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The debate over counsels of perfection was a crucial aspect of the formation of political and ethical thought in the sixteenth century. It led both Protestants and Catholics to consider the status of law and to consider how far it obliged human beings, rather than simply permitting particular actions. From Luther onwards, Protestants came to see God's standards for human beings in absolute terms, rejecting any suggestion that there were good works which were merely counselled rather than commanded, and therefore not obligatory. This view of ethics underpinned the Protestant theological critique of Catholic doctrines of merit but it also shaped the distinctively Protestant account of natural law. It enabled Luther and his allies to defend magisterial control over the church, and it also formed a crucial element of Protestant resistance theory. By examining the Lutheran position on counsels, expressed in theological and political writings, and comparing it with contemporary Catholic accounts, this article offers a new perspective on Reformation theology and political thought.


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Christ Church, Oxford ox1


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An earlier version of this article was presented at the Cambridge History of Christianity Seminar and I would like to thank the participants for their comments. I am also grateful to Noah Dauber and the anonymous reviewers of the Historical Journal for their suggestions and advice.



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1 Höpfl, H., ed., Luther and Calvin on secular authority (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 34. The text can also be found in Luther's works (hereafter LW) (55 vols., St Louis, MO, and Philadelpha, PA, 1955–86), xlv:2, pp. 75–131, entitled ‘On temporal power: to what extent it can be obeyed?’.

2 For an overview, see e.g. von Friedeburg, R. and Seidler, M., ‘The Holy Roman Empire of the Christian nation’, in Lloyd, H., Burgess, G., and Hodson, S., eds., European political thought, 1450–1700: religion, law and philosophy (New Haven, CT, 2007), esp. pp. 114–20; Oakley, F., ‘Christian obedience and authority, 1520–1550’, in Burns, J. H., ed., The Cambridge history of political thought, 1450–1700 (Cambridge, 1991).

3 Baylor, M., ‘Political thought in the age of the Reformation’, in Klosko, George, ed., The Oxford handbook of political philosophy (Oxford, 2011), p. 232. J. A. Carty remarks, in a fascinating thesis, that Jesus's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount ‘quickly became a defining political problem of the early Reformation’ yet he does not link this to Luther's views on counsels. See his ‘Machiavelli, Luther, and the reformation of politics’ (Ph.D. thesis, Notre Dame, 2006), p. 181.

4 For example Guy, J., ‘The rhetoric of counsel in early modern England’, in Hoak, D., ed., Tudor political culture (Cambridge, 1995); Rose, J., ed., The politics of counsel in England and Scotland, 1286–1707 (Oxford, 2016); J. Paul, ‘Counsel and command in anglophone political thought’ (Ph.D. thesis, Queen Mary, London, 2013).

5 Luther's views on counsels have not been extensively discussed but some analysis can be found in works concerned with his theology such as Janz, D., Luther on Thomas Aquinas: the angelic doctor in the thought of the Reformer (Stuttgart, 1989), pp. 52–3; Lohse, B., Mönchtum und reformation; Luthers auseinandersetzung mit dem mönchsideal des mittelalters (Göttingen, 1963), pp. 265–7 and 364. In Martin Luther's theology: its historical and systematic development, trans. R. Harrisville (Minneapolis, MN, 2011), Bernhard Lohse quotes Luther's reference to the political implications of an erroneous view of counsels on p. 154 but does not link this to his theological discussion of the issue (found earlier, on p. 142). Meanwhile, counsels are not mentioned even in such important studies of Luther's political thought as Thompson, W. Cargill, The political thought of Martin Luther (Brighton, 1984); or Estes, J., Peace, order and the glory of God: secular authority and the church in the thought of Luther and Melanchthon, 1518–1559 (Leiden, 2005).

6 The point is made, albeit briefly, in a number of studies of supererogation, such as Heyd, David, Supererogation (Cambridge, 1982), pp. 26–9; Mellema, G., Beyond the call of duty: supererogation, obligation, and offence (Albany, NY, 1991), pp. 4454. Tierney, B., Liberty and law: the idea of permissive natural law, 1100–1800 (Washington, DC, 2014), offers a broad account of the concept of permissive law but says little specifically about the early sixteenth century or Protestant political thinking; Conti, G., ‘Jean Barbeyrac, supererogation, and the search for a safe religion’, Modern Intellectual History, 13 (2016), 131, shows the continuing relevance of questions of supererogation into the later seventeenth century.

7 Skinner, Q., Foundations of modern political thought, ii: The Reformation (Cambridge, 1979), p. 335.

8 Witte, J., Reformation of rights: law, religion and human rights in early modern Calvinism (Cambridge, 2007), p. 23.

9 See for example Burgess, G., British political thought, 1500–1660: the politics of the post-Reformation (Basingstoke, 2009), esp. p. 66; and his chapter ‘Political obedience’, in U. Rublack, ed., The Oxford handbook of the Protestant Reformations (Oxford, 2016), esp. pp. 91–2. Also Shoenburger, C. G., ‘Luther and the justifiability of resistance to legitimate authority’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 40 (1979), pp. 320, esp. p. 16. excellent, Luise Schorn-Schütte's Gottes Wort und Menschenherrschaft: Politisch-Theologische Sprachen im Europa der Frühen Neuzeit (Munich, 2015) discusses the concepts of rights and duties, focusing on connections between them rather than any distinctive nature of rights in the Protestant tradition. Catholic conceptions of rights, liberties, and, to a lesser extent, duties have been discussed more extensively; see in particular Brett, A. S., Liberty right and nature: individual rights in later scholastic thought (Cambridge, 1997).

10 For the context of the tract, see Schilling, H., Martin Luther: rebel in an age of upheaval, trans. Johnston, R (Oxford, 2017), pp. 409–12; Brecht, M., Martin Luther, ii: Shaping and defining the Reformation, 1521–1532, trans. Schaaf, J. (Philadelphia, PA, 1990), pp. 117–19. For the doctrine of the two kingdoms which Luther developed in this tract, see Cargill Thompson, The political thought of Martin Luther.

11 LW, xlv:2, pp. 81–2; Höpfl, ed., On secular suthority, pp. 3–4.

12 Luther's approach to these issues is set out most clearly in Raunio, A., Summe des christlichen Lebens: die ‘Goldene Regel’ als Gesetz der Liebe in der Theologie Martin Luthers von 1510–1527 (Mainz, 2001). See also Mäkinen, V. and Raunio, A., ‘Right and dominion in Luther's thought and its medieval background’, in Mäkinen, V., ed., Lutheran Reformation and the law (Leiden, 2006).

13 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica IIa IIae Q 40 A i ad 2.

14 See for example Cajetan, T., Evangelia cum commentariis reuerendissimi domini domini Thomae de Vio (Paris, 1532), fo. xixr; and Mair, J., In Mattheum ad literam expositio (Paris, 1518), fo. 19v.

15 Aquinas, Summa theologica Ia Iae Q 184, esp. a. 4.

16 On the case of Grabow, see Engen, John Van, Sisters and brothers of the common life: the Devotio moderna and the world of the later middle ages (Philadelphia, PA, 2008), pp. 212–18; and idem, ‘Illicit religion: the case of Friar Matthew Grabow’, in R. M. Karras, J. Kaye, and E. A. Matter, eds., Law and the illicit in medieval Europe (Philadelphia, PA, 2010), pp. 103–16.

17 LW, li, pp. 9–10, 12–13.

18 LW, xxxi, p. 235.

19 Luther's own experience as a monk may have been important here; see the fascinating article by Köpf, Ulrich, ‘Luther als Mönch’, Luther: Mitteilungen der Luthergesellschaft, 55 (1984), pp. 6684.

20 LW, xliv, p. 256.

21 Ibid., p. 257.

22 For the relationship between the two Reformers at this time, see Estes, Peace, order and the glory of God, pp. 58–68; Brecht, Martin Luther, ii, pp. 104–5.

23 The 1521 Loci communes are printed in W. Pauck, ed., Melanchthon and Bucer (London, 1969), quotation from pp. 57–8.

24 The document is entitled ‘Errores excerpti ex probationibus et declarationibus conclusionum Martini Luther ordinis fratrum Heremitarum sancti Augustini’ and printed in Kalkoff, P., Luther und die Entscheidungsjahre der Reformation: von den Ablassthesen bis zum Wormser Edikt (Munich, 1917), pp. 194203, see esp. pp. 198–9.

25 Determinatio theologicae facultatis Parisiensis, super doctrina Lutheriana, hactenus per eam visa (Paris, 1521), sig. biiiiv (‘Illud verbum Xti Matthaei quinto. Qui percusserit in maxillam dextram &c. Et illus ad Romanos xii. Non vos defendentes charissimi &c non sunt consilia, sicut etiam multi Theologi errare videntur, sed praeceptum. Haec proposition est falsa, legis Christianae nimium onerativa, & sanae intelligentiae scripturae adversa.’) The document is discussed in Farge, J., Orthodoxy and reform in early Reformation France: the Faculty of Theology of Paris, 1500–1543 (Leiden, 1985), pp. 165–9.

26 An account of the events surrounding the Council of Pisa and a selection of relevant texts can be found in Burns, J. H. and Izbicki, T. M., eds., Conciliarism and papalism (Cambridge, 1997).

27 Most recently in The watershed of modern politics: law, virtue, kingship, and consent (1300–1650) (New Haven, CT, 2015), pp. 249–50; see also his ‘Almain and Major: conciliar theory on the eve of the Reformation', American Historical Review, 70 (1964–5), pp. 674–90.

28 Figgis, J., Studies of political thought from Gerson to Grotius: 1414–1625 (Cambridge, 1907). For example Skinner, Foundations, ii, pp. 117–23, 176–8; Brett, A., ‘Scholastic political thought and the modern concept of the state’, in Brett, A. and Tully, J., eds., Rethinking the foundations of modern political thought (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 130–48; Oakley, F., Conciliarist tradition: constitutionalism in the Catholic church (Oxford, 2003).

29 See the translation in Kraye, J., ed., Cambridge translations of Renaissance philosophical texts, ii (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 1335, esp. pp. 14–17.

30 Acutissimi…Jacobi Almain Senonensis…expositio circa decisiones quaestionum M. Guillermi Ockam, super potestate summi pontificis (Paris, 1526), ‘iure naturali quilibet tenetur servare vitam propriam quantum potest medio licito…peccat contra legem naturalem qua tenetur servare vitam suam quantum potest’, fo. 65v.

31 Ibid. Gerson is discussed on fo. 65r–v. Brian Tierney emphasizes Almain's commitment to self-preservation in this text in The idea of natural rights (Atlanta, GA, 1997), pp. 236–7.

32 Acutissimi…Jacobi Almain, fo. 66r.

33 Mair, In Mattheum ad literam, fo. 19v (‘Tenetur plus seipsum diligere quam proximum’).

34 Ibid., fo 21v.

35 Determinatio Theologicae facultatis Parisiensis, under the heading ‘De constitutionibus ecclesiae’.

36 The ongoing importance of the writing of Almain and Mair is also noted in Farge, Orthodoxy and reform, p. 103.

37 Erasmus, Dulce bellum inexpertis, in Phillips, M. Mann, ed. and trans., Erasmus on his times: a shortened version of the ‘Adages’ of Erasmus (Cambridge, 1967); also Adams, R., The better part of valor: More, Erasmus, Colet, and Vives, on humanism, war, and peace, 1496–1535 (Seattle, WA, 1962).

38 On Wyclif's pacifism, see Cox, R., John Wyclif on war and peace (Woodbridge, 2014).

39 Höpfl, ed., On secular authority, pp. 14–15.

40 Ibid., p. 42.

41 An account of the incident with the related texts can be found in Estes, J., Whether secular government has the right to wield the sword in matters of faith: a controversy in Nurnberg in 1530 over freedom of worship and the authority of secular government in spiritual matters (Toronto, ON, 1994).

42 Ibid., p. 86.

43 Ibid., p. 114.

44 The political background is discussed in Whaley, J., Germany and the Holy Roman Empire, i: Maximilian I to the Peace of Westphalia, 1490–1648 (Oxford, 2012), ch. 4.

45 The principle can be found in the Digest 43. 16. 1. 27.

46 Skinner, Foundations, ii, pp. 201–4; Von Friedeburg, R., Self-defence and religious strife in early modern Europe: England and Germany, 1530–1680 (Aldershot, 2002), pp. 61–2.

47 Böttcher, D., Ungehorsam oder Widerstand? Zum Fortleben des mittelalterlichen Widerstandsrechtes in der Reformationszeit (1529–1530) (Berlin, 1991); von Friedeburg, R., Luther's legacy: the Thirty Years War and the modern notion of ‘state’ in the empire, 1530s to 1790s (Cambridge, 2016), esp. pp. 127–33.

48 P. Melanchthon, Philosophiae moralis epitome (1538), p. 55: ‘noticiae divinitus impressae mentibus hominum nobiscum nascentes, hoc est iudicia quaedam de moribus quae sunt quoddam mentis lumen’.

49 Ibid., p. 58.

50 The final, 1559, version of the Loci praecipue theologici is printed in Corpus reformatorum, xxi (Halle and Brunswick, 1834– ), quotations from cols. 722–3.

51 Ibid., cols. 711–16 (‘de lege naturae’).

52 Calvin, J., Institutes of the Christian religion, trans. Beveridge, H. (London, 1957), i, p. 323, 2.8.9. On the relationship between natural and divine law in Calvin see e.g. Helm, John, John Calvin's ideas (Oxford, 2004), esp. p. 379; Backus, I., ‘Calvin's concept of natural and Roman law’, Calvin Theological Journal, 38 (2003), pp. 726.

53 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian religion, i, p. 359, 2.8.56.

54 On the principles underlying the Magdeburgers’ pamphlets, see C. Schoenberger, ‘The Confession of Magdeburg and the Lutheran doctrine of resistance’ (Ph.D. thesis, Columbia, 1972). More recent accounts of Magdeburg include Kaufmann, T., Das Ende der Reformation: Magdeburgs ‘Herrgotts Kanzlei’ (1548–1551/2) (Tübingen, 2003); and Rein, N., The chancery of God: Protestant print, polemic and propaganda against the empire, Magdeburg, 1546–1551 (Aldershot, 2008).

55 Confessio et apologia pastorum et reliquorum ministrorum Ecclesiae Magdeburgensis 1550; it was simultaneously published in German as Bekentnis, Unterricht und vermanung der Pfarrhern und Prediger der Christlichen Kirchen zu Magdeburg Anno 1550. Quotation from Confessio, sig. Av.

56 Whitford, D., ‘From Speyer to Magdeburg: the development and maturation of a hybrid theory of resistance’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 96 (2005), pp. 5780; von Friedeburg, R., ‘“Confusion” around the Magdeburg Confession and the making of revolutionary early modern resistance theory’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 97 (2006), pp. 307–18.

57 Confessio, sig. F3v, ‘non solum posse, sed etiam debere pios magistratus illis [those introducing idolatry] resistere’; sig. Gr, that such resistance ‘esse iuris & mandati divini’; sigs. Gv–G2r, ‘sumptum ex manifesto verbo Dei, ex principiis naturae prorsus immutabilibus’.

58 Der Prediger zu Magdeburgk wahre, gegründte Antwort auff das rühmen ihrer Feinde (Magdeburg, 1551), sig. [Ciiiv], English translation from Schoenberger, ‘The Confession of Magdeburg’, p. 139.

59 Confessio, sig. Br, ‘Depravant legem, cum ex praeceptis de non vindicando, de desertione facultatem & similibus faciunt consilia, opera supererogationis ac perfectionis. Item cum praeferunt opera electitia vitae monasticae, & alia traditionum humanarum, operibus legis divinae praeceptis.’ See also sig. Cv.

60 On Cajetan's thought generally, see Wicks, J., ‘Thomism between Renaissance and Reformation: the case of Cajetan’, Archiv Für Reformationsgeschichte, 68 (1977), pp. 931.

61 Sancti Thomi Aquinati Opera omnia, iussu impensaque Leonis XIII (Rome, 1882), Comments ad IIa IIae Q 64 Article 3 (ix, p. 70).

62 Wicks, J., ed., Cajetan responds: a reader in Reformation controversy, 1518–1534 (Washington, DC, 1978), pp. 78–9. See also Cajetan's discussion of martyrs in his comments ad IIa IIae Q 124 Article 5 in Sancti Thomi Aquinati Opera omnia (x, p. 42).

63 Pagden, A., ed. Vitoria: Political writings (Cambridge, 1991), p. 71.

64 Vitoria, F., On homicide, and commentary on Thomas Aquinas: Summa theologiae IIaIIae, 64, ed. Doyle, J. (Milwaukee, 1997), p. 94. On Vitoria's thought, see also Brett, Liberty, right and nature, ch. 4, and on his relationship to Cajetan, van Liere, K. Elliot, ‘Vitoria, Cajetan, and the Conciliarists’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 58 (1997), pp. 597616.

65 See Mortimer, S., ‘Law and justice in a divided Christendom’, in Koskenniemi, M. and Rovira, M. Garcia-Salmones, eds., International law and religion: historical and contemporary perspectives (Oxford, 2017), pp. 2542.

An earlier version of this article was presented at the Cambridge History of Christianity Seminar and I would like to thank the participants for their comments. I am also grateful to Noah Dauber and the anonymous reviewers of the Historical Journal for their suggestions and advice.

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