The Twofold Rule of God

[1] Perhaps the most difficult element in Lutheran social ethics, yet one of the most important, is the doctrine of the twofold rule of God, sometimes called the “two kingdoms” doctrine. This doctrine has also been the most vulnerable to distortion. Karl Barth was the first to call this Lutheran teaching “the two kingdoms doctrine,” and he was not paying a compliment to the Lutheran tradition. Rather he was sharply criticizing those Lutherans in the 1930s who had used Lutheranism’s doctrine of the twofold rule of God to justify Adolph Hitler and National Socialism. Actually Barth was criticizing the misuse of the teaching.

[2] This teaching is misused when it is interpreted dualistically instead of being seen as a highly dialectical and paradoxical view of God’s twofold rule. In a dualistic model, which is a Lutheran heresy, there are two completely separate spheres, one having to do with earthly society and the other having to do with the salvation of our souls. Moreover this dualism is often spatial: The secular world and the world of the church are seen as two separate realities. The secular world becomes autonomous, running according to its own principles and rules, and the Christian must simply submit to them. The church preaches the gospel, which then affects only the inner souls of Christians and perhaps their intimate relationships. As one Lutheran jurist put it, the issues of public life “should remain untouched by the proclamation of the Gospel, completely untouched.”[1]

[3] Such a dualistic approach was used to argue that Christians as Christians had no grounds for resisting tyrannical governments, be they of Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Auguste Pinochet, or John Vorster. This led to the infamous political quietism that Lutherans have sometimes fostered. As with all heresies, this dualistic approach has an element of truth in it, but it is so magnified that it pushes out the other elements that make it a genuinely useful doctrine.

[4] The doctrine of the twofold rule of God is more than useful, however. It is deeply biblical and Christian and not a Lutheran oddity. In Romans 5 Paul writes of the two aeons: the new era that Christ is bringing into the world and the old aeon that is under the rule of law and sin. The same eschatological tension is present in other biblical sources. The new order of Christ is in tension with the old order, yet Christians must live in both. Jesus said we must give Caesar what is his and God what is God’s (Matt. 22:21). There is a duality but not a dualism at the heart of the Christian vision. It cannot be flattened into one dimension. We are caught in two realities that must be taken seriously. Carl Braaten puts the essence of the doctrine succinctly:

This doctrine of the two kingdoms marks out the identity of the church within the global horizon of the politics of God and the divine governance of the world. This doctrine draws a distinction between the two ways of God’s working in the world, two strategies that God uses to deal with the powers of evil and the reality of sin, two approaches to human beings, to mobilize them for active cooperation in two distinctly different kinds of institutions. One is created as an instrument of governance seeking justice through the administration of law and the preservation of order, and the other as an instrument of the Gospel and its sacraments announcing and mediating an ultimate and everlasting salvation which only Christ can give in an act of unconditional love and personal sacrifice.[2]

[5] This biblical and Christian perspective arose when the kingdom expected by the followers of Jesus did not come. The kingdom had come in Jesus-the preacher had become the preached-but the full realization of what was announced and experienced in the Christ event did not take place. Nevertheless Christians believed that the world they were given to live in and to follow Christ in was not abandoned by God. The Old Testament witness to God’s creating, sustaining, and judging activities was not discarded. Instead it was affirmed in the face of heresies that tried to split the creator from the redeemer God.

[6] Surely the God who in Jesus suffered on a cross and died for all and who rose again approaches humans differently in the gospel than in their worldly life in society. There is a twofoldness in God’s action in the world, a twofoldness that both generates and reflects a real tension in the individual and corporate lives of Christians. All major Christian religious traditions recognize in some fashion this tension between Christ and the ongoing societal necessities of the world. They are aware that following Christ and living in the world is no easy task. Those who are unaware of that understand neither Christ nor the world.

[7] Christian traditions, however, handle this tension in very different ways. H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture is a classic analysis of these differences. The “Christ against culture” (sectarian) tradition escapes the tension by withdrawing from the world. The classic “Christ above culture” (Roman Catholic) tradition aims to manage the tension by forging Christ and culture into a grand synthesis presided over by the church. The “Christ transforming culture” (Reformed) tradition seeks to convert the culture toward the will of God as it is discerned by the church and carried out by its members. The “Christ of culture” (liberal religion) tradition escapes the tension by absorbing Christ into the enlightened culture of the day.[3]

[8] The “Christ and culture in paradox” (Lutheran) tradition handles the tension in a paradoxical way through its teaching on the twofold rule of God. It is not the tension of Christ and culture that is contentious but how that tension is handled. Of the five possible ways of managing it suggested by Niebuhr, the Lutheran way comes closest to living with an unresolved tension. The others move more vigorously toward resolution, which can often be problematic and perhaps unbiblical.

[9] In the Lutheran ethical view, Christians live in two realities at the same time. Each reality is under the governance of God but in sharply different ways. God governs the “kingdom on the left” with the law and the “kingdom on the right” with the gospel. God’s aim in both modes of rule is the same-to overcome evil and recall disobedient creation to himself-but God uses very different means in each “kingdom.”

[10] The twofold rule of God is closely related to a Lutheran understanding of law and gospel. If the law and gospel are not accorded their proper meaning and functions, either the law is made into the gospel or the gospel made into the law. In the former, the demands and operation of the law are viewed as redemptive, which makes Christ unnecessary. In the latter, the extravagant love revealed in the gospel becomes a guiding principle for ordering life in the rough and tumble of this world. In this case little account is taken of the power of sin and evil in the world, and society becomes vulnerable to the most willful agencies of evil. Such an approach dishonors God the creator.

[11] Both pitfalls are common in American Christianity. Human efforts are often made de facto substitutes for the liberating power of the gospel (making the law into the gospel), and the radical love revealed in the gospel is often used as a direct principle for commending public policy (making the gospel into the law). The former secularizes the gospel while the latter sentimentalizes it.

[12] While the two ways that God rules the world must be clearly distinguished (for sake of both the gospel and the law), they are not finally separated. God the creator and God the redeemer are not separate deities. Likewise the two ways that God reigns are not separate spatially or existentially; they interact in creative ways. A tentative duality does not lead to a final dualism. There are three ways in which the twofold rule of God comes together creatively in this world.

[13] The first way is in the calling of each Christian person as elaborated above. As faith, love, and hope are kindled by the Spirit in the hearts of Christians, they will practice those virtues within and through the worldly callings they have been given. These Spirit-driven virtues will affect the responsible roles Christians have as family members, workers, citizens, and church members. They will transform these worldly responsibilities into authentic Christian callings. God’s creative love enters the world through the exercise of Christian vocation.

[14] Christian virtue will be a leaven that works creatively on the hard demands of worldly life. It is the creative task of each Christian to find the fitting deed between an adventureless acceptance of the world as it is and an irresponsible desire to replace it with some utopian scheme. Insofar as that deed is truly fitting, it will cooperate with God’s dynamic law of creation.

[15] Second, in corresponding fashion, the church is a place where the twofold rule of God is conjoined. It is called to proclaim the whole Word of God-both gospel and law. The church’s proper work, of course, is to proclaim the gospel, but the church is also responsible for addressing the world according to God’s law. Since the church operates in society only with the power of the word, the powers it claims are thoroughly in the realm of persuasion, not coercion.

[16] The church is called to apply the dynamic law of God to all the structures of social life. The radical love expressed in the gospel is relevant, at least indirectly, to the affairs of the world, just as Christian virtues are relevant to the lives of individual Christians in their callings. These insights are to be applied vigorously and realistically, avoiding both cynicism and sentimentalism. The gospel is relevant to the world’s affairs in a paradoxical fashion. It constantly judges whatever is achieved in the world and is a constant lure to higher achievement. It is always “out in front,” as is God’s eschatological future, and cannot be captured or legislated in the present. The person who fully expressed this radical gospel love was crucified; the gospel ethic does not fit smoothly into the world.

[17] Finally it is within God’s total action in the world that we confess the conjoining of the two ways he reigns. The actions of God the creator and God the redeemer cannot finally be separate. Yet in this world even the eyes of faith cannot perceive how this is so. Short of the eschaton, God’s rule is of a twofold nature. We affirm this with humility and openness, for our human constructs cannot hold God hostage. Signs of God’s ongoing redemption may indeed erupt spontaneously in the midst of this world. While they may not fully manifest the final kingdom of God, they may be anticipations of the eternal shalom for which the whole world strains. Yet they must be consistent with the only clear anticipation we have of that kingdom, Jesus as the Christ.[4]

[1] As claimed by Carl Braaten in his Principles of Lutheran Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 124.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 135

[4] Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956).

Robert Benne

Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and Research Associate in the Religion and Philosophy Department, Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia and Professor of Christian Ethics, The Institute of Lutheran Theology.