Luther and Canon Law -- By: John Warwick Montgomery

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 158:630 (Apr 2001)
Article: Luther and Canon Law
Author: John Warwick Montgomery


Luther and Canon Law

John Warwick Montgomery

[John Warwick Montgomery is Professor Emeritus of Law and Humanities, University of Luton, England; Distinguished Professor of Apologetics, Trinity College and Theological Seminary, Newburgh, Indiana; and Senior Counsel, European Centre for Law and Justice, Strasbourg, France.]

On the Eve of All Saints’ Day, October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, thereby launching what would become the Protestant Reformation and a major turning point in the history of the Western world. Less well known is a similarly dramatic event at Wittenberg’s Elster Gate three years later, on December 10, 1520, when Luther, in response to the burning of his writings by Roman officialdom, publicly consigned to flame the bull of excommunication against him1 —and the corpus of medieval canon law.2

Critics of Luther such as Roman Catholic apologist-historian Grisar have argued that his symbolic burning of the canon law reflected a deep-seated antinomianism on the Reformer’s part: Luther was allegedly jettisoning law in favor of personal, individual spiritual experience. Yet other critics of the Lutheran Reformation, in particular Ernst Troeltsch, have held that the Reformer’s theology—especially his doctrine of the two kingdoms—justified a quietism vis-à-vis the activities of the state which encouraged institu-titional legalism and political statism.3 The extensive development

of Kirchenordnungen—Protestant compendia of church law in the lands that went over to the Reformation—have been used to support this view.

However, one cannot have it both ways: Luther cannot be both antinomian and the fomenter of legalism! A reevaluation of Luther’s approach to canon law is called for. Two questions in particular need to be answered: Why precisely did Luther burn the corpus of canon law? What was his theological judgment on church law in general?

The Elster Gate Incident

Luther’s own narrative of the ceremony appears in his Briefswechsel,4 but the following is a synoptic account given by one of the greatest historians of the Lutheran Reformation, E. G. Schwiebert.

Early in the morning of December 10, 1520, Philip Melanchthon nailed a significant document on the Schwarze Brett, the university bulletin board, announcing the long-awaited reaction on the part of Luther to the burning of his...

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