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. Continue reading

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] Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Christian Passivity?

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

Just WarTo this point it seems that using Bornkamm’s understanding of Luther’s doctrine would allow for little passivity from the Christian when their neighbor was confronted with evil. On the breadth of secular authority, Luther’s concern was that temporal authority must not endeavor to control the prescription of laws for the soul, for to do so would encroach upon Christ’s government, which would mislead and destroy souls.[56] Luther speaks against both those leaders of God’s kingdom who have sought to control temporal matters such as land and animals, as well as those rulers of the temporal kingdom who have abandoned their just duties concerning land and property and have rushed into the insanity of attempting to exercise spiritual control over souls.[57] Luther, citing St. Paul, St. Peter, King David, and Christ,[58] argues that temporal authorities only have control over the physical body and outward actions,[59] whereas bishops and leaders of the kingdom of God must live in a manner consistent with Christ’s standards of justice and use their office to serve their fellow Christians.[60] Thus, in the understanding of how far temporal authority may reach, Luther both limits the use of temporal force in the kingdom of Christ, and proceeds to argue for greater temporal power in matters not directly under the control of the kingdom of the world. Continue reading

Luther’s Two Kingdoms: Applied Ethics?

This post is part of our ongoing series on Luther’s Two Kingdoms.
Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

Scholars such as Porter have argued that one of the lasting implications of Luther’s construction involves a radical separation of temporal authority from man’s goals in the kingdom of God.[25] Further, Porter argues that “Luther’s radical separation of the ‘two realms’ or kingdoms—church authority and temporal authority—and the emphasis placed on the divine source of temporal authority lead to an ‘unqualified endorsement of state power’ and to a greater fear of anarchy than of tyranny.”[26] Lohse rightly points out that Luther never used the term “doctrine of the two kingdoms,”[27] and suggests a rejection of the entire dichotomous construction: “The brief slogan of the doctrine of two kingdoms is also misleading insofar as it conceals the fact that Luther did not restrict his understanding of the secular kingdom to government and the state but rather included all secular functions… This brief slogan also is not appropriate insofar as it is not able to express the complex and varied pattern of practical action of both Luther and Lutherans.”[28] Continue reading

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] Continue reading

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.’ Continue reading