Skip to content
February 19, 2011 / passiveprogressive

The Ends of Separation: How Luther and Hobbes Prevent Tension Between Church and State

Martin Luther

Thomas Hobbes


In both On Secular Authority and Leviathan, Luther and Hobbes delineate the boundaries of secular and religious power with the purpose of framing their relationship in accordance with certain prescribed ends. For Luther, the best viable state is one in which citizens are ruled by secular law, but free from religious persecution. In contrast, Hobbes is of the opinion that there ought to be a public religion and that religious rabble-rousers are a threat to the state. In this paper I argue that despite both authors’ agreement that God’s laws apply to God’s kingdom while secular laws are used by the state, Luther sees this as justification for an injunction between government and religious belief, while Hobbes interprets it to mean that individuals do not have the right to public religious dissent. In order to resolve these diametrically opposed conclusions, I will first look at the authors’ different conceptions of human nature, followed by a critical examination of their opinions on the moral fortitude of the state, and finally examining the problems and solutions Luther and Hobbes feel religion contributes to society. I conclude by suggesting that while both authors’ theory of politics encompasses a certain degree of separation between government and free religious expression, Luther’s concept of this relationship is shaped by his conviction that there is an attainable, objective morality that comes from God, whereas Hobbes believes morality is derived primarily from the state. Accordingly, both authors move to defend their perceived source of morals.

At first glance, it may seem as though Luther and Hobbes have the same concept of human nature as chaotic and potentially destructive. Hobbes, well known in his proclamation that, “…during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition that is called Warre…” (Hobbes, 185). For Hobbes, men are constantly plotting ways to better themselves with little regard to the impact of their actions on others. Likewise, Luther observes that, “If there were [no law or government], then seeing all the world is evil and scarcely one human being in a thousand is a true Christian, people would devour each other.” (Luther, 5). We can safely conclude that for both Luther and Hobbes, human beings need to be restrained by their governments in order to prevent dismal anarchy.
But the key difference between Luther and Hobbes on the issue of human nature is that while Hobbes believes in universal equality of ability that causes situations in which, “any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies…” (Hobbes 184), Luther would disagree that any two men would quarrel. Naturally, the one-in-a thousand true Christians would be counted out of this group, as “Government…holds the Unchristian and wicked in check…” (Luther, 5). But this mention is not just a rhetorical throwaway that admits some perfect people do exist; for Luther, these people represent the only human beings qualified to achieve a truly moral existence. Indeed in a world of true Christians, we would not need secular law:

…if all the world were Christian, these words [of God] would apply to all and they would act accordingly. But since they are Unchristian…they belong under the other [i.e. secular] government.” (Luther, 6).

Luther concludes that while Christians do not need secular law, they “help [others] to enjoy peace and see to it that…enemies are kept in check (Luther, 7), meaning that they follow secular law for the sake of maintaining order. This in turn enriches the system of secular law that protects Christians by keeping Unchristians in check.
Looking back towards my thesis, having a society in which freedom of religion is maintained is Luther’s priority because it is the only way in which positive morals can be imparted to the world. This necessarily means that, “Secular government has laws that extend no further than the body and earthly matters…” (Luther, 13). In contrast, Hobbes concept of humanity seems more homogenous; he is accordingly less concerned with making provisions for the rare good soul, and more focused ordering a society in the most stable way possible. This involves crossing Luther’s line in the sand around secular government.
For Hobbes, we have already seen that a state of nature without government is a lawless war of all against all, and while Luther certainly would agree that order is essential, Hobbes ties worship of god to worship of the monarch and government such that Luther almost certainly object. According to Hobbes, “The End of Worship amongst men, is power… God has no Ends: the worship we do him proceeds from our duty.” (Hobbes, 401). But for Hobbes, this does not mean that men cannot attempt to be gain power in connection with deities. This is particularly evident in his examination of the Roman emperor Numa Pompilius, who according to Hobbes, pretended to receive the counsel of the Nymph Egeria (Hobbes, 177). This gave Numa credibility, but more importantly led to, “…peace of the Commonwealth, that the common people in their misfortunes, laying the fault on neglect or error in their Ceremonies…were less apt to mutiny against their governors…” (Hobbes, 178). Hobbes goes on to note that the Romans were able to conquer the world in no small part due to their tolerance of religion and its ability to deflect tension away from the government. All religions were permitted, “unlesse it had something in it, that could no consist with [the] Civill Government.” (Hobbes 178).
However, a notable exception to this rule was “that of the Jewes; who (being the peculiar Kingdome of God) thought it unlawfull to acknowledge subjection to any mortall King… whatsoever.” (Hobbes, 178). Interestingly, Hobbes uses the same terminology Luther applies to the domain under which true Christians belong. While Luther would not have supported insurrection against a leader, he would have objected to the idea of a leader pairing with a deity himself in order to increase his own power; “For this is to compel people to believe that something is certain to please God, when it is not certain at all; on the contrary, it is certain that it displeases God…” (Luther, 13). Again, Luther is concerned that we are not living up to an objective standard that gods set for us, even if deifying our leaders could lead us to the prosperity of the Roman Empire.
It is interesting to note that while Hobbes agrees that it is in accordance with natural reason for us to respect God, it is also in our natural interest to respect and praise a sovereign (Hobbes 399). Indeed, his culture of worship construed afterwards defines public and private worship in an interesting light: “Pulique, is the Worship that a Common-wealth performeth, as one person.” One might compare this to the Church of England, but in any case it does constitute a state religion. In “private” religion however is, “in secret Free; but in sight of the multitude, it is never without some restraint…” (Hobbes, 401). However, Hobbes is ambiguous on what constitutes public and private space. Luther, for instance, suggests that true Christians ought to become involved in secular authority because, “if government and the Sword serve God, as has been shown above, then everything that government needs in order to bear the Sword, is equally a service to God.” (Luther, 12). In Luther’s concept of the human being as part of government, those who are morally flawless only serve to better the government through their proper values. Hobbes would be skeptical however, because the idea that someone is morally virtuous as a result of their religion makes issues of determining authority very difficult indeed. Luther admits that those who use religion for their own vendettas, no matter how righteous the cause, “is… not impossible, but very unusual and dangerous.” (Luther, 12). Hobbes agrees that miracles do sometimes occur, but like Luther, cautions against their use. The key difference is that for Hobbes, “…how great soever the miracle be, yet if it tend to stir up revolt against the King… is not to be considered otherwise than as to make trial as allegiance.” (Hobbes, 412). In essence, Hobbes believes that religious beliefs do not shield you against treason. It would be all too easy in Hobbes’ concept of human nature for a host of self-interested individuals to pose as false prophets and seize power.
In this essay I first examined the fundamental concepts of human nature that each author presents; Luther, making the argument that the only source of positive moral gain in the world comes from true Christians, while Hobbes chooses the organization of the state as his moral anchor. The assumptions that these authors make guide them to very close, yet not quite equal limits of the state’s ability to control religious beliefs. Luther concludes that though the state has power of worldly domain, it may under no circumstances interfere with spiritual life. Hobbes, on the other hand answers by telling us that the state has the ultimate ability to regulate public displays of religion, and that furthermore, the state ought to have some sort of public religion for all citizens. Although both authors do their best to resolve tensions between god and state, their interpretations are fallible to the point where there are suggestions, but no clear bright line between state and religious power; a challenge we have yet to overcome even in contemporary politics.

Works Cited

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. New York: Penguin, 1981.
Luther, Martin. On Secular Authority. 1523.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: