Martin Luther seemingly did not consider himself a political thinker, nor was the Reformation an explicitly political movement, and yet, historians and philosophers read the man in a plainly political fashion. Different interpretations have co-opted the necessarily political Luther, but it is my argument that, Martin Luther, despite historiographical arguments to the contrary, was emblematic of a movement that would engulf Europe beginning in the 16th century: the shift to absolutism.
Historian Brendan Simms identifies the shift to absolutism as part of a dual transformation in the political constitution of Western Europe. He suggests during the period after 1453, and the fall of Constantinople, two types of government began to take shape as dominant regimes in Europe. The first was absolutism, embodied by the Ottoman Turkey, France, and Russia; the second was more constrained and deliberative government of the form represented by the inchoate institutions of the Netherlands and England. The Habsburg empire in Germany and Spain struggled to reconcile itself to these changes and stabilize the empire in a fashion that rectified these competing tendencies or led to stable dominance of one over the other. This milieu generated Martin Luther as a political figure. In the Reformation era, not only did politics take on a dynamic character irrespective of confession, but rising powers sought to influence the reformers and manipulate the discord between the German princes and the Roman Catholic Church in their own interest. Both the Ottoman Empire and France were culpable initiators of such machinations. Perforce, absolute secular authority found itself both enabled and responsive to such pressures to ensure the survival of the political community.
To effectively contextualize my reading of Luther it is first necessary to place it along side other historiographical paradigms which serve to contrast the authoritarian and absolutist Martin Luther. Firstly, Marxist historians read Luther in concomitance with the Marxist interpretation of Bourgeoisie self-consciousness coming into its own awareness as oppositional to the feudal order necessarily impeding the full realization of the progression to capitalism. This interpretation is found in much of the scholarship of the German Democratic Republic, as highlighted by Brent Peterson, who suggests GDR historians often viewed the period between 1517-1526 as the ‘early bourgeoisie revolution,’ where the juvenescent bourgeoisie capitalists rejected a sickly and dying feudal order. This Marxist interpretation originated in the discourse of the Friedrich Engels in his Peasants War in Germany; nevertheless, Engels saw further echoes of socialism in visions of Thomas Muntzer who, to Engels, relied on scripture as the blunt instrument in the theological emancipation of the peasant class the name of egalitarian ends. This interpretation seems viable at first glance, but its legitimacy is dubious when placed into relation with the writing of Luther himself. Where it is evident that Luther did not see his works as any kind of revolt against the feudal order, but rather as a vital transference of the authority of the Papacy to the authority of the secular monarchs with necessarily unforeseen consequences.
Meanwhile, there is a liberal interpretation to the politics of Luther and the greater Reformation. Graham Maddox notably maintains such an analysis when he places Luther into the progressive and ‘libertarian’ democratic tradition alongside Niccolo Machiavelli’s republican discourse. However, such an interpretation quickly demonstrates itself to be a project derived from implicit argument and a Whiggish lens. For Luther, the Reformation movement, was not one of dividing the sovereignty, but re-asserting ‘The Church’ as the absolute in the temporal whilst re-affirming the unquestioned sovereignty of God through scripture. Not a secular liberalism as the liberal interpretation suggest through the perspective of a generous interpretation of Luther’s two kingdoms.
To understand the interpretation of Martin Luther as a conservative, whose discourse led to a confirmed sovereignty of God in scripture applied through Natural Law as exercised by temporal authority on behalf of ‘The Church,’ one must understand Luther’s impetus for assigning authority to the temporal and the way in which he conceived the relationship between the Roman Church and ‘The Church’ as the Christian community of the elect as existing within the world.
Martin Luther may have seemed the radical reformer -- emphatically so -- when placed in parallel with fellow contemporaries like Desiderius Erasmus. In relation to Erasmus, Luther cultivated unorthodoxy through his readings of Lorenzo Valla and Jan Hus as well as his vituperation of the papacy. Thus, this perception may be true in relation to Catholic doctrine, but it did not hold in terms of his Christianity in general. When one reads the term ‘radical’ the presumption is progressive, and as Ernst Troeltsch elucidates, Luther and the wider Reformation was certainly not so, noting ‘If a general transformation of civilization necessarily finds expression in a change in legal theory . . . then Protestantism is no new civilization.’
Historian Lewis Spitz expands upon the interpretation of Luther as a functionally political and conservative figure. Firstly, Spitz notes that for Luther the maintenance of the status quo, in terms of earthly order and stability, was always a given, and secondly, he notes Luther’s confidence in the providence of God, led to the belief that mankind could not foreknow the outcomes of Reformation and political restructuring. Rather, such initiatives were beyond the purview of those preaching political transformation as a fulfilment of God’s ordained will on earth. This understanding of Luther not only suggests he disdained activism due to potential unforeseen consequences, but also provided grounds for his hostility to the Peasants War: a betrayal in the eyes of Thomas Muntzer.
To Luther the temporal rule and the rule of The Church originated in an understanding of creation as an organic whole and product of God. The incorrect reading of Luther insists that his two kingdoms are separate worlds the one of the earthly, and another of the heavenly, in the vein of Saint Augustine. Augustine believes the City of God and the Earthly City as communities both exist in the world, but the City of God only finds its full realization in the union with God in accordance with providence and the life to come; the City of God then is not just a population, but a realm. Augustine states. ‘[T]he City [sic] of saints is up above, although it produces citizens . . . below . . . the City is on a pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom comes.’ To Luther, this is not strictly the case, and by aligning Luther’s doctrine too tightly with Augustine part of Luther’s originality is lost. To Luther, the Kingdoms are not mutually exclusive, which would lead one to a conclusive secularism, as Maddox suggests. Rather, both worlds are united through existence in physical creation and both are accountable for the righteousness of the Christian Church.
To extract an authoritative reading of Luther’s assignment of power to secular authorities, his on The Christian Nobility serves as an illuminating example, alongside On Governmental Authority. Firstly, it should be noted that Luther intended to bring about a more Christian world, his goal was not emancipation, but first to curtail the selling of indulgences and the excesses of the Curia. He does this by arguing against what he titles the three walls of the Roman Church: first, that temporal power has no jurisdiction over the church; second, that only the Pope may interpret scripture; thirdly, that only the Pope may summon a council.. In each he outlines his political standpoint via a unique ontology. One read before that Luther viewed the world as an organic whole in Christ, but the conclusion needs explication.
First, Luther believes that the community of believers is indeterminate by office. The notion of an chosen minority endowed by God with holy authority over believers is contradicted by references to Corinthians 12. Instead, Clergy are appointed on behalf of the Church and serve as delegates who may dedicate their efforts to serving God. However, the baker and the priest are identical insofar as they are components of God’s church on earth. This conclusion levelled the hierarchy of the Roman Church and placed the notion of divine appointment into question. Secondly, Luther argues that scripture itself, if not authoritative, becomes redundant and self-defeating. If the Pontiff is sole arbiter on scripture, then the Christian community cannot be a righteous one, because its earthly leadership is beyond criticism. This brings an element of popular government and immediacy to the institutions of the Christian community. The third critique is a natural outcome of the first two: Luther established the single Christian community as the foundation of the spiritual and temporal authority before placing the obligation for scriptural interpretation and application on the many, leading to the conclusion that it is not just the Bishop of Rome who can summon Councils. Here he makes a historical appeal to the Council of Nicaea and the Apostolic Council.
The ontology then is one of egalitarian and instrumental relations between the laity, who include the elect, and the earthly church embodied by Rome, which houses both the predestined and the evil. It is the indeterminacy in the composition of such structures that leads to the justification of the assignment of the absolute authority of the Roman Church to secular rulers. This is further confirmed when he writes that the punishment of murder, whether realized or not is dependent upon the exercise of God’s Natural Law through human beings. Or restated ‘it is certain and clear enough it is God’s will that the temporal sword and law be used for the punishment of the wicked and the protection of the upright.’
It is evident that Luther saw the temporal authority as an instrument in the prevention of chaos and the protection of the Kingdom of God on earth explicitly necessary because of the impossibility of separating the two kingdoms: he emphasized that taking the sacraments did not assist in gleaning the ungodly from the good or securing the safety of the latter. If Luther saw government as a fulfilment of the need to ensure the safety of God’s chosen, then the assignment of political authority was simply a question of efficacy, and in this way and for this reason he saw the secular ruler as mandated to act where the Roman Church could no longer do so. Yet, temporal authority, it must not be forgotten, itself is contingent upon its comity with God’s law, and in the eyes of Luther must not presume itself elevated to deification.
It must not be left strictly to the writings of Luther to confirm the thesis that absolutism found its enabler in the Protestant Reformation. Rather, it is confirmed in two ways by Ernst Troeltsch. Firstly, in that he suggests that Luther’s Protestantism invested secular authorities with providential purpose and secondly, state prerogative grew through secular annexation of the institutions of education. Karlheinz Blaschke furnishes such an example noting the Elector of Saxony turned the Monastery of the Holy Cross territory and Nimbschen into school districts for state use expanding secular power and administrative capacity.
In addition, Eric Gritsch observes that by the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555, the state was confirmed as the authoritative body standing above the earthly manifestation of Church. Blaschke expands the argument through in depth examination of Reformation Saxony. He suggests that the territorial state, always expanding in size and authority, or attempting to do so in relation to its peers, found a new opportunity for growing both its wealth and its lands through the seizure of previously inviolable church land within its de jure boundaries. As the state adopted church functions the transition from Medieval ‘courtly’ government, changed to departmental or bureaucratic administration characteristic of the modern state. Shortly after the initiation of the Reformation in Saxony both the Privy Council (1574) and the Central Finance Office were established (1586). Blaschke states. ‘The Reformation advanced this simultaneous expansion and specialization of the central administration, because the princes’ assumption of episcopal functions made necessary the establishment of a new sector of the central administration.’ He incisively notes, that by eliminating the clerical nobility, the opposition to the central state, the plural power structures of Medieval government, were undermined.
Given the above, the Protestant Reformation then, in accordance with its incitation by Martin Luther, cannot sustain a reading that leads to its interpretation as a Marxist Proto-Bourgeois revolution; nor, can it sustain an interpretation built on assumption and hindsight, that the Reformation necessarily led to secularization and freedom of conscience. Rather, the Reformation must be rendered in context and interpreted as an absolutist force when placed in concurrence with the growing centralization and bureaucratization of the modern state.
This is apparent because Luther did not see room in the divine order for popular uprising or activism. The condemnation of the peasant uprising of 1524-1525, served as evidence of this persuasion. Nor, did he abide by a political vacuum and strict lines of demarcation between a secular order and a spiritual one. Instead, Luther saw them as composite, and this unity under God created and justified the assertion of the secular political authority as hegemon above the Roman Church. In this way, the princes of Germany sublimated the duties of the ecclesiastical establishment and grew their own power. In the Germany of Luther, the individual existed as tightly governed with spiritual and temporal authorities to answer to, the annexation of one to the other did not grow freedom, but alternatively, expanded the dominion of state over the plurality of authority characteristic of the Medieval tradition of governance.
James D Tracy, ed. Introduction to Luther and the Modern State in Germany, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1986), 9-10, 13.
Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present, (London: Penguin, 2013), 8.
 Simms, Europe 1453 to Present, 11, 13.
 Brent O, Peterson, ‘“Workers of the World Unite-for God’s sake!” Recent Luther Scholarship in the German Democratic Republic,”’ Luther and the Modern State in Germany, ed. James D. Tracy (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1986), 83-84.
Fredrick, Engels, The Peasants War in Germany, ed. Mark Harris and David Allinson Trans. Moissaye J. Olgin (Cologne, Germany: Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 1850), 28, 37-38, 89.
 Graham Maddox, "The Secular Reformation and the Influence of Machiavelli," Journal of Religion 82, no. 4 (2002): 557-558.
 Thorsten Prill, "Martin Luther, the Two Kingdoms, and the Church," Evangel 23, no. 1 (Spring 2005):19-20.
 Anthony Levi, Renaissance and Reformation: The Intellectual Genesis, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 280-281.
 Ernst Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress, ed. Howard Schneiderman, (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2013), 59.
 Lewis Spitz, "The political Luther," Christian History 11, no. 2 (May 1992): Paragraph 9-12, 29.
 Engels, Peasant War, 39; Peterson, ‘Workers of the World Unite,’ 86-87.
 Martin Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, (1520) In Luther—selected Political Writings, ed. J.M Porter, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 6.
 Saint Augustine, City of God, Trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 593-596.
 Maddox, ‘The Secular Reformation,’ 559-561.
 Levi, Renaissance and Reformation,’ 274; Luther, ’Christian Nobility,’ 44.
 Luther, ’Christian Nobility,’ 39.
 Ibid., 40-41.
 Ibid., 44-45.
 Ibid., 47.
 Martin Luther, On Government Authority, (1523), In The Protestant Reformation, ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand (New York: Harper & Rowe, Publishers, 1968), 43-44.
 Ibid., 45.
 Ibid., 46-48.
 Ibid., 58-60.
 Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress, 64, 88.
 Karlheinz Blaschke, ‘The Reformation and the Rise of the Territorial State,’ Luther and the Modern State in Germany, ed. James D. Tracy, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1986), 64.
 Eric W. Gritsch, ‘Luther and the State: Post-Reformation Ramifications,’ Luther and the Modern State in Germany, ed. James D. Tracy, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1986), 53.
 Blaschke, ‘Territorial state,’ 62.
 Ibid., 64.
 Ibid., 65.
 Martin Luther, Friendly Admonition to Peace Concerning the Twelve Articles of the Swabian Peasants, (1525), In The Protestant Reformation ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand, (New York: Harper & Rowe, Publishers, 1968), 72-74.