Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms

An Ecumenical Problem
[1] The question of the two kingdoms is one of the most pressing and delicate in contemporary religious and theological thought. No other aspect of Luther’s theology has been so fiercely attacked as this doctrine. Where Luther drew a clear line between spiritual and temporal authority, and expressly emphasised that under no circumstances should these two realms be confused, this has been interpreted as if he had thereby opened the door to the secularisation of society and given a completely free hand to the State. Some critics have gone so far as to see in this doctrine the ultimate root of the National Socialist ideology, while even a theologian like Karl Barth has sharply criticised Luther from a similar point of view.

[2] This criticism directed from various quarters against Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms has gained a hearing in many circles. The following statement, which appeared recently in a church paper in Norway, is typical of a fairly widespread conception:

We should put a stop to all these discussions on the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms, one spiritual and one temporal, to be placed side by side without intermingling in human society. This view dates from the period of decline in the life of Luther and the Reformation, when the freedom of conscience for which Luther had contended so valiantly at Worms was being done away with, the sword introduced as the final arbiter in matters of faith, thousands who were in favour of baptism trampled under foot as outcasts of humanity, and Christian congregations handed over into the power of the territorial princes and treated in accordance with the Roman Catholic rule cujus regio, ejus religio.
[3] Anyone with the least grasp of the problem will recognise that this conception, at any rate as given in the popularised version quoted above, is a total distortion of Luther’s actual doctrine. The whole point of his doctrine of the two kingdoms was in fact to prevent the powers of this world from encroaching on the realm of conscience. In his pamphlet On Worldly Authority, he wrote:

Then again you say: Worldly authority cannot force us to believe, it can only outwardly prevent people from being led astray by false teachings – else how could we oppose the heretics?
Answer: That is the task of the bishops, to whom this task has been delegated, and is not within the sphere of the princes. Heresy cannot, after all, be opposed with violence: it must be differently handled, for this battle and striving may not be met with the sword.
[4] If it were only a question of refuting criticism from without, mainly determined by the political situation, there would be little point in dealing at length with this matter. Another factor, however, enters into it. Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms has assumed a rather controversial position in ecumenical debate, and has in many circles become a stumbling-block. It is easy to see the reason for this. It is an essential part of the work of the ecumenical movement to strengthen the social witness of the Church in the confused situation of contemporary society. But does not Luther’s sharp line of demarcation between spiritual and worldly authority, and his insistence that the two kingdoms be clearly distinguished from one another, tend to prevent the Church from uttering any word at all concerning the life of the world? Must it not be accepted that as a result of this demarcation secular life has to be allowed to go its own way? The question of the secularisation of society thus comes up with renewed urgency. Are they right who hold that at this point Lutheranism should rid itself of the unfortunate heritage which crippled its activity in the past, and hence surrender Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms?

[5] From the Lutheran side, our answer to this is a determined No, and this for two reasons. In the first place, the connection between the doctrine of the spiritual and worldly authorities and the secularisation of society is so tenuous that, paradoxically, it is the only effective means of overcoming such secularisation. Only if the distinction between spiritual and temporal authority is maintained can the Church speak clearly on the realm of the world. In the second place, the conception of the two realms is not a specifically Lutheran doctrine to be retained or abandoned, but is based on the New Testament and expresses an essential Christian truth. It arises so immediately and logically out of the Gospel itself that to surrender it would entail a surrender of the Gospel. In other words, we Lutherans are so little disposed to give up the doctrine of the spiritual and secular realms that we should, on the contrary, expect rather that the other Christian churches, once they have properly understood it, will also acknowledge it as a genuine expression of the Christian position, and will find in it a firm basis for a common Christian approach to society.

[6] If this is true, then it is our task (a) to define clearly the meaning of the Lutheran doctrine on spiritual and worldly authority; (b) to demonstrate that this very doctrine is an antidote to the secularisation and soi-disant autonomy of society; (c) to demonstrate how this doctrine is rooted in the New Testament and grows forth from the heart of the Gospel.

[7] In the following pages we shall attempt to deal briefly with these three points.

Luther’s Conception of Spiritual and Worldly Authority
[8] If we are to come to a correct understanding of Luther’s thought regarding the two kingdoms, spiritual and temporal, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world, the best place to begin is with his treatise on worldly authority, Von Weltlicher Obrigkeit (1523).

[9] Luther here states that the children of Adam fall into two groups, those who belong to the kingdom of God and those who belong to the kingdom of the world. To the kingdom of God belong all who believe in Christ and live under Him, for Christ is King and Lord in the kingdom of God. Of them Luther says: “Behold, these need neither sword nor law. And if all the world were made up of true Christians, there would be no need for ruler, king, lord, sword or law, for where would be the use of them? The Holy Ghost which abideth in their hearts teacheth them and bringeth it to pass that they do no wrong, but love all men. . . . And it may not be that the sword of the world and the law of the world should find labour to do among Christians.”

[10] But beside His spiritual kingdom God has established another, the kingdom of temporal authority. This exists because evil exists. God has set the evil world under the sword that it may be restrained, as men put bonds and shackles on a wild beast, and has instituted authorities to check violence and injustice, and to maintain peace and order. Thus sin is the reason for the setting-up of earthly government. Luther expresses the idea by saying it was set up “against the devil.” This thought is very characteristic of him, and we meet it in many different connections. The issue is bigger than that of power and responsibility for power. Luther regards our whole existence as involved in the combat between God and the devil. God created the world, and if it were only as He made it, there would be no need of authority, of judges or of special ordinances in the world. But the devil is constantly assailing God’s creation to bring it to disorder and destruction. As defence against these assaults, God establishes divers “stations” and “offices.” Rulers, parents and teachers are all set up as walls and bulwarks against such evil. This is the meaning of Luther’s oft-repeated statement that worldly offices are established “against the devil.”

[11] It should be noticed that it is God Himself Who rules in both these realms. He never drops the reins. To speak of either is thus to speak of a kingdom which is God’s, and it is with Him that we deal in matters spiritual and temporal both. This realisation is all-important. We are sometimes in danger of looking on the temporal as something profane, as if God were active only in the spiritual. The temporal is not foreign to God, and Luther does not regard it as such. To him there is nothing which is profane, and no sphere in which God is not at work.

[12] It is necessary to dwell for a moment on this fact, for it is vital to the understanding of the whole issue. Here Luther’s thought is to a great extent opposed to that to which we are accustomed.

[13] In the modern world the habit has developed of looking on the religious as a special field, side by side with others regarded as having no direct religious significance. We are, it is contended, in relation with God in our services of worship, in our devotions and perhaps in special works of love, but there are other matters which fall outside such a relation. The antithesis is found in a still more acute form where we see two groups of people considered as being in contrast to one another, with God dealing only with the “religious” group. There is nothing of this in Luther’s thought – indeed, he combats it with every weapon at his command. For that is the Roman Catholic view. It calls a part of the people “religious” – the spiritual orders, the monastic orders. Over against them are the stations and functions of the world, made up of those who are engaged in the various secular activities of the State and society. This whole category is not considered religious by nature, and God has nothing to do with it directly. It can become part of the religious sphere as it is in one way or another brought under the Church’s blessing. By its sacraments and benedictions the Church must sanctify a world which is in its nature profane – that is the Roman view.

[14] Luther’s writings are, as we have said, directed against this attitude. God is in command in every sphere of life. It is with Him that we have to do in both the heavenly and the earthly kingdoms, in both spiritual and temporal rule. He meets us in both, though in different ways – in the spiritual with the Gospel, in the temporal with the Law. But His will is made manifest to us in both Law and Gospel. The two kingdoms exist side by side, both instituted directly by God for two different reasons. His purpose in the spiritual realm is to make men Christian and to hallow them in Christ, and the instrument He uses to this end is only and always the Word, and the preaching thereof, and the sacraments. In the temporal realm His purpose is to sustain justice and peace in the world, and His characteristic instrument here is power, the use of the sword. In both realms He uses men as His agents. “Servants of the Lord” is a name applying not only to those who fill religious offices: rulers are also “servants of the Lord.”

[15] Luther insists that it is of primary importance not to confuse the two kingdoms. Each must be true to its Divine mission. Through the Gospel God rules His spiritual kingdom, forgives sins, justifies and sanctifies. But He does not thereby supersede or abolish the earthly kingdom: in its domain it is to rule with power and the sword. Any attempt to rule the world with the Gospel is a double error, carrying a double penalty. Firstly, the Gospel is destroyed, and becomes a new Law to take the place of the old – man makes Christ another Moses, as Luther puts it. And in addition the world suffers: to quote Luther, “What would be the result of an attempt to rule the world by the Gospel and the abolition of earthly law and force? It would be loosing savage beasts from their chains. The wicked, under cover of the Christian name would make unjust use of their Gospel freedom.” And again. “To try to rule a country, or the world, by the Gospel would be like putting wolves, lions, eagles ,and sheep all together in the fold and saying to them, ‘Now graze, and live a godly and peaceful life together. The door is open, and there is pasture enough, and no watchdog you need fear.’ The sheep would keep the peace, sure enough, but they would not live long.”

[16] It would be false to try to rule Christians by the Law, persuading them that through their own deeds and the workings of the Law they could win justification before God. For that end God has ordained the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins. And it would be equally false to try to rule the world with the Gospel, for to do that God has ordained law, rulers, power and the sword.

[17] Luther, in issuing this solemn warning against confusing the two kingdoms or authorities, is setting his face against two different adversaries. On the one side, he opposes the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which in the name of the Gospel lays claim to worldly power, and thereby imperils the Gospel. But he is equally opposed to those whom he calls fanatics. They held that it is the Christian’s task to seek to rule society by the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, and that evil should not be resisted, but all earthly law and power abolished. This view is, of course, found in various forms in our day, as it was then. We frequently encounter the statement that the great failure of our society has been that it has not the courage to apply the ethical principles of the Sermon on the Mount to our common life and our relations in the State. Such a view finds no support in Luther. He is against it: it is contrary to the will of God to try to rule the world through the Gospel. God has ordained an entirely different authority to rule the world. It is in accordance with His will that power and the sword are used to that end, and the world is under the sway of that authority, and not of the Gospel.

The Two Kingdoms and the “Autonomy” of Worldly Life
[18] What is the logical consequence of the sharp line Luther draws between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world, between spiritual rule and temporal? Does it not mean that earthly life is set free to follow its own standards, and that we are confronted with a domain where Christianity has nothing to say? Does it not mean, as has sometimes been said, that Luther makes political life a law unto itself? Evangelical theology, especially in Germany, has frequently answered that question in the affirmative in recent years. Christianity, it is held, is concerned with man’s inner life, with his relation to God: with secular and political life it has nothing whatever to do. The latter is propelled by its own power and acknowledges its own laws. For Christians to judge political life by Christian or ethical criteria is an encroachment. And here we come to the core of the problem presented by Luther’s conception of the State and of politics.

[19] Unfortunately, theology has in the past occasionally allowed itself to be led astray by the political trends of the day, and to misinterpret Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms as a plea for secularisation. It is easy to understand that for those who think solely along political lines it is inconceivable that political life should have to be subservient to an outside will, the will of God. But to hold up Luther on that account as an advocate of a secularised, autonomous political sphere of activity is a grotesque falsification. No-one fought as he did against the secularisation of society. No-one so vigorously affirmed that earthly government is as much God’s own rule as is spiritual, and that God never drops the reins from His own hands. How then can anyone throw upon him responsibility for a position which holds State and political life to be sovereign and autonomous? A glance into his treatise on worldly authority will suffice to convince one of the utter falsity of the assertion that he preached the detachment of Christianity from State and political life. In almost the first line of his introduction to this pamphlet he says that he is going to “write about worldly authority and its sword, and how to use the same in a Christian manner.” Luther realised very well that there is a Christian and an unchristian way of using power. It is not the business of the spiritual ministry to bear the sword, but it must demonstrate the Christian way of bearing it. Without this very often neglected aspect of Luther’s teaching, his whole doctrine of the two kingdoms becomes distorted and unintelligible. The Church is betraying an essential part of its mission if it does not continually, by exhortation and warning, remind those in earthly authority of the Law of God to which they are subject. It has not merely to protest when the temporal authorities interfere with its own freedom to preach and to live as a church; it is commissioned to interpret the will of God in regard to the various ordinances He has instituted in the world to regulate man’s relation with his neighbours, and to stand forth uncompromisingly against injustice and tyranny. “To rebuke the authorities,” writes Luther, “is certainly not a revolutionary act when it is done at the Divine command and in accordance with the Law of God, openly, fearlessly and honestly. It would, in fact, be much more dangerous to the public weal if a preacher were not to rebuke authority for its injustices.”

[20] Thus there is neither confusion nor separation between the two kingdoms. The spiritual order does not claim ecclesiastical domination over the temporal, but on the other hand the temporal must not be permitted to become secularised, for the worldly government stands under the judgment of God and is bound by His will.

[21] This double view which Luther takes of temporal life – that on the one hand it is not to be ruled by the Gospel, and on the other is subject to the Law and judgment of God – has given rise to much opposition, and many have thought to find a contradiction between the two aspects. And indeed it is not too easy to grasp exactly what he does mean. It would be much simpler to drop one half and abide by the other. He says, for instance, that the world is not to be ruled by the Gospel: then the inference is immediately drawn that Christianity has not to do with temporal life, and the result is secularism. On the other hand, “the life of the world is subject to the will of God” hence the inference that the Gospel is the basic principle and the law of the earthly realm, and we find ourselves among the “fanatics.” But Luther recognises the two realms, his inevitable conclusion from a full understanding of the meaning of the Gospel.

Two Kingdoms of Luther and the Two “Aeons” of the New Testament
[22] In the interest of clarity, however, we should go one step further back. Luther is not the discoverer of the relation between the kingdoms: behind him stand St. Paul and the whole of the New Testament. The Pauline conception serving Luther as the basis of his arguments is brought out clearly in his examination of the idea of the kingdoms. He holds that men are to be divided into two groups, those who belong to the kingdom of God and those who belong to the king of the world. His allusion to the children of Adam is a reference to Romans V, where St. Paul contrasts Adam and Christ – through Adam we all, as children of Adam, are brought under the sway of death, and through Christ all who believe on Him are brought under the sway of life. What was it that happened when God sent Christ into our world? St. Paul answers that it was the coming of a new age: the old has passed away, and behold, the new is with us! As through one man, Adam, sin came into the world and made sinners of all the children of Adam, subjecting them to the thraldom of death, so the new age came through one man, Christ, and by His resurrection became fact among us. Thus all who by faith belong to Him may be called the children of resurrection. What our forefathers sought in hope has through Christ become a living reality.

[23] It might be concluded that since the new age has come, we are to be freed from the old. But this is not wholly true. He who has come to faith through Christ has not ceased to be a child of Adam; he who has been justified through Christ has not ceased to live in this world of sin and death. No-one understood or expressed as clearly as Luther this dual status of every Christian. A Christian, he says, is at one and the same time justified and a sinner – justified because he belongs to Christ, in himself a sinner. This dualism arises from his allegiance to ‘two kingdoms, God’s and the world’s. He not only owes allegiance to this world, his whole being is firmly knit with it and into it. A Christian must not allow himself to think that because he belongs to Christ his position in this world is in any way a special one. The freedom which he has in Christ is not a selfish detachment from the obligations which go with the stations and functions of earthly life.

[24] The relation in which the two ages stand to one another is not such that the new has supplanted the old. The old lives on, and continues to exercise its authority over the Christian. He is a dweller in two worlds, and St. Paul’s words in Romans XII speak out directly to him, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

[25] The error of the fanatics is clear. They do not take the present world with due seriousness. They seem to imagine that the kingdom of God has come in the fulness of its majesty. The Gospel applicable to the new world they make into a law applicable to the old. They do not face the reality of the old world, and thus they falsify the Gospel. But God has one order for this world and another for the new, and we may not confuse the two with impunity.

[26] It is equally clear where the secularists have gone astray. They live in this world as if it were the only one, as if there were no God. They take the view that even if Christianity has anything to say about a future life, it has no relevance to the present. In opposition to both these errors we have Luther’s conception of the two kingdoms, the two authorities. He has learned from St. Paul to take a realistic view of the Christian’s earthly status. In the midst of our present existence God lays His mandate upon us, and His mandate is unvarying. In the final analysis, it is always a ministering love which He requires of us, whatever our station in this life. In love and service the preacher of the Word must work for the salvation of men through the Gospel. In love and service the ruler must administer law and justice, defend the country against attack, punish the offender. The strict enforcement of this latter might seem to be the antithesis of love but for all that it is the work of God’s love which the ruler performs for the good of society. If, for the sake of giving to his conduct the appearance of love, the ruler were to permit law and justice to be trampled under foot, or to let his country be overrun by an invader, he would be false to the task entrusted him by God: he would be false to love.

[27] The wielding of secular power, like every other vocation, offers two alternatives, serving the devil or serving God. Any use of power for its own sake is serving the devil. Power is a deadly temptation to selfishness and vainglory, and for that reason Luther utters the warning “He who would be a Christian ruler must put away the thought that he would rule and be mighty. For the mark of judgment is upon all life whose end is self-advancement, and upon all works which are not done in love. And these are done in love when their end is not the desire or advantage or honour or comfort of the doer, but the honour and advantage and good of others.”

[28] We may seek in vain for any fully-evolved doctrine of the State in Luther’s thought. But he has given us what is more valuable still: he has shown us the Christian way of looking on the State and its responsibilities. In these days, so full of brutal lust for power and of the deification of the State often according to a feignedly Christian concept, there is a very special need that we should see the true purpose of God concerning temporal power. And for that there is no better guide than the New Testament, and Martin Luther, its greatest interpreter.