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Radicals vs. Protestants – An Attack on Religious Claims to Temporal Authority (1530)

One of the main points of contention between Protestants and their Anabaptist critics was the authority of secular rulers to coerce in matters of religious belief. This issue – and not the issue of re-baptism – was the real key to the persecution of the radicals. The anonymous pamphlet Whether Secular Government Has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith, reprinted below, appeared in 1530 in Nuremberg, where it touched off a polemical exchange with Lutheran reformers. The author of the pamphlet argues – against prevailing sixteenth-century opinion – that governments were not to engage in intervention, much less coercion, when it came to matters of faith.

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Whether Secular Government Has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith [By an Anonymous Nürnberger, before March 17, 1530]

There is simply no end to executions and banishments for reasons of faith. Lutheran governments will not tolerate Anabaptists or Sacramentarians.* Zwinglian governments also refuse to tolerate Anabaptists. Then come the papists, who burn, hang, or banish evangelicals, Lutherans, Zwinglians, Anabaptists and everyone who is not of their faith.

The papists have, I believe, no other grounds for such behaviour than their worthless [canon] law. If they persist and refuse to heed God’s word or even reason and justice, then one must let them go their way as long as God permits it.

But from those governments that are evangelical, Lutheran, Zwinglian, and claim to hear God’s word, to follow it, and in no way to act contrary to it, even though papal law, as well as imperial laws made under the papacy, demand something else (as indeed all laws, ordinances, and customs should rightly yield before God’s word): from those governments, I say, I would very much like to hear where they get the right to control faith either by executing those who do not wish to be of their faith or else by tearing them from property and goods, wife and children, and banishing them from the territory.

So far as I know, the only justification that has been offered for this is the opinion of some people that since it is the duty of every government to protect its subjects in temporal matters pertaining to body and goods, so that no harm befall them, it behooves government to an even greater degree to do the same in spiritual matters, since these things have to do with faith and the highest good, in order that its subjects not be contaminated or led astray.

But if you ask them to cite scripture in support of this opinion, either no one is at home or else they refer us to the Old-Testament record of the Jewish kings who supported true worship, abolished idolatrous worship, and destroyed idols. If you reply that the Old Testament and Jewish law are no longer binding,** and that they should show where in the New Testament the secular government is commanded to be responsible for faith or to punish unbelievers with force or with the sword, then they are stuck.

Now it is certainly true that the Old Testament no longer binds anyone, and if we are bound in one matter on the ground that it is commanded in the Old Testament, how shall we avoid being bound in other such matters? If one thing were necessary, they would all be necessary, as Paul clearly concludes in Gal. 5[:3] and says against those who wanted to make circumcision obligatory that whoever has himself circumcised is obliged to fulfil the whole law. Therefore we must not be bound by anything in the Old Testament but rather give heed to the New Testament.

But the New Testament speaks of two kingdoms on earth, namely the spiritual and the secular. The spiritual kingdom is the kingdom of Christ in which Christ is king. Similarly, the secular realm also has its king, namely the emperor and other authorities. Just as each kingdom has its own distinct king, so each has its own distinct sceptre, goal, and end. The sceptre of the spiritual realm is the word of God; the goal and end to which this sceptre should attract and move us is that men turn to God and after this life be saved. The sceptre of the secular realm, on the other hand, is the sword; the goal and end toward which it should drive and force men is that external peace be maintained.

* i.e., Zwinglians. [All footnotes taken from: Whether Secular Government Has the Right to Wield the Sword in Matters of Faith. A Controversy in Nürnberg over Freedom of Worship and the Authority in Spiritual Matters, translated by James M. Estes. Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1994, pp. 41-54.]
** The author is alluding to Luther, Unterrichtung, wie sich die Christen in Mosen sollen schicken (1525).

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