Luther on the Crusades

“The popes have never seriously intended to wage war against the Turk; instead they used the Turkish war as a cover for their game and robbed Germany of money by means of indulgences whenever they took the notion….If they had seriously wished to fight the Turk, the pope and the cardinals would have had enough from the pallia, annates, and other unmentionable sources of income so that they would not have needed to practice such extortion and robbery in Germany.” Martin Luther, On War Against the Turk, in Luther’s Works vol. 46, p. 164.

Dr. Luther published this treatise in 1529 to explain his understanding of warfare against the Ottoman Turks.  In 1518 Luther had rejected the promotion of a war against the Turks.  The popes still granted indulgences for wars against the Turks in the sixteenth century.  According to most scholars today, this would make these crusades.  Throughout the 1520s the Ottoman army had advanced steadily north to the outskirts of Vienna.  Luther wrote this work in order to explain how a soldier could justly defend Germany without participating in a crusade.  Luther explains:

“But what motivated me most of all was this: They undertook to fight against the Turk in the name of Christ, and taught and incited men to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ.  This is absolutely contrary to Christ’s doctrine and name….This is the greatest of all sins and is one that no Turk commits, for Christ’s name is used for sin and shame and thus dishonored. This would be especially so if the pope and the bishops were involved in the war, for they would bring the greatest shame and dishonor to Christ’s name because they are called to fight against the devil with the word of God and with prayer, and they would be deserting their calling and office to fight with the sword against flesh and blood.  They are not commanded to do this; it is forbidden.” Ibid., p. 165.

According to Luther, the Christian’s vocation determined how he or she reacted to the Turks.  Popes and priests were to serve in the spiritual office, not the office of military defense.  Luther explained how God had established different offices to fulfill various vocations.  Additionally, popes and priests did not have the right to call for a war.  Luther concluded:

“…if I were a soldier and saw a priest’s banner in the field, or a banner of the cross, even though it was a crucifix, I should run as though the devil were chasing me; even if they won a victory, by God’s decree, I should not take any part in the booty or rejoicing.” Ibid., p. 168.

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