Follow by Email

Friday, 13 October 2017

Original Sin and Late Medieval Political Thought #5 Martin Luther, Reform, and Conclusion

Hello, all. I will be posting over the next few weeks the results of my 2017 undergraduate thesis. The work focused on the relationship between the Christian concept of Original Sin and its relationship to political theory from the 13th to 16th centuries. My principal argument is that Original Sin plays both a conscious and sub-conscious role in the political thought of the middle ages, and re-enforced a natural understanding of human limitations in the political sphere serving as a natural inoculation against utopian thinking and high ideals that would emerge in more secularize thought.  Furthermore, Original Sin as a political concept played an important role in defining the limitations of peace as a concept and as a pragmatic ideal in medieval thought. If you see any issues with the arguments presented please bring them up to me in the comments as I I know the effort was sophomoric, and I could always use feedback. 

Likewise, my apologies in advance for its limited scope and lack of Nicholas of Cusa as a prominent example of the concepts focused upon. Sadly, this was a single semester project, and both Cusa as well as Richard Hooker, and King James I/VI. If you can forgive this oversight I feel you might have a genuinely enjoyable read on your hands.  


As the humanist movement expanded, and the Protestant Reformation began, contemporaries of the Italian humanists, adopted the literary tradition to argue new theological positions against the Catholic Church. These arguments against the Catholic Church were evident in and derived from the works of the scholastics.[i] Political Scientist J.S McClelland notes that Martin Luther had read the Defender of the Peace, and it likely informed many of his arguments.[ii] Building off his predecessors Luther shook the Catholic church with his assertion that scripture ought to be accessible to all.[iii] This key element in Luther’s theology, would later deeply inform his political thinking. This doctrine of a universal priesthood clashed with the papal prerogative to interpret the message of Christ. This proposition set in motion a politics of resistance, which Luther not only found himself failing to reconcile with but actively opposing in his work Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants.[iv] Meanwhile, in regards to his political theology and his thinking, in general, he held one single principle above all: justification by faith alone.[v] This theology arose from the realization that Christian man had two elements in his nature, one righteous the other steeped in sin.[vi] A feel for Luther’s perspective can be gleaned from his assertion that man’s soul was a “beast over which two riders contend.”[vii] This same conclusion informed his theory of government as well as his ontology.

It is important to understand the way that Luther interprets the relationship between sin and the righteousness and the personal relationship between man and Christ because it will enable one to understand his teachings on obedience and temporal authority. Man exists in two natures for Luther the spiritual man and the corporeal, and this informs his freedoms as a Christian subject. He is both subject to all and lord of all.[viii] Freedom to Luther then was not a political freedom it was freedom in the shape of faith in scripture. Nothing that one could do in the human world would necessarily indicate faith in God or love for Christ and the gospels, and likewise, nothing worldly could truly harm this freedom.[ix] Meanwhile, the civil laws not only protect Christians from the sinful but in turn are a way for Christians to express their love of others; they do this voluntarily and therefore do not need the law to ensure their good conduct.[x] Commandments and promises from scripture differ, however, in that they ensure the Christian of his salvation by causing reflection upon his nature in that “commandments show us what we ought to do. . . . They are intended to teach man to know himself, [so] he may recognize his inability to do good.” Promises then fulfil this covenant allowing man to understand the mercy of God through his own inability.[xi] This is the personal relationship between man and scripture that governs the life of the Christian and it is internally complete and contains no demand works or political activism.

With so much responsibility for faith placed on the individual this creates another problem propounded by historian Susan Schreiner that man’s mind, in Luther’s eyes, had also been damaged by the fall and placed into a beguiling world infested with idols; a place where the word of God was imitated by the word of Satan.[xii] From Satan man became a reasoning creature instead of a faithful one, scepticism infected thought and doubt became comfortable.[xiii] This assertion contradicts the notion that reason, as is understood in the other thinkers in the discussion, is the key to politics and the good. Alternatively, to Luther man constructed laws and demanded obedience by virtue of his reason to appease an idol in the place of God an idol that demanded satisfaction through action.[xiv] This is a radical break by Luther with immense consequences for politics because man cannot trust his reason he has become blind by Satan darkening his vision. The alternative then is to abjure the world as it exists to our reason and instead understand “God as a merciful Father rather than an angry judge.”[xv] These theological considerations formed the bedrock for Luther’s thinking on the relationship between man and the political world and his hopes for peace within it. Firstly, because the theology was centred upon the individual not the community or institutions, and secondly because reason and the world itself provided no answers to the problem of man, it was only in turning away fully that man could begin to perceive the reality of God.

From his theological premises, Luther transformed the relationship between the spiritual and temporal realms, the two kingdoms as they are titled. He created politics that made “the temporal power . . . a member of the . . . spiritual estate.”[xvi] He did this through his demolition of the three walls the pope has constructed to safeguard his power in the temporal realm. The walls are the pope's superiority over the temporal power and the inability of the temporal power to exercise jurisdiction over the pope; the pope’s sole right to interpret scripture on behalf of all Christians; and the pope’s prerogative to summon councils without the permission of temporal authority.[xvii] Each of these arguments is shown to be inconsistent by appeal to scripture and history.[xviii] In doing so Luther brought the spiritual power to account through the temporal power and saw no contradiction in this because the two kingdoms exist in a unity. This is a unity where the perception of Godliness is not certain, and in this way, one cannot even be sure the Popes are Christians. [xix] Only the individual can know this through reflection upon himself. Rather, Christians must live among those who are not of the kingdom of God and this creates the discord both in the polity and between nations for “men would devour one another, seeing as the whole world is evil and . . . there is scarcely a single true Christian.”[xx] The enemy of peace then for Luther becomes man’s fallen nature, and it is inescapable.

As a result of this insufficiency to perceive the world or live rightly as a consequence of original sin, he asks Christians to remain absolutely obedient to the authority of their ruler as scripture informs them in Rom:13: 5-8 and I Peter 2:13-14.[xxi] He further laments that Christians need protection from the world before informing them that God will see to their justice, and that they are not to rebuke a tyrant and have no right to oppose rulers by popular will for to do so would be in opposition to the will of God, who’s providence placed unconscionable rulers above them to drive them toward goodness or to serve as punishment.[xxii] He makes one sole proviso in favour of resistance in that he permits it if the rulers are in direct contradiction with the will of God. However, this is a false exemption because it is immediately qualified with the notion that the mind of the ruler is unknowable and the judgment of men is flawed.[xxiii] Alternatively, man must accept his government as a necessity of the world, hope that it is able to protect him, yet rely on God to see to it that a poor ruler is brought to justice. Those who fail to do so like the revolting peasants are not Christians they are simply using scripture as a tool, and furthermore, they conflate Christian freedom with worldly freedom and they are not the same.[xxiv] To Luther politics is a necessary evil mandated by God’s punishment and assignment to us of a worldly existence. The only true freedom is for the Christian to turn away from sin and live in faith toward God. And the only purview of the state is to guard against sin.

Luther can most readily be compared to Aquinas within this survey and from this comparison, several continuities and several differences appear. They concur on various political positions. Firstly, that the world is one of sin, and this turning from God toward the perceptible and corporeal world is the origin of sin;[xxv] secondly, that sin is the origin of discord and true Christians do not require coercion to obey the law;[xxvi] thirdly, that obedience is required of a Christian toward the secular rulers.[xxvii] From this position, however, two important differences emerge in their thinking. One that the temporal and spiritual worlds do not strive to the same goods, and exist in a hierarchical relationship for Luther as they do in Aquinas, and two, that rebellion is circumscribed by Luther who unlike Aquinas has little trust for the value of human reason to perceive the righteousness of events and causes in the world. When Luther accepts the world as a sinful place, he differs greatly from the humanists, but at the same time, he concedes the divergence of spheres and the temporal authority itself as valid, something that first emerged in the study of Dante and Marsilius of Padua.

Therefore, one may begin to discern patterns in the thinking of various political theorists in discussion. It becomes clear that theorists throughout this period were cognizant of the scarred nature of mankind and working to reconcile it with politics became a chief priority. Whether it was the thought of Thomas Aquinas who envisioned a harmonious relationship between man and natural law, in government by the best, articulated through the human law. Or if it was the unified whole of Dante Alighieri and his monarchy or Marsilius of Padua and his human legislator. Each of these early thinkers laid out a complex approach to guiding and amending politics with an eye toward human nature. Only by working with human nature did these thinkers see a way toward peace only through good laws and powerful rulers executing them could order be brought to the community and flourishing for all secured.

Despite the emergence of the humanists this pattern of reconciling politics to the condition of human nature in its fallen state persisted. Though new humanist discourses argued from a relatively optimistic position of reconciling the individual not through politics, but himself first by means of education. This did not eliminate the idea of politics as a solution. Instead, Thomas More diverged from this position in his masterwork Utopia. More challenged the assumptions of his interlocutors by arguing that man could expect nothing beyond himself from politics except maintenance of the system and inhibition of decay. In this way, he thought in a fashion superficially akin to Machiavelli in that he recognized that one could not reject the political world in its entirety. Rather, politics demanded a degree of acceptance to ensure its functioning. However, this was still a political answer, where man on his own was insufficient for good government and peace.

Likewise, Martin Luther adopted some elements of humanist thinking. Like Machiavelli he argues that there will be no permanent peace, instead, man will always be beholden to his inability to live in righteousness and this observation shaped politics as well.[xxviii] Furthermore, Luther placed the onus for peace on the individual with his emphatic advocacy of obedience due to the inconstancy of human reason. When observing these relationships, it becomes clear that each proposed a different view about peace and each tried to reconcile themselves to the unnatural state of the fallen man within nature. In this way, they painted a picture of politics that sought to reconcile itself to what it was given: the state of man on earth. And each placed different demands upon this nature. It would not be until the modern period, after the advances of the scientific revolution, that one can begin to discern the principle of nature itself as the origin of political problems. However, one can still witness throughout the dialogue the political negotiation between what one should expect of the political world and what one should expect given the nature of man. Man was yet to become the solution to nature; he was still the problem.

[i] Francis Oakley, "Christian Obedience and Authority, 1520-1550," in Cambridge History of Political Thought 1450-1700, ed. J.H Burns (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 159-161.
[ii] Mclelland, A History of Western Political Thought, 130.
[iii] Martin Luther, "To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate," in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter (Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 44-45.
[iv] Oakley, "Christian Obedience and Authority,” 172-173;
[v] Oakley, "Christian Obedience and Authority,” 159.
[vi] Oakley, "Christian Obedience and Authority,” 169.
[vii] Oakley, "Christian Obedience and Authority,” 165.
[viii] Martin Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian," in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter (Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 25-26.
[ix] Luther, "The Freedom of a Christian,"28.
[x] Ibid., 30-31.
[xi] Ibid., 29-30.
[xii] Susan E. Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise? (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 324-325, 327.
[xiii] Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise? 326-327.
[xiv] Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise? 328-329.
[xv] Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise? 332.
[xvi] Martin Luther, "To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate," in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter (Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 43.
[xvii] Luther, "To the Christian Nobility,” 39.
[xviii] Ibid., 39-43, 44-45, 46-47.
[xix] Martin Luther, "Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed," in Luther Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter (Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 54-55, 56-57. Luther, "To the Christian Nobility,” 38.
[xx] Luther, "Temporal Authority,” 55.
[xxi] Luther, "Temporal Authority,” 51.
[xxii] Martin Luther, " Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved," in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter (Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 107-110; Martin Luther, "Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia," in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter (Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 75-76.
[xxiii] Luther, "Temporal Authority 55, 59; Luther, "Admonition to Peace,” 79.
[xxiv] Luther, "Admonition to Peace,” 80-83; Martin Luther, "On War Against the Turk." In Luther Selected Political Writings," in Luther: Selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter (Eugene, Ore: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 128; Luther, "To the Christian Nobility,” 47-48.
[xxv]Aquinas, On Law, 165, 189. Luther, "Admonition to Peace,” 83; Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise? 326-327.
[xxvi] Luther, "Temporal Authority,” 55-54, 63-64.
[xxvii] Luther, " Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved,” 109; Luther, "Temporal Authority,” 51-53.
[xxviii] Luther, "Temporal Authority,” 56-57; Luther, "Admonition to Peace,” 76-77.