A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century

By J. W. Allen | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
THE BREAK FROM CALVIN

§ 1. THE BEKENNTNIS OF MAGDEBURG

UP to the year 1550 Lutherans and Calvinists alike preached with rather singular consistency a doctrine of non-resistance to the powers that be. No one ever said that man must be obeyed rather than God; but every one said that, though disobedience might be obligatory, active resistance was always wrong. Revolt against this doctrine began not with Calvinists but with Lutherans.

It is unfortunate that Luther did not live to see the battle of Mühlberg. It would be pleasant and instructive to know what line he would have taken in the circumstances that followed. Up to 1547 Lutherans, at least in northern Germany, had been under no serious pressure. The Lutheran Princes had despoiled the Church with impunity. It seemed, in 1547, that the day of reckoning had come; and the hearts of the Princes failed them. The position Charles V had established did, indeed, begin to crumble immediately after his victory. His apparent dominance was utterly illusory. But for some three years after the issue of the Interim in May, 1548, it seemed that all Protestant Germany might be compelled definitively to accept the edict. For the Protestantism of southern Germany its effects were, in fact, almost ruinous. Some hundreds of local leaders, ministers and divines, men of merely local importance or men of European fame, like Brenz and Bucer, Osiander of Nürnberg and Blarer of Constance, were driven into exile. It had, so far, been easy and natural for Lutherans to teach and to believe that forcible resistance to impious rulers was never justified. It was far harder to believe that now. Under the new circumstances the Lutherans of Germany began to repudiate the non-resistance doctrine of Luther, just as, a little later, the Knoxian Calvinists repudiated Calvin. Luther himself had indeed asserted a right for the Princes of the Empire to resist the Emperor for the sake of the Gospel. But that right was vested solely in the Princes and derived from their peculiar position in the German Reich. The assertion had become useless; for the Princes, it seemed, were broken reeds. A new doctrine, a doctrine of a divine right of rebellion, was needed. It was duly produced at Magdeburg.

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