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Cromwell to Cromwell
Reform to Civil War
By John Schofield
The History PressCopyright © 2011 John Schofield
All rights reserved.
THE EUROPEAN BACKGROUND, 1517–31
On a late spring evening, on 4 May 1521, a mystery visitor arrived under escort at Wartburg Castle near Eisenach in Germany. He was ushered into a room hastily prepared for him, and given books, paper and a writing table. The castle's occupants were told that a certain Knight George (Junker Jörg) would be staying with them for a short while. Only a carefully select few knew his real name – it was Martin Luther, the notorious heretic and excommunicate.
Luther had been at the diet of Worms in obedience to a summons from the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. In the emperor's presence Luther defended his writings and refused to recant when directed to do so. For this he was placed under the imperial ban, though Charles did honour his promise of safe conduct, and Luther was allowed to return home. For his own protection, however, and with the knowledge of Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony where Luther lived, Luther's friends staged a mock kidnap and spirited him away to Wartburg. With a beard to help his disguise, he remained several months there in seclusion from the outside world, concentrating on his translation of the New Testament and many other writings.
Safe though he was in Wartburg, at least for the time being, Luther knew that his struggles with opponents were far from finished. 'We must resist that most atrocious wolf with all our strength', he urged his friend, George Spalatin, referring to his old adversary on the indulgence crisis, Cardinal Albrecht. Rumours soon reached him of disturbances among students, artisans and peasants, supporting Luther and hostile to the German clergy. The authorities were seriously alarmed. Among Luther's Wartburg works was a commentary on the Magnificat, and one line of Mary's song – 'He has put down the mighty from their thrones' – may have struck his mind (Luke 1:52). But if Luther was ever tempted to take advantage of the simmering unrest in Germany by calling the people to arms, he resisted it. Troubled by reports of strife in his native Wittenberg, in December 1521 he composed his Sincere admonition ... against insurrection and rebellion. Luther was convinced that divine judgement was about to fall on the papist kingdom, and if the pope and his cardinals were afraid of risings throughout Europe, then that served them right for having corrupted the Gospel. Nevertheless, Luther would never endorse insurrection, either for the sake of religion or in any other cause. Insurrection lacks all discernment: for 'when Mr Mob breaks loose he cannot tell the wicked from the good, he just lays about him at random'. Therefore, said Luther:
I am and always will be, on the side of those against whom insurrection is directed, no matter how unjust their cause. I am opposed to those who rise in insurrection, no matter how just their cause, because there can be no insurrection without hurting the innocent and shedding their blood [emphasis mine].
In times of trial or persecution, Luther appealed to Christian readers to commit matters to God and wait patiently on Him. The way to defeat the pope and his bishops is to continue the work already begun, to preach and believe the Gospel – 'better this way than a hundred insurrections'. Rebellion is the devil's work, cunningly contrived to disgrace the Gospel.
The Reformation that Luther had begun was primarily a controversy over St Paul, and particularly Paul's great theological treatise, the epistle to the Romans. For years Luther had been immersed in Paul's writings before being convinced that the medieval Roman Church of his time, with her Masses, penance and indulgences, had become the bastion of a false and corrupted Christianity. Justification by faith alone was no mere theological theory; it was a way of salvation radically at odds with the one taught by the church's leaders: a gift of divine grace, freely offered, received by faith, impossible to earn by any good work or human merit. This discovery led Luther to attack the Roman Mass, clerical celibacy, traditional teaching on penance and papal authority in the church. But he did not attack the authority of kings and civil powers.
Luther's spiritual trials and breakthroughs have been admirably and exhaustively explained by his definitive modern biographer, Martin Brecht, so they can be passed over very quickly here. Besides, Luther's teaching on salvation and justification quickly became a Protestant consensus. But there was something else in Paul's epistle that would exercise the minds of generations of Protestants throughout Western Europe in diverse ways, namely the apostle's directive in Romans 13 to the church to honour and obey the civil power. This will be the chief subject of this book: the various reformers' views on church and state, and the curious, frequently difficult connection between reform and revolt; how these views changed and evolved as the sixteenth century unfolded; how religious reform sometimes leads to strife and sometimes does not; how some reformers befriend the state while others set themselves against it; and so on.
This was a slightly uncertain area for the Reformers, because whereas the New Testament is quite definite on matters of theology and doctrine, that is not always the case with secular affairs. The men who wrote the New Testament could not foresee either the conversion of Constantine or the collapse of the Roman Empire. Consequently, they did not give precise instructions on how a Christian kingdom should be constituted; they probably never expected to see such a thing on earth. Reformers who believed in the primacy of Scripture, therefore, had no conveniently itemised list of Scriptural commands on this subject that they were supposed to follow, which left them feeling their own way to some extent.
When Luther returned to Wittenberg he set his face against religious and political radicalism in his Invocavit sermons. He put a summary and permanent end to outbreaks of image-smashing in Saxony. He forcefully reminded some of his more zealous brethren of the need for patience when introducing even necessary reforms. The need of the hour was for good preaching to win the hearts and minds of the people to the new faith. Allowing the laity to receive the wine as well as the bread at communion was right and good, but compelling it would merely be a new form of legalism. Even the hated Mass should be reformed by persuasion rather than by force. The sermons made a strong impression, and Luther won over most of his hearers.
Along with his chief ally and co-worker, Philip Melanchthon, Luther now began building the evangelical church, and reforming the University of Wittenberg to become a centre of evangelical education and scholarship. Luther was also putting together his ideas on church and state, and he made the second as well as the first an institution of divine authority. What motivated him to do so was his deference to Scripture and the call of the apostles to the church to be subject to the civil power, for it is ordained of God to govern the world (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–17). On a personal level Luther had no love and precious little respect for most of Christendom's princes. Affairs of state, he noted, 'are usually administered by those least capable of the task'. Civil government among the heathen was just as good as and probably better than in much of Western Christendom, which, in Luther's opinion, was singularly unlucky with its rulers: 'very few princes are not fools or scoundrels', and a prince is 'a rare prize in heaven'. However, the world is an evil place and deserves its bad princes. 'Frogs must have their storks' (this from the Aesop fable, where the greedy frogs demand a king, and for their troubles they get a stork which eats them all up).
Luther knew where the hearts of far too many princes lay:
If they would so manage that their dancing, hunting and racing were done without injury to their subjects, and if they would otherwise conduct their office in love towards them, God would not be so harsh as to begrudge them their dancing and hunting and racing. But they would soon find out for themselves, if they gave their subjects the care and attention required by their office, that many a fine dance, hunt, race and game would have to be missed.
But despite his generally poor view of Christendom's political leaders, Luther could not ignore the commands in the New Testament to honour the civil power. So he accepted the legitimacy of princes, their right to rule, their usefulness in keeping civil peace and restraining evil. Rulers were entitled to obedience from all their subjects, including the clergy, in civil affairs. The authority of the princes, however, did not allow them to bind consciences or determine articles of faith; so when German princes like Duke George tried to suppress Luther's New Testament, their mandates were invalid and may be ignored. Luther never required unconditional obedience to princes. At Worms he had effectively been ordered to recant in the presence of the emperor, but he did not do so. In matters of faith and conscience, 'God must be obeyed rather than men' (Acts 4:19; 5:29). So the Christian may refuse to obey a command from a ruler to take part in idolatrous worship, and if the consequences are imprisonment or worse, they must be patiently endured. On no account, however, no matter what the circumstances, should the Christian resort to insurrection.
Luther accepted the right of a Protestant nation to defend itself if it came under attack from a Catholic power, but he would not support an attack in the other direction in the cause of religion. Luther would, and frequently did, fight fiercely with his pen, but he would not use the sword in the cause of the Gospel. He did not object on principle to a Christian joining the army and serving his prince as a soldier in a just war, repelling an invader or maintaining civil peace at home; but he should never contaminate the name of Christ by stirring up or joining rebellion. All this is far more than a concern for law and order, though that is involved. This is sola fides – faith alone – applied to the political sphere. It is a trust in God, who, perhaps despite appearances, is neither idle nor indifferent to human affairs. God has promised to hear the cry of the afflicted – 'Vengeance is mine, I will recompense' (Romans 12:19) – and He should be trusted to deal with tyrants in His own way. The private citizen, especially if he is a Christian, has no right to do God's avenging work for him. Rebellion will always cause massive harm and do no good.
Luther was not the first man in Western Christendom to mull over the meaning of Romans 13, but few doctors of the church before him had so strongly emphasised the civil power as a divine ordinance. Luther was rebutting papal claims to temporal sovereignty, and also developing his so-called 'two kingdoms' theme – the spiritual and secular, both divinely ordained. The first, covering matters of faith and conscience, was largely the responsibility of the church, while the second was instituted to deal with civil affairs. Because the civil power was ordained of God, as Paul says, it could not be intrinsically evil, so Luther had no objection to a Christian becoming a civil officer, magistrate or a prince. This meant that a Christian could straddle both kingdoms, but this was not a crude attempt to get the best of both worlds; Luther's wish was that princes would not oppress their subjects for the sake of conscience, while the evangelical church would accept the authority of princes in civil affairs, and not interfere with it as the popes and bishops had done. Church and state could then coexist reasonably harmoniously and with mutual respect, each in its own sphere free from uncalled-for intrusion by the other.
The much talked-about 'two kingdoms' idea has often been critiqued for being a little too theoretical and impracticable for the sixteenth century, when most princes coveted some degree of control over the church. Imagine, for example, suggesting to King Henry VIII that affairs of the church were none of his business. Others have also noted that in later Lutheran church settlements the prince was frequently the head, nominally at least, of the state or territorial church. Complications could also arise if someone prominent in the church was appointed to a leading role in the civil arena. Whatever its anomalies, however, the 'two kingdoms' was a genuine attempt to define the roles of church and state clearly. It also excluded any idea of a rule of the godly or the 'elect' on earth, or a millennial golden age. Luther did not expect the two kingdoms one day to merge into one. From now until the end of time, the church must take the civil power as she finds it: sometimes it would be favourable to evangelical religion, sometimes not. The church will have to suffer patiently where necessary; but she should not clash with, rise in rebellion against, or seek to dominate the state.
The Lutheran Reformation was a spiritual event. Luther's mission, as he saw it, was to restore and proclaim the Gospel that the medieval church had lost; he was not a political or social reformer. As he said: 'It is not in my power to fashion the hearts of men ... I can go no further than the ears; their hearts I cannot reach ... We should preach the Word, but leave the results to God's good pleasure.' Luther hoped, of course, that the Gospel would produce fruit before long: a more virtuous society, greater charity and love to neighbour, less greed in commerce, better conditions for the poor, and so on. As a general rule, however, he was content to concentrate on the spiritual message of salvation and faith in Christ, and let it bear its own fruit in its own way in its own time.
For agitators and radicals of all kinds, whether political or religious, Luther had neither time nor patience, only exasperation and contempt. His innate conservatism made sure that there was no root-and-branch reform to the liturgy or the structure of the church. A visitor to Wittenberg in 1522 who went to Sunday services might have been forgiven for thinking that not a lot had happened recently. Many saints' days and feast days, though admittedly not all, were kept. Images, crucifixes and candles still adorned the interior of the church; priests dressed for the most part as priests had always dressed; and although a discerning listener would notice a few small changes, much of the liturgy was unaltered. No major difference would be apparent until the sermon began: and then a new Gospel would be heard, a new way of salvation, a gift of God to be received by faith in Christ the Mediator and Redeemer; while pilgrimages, monasticism, praying to saints, vows of celibacy, and all talk of earning or meriting grace would be roundly condemned. If our imaginary visitor had made Wittenberg his home, over the next few months and years he would have seen more reforms to the external worship and life of the church: the laity receiving bread and wine rather than bread only at communion; a new liturgical order of service for the Mass; priests marrying and raising families; congregational singing accompanying the traditional liturgy; and the use of the German language in services without the traditional Latin being completely abolished. But these changes were brought in gradually, after explanation and persuasion in sermons, so as not to alarm the good citizens unnecessarily.
The Reformation of the church under Luther may be likened to a house undergoing a change of ownership. The papacy, the cardinals and the medieval scholastic theologians were turned out of doors; the apostles were put in the best rooms, and their writings made the title deeds; while the church fathers, at least up to the time of St Augustine, were accepted as honoured guests. But much of the furnishing was retained. The beauty of holiness – church artwork, images, sacred music and liturgy – Luther preserved, with certain modifications. He even sought to improve on it. A deep lover of music, who wrote some of the first evangelical hymns and melodies, it irked him to think that the pope might have all the best tunes; so he worked closely with two musicians of the Elector's chapel, Conrad Ruppsch and Johann Walther, to see 'all the arts, especially music, used in the service of Him who gave and made them'. So the house was left substantially intact. Then along came a man who wanted to raze the entire building to the ground.
The Reformer and the Revolutionary
One of Luther's fiercest early non-Romanist opponents was Thomas Müntzer. At first he appeared to be on Luther's side, because he supported Luther during the Leipzig dispute with the Roman theologian John Eck in June and July 1519. The main subject debated at Leipzig, however, was not the doctrine of justification by faith or the righteousness of Christ, but the more political issue of papal supremacy in the church. This, Luther had argued, had no Scriptural foundation, though at this stage he might have been prepared to accept the pope as chief pastor of the Western church, provided the pope allowed the Gospel to be freely proclaimed. Müntzer was impressed with the force of Luther's arguments, but there is little evidence that he was ever equally drawn to Luther's revised beliefs on justification. Luther himself would later say, from his limited contacts with him, that although Müntzer and his ilk may have taken the name of Christ, they actually denied Him as the Mediator. In Luther's view this would make Müntzer not just a bad Christian, but downright unchristian.
Excerpted from Cromwell to Cromwell by John Schofield. Copyright © 2011 John Schofield. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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