September 20, 2018

Martin Luther, War, the Church, and the State

By In Articles, Political Theory, Theology

While of course Martin Luther was no libertarian, reading his pamphlet against making “War Against the Turk” (in the context of a growing Ottoman Empire) a Holy War, the Reformed Libertarian is able to appreciate much of the sentiment.

For one thing, one of the most serious flaws of the Roman Church at the time of the Reformation (and arguably part of the revolt against the Church among the masses) was the confusion between church and state during that time. For those of us who are anti-state libertarians, we might clarify even further that the confusion was between the role of the church and the role of a civil governance entity. That is to say, the Church has a set of duties, enforcing contracts, protecting property rights, resolving property-related disputes, and so forth, are not part of these duties.

In this light, Martin Luther was especially clear that, regardless of the alleged imminent danger of the Turks, the Roman Church should most definitely not sponsor a defense. What would make such a defense especially theologically devastating would be action of fighting under the banner of Christ; as if war among nations was accurately represented by the people of God vs. the people of the Devil. Luther therefore criticized Rome when it

undertook to fight against the Turk under the name of Christ, and taught men and stirred them up to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ; and this is straight against Christ’s doctrine and name.

On the surface, Luther points out, such an army as would be put forward and organized by Rome, would have “scarcely five Christians, [Luther was known to exaggerate to make a point] and perhaps worse people in the eyes of God than are the Turks; and yet they would all bear the name of Christ. This is the greatest of all sins and one that no Turk commits, for Christ’s name is used for sin and shame and thus dishonored.”

But there is something even deeper than just the idea that “sinners were fighting a banner under Christ’s name and for His kingdom.”

The deeper problem is that God established the Church in order to accomplish a certain set of activities, none of which include conquering nations.

This would be especially so if the pope and the bishops were in the war, for they would put the greatest shame and dishonor on Christ’s name, since they are called to fight against the devil with the Word of God and with prayer, and would be deserting their calling and office and fighting with the sword against flesh and blood. This they are not commanded, but forbidden to do.

O how gladly would Christ receive me at the Last Judgment, if when summoned to the spiritual office, to preach and care for souls, I had left it and busied myself with fighting and with the temporal sword! And how should Christ come to it that He or His have anything to do with the sword and go to war, and kill men’s bodies, when He glories in it that He has come to save the world, not to kill people? For His work is to deal with the Gospel and by His Spirit to redeem men from sin and death, nay, to help them from this world to everlasting life. According to John 6:15, He fled and would not let Himself be made king; before Pilate He confessed, “My kingdom is not of this world”; and He bade Peter, in the garden, put up his sword, and said, “He that taketh the sword shall perish by the sword.”

Now what makes Luther’s comments so insightful is that he is clear that he is per se not criticizing defense itself. Regardless of the prudence and wisdom in war more generally, what is certainly not permitted is Holy War.

The second man whose place it is to fight against the Turk is Emperor Charles, or whoever is emperor; for the Turk attacks his subjects and his empire, and it is his duty, as a regular ruler appointed by God, to defend his own. I repeat it here, that I would not urge anyone or tell anyone to fight against the Turk unless the first method, mentioned above, had been followed, and men had first repented and been reconciled to God, etc. If anyone will go to war besides, let him take his risk. It is not proper for me to say anything more about it beyond telling everyone his duty and instructing his conscience.

In the first place, if there is to be war against the Turk, it should be fought at the emperor’s command, under his banner, and in his name.

In the second place, this banner and obedience of the emperor ought to be true and simple. The emperor should seek nothing else than simply to perform the work and duty of his office, which is to protect his subjects; and those under his banner should seek simply the work and duty of obedience. By this simplicity you should understand that there is to be no fighting of the Turk for the reasons for which the emperors and princes have heretofore been urged to war, such as the winning of great honor, glory, and wealth, the increasing of lands, or wrath and revengefulness and other things of the kind; for by these things men seek only their own self- interest, and therefore we have had no good fortune heretofore, either in fighting or planning to fight against the Turk.

Therefore the urging and inciting, with which the emperor and the princes have heretofore been stirred up to fight against the Turk, ought to cease.

The argument here is immensely interesting to me. Basically, Luther says: it is not the role of the church to engage in war. The wisdom of going to war seems highly suspect; nevertheless, if anyone should do it, let it be the government (as juxtaposed to the church— Luther was not well-read on Murray Rothbard or Ron Paul’s Letters of Marque and Reprisal).

Finally, Luther takes care to point out that, if the secular (that is, non-church authority overseeing all citizens, both saved and unsaved) authority goes to war against the Turks he does so not because the Turks are Muslim, because they are engaged in disbelief, but because of their murder and destruction (that is, to reinterpret Luther in accordance to my libertarian convictions, because of their breach of property rights).

I do not advise that men go to war with the Turk or the pope because of his false belief or evil life, but because of the murder and destruction which he does. 

And in conclusion a spiritual reflection:

O how gladly would Christ receive me at the Last Judgment, if when summoned to the spiritual office, to preach and care for souls, I had left it and busied myself with fighting and with the temporal sword! And how should Christ come to it that He or His have anything to do with the sword and go to war, and kill men’s bodies, when He glories in it that He has come to save the world, not to kill people? For His work is to deal with the Gospel and by His Spirit to redeem men from sin and death, nay, to help them from this world to everlasting life. According to John 6:15, He fled and would not let Himself be made king; before Pilate He confessed, “My kingdom is not of this world”; and He bade Peter, in the garden, put up his sword, and said, “He that taketh the sword shall perish by the sword.”

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com