Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Origin of Government

Here is another notable passage from Luther's Lectures on Genesis (pp. 140-42):

Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed (Gen. 9:6)

Here we have the source from which stem all civil law and the law of nations. If God grants to man power over life and death, surely He also grants power over what is less, such as property, the home, wife, children, servants, and fields. All these God wants to be subject to the power of certain human beings, in order that they may punish the guilty.

In this connection the following difference must be maintained between the authority of God and that of human beings: even if the world should be unable to bring a charge against us and we should be guiltless before the world, God still has the power to kill us. For sin, with which we were born, makes us all guilty before God. But human beings have the power to kill only when we are guilty before the world and when the crime has been established. For this reason courts have been established and a definite method of procedure has been prescribed. Thus a crime may be investigated and proved before the death sentence is imposed. [Comment: This difference is too often ignored: the fact that all are sinners and guilty before God does not mean that the demand for justice from fellow men is ungodly, unjust, or arrogant.]

Therefore we must take careful note of this passage, in which God establishes government, to render judgment not only about matters involving life but also about matters far less important than life. Thus a government should punish the disobedience of children, theft, adultery, and perjury. In short it should punish all sins forbidden in the Second Table. For He who allows judgment in matters involving life also permits judgment in less important matters. [Comment: It is interesting, and certain a support for those who would say only secular government is legitimately Lutheran, that here he limits the government to the Second Table. Elsewhere Luther at least implies the First Table can be enforced as well. In any case, the commandment(s) on coveting cannot possibly be enforced by civil authority.
UPDATE: Jim in the comment box has provoked some re-thinking of this. In the way Luther describes coveting -- in the words of the Small Catechism ""We should fear and love God that we may not craftily seek to get our neighbor's inheritance or house, and obtain it by a show of right, etc., but help and be of service to him in keeping it" -- coveting, as it results in legal chicanery or dishonest trade, might well be actionable by the state.]

This text is outstanding and worthy of note; for here God establishes government and gives it the sword, to hold wantonness in check, lest violence and other sins proceed without limit. If God had not conferred this divine power on men, what sort of life do you suppose we would be living? Because He foresaw that there would always be a great abundance of evil men, He established this outward remedy, which the world had not had thus far, in order that this wantonness might not increase beyond measure. With this hedge, these walls, God has given protection for our life and possessions.

Hence this, too, is a proof of the supreme love of God toward man, no less than is His promise that the Flood would no longer rage and His permission to use meat for sustenance.

For God made man in His own image.

This is the outstanding reason why He does not want a human being killed on the strength of individual discretion: man is the noblest creature, not created like the rest of the animals, but according to God's image. Even though man has lost this image through sin, as we stated above, his condition is nevertheless such that it can be restored through the Word and the Holy Spirit. [Note well: for Luther, the image of God is not the remnants of the old creation, but the fitness and ability to be recreated in Christ.] God wants us to show respect for this image in one another; He does not want us to shed blood in a tyrannical manner.

But the life of one who does not want to show respect for the image of God in man . . . this life God turns over to the government, in order that his blood, too, may be shed.

Thus this passage establishes civil government in the world, something that did not exist before the Flood, as the examples of Cain and Lamech show. They were not put to death, even though the holy fathers [before the Flood] were the arbiters or judges of public deeds. But in the passage before us those who have the sword are commanded to use it against those who have shed blood.

This passage, therefore, solves the problem that engaged the attention of Plato and all the sages. They came to the conclusion that it is impossible to carry on government without injustice. Their reason for this is that among themselves human beings are of the same rank and station. Why does the emperor rule the world? Why do others obey him, when he is a human being just like the others, no better, no braver, and no more permanent? He is subject to all human circumstances, just as others are. Hence it seems to be despotism when he usurps the rule over men, even though he is like other men. For if he is like other men, it is the height of wrong and injustice for him not to want to be like others but to place himself at the head of others through despotism.

This is how reason argues. It is incapable of coming up with a counterargument. But we who have the Word are aware that the counterargument must be the command of God, who regulates and establishes affairs in this manner. Hence it is our duty to obey the divine regulation and to submit to it. Otherwise, in addition to the rest of our sins, we shall become guilty of disobeying God's will, which is, as we can see, so beneficial to this life of ours.

Accordingly this passage [Gen. 9:1-6] gives permission to slaughter animals for religious and private purposes but utterly forbids the killing of human beings, because man was created according to the image of God. Those who do not obey this will He turns over to the government to be put to death.

One could even make this a proof of God; since there is no reasonable argument why someone should have life and death authority over me (even if I elected him, surely my implicit consent stops the moment he wants to kill me!), and since the universal experience of humanity is that such power is necessary (even governments that rightly or wrongly renounce the death penalty still maintain the right to use deadly force), the conclusion is that some authority above man, able to legitimate sovereignty, is necessary for a fit human existence.