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Blaming Moses: an introduction and an introductory SALE offer

Friday, January 13, 2017 8:48
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From Luther’s “We don’t want to see or hear Moses”[1] to Calvin’s 1536 rejection of exclusive Mosaic civil polity as “foolish” and “seditious,”[2] no person seems to have drawn more systematic criticism in regard to the political and social thought of the magisterial Reformation[3] than the Old Testament lawgiver, Moses. Rejections of the need for Mosaic judicial laws, beginning early in the Reformation era, are varied, broad, and explicit. In some cases, such as Luther’s and Melanchthon’s attacks on Andreas Karlstadt[4] (as we shall see), alleged proponents of Mosaic civil law are given by name. In other cases, such as Calvin’s denunciation cited above, they are anonymous. In all cases, however, it is not obvious whether anyone—named or not—actually held the view attributed.

(Now through Sunday, January 15, 2017: Use discount code MOSES and get $5 Off the Hardback edition of Blaming Moses. — Offer applies to Hardback only.)

This situation leaves us to review certain questions: 1) during the period from early in the Reformation until the time Calvin wrote against Mosaic civil law, was there any significant figure who truly advocated imposing Mosaic civil law as the exclusive civil polity of the land? If not, 2) were these various accusations exaggerated (or even fabricated), and if so, why? More generally, 3) why did the most influential of the magisterial reformers—Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin—write so strongly in rejection of Mosaic civil polity, at least in the forums in which they alleged that their targeted opponents held that position?


This study hypothesizes that social, political, and economic pressures influenced the magisterial reformers in regard to crucial theological expressions in which they strongly rejected the need for Mosaic civil law in society. The hypothesis begins by noting that the first question above must be answered in the negative: none of the writers implicated by name or otherwise during the period in question (1520–1536) actually held the view that rulers should govern according to Mosaic judicial law and not according to non-Mosaic legal sources, for example, the common law of nations. If this conclusion holds true after a review of both primary and secondary literature, the hypothesis leaves us to examine what motivated a degree of anti-Mosaic rhetoric incommensurate with the actual positions of those accused. As we shall see, the reformers in question restrained or altered their expressions according to the pressures of external circumstances—most importantly, war and rebellion spurred by so-called “radical” reformers. As alleged theological positions were weaved with reports and denunciations of violence, Mosaic Law emerged as a dangerous ideological force that was to be shunned.

Historical setting of the problem

It must be acknowledged from the outset that the issue of the application of Mosaic Law during the Reformation did not arise in a historical vacuum—neither theologically nor socio-politically. For example, Luther’s fiercest denunciations of Moses came in the midst of the Peasants’ War of 1524–1525.[5] During this time, his refutations of Karlstadt, Thomas Müntzer, and the peasants each employed his already-developed views of natural law and the two kingdoms and absolved the temporal powers of any requirement to obey Moses in legislating and judging. In the process of his writings, the characters and their respective beliefs were blurred—particularly as the turbulent events and Luther’s publications coincided within a few short months—between Karlstadt’s selective appeals to Mosaic Law, Müntzer’s prophetic millenarianism, the peasants’ eruption into violence, and streams of theological mysticism and charismata which flowed throughout the beliefs of each of these individuals and groups, although to differing degrees. Luther leveraged the violence to his rhetorical advantage and implicated Karlstadt’s readiness to impose Moses in society as an expression of a “murderous spirit.” In 1525, Luther wrote,

Now then, let us get to the bottom of it all and say these teachers of sin and Mosaic prophets are not to confuse us with Moses. We don’t want to see or hear Moses. How do you like that, my dear rebels? We say further, that all such Mosaic teachers deny the gospel, banish Christ, and annul the whole New Testament. For Moses is given to the Jewish people alone, and does not concern us Gentiles and Christians. We have our gospel and New Testament.[6]

Once the Revolt had run its course, buildings lay ruined, towns plundered, and roughly 100,000 peasants were dead.[7] As a result, civil authorities grew ever more sensitive to any talk of civil reform to be led at the level of the masses, and likewise to any religious expression that could be perceived as challenging their legitimacy or power. In regard to such religious expression, as far as Luther’s large retinue would know from his writings, those who would “confuse us with Moses” deserved a large portion of the blame. At least as early as 1522 for Luther personally, and certainly by 1525 among the “Lutheran” circles, the mould for blaming Moses was already in place. Any future appeals to the validity of Moses in the public square would have to overcome the stigma of the Peasants’ War, Karlstadt’s alleged errors, and the implicit association of Moses with sedition and tragedy.

The intensity and fallout of that association would only escalate a decade later when more mystical visionaries gained ascendancy in the northern German city of Münster. Disciples of the same tradition of charismatic prophesying that had inspired the earlier rebellion called for likeminded disciples to come join the institution of the Kingdom of God on earth, the New Jerusalem, and under that name instituted a bizarre system of laws involving communism,[8] polygamy, and a series of arbitrary death penalties and other punishments. The carnival eventually led to a siege of the city, mass starvation, and a final holocaust in 1535. That the Münsterite leaders called their kingdom a New Jerusalem certainly invited the old association of Mosaic Law and rebellion, and the association spread once again.

This second round of upheaval featured reaction much less from Luther than from a young John Calvin. The cataclysm at Münster boiled to a head in the spring of 1534 and overflowed in June 1535. During this frightful interlude, its oddities and atrocities provided a constant stream of international news concerning the “New Jerusalem.” Moses was thus implicated again. We know that Calvin fled persecution in France and settled in Basel during this same period. In Basel, he would compose his first edition of Christianae Religionis Institutio (Institutes of the Christian Religion) which he would publish the following year, 1536. That edition was prefaced by Calvin’s letter to King Francis I, who had recently begun persecuting and executing French evangelicals as seditious agents threatening the social order. Calvin’s 1536 edition also contained an anonymously directed but vehement denunciation of Mosaic civil polity, and thus the whole work reads as an apologetic pleading with King Francis I not to treat French evangelicals like the “seditious” and “foolish” Anabaptists that had elsewhere caused all of the civil unrest. Calvin’s translator, Ford Lewis Battles, notes that as “the tragic events of Münster” climaxed, Calvin and his French evangelical colleagues felt “the need to dissociate themselves, theologically and politically, from more radical forces of reform,” especially “to their own monarch and his advisors.”[9] Calvin’s rejection of the need for Moses in his Institutes offered a more-than-adequate dissociation of that very kind:

I would have passed over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray. For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which, neglecting the political system of Moses, is ruled by the common laws of nations. Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish.[10]

Could this particular stance of Calvin’s have had some relation to the fear aroused in regard to Mosaic Law by the social and political climate, which was most recently exacerbated by the events in the “New Jerusalem” of Münster? If not, what else led young Calvin to implicate “the political system of Moses” particularly with “peril” and “sedition”? Could he have had in mind the decade-old events associated with Karlstadt or Thomas Müntzer or the Peasant Rebellion? While some modern scholars admit to something of a social pressure upon the French evangelicals due to Münster, few attempt any detailed study of the association between Moses and Münster, Moses and the Anabaptists, or Calvin’s nameless opponents (“there are some. . .”) in regard to Mosaic civil polity. Yet Luther, Calvin, and others saw the need to warn against applying Moses in the civil realm and to link his laws with sedition and rebellion.

Review of relevant modern scholarship

Some scholars have claimed to have found Mosaic teachers such as described by Calvin. For example, Ford Lewis Battles declared that in Calvin’s rejection of Mosaic polity, the Genevan teacher opposed such contemporaries as “Jacob Strauss, Andreas Carlstadt, and others.”[11] These alleged Mosaic teachers, Battles says, “had proposed substituting the entire Mosaic code of the Old Testament for the civil laws of the European nations.”[12] A slight problem arises here, as we shall see: the evidence does not support this claim. As this study will demonstrate, the available and time-relevant primary sources for both Karlstadt and Strauss do not reveal anything close to substantiating the view of “substituting the entire Mosaic code for the civil laws of European nations.” While Battles superbly constructs the history behind Calvin’s writing of the Institutes, he errs on this point. Neither Strauss nor Karlstadt assume to institute such a Mosaic theocracy or anything near it.

Even a quick review of Battles’ references illustrates this fact. In his “Endnotes” to Calvin’s anti-Mosaic comments, Battles provides a series of citations in regard to Mosaic civil polity.[13] He cites Melanchthon in three places: once in regard to his own views in his Loci Communes,[14] then twice in accusation against Karlstadt for holding an exclusive Mosaic view (from Melanchthon’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Politics Part 3, 1530, and from his Defense of the Augsburg Confession, 1531). Battles gets the reference to Melanchthon on Aristotle from the Czech philosopher Josef Bohatec,[15] who also provides him with a passing reference to Thomas Müntzer. Battles then finds two previous editors of Calvin’s works—Peter Barth and Wilhelm Niesel[16]—who themselves cite Melanchthon (the same citations—it appears Battles may have gotten his other references to Melanchthon from here), and also provide references to Thomas Aquinas (a topical reference only) and an encyclopedia article about the radical Lutheran preacher Jacob Strauss.[17] This study, however, will demonstrate that, despite the list of references and the impressive amount of labor required to find them, not one of these references supports either Battles’ “entire Mosaic code” claim or Calvin’s “political system of Moses” description.

Battles, with his few references, stands pretty much alone among scholars in actually trying to document exactly whom Calvin was refuting. Most other modern commentators on Calvin interact with this passage of Calvin with differing degrees of presumption. Some have chosen to present his claim “as is” without exploring the issue of the anonymous culprits or indeed whether any genuine culprit actually existed, though in some cases one must consider the limited scopes of their respective works.[18] Another contents himself with a generality, writing in reference to Calvin’s rejection of Mosaic polity that Calvin’s “sharpest rebukes toward appeals to the Old Testament civil law for modern states were directed toward the radical Anabaptists.”[19] We are left to wonder to whom this phrase “radical Anabaptists” refers exactly. After all, the magisterial reformers (Luther, Calvin, and others) as well as nearly all of the civil authorities of the period treated all Anabaptists as “radical,” just as Catholic polemicists treated all reformers under the term “Lutheranism.”[20] Today, the phrase “radical Anabaptist” tends to be reserved for those Anabaptists associated with violent revolution, such as those who turned Münster upside down, as opposed to the peaceful Anabaptists following Menno Simmons, etc. For example, Horton finds it enough to leverage Calvin’s rhetoric of “sedition” and “foolish” without defining exactly whom he addressed.[21] . . .

Only one scholar, Avis, appears to have published anything like a detailed study of how different reformers treated Mosaic Law, so he provides an obvious starting point for inquiry.[22] In his article, “Moses and the Magistrate,” he mentions Karlstadt, Müntzer, and Strauss as being interested in applying Mosaic Law in the civil realm, but this comes only in passing, and he recognizes qualifications in some cases. This study shall assess each in greater detail. After these figures, however, Avis arrives at a strong conclusion: “The most extreme and explicit manifestation of Old Testament spirit and forms was in the city of Münster” which culminated “the continental judaising [sic] movement.”[23] With such a strong lead from the only thorough scholarly review of the issue, this thesis will also provide an analysis of the theological, legal, and social situation in that scene, and the subsequent scholarship pertaining to it.

Moses in the shadow of Münster

Sure enough, references relating Münster and Mosaic Law appear numerously. They abound especially among nineteenth-century historians. A typical example appears in the Baptist historian J. M. Cramp’s Baptist History (1868). Following the Enlightenment historian Leopold von Ranke (d. 1886), a Lutheran, Cramp concluded that the Münsterite leader Jan Beukels presented himself as a “new Moses”, and that his elders’ new legal code drew “chiefly from the books of Moses.”[24] When dealing with the same issue within the tradition of their own Reformation, English churchmen have pointed directly to Münster. Bishop E. Harold Browne, writing in 1865, expounds,

As regards the belief that Christian commonwealths ought to be regulated after the model of the Jewish polity and according to the civil precepts of the old Testament, it seems likely that the Anabaptists of Munster, who seized on that city and set up a religious commonwealth among themselves, endeavored to conform their regulations in great measure to the laws of the Jewish economy.[25]

About three decades later, Bishop E. C. S. Gibson presented the same conclusion. He asserts that the cataclysm in that Westphalian city resulted when the radicals “insisted that the whole civil and ceremonial law was still a matter of divine obligation for Christians.”[26] The Anabaptists, Gibson insists, “set up what can only be called a parody of the Jewish commonwealth.”[27]

But lest we mistake this for a nineteenth-century phenomenon, modern scholarship raises the same chorus. For example, B. S. Capp notes,

In 1534 the Anabaptists of Münster drew up a legal code which restored the capital offences of the Bible, such as blasphemy, adultery and disobedience to parents, as well as imposing death for theft, begging, and even greed. The radical German reformers Müntzer and Carlstadt were in favor of restoring the judicial laws.[28]

This same conception echoes today as the host of a popular Reformation-themed broadcast (and professor at a Reformed seminary) asserts that appeals to the law of Moses approach “the radical Anabaptism of Thomas Müntzer, John of Leiden [leader of Münster], and others at the time of the Reformation.”[29] Likewise, Godfrey believes that “Calvin’s strong words” rejecting the need for Mosaic Law “may have been inspired in part by the radical, violent Anabaptist theocracy at Münster (1534–1535).”[30]

It is clear that much focus has fallen on Münster for this issue of Mosaic civil law. An examination of Münster must, therefore, take a prominent role in this study. The pursuit of the hypothesis will reach a turning point here, however, as we discover the same lack of substance behind the accusation of Moses and Münster as in other figures and places. Something of a climax will be reached when we realize that while the substance is not there, the popular association of Moses and violent sedition was widespread. Here we begin to inquire and discover the socio-political pressures that placed a political stigma upon Mosaic Law, including the justification of persecuting Reformed Christians for “sedition”. In this crucible of persecution, with Münster’s long shadow cast—falsely cast, but cast nonetheless—over Moses in 1535, we will find young Calvin, exiled, sitting down to write his denunciation of “some” who required Mosaic civil polity. . . .

[Now through Sunday, January 15, 2017: Use discount code MOSES and get $5 Off the Hardback. — Offer applies to Hardback only.]


[1]. 1967b:170.

[2]. 1986:215.

[3]. Throughout this study, “magisterial Reformation” and “magisterial Reformers” refer to, as MacCulloch puts it, “the movement of the ‘masters’ like Luther, Zwingli, Bucer, Calvin or Cranmer, who worked for the reconstruction of Christendom in alliance with the secular magistrates of Europe” (2003:144). This group excludes those often termed “radical” reformers, who neglected or dismissed the ideal of Christendom in general, refused alliances with the secular magistrates, or both. The distinction is useful but cannot be applied universally with strictness: some of the persons we will cover, for example Karlstadt and Jacob Strauss, would likely have accepted alliances as well as the ideal of Christendom and yet bear some of the most serious indictments we shall see. Indeed, Thomas Müntzer would solicit an alliance with the secular magistrates for his social and legal revolution, yet, due to his revolutionary violence (perhaps among other things), he is not considered a magisterial Reformer, but rather is often classified among the “radical” Reformers.

[4]. Also herein as “Carlstadt.”

[5]. Also herein as “Peasants’ Rebellion” or “Peasant Revolt”, et al.

[6]. 1967b:170.

[7]. Ozment 1980:284; Lindberg 1996:165.

[8]. “Communism” throughout this study will refer generally to a state-enforced or more generally civil-government-enforced system of communal property in which individual private property ownership is abolished. This is as opposed to specific applications of communistic theory (e.g. Marxism), as well as purely voluntary associations involving communal ownership which may be called “communitarian.”

[9]. 1986:xl.

[10]. 1986:215.

[11]. 1986:lix.

[12]. 1986:lix, emphasis added.

[13]. 1986:333.

[14]. 1962:126.

[15]. 1937:14.

[16]. Calvin 1962.

[17]. Battles 1986:333.

[18]. VanDrunen 2010:110; Hall 2008:419; Avis 1975:164.

[19]. Horton 2009a.

[20]. Battles 1986:xxxix.

[21]. Horton 2009a.

[22]. Avis 1975.

[23]. 1975:165.

[24]. 1868:238.

[25]. 1865:196.

[26]. 1904:282.

[27]. 1904:282.

[28]. Quoted in Jordan 1978–9:25.

[29]. Horton 2009b.

[30]. 1990:302.

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