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Luther on the Three Estates: Luther Academy Lecture from Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown

Tue, Nov 22, 2016

Czech Republic, Life Together, News, Slovakia

Earlier, we reported on two Luther Academy programs which took place in our region last spring. Today we bring you the second of two lectures from Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown which was presented at the program in Slovakia. We thank Dr. Brown for allowing us to share his work. Dr. Brown is a member of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and chief editor of the additional volumes of Luther’s Works. He serves as associate professor at Boston University in the area of historical theology.

Luther on the Three Estates
Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown
Luther Academy
Terchova, Slovakia
April 25-27, 2016

Luther teaches that God has established and appointed three estates [Stände, status] for the good organization of human life in the created world. Luther also refers to these “estates” under the names “orders” [Ordnungen, ordines] or “hierarchies.” These are the ecclesiastical estate [ordo ecclesiasticus] , the household estate [ordo oeconomicus], and the political estate [ordo politicus]. Luther says, on the one hand, that these three estates describe the ways in which God works in the world: “the Bible speaks and teaches about the works of God. . . . These works are divided in three hierarchies: the household, the government, the church.”[1] On the other hand, the estates define legitimate human vocations, in which human beings can “live aright and resist the devil.”[2]

In the last century of scholarship on Luther, the two kingdoms have received more attention than the three estates. Luther’s doctrine of the estates has sometimes been criticized as being, at best, a timebound reflection of medieval social order, or at worst, the legitimation of static hierarchy. Recent theological scholarship, however, for example that of Oswald Bayer, has emphasized the significance and value of the three estates for Luther’s theology and its contemporary application.[3]

Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown is first up today with his second lecture: Luther on the Three Estates to be followed by his third lecture: The Two Kingdoms and the Doctrine of Resistance in Bohemian Lutheranism: Johann Mathesius, Nicholas Herman, and the Reformation in Jáchymov (Joachimstal). The participants are fascinated by an American scholar's depth of knowledge about the history of a Lutheran town across the Saxon border in the Kingdom of Bohemia. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. James Krikava)

Dr. Christopher Boyd Brown delivering his second lecture: Luther on the Three Estates to be in Slovakia in April 2016. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. James Krikava)

As in the case of the two kingdoms, so also the three estates stand in relation to a tradition of interpretation from which Luther builds but also distinguishes himself. Threefold schemas of social organization have, of course, very ancient roots in Western tradition. In the medieval West, the paradigmatic formulation divided Christian society into oratores, bellatores, and laboratores: those who prayed, those who fought, and those who labored, or clergy, nobles, and peasants.[4] Each person in medieval society was conceived as belonging permanently to one of the three estates, which defined his or her social role. The medieval estates were also seen in a strict hierarchy, with the peasant laborers clearly at the bottom, and the nobility and the clergy above them. Though the claims of this system to universality even within European society were shaken by the rise of towns, commerce, and universities—and the emergence of businessmen and scholars who did not seem to fit clearly in any of the estates, it remained the basic form in which Europeans imagined the fundamental structures of their society down to the time of the French Revolution.

Though Luther could refer to this traditional scheme of persons divided into different and exclusive functional social ranks, his distinctive doctrine of the three estates or orders was quite different, despite superficial similarity. The most obvious shift in Luther’s treatment is to redefine the third estate as the estate of marriage or of the household [Ehestand, status oeconomicus]. This change elevates marriage and the family as one of the fundamental structures of society, an emphasis that is central to Luther’s social thought.

The definition of the third estate as the estate of marriage or the household also makes clear that Luther does not conceive of the estates as fixed classes of persons within society in the medieval model. All persons, Luther teaches, with the exception of the small minority who have received the special gift of celibacy, are invited to married life, whether they are kings, peasants, or pastors.

The estates for Luther are thus not exclusive class groupings but spheres of divinely-ordained responsibility, of which each Christian might have callings within all three: as husband or wife or child or servant in the economic order; as ruler or magistrate or subject in the political order; as pastor or hearer in the ecclesiastical order. Luther also abandons any idea of fixed hierarchy among the three estates. Though the Gospel is of course the highest and most precious gift, Luther rejects the idea that this means the ecclesiastical estate is superior to the others.

Participants at the Luther Academy Conference in Slovakia listen as Rev. Dr. Jerguš Olejár, PhD presents his paper: "Critique of the Finnish Research of Luther on His Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms." (Photo Courtesy of Rev. James Krikava)

Participants at the Luther Academy Conference in Slovakia. (Photo Courtesy of Rev. James Krikava)

Instead, Luther teaches that the three estates have all been instituted by God as the means through which He works in the world: “God must be over all and nearest to all, to preserve [the estates] against the devil, and to do everything in all of life’s vocations” (LW 41:176f). From the human perspective, that means that all vocations and works done within these estates are pleasing to God. Luther writes:

All who are engaged in the clerical office or ministry of the Word are in a holy and God-pleasing order and estate, such as those who preach, administer sacraments, supervise the common chest, sextons and messengers or servants who serve such persons. These are engaged in works which are altogether holy in God’s sight.

Again, all fathers and mothers who regulate their household wisely and bring up their children to the service of God are engaged in pure holiness, in a holy work and a holy order. Similarly, when children and servants show obedience to their elders and masters, here too is pure holiness, and whoever is thus engaged is a living saint on earth.

Moreover, princes and lords, judges, civil officers, state officials, notaries, male and female servants and all who serve such persons, and further, all their obedient subjects—all are engaged in pure holiness and leading a holy life before God. For these three religious institutions or orders are found in God’s Word and commandment; and whatever is contained in God’s Word must be holy, for God’s Word is holy and sanctifies everything connected with it and involved in it.[5]

Luther thus rejects the idea that there are “religious” vocations that are pleasing to God as opposed to “worldly” callings that are less pleasing or displeasing to Him. One of the fundamental shifts that Luther makes is to use the word “vocation” [vocatio / Beruf ] not in the medieval sense of the vocation to “religious“ life as a monk or nun, but to all works within the estates.

Luther distinguishes nonetheless between the “holiness” of the works done by human beings within the estates and the justification of the human actors before God. He writes:

Behold, all of these are called good and holy works. However, none of these orders is a means of salvation. There remains only one way above them all, viz. faith in Jesus Christ.[6]

Faith alone justifies, not any works, even those carried out according to God’s commandments and in the estates appointed by God. Nonetheless, those working within the estates may be assured that they are doing works pleasing to God. Indeed, while the works of the estates—governing the state, bringing up the family, preaching the Gospel—are all carried out by human beings, they are God’s works nonetheless. Luther speaks of the estates themselves and the human beings who work within them as God’s “masks.”

Because the estates and their works are distinct from justifying faith, unbelievers, too, participate in the works of the estates. After all, even the pagans knew about the estates of government and the household and, though in a misguided way, the church, in the sense of recognizing human obligation to God. In the political and economic estates, both Christians and non-Christians may be princes or citizens, may marry and raise children. If a Christian lives under an unbelieving ruler, the ruler is nonetheless God’s mask and agent (as Paul says in Romans 13) when he is doing the work of governing that belongs to the political estate. Luther rejects the idea that government must be Christian or orthodox in order to be legitimate—so long as it does not intrude into the ecclesiastical estate. He can speak of figures like the Persian king Cyrus as examples of pagan rulers who were nonetheless clearly attested by Scripture as God’s agents.

In the household estate, a Christian may be married to an unbeliever (as Paul also says). Luther rejects the Anabaptist teaching that a true Christian must separate from an unbelieving spouse. It is more difficult to imagine the participation of an unbeliever in the ecclesiastical estate, but not impossible. We might think of Cyrus’ patronage of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, or the performance of a valid emergency baptism by a non-Christian midwife.

The difference between the works of a Christian and a non-Christian in the estates is Christian faith, which recognizes the estates and their works as God’s ordinance. A non-Christian does God’s work without knowing the God who has instituted it. A Christian is conscious of cooperating with God. Thus, Luther says, both heathen and Christians live in the estate of marriage, but only Christians understand it rightly as God’s order.

Christian participation in the estates is part of their service of the neighbor as “little Christs,” as Luther describes it in Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen [Freedom of a Christian]. And if a Christian’s vocation is defined by participation in the estates, Luther can also speak of a distinct and general Christian vocation that goes above and beyond the estates. He writes:

Above these three institutions and orders is the common order of Christian love, in which one serves not only the three orders, but also serves every needy person in general with all kinds of benevolent deeds, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, forgiving enemies, praying for all men on earth, suffering all kinds of evil on earth, etc.[7]

Thus, a Christian does good works within the estates, but the good works of the Christian are not limited to the estates. This is show also by the freedom of the Christian within the estates. Though ordinarily a Christian’s roles within the estates are defined by the office to which he has been called—as prince, pastor, father, and the like—Luther insists that in an emergency, a Christian may in good conscience act outside of his office. For example, if a neighbor is being attacked by a robber and there is no police or other public official to intervene, a Christian may step in to defend the neighbor. Similarly in the case of fire, everyone takes up a bucket to help regardless of their ordinary calling or office. Luther speaks similarly of any Christian performing a baptism or declaring absolution in an emergency when no pastor is available.

The primary role of Luther’s doctrine of the estates is thus to draw attention to God’s action in the world through means of human beings and to assure human beings in their callings within the estates that their work is pleasing to God. A secondary function is to provide a framework within which believers and unbelievers can cooperate in God’s work of upholding the world despite their different perspectives of faith and unbelief.

The third function of the doctrine of the estates, however, is negative. If works done within the estates are God-pleasing, then works done outside the estates—apart from the “common order of Christian love”—cannot be divinely-ordained or pleasing to God. Luther’s chief examples here are the man-made orders of monasticism and the papacy, which set themselves up against either the estate of marriage or (in the case of the papacy), the true ecclesiastical, political, and domestic estates altogether. Luther writes:

These are the three hierarchies ordained by God, and we need no more; indeed, we have enough and more than enough to do in living aright and resisting the devil in these three. Just look only at the home and at the duties it alone imposes: parents and landlords must be obeyed; children and servants must be nourished, trained, ruled, and provided for in a godly spirit. The rule of the home alone would give us enough to do, even if there were nothing else. Then the city, that is, the secular government, also gives us enough to do if we show ourselves really obedient, and conversely, if we are to judge, protect, and promote land and people. The devil keeps us busy enough, and with him God gave us the sweat of our brow, thorns and thistles in abundance [Gen. 3:18–19], so that we have more than enough to learn, to live, to do, and to suffer in these two governments. Then there is the third rule and government. If the Holy Spirit reigns there, Christ calls it a comforting, sweet, and light burden [Matt. 11:30]; if not, it is not only a heavy, severe, and terrible task, but also an impossible one, as St. Paul says in Romans 8 [:3], “What the law could not do,” and elsewhere, “The letter kills” [II Cor. 3:6].

Now why should we have the blasphemous, bogus law or government of the pope over and above these three high divine governments, these three divine, natural, and temporal laws of God? It presumes to be everything, yet is in reality nothing. It leads us astray and tears us from these blessed, divine estates and laws. Instead, it dresses us in a mask or cowl, thereby making us the devil’s fools and playthings, who are slothful and no longer know these three divine hierarchies or realms.[8]

Finally, then, the doctrine of the estates is intended to delimit the roles of each estate in relation to the others and to provide a legitimation for resistance by the other estates should one estate attempt to overstep its divinely-appointed boundaries. Luther engages this function of the doctrine of the three estates in his 1539 Circular Disputation on the Right of Resistance to the Emperor, or On the Three Hierarchies.[9]

In this disputation, Luther declares that he wants to leave the clear affirmation and distinction of the three estates as a legacy to posterity, against the confusion and condemnation of the estates by the papacy. The theses of the disputation affirm that Christians should participate in all three estates, against the monastic claim that Christians must renounce the world in order to keep the truly religious estate. Christians should, therefore, obey the government as the political estate. If Christians are subject to illegal violence (such as from a robber), they should resist with force as members of the political estate. Yet if the government itself misguidedly persecutes true Christians because of their faith, Christians should suffer for Christ’s name.

The situation is different, however, if the government is really acting not as the government but in the name of the papacy. This is because the papacy lies outside of the three estates: it is not in the ecclesiastical estates, because it condemns the Gospel; it is not the political estate, because it declares itself superior to secular governments; it is not the domestic estate because it prohibits marriage for the clergy. Therefore, Luther argues, the papacy, outside the three estates, is an unnatural monstrosity, a “werwolf” [Beerwolf], which must be resisted by everyone no matter what their position or office. When those who would otherwise be deserving of obedience as the government in the political estate are really acting as agents of the papal werwolf, then they must be disobeyed and resisted as well.

The specific conclusions of Luther’s disputation are directed to the political situation of the Holy Roman Empire in the mid sixteenth century. But the principle he enunciates has broader applications. If someone claiming to act in the name of one of the estates is in fact denying the integrity of the other estates, then he ceases to represent the divinely established order and becomes just as much an illegitimate common enemy as a highway robber or thief, whom anyone may resist.

Thus, when the pope persecutes not only the gospel but also the civil government and the household, he is resisted by church, state, and household alike. If the government claims to be the church and imposes false teaching or the abuse of the sacraments, then the government is resisted by the church and the household. If the household sets itself over God’s ordinance (for example, by forbidding children categorically to marry or refusing to let them learn God’s Word) then the state and the church resist the household.

Not all of these conclusions were explicitly drawn by Luther himself, but they were drawn out and elucidated by his students in the midst of the controversies following the Smalcaldic War, especially by the Lutheran clergy of Magdeburg and their Confessio Magdeburgensis. In doing so, they drew not only on Luther’s theoretical statements but also his advice in concrete situations.[10]

Thus, in 1523, Luther wrote Von weltlicher Obrigkeit against the efforts of Ducal Saxon authorities to confiscate copies of the German New Testament. Ordinarily, Christians are obliged to obey the civil authorities in matters involving property. Yet here, Luther says, the government is overstepping its bounds and intruding into conscience, which is bound to God’s Word.

In 1525, Luther addressed the demands of the peasants who were protesting the exploitative abuse of their feudal obligations, appealing to the Gospel, Christian freedom, and Luther’s own judgment. Luther’s initial response acknowledged the justice of most of the peasants’ demands and urged the princes to recognize this and come to terms. He criticized the peasants sharply, however, for making their appeal on the basis of the Gospel rather than of natural law and justice. When some of the peasants turned to brutal violence against the noblemen (and were co-opted by the millenarianism of Thomas Müntzer), Luther responded by denouncing their uprising and urging the princes to prevent and punish the violent peasants by any force necessary, a judgment that Luther intended to publish appended to a reprinting of his earlier admonition acknowledging the justice of the peasants’ cause.

Tragically, Luther’s “harsh book” appeared only after the peasants had already been defeated and was used by the princes as justification for unlimited retribution. Before the horrors of the outcome of the peasants’ war, however, the outlines of Luther’s theology of the two kingdoms and three estates is apparent in his response: Christians should make good use of the political estate and claim justice under its jurisdiction, especially in defense of the neighbor. But the estates should not be confused, as if the secular government were determined by the Gospel rather than by God’s law. Especially the resort to violence against the authorities cannot be justified by appeal to the Gospel. The pace of events, however, outstripped the relevance of Luther’s advice.

After the clarification of religious and political boundaries after the presentation of the Augsburg Confession in 1530 (and its rejection by the Roman church and the Emperor), Luther’s attention turned increasingly to the limits on Christian obedience to the government when the Gospel was under persecution. In his Warning to His Dear German People, published in 1531, Luther advises the Evangelical princes that they should in good conscience disobey the emperor if he declares war against the Lutherans to suppress the Gospel. In such a case, the emperor would be going beyond the limits of his government and intruding into conscience. But Luther now goes further, beyond the permission for passive disobedience, to argue that, if the emperor does attack, the Evangelicals would be justified in taking arms in self-defense, according to natural right as well as imperial law.[11] Luther’s Circular Disputation of 1539 provides a fully developed theological defense of this position, even as it expands the possibility of active resistance beyond the princes to every Christian.

One final concrete example of Luther’s application of the theology of the three estates demonstrates Luther’s commitment to defend the domestic estate or estate of marriage as well. In the late 1530s and early 1540s, Luther engaged from the Wittenberg pulpit in some of the most vehement polemics of his career, directed in this case not against the pope or the “fanatics” [Schwärmer] but against the law faculty of his own Lutheran University of Wittenberg. The issue at stake was the jurists’ attempt to reintroduce much of the substance of medieval papal canon law as the standard for regulating marriage cases in Saxony, now not under papal authority but under the civil authority of the elector.[12]

Luther scathingly denounces the Wittenberg jurists for acting, whether they intend to or not, as fellow conspirators with the papacy to destroy and defame the estate of marriage. Though Luther had affirmed that the right to regulate marriage, as a “secular and worldly thing,” belonged to the civil government, he here insists that the government must respect the integrity of the estate of marriage as established by God, as the canon law does not. In his role as preacher, Luther threatens the jurists with excommunication and damnation if they persist in abusing their role in the political estate to undermine the household estate.

In these last years of his life, Luther ascribed increasing importance to the household estate itself as a locus of resistance to abuses by the other estates. In the expanded version of Luther’s preface to the Book of Daniel that was first published in 1541, he had warned that “the world shall become so thoroughly Epicurean that there will be no more public preaching in the whole world, and nothing but Epicurean abomination shall be spoken of in public, and the gospel will be preserved only in homes by fathers.” Here Luther imagined the collapse of the public estate of the church, aided by the persecution of the government, so that the household estate would have to stand alone on behalf of the Gospel.

Though Luther could sometimes talk of the superiority of the responsibilities of the state to the rights of the household (as in his Sermon on Keeping Children In School),[13] Luther usually regarded the estate of marriage as primary, the “mother of all earthly laws,”[14] which not only had to supply the people who would serve in the church and the government but had its own primary institution from God and right to stand on its own, even, in case of crisis, against the other estates if they abused their own divinely given and circumscribed callings.

Luther’s doctrine of the three estates thus provides a framework for balancing competing claims among the estates as well as of resisting and limiting abuses. As with Luther’s theology as a whole, it is also deeply concerned with conscience and its protection. This emphasis appears especially in comparison with other Reformation-era alternatives. Luther’s application of the theology of the three estates protects conscience, in the first place, by defining the works in which a Christian can engage with full confidence—the works of the estates themselves. It also serves to protect conscience from claims made by authorities in the estates that overstep their competence. When the government demands obedience in matters that contradict God’s Word, the Christian has no duty in conscience to obey.

Luther also seeks to protect conscience from an unsupportable duty to resist. Christians are bound to disobey commands from government, church, or family that contradict God’s Word. Yet though Luther defines many possibilities for more active Christian resistance, even armed resistance in some cases, he is careful about imposing on Christians an obligation to resist actively. Christians may choose in good conscience to take a more active role. But they are not usually obliged to do so.

Luther’s caution stands in contrast to the theories of resistance that developed in parallel in later sixteenth-century Reformed and also Roman Catholic circles, especially in the context of the French Wars of Religion. There the teaching was not only that Christians were obliged to disobey a ruler who sought to impose false religion but that even a ruler who tolerated false religion was a tyrant whom every Christian was obligated to oppose on pain of his own salvation. For Luther that was itself a tyrannical imposition on conscience, echoing the violent fanaticism he had rejected in Thomas Müntzer in 1525.

Luther’s theology of the three estates thus provides perhaps unexpected resources for Christians living in a pluralistic modern society which Luther himself scarcely anticipated. Luther makes it possible for Christians to recognize and participate in public life alongside non-Christians, not simply as a pragmatic compromise but in fulfillment of God’s purposes to sustain life in the world through the government and the household even as God preserves the preaching of the Gospel for faith unto eternal life.

The doctrine of the three estates also provides guidance—but not absolute laws—for the limits of Christian participation and the shape of Christian resistance when the estates depart from their divinely ordained purposes. Luther is concerned in his sixteenth century context with the papacy in a way that may not be so immediately helpful today. Yet to interpret Luther’s claims more broadly: whatever is set up outside or beyond the three estates as if it had equal or greater claim on human obedience—in the modern context, we might think of race elevated to an absolutely defining category, or sexual license divorced from marriage and made an absolute right, or modern economics made into an autonomous sphere beyond moral limit—all such idols are to be resisted and rejected as “werwolves” and monstrosities, in the name of God’s own order. Luther’s thought deserves to continue to be a provocation and resource for Christians today.

—–Notes on the Text—–

[1] Luther, Table Talk no. 5533 (1542-43), , WA TR 5:218, LW 54:446.

[2] Luther, Von den Konziliis und Kirchen (1539), WA 50:652, LW 41:177.

[3] See Oswald Bayer, Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, tr. Thomas H. Trapp (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 120-153 (translation of Martin Luthers Theologie: Eine Vergegenwärtigung [Tübingen: Mohr, 2003]); Walter Behrendt, Lehr-, Wehr- und Nährstand Haustafelliteratur und Dreiständelehre im 16. Jahrhundert (Ph.D. dissertation, Freie Universität Berlin, 2009).

[4] See Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Wilhelm Maurer, Luthers Lehre von den drei Hierarchien und ihr mittelalterlicher Hintergrund (Munich: Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1970)

[5] Luther, Vom Abendmahl Christi, Bekenntnis (1528),, WA 26:504-505, LW 37: 364–365.

[6] Luther, Vom Abendmahl Christi, Bekenntnis (1528), WA 26:505, LW 37:365..

[7] Luther, Vom Abendmahl Christi, Bekenntnis (1528), WA 26:505, LW 37:365.

[8] Luther, Von den Konziliis und Kirchen (1539), WA 50:652-653, LW 41: 177-78.

[9] Luther, Zirkulardisputation über das Recht des Widerstandes gegen den Kaiser (1539), WA 39/2:39-91.

[10] See David Whitford, Tyranny and Resistance: The Magdeburg Confession and the Lutheran Tradition (St. Louis: Concordia, 2001).

[11] Luther, Warnung an seine lieben Deutschen (1531), WA 30/3:276-320, LW 47:3-55.

[12] See Luther’s sermons of February 23, 1539; March 2, 1539; and January 6, 13, and 20, 1544, WA 47:666-678 and 49:294-324, translated in LW 58:3-29, 53-89.

[13] Luther, Eine Predigt, dass man Kinder zur Schulen halten solle (1530), WA 30/2:517–588, LW 46:207-258.

[14] Luther, Großer Katechismus 1.6.206-210, WA 30/1:152. See John Witte, From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition, second edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), p. 134.

  • Here is a copy of the paper in PDF form if you find that easier to read. luther_3estates_la-_final
  • Read about the occasion on which the paper was presented.
  • Read Dr. Brown’s first paper on Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine.

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