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date: 06 March 2021

Martin Luther’s Theology of Authoritylocked

  • Martin J. LohrmannMartin J. LohrmannWartburg Theological Seminary


Martin Luther’s reforms involved complicated questions of authority. On one hand, Luther defied the greatest authority figures of his day: the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; on the other hand, he can be accused of setting himself up as a new authority or of defending the status quo at the expense of more sweeping reform. The theological and practical rationale behind Luther’s views of authority will be investigated.

Luther’s critique of power and view of social systems grew out of his theological conviction that God alone rules creation and liberates people from sin and death. Because the Bible is the primary place of Christian knowledge for who God is and what God does, Luther’s view of scriptural authority also requires examination of the principles Luther developed to help Christians understand and live out their faith in biblically grounded ways. On this point, Luther had to address critiques from Rome that he interpreted the Bible subjectively and individualistically, even as he sought to curtail this same tendency among more radical reformers. Luther’s biblical interpretation uniquely combined elements he received from late-medieval monastic life, scholastic theology, and humanist scholarship.

How these theological and scriptural influences informed Luther’s conflict with papal authority will be examined. As has often been remarked, Luther did not set out to attack the papal church. Nevertheless, his Ninety-Five Theses (1517), which questioned the theology and practice surrounding the sale of indulgences, invited questions of papal authority with respect to money, the penitential system, and the afterlife. Early opponents of Luther like Sylvester Prierias and John Eck quickly identified such affronts to the authority of the church hierarchy and its dominant theologies, turning the discussion of indulgences into a broader controversy about papal authority. With writings including To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate and Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (both written in 1520), Luther confirmed the depth of his critique, which further escalated issues of authority related to theology, biblical interpretation, ecclesiology, and politics.

By what authority could an Augustinian brother and small-town university professor make such bold assertions? Luther believed that his job to serve as pastor and professor made him duty-bound to focus on central matters of faith, even if the institutional church opposed his insights. His method of biblical interpretation and view of church authority extended to reforms concerning “the office of the keys,” a historical term that, in a broad sense, describes the scriptural foundations of authority within the church and, more narrowly, refers to the particular means by which sins are forgiven through the church’s ministry.

Finally, these challenges took place in the context of a politically established European Christianity known as “Christendom.” Luther therefore also addressed how the spiritual message of the gospel related to the political realities of his day. His approach to this topic—also visible in the work of his colleague Philip Melanchthon—offers a perspective that is at once specific to the early modern period and stands as an enduring contribution to European political theory. In summary, Luther’s multifaceted engagement with questions of authority provides a fascinating matrix through which to explore and understand his work.

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