It is instructive to observe how Luther moved from tolerance to dogma as his power and certainty grew. Among the “errors” that Leo X, in the bull Exsurge Domine, denounced in Luther was that “to burn heretics is against the will of the Holy Spirit.” In theOpen Letter to the Christian Nobility (1520) Luther ordained “every man a priest,” with the right to interpret the Bible according to his private judgment and individual light;46 and added, “We should vanquish heretics with books, not with burning.”47 In the essay On Secular Authority (1522) he wrote:

Over the soul God can and will let no one rule but Himself.... . We desire to make this so clear that everyone shall grasp it, and that our Junkers, the princes and bishops, may see what fools they are when they seek to coerce the people .... into believing one thing or another.... . Since belief or unbelief is a matter of everyone’s conscience... the secular power should be content to attend to its own affairs, and permit men to believe one thing or another as they are able and willing, and constrain no one by force. For faith is a free work, to which no one can be compelled.... . Faith and heresy are never so strong as when men oppose them by sheer force, without God’s word.48

n a letter to Elector Frederick (April 21, 1524) Luther asked toleration for Münzer and other of his own enemies. “You should not prevent them from speaking. There must be sects, and the Word of God must face battle.... Let us leave in His hands the combat and free encounter of minds.” In 1528, when others were advocating the death penalty for Anabaptists, he advised that unless they were guilty of sedition they should be merely banished.49 Likewise, in 1530, he recommended that the death penalty for blasphemy should be softened to exile. It is true that even in these liberal years he talked as if he wished his followers or God to drown or otherwise eliminate all “papists”; but this was “campaign oratory,” not seriously meant. In January 1521, he wrote: “I would not have the Gospel defended by violence or murder”; and in June of that year he reproved the Erfurt students for attacking priests; however, he did not object to “frightening them” a bit to improve their theology.50 In May 1529, he condemned plans for the forcible conversion of Catholic parishes to Protestantism. As late as 1531 he taught that “we neither can nor should force anyone into the faith.”51

But it was difficult for a man of Luther’s forceful and positive character to advocate tolerance after his position had been made relatively secure. A man who was sure that he had God’s Word could not tolerate its contradiction. The transition to intolerance was easiest concerning the Jews. Till 1537 Luther argued that they were to be forgiven for keeping their own creed, “since our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks, those coarse assheads, dealt with the Jews in such a manner that any Christian would have preferred to be a Jew. Indeed, had I been a Jew, and had seen such idiots and dunderheads expound Christianity, I should rather have become a hog than a Christian.... I would advise and beg everybody to deal kindly with the Jews, and to instruct them in the Scripture; in such case we could expect them to come over to us.”52 Luther may have realized that Protestantism was in some aspects a return to Judaism, in its rejection of monasticism and clerical celibacy, its emphasis on the Old Testament, the Prophets, and the Psalms, and its adoption (Luther himself excepted) of a sterner sexual ethic than that of Catholicism. He was disappointed when the Jews made no corresponding move toward Protestantism; and his hostility to the charging of interest helped to turn him against Jewish moneylenders, then against Jews in general. When Elector John expelled the Jews from Saxony (1537) Luther rejected a Jewish appeal for his intercession. In his Table Talk he united “Jews and papists” as “ungodly wretches .... two stockings made of one piece of cloth.”53 In his declining years he fell into a fury of anti-Semitism, denounced the Jews as “a stiff-necked, unbelieving, proud, wicked, abominable nation,” and demanded that their schools and synagogues should be razed with fire.

And let whosoever can, throw brimstone and pitch upon them; if one could hurl hell-fire at them, so much the better.... . And this must be done for the honor of Our Lord and of Christianity, so that God may see that we are indeed Christians. Let their houses also be shattered and destroyed.... Let their prayer books and Talmuds be taken from them, and their whole Bible too; let their rabbis be forbidden, on pain of death, to teach henceforth any more. Let the streets and highways be closed against them. Let them be forbidden to practice usury, and let all their money, and all their treasures of silver and gold be taken from them and put away in safety. And if all this be not enough, let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land.54

Luther should never have grown old. Already in 1522 he was outpapaling the popes. “I do not admit,” he wrote, “that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even by the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine cannot be saved.”55 By 1529 he was drawing some delicate distinctions:

No one is to be compelled to profess the faith, but no one must be allowed to injure it. Let our opponents give their objections and hear our answers. If they are thus converted, well and good; if not, let them hold their tongues and believe what they please.... In order to avoid trouble we should not, if possible, suffer contrary teachings in the same state. Even unbelievers should be forced to obey the Ten Commandments, attend church, and outwardly conform.56

Luther now agreed with the Catholic Church that “Christians require certainty, definite dogmas, and sure Word of God which they can trust to live and die by.”57 As the Church in the early centuries of Christianity, divided and weakened by a growing multiplicity of ferocious sects, had felt compelled to define her creed and expel all dissidents, so now Luther, dismayed by the variety of quarrelsome sects that had sprouted from the seed of private judgment, passed step by step from toleration to dogmatism. “All men now presume to criticize the Gospel,” he complained; “almost every old doting fool or prating sophist must, forsooth, be a doctor of divinity.” 58 Stung by Catholic taunts that he had let loose a dissolvent anarchy of creeds and morals, he concluded, with the Church, that social order required some cloture to debate, some recognized authority to serve as “an anchor of faith.” What should that authority be? The Church answered, the Church, for only a living organism could adjust itself and its Scriptures to inescapable change. No, said Luther; the sole and final authority should be the Bible itself, since all acknowledge it to be the Word of God.

In the thirteenth chapter of Deuteronomy, in this infallible book, he found an explicit command, allegedly from the mouth of God, to put heretics to death: “Neither shalt thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou conceal him,” even though it be “thy brother, or thy son, or the wife of thy bosom... but thou shalt surely kill him, thy hand shall be the first upon him to put him to death.” On that awful warrant the Church had acted in annihilating the Albigensians in the thirteenth century; that divine imprecation had been made a certificate of authority for the burnings of the Inquisition. Despite the violence of Luther’s speech he never rivaled the severity of the Church in dealing with dissent; but he proceeded, within the area and limits of his power, to silence it as peaceably as he could. In 1525 he invoked the aid of existing censorship regulations in Saxony and Brandenburg to stamp out the “pernicious doctrines” of the Anabaptists and the Zwinglians.59 In 1530, in his commentary on the Eighty-second Psalm, he advised governments to put to death all heretics who preached sedition or against private property, and “those who teach against a manifest article of the faith .... like the articles children learn in the creed, as, for example, if anyone should teach that Christ was not God but a mere man.”60Sebastian Franck thought there was more freedom of speech and belief among the Turks than in the Lutheran states, and Leo Jud, the Zwinglian, joined Carlstadt in calling Luther another pope. We should note, however, that toward the end of his life Luther returned to his early feeling for toleration. In his last sermon he advised abandonment of all attempts to destroy heresy by force; Catholics and Anabaptists must be borne with patiently till the Last Judgment, when Christ will take care of them.61

Other reformers rivaled or surpassed Luther in hounding heresy. Bucer of Strasbourg urged the civil authorities in Protestant states to extirpate all who professed a “false” religion; such men, he said, are worse than murderers; even their wives and children and cattle should be destroyed.62 The comparatively gentle Melanchthon accepted the chairmanship of the secular inquisition that suppressed the Anabaptists of Germany with imprisonment or death. “Why should we pity such men more than God does?” he asked, for he was convinced that God had destined all Anabaptists to hell.63 He recommended that the rejection of infant baptism, or of original sin, or of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, should be punished as capital crimes.64 He insisted on the death penalty for a sectarian who thought that heathens might be saved, or for another who doubted that belief in Christ as the Redeemer could change a naturally sinful into a righteous man.65 He applauded, as we shall see, the execution of Servetus. He asked the state to compel all the people to attend Protestant religious services regularly.66 He demanded the suppression of all books that opposed or hindered Lutheran teaching; so the writings of Zwingli and his followers were formally placed on the index of prohibited books in Wittenberg.67Whereas Luther was content with the expulsion of Catholics from regions governed by Lutheran princes, Melanchthon favored corporal penalties. Both agreed that the civil power was in duty bound to promulgate and uphold “the law of God”—i.e., Lutheranism.68Luther, however, counseled that where two sects existed in a state the minority should yield to the majority: in a predominantly Catholic principality the Protestants should yield and emigrate; in a prevailingly Protestant province the Catholics should give way and depart; if they resisted, they should be effectively chastised.69

The Protestant authorities, following Catholic precedents, accepted the obligation of maintaining religious conformity. At Augsburg (January 18, 1537) the town council issued a decree forbidding the Catholic worship, and banishing, after eight days, all who would not accept the new faith. At the expiration of the period of grace the council sent soldiers to take possession of all churches and monasteries; altars and statues were removed, and priests, monks, and nuns were banished.70 Frankfurt-am-Main promulgated a similar ordinance; and the seizure of Catholic church properties, and the suppression of Catholic services, spread through the states controlled by Protestants.71 Censorship of the press, already established in Catholic areas, was adopted by the Protestants; so Elector John of Saxony, at the request of Luther and Melanchthon, promulgated (1528) an edict that prohibited the publication, sale, or reading of Zwinglian or Anabaptist literature, or the preaching or teaching of their doctrines; “and anyone who is aware of such being done by anybody, whether a stranger or an acquaintance, must give information to the... magistrates of the place, in order that the offender may be taken up in due time and punished.... Those who are aware of such breeches of the orders... and do not give information, shall be punished by loss of life or property.”72

Excommunication, like censorship, was adopted by the Protestants from the Catholics. The Augsburg Confession of 1530 proclaimed the right of the Lutheran Church to excommunicate any member who should reject a fundamental Lutheran doctrine.73 Luther explained that “although excommunication in popedom has been and is shamefully abused, and made a mere torment, yet we must not suffer it to fall, but make right use of it, as Christ commanded.”74

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!