In 1520, Martin Luther published two treatises: Address to the Christian Nobility and The Freedom of a Christian. These two works showed the heart of Martin Luther as he admonished and exhorted the religious and secular authorities. His treatises impacted Europe politically, religiously, socially, economically, and culturally.
In the Address to the Christian Nobility, Martin Luther began his treatise by attacking the three “walls” of the Roman Catholic Church. His language was forceful and to the point. He ended his treatise by listing a series of abuses which he believed should be corrected by the secular authorities, not by religious councils.
The political ramifications of the Address to the Christian Nobility were immense since the treatise was mostly political in nature. It called on the state to reform the church because the state was above the church. The treatise was addressed to the German nobility because Luther believed only they could reform the Roman Catholic Church which was dependent on their financial support. Luther adamantly argued that “the temporal power is ordained of God,” so no secular issue should be delegated to papal courts but rather handled by the German nobility (Luther, 15). Based on this premise Luther argued that the interdict should be abolished and excommunication should be used only in such cases as Scripture allows. The shift from papal power to secular power in deciding religious issues created problems later in the Reformation, specifically the question of using secular military forces to stop a new religion from forming. Another problem with Luther’s arguments resulted in his “Two Kingdoms:” the idea that church and state are separate realms with separate responsibilities. This added belief reflected a “paradox” in Luther’s theology; for how could the state help reform the church when they were supposed to be two separate entities? One historian, William Shirer, took Luther’s paradox so far as to claim that Luther created a political passivity that permitted the rise of Hitler. Later historians have proved that Shirer took Luther’s paradox too far in trying to prove his own historical view of Hitler.
The religious ramifications of the Address to the Christian Nobility were fundamental to the thesis. Luther applied the doctrine of the priesthood of believers to the three walls of the Church. The first wall, the distinction between spiritual and secular classes, was removed by the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Since all believers were a part of the priesthood, there could be no distinction between a priest and a peasant; all were equal in the sight of God. The second wall claimed that only the pope could interpret Scripture. Luther found no evidence of this principle in the Bible but found many passages that claimed the common man could interpret Scripture. The third wall was the claim that only the pope could summon a council which meant that no secular council could dictate orders to the church. Luther used Scripture and history to destroy this belief, asserting that the church should be subject to the state. By tearing down these three walls, the whole world changed for the Roman Catholic Church; authority was stripped from the papacy and placed into the hands of the nobility.
The social ramifications of the Address to the Christian Nobility were also influenced by the doctrine of the priesthood of believers. Prior to the Reformation, Europe followed a feudal system with strict class lines. Clergy, nobility, merchants, and peasants did not mix in society. Luther revolutionized the social classes by saying that “a cobbler, a smith, a peasant—each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops” (Luther, 15). He went on to say that every man was important to society just as each element was important to the body. Every man was equal to his neighbor, yet every man was also to serve his neighbor. Such a concept was foreign to the sixteenth century, and the Peasants’ Revolt was characteristic of taking Luther’s belief in social equality too far.
The economic ramifications of the Address to the Christian Nobility touched every part of society. Luther attacked the Church and the German nobles for their economic extravagances. First, Luther disputed that the cardinals and bishops should be stopped from economically ruining their vast estates in Italy and the German estates while the monasteries and churches fell into disrepair. Instead, the pope should allow secular rulers to own the estates so cardinals and bishops can focus on their religious duties. Second, Luther wanted a secular council to stop the papacy from demanding indulgences and other contributions for its false wars with the Turks. Luther knew that the money really went into the pope’s private coffers. Third, Luther declared that the pope should do away with the papal bureaucracy which plagued Rome, “so that the pope’s household can be supported out of the pope’s own pocket” (Luther, 51). Fourth, he believed that Germanic nobles should pass a law restricting extravagant apparel. Luther claimed that the nobles spent so much on their wardrobes that they were actually living in fiscal poverty. Fifth, Luther wanted to restrict the spice traffic which was a net loss of exports for the German states. He believed the Germans should live off of what their own lands could produce and limit their trade to their immediate neighbors. Sixth, Luther wished that the excessive wealth of the merchants and guild owners, like the Fugger family, would be limited. He believed the distribution of wealth should be narrower than the medieval system of the few rich and thousands poor. Although most of these economic demands would never be fulfilled, the desire for economic equality was born through the beliefs of Martin Luther. Today, Europe lives under a socialist system which strives to provide economic equality for all.
The cultural ramifications of the Address to the Christian Nobility were more subtle in nature. Luther argued against the extreme ceremonialism of the Church. Culturally, the people were expected to kiss the pope’s feet and treat him as a god among men. Luther ranted that such a cultural standard was “un-Christian, indeed, an anti-Christian thing” (Luther, 56). Luther also wanted to outlaw begging in Christendom since it was detrimental to society and culture as a whole. Finally, Luther demanded that the universities be reformed. The laziness and immorality of the university setting should be stamped out, and true scholastic study should prevail in order for culture to advance to the next level. It would be through the printing press and the universities that Europe would transition from medieval times to the modern era.
The Freedom of a Christian was part of a personal letter from Martin Luther to Pope Leo X. Miltitz persuaded Luther to write the treatise in order to prevent a rift between the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheranism. Luther begrudgingly sent the letter and treatise which failed completely to bring any kind of reconciliation between the two religious groups. Overall, The Freedom of a Christian was Luther’s exposition on human nature and human freedom.
The political ramifications of The Freedom of a Christian were less in number than in the Address to the Christian Nobility but were no less important. Luther put forth the paradox that although a Christian was completely free and was sole ruler of his own self, he is also the subject and servant of all men. Christians were free in Christ, but all people should submit to the governing authorities, especially when paying taxes. Luther made the point that even Christ told His disciples they should pay taxes to the Roman government.
The religious ramifications of The Freedom of a Christian were enormous for Lutheranism but insignificant for the Roman Catholic Church. Luther extended an olive branch to the papacy which was refused. A key note of this treatise, however, was the inclusion of the Lutheran doctrine of salvation. Luther clearly and succinctly defined his break with Rome over salvation and the Scriptures. He argued for justification by faith alone, Christian love, and Christian freedom. In this treatise Luther pointed out that Christian liberty did not mean that man could do whatever he wanted. Christians still had to submit to Christ and their fellow men. The idea of Christian liberty would eventually get Luther in trouble during the Peasant Revolt when the commoners took Luther’s religious views and tried to make them political in nature.
The social ramifications of The Freedom of a Christian were revolutionary for the sixteenth-century. Luther advocated that all men should be socially equal because all men were equal before God. The medieval concept of a stratified society could not fathom this new idea. Luther went on to discuss doing good works for one’s neighbors as well as social improvements like providing welfare for the poor in one’s community. He advocated that each man should give from his abundance to help the poor. Every person should be socially equal, and the discrimination between helping a friend or an enemy should be superfluous. True social equality is still elusive today, but Europe has embraced a socialist society which promotes the equality of all men as Luther would have wished.
The economic ramifications of The Freedom of a Christian bridged the gap between mercantilism and capitalism. Traces of the “Protestant work ethic” idea were threaded throughout Luther’s treatise. Luther avidly declared that “man cannot be idle, for the need of his body drives him and he is compelled to do many good works to reduce it to subjection” (Luther, 295). By proclaiming that all men were equal, Luther said that all vocations were equal before God and therefore holy. Many modern historians argue that early capitalism sprang from the Reformation.
The cultural ramifications of The Freedom of a Christian were vast, because Luther called for a complete change to the German way of life. Germans in the sixteenth century were known for their drunken, rowdy behavior and general stupidity. Luther attacked this generalization by declaring that every man should have control of his own body. Men should discipline themselves “by fastings, watchings, labors, and other reasonable discipline” so that they might better serve their fellow men (Luther, 294). Above all, Luther called upon Christians to subject themselves to the Holy Spirit in order to conform the inner man. Such a petition would have radically changed the Germanic culture if it had worked.
The overall impact of these two treatises, Address to the Christian Nobility and The Freedom of a Christian, can never truly be comprehended. Luther’s works were spread all over Europe through the innovation of the printing press. His arguments for the priesthood of all believers and Christian liberty impacted other great reformers like Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox. Luther revolutionized Europe by bringing forth a Reformation that would change the known world for the rest of time.
– Hannah S. Bowers
Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon Press, 1950.
Hoffman, R. Joseph. “The Freedom of the Christian Theologian: Reflections on a Historical Predicament.” The Bible and Interpretation, (June 2009). http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/freedom.shtml (accessed June 16, 2012).
Jensen, De Lamar. Reformation Europe: Age of Reformation and Revolution. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1992.
Luther, Martin. Three Treatises. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.