Skip to comments.The Magdeburg Confession
Posted on 12/17/2009 12:06:40 PM PST by the_conscience
Ironically, Beza found his "signal example"8 of how to deal with tyranny and resistance not so much in the work of early Calvinists as in the work of later Lutheransparticularly the Lutheran jurists and theologians who had drafted the Magdeburg Confession of 1550. The Magdeburg Confession was a major distillation of the most advanced Lutheran resistance theories of the day.9 The leaders of the small Saxon city of Magdeburg had drafted this Confession in response to the order of the Holy Roman Emperor to impose by civil law the uniform Catholic doctrines and liturgies being crafted by the Council of Trent and to stamp out the "raging Lutheran heresy" that had "infected" the Holy Roman Empire for three decades.10 Those Lutheran polities that did not accept this new imperial law peaceably would face military conquest and destruction. Several Lutheran polities and leaders had already capitulated. The city of Magdeburg would not. Imperial forces put the city under siege. The Magdeburg leadership stood firm and began to write boldly in defense of their actions. The 1550 Magdeburg Confession was the most important of a hundred plus pamphlets in defense of their stand. The Confession recited the essential Lutheran doctrines that the ministers held contrary to those new Catholic establishment laws. The Confession then rehearsed the arguments to justify their refusal to obey the new imperial laws and to resist their implementationwith force of arms if necessary. Its main conclusion was set out in the preamble:
"If the high authority does not refrain from unjustly and forcibly persecuting not only the lives of their subjects but even more their rights under divine and natural law, and if the high authority does not desist from eradicating true doctrine and true worship of God, then the lower magistracy is required by God's divine command to attempt, together with their subjects, to stand up to such superiors as far as possible. The current persecution which we are suffering at the hands of our superiors is primarily persecution by which they attempt to suppress the true Christian religion and the true worship of God and to reestablish the Pope's lies and abominable idolatry. Thus the Council [of Magdeburg] and each and every Christian authority is obliged to protect themselves and their people against this."11
In one sense, the Magdeburg Confession simply echoed Martin Luther's loud calls for resistance that had revolutionized Western Christendom three decades before. In his writings in the late 1510s and early 1520s, Luther had again and again railed against the pope as a "spiritual tyrant," indeed the "anti-Christ," "the whore of Babylon," a "werewolf" who stalked the Vineyard of God to the peril of innocent Christians. Through false doctrines and abusive laws, Luther had charged, the pope and his clerical retinue had destroyed the freedom of the Christian Gospel, tyrannized the Christian conscience, and stolen the German people blind. Luther had then called on various lower magistratesthe princes, nobles, dukes, and cities of Germanyto stand up and throw off this spiritual tyrant for the sake of the freedom of the Gospel.12
It was one thing, however, to resist and reject the tyranny of the pope and other clergy. After all, the pope had, according to Luther, usurped the God-given authority of the Christian magistrate and invaded the God-given freedom of the Christian conscience. It was quite another thing to resist and reject the tyranny of the emperor and other magistrates. After all, one of Christ's most famous statements had been to "render to [the Emperor] Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."13 St. Paul had elaborated: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will come into judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but bad.... Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God's wrath, but for the sake of conscience."14 St. Peter was even more pointed: "Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperors as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.... Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor."15 "Honor your father and mother" and by extension all other authorities, the Bible stated repeatedly, "so that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God has given you."16 All this seemed rather firm and clear biblical authority that a conscientious Christian should respect and obey the authorities and suffer patiently and prayerfully if the authorities abused their office or became tyrants.
The Magdeburg Confession countered these biblical texts with a barrage of arguments drawn from the Bible, history, and law that called for resistance to political tyranny. Biblical arguments dominated the Confession. Yes, we must honor the authorities "so that our days may be long," the Confession argued. But if our days are being cut short, then we should not honor those authorities who shorten them. Yes, political authorities were "appointed by God to do good." But if they are not doing good, then they could not have been appointed by God. Yes, the magistrate is not "a terror to good conduct but to bad." But if he becomes a terror to good conduct, then he must be a bad magistrate. Yes, we must "render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." But if Caesar wants or takes what is God's, then we must withhold or retrieve it for God's sake. Yes, "he who resists the authorities resists God." But if the authorities resist God, then surely we must avenge God's honor. Yes, "vengeance is mine," says the Lord. But "we are his instruments" for good, and "God punishes in such a way that those who execute the punishment are not doing wrong but are carrying out God's will and command."17
God ordained the "three main estates" of church, state, and family to keep order and peace in this sinful world so that the Gospel can flourish and each person can pursue his or her God-given calling, the Confession argued, citing sundry biblical texts. None of these authorities may get "mixed up with one another" or intrude on each other's created mandate. None may abandon, betray, or exceed their God-given office. And most importantly, none may violate the sovereignty of God. All authorities thus rule conditionally. If any authorities "seek the extermination of religion and decent morals, and persecute true religion and decent living, then they dispose of their own honor, and they can no longer be considered to be authorities or parents either before God or within the conscience of their subjects. They become an ordinance of the devil instead of God, an ordinance which everyone can and ought to resist with a good conscience, each in accordance with his calling."18
The calling to resist abusive political authorities lies first and foremost with lower magistrates. The Bible makes clear that God instituted multiple authorities, not just one. The Bible speaks of "the powers that be," not just one power, of the multiple "authorities that rule," not just a single authority. All political authorities are equipped with the power of the sword to do good and to punish evil. That power must be exercised internally within the government as well as externally within the community. When an inferior magistrate does evil, a fellow or superior magistrate must correct or remove him. When a superior magistrate does evil, his fellow or inferior magistrates must, in turn, correct and control him, albeit always within the limits of the honor and respect that the higher magistrate deserves. If the higher magistrate commits only a minor or personal offense, lower magistrates should admonish him privately and gently. But if he unjustly endangers the "life and limb," "wife and child," and "local liberties of the people," the lower magistrates "may make use of their rights to defend themselves" and their subjects. Even worse, if the higher magistrate commits a premeditated attack on "the highest and most essential rights of the people"indeed, if he attacks "our Lord himself, the author of these rights"then even the "insignificant and weakest regents" must rise up against him. If necessary, those lower magistrates must call upon "every pious and reasonable Christian" to join them in the resistance, armed not only with the sword but also with the Word's assurance that "God is on our side."19
The Magdeburg Confession did not spell out systematically the "local liberties of the people," or "the highest and most essential rights of the people" that could trigger these steps of escalating resistance and revolt. But it did make clear that the "procedural rights" of the people had been abridged: "Divine, natural, and secular laws" alike recognize that criminals have a right to a public hearing and their day in court. But we have been "accused only on hearsay evidence," and have not had a chance to "face our accusers." Just because other Lutheran towns have capitulated, does not mean we should lose "our rights by default." "Our case must be judged in accordance with proper justice."20
But the Confession's main concern was that the emperor was violating the people's "essential rights" of religion. Those violations merited a more forceful response. We "seek nothing else but the freedom to remain and be left in the true recognized religion of the holy and only redeeming Gospel." We act peaceably. We educate our children to be good and useful citizens. We pray daily for our rulers. We pay our taxes and tributes. We register our properties. We "desire no one's land and people and covet no one's worth and goods." "Your Imperial Majesty allows both Jews and heathens to follow their religion, and do not force them from their religions to the Papacy." But "we are not even allowed to have the same freedom of religion that is granted to non-Christians." Instead, the Emperor seeks "to reintroduce the Pope's idolatry, to suppress or exterminate the pure doctrine of the Holy Gospel ... in violation not only of divine law but also of written civil law."21
In these circumstances, the Bible requires "a lesser God-fearing magistracy and all those over whom it has been set to give protection against such unjust force and maintain true doctrine and worship, and preserve body and life, soul and honor." Those lower magistrates who fail to discharge their duty are ignoring the admonition of Proverbs 24:1012: "Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter." Others must come to help, too, lest they ignore the lesson of Judges 5:23 where God is said to have cursed a people "because they did not come to the help of the Lord, to the help of the Lord against the mighty." It was God who "ordained force," and he expects it to be used to "advance and defend His word, true divine worship, and appropriate reverence for God."22
Not only the Bible, but history makes it abundantly clear that resisting tyrants who tread on the religious rights of their people is not only a right but a duty of the faithful. Biblical history is full of examples: Jonathan and David resisted King Saul, as did Saul's own servants when he became tyrannical. The leaders of Zebulun and Naphtali defied Jabin, the Canaanite king. Elias, Jehu, and Naboth refused to obey King Ahab. Asa deposed his own tyrannical mother, Queen Maacah. Daniel disobeyed King Darius. The Maccabees attacked the Romans. The Confession returned to these examples again and again as illustrations of a person's duties in the face of tyranny. Roman history, too, is full of examples. Think of Ambrosius refusing Justine, Moritz resisting Maximinus, Ambrose admonishing Theodosius, Laurentius refusing the orders of Decius, and more.23 Even the pagan Roman ruler Trajan handed his deputy a sword with the words: "In so far as I command what is right wield this sword against my foes; but if I do the opposite, then wield it against me."24
These and other examples from religious and secular history, the Confession continued, underscored the "universal" and "natural" validity of the "law of legitimate self-defense."25 Defense of oneself and of third parties against attack, using force and violence when necessary, was a familiar legal doctrine of the European ius commune. When a person is unjustly attacked by another, the victim has the right to defend himself, to resistpassively, by running away, or actively, by staying to fight with proportionate force. Other parties, particularly relatives, guardians, or caretakers of the victim, also have the right to intervene to help the victimagain passively by assisting escape, or actively by repelling the assailant with force.
When a magistrate exceeds his authority, the Confession argued by analogy, he forfeits his office and becomes simply like any private person. If he uses force to implement his excessive authority, his victims and third parties may resist him passively or actively, just as if he were any other criminal thug. Furthermore, if the higher magistrate giving the orders has exceeded his authority, then all lower magistrates, ministers, and military folks implementing his orders have also exceeded their authority. They are accomplices in the crime of the former higher magistrate now private citizen. And they are all themselves now merely private citizens engaged in criminal actions. Both the victim and third parties have the right of passive or active resistance against these assailants, too.
The Confession drew from this law of self-defense several lessons for how to respond to the emperor and his political allies who now sought to coerce the Lutherans to return to Catholicism. First, all those who aided and acted for this tyrant were themselves accomplices to his crime of tyranny, and they were all guilty before God. This included all lower magistrates who implemented his orders. It also included soldiers and allies who marched for the tyrant, citizens and subjects who paid taxes in support of the tyrant, even subjects who knowingly prayed for the success of the tyrant.26 Second, all those called to care for others must assist their dependents to resist tyrannical attacks. Lower magistrates, judges, and police must protect the local citizens. Pastors, elders, and sextons must protect their local congregants. Fathers, mothers, and masters must protect their children, servants, and wards. Teachers and tutors must protect the students in their schools. If any of these dependents were attacked on the street by a simple criminal their caretakers would have to intervene. Failure to do so would render them an accomplice to the criminal attack. Tyrants are simple criminals, the Confession argued, and innocent victims must thus be defended against them. Those who fail in their defense become criminals themselves. "God will judge guilty not only those who themselves commit unjust killing, but also those who have not helped to protect and save, according to their ability."27
Third, invoking the Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, the Confession argued with escalating rhetoric that "all pious Christians should concern themselves with this common emergency and take it as much to heart and treat it as seriously as if it concerned each person individually." All Christians are called to be priests to their peers, Good Samaritans to strangers in peril. All Christians are thus responsible to intervene when a victim is assailed by a common criminal, or when a community is ravaged by a criminal tyrant. This becomes doubly imperative when the victim of this criminal attack is ultimately Christ himself, whose people and preaching are being unjustly assailed. "As much as you do it for them, you do it to me," Christ had said.28
The Confession stopped short of arguing that each and every Christian member of the community could and should seek the violent overthrow of tyrants. That was a recipe for anarchy, and the Magdeburg ministers worked hard to counter such an insurrectionary conclusion. A more structured response was called forwith the higher magistrates passing instructions down the hierarchy of lower magistrates and ultimately down to the local caretakers on the best means and measures of response. A private individual's first reflex should be prayer and patience, then passive disobedience of false authorities and advice to others on how to disobey, then petitions for help from the lower authorities and insistence on the vindication of essential rights that have been violated. Only after exhausting peaceable remedies and receiving orders from a legitimate lower authority to join a just war or rebellion was a private person entitled to violent disobedience. But once so entitled, he or she could and should fight with all due alacrity. None of this was a violation of the individual Christian's duties to God and conscience: "The laws and liberties of our German Empire are such that Christians may use them in [good] conscience, just like they make use of other secular rules that are not against God. Indeed, if Christians do not make use of them, they will lose out to their own eternal shame before the world and to the harm of their successors."29
The Magdeburg Confession was an impressive intellectual achievement, for it skillfully distilled and extended the most radical Lutheran teachings on resistance to political tyranny.30 It was also an impressive political achievement, for it eventually turned popular opinion against the Emperor and his new religious establishment law. After a year of laying siege to Magdeburg, the emperor's military ally, Duke Maurice of Saxony, ultimately switched back to the Lutheran side, and the threatened conquest of Magdeburg turned into a stalemate. This, in turn, led to the gradual collapse of other imperial military campaigns against the Lutherans and abandonment of the emperor's program to enforce his Catholic establishment law throughout the Empire. Ultimately the Emperor accepted the Peace of Augsburg (1555) that allowed each polity in Germany to have its own religious confession, whether Catholic or Lutheran, under the constitutional principle of cuius regio, eius religio ("whosever region, his religion").31
8. Beza, TT 1:92; see further Robert M. Kingdon, "The First Expression of Theodore Beza's Political Ideas," Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 46 (1955): 88, 9093.
9. Confessio et apologia pastorum et reliquorum ministrorum Ecclesiae Magdeburgensis (Magdeburg, 1550) [hereafter MC]. David M. Whitford kindly furnished me with a working translation of this document, which I have adapted herein based on review of the original text. See further David M. Whitford, Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 2001).
10. "The Interim, or Declaration of Religion of His Imperial Majesty Charles V," in Tracts and Treaties in Defense of the Reformed Faith, trans. Henry Beveridge, ed. T. F. Torrance (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1958), 3:190.
11. MC, A1v.
12. See sources in my Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 5365.
13. Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25. I have used the Revised Standard Version throughout.
14. Romans 13:15.
15. 1 Peter 2:1317.
16. Exodus 20:12; Leviticus 19:5; Deuteronomy 5:16; Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10; Ephesians 6:12.
17. MC, G3rH1r; K1rK3r, L2rM1r.
18. MC, G3r, G4v, L1r.
19. MC, J4rK1r, K2RL1r, M1rM2r, P2rP3r,
20. MC, H2r, K4r.
21. MC, H4rJ2r, K1r.
22. MC, K1r, L3r, P2v.
23. MC, J3r, L1rL4r, M4rN1r, O3rO4r.
24. MC, M4r.
25. MC, K1r, N.
26. MC, N4rO1r, P3rP4r.
27. MC, P1r, P2rP4r.
28. MC N3rN4r, P1r, P4r.
29. MC, G1r, H2rJ3r, 04r.
30. Heinz Scheible, Das Widerstandsrecht als Problem der deutsche Protestanten 15231546 (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus G. Mohn, 1969); Eike Wolgast, Die Religionsfrage als Problem des Widerstandsrechts im 16. Jahrhundert (Heidelberg: C. Winter, 1980); Quentin Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 2:195206.
31. In Sidney Z. Ehler and John B. Morrall, eds., Church and State through the Centuries: A Collection of Historic Documents with Commentaries (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1954), 16473.
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