The Reformation and Politics I: Medieval Background


Along with its social, intellectual, and economic effects, Protestantism also shaped political thought. To understand the contributions of Protestantism to political theory, we must once again back up and look at the broader Christian tradition.

Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State

Christianity is the only major world religion to arise without government support, a fact that subsequent centuries have unfortunately obscured. For the first 300 years of its history, Christianity was an illegal minority religion sporadically subjected to vicious persecution. During this period, Christian thinkers such as Justin Martyr, Athenagoras of Athens, Tertullian, and Lactantius presented the first systematic arguments for religious liberty, grounded on the idea that coerced faith is not pleasing to God.

Lactantius’ “Divine Institutes” made an eloquent case for religious liberty, one that would have long-lasting implications for Western politics through its influence on the emperor Constantine. Lactantius taught in Trier under Constantine and tutored one of Constantine’s sons. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, it did not make Christianity the official religion of the Empire; it did not even simply decriminalize Christianity. Instead, it declared complete religious liberty in the Empire, using ideas and language taken directly from Lactantius’ “Divine Institutes.”

The 300 years when Christianity was illegal set an important precedent for the Western political tradition: It demonstrated conclusively that church and state were separate institutions. From there, much of Western political history has been a tug-of-war between church and state over where to draw the line separating their legitimate jurisdictions, and over which is the “real” leader of the Christian world. Sometimes one side would get the upper hand, sometimes the other, but at no point did either reject the authority of the other completely.

Augustine of Hippo

The next major figure in the Western political tradition was Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was important politically for two key ideas. First, in the face of rioting and threats by the Donatists, a group that had been declared heretical by a church council, Augustine backed away from the arguments for religious liberty of both his predecessors and his own earlier writings. Instead, in Letter 93 to Vicentius, he used the words “compel them to enter” from Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Feast (Luke 14:23) to argue for the use of governmental force to compel heretics back into the fold. Some emperors had already begun to enforce religious conformity; Augustine gave them theological justification for doing so, with fateful results for more than 1000 years of Western history.

Augustine’s second important political idea came from his magisterial work “City of God.” In this work, Augustine argued that there were two cities in this world, the City of Man and the City of God.

For present purposes, the easiest way to understand the City of Man is to look at Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, which is rooted in his ideas about psychology. Augustine says that since our actions are determined by our desires—“the weight of our love” as Augustine put it—and those desires are disordered, we choose to do the wrong things. People living out their disordered loves occupy the City of Man, which is built on pride and self-centeredness rooted in self-love. Nowhere is this more evident than in government, where rulers are focused on self-aggrandizement and have a monopoly on violence that they use to enforce their will and promote their own glory. Government is thus little more than organized injustice.

Limited Government

Augustinian ideas about sin and government became central to the Latin West’s understanding of politics. Because of the problem of corruption, no one can be trusted with unlimited power: Since everyone is subject to original sin, anyone with access to that kind of power will abuse it. As Lord Acton famously put it, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

This fundamental mistrust of government has been a permanent feature of Western political theory since Augustine’s day. In the Middle Ages, political thought and political systems were built around the idea that governments are invariably corrupt, and so mechanisms needed to be put into place to limit their authority. Despite portrayals to the contrary, medieval governments were all constitutionally limited, with systems of checks and balances put in place to restrain the power of rulers. Although kings and nobles sometimes circumvented those restrictions, they were widely recognized as necessary.

Civil Society

The fundamental mistrust of government led to the emergence of civil society as well. In civil society, intermediate institutions exist between the state and the individual to order aspects of life independent of immediate government control. In Rome, the only intermediate institution was the family. When Christianity became legalized, the precedent had been set that the church was independent of the government.

And where there is one independent institution, it opens the door for others: guilds regulating economic life and labor; confraternities and charitable institutions; hospitals; schools; and so on. These were not only made possible by the independence of the church from state control, but they were also a response to the challenge raised by Augustine’s analysis of the City of Man and the inevitable corruption of human governments.

The City of God

The City of God occupies the same space as the City of Man but operates on completely different principles. It is characterized by love of God and neighbor, and it advances through service, self-sacrifice, and repentance. It seeks God’s glory, not its own. It may cooperate with the City of Man, but it always does so for different reasons and using different means.

For example, the City of Man wants to promote peace because peace helps maintain its power; the City of God also wants to promote peace, but as a means of expanding God’s rule in this world. The City of Man promotes tolerance to obtain peace; the City of God promotes tolerance out of love of God and neighbor.

The Imperial Papacy

Although Augustine never identified the City of God with the institutional church, Pope Gelasius would do so later. Over time, partly because of this identification, popes began to argue that just as the spiritual is superior to the physical and the eternal to the temporal, so the church is superior to the state. Kings ruled under God to enforce righteousness, but only the Pope could determine what righteousness actually was. Thus, popes claimed the right to oversee and even depose rulers who failed to promote their vision of righteousness.

The popes in effect argued that unlike the City of Man, the church as the City of God could be trusted with unlimited power. Popes even waged wars against Muslims, heretics, and their political and family rivals.

In practice, the papacy rarely could make its claims to authority over secular governments stick, and even when they seemed to, the kings and emperors generally had their own reasons for allowing the papacy to “win” and were able to use their apparent subservience to the Pope to gain political advantage over their rivals.

The Great Schism in the West and Its Aftermath

Things fell apart for the papacy when the Great Schism in the West occurred. Without going into detail, this was a period when there were two and eventually three claimants for the office of Pope, each of whom had a group of kingdoms supporting him. Which Pope a kingdom supported depended less on canon law or theology and more on purely political considerations: France supported the Pope in Avignon, so England supported the Pope in Rome, so Scotland supported the Pope in Avignon, and so on.

Eventually, the schism was resolved and the church had to work out the details of how it would relate to the different kingdoms in Europe. The Popes worked out a series of concordats with the various kingdoms in Europe regulating church-state relations and more or less stabilizing the political situation. Even in this period, however, conflict and war were still possible: The forces of Charles V, the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor who opposed Luther, subjected Rome to a brutal sack in 1527 and even made Pope Clement VII a de facto prisoner. The political ambitions and machinations of the papacy continued, and even Catholic rulers at times were not willing to tolerate it.

Luther’s ideas about politics and the church emerged out of this context. We will turn to those in the next article.

For Further Reading

Timothy Samuel Shah and Allen D. Hertzke, “Christianity and Freedom: Volume 1, Historical Perspectives (Law and Christianity)” (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

Glenn Sunshine, “Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home” (Zondervan, 2009)

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.

Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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