ON SECULAR AUTHORITY (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought) by Martin Luther, John Calvin and Höpfl

***** (of 5)

The bottom line: A masterpiece of theological reflection on secular authority by two titans of religious thought. Undeniably a must-read.

 

This text addresses two basic questions: (1) “For Christians, what role should secular government play in our lives? and (2) Should we be obedient to God, the State, or both?”

Answers are provided through select passages from the writings of two well renowned theologians—Martin Luther (a German monk who spearheaded the Protestant Reformation) and John Calvin (a French minister and the father of Calvinism).

In short, both men recognize the authority, necessity, and the explicit distinctions between, divine and secular authority. Both also recognize that the former reigns supreme and that the Christian’s primary allegiance is to God and not the State. That being said, both have somewhat divergent interpretations as what that actually means for the Christian in secular society.

Calvin has a more optimistic view of mankind, and believes that government should be used as a tool to mold the hearts of men into more upright, righteous people. He says that “civil government has its appointed end … to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility.” Note how Calvin sees a very proactive and positive function of government to defend, adjust, form, and promote.

Luther, on the other hand, had a more pessimistic view of humanity and divides humans into two groups—the believers and the non-believers. He thought the former group to be in the minority, and amongst them, the people who actually acted as they should are few and far between. Accordingly, he suggests that the State exists not to play such an aggressive role in society and should punish evil (a more negative formulation), cognizant that without some form of established order, the evil that men are predisposed to do would run amok. Luther thought Christians didn’t essentially need secular authority because if they lived according to divine law, there would be no need to obey the subordinate secular authorities. He still contends, however, for the sake of others and to lead by example, that Christians ought to obey secular laws when not in contradiction to the scriptures.

Many readers would be particularly surprised what both men say about a “just” war.

The book is very short (less than 100 pages) but isn’t necessarily a quick read. I personally believe that this deserves a position on the bookshelf of anyone involved in theological study or education.

The scriptures in the Bible always remain the same, but the interpretation of those who read It differ. I believe this point is particularly relevant today since many political and religious demagogues use the Bible as a means to justify their proposals and actions. This book provides two insightful perspectives on the role of civil government in a Christian’s life and allows you to think and form your own opinion. On Secular Authority will serve anyone—seminary professors and students, theologians, pastors, teachers, or the simply curious—well and provide intelligent insight into a dilemma that still reverberates now as it did hundreds of years ago when these words were written.

 

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

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