1517 and the posting of his 95 Theses has often been seen as Martin Luther’s breaking point from Catholicism to Protestantism. Certainly, the 95 Theses contained many Protestant elements and voiced his concern over indulgences. These grievances are a result of Luther’s study and subsequent lectures of various books of the Bible. However, the act of posting on the Wittenberg church’s door was a common scholastic practice, intended as an invitation to discuss these matters further. Furthermore, this act lacked some of the theological conviction central to Luther after 1520.
Following these early years in which Luther worked out his evangelical theology (“Protestant” being a term used after 1529 when a number of princes and other governmental officials protested against Emperor Charles V), Luther was put on the defense. Whether it was the 1518 Diet of Augsburg and his dealing with Cardinal Cajetan or the 1519 Leipzig Disputation and his debate with Johann Eck of Ingolstadt, Luther was occupied with explaining, defending, and justifying his beliefs.
1520 was turning point for the reformer. It was in this year Luther forsook his defensive stance and took up an offensive position. This was not necessarily a shift in theology as it was more of a strategic change. As Luther states, “The time for silence is over, and the time for speech has come” (An Appeal to the Ruling Class, 403)
Luther wrote four significant works in 1520, all presenting various aspects of his theology. On the Papacy of Rome addresses the issue of what the true church is, as opposed to the Catholic Church. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church discusses the sacraments with particular attention to the Eucharist and the mass. On Christian Liberty provides Luther’s understanding of liberty, relating freedom from the bondage of sin and the consequent liberty to salvation through faith and not works.
Of the four, Luther’s most political work is An Appeal to the Ruling Class of German Nationality as to the Amelioration of the State of Christendom. As we saw, Luther begins the work with a declaration to end his silence and take his message forward. He does so by calling on the German nobility to uphold their Christian duty and address the damage done by Catholicism.
The heart of the work is the “Three Walls.” First, “To call popes, bishops, priests, monks, and nuns, the religious class, but princes, lords, artizans, and farm-workers the secular class, is a specious device invented by certain timeservers” (An Appeal to the Ruling Class, 407). Luther is denouncing the notion that church leaders are spiritually superior to the laity. Both ecclesiastical leaders and governmental leaders share the same baptism. They are both equal members of the royal priesthood of believers. Luther defends this democratic understanding not based on individual liberty but on the theological understanding of baptism and priesthood.
Throughout the work Luther uses the term “secular.” However, his use of the term is not to denote matters that are apart from religion. Rather, secular serves as a term of function and not religious orientation. He writes,
Hence we deduce that there is, at bottom, really no other difference between laymen, priests, princes, bishops, or, in Romanist terminology, between religious and secular, than that of office or occupation, and not that of Christian status. All have spiritual status, and all are truly priests, bishops and popes. But Christians do not all follow the same occupation (An Appeal to the Ruling Class, 409).
The second wall contends that the neither the pope nor the church are the sole interpreters of scripture. The Bible should be offered in the vernacular so that all Christians are able to read and interpret according to their baptism and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The “spirit of liberty” should not be squelched by the Catholic Church but fostered by the interpretation of the Bible by all. What is authoritative is that the Bible is God’s revelation to man and not the man who interprets.
For the final wall, Luther expands the boundaries of who can call a church council. It is not only the pope who can call a council but also the government. Calling a council is not contingent on authority. Rather, it is based on spiritual need. If the church is in need then the government can and should call a church council. This is not due to the authority of the government but is based on the spiritual need and the authority of the Bible.
An Appeal to the Ruling Class has often been misunderstood as an appeal for a state governed church. This would be a simplistic understanding of Luther’s political theory. As the full title states An Appeal to the Ruling Class of German Nationality as to the Amelioration of the State of Christendom, he is addressing the German nobility but on behalf of the state of Christendom. Luther begins with a theology of God’s sovereign over all early matters. This state of Christendom contains both secular and ecclesiastical authorities. The secular and ecclesiastical institutions serve two separate functions but also serve as equals for the state of Christendom. Both have Christian leaders at their head but the roles of each institution differ. Just as a body needs feet and hands, so too the state of Christendom require a secular authority over civil matters and an ecclesiastical authority over spiritual ministry.
An Appeal to the Ruling Class offers an early look at Luther’s political theory. It is based on an understanding of God as the head of the state of Christendom. This is not a political entity but a theological understanding of divine sovereignty. Within Christendom exists institutions such as the civil government and the church. Both institutions are oriented as Christian institutions, as part of the state of Christendom, but serve two separate functions. The authority of neither institution lies in their identity or function, but rather, in upholding the authority of the Bible.