Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Critique

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

The common critique that Luther separates the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the world in such a manner that does not allow for meaningful Christian interaction within the world often stems from an understanding of Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine as highly dichotomous and Augustinian. Concerning this connection, while Luther’s original concept was based upon Augustine’s dualistic notion of the division of world between God and Satan,[69] he moved beyond his muse, as “he found the idea of the sovereignty of God in secular law as well as in the affairs of state, he was able to show the Christians how he could assume a meaningful responsibility in the human community without contradicting the categorical commands of Jesus.”[70] Althaus argues that the distinction between Luther’s terms of ‘government’ and ‘kingdom’ lessened as dualism decreased and he wanted to say that marriage and property had positive paradisiacal benefits within the secular kingdom.[71]

Eventually, Luther’s understanding was such that the two governments “no longer deal with two distinct and different groups, the believers and unbelievers; rather, both affect the life of the children of God in two different areas of one and same life. The Christian lives in both governments. He is also a citizen of this world. Therefore, it can no longer be said that Christians do not need secular government for their own persons.”[72] Bornkamm argues that “Luther’s decisive step beyond Augustine’s two kingdom doctrine is his expansion of it by means of the idea of the living activity of God in both governments.”[73] This understanding ultimately finds its center within the heart of Luther’s theology, that Christian ethics “rests upon faith in the unchangeable relation of God to the world, which has not suffered alteration in will or purpose because of the abyss that sin has opened up between them but has only changed in means. Because of sin, the free community of love which God had wanted humanity to be, and which gleams again in the life together of true Christians, has changed into an order of law and coercion… Just as God’s judicial rigor is a form his loving kindness takes in seeking out men, so the office of the magistrate is at the same time a terror to evildoers and a manifestation of God’s preserving love.”[74]

Wittenberg Castle Church
Wittenberg Castle Church

Even given this understanding of the love of neighbor within both spheres of government, some scholars have argued that the only real restraints Luther posed on temporal authorities were those of conscience, which were formulated by the preaching of ministers, who no longer spoke from a position of ecclesiastical authority, which would undoubtedly become problematic.[75] Others have countered that to view Luther’s doctrine in terms of only the relationship of the Christian to temporal authority misses the point of his doctrine, that “In speaking of two ‘kingdoms’ Luther is describing not only the two realms of church and state, proclaiming and lawmaking, but also at the same time the two sets of relationships within which the Christian lives. On the one hand, there is his own existence, his personal attitude to his fellow men, his witness for the gospel—in this realm the unconditional commandment of forgiveness, endurance, and sacrifice prevails. On the other hand, there is the common ‘life together’ of mankind in general, in which law must of necessity set firm limits against evil; here the Christian must help see that no one suffers injustice or becomes the victim of another.”[76] However, as we have seen, Luther’s construction not only concerns itself with the relationship of medieval church and state, but also deals with the relationship between the reality of life and the radical commands of Jesus. Neither diminishing the unconditional nature of the commands, nor applying them to only certain groups of Christians, Luther creates a construction by which he “points out clearly the sphere of relationships within which they alone are meaningful and have binding validity for every Christian.”[77]


[69] Paul Althaus. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Trans. Robert C. Shultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. 51; Althaus further writes that Luther argues that Satan roams and seeks to destroy both within the secular and spiritual governments, and “For this reason, it is absolutely impossible to equate Luther’s doctrine of the two governments or kingdoms with the absolute opposition between the kingdoms of God and Satan; it is also impossible to correlate the two sets of concepts.” (81). [70] Heinrich Bornkamm. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. 26. [71] Paul Althaus. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Trans. Robert C. Shultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. 52. [72] Ibid., 53. [73] Heinrich Bornkamm. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. 22. [74] Ibid., 14. [75] Sheldon S. Wolin. Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960. 159. [76] Heinrich Bornkamm. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of His Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz, Facet Books Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. [77] Ibid., 13.


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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