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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 87. Relation of Church and State.


In January, 1523, Luther published a remarkable book on the civil magistrate, dedicated to Prince John, in which he proved from Rom. 13:1 and 1 Pet. 2:13 the duty to obey the civil magistrate, and from Acts 5:29 the duty to obey God more than man.714714    Von weltlicher Obrigkeit, wie weit man ihr Gehorsam schuldig sei. Erl. ed. XXII. 59-105. On the ground of Christ’s word, Matt. 22:21, which contains the wisest answer to an embarrassing question, he drew a sharp distinction between the secular and spiritual power, and reproved the pope and bishops for meddling with secular affairs, and the princes and nobles for meddling with spiritual matters. It sounds almost like a prophetic anticipation of the American separation of church and state when he says: —

"God has ordained two governments among the children of Adam, the reign of God under Christ, and the reign of the world under the civil magistrate, each with its own laws and rights. The laws of the reign of the world extend no further than body and goods and the external affairs on earth. But over the soul God can and will allow no one to rule but himself alone.715715    The Westminster Confession, ch. XX. 2, says: "God alone is Lord of the conscience." Therefore where the worldly government dares to give laws to the soul, it invades the reign of God, and only seduces and corrupts the soul. This we shall make so clear that our noblemen, princes, and bishops may see what fools they are if they will force people with their laws and commandments to believe this or that.716716    L.c.p. 82: "Das weltlich Regiment hat Gesetze, die sich nicht weiter strecken, denn über Leib und Gut, und was äusserlich ist auf Erden. Denn über die Seele kann und will Gott niemand lassen regieren, denn sich selbst alleine. Darumb wo weltlich Gewalt sich vermisset, der Seelen Gesetze zu geben, da greift sie Gott in sein Regiment, und verführet und verderbet nur die Seelen. Das wollen wir so klar machen, dass mans greifen solle, auf dass unsere Junkern, die Fürsten und Bischöfe sehen, was sie für Narren sind, wenn sie die Leut mit ihren Gesetzen und Geboten zwingen wollen, sonst oder so zu glauben." ... In matters which relate to the soul’s salvation nothing should be taught and accepted but God’s word. … As no one can descend to hell or ascend to heaven for me, as little can any one believe or disbelieve for me; as he cannot open or shut heaven or hell for me, neither can he force me to faith or unbelief … Faith is a voluntary thing which cannot be forced. Yea, it is a divine work in the spirit. Hence it is a common saying which is also found in Augustin: Faith cannot and should not be forced on anybody."717717    "Zum Glauben kann und soll man niemand zwingen." As to St. Augustin, he changed his views on this subject, as Luther did afterwards. The anti-Manichaean Augustin was tolerant (he himself had been a Manichaean for nine years), but the anti-Donatist Augustin was intolerant. The former said, "Credere non potest homo nisi volens;" the latter misinterpreted the words: "Compelle intrare ut impleatur domus mea" (Luke 14:23), as a justification of forcible coercion. Comp. above, § 11, p. 54 sq.

Here is the principle of religious liberty which was proclaimed in principle by Christ, acted upon by the apostles, re-asserted by the ante-Nicene fathers against the tyranny of persecuting Rome, but so often violated by Christian Rome in her desire for a worldly empire, and also by Protestant churches and princes in their dealings with Romanists and Anabaptists. Luther does not spare the secular rulers, though this book is dedicated to the brother of the Elector.

"From the beginning of the world wise princes have been rare birds, and pious princes still rarer. Most of them are the greatest fools or the worst boobies on earth.718718    "Die grössten Narren oder die ärgsten Buben auf Erden" (p. 89). Therefore we must fear the worst from them, and expect little good, especially in divine things which affect the soul’s welfare. They are God’s hangmen, and his wrath uses them to punish evil-doers, and to keep external peace."

He refers to Isa. 3:4, "I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them;" and to Hos. 13:11, "I have given thee a king in mine anger, and have taken him away in my wrath." "The world is too bad," he adds, "and not worthy to have many wise and pious princes."

To the objection that the secular magistrate should afford an external protection, and hinder heretics from seducing the people, he replies: —

This is the business of bishops, and not of princes. For heresy can never be kept off by force; another grip is needed for that; this is another quarrel than that of the sword. God’s word must contend here. If this fails, the worldly power is of no avail, though it fill the world with blood. Heresy is a spiritual thing that cannot be hewn down by iron, nor burned by fire, nor drowned by water.719719    "Ketzerei ist ein geistlich Ding, das kann man mit keinem Eisen hauen, mit keinem Feuer verbrennen, mit keinem Wasser ertränken." But God’s word does it, as Paul says, ’Our weapons are not carnal, but mighty in God’ (2 Cor. 10:4, 5)."

In his exposition of the First Epistle of St. Peter, from the same year (1523), he thus comments on the exhortation "to fear God and honor the king:"720720    In the Erl. ed., vol. LI. p. 419 sq.

"If the civil magistrate interferes with spiritual matters of conscience in which God alone must rule, we ought not to obey at all, but rather lose our head. Civil government is confined to external and temporal affairs. … If an emperor or prince asks me about my faith, I would give answer, not because of his command, but because of my duty to confess my faith before everybody. But if he should go further, and command me to believe this or that, I would say, ’Dear sir, mind your secular business; you have no right to interfere with God’s reign, and therefore I shall not obey you at all.’ "

Similar views on the separation of church and state were held by Anabaptists, Mennonites, the English martyr-bishop Hooper, and Robert Browne the Independent; but they had no practical effect till a much later period.721721    See § 12, p. 76, note.

Luther himself changed his opinion on this subject, and was in some measure driven to a change by the disturbances and heresies which sprang up around him, and threatened disorder and anarchy. The victory over the peasants greatly increased the power of the princes. The Lutheran Reformers banded the work of re-organization largely over to them, and thus unwittingly introduced a caesaropapacy; that is, such a union of church and state as makes the head of the state also the supreme ruler in the church. It is just the opposite of the hierarchical principle of the Roman Church, which tries to rule the state. Melanchthon justified this transfer chiefly by the neglect of the pope and bishops to do their duty. He says, if Christ and the apostles had waited till Annas and Caiaphas permitted the gospel, they would have waited in vain.722722    Judicium de jure reformandi (1525), in the "Corp. Reform." I. 763 sqq.

The co-operation of the princes and magistrates in the cities secured the establishment of the Protestant Church, but brought it under the bondage of lawyers and politicians who, with some honorable exceptions, knew less and ruled worse than the bishops. The Reformers often and bitterly complained in their later writings of the rapacity of princes and nobles who confiscated the property of churches and convents, and applied it to their own use instead of schools and benevolent purposes. Romish historians make the most of this fact to the disparagement of the Reformation. But the spoliations of Protestant princes are very trifling, as compared with the wholesale confiscation of church property by Roman-Catholic powers, as France, Spain, and Italy in the last and present centuries.

The union of church and state accounts for the persecution of papists, heretics, and Jews; and all the Reformers justified persecution to the extent of deposition and exile, some even to the extent of death, as in the case of Servetus.723723    See § 12, p. 59 sqq.

The modern progress of the principle of toleration and religious liberty goes hand in hand with the loosening of the bond of union between church and state.



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