A Brief Introduction to Temporal Authority

By Piotr Malysz

Two kingdoms?

The label “doctrine of the two kingdoms,” often applied to Luther’s views on temporal authority, is somewhat of a misnomer.  The reformer’s views are far more complex and, in actual fact, entail several distinctions, such as that between spiritual and worldly modes of governing, and that between spiritual and worldly kingdoms.  Luther also distinguishes between the kingdom of God and kingdom of the devil — a distinction that cuts through the former two.  What follows is a brief sketch of Luther’s conception of temporal authority.  It is an exposition rather than a critical examination.  The sketch is excerpted, with some changes, from my article “Nemo iudex in causa sua as the Basis of Law, Justice, and Justification in Luther’s Thought,” published in Harvard Theological Review 100:3 (2007), pp. 363-386.

Spiritual and worldly governments

In his 1526 treatise, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, written in the wake of the peasants’ revolt, Luther reiterates the distinction between the spiritual and worldly governments (understood as modes of governing), which he first introduced in his 1523 writing, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Can Be Obeyed.[1] The spiritual government (das geistliche Regiment) employs no coercive power, “but it has the [preached] word, by means of which men are to become good and righteous, so that with this righteousness they may attain eternal life.”[2] Because this righteousness is one of faith, which is in the heart – first, all who are under the spiritual government are equal, “whether they be outwardly male or female, prince or peasant, monk or layman,” and, second, “they do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings can demand.”[3] They live out the Golden Rule in all its loving selflessness.  Consequently, “among Christians there shall and can be no authority; rather all are alike subject to one another.”[4] This harks back to Luther’s dialectical adage from his 1520 treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[5]

However, as Luther observes regretfully, not all people are “real Christians.”[6] The worldly government (das weltliche Regiment) must, therefore, seek to “bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds,”[7] and to this end it is entrusted by God with the coercive power of the sword, “so that those who do not want to be good and righteous to eternal life may be forced to become good and righteous in the eyes of the world.”[8] This government finds its expression not in spontaneous service but in responsibility exacted through various relationships of social and vocational dependence: one is father, child, master, servant, judge, citizen, or subject, etc.  One’s role in these relationships – much as one might be tempted to manipulate them to one’s own advantage – is clearly understood by reason, since, aside from the variety of positive laws pertaining to them, these offices (Ämter) are all founded on natural law: do to others as you would have them do to you.[9] Note that as it now takes the form of positive laws to preserve the structures of society, the Golden Rule is transformed into a transactional and retributive principle: the worldly government operates on the basis of reward and, more often than not, punishment: it pays back what is due.[10]

In sum, righteousness arises either out of faith, whereby it becomes the foundation of a person’s whole being before God and before the world, or is maintained externally by means of the sword.  Still, regardless of their differences, “God himself is the founder, lord, master, protector, and rewarder of both kinds of righteousness. There is no human ordinance or authority in either, but each is a divine thing entirely.”[11] The spiritual and worldly governments are both established by God.[12]

It is not simply because the worldly government is a mode of God’s activity that Christians are to participate in its operation after all.  The motivation is deeper.  To begin with, the spiritual regiment benefits from the existence of the worldly regiment[13] – external peace maintained by temporal authority enables the church to carry out its divine mandate: to call people from outward righteousness to the righteousness of faith, from temporal life to eternal life.  Christians’ participation in the structures of temporal authority assures, therefore, that the preservation of those structures, self-contained as they are, will not become an end in itself.  Luther’s scathing criticism of heavy taxes levied by compassionless, un-Christian, princes, or their attempts to rule over their subjects’ souls is a case in point.[14] More importantly, the Christian life is social and vocational existence par excellence – for this reason Christians cannot refrain from submitting to, and supporting, temporal authority.  It is the unbeliever who is the arch-individualist.  To appreciate the weight of this distinction, we must invoke Luther’s understanding of sin and with it his doctrine of the two kingdoms.

The human being in the spiritual and worldly kingdoms

The central issue underlying Luther’s Reformation breakthrough concerns no less than the identity of the human being – as such, and thus also before God.  Am I simply the sum of my works, as Aristotle would have it?[15] Even more pointedly, do I create myself through my works?  Or do I receive my being – am I justified – from the outside and only as such perform works?[16] For Luther identity can either be received by one, or else the person may, and indeed must, attempt to construct his own identity.  In the former case, what one is, as a creature, is determined by the love of God, who provides for all the needs of body and soul.[17] In the latter case, believing himself to be a free and autonomous shaper of his destiny, the person embarks on a pursuit of sources of security which could underwrite his being and provide him with a bargaining position before God.[18] He defines himself through his actions and commitments.  But, according to Luther, a human being can never be the locus of his own identity.  To believe otherwise means, first, to overlook God’s providential care of his creation, which includes the worldly government.  No work is simply one’s own.  Second, this posture is idolatrous, in that it seeks to influence God through his own gifts, which one has deceitfully ascribed to oneself alone.  Worse still, a blind search for sources of security[19] turns humans into slaves of their own self-justificatory activity, for to refrain from it would be tantamount to allowing one’s being to disintegrate.  Luther describes this enslaving pursuit of self-justification as being turned in on oneself (homo incurvatus in se ipsum) – sin.[20]

Instead of trusting in God, sinners trust in themselves.  Consequently, instead of loving the neighbor, they love themselves.  They are inexorably compelled to direct their works not to the neighbor, but ultimately to themselves.  What this means in practice is that the sinner’s works, however good they may appear, are ultimately only a modality of self-interest: works that appear good to fellow humans and would by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as crimes may, in fact, be mortal sins if they are used to serve one’s selfish goals and God’s agency is not explicitly, humbly and prayerfully recognized in them.[21] Regardless of the appearance, the reality is that, if left to themselves, sinners either abuse their socio-vocational roles or, constrained by the law, discharge their duties disgruntledly, selfishly and without much regard for others.  Small wonder then that “[w]here temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer hypocrisy is inevitable, even though the commandments be God’s very own.”[22] For the reformer, the sinner is the arch-individualist, and that in spite of all his activism.

Works, Luther insists, are by definition social: they are not self-serving but neighbor-serving.  Therefore, it is the Christian, not the self-justifying sinner, who, by allowing God through faith to define his spiritual and worldly identity, is alone free to work for others’ sake – free to love.  Defined by God and open to the neighbor, the Christian exists simultaneously before God (coram deo) and only as such also in the world (coram mundo).  Standing “before God in the Spirit,”[23] with his sins forgiven and his good works forgotten, the “Christian is a person to himself; he believes for himself and for no one else.”[24] All that matters in this kingdom of the Spirit (das geistliche Reich) is the cross of Christ and its re-creative impact upon the justified sinner, who, in turn, boasts only in Christ.  But complementary to this sphere is the kingdom of the world (das weltliche Reich), which is the realm where the Christian serves others, for here he is “not a person to himself, but on behalf of others”[25] – precisely because coram deo he already has God on his behalf.  It is, therefore, on account of their freedom to participate disinterestedly in the kingdom of the world, in the larger human – and not only Christian – community, that believers cannot refrain from involvement with worldly government (note, however, that in principle there is no strict correlation between the kingdom of the world and its actual, temporal, mode of government).  If the Christian were to withdraw from the world and refrain from exercising temporal offices, “he would be acting not as a Christian but even contrary to love; he would also be setting a bad example to others who in like manner would not submit to authority, even though they were not Christians. In this way the gospel would be brought into disrepute, as though it taught insurrection and produced self-willed people unwilling to benefit or serve others, when in fact it makes a Christian the servant of all.”[26] Hence Luther’s admonition that Christians pay taxes and assist the sword by whatever means they can “with body, goods, honor, and soul.”  Though they themselves have no need of temporal authority, its continuance is both beneficial and essential for one’s fellow human beings.[27]

To summarize, Christians’ participation in the socio-vocational structure of society is motivated not only by temporal authority’s divine sanction but, first and foremost, by the law of Christian love.  Freed from debilitating self-justification by the justifying act of God, Christians alone can afford to be selfless and are truly able to love.

[1] A more comprehensive introduction to what has come to be known as Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms and the two governments can be found, e.g., in Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, 43-82; John R. Stephenson, “The Two Governments and the Two Kingdoms in Luther’s Thought,” Scottish Journal of Theology vol. 34:4 (1981), 321-337; W. D. J. Cargill Thompson, The Political Thought of Martin Luther (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984), 36-61; Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. and ed. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 151-159, 314-324.

[2] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:99.

[3] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:88 (emphasis added).

[4] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:117.

[5] LW 31:344.

[6] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:88.

[7] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:92.

[8] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:99.

[9] “This also agrees with the natural law that Christ teaches in Matthew 7, ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them’” (“Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:110-111); “For nature teaches—as does love—that I should do as I would be done by” (“Temporal Authority,” LW 45:127).

[10] “The emperor or prince … should not tolerate useless people, who neither feed nor defend, but only consume, are lazy, and live in idleness, and drive them out of the land” (“Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:128); “the kingdom of the world, which is nothing else than the servant of God’s wrath upon the wicked and is a real precursor of hell and everlasting death, should not be merciful, but strict, severe, and wrathful in fulfilling its work and duty. Its tool is … a naked sword; and a sword is a symbol of wrath, severity, and punishment. It is turned only against the wicked, to hold them in check and keep them at peace, and to protect and save the righteous” (“An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants” [1525], LW 46:70).

[11] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:100.  Cf. “the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments” (96).

[12] Antti Raunio notes correctly, contra Althaus, that Luther’s concept of the law involves no dualism, as if there were two Golden Rules, one self-interestedly and coercively reciprocal, applicable to unbelievers, and the other, motivated by love, pertaining to Christians.  Both the spiritual and worldly governments proceed from God’s love and seek nothing but a loving response.  What Raunio seems to overlook, however, is that the Golden Rule, when translated into the worldly government’s legal system, inevitably becomes transactional and prohibitive in character.  With no dualism involved, this transformation shows only that ultimately love cannot be legislated, as evidenced by Christians, who “do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings can demand” (see n. 13).  I shall speak to this in more detail below.  See Antti Raunio, “Natural Law and Faith: The Forgotten Foundations of Ethics in Luther’s Theology,” Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson (eds.), Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 96-124.

[13] “the temporal power is but a very small matter in the sight of God, and too slightly regarded by him for us to resist, disobey, or become quarrelsome on its account, no matter whether the state does right or wrong. But on the other hand the spiritual power is an exceedingly great blessing and much too precious in his sight for the very least of Christian men to suffer silently when it deviates one hairsbreadth from its proper function” (“Treatise on Good Works” [1520], LW 44:93).

[14] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:104, 105.

[15] Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1103b.

[16] As a Christian, “[a] doer does not get this name on the basis of works that have been performed; he gets it on the basis of works that are to be performed.  For Christians do not become righteous by doing righteous works; but once they have been justified by faith in Christ, they do righteous works.  In civil life the situation is different; here one becomes a doer on the basis of deeds, just as one becomes a lutenist by often playing the lute, as Aristotle says.  But in theology one does not become a doer on the basis of works of the Law; first there must be the doer, and then the deeds follow” (“Lectures on Galatians” [1535], LW 26:256).

[17] Cf. Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” [II.2], The Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 345.

[18] “human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything”; “Scripture … represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive” (“De Servo Arbitrio” [1525], LW 33:121, 130).

[19] Cf. Martin Luther, “Large Catechism” I.2.

[20] Cf. “Lectures on Romans” (1515-16), LW 25:291, 313, 345.

[21] “Heidelberg Disputation” (1518), [esp. Theses 3, 5, 7], LW 31:43ff.

[22] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:92.

[23] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:104.

[24] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:122.

[25] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:122.  In this particular context, Luther is speaking of the princes.

[26] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:94.

[27] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:95.


Theological Fragments: The Reformation’s lex

“The Reformation understood theology as critical reflection interior to the church’s mission of proclamation. Thus the Reformation’s claim can be summarized by a parody of the catholic formula: lex proclamandi lex credendi, “the law of proclaiming is the law of believing.” Theology is to take for its rule the specific character by which the gospel is the gospel and not some other sort of discourse; theology must be thinking that guards the proclamation in this authenticity.

“…Surely both formulas are needed (lex orandi lex credendi and lex proclamandi lex credendi). When the Reformation’s rule from proclamation is not followed, theology slips from its assignment. When the catholic rule from prayer is not followed, theology slips from its object, for it is in the church’s prayer and praise, in their verbal form and in the obtrusively embodied forms called sacrifice, that the church’s discourse turns and fastens itself to God as its object.”

–Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology Volume 1: The Triune God, 13-14

Lutheranism and Tradition

Reception of Doctrine as a Methodological Issue in Early Lutheranism

Piotr J. Malysz

(The following is an excerpt from a much larger article dealing with the question of doctrinal reception in Lutheranism.  The footnotes and some of the references have been omitted here.)

1. Practice and doctrine

In the writings of the sixteenth-century Lutherans, terms denoting reception appear in two sharply distinguished, though interrelated, senses: a passive and an active one.  In the first sense, they refer to the material dimension of reception, namely, that which is received.  In this sense, reception generally connotes restoration and is regarded in an overwhelmingly positive manner.  Although a further distinction is made here between the content of the faith and ecclesiastical practice, both are considered from the perspective of their point of origin: that which is eventually received is always evaluated in terms of what was first passed on.  Apostolic belief and practice, as expressed in the Scriptures, are uniformly privileged – but this is done in different ways.

Since much of the early Lutheran protest centred on practical abuses (indulgences, the trade in private masses, fasts, monastic vows, etc.), let us look at the reception of practice first.  For example, defending the Lutherans’ restoration of the Mass under both kinds to the laity, Melanchthon shows that that was what Paul received (accepisse) from Jesus and what he then passed on (Ap XXII.3).  Usually words such as command (mandatum) or testimony (testimonium) are employed to designate this material terminus a quo of reception.  The absence of explicit scriptural mandate does not necessarily disqualify a practice.  Apostolic practices did become more elaborate, while new practices were introduced, in the course of the church’s history.  Melanchthon is at pains to emphasise that the Lutherans “cherish the useful and ancient ordinances, especially when they contain a discipline by which it is profitable to educate and teach common folk and ignorant” (Ap VII/VIII.33).

It is at this point that doctrine is brought into the equation.  The Lutheran protest against practical abuses quickly escalated into full-fledged doctrinal controversy.  Practice, though distinct from doctrine, is never isolated from doctrine – practices can either promote the gospel or obscure it.  Therefore, what disqualifies a non-scriptural practice (e.g., masses for the dead) is when its attendant beliefs (purgatory) are, in the words of Luther, “against the chief article that Christ alone (and not human works) is to help souls.”  All this means that, while humans may, and indeed will need to, institute rites and practices (provided they do not obscure the gospel), no human may establish articles of faith, not even “on the basis of the holy Fathers’ works or words” if they lack scriptural support (Smalcald Articles II.II.12-13).  The content of the faith must remain invariant, the same at any point of its transmission as at the terminus a quo.

By the time of the Formula of Concord, this understanding of doctrine will become enshrined in the elevation of the scriptures to the status of “the only true guiding principle, according to which all teachers and teaching [and, by extension, practices] are to be judged and evaluated.”  Interestingly, other than this brief remark in the Formula’s preface, none of the Lutheran confessions devotes a separate article to Holy Scripture.  This will change within a generation.  Theologians, such as Johann Gerhard (1582-1637) in his monumental Loci communes theologici, will feel compelled to develop a complex doctrine of the perfection of Holy Writ, which, as “the Word of God … reduced to writing in accordance with his will” (Gerhard 1:502), must be both clear and exhaustive in all matters pertaining to salvation.  On the basis of Scripture’s perfection, Gerhard can then argue, on the one hand, for the necessary presence of vowel pointing in the original Hebrew text, and, on the other, against any “unwritten traditions,” by which he understands doctrines without scriptural mandate.

2. The process of transmission

Besides beliefs and practices, the Lutherans employed the term reception also to designate the transmission process.  In contrast to the material sense, the term’s emotive value in this second sense is highly ambiguous.  On the one hand, it was through the much-vilified Church of Rome that the Lutherans “received [haben wir freilich alles vom Bapst] … the true holy Scriptures, true baptism, the true sacrament of the altar, the true keys to the forgiveness of sins, the true office of the ministry, the true catechism in the form of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the articles of the creed,” as Luther admits in his treatise Concerning Rebaptism (1528), “indeed everything that is Christian and good is to be found [under the Papacy] and has come to us from this source” (LW 40:231-32).  On the other hand, these realities, the Lutherans insisted, had become obscured through numerous additional practices and opinions which the papal church had illicitly made into laws and articles of faith.  For this reason, Luther can also maintain, in Against Hanswurst (1541), that both the Papacy and the Lutheran churches derive from the ancient church, in that they both share the same true articles of faith and apostolic practices.  With this material aspect of reception in mind, he then adds: “we have received [empfangen] everything from the church before you (not from you),” and accuses the Papacy of perverting this common heritage and thus becoming an “erring, apostate, whorelike church” (LW 41:207).

The ambivalence with which the Lutherans viewed the transmission process was further complicated by the frequent attacks of their Papist opponents, who claimed that the Lutheran doctrines were innovations without precedent in the church’s teaching.  Faced with this charge, the Lutherans sought to establish their credentials as the true church by taking a more positive approach to the witness of the church’s tradition.  In the Bondage of the Will (1525), Luther declared emphatically, “The authority of the Fathers is of no consequence … for Christ is a higher authority than the Fathers” (LW 33:58, translation altered).  A decade later, in On the Councils and the Church (1539), he presents a more nuanced argument.  First of all, he emphasises that the fathers were all students of Scripture, and that no single father was able to exhaust the richness of the Scriptures and give an account of the entirety of Christian doctrine contained therein (although Augustine did come close).  In support Luther cites Augustine’s statement from De Trinitate that his writings are not to be regarded in the same manner as the Scriptures.  Second, the fathers frequently contradict each other and cannot, therefore, be appealed to without first and foremost being subjected to scriptural scrutiny.  In this connection, Luther claims that he actually knows the fathers better than his papal opponents who are “woefully at variance … with the will of the councils and the fathers” (LW 41:14).  He does admit that both the parties cull from the fathers’ writings what is convenient to them but maintains that, whereas the papists do so unscripturally to enhance papal power, the Lutherans use the fathers as that which they intended to be, namely, witnesses to the gospel, and in the way they intended to be used, that is, in conjunction with Scripture.  This becomes the general principle underlying the Lutheran approach to the fathers.  In On the Councils Luther points to Cyprian as an example of both scriptural and counter-scriptural teaching. Similarly, Melanchthon, even though he regards Augustine as the best of the fathers, can criticise Augustine for holding that faith is internal renovation rather than apprehension of Christ.  These criticisms appear not only in private correspondence (WA Br 6:99-100, cited together with Luther’s postscript) but also in Melanchthon’s Preface to the 1545 edition of Augustine’s De spiritu et littera (CR 5:803-10).

In addition, as early as the first edition of his Loci (1521), Melanchthon assumes, as a rule of thumb, that “the more recent an author is, the less Scriptural he is.”  He then explains, “Christian doctrine has degenerated into Scholastic trifling, and one does not know whether it is more godless than it is stupid” (19-20).  This loose observation was by mid-16th century developed, by Matthias Flacius (1520-75), into a historiographic methodology and eventually took shape in the form of the Magdeburg Centuries, a monumental but unfinished history of Christianity, documenting, century by century, the slow decline of the church before Luther’s protest.  This is not to imply that the Lutherans had nothing good to say about more recent theologians.  Luther’s attitude to Thomas Aquinas was by no means entirely negative (Janz 1989); and throughout his life he remained deeply appreciative of Bernard of Clairvaux, to whom he referred affectionately as “Pater Bernhardus” (LW 22:388; cf. Posset 1999: 59).

3. Reclaiming the church’s witness

But Luther and his colleagues came to believe that the fathers were useful not merely as an inventory of proof-texts, either illustrating the papacy’s apostasy, or indicating that the Lutheran doctrines were not new but rather the old doctrines brought back to light.  The fathers were also useful as examples of piety.  Towards this end, in 1544, the Lutherans published an edition of the medieval classic, Vitae patrum, but with parts extolling monastic life or contrary to the Lutheran emphasis on justification carefully expurgated.  For this edition Luther himself provided a preface (WA 54:109-111).

Last but not least, this appreciation – both externally necessitated and internally reclaimed – for the value of patristic witness was increased further by the rise of more radical church- and society- reforming programmes.  Of importance here are not only the theologies of the other magisterial reformers, but especially the programmes put forth by the Anabaptists and various anti-Trinitarian movements.  It was with those in mind that Luther observed: “heretics always like to boast of possessing Scripture” (LW 41:45).  And though his response to Karlstad’s and Zwingli’s views of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper was fundamentally scripture-based, he found it necessary also implicitly to invoke the church’s condemnation of Arius and Sabellius (Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525; LW 40:197), as well as Nestorius (Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528; LW 37:212; cf. 41:105).  The Augsburg Confession is more explicit.  Besides Pelagianism, of which the Lutherans routinely accused their Roman adversaries (II), and Manichaeism, with which they were in turn charged by their papal opponents, it denounces the heresies of “the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Mohammedans, and all others like them; also the Samosatenians, old and new” (I), Donatists (VIII), as well as the explicitly mentioned Anabaptists (V, IX).  In addition to rejecting all manners of heresy, Melanchthon invokes the magnus consensus of the church  and, referring to the substantial presence of Christ’s body and blood with the bread and the wine, goes on to state in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (X): “we defend the position received in the entire church [receptam in tota ecclesia].”

The Lutherans were, of course, not unaware of the danger.  Luther, for his part, warned against indiscriminate appeals to the church: “whenever the pope does not have the authority of the Scriptures on his side, he always uses this same argument against us: ‘The church’” (Lectures on Galatians, 1531; LW 26:15).  Although in the early days of his reformatorial career, Luther did several times appeal for vindication to a General Council, at the Leipzig debate with Johannes Eck (1519) he was cornered by his outspoken opponent into admitting that even councils could err.  He maintained this view for the rest of his life, which, as far as he was concerned, rendered the conciliar argument for a council’s canonical authority or hierarchical dignity (over against the pope’s) as ultimately of no consequence.  No council was authorised to make articles of faith anyway; those were established by Scripture alone.  Interesting in this light is, therefore, the mature Luther’s appeal to the fides catholica in his Disputatio de divinitate et humanitate Christi (1540/43; WA 39II:92-121).   In this polemic against Caspar von Schwenckfeld’s docetic monophysitism, Luther notes that Scripture does not always speak in the most fortuitous and helpful way.  As an example he cites the Johanine “The Word was made flesh.”  “In our judgment,” he comments, “it would have been better said, ‘The Word was incarnate,’ or ‘made fleshly.’”  He then goes on to insist that true understanding of Scripture lies not in the words, that is, in their sense necessitated by the grammar, but one must rather interpret the Scriptures “according to theology.”  Luther concludes the theses by asserting: “This is what it means to be a heretic: one who understands the Scriptures otherwise than the Holy Spirit demands.”  What he means by that is not some individual enlightenment but precisely the catholic faith which he invoked in the first thesis.

4. Developments

As can be seen, the process of doctrinal reception under the papacy was not a problem that the early Lutherans simply critiqued and then managed to overcome (as was their hope).  Rather, by the 1540s, their initial ambivalence had been transformed into a methodological problem internal to Lutheran theology – an insoluble tension between, on the one hand, the sufficiency and clarity of Holy Writ and, on the other, the continuing necessity of appealing to, and for this purpose also circumscribing, the catholic faith.  In his treatise, De Ecclesia et autoritate verbi Dei (1539/40; Romans 1992: 239-84), Melanchthon laid the groundwork for all subsequent attempts to overcome this tension.  He notes that the authority of the church extends only as far as teaching and admonishing.  And whenever it is invoked, “one must ask whether [the doctrine under consideration] was the consensus of the true church, agreeing with the Word of God.”  He spells out what he means by that when he puts forth the requirement that dogmas necessary for salvation must have been present in the teaching of the apostles.  Later doctrinal formulations must not only agree with this “divine voice” but also do so “simply and without sophistry.”  In closing Melanchthon reflects quite optimistically on the Lutherans’ own teaching: “it is beyond doubt that the kind of doctrine which we profess is truly the consensus of the catholic church of Christ, as the symbols, the saner synods, and the more learned fathers show.”  Melanchthon’s attempt was continued by his student Martin Chemnitz (1522-86) in his exhaustive Examination of the Council of Trent.  In this work Chemnitz develops a complex typology of ecclesiastical traditions.  He warns, on the one hand, against mistaking “antiquity of error and the multitude of the erring” for an indication of truth (1:219).  On the other hand, he appeals to “the consensus of the true, learned, and purer antiquity,” noting that “no dogma that is new in the churches and in conflict with all of antiquity should be accepted” (1:256-57).  All of these procedures are inevitably tainted with a degree of arbitrariness and circularity.  For this reason, the insistence of subsequent generations on the perfection of Scripture, and later on its inerrancy, can also be seen as an attempt to deal with the tension between Scripture and the growing role of the church’s tradition in its proper interpretation.  Especially in the face of attempts to treat the Bible as (also) a human document (nascent historical criticism), but also vis-à-vis those readings that saw the message of the Bible as from the beginning perverted by the institutional church (anti-Trinitarians) – tradition became increasingly indispensable.  To assert the Scriptures’ perfection and inerrancy was one method of coming to terms with that development, while remaining ostensibly faithful to scriptural sufficiency and clarity.  Still, in their flight from what would be seen as Catholicizing, the Lutherans ended up sharing their commitment to inerrancy with many of the groups which they wanted to place squarely in the heretical camp.

Copyright © 2009 by Piotr J. Malysz