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Luther’s Two Kingdoms: pastoral encouragement not political quietism

Friday, 3 March 2017  | Rhys Bezzant

It doesn’t take a scholar of the Reformation to note that the relationship between church and state in Australia is particularly fraught at the moment, but it is helpful for scholars of the Reformation to provide some critical assessment of how we got here. In this, the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Luther’s theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg in 1517, it will repay our efforts to revisit him to refresh our thinking about social engagement, though many ask: can anything new be said regarding his life or his teachings? In fact, biographies on Luther are pouring off the presses this year, for his fascination is endless and his writing in equal part captivating and frustrating. Whether the debate concerns his medievalism or his modernity, his girth or his grit, his rationalism or his mysticism, or merely how best to present his story in a post-denominational and ecumenical world, Luther is still the proto-Protestant celebrity.

However, it often appears that Luther receives only bad press when it comes to his view of church and society. When he supported the lords against rebellious peasants in 1525, he positioned himself as the ultimate reactionary. Weren’t the peasants just applying his own slogan of freedom? After all, he had changed his family name from Luder to Luther to more adequately sound like the Greek word for freedom (eleutheria). There is no denying that calling for the murderous hordes of rebels to be stabbed and smitten was provocative and had the potential to besmirch his reputation in perpetuity! And his other written works on secular authority or the responsibilities of princes are not without their own theological problems. Yet, even acknowledging these cautions, his responses to 16th century social concerns provide insight into the great traditions of the Western church and at the same time bring some measure of originality, providing a focus for our own reflections.

When Duke George of Saxony ordered that Luther’s German translation of the Bible be confiscated in 1522, Luther found himself on the horns of a dilemma. Is a Bible a material object that falls under the jurisdiction of secular authority, or is it a spiritual artefact that belongs to the church to be regulated by her own canon law? How is conflict between potentially rival spheres of authority to be adjudicated, or navigated, in the life of the individual believer? Luther’s solution was to develop an ancient distinction between the two swords of authority, which had been propounded by Pope Gelasius I in the fifth century, drawing on the earlier language of Augustine. Luther called it the Theory of the Two Kingdoms. This was not a radically innovative approach to social ethics, though it did add an important pastoral dimension to well-worn paths of debate. Nor was Luther attempting to separate church and state, or the spiritual from the secular. In the Thomist tradition of the high Middle Ages, of which Luther was an heir, grace perfects nature, that is, the spiritual builds on and assumes the integrity of the material rather than being separate from it, ultimately providing theological rationale for the close relationship between church and civil authorities. Church and state (admittedly the latter is an anachronistic term) were effectively if not conceptually coterminous in Luther’s late medieval world. His own thinking is miles away from interpretations of his political views that circulated during the 400th anniversary of the Reformation in 1917, which argued that Luther created the modern notion of the state, creating a neutral apparatus for governing, distinguishable from the ruler and the ruled. It is still widely yet erroneously believed that the Theory of the Two Kingdoms advocates pushing apart church and state and creating two distinct and independent spheres.

Rather than create a rigid contrast between the way God rules through the prince and the way he rules through the pope, Luther instead was trying to respond theologically to a pastoral challenge. He was trying to give the individual believer words with which to explain the tension resulting from the colocation of differing authorities in that person’s life. His goal was to show care for believers as much as it was to define the existing reality in socio-political terms. Demonstrating his identity as a medieval man, who felt viscerally that the greatest danger to the Gospel’s advance and human flourishing was not tyranny but anarchy, Luther advocated not separation of powers but merely their conceptual distinction. Chalcedonian methodology was at work. He wanted to prevent overreach of both powers. His goal in the famous tract Secular authority: To what extent it should be obeyed (1523) was not to establish greater authority for the state that could not be challenged, but instead the opposite - to limit the authority of the state, particularly in matters pertaining to the Gospel. There were areas of conscience where the prince should not tread, but there were also areas of coercion where the pope had no mandate. It was clear from debates in the medieval period that the church was not the prince, and vice versa. Luther’s task, however, was not to push them further apart, but to limit encroachment by the one on the territory of the other. This is the kind of language he uses to make his case: ‘extend no farther’; ‘it encroaches upon God’s government’; and ‘when they seek to coerce the people with their laws’.

The Two Kingdoms Theory is not essentially a political doctrine, but rather one generated by ethical dilemmas, and resolved by appeal to love, natural law and human reason to ease the conscience and permit resistance to those not wanting to surrender their Bible. When, however, rebellion was justified by the Swabian peasants in 1525, not on the basis of encroachment of the secular authority in the domain of the spiritual, but with appeal to other grievances, Luther took the side of those whose divine responsibility was to maintain order. Indeed, Luther made a case very different from the more radical agitator Thomas Müntzer (1489-1525), who had preached for increased human involvement, perhaps including secular authority, to bring in the eschatological kingdom. Luther believed that human agency had a limited role in pursuing reform, because the Word would do much of the work:

The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.

Luther’s preservative social ethics should be nuanced, however. The Saxon Luther also reflected more modern conceptions of the relationship between the church and the prince than we have yet discussed. In the territory of Saxony, where the nobility did not have the kind of authority or networks known in other parts of Germany, and where mining and social mobility were beacons of a new kind of world dawning, Luther resisted some of the Thomist assumptions concerning nature and grace. During his studies in Erfurt he found encouragement in the writings of William of Ockham, who had more radically contrasted the secular and the spiritual. Indeed, Luther’s recovery of the doctrine of justification through faith made grace not a top-up to whatever was latent in nature (a more Thomist assumption), but a powerful intrusion into the natural order as a gift from God, undeserved and free. From Romans 1, Luther came to see righteousness not as God’s steady desire to punish the wicked, but as divine apocalyptic inbreaking to grant pardon for the wicked. Righteousness was now seen not as a ‘demand but a donation’, as Vanhoozer so eloquently states (Biblical Authority after Babel, 2016, 38). Some dynamism was being introduced by Luther into stable conceptions of the relationship between the believer and the church, as well as between the church and state, even though church and state still had a common responsibility in society.

Other new approaches to authority gradually took root in Luther’s world. Formerly, the relational exchange of protection for service, the heart of feudal social and economic arrangements, had been vulnerable to misuse through monopolistic claims to power over serfs. Through the invention of the printing press and the growing use of printed contracts, decentralised and localised power relationships of the late medieval world were replaced by a new kind of centralised authority, which was less organic but more accountable. Alongside this technological development, Luther’s growing appreciation of Ockhamist thought encouraged anti-feudal sentiments, for Ockham’s philosophy promoted the value of contracts and limited the reach of the power of the nobility through appeal to standards of justice which natural law found difficult to accommodate.

Luther’s social ethics cannot be reduced to reactionary defence of the princes. In response to social unrest in 1525, Luther had written a letter to the lords, entitled Admonition to Peace, and had personally attempted to mediate the conflict between landholders and their serfs through appeal to laws of the land. His tract of the same year, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants, in which violence was encouraged, was originally an addendum to the primacy of peace-making in the Admonition, but was frequently distributed separate from it, giving an impression of a leader resorting happily to violence. In the context of the apocalyptic tone of Müntzer’s uprisings, Luther’s language does appear a little less outrageous. There are Two Kingdoms in his theorising, but this does not exempt either from accountability.

Fighting on two fronts, Luther wanted to constrain the exercise of authority by prince and pope, but not to encourage the exercise of freedom by radicals and antinomians who would bring the reform into disrepute and take authority into their own hands - an authority which, in Luther’s estimation, was not rightly theirs to prosecute. However, Luther’s relational or pastoral frame of reference was not suited to larger political or social disturbances and questions. With such salvation-driven categories at the forefront of his mind, his agenda was to show that the line between the secular and the spiritual was not to be drawn between institutions, but through the human heart. His agenda was not to encourage pietistic disconnection between church and state, but to help believers come to terms with the very present reality of conflict between church and state that they experienced in their own lives as protesting Christians. His Two Kingdoms Theory may be less useful in our own day to treat political concerns, but that might be a refreshing pushback to the notion that he lent his support to absolutising the state, giving rise to the Realpolitik of Bismarck or the brutality of National Socialism. He neither invented the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms nor intended for his treatment of it to encourage retreat from social engagement. His goal was more modest: to empower the laity to continue to read their Bibles in peace. That is a legacy worth celebrating.

Rhys Bezzant teaches Church History at Ridley College, where he also leads the Jonathan Edwards Center which promotes the texts and teachings of evangelical history. He has just completed a translation of a biography of Luther by the Tübingen scholar Volker Leppin, entitled Martin Luther: A Medieval Life, to be published by Baker Academic later in 2017.

This is an article from the forthcoming Zadok Perspectives: Protestantism, Protest and Progress? The Reformation at 500, 134, Autumn 2017, pp.6-7.


Will Jones
March 6, 2017, 8:22PM
Interesting analysis. I think it slightly misrepresents the medieval view since it suggests they didn't have a concept of the separation of church and state or secular and spiritual. But the distinction between secular/temporal power and spiritual/ecclesiastical power was a standard element of medieval political thought and practice, reflected in the distinction between princes and bishops and their jurisdictions. For instance, marriage and education were understood to be spiritual and under church jurisdiction.

The article also seems not to distinguish adequately between Luther's intentions and the implications and meaning of his teaching. He may not have intended all the ways in which his ideas were used, but that doesn't mean they didn't suggest or imply them.

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