Four Fathers: Luther on Authority and the Fourth Commandment

A Twitter user asked The Lutheran Witness

Why does Luther define the categories of fatherhood in the Large Catechism (4th Commandment):

  1. by blood
  2. of a household
  3. of a nation?

This Tweet got me thinking about the ways that Luther speaks of fatherhood. Luther, in fact, discusses four kinds of “fathers” in the Large Catechism, in his explanation of the Fourth Commandment:

So we have introduced three kinds of fathers in this commandment: fathers by blood, fathers of a household, and fathers of the nation. In addition, there are also spiritual fathers — not like those in the papacy who have had themselves called “father” but have not performed a fatherly function. For the name of spiritual father belongs only to those who govern and guide us by the Word of God.

(LC I 158, KW)

Luther’s language

By “father by blood” Luther speaks of a parent, the natural father, dad. 

To understand “father of a household” we remember that until very recently the “home” included a number of workers. Many families and individuals would work together in a household: working in the fields, in the kitchen, helping with the children’s education, accounting, cleaning and so forth. Imagine a farm where the home is also the business. In this arrangement, the patriarch is the “father” of more than his own children; he also has responsibility for all those who work in the homestead. 

Luther extends this office and responsibility also to the nation. Brilliantly, Luther understands all authority to extend from the office of parent. “Furthermore, in connection with this commandment, we must mention the sort of obedience due to superiors, persons whose duty it is to command and to govern. For all other authority is derived and developed out of the authority of parents” (LC I 141, KW). Rulers, then, are “fathers of the nation.” 

They are all called fathers in the Scriptures because in their sphere of authority they have been commissioned as fathers and ought to have fatherly hearts toward their people. Thus from ancient times the Romans and peoples speaking other languages called the masters and mistresses of the household patres et matres familias, that is, housefathers and housemothers.

(LC I 142, KW)

Luther also recognizes pastors as “spiritual fathers,” those who govern and guide the Lord’s church with the Word of God. 

In short, Luther understands any authority or “headship” to be connected with fatherhood. 

And other authorities

Beyond this, the Twitter user asked, “Why?” I think this question could be taken in two different ways: “Why does Luther extend the Fourth Commandment beyond the natural family into human government?” or “Why does Luther see fatherhood in these different ways?” Both are good questions to consider. 

First, many people are surprised by the “and other authorities” in Luther’s explanation of the Fourth Commandment. 

Honor your father and your mother. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.

(SC I, The Fourth Commandment, emphasis added)

Isn’t God just telling us how to treat mom and dad? How did my teacher and the police officer get into the commandment? Luther explains in the Large Catechism that the teacher and the policeman, the judge and the governor, are all there to help and serve mom and dad in raising the children. “Where a father is unable by himself to bring up his child, he calls upon a schoolmaster to teach him; if he is too weak, he seeks the help of his friends and neighbors; if he dies, he confers and delegates his responsibility and authority to others appointed for the purpose” (LC I 141). All temporal authority, as Luther understands it, is to protect, bless and serve the children. The children live under this authority. 

Luther’s division of fatherhood into blood, household, nation and church echo his understanding of the “three estates”: the family, the church and the state. These three estates shape the way Luther sees and understands the world.

In 1528 Luther wrote, “But the holy orders and true religious institutions established by God are these three: the office of priest, the estate of marriage, the civil government” (LW 37:364). These same categories are recorded in Luther’s Table Talks: “The Bible speaks and teaches about the works of God. About this there is no doubt. These works are divided in three hierarchies: the household, the government, the church” (LW 54:446). Throughout his writings, Luther continued to teach about these three estates.

The three estates form a framework for Luther’s thinking, and when applied to fatherhood in the explanation of the Fourth Commandment, the father of the house, the nation and the church are all expounded.

Photo: LCMS Communications/Erik M. Lunsford

2 thoughts on “Four Fathers: Luther on Authority and the Fourth Commandment”

  1. RE: “For all other authority is derived and developed out of the authority of parents.”

    The Bible says that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1 ESV).

    That verse says “from God” and “instituted by God,” not “derived and developed.” (See also Dan. 2:21, Dan. 4:17, John 19:11, 1 Peter 2:14.) Isn’t that a significant difference in meaning — the difference between establishing government authority from above or somehow “deriving” it from the authority of parents?

    For someone to “derive and develop” a concept or idea requires thought and effort over time. But God himself created time and can establish what he pleases in a moment, with only a word.

    For parents to love their God-given children well, the parents must exercise authority. For governments to use their God-given authority well, government officials must exercise love.

    Within the church, God has “composed the body” (1 Cor. 12:24) and “appointed” leadership (1 Cor. 12:28), and the Holy Spirit “apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11). He does not “derive and develop” the head from the foot.

    (And isn’t there a hierarchy of authority among the angels? Are any of them parents?)

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