The Lutheran Tradition and the Modern State
John von Heyking

Those looking to the Lutheran tradition—at least to its origins—for insight concerning today’s deepest problems of political order will be a little disappointed. The Lutheran tradition, with its origins in the writings of Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon, started with great promise on the question of religious freedom in opposing the abuses of the medieval church, but we will be disappointed if we expect from it a robust defense of freedom in politics.

The twentieth century’s great example of a Lutheran conscience confronting state power is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose courageous role in trying to assassinate the evil that was Adolph Hitler can be admired. However, it is well known that Bonhoeffer wrestled with the Lutheran political teaching of the two kingdoms, according to which the inner freedom of the Christian remains solidly founded upon a fortress of religious faith—and only religious faith—and where no amount of good works amidst unredeemed nature makes a difference. In short, he wrestled against the two kingdoms doctrine that teaches that tyranny harms bodies but has no impact on the soul, which God protects, because only religious faith can justify the soul. Bonhoeffer found however that totalitarianism does indeed harm souls, and he grappled with the implications of how his decision affected his relationship with God. Of course, totalitarianism, as the most radical form of progressivism and modernity, makes its own faith claims about the future. It might be indicative of the shortcomings of the Lutheran tradition in facing the political order that Tom Faulkner of St. Andrew’s and St. Stephen’s Colleges recently argued that Bonhoeffer made his decision not because he was Christian, but because he was a member of the Junker class, the landed aristocracy of Prussia and Germany. In other words, his Junker background inspired his public-spiritedness, which was at odds with his Lutheranism that taught him to view the tyrant as punishment for the sins of fallen man. For Bonhoeffer, the inner freedom of the Christian cannot be reconciled with the outer subservience of the secular person.

Fortunately, North Americans and Europeans do not face the tyranny that Bonhoeffer confronted. However, as Aristotle observes of courage, in the study of political matters, there is value in examining the extreme case in order to understand their essence. Even so, we receive only a partial view of the Lutheran tradition of political teaching if we focus exclusively on the example of Bonhoeffer struggling against a tradition whose prescription of quietism toward tyranny is based on a longstanding reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans that requires absolute obedience to the state. The Lutheran tradition is more complicated than Bonhoeffer understood it. Even so, the early tradition has its limitations.

Two interrelated dimensions of the Lutheran political tradition bear attention: 1) the state-conscience relationship, and 2) Luther’s replacement of the medieval notion of amicitia with God as the essence of religious faith, with his doctrine of sola fides.

The image of Lutheran political teaching providing the historical foundations for modern authoritarian state teachings (Rechtstaat) is common, and not what Luther intended. Part of Luther’s and Melanchthon’s attacks on medieval natural law teachings stemmed from their perception that these teachings failed to give due weight to the virtues of equity and judgment. The Catholic Church had sacrificed commonsense and decency on the idolatrous altar of a fraudulent legalism. Canon law had become too legalistic and had sucked the life out of religious faith. However, the reformers could not simply revive the Church’s own teaching on equity and practical judgment, because it was based on Aristotle. Instead, they had to root it in conscience as formed by religious faith. Conscience is natural as well, as we can know naturally the contents of the Decalogue. However, sin prevents us from seeing its contents sufficiently, and it also prevents us from judging properly in our own case. Sin explains the divine sanction of the state, whose purpose is to preserve public order. Its role is especially necessary when each individual—by religious faith alone— is an authority on Scripture, Luther’s famous “priesthood of all believers.” Luther and Melanchthon were sufficiently realistic to understand the implications of this doctrine, though a little too late. If everyone is a Scriptural authority, then no one is. Anarchy is the political consequence. In 1525 Luther responded to the Swabian peasants’ demands for revolutionary freedom by admonishing the bishops, whom he previously called fools and knaves, to massacre the heretics.

Melanchthon’s view of the state extends that of Luther. Not only is the state divinely ordained, it is now also the guardian of the Decalogue. Because the second table, which governs social relations, depends on the first, which governs man’s relationship with God, the magistrate is to guard both tables. Emory University Law Professor Harold

J. Berman argues that the crafters of the treaties of Augsburg (1555) and Westphalia (1648) had Melanchthon’s doctrine in mind when they formulated the principle of cuius regio eius religio, the notion of state sovereignty that sustains both legal positivism as well as Realpolitik views of international relations.

Moreover, the Decalogue must be the basis of law, not only because it is the perfect statement of the natural law, but also because its authority is divine. Its divine source makes it more reliable than the shifting rationalizations of sinful legislators. This reliable authority makes the state, which embodies and interprets the Decalogue, more authoritative when it coerces the sinful to behave. However, this makes the state more sacred than in medieval times. As a result, Melanchthon thought that the state should teach people the natural law (the Decalogue) in addition to being the “top cop.” It teaches virtue to people through the particular dictates of law.

The state primarily teaches man’s utter dependence on God. It is unclear how a Lutheran today should understand the state’s role in teaching citizens their dependence on God. One could point to the numerous ways that the modern state, following Machiavelli, has made people dependent on it (thus making them too complacent to revolt). For his part, Luther believed the state taught man’s dependence on God by illuminating the need for forgiveness. As South Africans and Eastern Europeans know, forgiveness breaks the cycle of vengeance in which states find themselves. However, juxtaposing forgiveness and vengeance is to overlook the justice that lies between them, which, as Melanchthon observes, is what the Decalogue is about. Without sufficiently considering justice as a foundation of the state, one gets caught in the dilemma of either denying to the state any form of political ethics (everything it does is necessarily sinful) or requiring extrapolitical actors to guide it (i.e., the Church). Luther’s dilemma is probably the reason Melanchthon felt compelled to develop his theory of the Decalogue: without it, Lutherans would have to become Roman Catholics again if they were to have a moral basis for politics. The two main sources of the Lutheran tradition are ambiguous on forgiveness and justice, and thus the moral authority of the state.

Lutheran teachings on the state thus do not leave a lot of room for conscience because the state always has divine authority, and as guardian of the Decalogue, it is its more reliable interpreter. Moreover, the state takes over enforcement of the second table, which in the medieval period was the realm of the church, which enforced its provisions under canon and confessional law. Berman observes:

Many aspects of social intercourse had traditionally been governed by the Roman Catholic Church both through the confessional laws of the internal forum and through the canon laws of the external forum. Melanchthon’s legal philosophy provided a rationale for political officials to bring these subjects within the province of the state. Accordingly, new urban, territorial, and imperial ordinances began to appear throughout mid-sixteenth-century German, replete with detailed regulations of social conduct.

Practices once located in the church get shifted to the state that is imbued with special authority. If the practice of conscience depends on a robust theory of subsidiary where civil society actors enjoy significant freedom to pursue their intimations of the good, one will not find much support for this practice in Lutheran teachings on the state.

Luther’s replacement of the medieval notion of amicitia with God, with justification through religious faith, helps to explain his focus on state power over civil society. In Lutheran eyes, religious faith alone replaces the Pelagianism of Roman Catholicism with intellectual support a proper foundation for love as grounded in the gratitude we have toward Christ who died for us. However, for Augustine and for Aquinas, who were the more immediate source of fides caritate formata for Luther, amicitia with God is possible only at God’s initiative and constitutes the experience of conversio, which transforms—though does not necessarily redeem—the substance of the sinner all the way through. Luther rejects this view of religious faith in terms of friendship in favor of sola fides— religious faith alone. Not just religious faith alone as opposed to good works, but religious faith as experienced in the confines of what would develop into the modern solitary self. It is noteworthy that the most impressive contemporary Lutheran theologian, Valparaiso University professor Gilbert Meilaender, looks to the ancient and medieval thinkers, not to Luther, in his study of friendship.

This is not to say that good works do not characterize Lutheran society. They do. But brotherly love of one whose religious faith has been justified has a different character than fides caritate formata, because the former gets expressed in the free solitary Lutheran whose good works toward his neighbor are little more than utilitarian amidst unredeemed nature. This is why, as University of Kansas Political Science Professor Thomas Heilke observes in a soon to be published essay on Luther and Calvin, friendship plays no role in Luther’s (or Calvin’s for that matter) political and ecclesiastical teachings. Grace is taken up in the collective, but in no way can one say that it is taken up amidst the collective, which is the realm of unredeemed nature. Like his failure to see political justice between forgiveness and injustice, so too did Luther fail to recognize friendship as grace amidst the collective, between the extremes of his individualized grace in the collective, and grace for the collective, as demanded by the Swabian peasants whose destruction he demanded.

Instead of looking to friendship as a way of mitigating the extremes of his individualism and Swabian collectivism, Luther preached what political philosopher Eric Voegelin calls a “respectable eschatology” for society. By definition, good works are good on account of their being performed by justified individuals; Luther rules out a standard of ethics outside of justification that can judge their actions. Even the Decalogue must be interpreted by the justified. Moreover, the celebration of ordinary life, which Charles Taylor calls Luther’s special contribution to the modern self, is a species of utilitarianism redeemed by “respectable eschatology,” and which today gets expressed as the liberal faith in moral and technological progress.

However, the modern self is the autonomous self who stands against God, and against society. Luther doesn’t go as far as later, more radical, moderns including Friedrich Nietzsche, but I will conclude with a statement of Luther’s that illuminates how justification and selfhood replace amicitia: If you “trust a man, you trust him because you consider him a righteous, true man; and that is the greatest honor that one can extend to another.” And when God sees the soul honoring him through religious faith, “He will honor it in return, and consider it righteous and true, which indeed it is through such religious faith.”

Voegelin observes of Luther’s statement that, “amicitia has changed into something that comes dangerously close to mutual trust between respectable burghers.” If this is so, then Christians looking to the Lutheran tradition for intellectual support for religious freedom and a robust civil society against the state will be disappointed. Lutheran “respectable eschatology” separates the individual from others and places him into a framework of positivistic laws that lacks the public space that political philosopher Hannah Arendt notes is the substance of politics. By this she means the deeds and stories that a political community shares and that distinguish it from other communities. Put another way: political communities share a kind of political friendship that is communicated via their common narratives and memories. The kind of transaction of which Luther speaks is an act of commercial trade, where the goods exchanged are praise and high regard. Friends, unlike trading partners, find it hard to imagine their lives without one another. Luther’s burgher is apolitical; his world of “everyday life” extends no further than the household and the cool benevolence toward his neighbors. In a postmaterialistic society like that of Europe and North America, where religious faith alone plays next to no role in grounding public policy, the Lutheran tradition looks more comfortable helping the expansive welfare state and its “good works” than in carving out spaces of freedom for associations, including friendships.

Liberal democracy is about good works, not friendship.

John von Heyking is associate professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. This essay is based on remarks presented to the Conference on Religious Freedom, organized by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, 10–11 February 2005.


Berman, Harold. “The Transformation of Western Legal Philosophy in Lutheran Germany.” Faith and Order: The Reconciliation of Law and Religion, 141–86. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Bonhoeffer and the Sovereign State.” First Things. August/September, 1996, 27–30.

Forrester, Duncan. “Martin Luther and John Calvin.” History of Political Philosophy, eds. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey. 3rd Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Meilaender, Gilbert C. Friendship: A Study in Theological Ethics. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

Luther, Martin. Luther : Selected Political Writings. Ed. Jene Porter. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.

Voegelin, Eric. Renaissance and Reformation, History of Political Ideas IV. In Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 22, eds. David L. Morse and William M. Thompson. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.

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