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From Gospel to Law: The Lutheran Reformation and Its Impact on Legal Culture

  • John Witte (a1)
Abstract

The Lutheran Reformation transformed not only theology and the Church but also law and the State. Despite his early rebuke of law in favour of the gospel, Martin Luther eventually joined up with various jurists and political leaders to craft ambitious legal reforms of Church, State and society on the strength of his new theology, particularly his new two-kingdoms theory. These legal reforms were defined and defended in hundreds of monographs, pamphlets and sermons published by Lutheran writers from the 1520s onwards. They were refined and routinised in equally large numbers of new Reformation ordinances that brought fundamental changes to theology and law, Church and State, marriage and family, criminal law and procedure, and education and charity. Critics have long treated this legal phase of the Reformation as a corruption of Luther's original message of Christian freedom from the strictures of all human laws and traditions. But Luther ultimately realised that he needed the law to stabilise and enforce the new Protestant teachings. Radical theological reforms had made possible fundamental legal reforms, which, in turn, would make those theological reforms palpable. In the course of the 1530s and thereafter, the Lutheran Reformation became in its essence both a theological and a legal reform movement. It struck new balances between law and gospel, rule and equity, order and faith, and structure and spirit.

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References
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2 Pelikan, J and Lehmann, H T (eds), Luther's Works, 55 vols (Philadelphia, PA, 1955–1986), vol XLVIII, pp 186192 (hereafter LW).

3 Hendrix, S, Luther and the Papacy: stages in the Reformation conflict (Philadelphia, PA, 1981); Brecht, M, Martin Luther, trans Schaaf, J L (Philadelphia, PA, 1985–1993).

4 Mirbt, C (ed), Quellen zur Geschichte des Papsttums und des römischen Katholizimus (second edition, Tübingen, 1911), pp 183185 .

5 See M Luther, Freedom of a Christian (1520), in LW, vol XXXI, pp 327–377.

6 Pelikan, J, Spirit versus Structure: Luther and the institutions of the Church (New York, 1968), p 5.

7 LW, vol XXXVI, p 70; LW, vol XLIV, pp 203–204; D. Martin Luthers Werke: Tischreden, 6 vols (Weimar, 1912–1921), nos 2809b, 2837, 3027 (hereafter WA TR); D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 78 vols (reprinted Weimar, 1883–1987), vol XLIX, p 302 (hereafter WA).

8 See detailed sources for this section in Witte, Law and Protestantism, pp 87–118.

9 See Lovejoy, A, The Great Chain of Being: a study of the history of an idea (Cambridge, MA, 1936). On the legal and ecclesiological implications of this ontology, see Tierney, B, Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought: 1150–1650 (Cambridge, 1982), pp 8ff.

10 LW, vol I, pp 66ff, 52; LW, vol LII, pp 57, 79; WA, vol VII, p 73; LW, vol XXXIII, pp 295ff; WA TR, vol I, no 71; LW, vol LIV, p 71; LW, vol XXVI, pp 94–96; LW, vol XIV, p 114; LW, vol XXIV, p 67; LW, vol XXVI, pp 95–96; WA, vol XXXI, part 1, p 437; WA, vol XL, part 3, pp 271ff.

11 See detailed sources and discussion in Ozment, S, The Reformation in the Cities: the appeal of Protestantism to sixteenth-century Germany and Switzerland (New Haven, CT, 1975), pp 84ff.

12 See detailed sources and discussion in Wingren, G, The Christian Calling: Luther on vocation, trans Rasmussen, C C (Philadelphia, PA, 1957).

13 LW, vol XLVI, pp 93ff; LW, vol XXI, pp 108–115; LW, vol XLVI, pp 93–99.

14 von Gierke, O, Political Theories of the Middle Ages, trans Maitland, F W (reprinted Cambridge, 1958), pp 721 ; Lewis, E, Medieval Political Ideas (New York, 1954), vol II, pp 506538 .

15 LW, vol XLV, pp 105ff; LW, vol XXXVI, pp 106ff.

16 See texts in Trüdinger, K, Luthers Briefe und Gutachten an weltliche Obrigkeit zur Durchfuhrung der Reformation (Münster, 1975); Porter, J M (ed), Luther: selected political writings (Philadelphia, PA, 1974).

17 See Porter, Luther, and further texts in LW, vol II, pp 139ff; LW, vol XIII, pp 44ff; LW, vol XLIV, pp 92ff; LW, vol XLV, pp 85ff; LW, vol XLVI, pp 237ff; WA, vol XXX, part 2, p 554.

18 LW, vol XVII, p 171; LW, vol XLV, p 113; LW, vol XLVI, pp 95ff; WA, vol VI, p 267; WA, vol XIX, p 626.

19 LW, vol XIII, pp 44ff; LW, vol XXXVI, pp 106–117; LW, vol XLV, pp 85–113; LW, vol XLVI, pp 225ff.

20 See the collection of quotations in Beyer, H W, Luther und das Recht: Gottes Gebot, Naturrecht, Volksgesetz in Luthers Deutung (Munich, 1935); and the detailed analysis in Heckel, J, Lex charitatis: a juristic disquisition on law in the theology of Martin Luther, trans G Krödel (Grand Rapids, MI, 2010).

21 LW, vol XLIV, pp 15–114; WA, vol XXXIX, part 1, pp 478, 540; WA, vol XVIII, p 72; WA, vol XXX, p 192.

22 WA, vol XVII, part 2, p 102.

23 WA TR, vol III, no 3911; WA, vol XII, p 243; WA, vol XIV, pp 591, 714; WA, vol XVI, p 537; WA, vol XXX, part 2, p 557; WA, vol XL, p 305; WA, vol LI, pp 211, 241–242; LW, vol XLV, pp 120–126.

24 WA TR, vol III, no 4178; LW, vol LIV, p 325; WA TR, vol I, no 315; LW, vol LIV, pp 43–44; WA, vol XIV, pp 667ff; LW, vol XLVI, p 100.

25 For detailed sources on this topic, see Witte, Law and Protestantism, pp 199–256, updated in Witte, J Jr, From Sacrament to Contract: marriage, religion, and law in the Western tradition (second edition, Louisville, KY, 2012), pp 113158 .

26 For detailed sources on this topic, see Witte, Law and Protestantism, pp 257–292.

27 R Stupperich (ed), Melanchthons Werke in Auswahl (Gütersloh, 1951), vol III, p 69.

28 See a summary of recent literature in Gritsch, E W, Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: against his better judgment (Grand Rapids, MI, 2012).

1 This article is based on a lecture given at the Law and Religion Centre of Cardiff University on 2 December 2016 and is adapted from J Witte Jr, Law and Protestantism: the legal teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge, 2002), and from a short article of the same name in T A Howard and M A Noll (eds), Protestantism After 500 Years (Oxford, 2016), pp 52–74.

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Ecclesiastical Law Journal
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  • EISSN: 1751-8539
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