During the Schmalkaldic War, which broke out after Martin Luther’s death, the Spanish troops defeated the Protestant princes and overran much of Saxony, including Wittenberg.

When the Spanish soldiers stood at Luther’s grave in the Castle Church, they demanded that Luther’s body be exhumed and his bones burned as befits a heretic.

But Emperor Charles V stopped them. He is said to have declared: “I do not make war on dead men!”

This story seems to be a golden legend, but it shows the passions Luther aroused. The Reformation Luther began was not merely a theological dispute but an event that disturbed all areas of life—social, economic, and political.

Pragmatic Philosopher

Luther’s writings on church and state profoundly challenged the prevailing views. He formed his ideas, however, not as a political philosopher but as a person confronting real situations.

His correspondence, especially during the last fifteen years of his life, shows him constantly involved in political situations, advising and urging city councils concerned with “urban reformation,” and chastising episcopal and secular princes.

For example, in replying to an inquiry made to him in 1528, he wrote, “You ask whether the magistrate may kill false prophets. I am slow in a judgment of blood even when it is deserved. In this matter I am terrified by the example of the papists and the Jews before Christ, for when there was a statute for the killing of false prophets and heretics, in time it came about that only the most saintly and innocent were killed. ... I cannot admit that false teachers are to be put to death. It is enough to banish.”

Luther’s final journey, in the dead of winter, was taken to restore amity between two territorial princes, brothers who had fallen out over property.

Cozy Relationships with Princes?

Luther enjoyed the protection and generosity of the electoral Saxon princes. Frederick the Wise (1486–1525) protected him from papal and imperial forces because Luther was his subject and the best-known professor at his recently founded University of Wittenberg (1502).

Religious reasons played a minor role at best, for Frederick understood little of the new evangelical theology and cherished his extensive relic collection until he died. He used the court chaplain and lawyer Georg Spalatin as a go-between with Luther to avoid compromising himself more than necessary during the dangerous controversies of the day.

Frederick’s brother John (ruled 1525–1532) was a true believer in Luther’s reform movement, and his son John Frederick (ruled 1532–1547) was a convinced evangelical who considered Luther his spiritual father.

These cozy relationships have led some to speak of Luther’s Reformation as a “princes’ reformation,” meaning it was primarily a political revolution—local princes asserting their power against Rome under the guise of a theological dispute.

This assessment has been completely revised by contemporary historians. Why? Among other reasons: Luther’s attacks upon the ecclesiastical princes in the early years, his harsh criticism of the secular princes during his later years, and the development of his theory of resistance. His polemic against Catholic Georg of Ducal Saxony combines theological arguments with devastating irony and ridicule.

In his letters and sermons, Luther often urged rulers to moderation and equity, but he named names when he blasted the evil princes, contrary to many of his contemporaries.

“There are lazy and useless preachers,” he thundered, “who do not denounce the evils of princes and lords, some because they do not even notice them. ... Some even fear for their skins and worry that they will lose body and goods for it. They do not stand up and be true to Christ!”

And in regard to politicians, he once said they “are generally the biggest fools and worst scoundrels on earth, but God will find them out, better than anyone else can, as indeed he has done since the beginning of the world.”

Place for Church and State

Although Luther’s political views emerged in the heat of controversy, he was able to articulate a compelling theology of church and state.

Luther’s doctrine of the church reversed medieval conceptions, for he restored the apostolic understanding of the church as the communion of saints. His teaching on the priesthood of all believers leveled the clergy to servants of the congregation. They do not enjoy a higher estate than do the laity, Luther taught, not even in their role as celebrants of the two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

“Thank God, a child of seven knows what the church is,” he wrote, “namely, the holy believers and the lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

He also wrote, “I believe that there is on earth, through the whole wide world, no more than one holy, common, Christian church, which is nothing else than the congregation, or assembly of the saints, i.e., the pious, believing men on earth, which is gathered, preserved, and ruled by the Holy Ghost, and daily increased by means of the sacraments and the Word of God.”

If such views seem commonplace today, it is only because Luther revived them and made them stick. At the time, the church seemed universally arrayed against him and his doctrine of the church, so Luther hoped the lay princes, as Christians in authority, would serve as emergency bishops in reforming the church.

During his lectures on Romans (1515–16), Luther commented on “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities”: “In our day the secular powers are carrying on their duties more successfully and better than the ecclesiastical rulers are doing. For they are strict in their punishment of thefts and murders, except to the extent that they are corrupted in insidious privileges.

“But the ecclesiastical rulers, except for those who invade the liberties, privileges, and rights of the church, whom they condemn to excessive punishments, actually nourish pride, ambitions, prodigality, and contentions rather than punish them (so much so that perhaps it would be safer if the temporal affairs of the clergy were placed under secular power).”

Luther wrote that “since the time of the apostles, the secular sword and authority has never been so clearly described and grandly lauded as by me, which even my enemies must acknowledge.” He knew the far-reaching implications of his reassertion of the apostolic view of the state.

Against Rome’s century-long attempt to make the church dominant over the state, Luther wanted to show how church and state work together under God’s rule. He argued that God works in the spiritual realm through the gospel and in the temporal realm through secular authority.

If St. Augustine stressed the negative role of the state (“a great robbery”) as a curb on sin, Luther emphasized the positive role of secular authority. It served as the instrument of God’s love, for laws are to conform to the basic natural law, which is the law of love (lex caritatis). Every legal order and regime is therefore under God, who works through persons in authority.

Good governing is a service to God, and poor or evil governance is an affront to God. Luther frequently referred to the ruler as a “father and helper,” “gardener and caretaker,” or “God’s official.” He emphasized that individual rulers were divinely instituted to restrain evil and prevent anarchy and chaos.

Resist Rulers?

Luther taught, however, that there is a great need for justice in the world, and that one has the duty to resist tyrannous rulers who violate natural law and political laws. While every subject should strive to be a good citizen and obey valid laws, if a regime establishes laws that are contrary to the natural law of love, the subject is bound to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).

Under such conditions, withholding obedience to the government is necessary, and the subject is driven to passive resistance to rulers. Luther, in the light of Romans 13:1, for many years rejected the idea of active resistance to rulers (except for those “healthy heroes” or “wondermen” who, like Samson, are directly and unambiguously called by God to undertake a revolution against unjust rulers). He was realistic when he observed that “changing a government is one thing, but improving it is another.”

Luther followed this teaching and put his trust in the Lord even when his own life was at stake. From May 1529 to late 1530 he refused to sanction resistance by Elector John to the emperor. (In the end he yielded only when legal experts convinced him otherwise on the basis of imperial law.)

In his 1534 Commentary on Psalm 101, Luther summarized his views: “The spiritual government or authority should direct the people vertically toward God that they may do right and be saved; just so the secular government should direct the people horizontally toward one another, seeing to it that body, property, honor, wife, child, house, home, and all manner of goods remain in peace and security and are blessed on earth. God wants the government of the world to be a symbol of true salvation and of his kingdom of heaven, like a pantomime or a mask.”

The Most-Important Word

In that critical hour when he stood at Worms, Luther had resisted the temptation to unleash a popular national uprising against the pope and the emperor.

“I did nothing; the Word did and achieved everything,” he reminisced many years later. “If I had wanted to start trouble, I could have brought all Germany into a great bloodbath. Yes, I could have begun such a game at Worms that the emperor himself would not have been safe. But what would that have been? A fool’s game! I did nothing but left it all up to the Word.”

With such a force at the center of Luther’s life and thought, it is no wonder that the Reformation touched and transformed so many aspects of medieval life.

Dr. Lewis W. Spitz is William R. Kenan University Professor of History at Stanford University. He is author of numerous books, including The Protestant Reformation, 1517–1559 (Harper & Row, 1985).