[Article XVI(VIII): Of Civil Polity and Government]
Written in Latin by Philip Melanchthon (1531)
Translated from the Latin into German by Justus Jonas (1531)
English Translation by Ambrose and Socrates Henkel (1851), Revised by W. F. Lehmann (1854)
Link to Bente/Dau Translation from Latin (1921)
[1(53] Our adversaries take no exception to the sixteenth article of our Confession, which declares that a Christian may, with a good conscience, hold civil offices, exercise authority, pronounce judgment, and decide cases according to statute and common law, inflict capital and other severe punishment, go to war, make lawful contracts, hold property, make oath when required by the magistrate: in short, to the article in which we say that the magistracy and government, their rights and punishment, and all that pertains to them, are good and divine institutions, in which the Christian may lawfully engage. Our adversaries are well pleased with this declaration.
[2(54)] This most weighty, important article, concerning the distinction between the spiritual kingdom of Christ and temporal authority, which it is highly necessary to understand, is most faithfully and explicitly set forth by our friends, evidently to the great consolation of many souls.
For, we have clearly taught that the church of Christ is a spiritual kingdom, in which he reigns through the Word and preaching, operates through the Holy Ghost, and increases faith, piety, love, and patience in our hearts, and here on earth begins God's kingdom and eternal life in us. But while this life endures, he permits us, nevertheless, to use the laws, the ordinances, and estates of this world, according to our various callings, even as he permits us the use of medicine, architecture, agriculture, air, and water.
[3(55)] Nor does the Gospel introduce new laws into temporal government, but commands and requires us to be obedient to the laws and to our government, whether it be heathen or Christian, and by such obedience to manifest our love. For Carlstadt in this respect acted most unwisely, in teaching that the temporal government should be arranged according to the Law of Moses.
[4(56)] On this subject we have written the more, because the monks had spread many most pernicious errors in the church; for, to hold no property, to inflict no punishment, and take no revenge, to have no wife and children, they called an evangelic life. These doctrines wholly suppressed the pure Gospel, so that it was not at all understood what is Christian, or what the spiritual kingdom of Christ is; they intermingled the worldly and spiritual kingdom, from which resulted many evils, and seditious, ruinous doctrines. [5(57)] For the Gospel does not abrogate temporal government, nor domestic, commercial, or other civil regulations; but rather sustains the public authorities and their government, and commands us to obey them as the ordinances of God, not merely from fear of punishment, but for conscience's sake.
[6(58)] Julian the apostate, Celsus, and some others, charged against the Christians, that the Gospel distracts and unsettles temporal government and policy, because it forbids vengeance and the like. These questions also gave Origen, Gregory Nazianzen, and some others, much trouble; although it is easy to answer them, if we but know that the gospel doctrine makes no new laws for worldly governments, but preaches the remission of sins, and proclaims that the spiritual kingdom and eternal life begin in the hearts of believers.
But the Gospel, so far from interfering with these temporal institutions, governments, and ordinances, requires us to obey them, even as in this life we must submit to the common course of nature as the order of God, letting the seasons come and go, without interfering with the spiritual kingdom.
[7(59)] The Gospel forbids only personal vengeance, and the usurpation of the authority of the magistracy; and Christ so frequently inculcates this, that the Apostles may not think of becoming worldly lords, and of taking the kingdoms and authority of those who were ruling at that time, as the Jews thought concerning the kingdom of the Messiah; but that they might know it to be their duty to preach of the spiritual kingdom, and not to change any worldly government. Accordingly, when Christ forbids personal vengeance, it is not only counsel, but an earnest command that he gives, Matt. 5:39, and Rom. 12:19.
Public vengeance, however, and the punishment of offences on the part of the magistrates, so far from being forbidden, are rather commanded here; for it is the work of God, as Paul says, Rom. 13:2-5. This vengeance is taken, when criminals are punished, when war is waged for the sake of general peace, when the sword, and horse, and armor are used. [8(60)] On these subjects some teachers have advanced such baneful errors, that nearly all the princes, lords, knights, and servants, began to regard their lawful calling as worldly, ungodly, and worthy of condemnation. What unspeakable danger and injury resulted to souls therefrom! They taught the Gospel and Christian doctrine as if they were nothing but monasticism, not perceiving that the Gospel teaches how we are released from sin, hell, and Satan, before God and in our conscience, and that it does not interfere with the civil government in external things.
[9(61)] The doctrine also, which they have unblushingly advanced, that Christian perfection consists in being destitute of property, is altogether false and delusive. For Christian perfection does not consist in the display of piety, and separation from worldly affairs; but faith and the true fear of God in the heart, is such perfection. Abraham, David, and Daniel held royal rank, great princely councils and offices, and possessed great wealth; yet they were more holy and perfect than any monk or Carthusian friar ever was.
[10(62)] The monks however, especially the Cordeliers, (Franciscans,) made a great display before the people, but no one could learn therefrom in what true holiness consists. For how eminently evangelical and holy did the monks deem men to be, simply for holding no possessions and being voluntarily poor? [11(63)] But these are most pernicious doctrines, of which the Scriptures know nothing, and which they directly oppose. In the Ten Commandments God clearly says: "Thou shalt not steal." Now here he evidently permits each one to hold property.
On this subject Wycliffe madly insisted that no bishop or pastor should own property. [12(64)] So we find innumerable, complicated disputations on contracts, concerning which it is impossible ever to pacify the Christian's conscience, unless he be instructed on this important point, that Christians may with a good conscience, act according to the laws and customs of the land. For many consciences are relieved by our teaching that contracts are lawful before God, so far as they accord with the common laws and usages, they being equivalent to statutes.
[13(65)] This very important article, concerning the magistracy and civil laws, is very clearly and correctly set forth by our divines, so that many exalted and excellent men, whose calling it is to govern and manage important affairs, acknowledge that they have received great consolation, whereas, before, in consequence of these false doctrines of the monks, they had suffered the greatest anguish, and were in doubt whether their calling accorded with Christianity.
We have made these statements, in order that strangers, foes as well as friends, might understand that, by this doctrine, the magistracy, political government, imperial laws, and the like, are not overthrown, but rather exalted and defended, and that this doctrine truly shows that the administration of the government is a great and glorious office, full of Christian, good works. All this, in consequence of the hypocritical doctrines of the monks, had heretofore been regarded as a sinful, worldly calling and life, to the unspeakable danger of the conscience. The monks devised this hypocrisy; they exalted their humility and poverty far above the calling of princes and lords, of father and mother, and of the head of the family; although all these are authorized by the Word of God, while monasticism is not.