Vol. 7, Chapter V (Cont’d) – Relation of Church and State


In January, 1523, Luther published a remarkable book on the civil magistrate, dedicated to Prince John, in which he proved from Rom_13:1 and 1Pe_2:13 the duty to obey the civil magistrate, and from Act_5:29 the duty to obey God more than man. On the ground of Christ’s word, Mat_22:21, which contains the wisest answer to an embarrassing question, he drew a sharp distinction between the secular and spiritual power, and reproved the pope and bishops for meddling with secular affairs, and the princes and nobles for meddling with spiritual matters. It sounds almost like a prophetic anticipation of the American separation of church and state when he says: — 

“God has ordained two governments among the children of Adam, the reign of God under Christ, and the reign of the world under the civil magistrate, each with its own laws and rights. The laws of the reign of the world extend no further than body and goods and the external affairs on earth. But over the soul God can and will allow no one to rule but himself alone. Therefore where the worldly government dares to give laws to the soul, it invades the reign of God, and only seduces and corrupts the soul. This we shall make so clear that our noblemen, princes, and bishops may see what fools they are if they will force people with their laws and commandments to believe this or that. … In matters which relate to the soul’s salvation nothing should be taught and accepted but God’s word.… As no one can descend to hell or ascend to heaven for me, as little can any one believe or disbelieve for me; as he cannot open or shut heaven or hell for me, neither can he force me to faith or unbelief … Faith is a voluntary thing which cannot be forced. Yea, it is a divine work in the spirit. Hence it is a common saying which is also found in Augustin: Faith cannot and should not be forced on anybody.”

Here is the principle of religious liberty which was proclaimed in principle by Christ, acted upon by the apostles, re-asserted by the ante-Nicene fathers against the tyranny of persecuting Rome, but so often violated by Christian Rome in her desire for a worldly empire, and also by Protestant churches and princes in their dealings with Romanists and Anabaptists. Luther does not spare the secular rulers, though this book is dedicated to the brother of the Elector.

“From the beginning of the world wise princes have been rare birds, and pious princes still rarer. Most of them are the greatest fools or the worst boobies on earth. Therefore we must fear the worst from them, and expect little good, especially in divine things which affect the soul’s welfare. They are God’s hangmen, and his wrath uses them to punish evil-doers, and to keep external peace.”

He refers to Isa_3:4, “I will give children to be their princes, and babes shall rule over them;” and to Hos_13:11, “I have given thee a king in mine anger, and have taken him away in my wrath.” “The world is too bad,” he adds, “and not worthy to have many wise and pious princes.”

To the objection that the secular magistrate should afford an external protection, and hinder heretics from seducing the people, he replies: — 

“This is the business of bishops, and not of princes. For heresy can never be kept off by force; another grip is needed for that; this is another quarrel than that of the sword. God’s word must contend here. If this fails, the worldly power is of no avail, though it fill the world with blood. Heresy is a spiritual thing that cannot be hewn down by iron, nor burned by fire, nor drowned by water. But God’s word does it, as Paul says, ‘Our weapons are not carnal, but mighty in God’ (2Co_10:4, 2Co_10:5).”

In his exposition of the First Epistle of St. Peter, from the same year (1523), he thus comments on the exhortation “to fear God and honor the king:”

“If the civil magistrate interferes with spiritual matters of conscience in which God alone must rule, we ought not to obey at all, but rather lose our head. Civil government is confined to external and temporal affairs.… If an emperor or prince asks me about my faith, I would give answer, not because of his command, but because of my duty to confess my faith before everybody. But if he should go further, and command me to believe this or that, I would say, ‘Dear sir, mind your secular business; you have no right to interfere with God’s reign, and therefore I shall not obey you at all.’”

Similar views on the separation of church and state were held by Anabaptists, Mennonites, the English martyr-bishop Hooper, and Robert Browne the Independent; but they had no practical effect till a much later period.

Luther himself changed his opinion on this subject, and was in some measure driven to a change by the disturbances and heresies which sprang up around him, and threatened disorder and anarchy. The victory over the peasants greatly increased the power of the princes. The Lutheran Reformers banded the work of re-organization largely over to them, and thus unwittingly introduced a caesaropapacy; that is, such a union of church and state as makes the head of the state also the supreme ruler in the church. It is just the opposite of the hierarchical principle of the Roman Church, which tries to rule the state. Melanchthon justified this transfer chiefly by the neglect of the pope and bishops to do their duty. He says, if Christ and the apostles had waited till Annas and Caiaphas permitted the gospel, they would have waited in vain.

The co-operation of the princes and magistrates in the cities secured the establishment of the Protestant Church, but brought it under the bondage of lawyers and politicians who, with some honorable exceptions, knew less and ruled worse than the bishops. The Reformers often and bitterly complained in their later writings of the rapacity of princes and nobles who confiscated the property of churches and convents, and applied it to their own use instead of schools and benevolent purposes. Romish historians make the most of this fact to the disparagement of the Reformation. But the spoliations of Protestant princes are very trifling, as compared with the wholesale confiscation of church property by Roman-Catholic powers, as France, Spain, and Italy in the last and present centuries.

The union of church and state accounts for the persecution of papists, heretics, and Jews; and all the Reformers justified persecution to the extent of deposition and exile, some even to the extent of death, as in the case of Servetus.

The modern progress of the principle of toleration and religious liberty goes hand in hand with the loosening of the bond of union between church and state.


88. Church Visitation in Saxony

Melanchthon: Articuli de quibus egerunt per visitatores in regione Saxoniae. Wittenb., 1527. Reprinted in the Corpus Reform., vol. XXVI. (1858), 9-28. The same in German with preface by Luther: Unterricht der Visitatoren an die Pfarrherrn im Kurfürstenthum zu Sachsen. Wittenb., 1628. In Walch, X. 1902, and in Corp. Reform., XXVI. 29-40. Also Luther’s Letters to Elector John, from the years 1525 to 1527, in De Wette, vol. III. 38 sqq.

Burkhardt: Gesch. der sächsischen Kirchen- und Schulvisitationen von 1524-45. Leipzig, 1879. Köstlin: M. L., II. 23-49.

In order to abolish ecclesiastical abuses, to introduce reforms in doctrine, worship, and discipline, and to establish Christian schools throughout the electorate of Saxony, Luther proposed a general visitation of all the churches. This was properly the work of bishops. But, as there were none in Saxony who favored the Reformation, he repeatedly urged the Elector John, soon after he succeeded his brother Frederick, to institute an episcopal visitation of the churches in his territory, and to divide it into three or four districts, each to be visited by two noblemen or magistrates. He presented to him, in his strong way, the deplorable condition of the church: the fear of God, and discipline are gone; the common people have lost all respect for the preachers, pay no more offerings, and let them starve; since the Pope’s tyranny is abolished, everybody does as he pleases. We shall soon have no churches, no schools, no pupils, unless the magistrates restore order, and take care at least of the youth, whatever may become of the old people.

It was a dangerous step, and the entering wedge of a new caesaropapacy, — the rule of statecraft over priestcraft. But it seemed to be the only available help under the circumstances, and certainly served a very useful purpose. Luther had full confidence in the God-fearing Elector, that he would not abuse the authority thus temporarily conferred on him.

The Elector, after considerable delay, resolved upon the visitation in July, 1527, on the quasi-legal basis of the Diet of Speier, which a year before had temporarily suspended, but by no means abolished, the Edict of Worms. He directed Melanchthon to prepare a “formula of doctrine and rites” for the instruction of the visitors. Melanchthon elaborated in Latin, and more fully in German, a summary of the evangelical doctrines of faith and duty, which may be regarded as the first basis of the Augsburg Confession. He treats, in seventeen articles, of faith, the cross (affliction), prayer, the fruits of the Spirit, the magistrate, the fear of God, righteousness, judgment, the sacraments (Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Confession), the sign of the eucharist, penitence, marriage, prohibited cases, human traditions, Christian liberty, free-will, and the law. The order is not very logical, and differs somewhat in the German edition. The work was finished in December, 1527.

Luther wrote a popular preface and notes to the German edition, and explained the object. He shows the importance of church visitation, from the example of the apostles and the primary aim of the episcopal office; for a bishop, as the term indicates, is an overseer of the churches, and an archbishop is an overseer of the bishops. But the bishops have become worldly lords, and neglect their spiritual duties. Now, as the pure gospel has returned, or first begun, we need a true episcopacy; and, as nobody has a proper authority or divine command, we asked the Elector, as our divinely appointed ruler (Rom_13:1-14), to exercise his authority for the protection and promotion of the gospel. Although he is not called to teach, he may restore peace and order, as the Emperor Constantine did when he called the Council of Nicaea for the settlement of the Arian controversy.

Melanchthon wisely abstained from polemics, and advised the preachers to attack sin and vice, but to let the pope and the bishops alone. Luther was not pleased with this moderation, and added the margin: “But they shall violently condemn popery with its devotees, since it is condemned by God; for popery is the reign of Antichrist, and, by instigation of the Devil, it terribly persecutes the Christian church and God’s Word.”

The Elector appointed Luther, Melanchthon, Jonas, Spalatin, and Myconius, besides some prominent laymen, among the visitors. They carried on their work in 1528 and 1529. They found the churches in a most deplorable condition, which was inherited from the times of the papacy, and aggravated by the abuse of the liberty of the Reformation. Pastors and people had broken loose from all restraint, churches and schools were in ruins, the ministers without income, ignorant, indifferent, and demoralized. Some kept taverns, were themselves drunkards, and led a scandalous life. The people, of course, were no better. “The peasants,” wrote Luther to Spalatin, “learn nothing, know nothing, and abuse all their liberty. They have ceased to pray, to confess, to commune, as if they were bare of all religion. As they despised popery, so they now despise us. It is horrible to behold the administration of the popish bishops.”

The strong arm of the law was necessary. Order was measurably restored. The property of churches and convents was devoted to the endowment of parishes and schools, and stipends for theological students (1531). The appointment of ministers passed into the hands of the Elector. The visitations were repeated from time to time under the care of regular superintendents and consistories which formed the highest ecclesiastical Councils, under the sovereign as the supreme bishop.

In this way, the territorial state-church government was established and order restored in Saxony, Hesse, Braunschweig-Lüneburg, Mecklenburg, East Friesland, Silesia, and other Protestant sovereignties of Germany.


89. Luther’s Catechisms. 1529

I. Critical editions of Luther’s Catechisms in his Works, Erl. ed., vol. XXI. (contains the two catechisms and some other catechetical writings); by Mönckeberg (Hamburg, 1851, second ed. 1868); Schneider (Berlin, 1853, a reprint of the standard ed. of 1531 with a critical introduction); Theodos. Harnack (Stuttgart, 1856; a reprint of two editions of 1529 and 1539, and a table of the chief textual variations till 1842); Zezschwitz (Leipz. 1881); Calinich (Leipz. 1882). See titles in Schaff: Creeds of Christendom, I. 245. The Catechisms are also printed in the editions of the Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church, and the Little (or Small) Catechism, with English translation, in Schaff’s Creeds, etc., vol. III. 74-92. The text in the Book of Concord is unreliable, and should be compared with the works mentioned.

II. Discussions on the history and merits of Luther’s Catech., by Köcher, Augusti, Veesenmeyer, Zezschwitz , and others, quoted by Schaff, l.c. 245. Add Köstlin: M. L., bk. VI. ch. IV. (II. 50-65).

The Catechisms of Luther are the richest fruit of the Saxon church visitations. Intended as a remedy for the evils of ignorance and irreligion, they have become symbolical standards of doctrine and duty, and permanent institutions in the Lutheran Church. The Little Catechism, which is his best, bears the stamp of his religious genius, and is, next to his translation of the Bible, his most useful and enduring work by which he continues a living teacher in catechetical classes and Sunday schools as far as the Lutheran confession extends. He here adapts the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven to the capacity of children, and becomes himself a child with children, a learner with the teacher, as he said, “I am a doctor and a preacher, yet I am like a child who is taught the Catechism, and I read and recite word by word in the morning the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer, and cheerfully remain a child and pupil of the Catechism.” A great little book, with as many thoughts as words, and every word sticking to the heart as well as the memory. It is strong food for men, and milk for babes. It appeals directly to the heart, and can be turned into prayer. In the language of the great historian Leopold von Ranke, “it is as childlike as it is profound, as comprehensible as it is unfathomable, simple and sublime. Happy he whose soul was fed by it, who clings to it! He possesses an imperishable comfort in every moment; under a thin shell, a kernel of truth sufficient for the wisest of the wise.”

Catechetical instruction was (after the model of the Jewish synagogue) a regular institution of the Christian church from the beginning, as a preparation for membership. In the case of adult converts, it preceded baptism; in the case of baptized infants, it followed baptism, and culminated in the confirmation and the first communion. The oldest theological school, where Clement and the great Origen taught, grew out of the practical necessity of catechetical teaching. The chief things taught were the Creed (the Nicene in the Greek, the Apostles’ in the Latin Church) or what to believe, the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster) or how to pray, and the Ten Commandments or how to live. To these were added sometimes special chapters on the sacraments, the Athanasian Creed, the Te Deum, the Gloria in excelsis, the Ave Maria, Scripture verses, and lists of sins and virtues. Cyril’s Catechetical Lectures were a standard work in the Greek Church. Augustin wrote, at the request of a deacon, a famous book on catechising (De catechizandis rudibus), and a brief exposition of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer (Enchiridion), which were intended for teachers, and show what was deemed necessary in the fifth century for the instruction of Christians. In the middle ages the monks Kero (720) and Notker (912), both of St. Gall, Otfrid of Weissenburg (870), and others prepared catechetical manuals or primers of the simplest kind. Otfrid’s Catechism contains (1) the Lord’s Prayer with an explanation; (2) the deadly sins; (3) the Apostles’ Creed; (4) the Athanasian Creed; (5) the Gloria. The anti-papal sects of the Albigenses, Waldenses, and Bohemian Brethren, paid special attention to catechetical instruction.

The first Protestant catechisms were prepared by Lonicer (1523), Melanchthon (1524), Brentius (1527), Althamer, Lachmann (1528), and later by Urbanus Rhegius (Rieger). Luther urged his friends and colleagues, Justus Jonas and Agricola, to write one for Saxony (1525); but after the doleful experience of popular ignorance during the church visitation, he took the task in hand himself, and completed it in 1529. He had previously published popular expositions of the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer (1520).

He wrote two Catechisms, both in the German language. The “Great Catechism” is a continuous exposition, and not divided into questions and answers; moreover, it grew so much under his hands, that it became unsuitable for the instruction of the young, which he had in view from the beginning. Hence he prepared soon afterwards (in July, 1529) a short or little Catechism under the name Enchiridion. It is the ripe fruit of the larger work, and superseded it for practical use. The same relation exists between the Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Westminster Assembly.

With his conservative instinct, Luther retained the three essential parts of a catechism, — the Decalogue, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. He called the first the doctrine of all doctrines; the second, the history of all histories; the third, the highest of all prayers. To these three chief divisions he added, after the Catholic tradition and the example of the Bohemian Catechism, an instruction on the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, in two separate parts, making five in all. He retained in the address of the Lord’s Prayer the old German Vater unser (Pater Noster), and the translation “Deliver us from evil” (a malo); but in his Bible he changed the former into Unser Vater (Mat_6:9), and in his Large Catechism he refers the Greek to the evil one, i.e., the Devil (ὀ πονηρός), as our arch-enemy. Yet in practice these two differences have become distinctive marks of the Lutheran and German Reformed use of the Lord’s Prayer.

The later editions of the Little Catechism (since 1564) contain a sixth part on “Confession and Absolution,” or, “The Power of the Keys,” which is inserted either as Part V., between Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or added as Part VI., or as an appendix. The precise authorship of the enlarged form or forms (for they vary) of this part, with the questions, “What is the power of the keys?” etc., is uncertain; but the substance of it — viz. the questions on private or auricular confession of sin to the minister, and absolution by the minister, as given in the “Book of Concord” — date from Luther himself, and appear first substantially in the third edition of 1531, as introductory to the fifth part on the Lord’s Supper. He made much account of private confession and absolution; while the Calvinists abolished the same as a mischievous popish invention, and retained only the public act. “True absolution,” says Luther, “or the power of the keys, instituted in the gospel by Christ, affords comfort and support against sin and an evil conscience. Confession or absolution shall by no means be abolished in the church, but be retained, especially on account of weak and timid consciences, and also on account of untutored youth, in order that they may be examined and instructed in the Christian doctrine. But the enumeration of sins should be free to every one, to enumerate, or not to enumerate such as he wishes.” The practice of private confession is still retained in some sections, but has entirely disappeared in other sections, of the Lutheran Church.

The Church of England holds a similar view on this subject. The Book of Common Prayer contains, besides two forms of public confession and absolution, a form of private confession and absolution. But the last is omitted in the liturgy of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

Besides these doctrinal sections, the Little Catechism, as edited by Luther in 1531 (partly, also, in the first edition of 1529) has three appendices of a devotional or liturgical character: viz., (1) A series of short family prayers; (2) a table of duties (Haustafel) for the members of a Christian house hold, consisting of Scripture passages; (3) a marriage manual (Traubüchlin), and (4) a baptismal manual (Taufbüchlin).

The first two appendices were retained in the “Book of Concord;” but the third and fourth, which are liturgical and ceremonial, were omitted because of the great diversity in different churches as to exorcism in baptism and the rite of marriage.

The Little Catechism was translated from the German original into the Latin (by Sauermann) and many other languages, even into the Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac. It is asserted by Lutheran writers that no book, except the Bible, has had a wider circulation. Thirty-seven years after its appearance, Mathesius spoke of a circulation of over a hundred thousand copies. It was soon introduced into public schools, churches, and families. It became by common consent a symbolical book, and a sort of “layman’s Bible” for the German people.

Judged from the standpoint of the Reformed churches, the catechism of Luther, with all its excellences, has some serious defects. It gives the text of the Ten Commandments in an abridged form, and follows the wrong division of the Latin Church, which omits the Second Commandment altogether, and cuts the Tenth Commandment into two to make up the number. It allows only three questions and answers to the exposition of the creed, — on creation, redemption, and sanctification. It gives undue importance to the sacraments by making them co-ordinate parts with the three great divisions; and elevates private confession and absolution almost to the dignity of a third sacrament. It contains no instruction on the Bible, as the inspired record of Divine revelation and the rule of faith and practice. These defects are usually supplied in catechetical instruction by a number of preliminary or additional questions and answers.


90. The Typical Catechisms of Protestantism

In this connection we may anticipate a brief comparison between the most influential manuals of popular religious instruction which owe their origin to the Reformation, and have become institutions, retaining their authority and usefulness to this day.

These are Luther’s Little Catechism (1529), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Anglican Catechism (1549, enlarged 1604, revised 1661), and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). The first is the standard catechism of the Lutheran Church; the second, of the German and Dutch Reformed, and a few other Reformed churches (in Bohemia and Hungary); the third, of the Episcopal Church of England and her daughters in the British Colonies and the United States; the fourth, of the Presbyterian churches in Scotland, England, and America. They follow these various churches to all their missionary fields in heathen lands, and have been translated into many languages.

They are essentially agreed in the fundamental doctrines of catholic and evangelical religion. They teach the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer; that is, all that is necessary for a man to believe and to do in order to be saved. They thus exhibit the harmony of the chief branches of orthodox Protestant Christendom.

But they also differ, and reflect the peculiar genius and charisma of these churches. The Lutheran Catechism is the simplest, the most genial and childlike; the Heidelberg Catechism, the fullest and the richest for a more mature age; the Anglican Catechism, the shortest and most churchly, though rather meagre; the Westminster Catechism, the clearest, precisest, and most logical. The first three are addressed to the learner as a church-member, who answers the questions from his present or prospective experience. The Westminster Catechism is impersonal, and gives the answers in the form of a theological definition embodying the question. The first two breathe the affectionate heartiness and inwardness which are characteristic of German piety; the other two reflect the sober and practical type of English and Scotch piety. The Lutheran and Anglican Catechisms begin with the Ten Commandments, and regard the law in its preparatory mission as a schoolmaster leading to Christ. The other catechisms begin with an exposition of the articles of faith, and proceed from faith to the law as a rule of Christian life, which the Heidelberg Catechism represents as an act of gratitude for the salvation obtained (following in its order the Epistle to the Romans, from sin to redemption, and from redemption to a holy life of gratitude). Luther adheres to the Roman division of the Decalogue, and abridges it; the others give the better division of the Jews and the Greek Church, with the full text. The Lutheran and Anglican Catechisms assign to the sacraments an independent place alongside of the Commandments, the Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer; while the Heidelberg and Westminster Catechisms incoporate them in the exposition of the articles of faith. The former teach baptismal regeneration, and Luther also the corporeal real presence, and private confession and absolution; the latter teach the Calvinistic theory of the sacraments, and ignore private confession and absolution. The Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, however, likewise teach the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. The Westminster Catechism departs from the catholic tradition by throwing the Apostles’ Creed into an appendix, and substituting for the historical order of revelation a new logical scheme; While all the other catechisms make the Creed the basis of their, doctrinal expositions.

The difference is manifest in the opening questions and answers, which we give here in parallel columns: — 




Luther’s Catechism Heidelberg Catechism Anglican Catechism Westminster Catechism   

The First Commandment. Thou shalt have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear and love God, and trust in Him, above all things. The Second [Third] Commandment Thou shalt not take the name of thy God in vain. What does this mean? We should so fear and love God as not to curse, swear, conjure, lie, or deceive, by his name; but call upon it in every time of need, pray, praise, and give thanks. The Third [Fourth] Commandment. Thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day. What does this mean? We should so fear and love God as not to despise preaching and His Word, but deem it holy, and willingly hear and learn it. What is thy only comfort in life and in death? That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that with Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou in this comfort mayest live and die happily? Three things: First, the greatness of my sin and misery. Secondly, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery. Thirdly, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption. What is your name? N. or M. Who gave you this name? My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. What did your godfathers and godmothers [sponsors] then for you? They did promise and vow three things in my name. First, that I should renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh. Secondly, that I should believe all the Articles of the Christian Faith. And thirdly, that I should keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in them all the days of my life. What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever. What rule, hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him? The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him. What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man. What is God? God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.