A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II
LUTHER AND MELANCHTHON

§ 1. LUTHER

ESPITE the great amount of study that has been devoted in our times to the career and to the writings of Luther, it seems to me that the character of his political conceptions has often been gravely misunderstood and that his influence upon political thought has been both misrepresented and very grossly exaggerated. Luther has been spoken of as a great political thinker: I cannot myself find that he was in any strict sense, a political thinker at all. He has been described as a protagonist of something vaguely referred to as 'the theory of the divine right of kings'. He has even been styled a forerunner of the 'religion of the State'. To that phrase Luther himself would, I think, have been unable to attach any meaning whatever.

Evidently the best evidence we have of the character of his thought consists in his writings. They, it will hardly be disputed, prove at least that he was not in any sense, on any subject, a systematic thinker. He had too much passion and far too little patience. He improvised as naturally as Calvin systematized.1 'I have the thing but not the word,' said he; and was not quite just to himself in saying so. At times he found great words. But passion and impatience mastered him and so strongly did he believe what, at the moment, he was saying, and so important did it seem to him, that he habitually exaggerated his phrasing. He said more than he meant and so slipped frequently into self-contradiction. He felt more than he considered and on the whole knew better what he did not believe than what he believed. All his books are livres de circonstance and items in an angry controversy. It is not easy to find any way among his clashing utterances. But he was a great soul and fundamentally honest. If we look only at his action in affairs, we may doubt his honesty; but no one, I think, will do so who reads his writings. No humbug would have been so inconsistent as was Luther.

It has often been pointed out that Luther was profoundly influenced

____________________
1
He spoke himself of the facility of his pen and the way his thoughts flowed from it unchecked. Briefwechsel, ed. Enders, II, p. 320.

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