To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation

Last updated

To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (German : An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation) is the first of three tracts written by Martin Luther in 1520. In this work, he defined for the first time the signature doctrines of the priesthood of all believers and the two kingdoms. The work was written in the vernacular language German and not in Latin.



The Disputation of Leipzig (1519) brought Luther into contact with the humanists, particularly Melanchthon, Reuchlin, Erasmus, and associates of the knight Ulrich von Hutten, who, in turn, influenced the knight Franz von Sickingen. [1] Von Sickingen and Silvester of Schauenburg wanted to place Luther under their protection by inviting him to their fortresses in the event that it would not be safe for him to remain in Saxony because of the threatened papal ban. Between the Edict of Worms in April 1521 and Luther's return from the Wartburg in March 1522 a power struggle developed of who was to lead the Reformation through its competing possibilities and how the Reformers should follow their teachings. In Wittenberg each interested party – prince, town council and commune – wished to expand its influence on the governance of the church in accord with its own values and needs. [2] Through this the question of authority appeared. The church made a strong attempt at drawing distinct lines on saying who had authority in the spiritual sphere and its matters. This division of Christians into spheres motivated Luther to write on the "three walls" the "Romanists" created to protect themselves from reform, this was the letter "to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation"

Under these circumstances, complicated by the crisis then confronting the German nobles, Luther issued his To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (Aug. 1520), committing to the laity, as spiritual priests, the reformation required by God but neglected by the pope and the clergy. [3] This treatise, which has been called a "cry from the heart of the people" and a "blast on the war trumpet," was the first publication Luther produced after he was convinced that a break with Rome was both inevitable and unavoidable. [4] In it he attacked what he regarded as the "three walls of the Romanists": (1) that secular authority has no jurisdiction over them; (2) that only the pope is able to explain Scripture; (3) that nobody but the Pope himself can call a general church council. [5]

The First Wall: Spiritual Power over Temporal

The first wall of the "Romanists" that Luther criticized was that of the division of the spiritual and temporal state. Through this criticism Luther states how there is no difference among these states beyond that of office. He elaborates further by quoting Saint Peter and the Book of Revelation stating that through baptism we were consecrated as priests. Through this statement he attempts to diminish the Church's authority significantly and describes priests as nothing more than "functionaries". Luther provides the example of "if ten brothers, co-heirs as king's sons, were to choose one from among them to rule over their inheritance, they would all still remain kings and have equal power, although one is ordered to govern." [6] From this statement Luther calls for religious office to be held by elected officials, stating that "if a thing is common to all, no man may take it to himself without the wish and command of the community." Therefore, through this criticism of the first wall one can see Luther taking authority from the Church by saying that everyone is a priest and giving more authority to govern to the temporal sphere. The problem that arises out of this can be found in a letter written by an anonymous Nürnberger, "Whether Secular Government has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith." This article raises the question of how much governing control was acceptable for the temporal authorities to have over the spiritual sphere. From Luther's letter temporal authorities took too much control and were executing and banishing for reasons of faith, but at the same time the papists were burning and hanging "everyone who is not of their faith." [7] Thus, the question of who was to have authority to govern the spiritual sphere.

The Second Wall: Authority to Interpret Scripture

In the second part of the letter to the Christian nobility of the German nation, Luther debates the point that it is the Pope's sole authority to interpret, or confirm interpretation of, scriptures, the large problem being that there is no proof announcing this authority is the Pope's alone and thus assuming this authority for themselves. [8] Through this criticism, Luther allows the laity to have a standard to base their faith on and not an official's interpretation, thus detracting more from the Church's control over the sphere. This criticism, unlike in the first wall, supported a strong base of the reformation, the break away from the rules and traditions of the Catholic Church. The Reformation was based on setting the standard on the Scriptures, not on church dogma. Through this reformers were able to have a standard to look to for laws and regulations concerning their faith. [9]

The Third Wall: Authority to Call a Council

This final part to Luther's letter is the largest demonstration of his desire to see authority in control over the spiritual sphere shift to the temporal sphere. The Church was able to protect itself by preventing anyone other than the Pope from calling a council to discuss spiritual affairs. To this, Luther states that anyone should have the ability to call a council if they find a problem or issue of the spiritual sphere. Further, Luther delegates the "temporal authorities" to be best suited for calling a council as they are "fellow-Christians, fellow-priests, sharing one spirit and one power in all things, and [thus] they should exercise the office that they received from God." [6] This shift in power to the temporal authorities in faith matters became a larger problem later in the Reformation. Confrontations arose as to who had the right to interfere in matters of faith, such as at what point is it acceptable for the government to stop a new religion from forming. An example of this confrontation can be found in a document by an unknown Nürnberger entitled "Whether Secular Government has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith." This document asked if military force employed to stop uprising violence, whether applied by the government or the church, is the Christian thing to do. Some believed that violence begot more violence, that "those that lived by the sword would die by the sword" [10] others believed it was the secular sphere's duty to protect its people and stop new faiths from forming. They made use of the Old Testament as proof for their statements, thus relying on old tradition and papal interpretation. [11]

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Priesthood of all believers</span> Christian doctrine

The priesthood of all believers or universal priesthood is a biblical principle in Protestant branches of Christianity which is distinct from the institution of the ministerial priesthood found in some other branches, including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. Derived from the Bible and elaborated in the theology of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the principle became prominent as a tenet of Protestant Christian doctrine, though the exact meaning of the belief and its implications vary widely among denominations.

<i>Ninety-five Theses</i> Disputation by Martin Luther on indulgences

The Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences is a list of propositions for an academic disputation written in 1517 by Martin Luther, then a professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. The Theses is retrospectively considered to have launched the Protestant Reformation and the birth of Protestantism, despite various proto-Protestant groups having existed previously. It detailed Luther's opposition to what he saw as the Roman Catholic Church's abuse and corruption by Catholic clergy, who were selling plenary indulgences, which were certificates supposed to reduce the temporal punishment in purgatory for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Indulgence</span> Remission of sins in the Catholic Church

In the teaching of the Catholic Church, an indulgence is "a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins". The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes an indulgence as "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and all of the saints".

Unam sanctam is a papal bull that was issued by Pope Boniface VIII on 18 November 1302. It laid down dogmatic propositions on the unity of the Catholic Church, the necessity of belonging to it for eternal salvation, the position of the Pope as supreme head of the Church and the duty thence arising of submission to the Pope in order to belong to the Church and thus to attain salvation. The Pope further emphasized the higher position of the spiritual in comparison with the secular order. The historian Brian Tierney calls it "probably the most famous" document on church and state in medieval Europe. The original document is lost, but a version of the text can be found in the registers of Boniface VIII in the Vatican Archives. The bull was the definitive statement of the late medieval theory of hierocracy, which argued for the temporal as well as spiritual supremacy of the pope.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Diet of Augsburg</span> Meetings of the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire which were held in Augsburg

The diets of Augsburg were the meetings of the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire held in the German city of Augsburg. Both an Imperial City and the residence of the Augsburg prince-bishops, the town had hosted the Estates in many such sessions since the 10th century. In 1282, the diet of Augsburg assigned the control of Austria to the House of Habsburg. In the 16th century, twelve of thirty-five imperial diets were held in Augsburg, a result of the close financial relationship between the Augsburg-based banking families such as the Fugger and the reigning Habsburg emperors, particularly Maximilian I and his grandson Charles V. Nevertheless, the meetings of 1518, 1530, 1547/48 and 1555, during the Reformation and the ensuing religious war between the Catholic emperor and the Protestant Schmalkaldic League, are especially noteworthy. With the Peace of Augsburg, the cuius regio, eius religio principle let each prince decide the religion of his subjects and inhabitants who could not conform could leave.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Jewel</span>

John Jewel of Devon, England was Bishop of Salisbury from 1559 to 1571.

Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants is a piece written by Martin Luther in response to the German Peasants' War. Beginning in 1524 and ending in 1525, the Peasants' War was a result of a tumultuous collection of grievances in many different spheres: political, economic, social, and theological. Martin Luther is often considered to be the foundation for the Peasants' Revolt; however, he maintained allegiance to the Princes against the violence of the rebels. Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants typifies Luther's reaction to the Peasants' War, and alludes to Luther's concern that he might be seen to be responsible for their rebellion.

Protestantism originated from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The term Protestant comes from the Protestation at Speyer in 1529, where the nobility protested against enforcement of the Edict of Worms which subjected advocates of Lutheranism to forfeit of all their property. However, the theological underpinnings go back much further, as Protestant theologians of the time cited both Church Fathers and the Apostles to justify their choices and formulations. The earliest origin of Protestantism is controversial; with some Protestants today claiming origin back to people in the early church deemed heretical such as Jovinian and Vigilantius.

The two kingdoms doctrine is a Protestant Christian doctrine that teaches that God is the ruler of the whole world and that he rules in two ways. The doctrine is held by Lutherans and represents the view of some Calvinists. John Calvin significantly modified Martin Luther's original two kingdoms doctrine and certain neo-Calvinists have adopted a different view known as transformationalism.

Ecclesiastical jurisdiction signifies jurisdiction by church leaders over other church leaders and over the laity.

Synod of Homberg consisted of the clergy, the nobility, and the representatives of cities, and was held October 20–22, 1526. The synod is remarkable for a premature scheme of democratic church government and discipline, which failed for the time, but contained fruitful germs for the future and for other countries. It was suggested by the disputations which had been held at Zürich for the introduction of the Zwinglian Reformation.

Lutheranism as a religious movement originated in the early 16th century Holy Roman Empire as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church. The movement originated with the call for a public debate regarding several issues within the Catholic Church by Martin Luther, then a professor of Bible at the young University of Wittenberg. Lutheranism soon became a wider religious and political movement within the Holy Roman Empire owing to support from key electors and the widespread adoption of the printing press. This movement soon spread throughout northern Europe and became the driving force behind the wider Protestant Reformation. Today, Lutheranism has spread from Europe to all six populated continents.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Martin Luther</span> German priest, theologian and author (1483–1546)

Martin Luther was a German priest, theologian, author, hymnwriter, professor, and Augustinian friar. He was the seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation, and his theological beliefs form the basis of Lutheranism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Propaganda during the Reformation</span>

Propaganda during the Reformation, helped by the spread of the printing press throughout Europe and in particular within Germany, caused new ideas, thoughts, and doctrines to be made available to the public in ways that had never been seen before the sixteenth century. The printing press was invented in approximately 1450 by Johan Gutenberg, and quickly spread to other major cities around Europe; by the time the Reformation was underway in 1517 there were printing centers in over 200 of the major European cities.

Famuli vestrae pietatis, also known by the Latin mnemonic duo sunt, is a letter written in 494 by Pope Gelasius I to Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I Dicorus on the relationship between religious and secular officials.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Protestantism</span> Major branch of Christianity

Protestantism is a branch of Christianity that follows the theological tenets of the Protestant Reformation, a movement that began in the 16th century with the goal of reforming the Catholic Church from perceived errors, abuses, and discrepancies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Reformation Papacy</span>

The discipline and administration of the Latin Church underwent important changes from 1517 to 1585 during and Counter-Reformation, specifically at the Council of Trent.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Marsilius of Padua</span> Italian philosopher (c. 1275–1342)

Marsilius of Padua was an Italian scholar, trained in medicine, who practiced a variety of professions. He was also an important 14th-century political figure. His political treatise Defensor pacis, an attempt to refute papal claims to a "plenitude of power" in affairs of both church and state, is seen by some scholars as the most revolutionary political treatise written in the later Middle Ages. It is one of the first examples of a trenchant critique of caesaropapism in Western Europe. Marsilius is sometimes seen as a forerunner of the Protestant reformation, because many of his beliefs were later adopted by Calvin and Luther.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Proto-Protestantism</span> Precursors to the Protestant Reformation

Proto-Protestantism, also called pre-Protestantism, refers to individuals and movements that propagated various ideas later associated with Protestantism before 1517, which historians usually regard as the starting year for the Reformation era. The relationship between medieval sects and Protestantism is an issue that has been debated by historians.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hierocracy (medieval)</span> Medieval theory of papal temporal supremacy

In the Middle Ages, hierocracy or papalism was a current of Latin legal and political thought that argued that the pope held supreme authority over not just spiritual, but also temporal affairs. In its full, late medieval form, hierocratic theory posited that since Christ was lord of the universe and both king and priest, and the pope was his earthly vicar, the pope must also possess both spiritual and temporal authority over everybody in the world. Papalist writers at the turn of the 14th century such as Augustinus Triumphus and Giles of Rome depicted secular government as a product of human sinfulness that originated, by necessity, in tyrannical usurpation, and could be redeemed only by submission to the superior spiritual sovereignty of the pope. At the head of the Catholic Church, responsible to no other jurisdiction except God, the pope, they argued, was the monarch of a universal kingdom whose power extended to Christians and non-Christians alike.


  1. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson and George William Gilmore, (New York, London, Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1908-1914; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1951) s.v. "Luther, Martin Archived 2012-07-31 at ," hereafter cited in notes as Schaff-Herzog,71.
  2. Carter Linderg, The European Reformations (Boston: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 96-97
  3. Schaff-Herzog, "Luther, Martin Archived 2012-07-31 at ," 71.
  4. Lewis W. Spitz, The Renaissance and Reformation Movements, Revised Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987), 338.
  5. Spitz, 338.
  6. 1 2 E.G. Rupp & Benjamin Drewery, Martin Luther, Documents of Modern History (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), 42-45
  7. James M. Estes Whether Secular Government has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith: a controversy in Nürnberg, 1530 (Toronto: Victoria University, 1994), 41
  8. E.G. Rupp & Benjamin Drewery, Martin Luther, Documents of Modern History (London: Edward Arnold, 1970), 42-45
  9. Carter Linderg, The European Reformations (Boston: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 5
  10. James M. Estes Whether Secular Government has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith: a controversy in Nürnberg, 1530 (Toronto: Victoria University, 1994), 44
  11. James M. Estes Whether Secular Government has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith: a controversy in Nürnberg, 1530 (Toronto: Victoria University, 1994), 56

Further reading