Bearing the Sword: Luther and the Turk

The question of resisting the Ottoman Empire, both ideologically and geopolitically, was yet another brick in the wall of Protestantism by European Christians of the sixteenth century. In his 1529 article On War against the Turk (Vom kriege wider die Türcken), Martin Luther participated in the debate, arguing for attack but condemning a holy war in the name of Christ. Essentially, Luther called for a secular war by the ruling class out of self-defense while Christians abstained from its worldly efforts, fighting only spiritually (i.e. penance and prayer). This essay will analyze the text, revealing how Luther’s argument wields ethical, political, and religious reasons to urge secular Europe and Christendom to fight the Ottoman Empire on separate but similar fronts.

To begin, it’s noteworthy to mention Luther held steadfast in earlier years against any form of war, equating resistance of the Turk as resisting the will of God. It was proper for him to include this at the forefront of On War against the Turk, so that he could amend his statements. His prior argument was twofold: 1) the Turk was an instrument of God’s to refine sinful Christians and 2) to bear the sword in the name of Christ would violate his doctrine of “turning the other cheek.” Resistance, according to Luther, would be a blasphemy worse than denying Jesus as the Son of God because the “Christian” is essentially fighting God. Yet, Luther modified his stance, and he did so at the most opportune moment. Shortly after the article’s publication that same year, the Turkish armies encroached upon Vienna, demonstrating its potential for threatening Christendom. He no longer saw the Turk as a rod which God would push his sheep, but as both “a servant of the devil” and the devil himself. What caused Luther to reform his position cannot be attributed to a single factor, but the most significant of his influences may be his study of the Christian’s role in government.

To Luther, there are two “kingdoms”: the spiritual and the temporal, what concerns Christian matters and what concerns earthly matters, respectively. These are the separate war fronts that hardly have any overlap to Luther. It is not inconceivable for a Christian to hold a temporal office; indeed, Luther says that if only Christians could be princes, then the state of the world would be more optimistic. However, since Luther’s Holy Roman Empire was under the crown of Emperor Charles V at the time of his article’s publication, his government was a secular one in his perspective, despite the irony of the empire’s religious title. For the purposes of this essay, “secular” and “temporal” will go hand in hand and hold equal meaning. Therefore, Luther recommends temporal and spiritual vocations to remain distinct, and if secular rulers would so choose to war against the Turk such an effort would need to restrain from becoming a religious crusade. The physical fight would have to belong to the rulers, not on grounds of religious drive but one of self-defense, for the sole duty of the emperor is to protect his subjects. Likewise, the spiritual fight was the Christian’s through penance and prayer, for only “Christian weapons and power must do it.”

For both kingdoms (i.e. fronts), there was an ethical implication to go to war. George W. Forell, a scholar in Christian ethics, perceived war as an indication of an existing ethical system, whether healthy or unhealthy on whatever grounds that society constructs healthy as. In his analysis of On War against the Turk, he says that such a system “is revealed as basically immoral if it condones any war to such an extent that it loses sight of sin and injustice and makes of that war a holy war or a crusade.” Forell explains Luther’s newfound logic as one that recognized the rising Ottoman that threatened both the Christian cause and the early modern European political system. Society, religious or areligious, could not allow the Turkish advancement because it “destabilized civil society and perverted the nature of government through its imperialism,” an imperialism that Luther regarded as murderous thievery that the God of Mohammad ordained in the Qur’an.

In addition to the ethical necessity to fight the Ottoman and protect European values, On War against the Turk poses a moral mandate to fight stemming from eschatological reasons—this is, concerning the Day of Judgment. Luther viewed the encroaching Turk, as mentioned before, as the devil himself, while the pope was the antichrist: “But as the pope is Antichrist, so the Turk is the very devil. The prayer of Christendom is against both.” Turk and Islam were therefore an apocalyptic flagship, a sign of the times to come. Forell presents this quite clearly, explaining that the end was at hand and soon Christ would return to judge the pope and the Turk—both of which Luther portrays simultaneously at times as the antichrist. Though the fight should not be a crusade in the name of Christ, to not urge the Holy Roman Empire in action would be foolish, leaving Christian and non-Christian vulnerable toward the evil spiritual forces that were the Turkish armies.

In a sense, the Lutheran perspective of the Turk had not changed before or after On War against the Turk was written. The Turk remained the leading enemy of early modern Christianity, if not second to the pope and his Church. What changed was Luther and his study. In a realization, he remodeled his position and called for action, writing to his lords in Germany and Europe. To bear the sword under Christ’s banner would be blasphemy, while remaining unprepared for war was folly. Therefore, Luther choose a middle ground and wrote for Christians to prepare in penance and prayer and for the Holy Roman Empire to defend itself for the sake of its integrity, which would protect Christendom’s stronghold in Europe all the same.


Bibliography

Cunningham, Andrew, and Ole Peter Grell. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. 140-143.

Forell, George W. “Luther and the War against the Turks.” Concordia Theological Monthly. Vol. XVII, no. 9. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, September 1946. Accessed March 24, 2017. http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/ForellLutherWarTurks.pdf.

Francisco, Adam S. “Martin Luther, Islam, and the Turks.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Irvine, CA: Concordia University Irvine, December 14, 2016. Accessed March 24, 2017. http://religion.oxfordre.com/view/.

Luther, Martin, and John Dillenberger. “On War against the Turk (Vom kriege wider die Türken).” Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. New York: Anchor Books, 2004.

Written for UNC-Chapel Hill GERM 227: Martin Luther and the Bible, Spring 2017

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