It is better that all of the peasants should be killed rather than that the sovereign and magistrates should be destroyed, because the peasants take up the sword without God’s authorisation.
- Martin Luther
Freedom's Progress?: A History of Political Thought, by Gerard Casey
‘The decline of Christian unity,’ writes Frank Furedi, ‘coincided with a powerful momentum for national territorial centralisation.’
In certain aspects, the Reformation did not create a new reality; instead, it accelerated (and offered a vehicle for) processes and changes that were already taking place. Even in the late fifteenth century, state centralization was taking hold in France – Germany and Italy remaining quite decentralized.
Decentralized, but after the Reformation secular power no longer had to compete with the Church as a governance institution. Within forty years of Luther’s taking hammer and nail to the church door, the Diet of Augsburg declared that Germany was irreparably divided into Catholic and Protestant states.
…there can be no doubt…that as a result of the Reformation, the embryonic centralising states, both Protestant and Catholic, gained enhanced political power and control.
The loss of the Church as an institution with the authority to pass judgement on secular leaders would prove to be one of the key events leading to the formation of what we know as the state.
Casey offers predecessors to Luther. Wycliffe offered that only Scripture was authoritative; he also attacked private property. On the latter, the “Spiritual” Franciscans held the same view regarding property. Had this view held sway, the Church could never find its expression in worldly matters; science would have been stopped.
Regarding property, Wycliffe was even more radical than these Franciscans: the Franciscans were addressing Church property; Wycliffe was considering all property – none to be held privately by anyone. “…no one while in mortal sin has a simple right to any of God’s gifts.” That “simple right” being all that stood between man and a quick trip to the pearly gates (or the other place).
It is worth noting the prevalence of a popular but mistaken belief that the Protestant Reformers, in contrast to the repressive Catholic Church, were the apostles of liberty.
The Reformation was many things but by no stretch of the imagination was it the result of a clamour for religious liberty or, indeed, for liberty more broadly construed.
In fact, it ushered in perhaps the most intolerant period in Christian history.
After Luther, Protestantism took its many forms: those like Luther and Calvin who still saw a united, universal Church, and the radicals “who professed every sort of extreme idea,” to include, “most dangerously, religious tolerance.”
As you will note from the opening quote from Luther, Augustine’s unfortunate interpretation of Romans 13 was influential; Luther, after all, began his religious life as an Augustinian.
As Ellen Meiksins Wood puts it, ‘there hardly exists in the Western canon a more uncompromising case for strict obedience to secular authority; and this…belongs to the essence of Lutheran doctrine.’
Luther held this view despite holding a very negative opinion of secular rulers: “There is no good faith or honesty to be found amongst them.” However, this hopeful sentiment couldn’t overcome Luther’s view that man’s sinful nature required a vertical relationship between ruler and ruled.
…he urged the princes on to the most brutal repression of any hint of resistance, rebellion or revolution.
While Luther demands strict obedience to secular authorities, he attacks the Church’s rights in temporal jurisdiction: no punishment of sins, no excommunication. One of the key tools that kept in check the more egregious acts of rulers during medieval times was to no longer be utilized.
By removing all legal and jurisdictional functions from the Church, Lutherans effectively facilitated the transference of those functions to the state, thus enlarging and extending state power.
There was no institution that could pass judgment on a tyrant; the state was born. Eventually, Luther’s position would evolve regarding resistance to the prince, but the damage had been done.
Calvin held to all of this and then some; it was the ruler’s responsibility to promote godly discipline on the populace.
‘I approve a political order that makes it its business to prevent true religion…from being besmirched and violated with impunity by public and manifest sacrilege.’
It is, according to Calvin, God’s pleasure that man is governed in this way.
Eventually, the idea of private resistance to the prince would gain some traction, more by those who followed Luther and Calvin than in the two leaders themselves – driven by the fact that the secular leader was removing privileges previously granted to the Protestant communities. Where the secular leaders were unsympathetic to Protestant views, private resistance was seen more favorably – and Biblical interpretation would therefore evolve according to this necessity.
Further, in Calvinist communities of Scotland, for example, the idea of private resistance had traction almost from the beginning. Hey, they are Protestants…to each his own! But without the medieval Church and its recognized authority to sanction the prince, such resistance had little power or authority behind it.
Catholic lights would still shine during this time. Casey offers Juan de Mariana and Étienne de la Boétie as examples. The former is well-known as an apologist for tyrannicide – even in popular hands; the latter for his discourse questioning why man submits voluntarily to servitude.