7 July 2006 - Friday

Martin Luther on liberty

After looking at Thomas Aquinas' reading of Romans 13:1-7 yesterday, I wanted to examine a competing interpretation today. So I picked up my copy of Martin Luther's Commentary on Romans and turned to the appropriate chapter.

(Unfortunately, my copy is not a great text. I am using a translation by J. Theodore Mueller [1959] that was prepared primarily for devotional reading. It will have to serve for now.)

Whereas Thomas, in his Commentary on the Sentences, interprets Romans 13 as requiring obedience only to the legitimate commands of legitimate authorities, Luther here allows no such room to maneuver. He dismisses the idea that the passage applies only to certain kinds of rulers, or applies only under certain conditions. Instead, he takes the opening verse as a seal of divine recognition on all earthly authorities:

The powers that be are ordained of God (13:1). [...] for there is no government that is not instituted [by God]. Governments are only usurped and managed in ways not ordained. So also other blessings are misused, and yet do not lose their value. Money, for example, does not become evil through theft. Hence we must explain the words thus: Wherever there is governmental power, there it is instituted by God. That is, wherever governments exist, they are ordained solely by God. The meaning is the same as: "There is no power, but of God." Therefore, where powers exist and flourish, they exist and flourish because God has ordained them.
I find the monetary analogy interesting because I am not sure it supports Luther's case at all. That is, we do not have to recognize a bearer's claim to stolen money; so why should we recognize a bearer's claim to usurped power? (Also, Luther's remark that money is inherently a blessing seems suspect, given such New Testament passages as Matthew 6:24 and 1 Timothy 6:10.)

Yet while Thomas, in his Commentary on the Sentences, is determined to reconcile Scripture with the community's right to earthly liberty, Luther is determined to demonstrate that Christianity provides a superior type of freedom altogether. He interprets Romans 13 according to his conviction that political liberty is not a proper concern for Christians. The faithful already have a spiritual freedom that liberates them, as it were, from the need for civil freedom. The paragraph quoted above follows this:

By faith the Christian makes all things subject to himself; for he is neither ruled by them, nor does he put his trust in them. He compels them to serve his glory and salvation. That is what it means to serve God and rule as kings. That is the spiritual rule, of which we read in Revelation 5:10: "Thou hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth."

The world is conquered and subdued in no better way than by despising it. The spirit of the believer therefore is subject to no one, nor can it be subject to anyone. It is exalted with Christ, and all things lie subdued at his feet. The "soul" is the same as the "spirit" of man, but inasmuch as it lives and works, and serves the visible world and earthly things, it must be subject "to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13). By this subjection it obeys God and desires the same as God. By this subjection it overcomes the temporal world even now.

So the command of Romans 13 should not be feared as a potential source of slavery but instead embraced as a source of liberation from worldly concerns.

To understand why Luther defends the prerogatives of temporal government so strongly, however, I think we must move a little further on in the commentary. It appears that Luther is not concerned with the behavior of individual Christians, nor with the potential for popular rebellions, as much as with the behavior of the Catholic Church. In his discussion of 13:4, Luther begins a direct assault on worldly churchmen:

One is amazed at the impenetrable gross darkness that prevails today. There is nothing that angers the clerics, these widely opened mouths avariciously coveting temporal things, more than when the freedom of the churches, with their rights, their possessions and their powers is attacked. Against such transgressors they hurl their anathemas. They declare them to be heretics and publicly and with an alarming arrogance condemn them as enemies of God, of the Church, and of Peter and Paul. [...] One's transgressions may even cry to high heaven; nevertheless, he is a most pious Christian, as long as he protects the rights and liberties of the Church. But if anyone should ignore them, then he is no longer a faithful son and friend of the Church.

This practical application to present-day circumstances is very profitable for the understanding of the text.

Indeed. It seems that the "rights and liberties of the Church" are an important reason for Luther's insistence that Christians must submit completely to civil rulers. He is not thinking about the loss of the republics in Greece or Rome. He is thinking about the corruption of the Church, and the secular authorities' loss of sovereignty, in his own day. The result is his defense of sovereign secular power as a divinely ordained institution.

| Posted by Wilson at 19:59 Central | TrackBack
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