Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Introduction

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

“Modern church people and theologians have sharply attacked [Martin] Luther’s attitude [concerning the relationship between the Christian and temporal authority] from two perspectives. On the one hand, Luther is accused of having indirectly contributed to the glorification of the orders of creation and to that extent at least making it difficult for Lutherans to take a critical attitude toward the Third Reich, the National Socialist Government from 1933 to 1945. On the other hand, Luther is also held responsible for the ‘conservative’ attitude of many Lutheran churches toward the political situations and the revolutionary movements for freedom in countries of the Third World.”[1] Thus scholar Bernhard Lohse summarizes the critique of Martin Luther’s theology concerning the relationship of the Christian to temporal authority, the paradigmatic critique of which concerns that role of Luther’s theology in forming the passivity of the German Lutheran church during the horrors of Nazism under Adolf Hitler.[2] In considering Luther’s theology and these concerns, we must remember that Luther wrote for a time and context that was very different than that of the modern American Christian. Yet the questions concerning the proper relationship of the Christian to temporal authority, as well as numerous considerations that Luther raises in his writings are worthy of consideration today, if for no other reason than to provide an additional perspective by which scholars may frame contemporary issues confronting the Christian tradition. While Luther’s theology could be constructed to support a ‘hands-off’ approach for Christians in their relationship with temporal authority, we will see that such a perspective does not constitute an entirely accurate interpretation of Luther’s ‘doctrine of the two kingdoms.’

The relationship between spiritual and temporal authority has always raised questions for Christian theology,[3] especially following Christianity’s rise to imperial power with Constantine. Great scholars and theologians of every age, from St. Augustine of Hippo to Pope John Paul II, have wrestled with the proper interpretation and application of Biblical passages and concepts that relate to the appropriate formulation of the relationship between the body of Christ and body politic. Martin Luther, within his sixteenth century reformation context, likewise formulated a construction of the proper Christian understanding of the relationship between the church, temporal authority, the Christian, and God. In this series, we examine the works of Martin Luther, as well as a number of his interpreters, in trying to understand his construction of the relationship of church and state,[4] before delving into the common critiques of Luther’s theology as mentioned by Lohse.

Two KingdomsSpeaking broadly, Luther’s construction on the subject of the relationship of the Christian and the world has been designated by scholars as his “Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms,” or simply the two kingdoms. Some have argued that this doctrine must be first understood in the reformation context,[5] while others view his construction as a necessarily Christian consideration. Scholar Franklin Sherman writes that “although Luther’s position is distinctive, the terms of the problem with which he was grappling had originated long before, and indeed can never be escaped so long as Christian theology still concerns itself with the church and the world, time and eternity, the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount and the realities of social-institutional, political, and economic life.”[6] Other scholars have argued that Luther, an Augustinian monk, must be viewed through an Augustinian lens. Concerning this, Heinrich Bornkamm writes that Augustine’s two cities distinction provided a model from which Luther worked. Bornkamm was quick to note that differences existed between the African saint and his sixteenth century German interpreter, as he writes that, “For Augustine the antagonist is the classical embodiment of the earthly city, the pagan Roman state; for Luther, on the other hand, it is the medieval confusion of the two cities, resulting in an earthly city of God in the form of a church that is a legal and coercive institution and a state that is obliged to serve her and to persecute heretics. Luther consequently devotes himself to establishing the purity of the true and [non-coercive] kingdom of God as well as the correct basis and limits for the exercise of political power by Christians. But this represents only an alteration in subject matter, not a change in viewpoint.”[7] From both reformation and Augustinian contexts then, we see that Luther described reality in terms of two powers struggling against one another, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.


[1] Bernhard Lohse. Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Trans. Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. 186-7. [2] When considering the action and inaction of the German Lutheran church during the horror that was the Jewish Holocaust, the tendency is to speak in broad generalities. However, we do not seek to undermine here or elsewhere the heroic efforts of resistance by adherents to Lutheran theology such as Dietrich Bonheoffer and others who resisted the efforts of the Third Reich at great cost to themselves. [3] Ibid., 187. [4] One must note that in Luther’s context the concept of the nation-state was not the current understanding and that to use a term such as ‘state’ conveys a level of anachronistic terminology. For the purposes of this paper the term ‘state’ will be used hereafter as a synonym for temporal or secular authority. [5] Ibid., 188. [6] Franklin Sherman. Preface. Heinrich Bornkamm. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. iv. [7] Ibid., 21.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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