60 Jurist 103 (2000)
Church Law and Governance in the Lutheran Tradition

handle is hein.journals/juristcu60 and id is 105 raw text is: THE JURIST 60 (2000) 103-123

CHURCH LAW AND GOVERNANCE
IN THE LUTHERAN TRADITION
MICHAEL ROOT*
On December 10, 1520, Martin Luther, surrounded by students and
fellow faculty of the University of Wittenberg, made his public response
to the papal bull, Exsurge Domine, which had demanded his recantation
upon the pain of excommunication. Just outside one of Wittenberg's city
gates, he burned the bull, together with books by some of his most vehe-
ment critics, the Summa de casibus conscientiae [a guide for confessors],
and a comprehensive collection of canon law.1 The inclusion of volumes
of canon law in the book burning was no accident. A year later Luther
wrote: It is impossible for the gospel and the canon law to rule at one
and the same time. The latter restricts and drives away the Spirit; the for-
mer brings the Spirit with it. The latter entangles consciences; the former
frees them. The latter teaches us nothing but mere childish, foolish, and
ridiculous works, with which it eradicates and extinguishes faith; the
former, however, teaches us faith.2
Actions and statements such as these might lead one to conclude that
the topic of Lutheranism and canon law is a simple one. Lutherans re-
jected Roman canon law and replaced it with something radically differ-
ent. And yet, the history is more complicated. The most recent compre-
hensive study of the Lutheran Confessions, binding doctrinal statements
of the Lutheran tradition, states that the Reformers did not take a funda-
mentally polemical attitude to canon law. Rather, their attitude to tradi-
tional canon law was conservative.3 How can this be?
An adequate understanding of Lutheran church law and governance is
best achieved historically. Lutheranism, for better and worse, is rooted in
* Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus OH.
For Luther's own account of this event, see his letter of that day to George Spalatin
(Weimarer Ausgabe (hereafter WA), Br 2:235; Luther's Works [hereafter LW] 48:
186-187). For a full account, see Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation
1483-1521, trans. James L. Schaaf (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985) 423-426.
2 WA 8:541; LW 36:202-203.
3 Gunther Wenz, Theologie der Bekenntnisschriften der evangelisch-lutherischen
Kirche: Eine historische und systematische EinfUhrung in das Konkordienbuch (Berlin:
De Gruyter, 1996-1998) 11:384.

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