A Reformed Baptist Perspective on Public Theology: Two Kingdoms in Luther

Read the first two posts here and here.

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In the previous article, we discussed Augustine’s classic work City of God as a means of demonstrating how the Church interacts with the culture in the public sphere. Now, we will examine Martin Luther’s development of Augustine’s ideas.

Much of Luther’s public theology can be examined by interacting with Luther’s 1523 essay Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed. In this essay, Luther taught that the temporal authority (i.e. the civil state) exists by divine ordinance (cf. Genesis 4:14-15; 9:6), having existed since creation and having been confirmed by Moses, John the Baptist, and Christ Himself. Luther divided the human race into two groups, one belonging to the kingdom of God and the other belonging to the kingdom of the world. Luther argued that the citizens of the kingdom of God need neither law nor sword, whereas the citizens of the kingdom of this world need both. In light of this need, God has established two governments (one spiritual and one temporal). The spiritual government is for the Holy Spirit to produce righteous Christians under Christ’s rule, and the purpose of the temporal government is for restraining the wicked and non-believers by the sword.

Kingdom vs. Government

It’s important to note here that Luther introduces an important distinction between kingdom and government. The two kingdoms are mutually exclusive (reminiscent of Augustine’s Two Cities), but the two governments are not mutually exclusive. As Luther articulates the idea of the two governments that rule these two kingdoms, Luther makes clear that the temporal authority, which executes the legal and coercive government of the earthly kingdom, brings Christians and non-Christians under its sway. In Luther’s thought, we have a supplement to Augustine’s doctrine of the Two Cities, which David VanDrunen describes this way:

To some degree, Luther’s adding the nuance of two governments to the two kingdoms template accounts for the constructive development of Augustinian thought. For example, Luther’s two governments framework gives the two kingdoms an institutional expression – in church and state – that lurks just below the surface in the City of God but is never unambiguously expressed (Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, pp. 60).

Moreover, by means of this added nuance of the two governments, Luther taught the validity and legitimacy of Christians participating in civil government, something not clearly articulated by Augustine. Consequently, according to Luther, Christians ought to heartily embrace their roles in the civil realm as an expression of their Christian love. For Luther, public society was a forum for the expression of Christian love and duty. In continuity with the medieval tradition, Luther taught the existence of natural law, of which the Ten Commandments is the primary summary; however, Luther moved beyond the medieval tradition by stating that natural law is the source, judge, and standard of all human laws.

Vocation in Luther’s Thought

It’s important to note that Luther’s Two Kingdom approach to public theology belonged to an entire theological system built around the Reformational doctrine of sola fide. The two governments (spiritual and temporal) relate to two kinds of righteousness (the righteousness of faith and civil righteousness), each of which in turn relates to gospel and law, respectively. Faith directs us upward toward God, while love drives us outward toward our neighbor. As persons we stand before God, while we hold various offices in the world as we live before others. One important application of Luther’s public theology was his doctrine of vocation. Luther saw that non-religious vocations (such as the baker, the shoemaker, and the soldier) came to be seen as equally God-pleasing as religious vocations (such as preachers and clerics). The various callings in human society, ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical, could now be fulfilled under God and His Word, and alongside one another with equal value.

Some modern advocates have interpreted Luther’s Two Kingdom doctrine as a justification for a twofold ethic for Christians, one for the spiritual government and the other for the temporal government. For example, one can find Luther saying that if a person is called to be a courageous soldier, that person must obey the summons, not as a Christian, but as a citizen subject to the state. In this view, there would be no such thing as a “Christian soldier” since the ethic of this occupation (associated with the temporary government) is distinct from Christian ethics (associated with the spiritual government). It is our contention that historical accuracy requires a more nuanced and careful analysis of Luther’s 1523 essay; in particular, it’s important to consider large sections of Luther’s teaching, which point to the integration of Christian faith and public service.

Luther’s Counsel for Princes

Consider the following discussion in Luther’s essay, in which he discusses the proper conduct of a Christian prince:

What, then, is a prince to do if he lacks the requisite wisdom and has to be guided by the jurists and the lawbooks? Answer: This is why I said that the princely estate is a perilous one. If he be not wise enough himself to master both his laws and his advisers, then the maxim of Solomon applies, ‘Woe to the land whose prince is a child’ (Eccles. 10:16). Solomon recognized this too. This is why he despaired of all law-even of that which Moses through God had prescribed for him-and of all his princes and counselors. He turned to God himself and besought him for an understanding heart to govern the people (I Kings 3:9). A prince must follow this example and proceed in fear; he must depend neither upon the dead books nor living heads, but cling solely to God, and be at him constantly, praying for a right understanding, beyond that of all books and teachers, to rule his subjects wisely. For this reason I know of no law to prescribe for a prince; instead, I will simply instruct his heart and mind on what his attitude should be toward all laws, counsels, judgments, and actions. If he governs himself accordingly, God will surely grant him the ability to carry out all laws, counsels, and actions in a proper and godly way.

According to Luther, the Christian prince must govern by trusting in God, praying constantly for a right understanding found in divine wisdom that enables the implementation of human laws and counsels in a “proper and godly way”. As a side note: Notice also how Luther not only offers his counsel as to how a prince ought to rule, but even sets himself up as counsel to the prince in question. He writes: “…instead, I will simply instruct his heart and mind on what his attitude should be…” Not only did Luther see that it was right and proper for a Christian to serve in public office but, in the instance that a “so-called” Christian comes to hold public office, Luther saw it necessary for him as a pastor to offer counsel to such a man. Now, one may raise the question: “What is the proper and godly way for a ruler to govern?” This “proper and godly way”, according to Luther, is by following the example of Jesus Christ. Luther continues in his essay:

First. he must give consideration and attention to his subjects, and really devote himself to it. This he does when he directs his every thought to making himself useful and beneficial to them; when instead of thinking, ‘The land and people belong to me, I will do what best pleases me,’ he thinks rather, ‘I belong to the land and the people, I shall do what is useful and good for them. My concern will not be how to lord it over them and dominate them, but how to protect and maintain them in peace and plenty.’ He should picture Christ to himself, and say, ‘Behold, Christ, the supreme ruler, came to serve me; he did not seek to gain power, estate, and honor from me, but considered only my need, and directed all things to the end that I should gain power, estate, and honor from him and through him. I will do likewise, seeking from my subjects not my own advantage but theirs. I will use my office to serve and protect them, listen to their problems and defend them, and govern to the sole end that they, not I, may benefit and profit from my rule.’ In such manner should a prince in his heart empty himself of his power and authority, and take unto himself the needs of his subjects, dealing with them as though they were his own needs. For this is what Christ is to us [Phil. 2:7]; and these are the proper works of Christian love.

Throughout this portion of his essay, Luther appeals to Scripture for instruction on attitude and approach, for example, and for encouragement to rule well as a Christian prince. The same principle would naturally apply to Christian mayors, councilmen, and other Christians in political office. For Luther, “love and natural law” must guide the rule above and beyond all law books and jurists’ opinions for the Christian prince. Although love is a universal norm and love corresponds to deeds that conform to natural law, both love and natural law require the illumination of Scripture. This is not true only for Christian politicians, but for Christians in numerous other vocations. Consider the following thought from Luther

The book [Scripture] is laid in your own bosom, and it is so clear that you do not need glasses to understand Moses and the Law. Thus you are your own Bible, your own teacher, your own theologian, and your own preacher. If you are a manual laborer, you will find that the Bible has been put in your workshop, into your hand, into your heart. It teaches and preaches how you should treat your neighbor. Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure—and you will read this statement inscribed in them. Everywhere you look, it stares at you. . . . All this is continually crying out to you: ‘Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.’

Conclusion

When one surveys Luther’s writings, the overwhelming impression is that for Luther, the Christian faith did not exist alongside public life, but came to expression and functioned within public life. Luther knew how to distinguish between the spiritual government and the temporal government, but he never separated them. Luther entered the world’s domain in the name of God with the Word of God. In this way, Luther’s public theology is thoroughly Augustinian. It is true that one cannot rule the world with the gospel, just as much as the City of Man cannot be transformed into the City of God. However, this does not mean that that Christians are permitted to ignore instruction from the Scripture, like the exhortations from the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount touches a person’s heart and conscience, but from this inward life flows outward conduct so that true humanity finds expression in public life.

In our next post, we will examine how the Reformed, from Calvin to the English Particular Baptists, developed these ideas in brought their own nuances into the development of Public Theology.

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