Luther: You’re a Priest and So Am I

So Luther has three major texts that all come out in 1520. 1520 is kinda his year – he gets ordered to renounce a bunch of his books, produces these three major works, and then in 1521 he gets excommunicated. It’s like January 3rd though, so it’s barely 1521 when it happens. Anyway: this is the end of our brief time with Luther. We’re dealing with these three texts, and then we’re moving on. The first is the Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, first published in August of 1520.

The treatise opens with complaints about ‘Romanists’, which is basically Luther’s term for Catholics who lean way too much into the authority of the Pope. Luther imagines three ‘walls’ that the Romanists have erected to consolidate power, and in this treatise makes it his job to tear those walls down. We’re only really going to look at the first ‘wall’ today, because it’s far and away the most interesting.

The first wall, then, is how the Romanists “have made decrees and said that the temporal power has no jurisdiction over them, but, on the other hand, that the spiritual is above the temporal power.” In the most basic sense, we can see the strength to the Romanist argument here. Theoretically the spiritual is a higher and greater force than the physical realm – or at least, that’s something that Luther himself believes, as we saw last week. We understand the idea of God being above in heaven and us being stuck down here on earth – the hierarchy of spiritual and temporal is by no means unfamiliar. It kinda also follows that we might think of spiritual leaders as in some sense being greater than political leaders. The first lot are oriented towards eternity, while the second are only concerned with this world.

The problem, for Luther, is that the Romanists are using this supposed superiority to avoid legal attempts at reform. In response, Luther comes right out of the gate and just savages the idea of a spiritual hierarchy. As far as he’s concerned, all Christians belong to the same spiritual estate: “there is among them no difference at all but that of office. The hierarchy of priest and pope might exist, but only in the democratic sense that we’ve all come out and picked them to be the ones in charge. They don’t get any special powers because of it. They don’t have any abilities that anybody else is lacking. Luther uses the example of ten princes, “all king’s sons and equal heirs,” where all ten collectively pick one to be the dude on the throne. Luther argues that in that situation, “they would all be kings and equal in power, though one of them would be charged with the duty of ruling.” The offices of the spiritual hierarchy operate primarily for the sake of convenience. That’s why anybody can preach or baptize: it’s not some special restricted power within the bounds of Christianity.

Further, Luther says, if a bishop gets deposed, they don’t have anything special about them any more. “While he is in office, he has precedence; when deposed, he is a peasant or a townsman like the rest.” This might be an inappropriate comparison, but it sort of seems like Luther is laying some of the intellectual foundations for later ideas around democracy. He’s not out to criticise the various monarchies and lordships around Germany and elsewhere – in fact he relies on patronage in order to stay alive once the Catholics really start gunning for him. But it’s hard not to see the parallels. He’s criticising spiritual rulers who consider themselves to be in some way special, in some way lifted over the wider populace (compare, for instance, ideas around the divine right of kings). Luther treats every believer as of equal footing, as all kings and equal in power. His spiritual leaders are elected for the sake of convenience, they are accountable to the people, and if they are deposed, they go back to being ordinary citizens. The American Revolution seems like a fairly logical extension of those positions: if those are the rules for spiritual leaders, then why not for political leaders too?

Let’s stay with that American example for a moment longer. Under Luther’s theory, a potential problem might be mass stupidity. That is, it’s possible to replace the arbitrary decision-making of one person with the arbitrary decision-making of a big ol’ group, but that doesn’t guarantee that the Christian faith will be any better off than it was under the papacy. We still need some sort of clear guidance, some type of authority that keeps us aligned with God’s actual will. That’s the point where Luther anchors the faith more specifically to the Bible. The Bible replaces the Pope as the primary source for God’s authoritative self-revelation. That’s why Luther finds himself compelled to argue that the Bible is transparent and obvious in its meaning: if it’s our guidebook for God, it has to be obvious, or we’re going to be consumed by issues of interpretation. We’ll again be trapped by the arbitrary decision-making of the group. That’s not an outcome Luther wants. Under this theory, however, text becomes a singularly important mode. It is the method of divine revelation – not oral tradition, not cultural norms, but text. Returning to the Americans, then, it’s telling that their entire nation was founded on the Constitution – on a text. Their reverence for the Constitution as a written text can be traced back to Luther and his ideas about text as a heightened and authoritative form.

In a way, my experience of Luther so far feels much more weighted towards the political than the theological. And yes, those categories aren’t mutually exclusive, blah blah blah, but he’s not spending a lot of time talking about the Trinity. His focus, at least here, is on how we organise and arrange our political-religious communities. It’s how we organise the church, how we assign authority and status within the clergy. Luther recognises that the church is always already political. He uses theological frameworks (believers as priests and kings) to disarticulate the systems of power maintained by the Catholic hierarchy. The temporal power was established by God to punish wrongdoers, he argues. It shouldn’t matter whether those wrongdoers “be pope, bishop, or priest … whoever is guilty, let him suffer.” We believe today that nobody should be above the law – not even senior religious figures, such as George Pell. Luther might have his problems, but he’s also sowing the seeds of these now-commonplace ideas. Credit where credit’s due.

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