God and Government: Martin Luther’s Political Thought

Jarrett A. Carty

McGill-Queen’s Studies in the History of Ideas. Vol. 73. Montreal, Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017. 208 pages. Softcover. $34.95.

Reviewed by Rev. Dr. Martin R. Noland, Grace Lutheran Church, San Mateo, California on 07/31/2018

Jarrett Carty has previously published an anthology of Luther’s political writings titled Divine Kingdom, Holy Order: The Political Writings of Martin Luther (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2012).  He announces in his front matter (xiii) that the present book, God and Government, is “a natural succession” of the previous work of primary sources and is “a full analysis” of those works.  It is evident that the author has perused a good portion of the Luther corpus on this subject, including Luther’s lectures and commentaries on the Bible.  Carty’s use of these lectures and commentaries helps him steer past the stereotypes of Luther’s political thought that are often found even in scholarly works.

After an explanation in chapter one of why Luther’s reform of the church required a complementary political theory, the author analyzes in chapter two the chief political treatises of Luther, including the 1523 essay On Temporal Authority.  In chapter three, Carty discusses Luther’s political ideas found in his Bible lectures and commentaries, while chapter four looks at the political issues of the day: the Peasants War and resistance to the Holy Roman Empire.  Chapter five reviews Luther’s thoughts on education, church supervision, the care of the poor, marriage law, and the policing of “blasphemy.” Chapter six compares Luther to his successors in the Lutheran church and to other Christian thinkers of the early modern era.  Chapter seven assesses the significance of Luther’s political thought for later generations in the West and how that has been misunderstood by a number of influential studies of the history of political thought.

For those of us in the Lutheran tradition, the sections in chapters five & six where Carty compares Luther to his Lutheran successors are particularly interesting.  Luther had intended for the electoral and territorial princes to serve as only Notbischöfe, i.e., bishops in time of crisis.  Carty notes that Luther was “a steadfast critic of the emerging ‘territorial churches’ of the Reformation” (117).  In spite of this, after Luther’s death Melanchthon and Johannes Brenz were already moving toward institutional control of the church by the government (115-117, 143-147).

The section in chapter six about “policing blasphemy” is particularly relevant for our “secular age.”  Any simplistic transfer of Luther’s political theory to the present polity of the United States, or similar “secularized” states, fails just at this point.  Luther did not envision a state where public dissent from official church doctrine and official church practice would be tolerated.  Nor did he envision a state where non-Christian religions or atheism would be tolerated.  As Carty notes, this is why Luther opposed the residence of Jews in Saxony (119-122).

If you are looking for a single, succint, and easily navigable volume on Luther’s political thought, I highly recommend that you consider this excellent book by Jarrett Carty.