Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Context

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms

Sola ScripturaLooking at the broader context of Luther’s theology, we should note several tenets of his theological program that are vital to understanding his church-state construction. As outlined in Freedom of the Christian, perhaps foremost in Luther’s reformation theology was the importance of sola scriptura, that “true Christianity can be restored only if the authority of the word of God as found in Scripture alone replaces that claimed by ecclesiastical institutions, canon law, and medieval theology.”[8] Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith had implications for his political doctrine as well, as external works were viewed as the fruit of grace, and thus took on a character of service rather than necessity for salvation. The priesthood of all believers allowed Christians a personal and direct relationship with God. For Luther, any institution or doctrine that undermined these facets of man’s relationship to God must be destroyed. Understanding these doctrines as fundamental for Luther’s theology as a whole, J.M. Porter concludes concerning political ramifications that, “The three great Reformation doctrines serve as a prism through which Luther examines all dimensions of human existence, including the political.”[9]

Turning now to his more politically oriented writings, we note that in the opening section of To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Luther addresses the relationship between temporal and spiritual powers. Luther argues against the dichotomy of dividing Christians into spiritual and temporal estates: “It is pure invention that pope, bishop, priests, and monks are called the spiritual estate while princes, lords, artisans, and farmers are called the temporal estate.… All Christians are truly of the spiritual estate…. We are all consecrated priests through baptism…”[10] Luther argues that all Christians are members of the spiritual estate, and thus have spiritual duties and roles within the Church, though duties of clergy differ from those of laity. Concerning the subjection of temporal rulers to the spiritual estate, Luther writes that “since the temporal power is ordained by God to punish the wicked and protect the good, it should be left to perform its office in the whole body of Christendom without restriction and without respect to persons, whether it affects pope, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or anyone else….”[11] Overall, Luther in this treatise sought to remove perceived inequalities in the importance of all Christians, for all are priests; thereby Rome had no monopoly on spiritual matters, especially over temporal rulers who are ordained by God. Given this argument, one can see the possibility of a complacent attitude within Lutheran theology toward ordained temporal authorities.

Martin Luther
Martin Luther

With the emphasis that the evangelical reformation placed on sola scriptura, it follows that Luther placed great importance on a unified understanding of Biblical passages on the relationship of the Christian and temporal authority. Of chief concern was the proper combined understanding of those Biblical passages pertaining to the “law of Christ,” such as the Sermon on the Mount, not resisting evil, and the law of love, and those passages which apply to the temporal, such as the apostolic affirmation of governments, and the OT establishment of the sword.[12] In Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed, Luther’s most extensive consideration of the relationship of the Christian to the temporal authorities, he sought to present a coherent understanding of the proper relationship of the Christian to civil government. Further, he sought to outline the proper role of civil government in relation to the Church that found balance between Biblical passages concerning government and the Christian life. The immediate context of this writing in 1522 was twofold, as Luther was responding to a work by the leading jurist of his time, Bamburg Counselor Baron Johann von Schwarzenberg, concerning the harmonization of secular authority and the Gospel,[13] as well as offering a counter to the burning of his own New Testament translations by certain Catholic princes.[14]


[8] J.M. Porter. Luther: Selected Political Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974. 4. [9] Ibid., 7. [10] Martin Luther. “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation.” Vol. 44. In Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society I, James Atkinson and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. 127. [11] Ibid., 130. [12] Paul Althaus. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Trans. Robert C. Shultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. 44. [13] Heinrich Bornkamm. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. 5. [14] Ibid., 6.


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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