Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.

Having examined Luther’s major writings and construction concerning the relationship of the Christian to the world, we must now consider the common critique of Luther’s theology, that it does not provide a solid foundation for the Christian engagement of temporal authority. In his major reformation works, Luther placed a great deal of emphasis on the equality of all Christians within the spiritual kingdom, including those who were ordained as temporal rulers. When Luther first writes of resisting tyranny, he does so in a relative passive manner, arguing that disobedience and verbal disunity are proper forms of resistance. Althaus inhabits the common traditional interpretation of Luther, saying that Christ concerns himself with the spiritual kingdom and does not participate in the secular kingdom[78] and that for Luther’s construction, the “secular government existed long before Christ and also exercised power without him. This indicates that secular government and Christ’s kingdom are two distinct entities and that Christ is not directly involved in secular government.”[79] Luther’s doctrine interpreted in this way allows for a great deal of Christian passivity within the realm of the temporal. Such an understanding explains both general German Lutheran passivity to the Third Reich and the modern critique of Lutherans as a ‘conservative’ political movement in Latin America. Were this the only basis or interpretive framework that fit Luther’s thought, it would seem that the strong critique of Luther’s theology as somewhat naïve and generally unconcerned with the world would stick.

However, looking at Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms within a wider context indicates that there are other interpretations and frameworks that can be applied to Luther’s theology. Taking issue against the common perspective, Bornkamm argues that, “Luther’s originality lies in his combining [the government and kingdom of Christ and the government and kingdom of the world]. Luther thought that the solution to the problem as he confronted it required, on the one hand, the ruthless separation of the world and the kingdom of Christ as well as, on the other hand, the governance of both of them by the will of God according to the two modes of his love.”[80] While no one can deny that there are real differences between the roles of the temporal and spiritual kingdoms, it can be argued that Luther’s construction, while often terminologically ambiguous, actually posits the understanding of a united kingdom which includes the kingdom of Christ and a kingdom of the world. Looking at the kingdoms with only the dichotomous ‘two kingdoms’ concern and not recognizing the fact that Luther subjects both kingdoms to the power and love of God misses the point of his theology.

Only an interpretation of Luther that including consideration of the power and love of God and Christian command to love one’s neighbor explains why a Christian submits to temporal authority when he belongs to the kingdom of Christ: “Just as he [the Christian] performs all other works of love which he himself does not need… so he serves the governing authority not because he needs it but for the sake of others, that they may be protected and that the wicked may not become worse.”[81] The Christian obeys temporal authority not for his own sake, but for love of his neighbor. Further, Christians may hold and wield temporal authority, though only in a manner consistent with love of one’s neighbor. If Christians may be so bold as to wield a sword on behalf of their neighbor, it becomes difficult to defend Christian inaction, such as that by-and-large seen in Nazi Germany. As Heinrich Bornkamm writes, “The doctrine of the two kingdoms is nothing more than a description of the Christian situation in the world; the corresponding doctrine of the two modes of divine government provides guidelines by which, in faith, the Christian can always make a new determination of his action.”[82] Thus an understanding that interprets the doctrine of the two kingdoms more like two governments under one kingdom of God and that the two kingdoms are unified by the theme of acting in Christian love allows for a coherent ethical structure through which one can explain the proper relationship of the Christian to the world.[83]

1 John 4.21The critique of Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms as not involving Christianity enough in the secular world stems largely from the general political passivity of the German Lutheran church under German National Socialism and the continued ‘conservative’ nature of many Lutheran’s in the Latin American context. While a great deal of interpretation of Luther’s doctrine concerning the relationship of the Christian to the world has allowed for a generally passive approach to temporal authority, this treatise has argued that such an interpretation neglects the entirety of Luther’s considerations. We have been reminded by Heinrich Bornkamm of the scope of Luther’s thinking that he did not consider purely institutional matters, but that he strived for the root of the issue: “the relation of the Christian to the world.”[84] Using the model of the two kingdoms, Luther described the relationship of the Christian to the world in terms of the kingdom of Christ, that which emphasizes the gospel without using force, and the kingdom of the world, the use of laws and force by those whom God has ordained for temporal authority. Employing an understanding that interprets the doctrine of the two kingdoms as two governments under one kingdom of God and that the two kingdoms are unified by the theme of acting in Christian love allows for a coherent ethical structure through which one can explain the proper relationship of the Christian to the world. A Christian’s love toward his 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, for as the writer of First John reminds us, “whoever loves God must also love his brother.”[85]


 

Sources

[78] Paul Althaus. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Trans. Robert C. Shultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. 56. [79] Ibid., 48. [80] Heinrich Bornkamm. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. 18. [81] Martin Luther. “Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed.” Vol. 45. In Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society II, Walther I. Brandt and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962. 94. [82] Heinrich Bornkamm. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. 13-4. [83] Paul Althaus. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Trans. Robert C. Shultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972. 70. [84] Heinrich Bornkamm. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966. 13. [85] 1 John 4:21, English Standard Version.

Bibliography

Althaus, Paul. The Ethics of Martin Luther. Trans. Robert C. Shultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972.

Bornkamm, Heinrich. Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of his Theology. Translated by Karl H. Hertz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966.

Hertz, Karl H. Two Kingdoms and One World: A Sourcebook in Christian Social Ethics. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1976.

Lohse, Bernhard. Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Trans. Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Luther, Martin. “Admonition to Peace.” Vol. 46. In Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society III, Robert C. Schultz and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

–. “Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.” Vol. 46. In Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society III, Robert C. Schultz and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

–. “On War Against the Turk.” Vol. 46. In Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society III, Robert C. Schultz and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

–. “Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should be Obeyed.” Vol. 45. In Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society II, Walther I. Brandt and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1962.

–. “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.

–. “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved.” Vol. 46. In Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society III, Robert C. Schultz and Helmut T. Lehmann, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967.

Porter, J.M. Luther: Selected Political Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.

Wolin, Sheldon S. Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

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3 thoughts on “Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Conclusions

  1. Pingback: Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Links | Pursuing Veritas

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