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Power Perfected in Weakness: Luther on Politics and the Church

During the terror of the Third Reich, Martin Luther, the “German prophet,” was widely misappropriated for the ends of Hitler’s tyrannical national socialism and anti-Semitism. To be sure, Luther’s often bombastic rhetoric supplied plenty of ammunition that did not always require alteration to arouse its desired effect. The anti-Semitic legacy of Luther’s later commentary (e.g. On the Jews and Their Lies (1543)) is, unfortunately, perhaps the best-known element of his life. In a sense, the question of Luther and the Jews—and by extension, Luther and Nazi Germany—must be considered by any Protestant who celebrated last year’s five hundredth anniversary of the Ninety-Five Theses. And though it is unfair to the Reformer to read his writings through a modern critical-race-theory-post-Holocaust lens, at best it was sinful capitulation to the ubiquitous anti-Jewish polemic of the day that pervaded the middle ages. The myth of the Blood Libel, and that Jews were sinful usurers, had been propagated in Christendom for centuries. That anti-Jew rhetoric was so prevalent in the middle ages likely explains why Luther’s 1543 tract received relatively little acclaim compared to his other publications. The sad fact of the matter is that in mid-sixteenth century Europe a book disparaging the Jews was simply uncontroversial and uninteresting, and in stark contrast to the revolutionary character of Luther’s other popular writings. 

Though Luther’s animus toward the Jews was not racial in the modern sense, rather religious (just as it was with the Turks and the Pope), it is doubtless a black mark on his legacy. What is seldom acknowledged is Luther’s 1523 treatise encouraging Christian charity toward Jews. He even blamed corruption and mismanagement of the Church for the lack of Jewish conversion. “If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian.” This was an unexpected stance for his day, which gained him the title, “friend of the Jews,” along with much suspicion from his contemporaries. What’s more, after the Reuchlin trial, Luther was one of the few scholars of his time to cherish Reuchlin’s works to study Hebrew.1  As distasteful as Luther’s last sermon (1546) was, it contained a final plea for practicing “Christian love toward them and pray that they convert.” The same Luther that studied Jewish works and preached tolerance toward the Jews also advocated a governmental confiscation of said works and a destruction of synagogues. And his zeal for mass Jewish conversion prophesied in Revelation 7 took an increasingly harsh tone.    

Thus, Luther’s conflicting rhetoric presents scholars with an enigma. Reconciling the earlier “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” and the later “On the Jews and Their Lies” has proved a daunting task for even the most charitable of historians.2 

At the end of the day, Luther did, if posthumously and unintentionally, lay useful groundwork for later German nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiments, as well as the subservience of the Lutheran Church to the authority of the state.3 Here Luther’s literary contributions also had significant influence on Germany, no less than Shakespeare and the King James Bible did on the modern England. For better or worse, Luther’s indefatigable writing and publication in the German language, not the least of which being his German translation of the Bible, was a catalyst for furthering a sense of a distinct German people and culture.4 Though Luther cannot be totally let off the hook, so to speak, this connection can often be drawn too eagerly and simplistically.5 

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Beyond the litany of anti-Jew comments, Goebbels and “the odious apparatus of Nazi rule” eagerly mined and repurposed Luther’s alleged German nationalism, especially from his first and most influential political pamphlet, Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), as well as his On Secular Authority (1523). From the latter, Luther’s two kingdoms dichotomy was predictably, though wrongly, used by the Nazi authorities to suggest civic non-resistance by the German people. Christian Nobility as well can be read as a call to German national dominance against Catholic Europe. However, to rebut the corruption of the two kingdoms paradigm in his own day, Luther did not excuse rulers who demanded sin or heresy of their subjects. In such a situation Luther advised civil disobedience by said subjects, which he saw as a simultaneous upholding of Christian morality and respect for secular authorities.6 Contra William Shirer, who would make Luther a Hegelian statist, Luther was not “a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority.”7 

Furthermore, Germany’s predisposition toward autocracy has more to do with the fact that democracy never developed there in the post-Westphalian period as it did in Western Europe. Though, one could argue that Luther himself had nipped that in the bud when he opposed Thomas Munzer and the other democratizing “fanatics,” and therefore deserves blame there, too. Divine right to rule endured in the German mind into the twentieth century beneath the façade of the Reichstag.Luther may have provided some theological basis for the Lutheran Church’s relative passivity during the Nazi years, but this was a deficient reading of its founder. The more basic German tendency toward submission finds its true roots elsewhere in German history. Nazism was more intellectually indebted to nineteenth-century thinkers like Houston Stewart Chambers, disciple of Richard Wagner, than to “the fat doctor.”9 Unlike Luther, the “spiritual fathers” of Nazism refused to ever admit that Jesus Christ was born a Jew.  

Returning to Luther’s treatise to the German nobility, it should be noted that the modern conception of the nation-state was a product of the Westphalian settlement come to full fruition only after Napoleon’s failed attempt at a pan-European empire. It was realized in Germany only by the sheer force of the will of Otto von Bismarck, with the establishment of his nineteenth-century Prussian Germany of “blood and iron.” Luther’s influence was the last source of an organic, unified Germany, which perhaps explains why German rulers always returned to him to undergird their own efforts. Germany was left more fractured than ever before by the Thirty Years’ War. All subsequent attempts at forming a German nation were accomplished by force and manipulation, first under Bismarck and Wilhelm II, and later under Hitler. The Germany of Luther’s day was at best a loose federation of competing interests. The medieval vision of a universal empire would prove itself to be an elusive fantasy within a few decades. But more importantly, upon closer examination, fostering nationalist sympathies was simply not Luther’s aim.

Read in context, Luther’s word to the German nobility was more interested in refuting the public attack of Sylvester Prierias, critiquing Rome, and admonishing Germany’s leadership. The Reformation, in many respects, was an argument over authority. Prierias’ publications against Luther identified the heresy of the wayward Augustinian monk on this point. Prierias, then the preeminent curia theologian, asserted, in accordance with canon law, the infallible and final authority of the Holy See, “even if [the pope] were to give so much offense as to cause people in multitudes… to go to the Devil in Hell.”10 For Luther, this unwavering defense of papal authority presented a state of emergency for which he must alert his countrymen, encouraging them to abandon Rome, lest the Gospel be suppressed. In Christian Nobility, Luther’s concern was twofold: alerting the German people to this threat, but also, encouraging the leadership to act for reform before a bloody uprising ensued. A grass-roots patriotic movement of sorts had been incubating below the surface for almost a century, awaiting the opportune moment, one that Luther was not keen to provide them.

Behind these two concerns, however, lies an analytical polemic against Rome itself, meant to be instructional for Luther’s contemporary audience. In Luther’s view, the great sin of Rome had been employing power for its own ends (political and material), rather than acting as the servant of servants, under the guise of acting on the behalf of Christ’s interests on earth; but Luther held that Christ needed no such assistance. He reigns already from heaven, and can accomplish all he desires through his own appointed means, gifted to the Church under the power of the Holy Spirit. The means are not those of power, but of weakness, foolishness, and suffering, the theology of the cross. Until the triumphant Christ returned to establish his kingdom on earth, the Church was to toil under the administration ordained to it, and to reject the wisdom of men of power, thus mimicking the weakness of Christ. It was this suffering Christ that was to be represented on earth in “working, preaching, suffering, and dying.”11 What Rome had done was to confuse the very real sovereignty of Christ in heaven for papal sovereignty on earth, rather than service in the temporal realm. This, above all else, had transformed the vicar of Christ into the antichrist. When sovereignty and power in heaven (its rightful place) is thought to exist for the Church on earth, supplanting its rightful mode of service as representative of the suffering Christ, the Church becomes worldly and corrupt; a Church of glory rather than the cross, the basic distinction established by Luther at Heidelberg in 1518.12 “For God does not desire or tolerate good works when begun through trust in one’s own strength and reason,” said Luther. And “as Psalm 33:16 says: ‘A king is not saved by his great army; a mighty man is not delivered by his great strength.’”

The purpose of Luther’s condemnation of Roman authority was not one dimensional. It also carried implications for how the German nobility was to rule in those trying times. They were not to rely on their own power, lest their fate be that of the Israelites at the hands of the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20-21). And to this purpose, Luther criticized previous German emperors who were then being frequently held up by the humanist camp as evidence of a coherent German narrative that supported a robust nationalist destiny over and against Roman-Italian supremacy.13 Some such humanists tried to adopt Luther to the nationalist cause and employ his rhetoric to those ends. To their disappointment, Luther did not entertain such patriotic hopes for “[e]exactly the same reason which later would make him reject the knight’s revolt (1522) and the Peasants’ War (1525).”14 This was also another reason underlying his feud with Huldrych Zwingli, who wanted to make evangelical war on the Hapsburgs, and the “murder-prophets” who preached a religious revolution. All such movements were ones of “progress” that employed the means of the world. The power of the Gospel alone would be Luther’s weapon of choice against all manner of foes. This was clear from the beginning in Christian Nobility. Per Luther biographer Heiko Oberman,

“Though the language of Luther’s programmatic Address to the Christian Nobility is belligerent, its militancy is that of biblical truth… Here is not a hero speaking, but a prophet of repentance, leading the nation not to victory but to the confessional, to see to it that through chastisement we are ‘reformed.’”15 

It was a call for return to fealty to the word of God, not national sentiments, and his call was not particularly optimistic or encouraging. Indeed, he blamed the past lust for power by both the Roman Catholic Church and the German leaders for landing them in the crisis of authority that had been played out since the Western schism of 1378-1415, exacerbated by the Council of Pisa. The Council of Constance was nothing but a band-aid solution. This sin was too deep to be addressed by earthly means. No, Luther’s proposal “was one of repentance, repair, and reform, with no prospect of a golden age until after the Second Coming.”16 His deepest desire was to compel Germans everywhere to lean on their faith for all confidence, renew their piety, and purge themselves “of that nationalism which dreams of the union of religion and blood.”17 Oberman notes that the motivation for Luther’s German Bible and vernacular liturgies was to set an example for other Christian nations to make the Gospel understandable to every man, not to cultivate a distinctly “German spirit.”18 Luther would have no part in equating the Church with a particular nation, whether Rome or Germany. Doing so “not only perverts the Gospel, it also threatens world peace,” a violation of both ordained spheres of authority.19

Throughout the late medieval period, many reform movements had championed societal reform. These were largely premised on a belief in progress by way of regress, a return to the simple living of the early church, enveloped in utopian, messianic expectations. The Franciscans thought themselves to be in the third epoch of history, the age of the Spirit wherein the true, spiritual church would emerge and usher in the Kingdom of God on earth, a thousand years of peace. This was to be accomplished by the radical embrace of poverty, by the rejection of the hierarchical status quo, and by simple living. Luther’s vision, however, was decidedly “anti-Zionist” in that he dismissed any ideology that envisioned the Kingdom realized on earth.20 He did not hope for a “new age” but for a recovery of true doctrine and true faith, the only sources of renewed life.21 The pure Gospel would be recovered not to cure societal ills, but to prepare the Church, first for the “afflictions of the Last Days,” and then for the end of all things (Matt. 24:14).22  

One can see in Luther’s treatise to the German nobility the seeds of his two kingdoms theology. “For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself.” The Church does not resort to coercive means outside of the Spirit’s “coercion” via word and sacrament. To use force is to make the Gospel a new law. Likewise, the state maintained the peace by the ordained power of the sword and was not to be resisted within the civic sphere. For Luther, the dangers of then-contemporary millennial hopes were exhibited by Rome, which claimed to be Zion, God’s kingdom on earth, subjugating all powers under its dominion.23 No earthly power, rather God himself, was the center of the Kingdom.

Here Luther’s often misunderstood denunciation of the Peasants’ War (Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants) can be explained. How could a man who sought to lift the laity out of spiritual poverty, out from under the thumb of an oppressive clergy class, so vehemently condemn a mission of freedom by the German people, against feudalistic oppression? The source of his indignation against the peasants was their misappropriation of his theology of spiritual liberty, and the reality of every individual’s standing before God in Christ, toward immediate, political ends—especially when said ends required violent overthrowal of legitimate authority ordained by God for the sake of order. Luther was not about to allow the integrity of his reform to be trampled, so that a populist uprising of the proletariat, taking his theology out of context, could justify social revolution.

In the Twelve Articles (1525) of the rebellion, though admittedly moderate in tone, was a power struggle wrapped in Luther’s new theology. This was the theology of glory masquerading as the theology of the cross, the sin of Rome already tried and condemned by Luther. And as stated, Luther had already condemned these same sentiments three years prior in the knight’s rebellion. Overthrowing the aristocracy was too low, too earthly a goal for Luther. Both sides in the Peasants’ War were guilty of “discussing questions of justice and injustice in heathen, or worldly, terms,” seeking their own gain by means of violence and power, instead of embracing a Christian posture of servanthood, patience, and mercy.24 In the end, when negotiations failed, the rulers were justified, in Luther’s eyes, in quashing the rebellion for the sake of order.25 Even in his ruthless denunciation of the Jews, Luther made it clear that his proposal was not to be executed by mobs, hungry for gratuitous violence, but by the ordained temporal authorities for the sake of protecting their subjects from blasphemy and unrest.   

Luther, of course, later realized that simply preaching the pure Gospel was not sufficient to enact the church reform that he longed for. More focused institutional alterations within the Church were also necessary. It was for this reason that he became passionate about Christian education and catechesis.26 It was his 1527 tour of local parishes and assessment of the deficiency of biblical literacy, even amongst the pastors therein, that led him to pen his own catechisms and begin instituting a strong hierarchical structure of Church authority. Though this seems a contradiction of his earlier egalitarian articulation of the priesthood of all believers, Luther’s later institutional reforms, along with his condemnation of what amounted to the social gospel of his day, are consistent with his overarching concern for the internal health of the Church and the purity of her doctrine.

In summation, it was only for twentieth-century Germans that Luther was a nationalist. The Luther of his own time made it abundantly clear, through vigorous refutation of foes on every side, that his vision for reform lay outside the scope of societal improvement. His was one for a spiritual Church.

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The supposed nationalism of Luther has been employed by countless opportunists, not the least of which being the cunning architects of the Third Reich, who sought to bring the Lutheran Church under its sway. Another notable manifestation of the nationalist Luther can be found in Frederick Engels’ 1850 history of the Peasants’ War. With the legacy of Luther seemingly in tatters during the decades following the Holocaust, more recent Christians have been reluctant to appeal to him in their political theology, though the two kingdoms paradigm has endured. Yet, the real polemic of Luther is relevant and needed today. The theology of glory will be alive and well, and in need of refutation, as long as the Second Coming delays. Today, this human impulse, whereby man seeks to glorify himself, reach God outside of the logic of faith, and realize the Kingdom in the temporal now, is evident in a softer form of politics.

The evangelicals who lament the bygone era of cultural influence will find no justification in the true Luther for attempts to recover lost political capital. Neither will the those who seek to employ the language of identity politics or infuse their Christianity with the current coin of the realm, victimhood status, find solace in Luther. Both sides, out of a perceived sense of embattlement, seek power as means of realizing a particular vision of society. The use of political power by Christians to obtain temporal benefit was, at best, untenable to Luther, and at worst, a gross distortion of the Gospel. Such power-grabbing can never justifiably be made on behalf of Christ and his Church. He needs no such assistance (John 18:36).

The power of the Church of Christ is ministerial. And the power afforded her officers is limited by both Christ’s own priestly supremacy and the Scripturally-prescribed, ordained means or tools, namely, Word and sacrament. In the spirit of Saint Paul, Luther describes this kind of power as weak and foolish but it is clear that he by no means thought it to be ineffectual or inconsequential. Thus, the Church does not avail herself of the power available to lobbying firms or political action committees. She confines herself to the spiritual tools she has received via her High Priest.

Though the plague of identity politics (the representative of which seems to include everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates, to Richard Spencer, to Donald Trump) runs rampant, governed solely by the tyrannical pop culture Twitter mobs, it is not the duty of the Christian to seek political means to counteract it. Neither is it the job of the self-professed “social justice warrior Christian” to ‘fight the power.’ Both sides prioritize an identity beyond that which is found in Christ, and exude an attitude other than suffering servanthood. In a sense, these modern formulations of identity do espouse a certain kind of nationalism beyond civic duty, or what might be described as a healthy patriotism which, properly understood, exemplifies the magnanimous citizen in service of the whole under a received identity. Each side of contemporary ideological-cultural debates at some level, identifies itself as representing the true nation, at least, ideologically speaking. When Christians engage in this, identifying Christian morality with a political program, the Gospel is subverted; salvation is made dependent upon the favored political affiliation or persuasion, and the Gospel is morphed into a political form of good works. The beauty of sola fide is that the Christian can endure the volatility of politics, without the need to sanctify said politics for the sake of security. Unfortunately, much of American evangelical history—at least since the conservative resurgence circa 1979—has been marked by a craving of political access, which is a craving of power. Vice President Pence’s attendance and speech at this week’s Southern Baptist Convention made clear that many members of the largest Protestant denomination continue to place their faith in the power of political influence, rather than the simple weakness of the Church.    

The selfishness of the modern conception of freedom as individualistic and self-referential should be foreign to those under the yoke of Christ. Though Luther may have encouraged individualism in spiritual status, and responsibility in the faith as a necessary outgrowth of his doctrine of justification—which was not an innovative formulation—he did not elevate the autonomous individual and unfettered individual choice as sole arbiters of truth and reality, as the libertines of the Age of Reason did. His bifurcation of law and Gospel did not allow for licentious revocation of Christian obedience and servanthood under the law of Christ. It meant that the logic of faith overtook former modes of thinking. The power of God is perfected in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Power politics was never part of Luther’s vision for the Christian life, which is not to deny that Luther disrupted the political status quo, or that the longevity of the Reformation did not often depend on the power politics being played out by others, and that Luther did not often expertly navigate through it.    

All of this does not mean that the Church should cease to confess the faith with vigor and conviction. If anything, it means that she must do so more clearly, purely, and persuasively. It means, as it did for Luther, that the Church must embrace the way of Christ, that of suffering and humility. For this suffering to be done in the spirit of Luther, however, it must not be done in a downtrodden posture. Rather, it is to look with hopefulness to the Second Coming and with all confidence in the means of grace supplied to the Church (Titus 2:11-14). In connection to this, the Church is to act as a prophetic minority, as Russell Moore has so often phrased it. She is to—as Luther did—challenge those who falsely claim ultimate authority.

All of this does not negate the Christian’s duty to perform good works. As a receiver of the “joyous exchange,” the Christian, subject to no one, yet subject to everyone, gladly serves, making the most of the time (Eph. 5:16). Yet he never mistakes this for a utopian project of cosmic significance. He serves and suffers whilst he patiently waits upon the Lord (Isa. 40:31). Neither does Luther’s vision require a total withdrawal from political awareness. Rather, she measures her engagement by the limitation of her means of action. By her faithful confession and practice she bears witness against, and indeed protests, the way of the world. The spiritual nature of the Church requires what Rod Dreher has advocated for: a reorientation of the priorities of the Church, a renewed concern for her inner life. Any potential societal or political renewal, the maintenance of world order, flows therefrom, but the climax of history will be brought about by God alone.27 And always, the Church must stridently uphold the dictates of Christ, seeking to reform herself in accordance therewith (ecclesia semper reformanda est), remembering that “‘reformation’ is God’s invention.”28


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Timon Cline

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is a native of Memphis, TN and grew up in Dakar, Senegal. He is a graduate of Wright State University, and is concurrently pursuing a J.D. at Rutgers Law School and a M.A. in Religion at Westminster Theological Seminary. He lives in New Jersey with his wife, Rachel.

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