When we think of Martin Luther, we tend to consider his Ninety-Five Theses, the “here I stand” statement of the Diet of Worms, the importance he placed on justification by faith, or his affirmation of the sola’s. Relatively little attention, at least among American Christians, is given to his political theology, his “Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms.” In many ways, this oversight remains unsurprising. The American government and economy are far more indebted to English and French thought than they are to the Germans. There is also that inconvenient historical problem regarding Luther’s influence on the Third Reich. Yet Luther’s thinking offers a rich foundation for thinking about the relationship between the Christian and secular authority. In this essay, I want to briefly introduce Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” doctrine and note some of its possible value for Christians today.
In Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, Luther presented his understanding of the proper relationship of the Christian to civil government, seeking to balance Jesus’ exhortations to love in the Sermon on the Mount and Paul’s command in Romans 13 to be subject to ruling authorities. In opposition to much thinking in his own day, Luther’s construction does not pit a Christian kingdom against a worldly kingdom, nor does it present a vision of a unified Christian kingdom of the world. Instead, Luther divided all people into distinct categories of governance, in order that those who are Christians may be ruled by the word of God in the world, and that those who are not Christian may be ruled by God’s ordained lawgivers.
For Luther, the kingdom of Christ consists of true believers who are in and under Christ and His gospel. Conversely, the kingdom of this world consists of those people who are not Christians and do not act like Christians, who need the deterrent of temporal authority and the sword to prevent anarchy, selfishness, and chaos. Both kingdoms exist for specific purposes and both must functionally guide those within their spheres of influence; one kingdom cannot be allowed to overrun the other. The Church does not constitute the basis of temporal authority, nor does the temporal ruler provide a foundation for spiritual authority. Instead, both temporal authorities and the spiritual authority of the Church derive from God, and thus purposefully exist to fulfill their respective offices.
Luther’s thinking on the relationship between the Two Kingdoms offers several applications for contemporary Christians. First, Luther provides a ready-made model for approaching questions about living in a context with a firm distinction between Church and State. Christians are called to obey those in positions of authority, be they sacred or secular. Yet this thinking also leaves open a place for proper disobedience of temporal authority. For tyrannical rulers are not to be obeyed and ought to be at least verbally and civilly resisted. Second, we see that Christians may properly serve in positions of temporal authority, becoming civil servants and soldiers, at least insofar as they wield the sword in the manner appropriate for such positions of temporal authority. Third, Luther offers important insights on the proper function of warfare, allowing for defensive warfare and significantly tempering all acts of warfare with the standard of Christian love.
Finally, Luther posits an ethic of love as the overarching principle for Christian action in both the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World. Neither diminishing Christ’s words in the Sermon on the Mount nor applying them to only certain groups, Martin Luther constructed an ethic in which all relationships are meaningful for every Christian. When Christians do invoke power, it ought never be on their own behalf, but only out of love for their neighbor. A Christian’s love toward their neighbor, in both the spiritual and temporal arenas, as well as the actions that result from such love, are fundamental for Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms. This Reformation Day, we should remember that Luther did far more than just post his Ninety-Five Theses, but offered us much to consider in his doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. May we return to his work and continue to learn.