Arise O Lord: The Political Origins of Luther’s Reformation

In his sermon given at the funeral of Duke John of Electoral Saxony (John the Steadfast) in 1532, Martin Luther stated, “a prince is also a human being and always has ten devils around him where another man has only one, so that God must give him special guidance and set his angels about him.”* While the Lutheran Reformation revolved around the theological rediscovery of essential biblical teachings (i.e. justification by faith), political events played a major role in the Lutheran Reformers’ temporal success.  Most likely, Dr. Luther would have gladly embraced martyrdom in 1521.  However, his survival, based upon the support of certain German princes and city councils, changed the history of the Christian Church and the world.  As the above quote demonstrates, Luther had a very realistic understanding of the princes, even those who supported him.

Pope Leo X issued the papal bull, Exsurge Domine (Arise O Lord) that identified and condemned forty one errors in Luther’s published writings in June 1520.  However, Luther’s support in Germany continued to grow.  After Luther received the papal bull against him, Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and students at Wittenberg burned it and another texts in December as a response to the authorities’ burning of Luther’s works.

On January 3, 1521 the papal curia published the final bull of excommunication against Martin Luther.  The politics surrounding the election of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation had slowed down papal action against Luther for two years.  As one of the seven electors of the new emperor, Duke Frederick the Wise of Electoral Saxony had a strong political position in 1519.  Pope Leo X did not want Charles, who had recently become king of Spain, to replace his maternal grandfather (Maximilian I) as Holy Roman Emperor.  The pope had even suggested Frederick as a candidate for the imperial position.  Rejecting his own candidacy, Frederick convinced the majority of electors to vote for Charles in June 1519.

Charles V had agreed to significant concessions in order to become emperor.  Most significantly for Martin Luther in 1521, Charles had agreed to grant any imperial subject a hearing before impartial judges within the Holy Roman Empire before that subject’s condemnation.  Based on this concession and Frederick’s persuasive arguments, Charles agreed to give Martin Luther a hearing at the imperial Diet of Worms in April 1521.

This led to Dr. Luther’s famous testimony and refusal to recant before the imperial assembly, including Charles V and papal representatives.  The reaction to Luther’s speech exposed a developing rift within the Empire.  Although Luther already had significant support among the political leaders, Charles and the imperial assembly did issue an edict against Luther in May 1521.  This imperial edict declared Luther to be a heretical outlaw and forbade anyone to support him or even communicate with him.  The penalty for assisting Luther could be imprisonment and confiscation of one’s property.  Charles V and the papal party thought this edict would settle the matter. This edict and its ramifications played a major role in the politics of the Holy Roman Empire for the rest of Luther’s life.

*LW 51:236

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The Laws of Tyrants

Most foolish of all is the belief that everything decreed by the institutions or laws of a particular country is just.  What if the laws are the laws of tyrants?  If the notorious Thirty* had wished to impose their laws on Athens, even if the entire population of Athens welcomed the tyrants’ laws, should those laws on that account be considered just? No more, in my opinion, should that law be considered just which our interrex** passed, allowing the Dictator to execute with impunity any citizen he wished, even without trial.”  Marcus T. Cicero, The Laws 1. 42. in  The Republic and The Laws, trans. Niall Rudd (Oxford 1998), p. 111-112.

Cicero wrote these words in his dialogue on the nature of laws and community.  It includes discussions of personal morality, ethics, the State, and punishment.  If one reads the text, it reveals Cicero’s familiarity with the Greek philosophical tradition including Plato, Aristotle, the Skeptics, Epicurus, and Stoics.  After his examination of just punishments for criminals and the tormented consciences of the wicked, he stated the words above.  In these words, Cicero powerfully asserts that the State’s decrees can be immoral and unjust.  Justice transcends mere human convention because god or the gods have implanted it in human souls.  He concludes:

“There is one, single, justice.  It binds together human society and has been established by one, single, law.  The law is right reason in commanding and forbidding.  A man who does not acknowledge this law is unjust, whether it has been written down anywhere or not.  If justice is a matter of obeying the written laws and customs of a particular communities, and if, as our opponents*** allege, everything is to be measured by self-interest, then a person will ignore and break the laws when he can, if he thinks it will be to his own advantage.  This is why justice is completely non-existent if it is not derived from nature, and if that kind of justice which is established to serve self-interest is wrecked by that same self-interest.  And that is why every virtue is abolished if nature is not going to support justice.” Ibid. 43., p. 112.

*The Thirty were pro-Spartan tyrants who seized power in Athens in 404 BC.  They established a dictatorship then imprisoned and executed many people without due process or trial.

**Interrex was the position of interim ruler in the Roman Republic.  Cicero is referring to the dictate that made Sulla a dictator in 82 BC.  Sulla executed thousands of people without trial.


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The Lust For Domination

“I know how great is the effort needed to convince the proud of the power and excellence of humility, an excellence which makes it soar above all the summits of this world, which sway in their temporal instability, overtopping them all with an eminence not arrogated by human pride, but granted by divine grace. For the King and Founder of this City which is our subject has revealed in the Scripture of his people this statement of the divine Law, ‘God resists the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.’* This is God’s prerogative; but man’s arrogant spirit in its swelling pride has claimed it as its own, and delights to hear this quoted in is own praise: ‘To spare the conquered, and beat down the proud.’**  Therefore I cannot refrain from speaking about the city of this world, which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.  I must consider this city as far as the scheme of this work demands and as occasion serves.” Augustine of Hippo, The City of God:  Preface, trans. Henry Bettenson (London 1972), 508. [Emphasis added]

In this preface to his most famous work, The City of God, Augustine of Hippo sets forth one of the most significant themes of his work: power, pride, humility, and grace.  He examines numerous events in Roman history that explain how fallen human beings sought power and glory through the dominion over others.  Based on the ancient Roman authors, Augustine rightly explained how Rome originated as a State based on violence and became a State based on conquest in the first five books of The City of God.  He later emphasizes the theology of humility and grace as the heavenly antidote to human sin and pride.

*James 4:6

**Virgil, Aeneid 6

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More Than a Feeling

“For virtue is nothing else than an affection of the mind ordered according to reason, and such affections are said to be very numerous according to the various inclinations of the same mind, yet having one root and origin, the will.  For one will, according as it inclines itself to various things either by seeking or avoiding, forms various affections, and receives divers names according to the same affections, although, however, all these things are in one will, and are one will.”* 

In this famous early twelfth-century theological text, Hugh explained the nature of virtue.  The interconnection of emotion and reason form the basis of virtue.  Notice, virtue exists when reason controls the affections.  The will must seek or avoid certain things and thus form affections.  According to twelfth-century theologians, how does the will do this?  Simply put: Love.  Twelfth century theologians understood love as the source from which all affections and actions flow.  Bernard of Clairvaux stated that love exists in the emotion and the action and love must shape the will toward feeling or action. When the divine love motivates the will then truly right emotions and good deeds follow.**   

In a devotional work, On the Praise of Charity, Hugh of St Victor extolled the power of love by identifying it as God’s primary motivation for becoming a human being:

“O charity, for you alone were able to draw God down from heaven to earth. O how powerful is your bond, whereby both God could be bound and the human, having been bound, broke the bounds of iniquity! I do not know if I am able to say anything greater in your praise than that you draw God down from heaven and elevate the human from earth to heave.  Your great virtue is that by means of you God is brought all the way down to earth and the human is exalted all the way up to heaven.”*** 

Hugh followed this section with a meditation on the Incarnation and Passion of Christ.  He described Christ as a man conquered by love as she motivates him to obey his Father’s will.  Love has wounded Christ and therefore wounds his followers deeply in their hearts.  For God is love (caritas). This is the only virtue which is also God Himself and from it flows all of life.  Hugh concludes: 

Charity cures every weakness of the soul.  Charity pulls up all vices by the roots.  Charity is the source of all the virtues.  Charity illumines the mind, purifies the conscience, delights the soul, [and] reveals God.****       


*Hugh of St Victor, On the Sacraments of the Christian Faith I.VI.17 (English trans. at p.105) {Emphasis added}

**Bernard, Sermon on Song of Songs 50. II.3 (English trans. vol. 3, p. 31); Bernard On Loving God

***Hugh of St Victor, On the Praise of Charity, trans. Hugh Feiss, OSB, On Love: Victorine Texts in Translation (Hide Park, NY 2012), p. 164.

****Ibid., 166.  


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The Spirit of Resistance

“The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it to be always kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then. It is like a storm in the Atmosphere.”*

Thomas Jefferson wrote these sentences in a letter to Abigail Adams in February 1787 during his  in Paris as Minister to France.  Jefferson is referring to the events known as Shays’ Rebellion here.  Jefferson states that he hopes the rebels were pardoned, then moved on to other matters.  Later in the same year, Jefferson wrote to William Stephens Smith (John and Abigail Adams’ son in law) and expressed similar thoughts about the spirit of resistance.  He pointed out that the 13 States had existed for 11 years and only this one rebellion took place.  Jefferson then concluded famously:

And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.**

Jefferson concluded this letter with a lament that Shays’ Rebellion had influenced the actions of members of the Convention taking place in Philadelphia.  He feared an overreaction would give the government too much power under a new constitution.

*Thomas Jefferson to Abigail Adams, 22 February 1787

**Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, 13 November 1787 [Emphasis added]

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Flattery Gets You Nowhere

I prefer to be frank and not have anyone misled by flattery. I can testify that although my shell may be hard, still my kernel is soft and sweet.  I wish no one harm, but desire everyone to carefully consider these things with me.  Just as my harshness has hurt no one, so it has deceived no one.  Whoever avoids me suffers nothing from me; whoever bears with me is profited.  In Prov. 28 [:23], Solomon says, ‘He who rebukes a man will afterward find more favor than he who flatters with his tongue.’ “*

BAG13642 Portrait of Martin Luther, 1525 (oil on panel) by Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553); 40×26.6 cm; © Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, UK; ( Luther (1483-1546) German religious reformer;); German, out of copyright

Martin Luther wrote these words in June 1521 when he was hiding out at the Wartburg Castle near Eisenach.  Luther and his political supporters within Electoral Saxony, part of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, had made the decision to keep him there after the Diet of Worms in late April.  Condemned as a heretic and an outlaw, his temporal circumstances were precarious.  However, Luther remained quite active in his scholarly work.  During the year 1521, he translated the New Testament into German, wrote numerous letters, wrote a collection of sermons, completed commentaries on various Psalms, and responded to his theological opponents.

In the quote above Luther is responding to a theologian at the University of Louvain named Jacobus Latomus (originally named Masson).  Luther had to write this refutation without a library and quoted many things from memory.   This fact makes Luther’s long point-by-point refutation of Latomus more impressive. In so doing, Luther addressed the main theological issues of his nascent Reformation: original sin, good works, faith, law, grace, and the gospel.  When it came to theological truth, Luther asserted that frank, open debate served his opponents more than flattery and may save their souls.  As he wrote earlier in the same text:

“Now I have never insisted that anyone consider me modest or holy, but only that everyone recognize what the gospel is.  If they do this, I give anyone freedom to attack my life to his heart’s content.  My boast is that I have injured no one’s life or reputation, but only sharply reproached, as godless and sacrilegious, those assertions, inventions, and doctrines that are against the Word of God.”**

*Martin Luther, Against Latomus, Luther’s Works 32: 142. [Emphasis added]

**Ibid., 141.

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Mercy in Moderation

In 1534 Martin Luther published a commentary on Psalm 101.  He used this commentary as an opportunity to write a manual for the Christian prince.  In August 1532, John Frederick the Magnanimous became the Electoral Duke of Saxony with the death of his father, John the Steadfast. Luther wrote often about the proper actions of Christian secular leaders and specifically addressed his own rulers often.  Here he explained how a prince must apply mercy and justice: 

“Thus David is also speaking here in courtly or princely terms about mercy and justice, that is, benefit for the pious and punishment for the wicked.  A prince and lord must use both of these.  If there is only mercy and the prince lets everyone milk him and kick him in the teeth and does not punish or become angry, then not only the court but the land, too, will be filled with wicked rascals; all discipline and honor will come to an end.  On the other hand, if there is only anger and punishment or too much of it, then tyranny will result, and the pious will be breathless in their daily fear and anxiety.”*

Here Luther examines how a leader must balance mercy and justice with his subjects.  He states that a prince must punish and display anger in order to properly discipline the people and preserve his land from criminals.  This follows the medieval tradition that a king or ruler must express righteous rage at the criminal actions of his subjects in order to properly rule the kingdom in a godly manner.**  However, according to Luther, if a prince only shows anger this will lead to tyranny and even the good subjects will be afraid.    

“This is also what the heathen say on the basis of daily experience: ‘Strict justice is the greatest injustice.’ The same may also be said of mercy: All mercy is much worse than no mercy at all.  A father cannot do a more unfatherly thing for his child than to spare the rod and let the little child have its own way.  With such stupid affection he is finally ‘raising’ a son for the executioner, who afterwards will have to ‘raise’ him in another way, namely, with a rope on the gallows.  Moderation is good in all things.  To achieve it is an art; indeed, it is a matter of God’s grace.  But because such an ideal can hardly be attained, it is good to try to come the closest to it by giving mercy priority over justice…Where a happy medium cannot be attained, it is better and safer to fall short on this side than on that; that is, too much mercy is better than too much punishment.  One can withdraw and reduce too much mercy; but punishment cannot be taken back, especially when it touches body, life, and limb.”***          

While the Bible formed Luther’s basic ideas, he often appealed to ancient Greco-Roman sources in his commentaries and sermons.  In this section he referred to ancient sayings regarding justice and moderation.  Although he did not identify them here the sources are Cicero and Aristotle.  He quoted Cicero’s De officiis (on duties) about strict justice often.  Apparently it was a Roman proverb as Cicero indicates:

“Injustices can also arise from a kind of trickery, by an extremely cunning but ill intentional interpretation of the law.  In consequence the saying ‘the more Justice, the more injustice’ has be now become a proverb well worn in conversation.  Many wrongs of this type are committed even in public affairs.”****       

Secondly, Luther refers to the concept of moderation and applies it to balancing mercy and justice.  This idea goes back at least to the Oracle at Delphi’s “nothing in excess” and became a central concept in Aristotle’s theory of ethics.  Most refer to it as the golden mean.  Aristotle famously described virtue as “a kind of mean, since, as we have seen, it aims at what is intermediate.”*****     

*Martin Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101, Luther’s Works 13:152-53. [Emphasis added]

**On this topic see Kate McGrath, Royal Rage and the Construction of Anglo-Normal Authority, c.1000-1250 (2019), 109-146.

***Luther, Commentary on Psalm 101, LW 13:153.

****Marcus T. Cicero, On Duties I. 33.  trans. Margaret Atkins (Cambridge 1991), p. 14.

*****Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II. 6. trans. Richard McKeon (New York 1992), p. 361. 

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Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms

On April 14, 1521 Martin Luther wrote the following words in a short letter to Georg Spalatin from Frankfurt-am-Main:

I am coming, my Spalatin, although Satan has done everything to hinder me with more than one disease.  All the way from Eisenach to here I have been sick; I am still sick in a way which previously has been unknown to me.  Of course I realize that the mandate of Charles has also been published to frighten me.  But Christ lives, and we shall enter Worms in spite of all the gates of hell and the powers of in the air.*

Two days later, Martin Luther entered Worms.  The bells of Worms Cathedral announced his arrival and a large crowd welcomed him.  On this two-week journey Luther had preached to overflow crowds in Erfurt, Gotha, and Eisenach.  He did become ill during this journey and was even bled.  In 1520 Luther’s publications had made him a famous man.  However, his writings also led to his excommunication by Pope Leo X in January 1521.

The young Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, agreed to grant Luther a hearing before the Diet of Worms in 1521.  Then, Charles and the diet would decide whether Luther would become an outlaw as a notorious heretic.  Diets consisted of large meetings of the princes of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.  The German princes (both secular and ecclesiastical leaders) guarded their power and often sought to limit the emperor.

The imperial officials summoned Luther to address the gathering in the episcopal palace in Worms on the afternoon of April 17.  On that morning Luther heard an ailing knight’s confession and celebrated communion with him.  When he appeared before the august assembly of the leaders of the imperial estates, Luther did seem intimidated.  The official speaker for Charles V asked if Luther acknowledged a group of his published books and if he desired to retract anything written in them.  Luther recognized the books as his own.  However, he then requested time to consider his answer to avoid “violence to the divine Word and danger to his own soul.”  The imperial court granted Luther one day to consider.

The following day, April 18, around 6 pm, the imperial spokesman again asked Luther to acknowledge his books and if he wished to retract any of his work.   Based upon the record of his speech, it’s clear that Luther had used the extra day to refine his answer and perhaps practice his speech.  First, he acknowledged that he wrote the books and would not retract the theology expressed therein.  Then, Luther explained that his work varied in style and in content.  Some of his books, for example, addressed moral and religious topics with which no one disagreed.  Luther then explained that other books attacked the papal teachings and corruption.  Lastly, he recognized that he had written some books against private individuals and he admitted that he could err.  Luther always wanted to focus on the Holy Scriptures as he explained:

“To see excitement and dissension arise because of the Word of God is to me clearly the most joyful aspect of all in these matters.  For this is the way, the opportunity, and the result of the Word of God, just as He [Christ] said, ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, etc.’ [Matt. 10:34-35].  Therefore, we ought to think how marvelous and terrible is our God in his counsels, lest by chance what is attempted for settling strife grows rather into an intolerable deluge of evils, if we begin by condemning the Word of God.”**

Luther concluded by reminding his hearers that all must fear God and he commended himself to the emperor and the German princes.   It was only then in response to the imperial spokesman’s statement that he should give a simple answer that Luther famously proclaimed:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or to councils alone, since it well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not retract anything since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me. Amen.***

*Martin Luther, Letter 71, Luther’s Works 48: 198.

**Luther at the Diet of Worms, LW 32: 111.

***Ibid., 112-113.  The last sentence in bold print above is in German in the Latin text.

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The Special Function of History

“Now the special function of history, particularly in relation to speeches, is first of all to discover the words actually used, whatever they were, and next to establish the reason why a particular action or argument failed or succeeded.  The mere statement of a fact, though it may excite our interest, is of no benefit to us, but when the knowledge of the cause is added, then the study of history becomes fruitful.  For it is the ability to draw analogies between parallel circumstances of the past and of our own times which enables us to make forecasts as to what is to happen: thus in some cases where a given course of action has failed, we are impelled to take precautions so as to avoid a recurrence, while in others we can deal more confidently with the problems that confront us by repeating a solution which has previously succeeded.  On the other hand, a writer who passes over in silence the speeches which were actually made and the causes of what actually happened and introduces fictitious rhetorical exercises and discursive speeches in their place destroys the peculiar virtue of history.” Polybius, The Histories XII. 25b, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 440.

Polybius wrote a history of the Roman Republic’s rise to becoming the greatest power in the Mediterranean world from 264 to 146 BC.  He was a Greek noble who spent seventeen years as a hostage among the Romans.  In Rome he became close to some of the most powerful Roman leaders including Scipio Aemilianus, who oversaw the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.  Polybius traveled with Scipio to North Africa and most likely Spain also.

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A Virgin Shall Conceive

“Perhaps at the time the angel came, she was holding [the text of] Isaiah in her hands; perhaps she was then studying the prophecy which declares: Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name will be called Emmanuel.* I think that at this moment these [words of the] Scriptures were producing a very appealing conflict in her heart.  I think that when she read that it was to come to pass that a certain virgin would give birth to the Son of God, secretly and with some fear she longed that she might be that virgin. But at the same time she considered herself utterly unworthy of being granted such a privilege.” Aelred of Rievaulx, “Sermon 9: For the Annunciation of the Lord,” in Aelred of Rievaulx: The Liturgical Sermons, trans. Theodore Berkeley and M. Basil Pennington (Kalamazoo 2001), p. 162. [Italics in original]

Aelred of Rievaulx preached on the Annunciation of the Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary here.  As a Cistercian abbot in the twelfth century, Aelred focused on the Incarnation on Christ in his preaching and devotional texts.  Notice how he imagines that Mary was reading the text of Isaiah that prophesied Virgin’s conception and birth of Christ.  Gabriel brings God’s word to Mary but she was also reading text of holy Scripture. Later  medieval artists often depicted Mary as reading this text when Gabriel appeared to her as depicted in the Isenheim Altarpiece painting to the right (Photo taken by Matthew Phillips).  Medieval theologians emphasized Mary’s virtues.  Aelred did not differ as he concluded:

“Charity conflicted with fear, devotion with humility.  At one moment she almost despaired through overwhelming fear; at the next, through the overwhelming desire she drew from it, she could not but hope.  First, devotion moved her to presume to it, but then her great humility moved her to hesitate.  It was then, when she was in this [moment of] hesitation, this wavering, this longing, that the angel came to her and said: Hail, full of grace.”** Ibid.

*Isaiah 7:14

**Luke 1:28

On the development of the devotional tradition of the reading Virgin Mary see Aelred of Rievaulx, “The Origins and Development of the Virgin Mary’s Book at the Annunciation,” Speculum 89.3 (2014): 632-669.

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