Saturday, February 21, 2015

Luther: Wherever the princes take their power from, it does not regard us. It is the will of God, irrespective whether they have stolen their power or assumed it by robbery

A few years back I did an extensive series of blog entries looking at Luther quotes presented in the web page Luther, Exposing the Myth. Going through my Blogger drafts, I recalled that of the 50+ quotes, there was only one I was not able to track down.

Under the heading "Social Justice," Luther Exposing the Myth states:

“Wherever the princes take their power from, it does not regard us. It is the will of God, irrespective whether they have stolen their power or assumed it by robbery”[Weimar Vol. 30, Pg. 1].

Luther Exposing the Myth says their stated purpose is to show that "from Luther’s own words we shall see him for what he really was, that is a rebellious apostate, who abandoned the faith and led many into apostasy from God under the guise of “reformation” in order to follow his perverse inclinations." With this quote, they attempt to show Christ taught one should thirst after justice, while Luther believed rulers had their authority by God's will, even if that power was taken by unjust means. The implicit argument is that secular authority is to be obeyed at all costs because they have been placed in power by God. This is a caricature of Luther's views on secular authority missing the nuances, as well as not taking into account Luther's career-long appeals to Romans 13.

Luther, Exposing the Myth cites "Weimar Vol. 30, Pg. 1". The first bit of trouble this documentation has is that WA 30 comprises three separate volumes: WA 30 1 (catechism sermons, 1528-1529), WA 30 2 (writings 1529/30), WA 30 3 (writings, 1529/32). Which one is Luther, exposing the Myth referring to?  The second bit of trouble this documentation has is that the quote in question does not appear on page 1 in any of these volumes (WA 30,1:1; WA 30,2:1; WA 30,3:1). The actual source utilized was probably the secondary source, Martin Luther, Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor by Peter Wiener. After doing a number of searches, I've not found any author before Weiner using this quote in this form. Wiener states,
Over and over again he returns to this favoured subject, that there are two moralities; the one in which we are faithful Christians and which regards merely our spiritual life, and the other which we adopt as citizens and where we owe obedience to the secular power.
The secular power has to be blindly obeyed by the citizens. It is God's will that there are rulers and princes in order to see that these secular laws are obeyed. The princes are the gods upon earth. “Wherever the princes take their power from, it does not regard us. It is the will of God, irrespective whether they have stolen their power or assumed it by robbery” (W30, 1). “If anybody has the might, he obtained it from God. Therefore he has also the right.” It is strange to notice that more than once Luther—not Bismarck!—uses the term “Might is Right”.
Nobody has a right ever to oppose this secular power. “Even if the authorities are wicked and unjust, nobody is entitled to oppose them, or to riot against them.” The people, the mass of the people have no rights whatsoever. “The ass must have blows and the people must be ruled by force. God knew this well, for it was not a fox's brush He gave to rulers, but a sword.” “Even though the authorities act unjustly, God wills that they should be obeyed without deceit . . . for to suffer unjustly harms no man's soul; indeed it is profitable to it.”
As stated above, this was the only quote from Luther, Exposing the Myth in which I could not locate the specific context. Weiner's documentation in his book is notoriously spurious [See Gordon Rupp's response, Martin Luther, Hitler's Cause or Cure, in reply to Peter F. Wiener (London: Lutterworth, 1945), p.10]. Weiner claims to "guarantee that before going to press I have carefully checked all quotations." In fairness, perhaps "W30,1" was a publishers typo.  Weiner admits to only reading some of Luther's writings, "his most important works," and also notes reliance on secondary sources. After going through a number of his citations, I would conclude that the majority of Weiner's references were taken from hostile secondary sources.

With that caveat, I offer the following as a possible source: To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520) [LW 44:115-218; WA 6, (381 404-469]. If Weiner actually was citing Luther directly,  it would be consistent with his claim of utilizing Luther's "most important works."  Luther states,
Since the empire has been given us by the providence of God as well as by the plotting of evil men, without any guilt on our part, I would not advise that we give it up, but rather that we rule it wisely and in the fear of God, as long as it pleases him for us to rule it. For, as has been said already, it does not matter to him where an empire comes from; his will is that it be governed. Though the popes were wrong in taking it from others, we were not wrong in receiving it. It has been given us through evil men by the will of God: it is the will of God we have regard for rather than the wicked intentions of the popes. Their intention when they gave it to us was to be emperors, indeed, more than emperors, and only to fool and mock us with the title. The king of Babylon also seized his kingdom by robbery and violence. Yet it was God’s will that that kingdom be ruled by the holy princes Daniel, Hananiah, Azariah, and Michael. Much more, then, is it God’s will that this empire should be ruled by the Christian princes of Germany, no matter whether the pope stole it, got it by force, or established it fresh. It is all God’s ordering, which came about before we knew about it. [LW 44:210]

Granted, this paragraph  from LW 44 doesn't have the exact structure of the quote under scrutiny, but all the elements are there. Perhaps at some point in the future the exact source for Weiner's quote  will emerge. Till his source is located, it may be the case he took this quote from a secondary source that may have been summarizing Luther's view from WA 6 (LW 44).

Regardless of the documentation tedium, Weiner does not to take into account that the church and her theologians have had to contend with Romans 13:1-7,
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. 3 For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. 7 Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.
Christians of all generations have wrestled with this text. This passage (along with Titus 3:1 and 1 Peter 2:13-14) is not simply an apostolic suggestion.  If one searches Luther's writings, he appealed to this text often. Yes, it's true Luther said rulers come to power by the will of God, and if this is so, some of those rulers have come to power by nefarious means. For a Christian, there's nothing mythical to be exposed about this. Luther, Exposing the Myth did nothing more than prove they're unaware of Romans 13.

The caricature also comes in when the nuances of Luther's views are missed. Yes, Luther said to be obedient to bad government. But it wasn't left at that.  In a sermon on John 19:11 he says to tolerate injustice from bad government, but to not be silent about it (LW 69:236-237). One need only read through Luther's writings in regard to the peasant's revolt to see that Luther criticized the secular authorities. Even a less tolerant biographer has commented,
Luther's treatise on secular authority shows that he was anything but passive before princes. He railed against their evils and foibles. He always stood ready to assault not only the Duke Georges of the world but also his own successive princes in Wittenberg when they did things- such as raising taxes— that he regarded as immoral and unjust. Yet these protests remained individual and pastoral, and Luther never saw himself as the leader of a rebellion that might organize itself politically to force a government to accede to its wishes. The Christian minister should speak out and be willing to suffer for his opinions, trusting that God was sovereign. Always Luther remained fixed on the admonition of Jesus in John 18:36, "My kingdom is not of this world" [Richard Marius, The Christian Between God and Death (Massachusetts: The Belknap Press, 1999), p. 370]
There were also situations in which Luther said rulers legislating against the authority of God can be resisted and a Christian is not obliged to obey their contrary commands (WA 52:533). Eric Gritsch has stated that "Although Luther has been depicted as a staunch defender of the political status quo, if not a 'princely hireling,' there is sufficient evidence to show he did exercise and teach what has been called 'the right to resist secular government' (Widerstandscrecht)" [Martin- God's Court Jester, Luther in Retrospect (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 124]. Gritsch then presents a number of historical examples from Luther's life, like when Luther disobeyed orders to stay in hiding at the Wartburg.

In the Church Postil he preached,
But what if they would take the Gospel from us or forbid us to preach it? Then you are to say: The Gospel and Word of God. I will not give up to you. This is not within your power, for your rule is a temporal rule, over worldly matters; but the Gospel is a spiritual, heavenly treasure, and therefore your authority does not extend over the Gospel and God's Word. We recognize the emperor as a master of temporal affairs, not of God's Word; this we shall not suffer to be torn from us, for it is the power of God, Rom. 1, 16, against which not even the gates of hell shall prevail. [The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 3 (Michigan: Baker Books, 2000, 305].
For a  helpful compilation of quotes from Luther demonstrating the complexity of his view, see the entry, "Government" in What Luther Says by Ewald Plass. Plass presents almost thirty pages of citations from Luther. From there, one could venture out to find the primary sources cited by Plass and then evaluate the opinions of various biographers (most basic biographies of Luther present his view of secular authority).

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