Thomas Mntzer

Yet the rebellious spirit against whom much of Luther's ire was directed, the peasant leader Thomas Müntzer, argued with equal passion that in certain circumstances rebellion against the authorities can be warranted from scripture. The groundwork of Müntzer's thinking is a mystical spirituality which demands purgation from the soul of all that hinders the work of God - the "tares" of the parable in Matthew. Müntzer is wedded to the concept of "true" or "authentic" faith which knows and experiences at first hand the sharp edge of the divine plowshare in the soul, uprooting all that is of self and prevents the soul being fully "yielded" to God. It is to be contrasted with the false or "counterfeit" religion of biblical scholars like Luther, which is gleaned only from books and not lived or experienced. Yet Müntzer is also an apocalyptic thinker who understands humankind to be composed of both "wheat" and "tares," the chosen and the lost, growing together until the divine harvester initiates the work of separating them out; and the logic of his thinking demands that there be a concomitant transformation on both the inner and outer levels. Just as the soul needs to be purged of all that hinders God's work, so those who prevent the work of God in the world, the godless false teachers, need to be ruthlessly destroyed.

It is essential for Müntzer that the true faith be preached in the world to counteract the spread of error and false faith, and he assigns responsibility for this task to the secular rulers. In so doing he parts company from a number of his contemporaries, most obviously Luther, who entrusted a rather different mission to those powers. In fact, although both Luther and Müntzer grounded their teaching on government on Romans 13, they drew different conclusions from the text: while Luther placed the emphasis on verse 1, which treats of the duty of the subject vis-a-vis the ruler, Müntzer, by focusing particularly on verse 3, draws attention to the duties of governments toward their subjects, arguing that popular support was warranted only in so far as those duties were carried out. And what Müntzer understood as the duties of governments went beyond merely punishing those who stepped out of line: the ruler must actually further the work of God in the world. "[L]et God's true, unwavering purpose be yours," was Müntzer's appeal to the princes; "sweep aside those evil men who obstruct the gospel! Take them out of circulation! Otherwise you will be devils, not the servants of God which Paul calls you in Romans 13" (Matheson 1988: 245-6). For Müntzer the authorities do not exist merely as a necessary evil to maintain peace and order; they have a positive role in the service of God for the protection and propagation of the faith.

The obedience due to rulers under the mandate of Rom. 13: 1 is conditional upon fulfilling the duties laid down for them in verse 3: only in so far as they honor their responsibility to defend the faith are they justified in commanding the obedience of the people. Yet having expounded the passage in this way, Müntzer does not derive from it any legitimation for resistance to governments. His position is rather that, when rulers default in the execution of their duties, their obligations toward the godless will simply devolve to the people: the sword "will be taken from them and will be given to the people who burn with zeal so that the godless can be defeated" (Matheson 1988: 69). Müntzer draws biblical support for this assertion from Daniel chapter 7, one of only a handful of scriptures (including Rom. 13) he uses in discussing questions of government and resistance. The key section in this chapter for Müntzer is verse 2 7, which speaks, in an apocalyptic context, of all the kingdoms of the world being given over to the saints of the Most High.

It is possible to draw a connection between this verse and the Rom. 13 passage by suggesting that, in Müntzer's mind, Dan. 7: 2 7 came into play when the requirements of Rom. 13: 3 were not followed, though, again, Müntzer does not establish from this scripture a right of revolt. He does not insist that Daniel 7: 27 be "implemented" immediately on the heels of any dereliction of duty by the rulers; neither does he clarify whether power is to devolve to the people as a result of a (legitimate) use of force by the elect, or through the direct intervention of

God. His position with regard to the latter point appears to be that God and humankind operate "together" to bring about God's judgment on earth. The case of Joshua leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land demonstrates the point: "they did not win the land by the sword, but by the power of God, but the sword was the means used" (Matheson 1988: 250). Almost every time Müntzer refers to this passage he does no more than recognize the inevitability - as with all God-given prophecies - of its fulfillment, albeit after the brief reign of Antichrist.

The dramatic events which he witnessed in the early months of 1525 finally convinced Müntzer of the necessity, indeed the duty, both of resistance to the rulers and of action to establish a new sociopolitical order. Not only had the princes of Saxony resisted his admonition to them to take up the sword against God's enemies, they had gone out of their way to show their contempt for just and godly rule by proceeding to oppress the poor in a most violent way. The time for action against them and on behalf of the common people had arrived: indeed, that the people were now rising up against their rulers, provoked by the growing injustice, corruption, and poverty with which they were daily confronted, was a clear sign from God that the Danielic prophecy about the fall of the last worldly kingdom was shortly to be fulfilled. In his "sermon to the princes" on Dan. 2 Müntzer had drawn his hearers' attention to the multilayered statue in Neb-uchadnezzer's dream, explaining that the layers represented the great historic empires and kingdoms of the world which had fallen. Now the only one remaining, which represented the present Holy Roman Empire, would shortly be smashed by Jesus himself.

The spread of the peasants' action across Germany in the early part of 1525 would have appeared to Müntzer to have been a decisive phase in the harvest-time of God, a sign that God was "shortening the time," though it is only once he has established a theological justification for revolt that he begins to talk in such terms. He is clear that the corruption of the rulers and their cynicism and violence toward the poor have left the latter no alternative but to rise up to bring them down. "It is the lords themselves who make the poor man their enemy. If they refuse to do away with the causes of insurrection how can trouble be avoided in the long run? If saying that makes me an inciter to insurrection, so be it!" (Matheson 1988: 335). Müntzer thus initially supports violence only as a defensive measure, against violation of common rights by the rulers, and to some extent his transformation from theological dissent to political opposition was forced upon him both by events and by the logic of his own position. The rulers, as a consequence of the violence they had perpetrated upon their subjects, had Christian blood on their hands, had forfeited their right to be rulers, and had brought down upon themselves the wrath of God. It is only now that Müntzer begins to compare the rulers to Nimrod, common shorthand at the time for tyrannical governors, and to speak approvingly of their downfall.

Convinced, then, that the peasants' uprising was a sign from God that the overthrow of the godless would shortly be accomplished, Müntzer set about forming his Eternal League of God. Whereas his earlier covenants had had a defensive purpose and no restrictions on membership, the Eternal League in Mühlhausen - whose very name was subversive, given that the city's ruling authority called itself the "Eternal Council" - was established with the clear intent of carrying out the final overthrow of the godless. It was more militarist in its structure, and, perhaps to emphasize its role in the fulfillment of Dan. 7: 2 7, its membership was limited to the saints. If these factors suggest Müntzer envisaged the battle against the godless being close at hand, the apology for his actions he prepared in the days leading up to the final battle at Frankenhausen leaves no room for doubting the apocalyptic significance he attached to the impending scenario. Whatever motives drove the common people to revolt - and they were by no means entirely economic - their struggle became for Müntzer, as he made it his own, the one which would decisively clear the way for the kingdom of God, the reign of the elect.

One final point to be noted about Müntzer's political theology is that, aside from a detailed explanation of how the world will be restored to something like its original prelapsarian state, it pays scant attention to the form society will take in the new age. The most he disclosed - under torture a few days before his execution - was that his aim had been to make all Christians equal and that a common article of faith among those supporting the insurrection was that all things are to be held in common and distribution should be to each according to need. Müntzer also allegedly said under torture that, had events fallen out his way, he would have appropriated land around Mühlhausen and Hesse and, after one warning, put to the sword any nobleman who refused to accept common ownership and distribution according to need. It may also be inferred from Müntzer's confessions under interrogation that he harbored ideas of creating something akin to a "theocratic republic," which, while it would have a communitarian framework, would not wholly discard differences of rank or even private property. That the elect would rule in this new state was set out as early as 1521 in the "Prague Manifesto," echoed later in, for example, Müntzer's letter to the Stolberg community in 1523. Yet it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Müntzer had no real theory of society, and that his blueprint, such as it was, was clearly intended as a provisional measure to cover an interim period during which the elect would reign before the arrival of the kingdom of God (Scott 1989: 171-2).

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