Luther on the three estates and resistance to persecution and violence

In May 1539 Luther published one of the encyclical disputations he was bound by the foundation certificate of Wittenberg University to publish every quarter. This one took a highly current topic, the right to resist the Emperor or the Pope and was based on Matthew 19, 21:

„Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.“

A very interesting disputation, the 16th century German translation of which I had the fortune to render into English at the behest of Pastor Wolfmueller. As this topicis much on the mind of confessional Lutherans in the US right now, we offer an excerpt with a few comments.

Before our point of entry Luther had some interesting points to say on „selling everything one has“ with regards to monastic aspirations. He shows a command of owning property out of the seventh commandment and concludes that to truly leave all things, one must leave existence itself, as even time and space are used by the individual and thus „theirs“, thus critizicing the monastic selfconception.Thus it is lawful to own propperty and use it according to the second table. But everything one owns „according to the second table“ a Christian must be ready to loose and leave for the sake of the first table, i.e. his confession in persecution. He sums up:

24 Apart from the cause of the first table or the confession of the faith, one is to receive, keep, protect and maintain all things.

26 Thus where a man does not provide for his own household, apart from the cause of the First Table or the confession of faith, he denies the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. For he has heard Christ’s pronouncement: “What God has joined together let no man separate”.

28 And also in the other way: he who for God’s cause does not deny himself, his family and that which is his and does not say: “I do not know you”, he does not only fail to keep the First Table but also the other commandments.

Now he moves on to apply the same distinction to the question of persecution via the medium of the worldly authority or the law of the land. Luther actually uses politiae or politeia in the Latin text, refering to Plato with a area of meaning rangeing from the right of the citizen to mode of political organization. The modern German word „Recht“ comes close to this, perhaps, but is not used by Luther.

30 Apart from his confession, a Christian is a citizen of this world, who owes to act and to suffer in his estate[1] according to the Second Table.

31 If now a thief or murderer would seek to do thee violence or steel from thee for the reason that thou artst a Christian, then thou must resist this evil if thou wouldst be a true and faithful citizen of this world.

32 For as the regiment[2] and authority of which thou art a part, does itself resist against injustice, it commands thee also to resist it by means of that Second Table to which thou owest obedience.

33 In the same way, if a murderer would kill thee on the road for the sake of Christ thou art to defend thyself even unto taking his life.

33 In the same way, if a murderer would kill thee on the road for the sake of Christ thou art to defend thyself even unto taking his life

34 For you know that the authority[3] has ordered that murderers should be resisted and its citizens[4] protected and thus you are obeying both, the First and Second Table.

35 And thus it is of no account here, if he would use Christ, which is the First Table, as his reason, as it is certain that he does seek to kill thee for Christ’s sake but for the sake of your possessions.[5]

The final point here seems like a correction of points 31 and 33, perhaps as Luther thinks this through, realizing that the casus for First or Second Table does not depend on the aggressor and his reason, but on the attitude of the worldly authority in question, as that makes the aggressors behavior either lawless or lawful according to the special politeia he is in, not, of course, according to natural law or the law of God. Thus if a government forbids murder, a Christian is acting lawfully in self-defense. If a government permits the murder of Christians, self-defense would not be lawful in this analysis, thus making it a case in the cause of the First Table.

36 But if the authority itself, be it worldly or otherwise not truly Christian, persecutes thee for Christs sake, thou must leave, sell and lose all.

37 For the authority is no murderer or thief seeking to take thy body, wife, child and all thou posessest but it protects all these things against the thief and the murderer.

38 Hence worldly authorities, be they heathen or enemies of the faith, are not against us but with and for us in that other[1] Table.

39 Thus follows: worldly authority may be what it may, yet it still orders at all times and in all places that peace be held among its subjects, regardless of which religion they are.

40 And for this reason, after this peace has been declared, it is not meet for a citizen, be they who they may, to use or wield force, but the higher authority ought to be accepted and called upon in need.

41 Now such authorities as stand against the faith would nonetheless seek s.ubmission from their subjects, all on account of religion, meaning for the sake of the First Table, seeming to practice what they practice.[2]

42 If then they would not be instructed by that which is better, then Christ’s teaching holds: go thee, sell, abandon, leave, lose all even your own life.

43 For without[3] the realm of this world there is no other kingdom that could stand for us against this one except the great and eternal Kingdom of God

44 Thus as said above, when worldly authority forbids evil, we owe it obedience by reason of the authority of the other[4] Table, to resist evil and not suffer it.

45 But when worldly authority itself intends to harm thee for the First Tables sake, and if it can have no other reason besides this one, thou shalt not resist it.

46 For we have no other authority which could counter the evil authority and under which we should and would resist such evil[5].

47 Just as we have no other Table besides the Second one which could justify us in resisting such evil.

48 For, like the Second Table, worldly authority serves the life and estate in this world which has been given and ordered by God from above.

49 And for this reason we ought not, nay it is forbidden, in our own presumptuousness to subvert, destroy and ruin worldly authorities and the worldly regiment[6] ordered by God.

50 One must especially avoid wrath and it cannot be that we defend or protect ourselves by our own action.

 Luther thus makes a strict distinction between persecution within within a politeia but against it and persecution by a politeia. Of course lawful resistance with in the system of one’s current politeia, is fine. Petitions, law suits, peaceful protest etc. The question that was on the mind of Luther’s contemporaries at the time was, whethere they would be justified in taking up arms in defence against an army and that is what Luther comments on. Of course the thoughts were further developed and there are more books on the subject. Justus Menius‘ „Von der Notwehr Unterricht“, 1547 Wittenberg to the 1550 Magdeburg Confession. But what these works should fundamentally call us to, is to remember – through all culture wars – that suffering persecution, not fighting against it, is the more fundamentally Christian of the two.


[1] The Second

[2] Caeterum magistratus impii propter religionem, id est, propter primam tabulam volunt videri agere, quod agunt.

[3] Both meanings possible here – without which or outside of something

[4] Second

[5] This, of course, bears further thought, as another (governmental) authority could be accepted and thus the evil local authority resisted. The Second World War may be an object of fruitful thought here.

[6] In the Latin Luther employs “politeia” here, like Plato, as he does also in Lines 9 and 52


[1] The Second

[2] Caeterum magistratus impii propter religionem, id est, propter primam tabulam volunt videri agere, quod agunt.

[3] Both meanings possible here – without which or outside of something

[4] Second

[5] This, of course, bears further thought, as another (governmental) authority could be accepted and thus the evil local authority resisted. The Second World War may be an object of fruitful thought here.

[6] In the Latin Luther employs “politeia” here, like Plato, as he does also in Lines 9 and 52

[1] meaning one of the three estates

[2] It can be seen here that “regiment” and “authority” also encompass meanings within them, which we would nowadays associate with “community” or “society”. Term here “Obrigkeit” lit. “that which is up” derived from “oben”.

[3] Again “Obrigeit”

[4] This shows that the murderer and thief, by their working against the decree of the politeia, the authority, are by Luther’s conception not citizens. Membership of a society is defined by subscribing to the laws of that society in medieval times (see Luther’s comment on citizenship in a town elsewhere).

[5] This seems like a correction of points 31 and 33, perhaps as Luther thinks this through, realizing that the casus for First or Second Table does not depend on the aggressor and his reason, but on the attitude of the worldly authority in question, as that makes the aggressors behavior either lawless or lawful. Thus if a government forbids murder, a Christian is acting lawfully in self-defense. If a government permits the murder of Christians, self-defense would not be lawful in this analysis, thus making it a case in the cause of the First Table.

[6] The Second

[7] Caeterum magistratus impii propter religionem, id est, propter primam tabulam volunt videri agere, quod agunt.

[8] Both meanings possible here – without which or outside of something

[9] Second

[10] This, of course, bears further thought, as another (governmental) authority could be accepted and thus the evil local authority resisted. The Second World War may be an object of fruitful thought here.

[11] In the Latin Luther employs “politeia” here, like Plato, as he does also in Lines 9 and 52

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