Luther on Just War Against the Turks

In the early sixteenth century the Ottoman Empire had become the dominant power in the Middle East.  When Suleiman the Magnificent (r.1520-66) became Sultan in 1520 the empire included modern Turkey, Syria, Northern Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Egypt, the west coast of Arabia, and the Balkan territory of southeastern Europe.  During his reign Suleiman added southern Iraq, Kuwait, the eastern coast of Arabia, most of North Africa, Hungary, and the Crimea.  The Ottoman Turks fought aggressive wars on all fronts against Christians and other Muslims.  When Suleiman’s army defeated the Hungarian army (and killed King Louis II of Hungary) at the battle of Mohacs in 1526 many Europeans rightly feared a massive Turkish invasion.  In the fall of 1529 Suleiman’s army did lay siege to Vienna (the main city of the Hapsburg territory).  Archduke Ferdinand I, brother and later successor of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, led the defense of Vienna.

Martin Luther had published On the War Against the Turks in April 1529 as an explanation of how to properly fight the Ottoman Turks.  In short, he rejected the idea of a crusade for two main reasons. First, crusades were pilgrimages by which the penitent performed acts of satisfaction to deal with the temporal guilt of contritely confessed sins.  Since Luther rejected this understanding of repentance as early as 1517, he could not endorse crusades as a proper religious activity.  Second, the idea of a crusade confused the earthly and spiritual kingdoms.  Popes called the crusades as holy wars to fight against Muslims, pagans, or heretics.  Dr. Luther repudiated the notion that priests or pastors should call or lead such a war. [W. Perry Copus, Jr., “Luther, the Crusades, and Just War,” Logia 18, 4 (2009): 7-11; and my post here: Luther on Crusades]

While Martin Luther did reject penitential warfare, he affirmed the idea of a just war. In On the War Against the Turk he explained how a defense against Suleiman’s army could take place justly.  First, the Turks had initiated an aggressive war, which Luther compared to robbery and piracy. Second, Luther explains that Christians must resist the Turks through spiritual means:

Every pastor and preacher ought diligently to exhort his people to repentance and to prayer exhort.  They ought to drive men to repentance by showing our great and numberless sins and our ingratitude, by which we have earned God’s wrath and disfavor, so that he justly gives us into the hands of the devil and the Turks. (LW 46:171)

Dr. Luther made it clear that sinful Germans had earned God’s punishment and that the Turks could be a divine means to carry it out, even if the Turks were demonic pawns.  However, this did not mean that the civil authorities should not defend their land from an aggressive attack.  In fact, as the earthly authority, the imperial office had the obligation to do so.  Additionally, if called upon by the proper civil authority, Christian men could fight against the Turkish aggressors in good conscience.  As Luther wrote:

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.  Then everyone can be sure in his conscience that he is obeying the ordinance of God, since we know that the emperor is our true overlord and head and that whoever obeys him in such a case obeys God also, whereas he who disobeys him also disobeys God.  If he dies in this obedience, he dies in a good state, and if he has previously repented and believes in Christ, he will be saved. (LW 46:185)

Finally, Dr. Luther explained that only problems arise when the spiritual and earthly authorities act against their divinely-ordained purpose.  That is, the emperor must deal with secular matters like war and clergy should never exhort Christians to fight as acts of piety.

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.


Comments

Luther on Just War Against the Turks — 9 Comments

  1. Dr. Luther made it clear that sinful Germans(Americans) had earned God’s punishment and that the Turks(Islamists) could be a divine means to carry it out, even if (they) were demonic pawns.

  2. And in the same vein, one might update Martin Luther’s statement to read:

    “If there is to be war against the Turk, it should be fought at the emperor’s [We, the People’s] command, under his banner [the U.S. Constitution], and in his name [Article I, Section 8]. Then everyone can be sure in his conscience that he is obeying the ordinance of God, since we know that the emperor [We the People through their ordained and established Constitution] is our true overlord and head and that whoever obeys him [the Constitution] in such a case [constitutional declaration of war] obeys God also, whereas he who disobeys him also disobeys God. If he dies in this obedience, he dies in a good state, and if he has previously repented and believes in Christ, he will be saved.”

    Earlier, in his “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved” (Ob Kriegsleute in seligem Stande sein können, 1526), Martin Luther refers to the activities of Christians as soldiers:

    ”For the hand that guides the sword and kills is then no longer the hand of a human being, but the hand of God, and not of the person; instead, God hangs, breaks on the wheel, decapitates, kills and leads the war. For all things are his works and judgments. In summary: We must, in thinking about a soldier’s office, not concentrate on the killing, burning, striking, hitting, seizing, etc This is what the inexperienced do, simple children’s eyes which do not continue to watch the doctor either as he amputates the hand or saws off the leg, and do not see or notice that it concerns saving the whole body. Likewise, one must also look at the office of the soldier or the sword with manly eyes, why it kills as it does and is cruel. Then it itself will prove that it is a divine office through and through and necessary for the world and as useful as eating and drinking.”

    This summary can be applied to the Allied firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden as well as the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities during WWII.

  3. I do not believe we can make a leap to firebombing cities and dropping atomic bombs. Especially, since neither of the cases you cited were necessary to win the wars at that point. Dropping an atomic bomb on Nagasaki (where most of the Japanese Christians lived) was particularly horrible and unnecessary. Proportionality is an important aspect of just war. While I’m not going to wring my hands about it either, I do think we can honestly appraise past actions. In other words, everything the Allied military did during World War II was not right or moral, even if the overall cause was a just response to military aggression. Luther could not fathom the amount of death and destruction wrought by these actions, so I’d find it difficult to apply his words from 1526 to specific events in 1945.

    And I’m NOT going to argue or discuss it any further with you in this forum.

  4. @MP #4

    Again, regarding objections to Allied firebombing and atomic bomb attacks during WWII, Luther’s words are pertinent:

    “This is what the inexperienced do, simple children’s eyes which do not continue to watch the doctor either as he amputates the hand or saws off the leg, and do not see or notice that it concerns saving the whole body. Likewise, one must also look at the office of the soldier or the sword with manly eyes, why it kills as it does and is cruel."

  5. Your argumentative skills are too much for me. I concede: this restated quote proves that Dr. Luther would have agreed with you.

  6. @MP #6

    Perhaps someday this subject may discussed in more detail on some future BJS blog, “Luther on Just War Against the Axis Powers.” 😉

    In the meantime, is this blog open to comments about Luther’s writings being applied to “Just War Against ISIS and Islamoterrorism”?

  7. “Finally, Dr. Luther explained that only problems arise when the spiritual and earthly authorities act against their divinely-ordained purpose. That is, the emperor must deal with secular matters like war and clergy should never exhort Christians to fight as acts of piety.”

    I’m confused by the “that is”. Is it to serve as some sort of clarification of the preceding sentence? Or a conclusion indicator of some sort? If the latter, I’m not familiar with it.

    Indeed problems do arise when the Church behaves as the State and vice versa.

    However, perhaps today we have another, more serious problem. To what extent are Lutheran communions or agencies acting as agents of the State by providing State-funded services, or acting as representatives of the people to the State by offering up the people’s “concerns”?

    Seems to me this is a genuine problem today: Lutheran communions or agencies acting as some sort of go betweens ‘twixt the people and the State.

    Much like Rome did and continues to do today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.