Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Lutheran “Passive Resistance”?

Can the idea of “passive resistance” as the only permissible response to tyranny be taken as essential to”Lutheran” political thought?

This may be a popular assumption, but Ralph Keen, in his 1990 University of Chicago dissertation, The Moral World of Philip Melanchthon, argues that Melanchthon’s  later political and ethical thinking will not fit under this rubric.

Few things could be less stimulating than describing how Melanchthon elaborates upon the two-kingdoms doctrine. One might rightly feel that Melanchthon’s social thought, were it nothing but this, would be unworthy of further exploration.1 And it has perhaps been this sort of reasoning which has hindered closer study of Melanchthon’s later ethical works and led historians of political thought to assume that the Wittenberg concept of the state was a homogeneous doctrine in which “passive resistance” is the boldest stance taken against tyranny.2

Melanchthon’s later works do not seem to fit the early Lutheran formula quite so comfortably, however. The watershed year of 1530 marks a new moment in his political thinking. At the Diet of Augsburg Melanchthon took center state in the drama of Reformation history, and that event, more than anything  that came before it, sundered the unity which had made passive resistance feasible as means for preserving Lutheran identity in a Catholic world. Indeed as early as the 1530 Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics  we find Melanchthon appealing to the example of the Spartan ephors, guardians of the people  whose duty in society Melanchthon assigned to the territorial princes upon whom the survival of the evangelical cause was to depend. And the religious importance of the secular magistracy was to increase rather than diminish during the next two decades. (pp. 10-11)

  1. I don’t agree with this assessment, as I think it would be very interesting indeed, and worth examining, even if this were in fact the case .
  2. Keen here cites J.W. Allen, the brothers Carlyle, George H. Sabine, Quentin Skinner, Peter Manns, and W.D.J. Cargill Thompson.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

One reply on “Lutheran “Passive Resistance”?”

Should we use but also go beyond Melanchton on responding to tyranny? After all, we could read Bonhoeffer, King, Gandhi, and Zinn as long as what we are embracing is scriptural.

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