Martin Luther: Father of modern liberty or political absolutism?

The German father of Protestantism did not seem to consider that his metaphysical undermining of the Church’s authority and the abandonment of natural law would ultimately clear the path to absolute political authority.

Statue of Martin Luther in Hannover ( Figurnyi)

The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” has called forth multiple celebratory declarations that he was the progenitor of modern freedom. In “How Martin Luther Advanced Freedom” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 27, 2017), Joseph Leconte says that Luther “preached the gospel of freedom.” Eric Metaxas’s new biography Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World claims:

The quintessentially modern idea of the individual was as unthinkable before Luther… And the more recent ideas of pluralism, religious liberty, self-government, and liberty all entered history through the door that Luther opened.

Anti-rational roots

Unfortunately, something other than these things came through the door that Luther opened: political absolutism in the modern state – the very antithesis of freedom. Luther redefined the nature of man and man’s relationship to God. In so doing, he also changed the way in which man thought of political order. Here is how it happened.

Luther’s diminishment of the imago Dei in man through his drastic exaggeration of the effects of original sin led ineluctably to the denigration of reason and the denial of free will. These, in turn, reinforced secular authority, which no longer had to contend with notions of popular sovereignty, the requirement of consent, or the right to revolution, all of which Luther denied. He was closing doors, not opening them.

Key to understanding Luther is what he saw as the radical extent of the corruption of man’s nature:

Conceived in sorrow and corruption, the child sins in his mother’s womb. As he grows older, the innate element of corruption develops. Man has said to sin: ‘Thou art my father’—and every act he performs is an offense against God; and to the worms: ‘You are my brothers’—and he crawls like them in mire and corruption. He is a bad tree and cannot produce good fruit; a dunghill, and can only exhale foul odors. He is so thoroughly corrupted that it is absolutely impossible for him to produce good actions. Sin is his nature; he cannot help committing it. Man may do his best to be good, still his every action is unavoidably bad; he commits a sin as often as he draws his breath.

Luther famously declared that reason is “the whore of the devil. It can only blaspheme and dishonor everything God  has said or done.” “Does reason shed light?” he asked rhetorically; then answered, “Yes, like that which filth would shed if it were set in a lantern.” Therefore, “You must abandon your reason, know nothing of it, annihilate it completely or you will never enter heaven.” In his last sermon preached at Wittenberg, Luther even more energetically proclaimed: “Reason… is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden underfoot and destroyed, she and her wisdom… Throw dung in her face to make her ugly.”

Philosophy, of course, is a work of reason, and Luther turned as vehemently against it as he did against reason itself: “I indeed believe that I owe to the Lord this service of barking against philosophy and urging to the study of Sacred Scripture… One should learn philosophy only as one learns witchcraft, that is to destroy it; as one finds out about errors, in order to refute them.” Luther contemptuously inveighed against Aristotle, as he had against Thomas Aquinas, who, he said, “never understood a chapter of the Gospel or Aristotle.” Luther found that, “The whole Aristotle is to theology as darkness to light.” He wrote in 1517 that, “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself.” Of Aristotle’s Ethics, he said, it “is the worst of all books.” Reason cannot know what Aristotle and Aquinas said it could know, such as the difference between right and wrong.

It is worth reflecting for a moment on what a momentous change Luther represents from the Aristotelian/Thomist understanding of human nature at the heart of Western civilization. That understanding held that the natural end of the intellect is truth. In turn, the natural end of the will is the choice of those actions that bring one into conformity with the truth. The highest end of intellect is knowledge of God. Therefore, the highest end of free will is the choice of those paths that make possible the attainment of knowledge of God. With Luther, all of this became anathema. Reason can know nothing of God; revelation is the only source. Just as reason is totally corrupt, so is the will. In 1517, he wrote: “It is false to state that the will can by nature conform to correct precept …. One must concede that the will is not free to strive towards whatever is declared good…” Man can neither know the good nor perform the good.

This is how Luther described the total subjection of man’s will:

Thus the human will is placed between the two like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills… If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.

Luther also enthusiastically endorsed Melanchthon’s Notes of the Lectures on Romans and 1 Corinthians, which pithily reflected Luther’s views: “Everything in every creature occurs of necessity . . . It must be firmly held that everything, both good and bad, is done by God.” Far from being distressed by the deprivation of free will, Luther celebrated it: “I frankly confess that, for myself, even if I could be, I should not want ‘free will’ to be given me, not anything to be left in my own hands to enable me to endeavor after salvation…”

To make his idea of predestination amply clear in his dispute with Erasmus on free will, Luther wrote that God

loves and hates according to his eternal and immutable nature… And it is this very thing which compels Freewill to be a mere no thing; namely, that the love of God towards men is eternal and immutable, and his hatred towards them eternal; not only prior to the merit and operation of Freewill, but even to the very making of the world; and that every thing is wrought in us necessarily, according to his having either loved us or not loved us, from eternity: insomuch that not only the love of God, but even his manner of loving, brings necessity upon us.

Because salvation is by faith alone and is predetermined by God, Luther eliminated anything that smacks of good works, like pilgrimages, penance, religious orders, monasticism, clerical celibacy, and fasting, or any other form of asceticism, all of which presumed a relationship between man’s acts and spiritual merit. All intercessory prayer was eliminated, including the last half of the Hail Mary. Certainly, good works were expected of those who had been “saved”, but those works were no more than the effect of being saved, and absolutely were not related to salvation as a contributory cause. Luther “freed” Christian man from such a relationship.

Destructive consequences 

What were the consequences of Luther’s views for constitutionalism? Needless to say, the loss of the integrity of free will and reason had a huge impact on the rationale for constitutional rule. If man cannot know the good, how could he legislate based upon it? If reason is not a legislator, why have legislatures? If man has no free will, why would he need free institutions? If even the prince behaves in a foreordained way, how could he be held accountable for his acts? According to Luther, he couldn’t be.

But the most immediate consequence of Luther’s thought in Protestant lands was the destruction of the Church. The logic of its destruction came from Luther’s voluntarist theology. Why would God need a Church, or priests, or even sacraments to affect his will? No intermediary between God and man is necessary or allowed. Every man becomes his own priest. Since the Church is no longer a mediator, it could not possibly have the authority of a mediator. Without this authority, it could not contest or hold accountable secular authority, even when it transgressed the Church’s own spiritual realm. It no longer had a realm in any terrestrial way.

The destruction of the institutional Church had great consequences for the political order in both theory and practice. For all practical purposes, it eliminated the dual sovereignty of Church and State under which medieval man had lived. A single sovereignty now monopolized man. As Brad S. Gregory notes in The Unintended Reformation, a “corollary to justification by faith alone was power exercised by secular rulers alone.” On December 10, 1520, Luther burned the corpus of medieval canon law, the Corpus juris canonici, in front of the church at Wittenberg, disparaging it as “heretical, anti-Christian, and unnatural”.  Up in flames went the ecclesiastical corporations that had hemmed in secular authority. With the elimination of canon law, the Church as a corporation disappeared. The abolition of these organizational structures left it toothless. In effect, sovereignty was now the State’s alone. Lutheran churches became state churches. In Protestant lands, all power transferred to the magistrate—and it was to him that Luther looked for church reforms. John Neville Figgis wrote, “When Luther burnt the Corpus luris Canonici … he destroyed, in fact, the metaphor of the two swords; henceforth there should be but one, wielded by a rightly advised and godly prince. It is a curious fact that Luther, whose fundamental motive was a love of liberty and care for the rights of one’s neighbors, should have been so powerful a supporter of absolutism.”

In abolishing canon law, Luther destroyed the source from which the constitutional principles and practices of the Middle Ages had emerged. Now, pointed out Heinrich Rommen, “the historical concrete state in its constitution must be considered as instituted directly by God without the intervention of free human act based upon natural law.” Sovereignty is no longer vested in the people who, through their consent, transfer it to the prince; it is the prince’s directly from God, unmediated by man’s consent. This was completely inconsistent with the entire medieval tradition. The ruler is not inhibited by the notion of any social contract with his people, and their obedience to him is not conditional on his fulfilling any obligations toward them. Therefore, the people do not possess a right to rebellion should the ruler become tyrannical. According to Luther, the State could not be resisted under any circumstances and is owed at least passive obedience, if not complete submission. In their Medieval Political Theory in the West, R.W. and A. J. Carlyle remarked, “As far as we have been able to discover, the first writer of the sixteenth century of whom we can say that he, at one time, held and affirmed the conception that the temporal ruler was in such a sense representative of God that under no circumstances could he be resisted, was Luther.” Violence against the ruler was forbidden.

If one presupposes that man is fundamentally evil – incapable of keeping his own internal order – it becomes all the  more important that the State be strong enough to impose external order. Luther declared: “The princes of this world are gods, the common people are Satan, through whom God sometimes does what at other times he does directly through Satan, that is, makes rebellion as a punishment for the people’s sins. I would rather suffer a prince doing wrong than a people doing right.” Therefore, contrary to Thomas Aquinas and the entire medieval tradition, Luther wrote that rebellion is never justified:

It is in no wise proper for anyone who would be a Christian to set himself up against his government, whether it act justly or unjustly. There are no better works than to obey and serve all those who are set over us as superiors. For this reason also disobedience is a greater sin than murder, unchastity, theft, and dishonesty, and all that these may include.

Innovation and secularization

The de-divinization of the secular ruler achieved by medieval Christianity went into reverse with the re-sacralization  of the prince and the melding of Church and State. “Luther,” wrote Joseph Costanzo, “restored to the state the sacred rights of the ancient pagan cities.” Since the distinction between Church and State was the very thing out of which medieval constitutionalism grew, it is not surprising that its diminution foreclosed any further constitutional development or even the maintenance of what had already been achieved. In short, as Lord Acton observed, “The progress of the Constitution, which it was the work of Catholic Ages to build up, was interrupted by the attractions which the growth of absolutism excited and by the Reformation’s transferring the ecclesiastical power to the crown.”

And thus, as George Sabine pointed out, “The disruption of the universal church, the suppression of its monastic institutions and ecclesiastical corporations, and the abrogation of the Canon Law, removed to the strongest checks upon secular power that had existed in the Middle Ages.” This may not have been Luther’s intention, as strictly speaking he had no political philosophy, but the enhancement of State power was the unavoidable consequence.Heinrich Boehmer, the great German biographer of Luther, wrote: “The result of these innovations was also a great secularization, principally in favor of the temporal power. The latter, at last, gained full freedom of movement throughout the wide field of secular life; indeed, it soon succeeded in obtaining the direction of all purely spiritual matter , too… Government, as the holder of the paternal power, claimed authority over all departments of social life.”

“The establishment of the Lutheran territorial Church under the supervision and control of the prince,” observed Christopher Dawson, “involved a thoroughgoing reconstruction of society, to the benefit of the prince, who thus acquired a patriarchal religious authority that was almost absolute.” Heinrich Rommen ironically noted, “all that the pope claimed for the liberty of the Church is now claimed by the absolute king.” No doubt, this is what John Neville Figgis had in mind when he said, “Had there been no Luther there could never have been a Louis XIV.” These results flowed from premises taken from one area (theological) and applied to another (political). Luther was not aiming at absolutism; if anything, he was trying to counter what he saw as absolutism in the Church. He did not seem to consider that his metaphysical undermining of the Church’s authority and the abandonment of natural law would ultimately clear the path to absolute political authority. Such may not have been his intention, but such was the result. With the obliteration of natural law and the segregation of religious faith, the public arena was open not only to Luther’s Christian prince, but to Machiavelli’s amoral one. As faith diminished under the pressures of secularism, it became more Machiavelli’s prince than Luther’s who prevailed in the public arena.

Charles McCoy observed that after the Peace of Augsburg (1555) adopted the principle “cuius regio eius religio” (the religion of the prince determines the religion of the people), “Catholic and Protestant princes alike affected a ‘union’ of Church and State, of religion and politics precisely as Machiavelli had recommended: Christianity was made a tool in the hands of the political masters.” As horrified as Luther would have been by the amoral political principles of Machiavelli, he inadvertently abetted their application. McCoy stated: “… by delivering the state from the guidance of the Church as a divinely established society, its effect was such that ‘the principles which Machiavelli… developed in opposition to the Christian consciousness… became capable of combining with [that consciousness] and being strengthened by it’.” Machiavelli seems to have worked out in the secular sphere what Luther worked out in the theological sphere. As Luther inadvertently opened the door to the politicization of religion, Machiavelli walked through that door, totally subordinating religion to the utility of the State. Luther helped put religion in the power of the state, and Machiavelli taught the State how to use it.

So long as the will of the ruler was constrained by firm Christian belief, there were limits to it. However, when that belief was weakened or removed altogether, then the exercise of will became unlimited – as was seen so often and so graphically in 20th-century totalitarianism. Luther did not foresee the consequences of his teaching of sola fide in a world sine fide. He could only envisage Christian princes. However, as the tide of faith receded, the positivist legal order became accepted as the only moral order, whatever it might be. In the absence of both faith and reason, man lost access to knowledge of the summum bonum. This ineluctably led to Hobbes’ Leviathan.

The great 20th-century philosopher Eric Voegelin delivered this epitaph:

Concretely, in the wake of the Reformation, the taboo had to fall on classic philosophy and scholastic theology; and, since under these two heads came the major and certainly decisive part of Western intellectual culture, this culture was ruined to the extent to which the taboo became effective. In fact, the destruction went so deep that Western society has never completely recovered from the blow.

This hardly seems something to celebrate. Mourning might be more appropriate.

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About Robert R. Reilly 22 Articles
Robert R. Reilly was Senior Advisor for Information Strategy (2002-2006) for the US Secretary of Defense, after which he taught at National Defense University. He was the director of the Voice of America (2001-2002) and served in the White House as a Special Assistant to the President (1983-1985). A graduate of Georgetown University and the Claremont Graduate University, his books include The Closing of the Muslim Mind, Making Gay Okay, and Surprised by Beauty: A Listener's Guide to the Recovery of Modern Music. His most recent book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, is published by Ignatius Press.


  1. The best analysis [I’ve read] of Luther’s demolition of reason, the possibility of human redemption and the consequent ascendancy of the totalitarian state. The nexus R Reilly perceives between Machiavelli’s manifesto The Prince for holding political power and Luther’s influence in the modern state’s absorption of religion as a useful tool for holding power is intriguing and relevant. The new paradigm of the Church which has apparently adapted a shine toward Luther and Luther’s repugnance for reason and Aristotelian philosophy in consequence including Aquinas, a penchant for unfettered decision making, autocratic political homogeneity is similarly relevant. If Man is reduced to Luther’s hapless sinner then grace will not suffice. Only merciful accommodation.

    • Father Morello: Your comments and reply to Michael Paterson Seymour (discussion re Papal authority as understood by Monsignor Ronald Knox) have disappeared from the site (In time of crisis – Daniel Hitchens).

      Your last reply in which you clarified the difference between magisterial teachings and those that are not magisterial is one I had hoped to save.

      Please re-post the comment here – if that is acceptable to CWR and to you.

      Thank you.

  2. What a monster this man was – and the consummate Jew-hater to boot.

    And the “current pontiff” jeeps praise on him, while his hench-spokesman Grillo openly proclaims his heresy rejecting the dogma of transubstantiation 2 days ago, while his bench-spokesman Faggioli openly declares his rejection of the Catholic theology of The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, thus condemning the faith of all who believed before Faggioli declared the new dogma of what fellow-rupture-cyber-Kirk-agent Ivereigh named “Team Begoglio,” contradicting Pope Paul VI’s assertion that the Novus Ordo Mass is the same Mass, unchanged.

  3. Very good and about time on just what Luther brought to the world, especially the political order.

    This column is a must read on the integration of all the effects that Martin Luther had wrought, intentionally or not.

  4. It continues to amaze me, this uniquely Catholic umbrage over Luther. As a Protestant, I hardly ever heard about him, but as a Catholic I can’t escape being reminded of what an awful man he was. Much like Robert E. Lee, I guess.

    All theology aside, I am glad the Church lost its temporal grip, and Luther was indeed part of that causal chain. As for Royal, I normally like him, but his quoting of Luther here aimed at inspiring perl-clutching galls. For every-single-shocking-line-of-Luther, there is an equally disturbing one by his Catholic opponents. To wit, here is Prierias smacking down Luther on the pope:

    “An undoubtedly legitimate pope cannot be lawfully deposed or judged by either a council or the entire world, even if he be so scandalous as to lead people with him en masse into the possession of the devil in hell.”

    I wonder how well that one sits with all the those now so discontent with Francis?

    For the moment I will leave it at that. Except to say this: don’t blame Luther for the fact that Pope Francis wants to blow kisses at him. And also don’t quote Luther like he presented himself as a Protestant Aquinas, or to the effect he completely eschewed reason (He did not — though Francis, again, likes his 2+2=5.) The problems now within the Church are hardly due to Protestants. They can be traced squarely back to very Catholic sources. And to quote on old and excellent CWR piece, let’s not insist on repeat trips down “the road of recrimination and Christian apartheid.” The better heirs to Luther are far less enemy than friend.

    • My quick take is that you are crossing swords to some degree in a battle that Reilly isn’t focused on in this essay. His point is to outline Luther’s impact (almost all of it unwitting and unforeseen) on modern politics and political struggles. Luther is being presented by some, as Reilly notes, as the father of modern liberty; that is, to put it mildly, a disputed point. Besides, Reilly gives some judicious and “on point” quotes; no one can deny that Luther had a tortured relationship with reason and Thomistic realism. His reliance on a voluntarist and nominalist system of thought has been admitted even by many of his admirers, as I observed many years ago in this essay:

      Heiko A. Oberman, a leading Luther scholar (and admirer), admitted in Luther: Man between God and the Devil that “Martin Luther was a nominalist; there is no doubt about that.” Fr. Louis Bouyer, a former Lutheran pastor and theologian, stated in The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism that this connection to Ockham’s nominalism is the key to the “negative elements” of the Reformation…

      I think we do agree on this: that many Catholic theologians today are more Lutheran than Catholic in their theology, while a remarkable number of Evangelical thinkers are far more Catholic than Protestant.

  5. PS. The taboo on Scholastic Theology … really? Garrigou-Lagrange was JPIIs dissertation chair, and the man has all but been banished in Rome. That has nada to to with the Protestant revolutionaries and more than a little to do with Catholics who chaffed under Humani Generis, I’d argue. Whatever was happening with the political fires the Reformation ignited, those consequences in my mind are far less damning than the effects of Modernism in the Church against which the heirs of Luther have been allies in fighting. Kreeft’s ‘Ecumenical Jihad’ comes to mind here.

  6. Simply an excellent bit of research and writing. Superlative. I have a book forthcoming on this precise topic (as it relates to America’s premature demise).

    If I may, Mr. Reilly seems to have progressed in his view a hairsbreadth–ceding half the point to Patrick Deneen and those who deem America and Catholicism “non-compatible”–as regards three points which follow ineluctably from the logic of this article: a) that via the Reformation, radical moral individualism WAS present in early America; b) that under Reformation influence, the sources of the Declaration of Independence WERE ambivalent about natural law; c) same story vis-à-vis the sources and influences of the Constitution.

    Anyway, in the current issue of Catholic Answers Magazine (Nov/Dec), I respond directly to Mr. Reilly to the tune that he is generally right, but that some of Deneen’s points can be incorporated into Reilly’s position, which seems to be the case more abundantly in this CWR article.

    • Thank you for your kind remarks. I look forward to reading your article.
      Two quick points.
      The American Founding was a reaction against the absolutism that Luther’s thinking led to. Also, late 18th century Protestantism in America was different from 16th century Luthernisim, including in respect to its regard for naturual law.

  7. I just drafted a nicely worded explanation of the impossibility of Protestant natural law, a circular square. Lost the entire thing…on the very brink of destroying my “mobile device.” Devastating.

    I’ll bullet point:

    First, Grotius admitted that natural right (rebellion), however much a Protestant might want it, was neither knowable nor known in nature. Pufendorf, Sidney, and Locke plagiarized this the following century.

    Second, Locke et al are the superlative anti-NL thinkers: such plagiarism is especially shameless since it was Locke’s Protestant-Enlightenment determinist-mechanist corpuscularianism which exploded natural law in the modern world. The opposite of natural law.

    Third, all Protestant-Enlightenment thought must recur to some close iteration of Locke’s mechanist, anti-realism.

    Fourth, even honest Straussians like Michael Zuckert (who pulled off the greatest lie in the history of thought about Locke (or any Protestant) as a natural law thinker) admit that Locke is a sham natural law theorist.

    Fifth, by de-Magisterializing, de-sacralizing, and de-naturalizing the modern world, the Reformation and Enlightenment severed the ability to conduct republics without plagiarizing Catholicism…which Sidney was even accused of doing to Bellarmine in his lifetime. I learned philosophically that such an accusation should have been leveled before I learned historically that it was leveled…which made the revelation extra compelling. To be continued…

  8. A very well setting out the conditions of the time and the results of the splintering of Christianity. For those who persist in saying that it was the beginning of the voice of the common people when Luther began his efforts, I would point out that he had low regard for the people and almost always acceded to the rulers. Before Luther, as the early renaissance began to take shape, in fits and starts, there was already a strong school of thought that held that individuals held certain rights that came from God rather than temporal rulers. Luther set that movement back by centuries when it was picked up by Calvin, Knox and other “reformers”. It took the migrations from Europe and its petty tyrannies to get things back on track.

  9. I thought that canon law was supposed to be used within the Catholic Church. Was it also supposed to be used for temporal rule? In New Testament times there was a clear distinction between what pertained to the Church and outside the Church. This was not considered to be an aberration by the NT Church. There were no religious laws for Christians at that time as there were in Judaism. Righteousness was not achieved by attempting to conform to rules and regulations. Canon law developed later in the Church. Civil law is for maintaining order in the society. The Roman Empire had its own civil laws that Christians were encouraged to follow so that they would not be harassed by the government. Later on, the Church became the government of the Roman Empire.

    • You are right. But the destruction of canon law removed the dual sovereignty of church and state, leaving both swords – the civil and the ecclesiastical – in one hand. That was my point.

  10. Luther was correct in saying that sin is in man’s nature. Saint Paul says the same thing. He calls it the law of sin that we all have (Romans 7:14 thru 8:2).
    Without Christ, man is weakened by the law of sin in resisting evil.
    Reason and philosophy can only bring us to a belief that God exists, but it cannot bring us the plan of salvation. Reason cannot bring us peace and strength. This teaching only comes from the word of God (Romans 10:17). The Father draws us to His Son (John 17:24).
    Works that are motivated by grace can only come after being filled with the grace-giver which is Christ. Faith is what brings initial salvation. Works are not the immediate cause. It is faith unto good works (Ephesians 2:10). The Church is here to promote this, and not to replace this. There is a place for both the individualistic and the corporate in Christianity (2Corinthians 1:24 and 1Peter 5:3).

    • Well, sin certainly spoiled our nature but grace, as Thomas Aquinas pointed out, perfects our nature; it does not displace it.

      Philosophy can bring us further along than you indicate. From Josef Pieper: “The ultimate perfection attainable to us, in the minds of the philosophers of Greece, was this: that the order of the whole of existing things should be inscribed in our souls. And this conception was afterwards absorbed into the Christian tradition in the conception of the beatific vision: ‘What do they not see, who see Him who sees all things?’”

    • Also, the congruence between the questions asked by Greek philosophy and the answers given by Christianity led Clement of Alexandria to say, “Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.” Or as Etienne Gilson, said, “Thomas Aquinas saw philosophy, in Eusebius of Cesarea’s own words, as a kind of praeparatio evanglica by which divine providence prepared the mind of men to receive the truth of the Gospel.” Thus, in the late second century A.D., St. Justin held the view that philosophy in the Greek world had played a role comparable to that of revelation in the Jewish world.

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