Luther - Spiritual and Temporal Authority

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The focus of this reading set was Luther’s works discussing the relationship between spiritual and temporal authority.  Within this set of readings, Luther defines the relationship between the Pope, councils, temporal authority, and individual Christians.  First in his Address to the German Nobility, Luther espouses that the spiritual authorities must submit to the temporal authorities.  After exalting the temporal authorities’ rights over the spiritual authority, Luther then elaborates on the Biblical basis for temporal authority and explains when a believer must submit to temporal authority.  (This explanation may also be in light of Luther’s failure to submit to temporal authority himself.)  Finally in a rather bitter and strongly worded address Luther deals specifically with the authority of the pope as the ultimate spiritual authority in his address against the Roman Papacy, “an institution of the devil.”

Key to Luther’s arguments in these writings is the priesthood of all believers, which is used to demonstrate the equality of all believers, and to flatten the authoritative structure within the church.  It equates temporal and spiritual leadership, emphasizes the liberty and authority of individual Christians and eliminates any monopoly held by the Pope.  Luther’s understanding of church and state authorities, and their separation is a fundamental understanding held in modern day government.  A number of key modern understandings can be derived from this work, and were unique at the time of their writing.  One issue which Luther did not deal with, however, is elaborating the basis for temporal authority outside of Christendom.

In his Address to the German Nobility, Luther is primarily concerned with the authority of the German nobility over the leaders of the Roman church, and the ability of the German nobility to intervene in the ecclesial affairs of the reformation.  Luther postulates that the authority of the papacy is held in place by three “walls.”  First, the Pope declares that the spiritual authority is above the temporal authority and therefore the temporal authority has no jurisdiction over them.  Secondly, that the Pope has the unique ability to interpret scriptures, which removes the power over others to interpret scripture against the papacy.  Thirdly, that only the pope can summon a council, and therefore a council cannot be summoned to sanction a pope.  Essentially all three walls are brought down through Luther’s priesthood of all believers and its elimination of spiritual classes.

The first wall, and subsequently the second and third, rely upon a belief of spiritual classes and superiority.  In particular it relies on the belief that the pope is a spiritually superior to other Christians, and in particular, those who are not priests.  The obvious logic is that if the pope is the ultimate spiritual authority then ultimately the Pope has authority over all spiritual and temporal rulers.  Luther addresses this spiritual classification through the priesthood of all believers.  All Christians, Luther writes, share “one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians alike; for baptism, gospel, and faith alone make us spiritual and a Christian people.[1] In baptism we are all priests, “we are all consecrated priests through baptism.”  In this baptism all are consecrated as priests, and therefore have the same power; there is no spiritual superiority in baptism.  This is not to eliminate authority all together, but is to say that the Pope, as a person, has no spiritual superiority over any baptized member of the Church – whether prince, emperor or peasant.  Since all Christians are of the same class, and there is no spiritual superiority, the “spiritual authorities” of the Church must submit to the jurisdiction of the temporal authorities the same as anyone else within the jurisdiction.

The second “wall” holding up the supremacy of the pope is the claim to the unique ability to interpret scripture.  Luther argues that if all are consecrated as priests in baptism, then all have the ability and duty to interpret scriptures.  The third “wall”, that of the pope’s unique ability to call a council, similarly falls since all Christians have the same ability to call a council, and all have the duty to do so if the pope is offensive to Christianity.  After removing these three walls, the “supreme authority” of the pope falls.  In removing this papal authority, and elevating the temporal authority, Luther is giving the German nobility both the right and the responsibility to intervene in issues of the Church both as temporal authorities and fellow Christians.

After elevating the temporal authority through the priesthood of all believers, Luther removes the exemption of the church from it.  While his Address to the German Nobility is directed at temporal authority  to exert its authority over the church, the work on temporal authority attempts to provide a basis for temporal leadership and to what extent it should be obeyed.  Certainly this letter was at least in partial response, and in justification of, Luther’s refusal to obey orders of the emperor after himself saying that spiritual leaders must submit to temporal authorities.

Luther states that true Christians do not have a need for temporal authority, and can rule themselves with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  While affirming this, Luther states that there will never be a time when everyone is a true Christian, and therefore we will always need temporal authority.  Luther divides the world (the children of Adam) into those who belong to the kingdom of God, and those who belong to the kingdom of the world.  Likewise, he divides the individual between the inner being and the outer being.  Each of these divisions corresponds to an authority.  The kingdom of the world, responds to the temporal authority, whose purpose is to prevent evil deeds.  The kingdom of God responds to the spiritual authority, whose purpose is to bring peace.  Likewise the outer being is ruled by the temporal government and the inner being by the spiritual.

The inner being, and the area outside the domain of the temporal government, consists of faith and conscience.  This inner being is ruled by the spiritual authority, however as previously discussed the spiritual authority is not the pope.  The spiritual authority is the body of believers who must submit to one another.  Therefore Luther as a freedom of conscience and is not required to obey the excommunication of the pope, or the demands of the emperor.  The emperor is essentially out of place in ruling matters of faith and conscience, which are therefore submitted to the authority of the body of believers.

Luther finishes the tract with advice to the Christian ruler and prince.  Luther writes that their job to remain as both prince and Christian is not impossible, but difficult.  Their duty is fourfold, “First, toward God there must be true confidence and earnest prayer; second, toward his subjects there must be love and Christian service; third, with respect to his counselors and officials he must maintain an untrammeled reason and unfettered judgment; fourth, with respect to evildoers he must manifest a restrained severity and firmness. [2]

Twenty five years after the writing of the letter to the German Nobility, Luther writes a tract against the pope himself once again asserting the same limitations of the pope as espoused earlier.  Luther rejects that the pope is supreme “lord over all” and that no one can dispose of the pope.  Luther reminds the reader that the first popes were nothing more than the bishops of Rome, which were initially not considered a universal bishop over the entire church.  These early Popes were also confirmed by the emperors, a practice later reversed to the popes exhorting their power over the emperors by demanding that the emperor confirmed by the pope.

Furthermore, Luther suggests that the unique claim of the Roman church to be God’s instrument of salvation, the Noah’s ark of salvation, makes a mockery of the preaching and founding of churches by Peter, the other Apostles and by Paul.  The uniqueness and authority ascribed to the pope through Peter relies upon the assumption that the church in Rome is the only direct successor to Peter’s line of authority.  It also assumes that Christ’s statement “Feed my lambs” in John 21:15 is directed only to Peter and not to the other disciples.  Luther makes the connection that it is both inaccurate to assume that Peter only founded the Roman church, and that the other disciples and Paul did not have a spiritual authority equal to that of Peter.  Luther writes that, “The logical conclusion of the uniqueness of St. Peter would be the invalidity of the work of the other apostles…  We have heard above that even if St. Peter alone had been ordered to pasture all the sheep of Christ—which is not so, and is impossible, for we must not let the other apostles, especially St. Paul, be mice- or lice-herders just because of the pope’s farts and decretals.[3]

Through these three tracts Luther has removed the absolute authority of the pope over both the spiritual and the temporal realms.  While the pope may be a leader, he has no spiritual superiority and is therefore subject not only to temporal authorities and councils, but also to individual Christians.  This newfound authority of the individual, consecrated as a priest in baptism, comes with the responsibility of a faithful interpretation of scripture and supervision of the spiritual leaders.

These changes, unique and drastic at the time of their writing, have had a dramatic impact on the modern church and society and undoubtedly impacted the progress of the Reformation.  Prior to these writings the general belief granted the pope spiritual authority over individuals and the nobility.  This was combined with the belief that the pope had the power to “bind and loose”, essentially meaning that the pope had the power to decide whether one’s eternal destination.  Just as Luther had earlier removed the value of the indulgences, in these tracts he removes the danger of the excommunication.  Luther is famously known for challenging the pope himself with his own excommunication writing to the pope, “And as they excommunicated me for the sacrilege of heresy, so I excommunicate them in the name of the sacred truth of God.  Christ will judge whose excommunication will stand.[4]  With the completion of the earliest of these tracts Luther had effectively undermined the Pope’s authority to control individual believers and the German nobility.  Luther had freed believers from the spiritual grips of the Pope, freeing them to participate in the Reformation without fear of eternal consequences.

Luther’s divisions of the kingdoms, and division of the inner and outer beings, have played an obvious role in modern beliefs.  First, the division between temporal and spiritual governance is generally recognized as the fundamental separation of Church and state.  At the time of Luther’s writings this was a unique and drastic change in the accepted coordination between the pope and the emperor during Christendom.  Furthermore, Luther wrote of the freedom of faith and conscience from temporal authority, which in modern times is accepted as a fundamental human right.  Finally, one can also talk about the contemporary tend to separate one’s private and personal life, and the separation between one’s religious life (life in God’s kingdom) from their secular life (in the kingdom of the world.)  These separations have lead to compartmentalization of religion within the private and public spheres.  In the private sphere one may talk about their work as being independent of their character, such as the separation of reflection of former President Clinton’s moral failures from his successes as a public leader.  In the public sphere religion is very guarded and compartmentalized – kept in its proper place of Sunday morning and guarded from the “world’s kingdom” of work.  While this type of compartmentalization was certainly not what Luther had in mind, and may stretch the reach of his understanding too far, one can definitely see how this understanding may have evolved from the seed that Luther has planted.

In regards to Luther’s discussion of temporal authority and to the extent it should be obeyed one cannot overlook the context in which this tract was written.  While Luther was aware that the world is not comprised of all Christians, he does seem to assume that the nobility are and will be Christians.  His tract contains insightful and provoking suggestions for a Christian leader that still apply today.  However it is unclear how his advice for a Christian to follow this temporal leadership would change given the proliferation of non-Christian leaders.  Does one still respect and follow the leadership of the temporal authority?  How does one know if the authority is divinely placed?  When is the appropriate time for civil disobedience or removal of an unjust authority?  This happens to be a particular struggle for many Christians in Bolivia where there has been a long standing tradition of having a Catholic president in the country.  Having elected a president who follows traditional indigenous beliefs, include sacrifices to the Incan gods, how does a Christian citizen respond to their temporal leadership who does not respect their Christian beliefs?

While Luther is able to dismantle a spiritual caste system of the pope, the priesthood of all believers, and the privileges of this individual power must be kept in balance with the unity of the Church.  One cannot help to notice the number of divisions within the Protestant church since the time of the Reformation.  The emphasis on the individual ability to interpret scripture has tended to lead the Protestant church to division when there is a lack of discipline and respect for spiritual governance in determining healthy doctrine.  This “freedom” that Luther has given to Christians, has also become a freedom for heresy.  When one group of believers has a doctrine that is believed to be heretical or unhealthy by another group of believers, this has tended to lead to the formation of yet another denomination or church within the larger body of Protestants.  While Luther himself rejects the idea of a spiritual authority, he does not reject the idea of spiritual authority and submission by a body of believers.  But who defines this body?  When there is a disagreement how do two sets of equals determine who is correct?  How does one reprimand the spreading of an unhealthy doctrine?

Luther’s tracts on spiritual and temporal authority have called for a due amount of submission by the Pope to councils and to the larger Christian body.  Luther has given freedom of religion and thought believers, and given guidance to Christian leaders.  How has the church arrived at such a fragmented state?  Has Luther swung the pendulum too far to the individual, or have liberties been taken without consideration to their corresponding responsibilities to the unity of the Church and to the submission of a body of believers.  Luther himself asks, “What kind of authority can there be where all are equal and have the same right, power, possession, and honor, and where no one desires to be the other’s superior, but each the other’s subordinate?[5]  Luther asks this rhetorically to prove that through the equality of believers the pope and bishops must be servants, not authorities.  Yet if there is no authority, who provides the guidance on doctrinal matters and who finds the balance between liberty and unity?

Luther has done an excellent job freeing the believers from the spiritual hold of the pope, and giving responsibility of the overall well being of the Church to individual believers.  In reading these tracts one must also be aware of their context and seeking to understand the balance that Luther sought in maintaining unity while striving for reformation within the Church.  Luther does not advocate for a laissez faire Christianity, but argues for a Christianity where individual believers share the responsibility of the wellbeing of Christendom.  He does not seek a Christendom where nobody is a priest, but rather where everybody has the responsibility of a priest.[6]  Luther seeks a Christendom that maintains leaders, but not superiors and where each member is looking out for the wellbeing of the entire body.



[1]Martin Luther, vol. 44, Luther's Works, Vol. 44 : The Christian in Society I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1966), 44:127.

[2]Martin Luther, vol. 45, Luther's Works, Vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1962), 45:126.

[3]Martin Luther, vol. 41, Luther's Works, Vol. 41 : Church and Ministry III, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1966), 41:346.

[4] (Bainton 1977, 126)

[5]Martin Luther, vol. 45, Luther's Works, Vol. 45 : The Christian in Society II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald and Helmut T. Lehmann, Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999, c1962), 45:117.

[6] Luther maintained the need for trained ministry and was against Carlstadt who argued that there should be no professional ministers.  Luther believed that this would not lead to peasants knowing as much as the ministers, but rather the ministers knowing as little as the peasants.