By Piet Boshoff
The Reformation of the sixteenth century succeeds in bringing together the long-delayed reform efforts of the Western Church and becomes a European event. The European Church is experiencing a split without renouncing its common roots.
The primordial Christian points of departure that gave shape to Europe from its Christianization are now strongly emerging again, namely the primacy of the individual over the community that includes everyone and the distinction between religion and politics. These are people who, one by one, come to faith. The content of the faith is not a truth that can be generally seen. Belief and unbelief are always acts of individuals. God’s act of salvation is properly understood when it leads here and now to a new self-understanding of the person involved in it.
Believers also distinguish between religion and politics. This insight results in the Western principled distinction between church and state and allows the kingdom of Christ to stand alongside the kingdom of the world; the realm of the word of God and the realm of reason; the rule of the gospel and the rule of the law. In the kingdom of Christ, God himself rules by his word, forgives sins, calms consciences, grants eternal freedom. In the kingdoms of the world, God rules through princes who uphold the law and ensure justice. Christians live in and under both realms of God.
Exsurge Domine: “Arise, Lord”
After Luther’s Ninety-Five Theorems was published in 1517 and Pope Leo X was informed about it, the papal order came to “silence the man”. That tactic did not work then. On June 15, 1520, the Pope issues his official order that Luther must retract his heresies within sixty days and the people must reject them and burn his books. Luther’s insistence that he must be refuted from the Bible meant that he was able to survive the Reichstag at Worms and that the case against him remained in the air.
However, in several places in Germany and the Netherlands, people obeyed the censorship and lit the fires. In response, Luther wrote an open letter to Leo X and sent it The freedom of a Christian along with it. It must have struck Leo X that Luther considered the two of them equal. Luther argues that faith makes a person free and that nothing can harm him. When someone instead of faith places his hope in good works to justify himself, he immediately loses faith and its gifts. Events which are nicely illustrated by the fable of The dog with meat in its mouth (as translated by myself and Gafie van Wyk):
Dog has a piece of meat in his mouth and wants to cross a stream, but when he notices his own shadow in the water, he thinks that it is another dog with a bigger piece of meat in his mouth. He then drops his own meat and wants to take that of the other dog. So it happened that he was deprived of both; one he did not find, because it did not exist at all and the other because it was washed away by the stream.
At Philippus Melanchthon’s announcement, students and colleagues gathered at the Cross Chapel and from there walked through the Elsterpoort and outside Wittenberg threw volumes of canon law, papal decrees and scholastic philosophy into the fire. Then Luther also stepped forward and also threw the Exsurge Domine, in which he is threatened with banishment from the church, in the fire while muttering and quoting from the papal document: “How you have plunged us into misfortune! Today the Lord plunges you into misfortune.” (Joshua 7:25).
It was the charged moment when it was clear that fire would be answered with fire, according to Luther “eyn anfangk des ernsts“.
Luther warns against that Jesus Christ should only be understood as an example. According to that, He would be no more than any other example. For Luther, faith is only possible where the believer recognizes the fate that befell Christ as his own, which comes back to him. In the dark powers with which Christ contended, God’s wrath, sin and death, he recognizes his own sin and the powers that rule over him through it.
In responsibility, Christ took upon Himself the fate that came upon the people as a result of sin (that is, unbelief). The power of fate, its inevitability is broken when its cause is known. And the cause of human fate lies in the idea that man has that he can make himself, can justify and thereby rob God of his honor and divinity. The believer participates in this responsibility by taking up Christ’s cross and in accepting God’s judgment about our sin and calling on God’s mercy, because only those who bow before God’s judgment understand and truly grasp the grace of God to God who kills, not to kill, but to make alive. The believer obeys the word in which God promises Himself.
In retrospect (1541) Luther considered the ban against him untimely. He went so far as to Explanations of the Ninety-Five Theorems to dedicate to Pope Leo X. He himself then still considered himself a faithful Catholic and the papal decrees also declared that the indulgence sellers cannot save anyone from purgatory with indulgences. But instead of approval and blessing, lightnings and storms came from Rome. Anyone who could hold a pen, he felt, vomited bile against him. So he then became the sheep that gave water to the wolf in Aesop’s fable Wolf and Lamb clouded (as translated by myself and Gafie van Wyk):
Wolf only took one look at where Lamb was drinking water by a river and he decided to eat him under a good pretext. He stood higher upstream and then accused Lam of muddying the water and not giving him a chance to drink. But Lamb replied that he only drank with the tips of his lips and that he could not possibly, standing downstream, disturb the water upstream. With his pretense gone, Wolf then said: “In any case, last year you insulted my father.” Lamb replies that he wasn’t even born at the time, to which Wolf tells him: “Just because you’re smart in your defense, I won’t eat you for that?”.
In 1530, Luther remained in the Koburg Castle from 16 April to 13 October for security reasons. The day after their arrival, Luther preached about the cross and suffering. He reminds the congregation that God has decreed that they must not only believe in the crucified Christ, but must also be crucified with him. We must heed the word and look away from all the difficulties that we want to destroy, such as the problems caused by the Pope and the Turks. Even if we are not as good Christians as we should be and but weak in life and faith, God will stand up for his word simply because it is his word.
Through letters, Luther keeps in touch with his friends who have to present their case at the Reichstag of Augsburg. He writes to Melanchthon that he plans to spend the time there working on the Psalms and the Prophets and to adapt the fables of Aesop. He describes his work to them by building a hut for each one, letting them come home as it were. However, Aesop’s cabin will only be temporary. And by that he means that his adaptation of Aesop’s fables has value for the temporal life in contrast to the content of the Psalms and Prophets which have eternal value. Luther was convinced that one cannot find a finer book on worldly and general wisdom than the “simple silly children’s book of Aesop”.
The world government preserves peace, justice and life which is temporary and transitory. Nevertheless, the worldly government is a glorious institution and outstanding gift of God who established it and wants to keep it as something without which people cannot go on. Preaching makes sinners holy and the dead alive. World government turns wild animals into people and prevents people from becoming wild animals. Global government protects people and property. Birds and animals would say that we should be ashamed of our ingratitude for this gift, because compared to them we are gods.
It is clear that temporal authority is a creation and arrangement of God. God did not set it up to be destroyed. We must maintain it, but not with the fist. Solomon heard Wisdom say: “By me kings rule, and high ones issue righteous decrees” (Proverbs 8:15, 2020 translation).
Luther makes use of the life wisdom attributed to Aesop and Solomon. Their art of living comes from the experience of collected wisdom of life which is often preserved in proverbs and has been and is handed down from generation to generation. This wisdom was not miraculously revealed to the world, but was given with creation and life itself and it grows out of life – and death.
To this we can add: “Yes, to the man whom He finds acceptable, He gives wisdom, knowledge and joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:26, 2020 translation). Our mind helps us to listen to the true one among the many voices, to judge soberly and matter-of-factly and not lose our head. But there are so many people who would rather see and want us than unwise. You don’t understand anything about this and that, they say. And so we appear very unwise afterwards. But we must not be fooled. Many things would be better if we would only be more sensible and not let ourselves be fooled.
By the middle of July 1530 he sends his manuscript a Preach, that people should keep children in school To Wittenberg for publication. In it he explains that Germany is governed by imperial Roman law and law. This law is the government’s God-given wisdom and reasonableness. The government can only stand by upholding the law. “Who will manage it? Not fists and weapons, but heads and books must do it.” That is why he encourages children to go to school diligently.
All who have to do with the legal side of government administration must study and know well the law and wisdom of our world government and be able to instinctively do the right thing. There may be good rulers at times, but they are rare; therefore it is always better to stick to the written law, which enjoys greater recognition.
- Piet Boshoff is a research fellow in the Department of Old Testament Studies at the University of Pretoria.