The Two Kingdoms Doctrine Gone Awry: The Case of Paul Althaus

One of the most prominent German theologians who used the two kingdoms doctrine to justify the church’s support for Hitler was Paul Althaus. Althaus was a  leading critic of the Barmen Declaration because he believed that it rejected the orthodox Christian teaching on general revelation. He publicly supported the Nazi regime at least through 1937, at which point he became silent. Though he never turned publicly against Hitler, in private comments during the war he condemned Germany’s genocide of the Jews. Later he admitted that Germany had fallen under the judgment of God.

As most scholars recognize, Althaus significantly revised Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine in order to justify the church’s support for Hitler. The orthodox two kingdoms doctrine had declared that the state is called to use its authority to preserve basic justice and to uphold the created order, including the institutions of family and church. When the volkisch movement (ethnic and cultural German nationalism) began to gain influence during the early 20th Century, a 1905 regional synod of Protestant pastors declared, on the basis of the two kingdoms doctrine, that the church may not place its authority behind such ideas.

The pastor … has to place himself above nationalities. He is not a politician but a pastor of souls. His task is neither Germanization or Polandization, but the faithful proclamation of the gospel, in which he must as far as possible do justice to each nationality. (Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 100)

This statement approximated the appropriate interpretation of a political movement from the perspective of the classic two kingdoms doctrine: healthy distance from a political trend, accompanied by a clear affirmation of the truth of the Word of God in relation to that political trend.

Based on his experience of the volkisch movement during World War I, which had a radical impact on him, Althaus began to challenge the statement of the 1905 synod in lectures during 1916. He argued that the church could no longer be indifferent to the volkisch question because such neutrality was damaging the relationship between German pastors and their communities. In 1919 Althaus called the church publicly to reject the Treaty of Versailles. In the following years he revised the two kingdoms doctrine so as to make it conducive of church support for the great political movement of the day.

Althaus revised the two kingdoms doctrine in two crucial ways. First he argued that the Volk (ethnic and national culture) is a law of God, part of the created order, revealed in history. Indeed, Althaus insisted that the Volk was the primary law of God for modern Germany, the loyalty that trumped all other earthly loyalties.  As he put it in a lecture of 1937,

The belief that God has created me includes also my Volk. Whatever I am and have, God has given me out of the wellspring of my Volk: the inheritance of blood, the corporeality, the soul, the spirit. God has determined my life from its outermost to its innermost elements through my Volk, through its blood, through its spiritual style, which above all endows and stamps me in the language, and through its history… The special style of a Volk is his creation, and as such it is for us holy…. We are unconditionally bound to faithfulness, to responsibility, so that the life of the Volk as it has come down to us not be contaminated or weakened through our fault. (Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler, 103)

Second, Althaus carefully revised Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine in order to justify a greater political role on the part of the church, in support of the Volk. As he argued in 1935,

As a Christian church we bestow no political report card. But in knowledge of the mandate of the state, we may express our thanks to God and our joyful preparedness when we see a state which after a time of depletion and paralysis has broken through to a new knowledge of sovereign authority, of service to the life of the Volk, of responsibility for the freedom, legitimacy, and justice of volkisch existence…. We Christians know ourselves bound by God’s will to the promotion of National Socialism. (Ericksen, 86)

Althaus feared that the classic Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine rendered the church too passive in the context of the political malaise of the Weimar years. That the Weimar government was so contrary to God’s will, and that the volkisch political movements were in accord with that will, was obvious to him. He therefore argued that while Paul and Luther may not have been aware of the volkisch principle, it was now the task of theologians to revise the relation of church and state in its light. A crucial part of the church’s responsibility was to provide the Volk with leadership, organization, education, and spiritual consciousness, in close cooperation with the state. In taking this position, Robert P. Ericksen argues, Althaus turned the classic Lutheran view of the state on its head.

Althaus insisted that a biblical antisemitism was compatible with this new Christian mission. True, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female. Christians must therefore treat the Jewish Volk in accord with love. But the church has always recognized distinctions in terms of male and female, and therefore there is nothing inconsistent with the gospel about recognizing distinctions of race as well, while at the same time affirming equality in Christ.

Like many German Christians, Althaus came to see that Nazi antisemitism went far beyond the sort of “biblical antisemitism” he thought was appropriate. But by that point it was too late. The politicization of the church in its seduction by the volkisch movement, which entailed the rejection of the orthodox Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, rendered the church incapable of maintaining its prophetic perspective towards the state until it was too late.

It’s important to emphasize that it was by revising the two kingdoms doctrine so as to enable the church to take a position on the most important political movement of the day that Althaus and others made the church vulnerable to this politicization. Despite the fears of its critics, it is precisely because the two kingdoms doctrine distinguishes the nature and mission of the church from that of the state that the church can maintain a prophetic stance towards the state. This is why Barth’s Barmen Declaration remains a fundamentally two kingdoms document.

To be sure, two kingdoms advocates should not be smug, as some contemporary Christians appear genuinely to believe that the doctrine requires pastors to be silent on any matter that has been deemed by others to be political. It is urgent that we emphasize that the church must preach the Word of God in all faithfulness regardless of what its critics may say. But that was not Althaus’s mistake. Althaus’s mistake was to believe that the church had to get more involved in politics. And it was by getting more involved that the church surrendered its allegiance to Christ.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on March 4, 2013, in Natural Law, Racism, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Two Kingdoms Doctrine Gone Awry: The Case of Paul Althaus.

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