’s texts on the two kingdoms, he recognized the proper role of temporal government but asserted that their authority was limited. What’s more, Luther was willing to suffer imprisonment or death for this action.
While today we may understand how Luther’s teaching on the two kingdoms limits temporal government’s authority, we must also recognize that this teaching limits individual Christian’s actions in society. Individual Christians may refuse to obey unjust laws, but unless they hold a specific office, these Christians should not resist with force. Luther absolutely rejected violent rebellion to overthrow social order. In numerous cases throughout the 1520s, he stated that Christians must suffer the cross of unjust persecution or choose to flee their home and province. He advised the common people and any soldiers given an unjust command to do this.
When the issue of conflicting authorities arose, Luther initially instructed the lower authorities (the German princes) to endure under the oppression of a superior authority (the emperor). However, Luther gradually accepted an argument for active resistance to unjust imperial authority in limited circumstances. Under concepts of constitutional law, the emperor had willingly limited his own authority and allowed the German princes to check him. That is, one temporal authority may check the unjust actions of another. 36 When the emperor threatened to impose Roman idolatry (from the Lutherans’ perspective) through force of arms, the princes—with the same Romans 13:1–7 authority as the emperor—had the duty to resist this manifest evil. If they did not resist, then these princes would be resisting God. And extraordinary circumstances, such as an extremely wicked tyrant (Luther’s “Beerwolf”), called for drastic measures of complete resistance by all Christians or even all men of good will. The Magdeburg confessors integrated all these ideas into a single document.
We find many of these two-kingdoms concerns at stake today as at other times in history, including the early church, Augustine and the close of the Roman Empire, the Reformation, and the American experiment with the First Amendment. The contexts change, but the biblical teachings and the need to articulate and apply their concepts remain the same. Luther, through his experience, mistakes, insights, and writing, has done much of our homework for us. This work and its grounding in orthodox Christian tradition is still largely neglected in the church’s response to the current culture shifts. But Luther’s career offers a practical and biblical way forward—a better way than many American Christians promoted in the twentieth century despite Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Luther’s ideas provide Christians today the means to make sense of the institutions of family, church, and the various governing authorities in the twenty-first century, always with attention to the priority of the Gospel and the promises of God’s right-hand kingdom of grace.