Martin Luther's Influence on Legal Reforms and Civil Law

in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (March, 2017)

Emory Legal Studies Research Paper Forthcoming

21 Pages Posted: 28 Dec 2017 Last revised: 20 Jul 2019

Date Written: December 22, 2017


The Lutheran reformation transformed not only theology and the church but law and the state as well. Beginning in the 1520s, Luther joined up with various jurists and political leaders to craft ambitious legal reforms of church, state, and society on the strength of Luther’s new theology. These legal reforms were defined and defended in hundreds of monographs, pamphlets, and sermons published by Lutheran writers from the 1520s to 1550s. They were refined and routinized in hundreds of new reformation ordinances promulgated by German cities, duchies, and territories that converted to the Lutheran cause. By the time of the Peace of Augsburg (1555)--the imperial law that temporarily settled the constitutional order of Germany--the Lutheran Reformation had brought fundamental changes to theology and law, to church and state, marriage and family, education and charity.

Critics of the day, and a steady stream of theologians and historians ever since, have seen this legal phase of the Reformation as a corruption of Luther’s original message of Christian freedom from the strictures of human laws and traditions. But Luther ultimately realized that he needed the law to stabilize and enforce the new Protestant teachings. Radical theological reforms had made possible fundamental legal reforms. Fundamental legal reforms, in turn, would make palpable radical theological reforms. In the course of the 1530s onwards, the Lutheran Reformation became in its essence both a theological and a legal reform movement. It struck new balances between law and Gospel, rule and equity, order and faith, structure and spirit.

Keywords: Church, State, Law, Politics, Marriage, Education, Charity, Two Kingdoms, Natural Law, Positive Law, Equity, Criminal Law, Punishment, Uses of the Law, Legal Reformations, Church Ordinances

Suggested Citation

Witte, John, Martin Luther's Influence on Legal Reforms and Civil Law (December 22, 2017). in Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion (March, 2017), Emory Legal Studies Research Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

John Witte (Contact Author)

Emory University School of Law ( email )

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