God Makes Rulers Mad

For God the Almighty has made our rulers mad; they actually think they can do–and order their subjects to do–whatever they please.  And the subjects made the mistake of believing that they, in turn, are bound to obey their rulers in everything.  It has gone so far that rulers have begun ordering the people to get rid of books, and to believe and conform to what the rulers prescribe.  They are thereby presumptuously setting themselves in God’s place, lording it over men’s consciences and faith, and schooling the Holy Spirit according to their own crackbrained [sic] ideas.” Martin Luther, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, in Luther’s Works, vol. 45, pp. 83-84.  [Italics added]

In this work (1523) Martin Luther explained the limits of the authority of worldly rulers. In 1522 Duke George of Saxony (cousin and rival to Luther’s own ruler, Frederick the Wise) had begun confiscating and destroying Luther’s books.  Dr. Luther explained his famous teaching on the two kingdoms (or governments) in this text also.  God has established a temporal government to rule the world and a spiritual government “by which the Holy Spirit produces Christians.” (Ibid., p. 91) While Luther certainly recognized that God had established temporal authority, he never hesitated from criticizing rulers publicly.  For example, here he rebukes rulers for their greed and lack of true ethics:

“…the temporal lords are supposed to govern lands and people outwardly.  This they leave undone.  They can do no more than strip and fleece, heap tax upon tax and tribute upon tribute, letting loose here a bear and there a wolf.  Besides this, there is no justice, integrity, or truth to be found among them.  They behave worse than any thief or scoundrel, and their temporal rule has sunk quite as low as that of the spiritual tyrants. For this reason God so perverts their minds also, that they rush on into the absurdity of trying to exercise a spiritual rule over souls, just as their counterparts try to establish a temporal rule.  They blithely heap alien sins upon themselves and incur the hatred of God and man, until they come to ruin together with bishops, popes, monks, one scoundrel with the other.” Ibid., p. 109. [Italics added]

Notice how Luther describes God as working against sinful rulers.  In fact, he portrays the confusion of temporal and spiritual rule as God’s judgment on these rulers.  In this section of the work Luther also attacks bishops who act as worldly rulers and not shepherds of souls.  God’s judgment exposes the misuse of both governments.  In light of this judgment, did Luther believe temporal rulers could act justly?  For Luther it was unlikely.  At best rulers could keep social order and punish criminals.  Consider the following statement:

“You must know that since the beginning of the world a wise prince is a mighty rare bird, and an upright prince even rarer.  They are generally the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth; therefore, one must constantly expect the worst from them and look for little good, especially in divine matters which concern the salvation of souls.  They are God’s executioners and hangmen; his divine wrath uses them to punish the wicked and to maintain outward peace.” Ibid., p. 113.

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.


God Makes Rulers Mad — 5 Comments

  1. If Martin Luther referred to princes and rulers of his time as “the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth,” one might blush at the scatological language he would use to describe those voters who today elect (and reelect) the scum of the earth as our representatives within the form of government of “We the People.”

  2. It is comforting to know that Luther would not have been surprised by what we refer to today as the “New Normal” within the two Kingdoms. Part of his legacy can be seen as him living out Acts 5:29. He was recalcitrant against authoritarian abuse of God-ordained offices and resisted erring and corrupt power brokers long before Mahatma Gandhi became famous for civil disobedience. His expectations of civil authority were low (despite Romans 13) so it must have come as a pleasant surprise when John the Steadfast, Frederick the Wise, and the other “Lutheran princes” defended and supported him against the Papacy. God makes rulers mad and rulers made Luther madder.

  3. If we say that God makes rulers mad and then charge that in their madness rulers have done evil against the church, wouldn’t that hold God to be the cause of evil against the body of Christ? And how can that be? A house divided against itself cannot stand. (Mark 3:24-25) Isn’t it rather that sin in the world — Satan and our own corrupt natures — can cause people of any rank to be grossly blinded to what is right?

    “…did Luther believe temporal rulers could act justly? For Luther it was unlikely.”

    So often we seem to say, “For Luther …” and stop there. But isn’t it important for us to think for ourselves and critically evaluate Luther’s perspective? Was he right here? Why or why not?

  4. Carl H,

    That leaves a lot to interpretation. It may be that Luther was implying that evil rulers bring evil on themselves by revolts or unrest by the people, or causing neighboring states to be repulsed by their behavior.

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