Martin Luther on the Multiplication of Laws

MattPhillips“In the papacy we foolish saints added one ordinance to the other.  There were laws without number.  These only terrified the consciences and left people languishing with thirst.  The preachers only intensified the thirst.  This is inevitable.  The teachings of works-righteousness call forth thirst upon thirst….This is also what the jurists do.  They constantly change, amend, and improve the laws, multiplying them without end.  It is like a snowball that rolls from a roof or from a mountain.  It is small when it begins, but it accumulates more and more snow as it rolls downward.  Finally it becomes so large that it would kill a child standing in its path.  Laws and human ordinances followed the same course in the papacy.” Martin Luther, “Sermons on the Gospel of St John,” Luther’s Works, vol. 23, p. 273.

Here as Luther preached on John 7:38, he discussed the papacy’s use of the law to quench the thirst for forgiveness of sins.  One would only need to study the development of late medieval canon law and the numerous scholastic commentaries of other commentaries on canon law and theology to understand Luther’s point here.  His comparison with the jurists (lawyers) of his time illustrates his point well.  Lawyers and judges twist established law to bring about their desired outcomes. Governments and legal bureaucracies add law upon law, regulation upon regulation, and ordinance upon ordinance until it becomes impossible to understand without the experts’ advice.

About Dr. Matthew Phillips

My name is C. Matthew Phillips and I am an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University, Nebraska. I completed my Ph.D. in medieval European history at Saint Louis University in 2006. My research has focused on medieval monasticism, preaching, devotion to the True Cross, and the Crusades. Additionally, I have interests in medieval and early modern European education and the writings and life of Martin Luther.

At Concordia I teach World Civilization I, World Civilization II, Europe Since 1914, Early and Medieval Christianity, Renaissance and Reformation, The Medieval Crusades, The History of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union, and The Modern Middle East.


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