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How revolutionary were Lutheran and Calvinist theories of authority?

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Introduction

How revolutionary were Lutheran and Calvinist theories of authority? Lutheran and Calvinist theories of authority were revolutionary as they laid the foundations of a radical shift in attitudes towards obeying authority. Political thought changed from a view that it was never legitimate to resist authority to the notion that 'like any other wild animal, a tyrant can be killed.' However it was later Calvinist theories that were more revolutionary than Calvin's own work On Civil government and Luther's On Secular authority. Moreover rather than promoting revolutionary theories of authority, Luther and Calvin were concerned to preserve order. Revolutions occurring throughout Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century were to an extent legitimised by Lutheran and Calvinist theories of authority but this was certainly not the original intent of the writings. Luther and Calvin were after all theologians, not political philosophers. The Lutheran and Calvinist theories of authority were a radical departure in political thinking in the sixteenth century in terms of an obligation to submit to authority. The tradition of biblical thought suggested that obligation was fundamental and thus, it was not considered legitimate to resist authority. Christian political theory was underpinned by the divine word of God, which stated 'obey the powers that be.' (Romans 13) ...read more.

Middle

'I will not obey' if a prince or secular Lord invokes laws which is against their conscience and would not be fulfilling their duty to God. 'The spread of the Reformation led to a general upheaval in political thinking which was the direct consequence of his theology'.7 'It is doubtful how far Luther himself recognised the revolutionary consequences of his teaching at the beginning.'8 On reflection Luther said, I simply taught, preached, wrote God's word: otherwise I did nothing. And when, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a Prince or Emperors inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing, the word did it all.'9 'Luther was first and foremost a theologian. When he addressed political issues he did so as a theologian.'10 'Despite their non-revolutionary aims, Martin Luther and his co-reformers profoundly changed central and northern Europe for good.'11 Luther's arguments were essentially conservative in responding to authority emphasising the duty of not obeying ungodly political authority. Luther preferred the principle of non-resistance. 'Rebellion was, in Luther's eyes, the worst of all possible sins, for it threatened the very foundations of civil society.'12 All the early reformers, including Calvin, shared Luther's belief in the divine character of government and the sinfulness of rebellion. ...read more.

Conclusion

He maintains that it is misleading to look to sixteenth century Calvinist theories as the originators of radical resistance theory. Although Skinner concedes that the sixteenth century European revolutions were led by professed Calvinists, he argues that the justifying theories behind these actions were not specifically Calvinist. 21 For example Skinner claims that Buchanan was restating the ideas of John Mair (1467-1550). Mair was the channel of the radical scholastic ideas to the Calvinist revolutionaries. His pupils included Calvin, John Knox and George Buchanan. Moreover Skinner sees the Calvinist theories as based upon the foundation of earlier Catholic political philosophy of the radical scholastics. Thus Skinner's perspective asserts that Calvinist theories of authority were not as revolutionary as Walzer asserts as their origins were rooted in earlier political thinkers. Although Luther and Calvin broke with the simplicity of Romans 13, the argument developed by Luther and Calvin laid considerable stress on the language of religious duty and the office of inferior magistrates. Emphasis was on inferior magistrates acting on behalf of the people against a tyrant rather than calling private men to arms. They were thus concerned to reinforce authority. Luther and Calvin did not seek to encourage rebellion against authority but were more concerned to preserve social order. They still fundamentally believed that resistance against authority was offensive to God. Nonetheless Lutheran and Calvinist theories of authority were revolutionary to the extent that Europe in the sixteenth century radically changed as a result. ...read more.

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