Does the Two Kingdoms Doctrine Require the Church to Be Silent on Politics?

There is a distorted version of the two kingdoms doctrine out there that claims that if an issue is political, the church should not address it. The separation between the kingdom of God and earthly politics is absolute. God has given authority over the latter to the state, and the church should not question it.

Now I should say up front that I’m not aware of any major theologian who has actually advocated this version of the two kingdoms doctrine, except perhaps Emmanuel Hirsch. Luther clearly believed that a prince has the obligation to act justly and to protect the preaching of the gospel against fiendish opponents like the pope. He did not hesitate to preach the law or the gospel to earthly magistrates, nor did he hesitate to draw specific conclusions about the implications of the law and the gospel for the way in which those magistrates were to rule. And later Lutheran theologians and jurists if anything only tightened the relationship between state and church. The state was to rule according to God’s law, establishing and protecting the true church, guided by the instruction of pastors.

Many modern two kingdoms advocates, of course, challenge the old assumptions about the necessary ties between church and state, and about the responsibility of the state to enforce the first table of the law (i.e., prohibitions against idolatry, false teaching, blasphemy, etc.). But they do not challenge the idea that the church should preach the whole counsel of God – even when that counsel pertains to politics – so much as they challenge old assumptions about what Scripture actually says about politics. The central factor underlying this shift in emphasis is a clearer understanding of the differences between modern political states and Old Testament Israel. If the present form of Israel and the Davidic kingdom is the kingdom of Christ, manifest in the body of Christ (i.e., the church), then we should not be too hasty in drawing direct lines between the Old Testament civil law and modern politics.

That said, it is important to distinguish between two lines of argument, one legitimate, the other problematic. According to the first, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church has to distinguish between God’s moral law and its application in civil law. For instance, the church should proclaim that the state must protect innocent life, but the church has no right to advocate its own ideas about how to organize a police force, or about how to try and punish murderers. The church must call the state to govern consistent with God’s moral law (and in fulfillment of its obligation to protect the weak), but it may not dictate to the state the myriad of ways in which it might act consistent with that law. This distinction is absolutely necessary if the church is to avoid politicization and preserve its moral authority.

According to the second line of argument, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church cannot speak on matters that are politically controversial. According to this mindset, the church might ordinarily have the right to proclaim that the state should protect the life of the unborn, or that it should prevent a person from violently destroying another person’s property, but in the context of national debates over abortion (i.e., the United States in 2013) or state authorized pogroms against Jews designed for the good of Volk and Fatherland (i.e., Nazi Germany in 1938), the church should remain silent. One would not want to alienate people from the gospel, or to give the wrong impression about one’s motives.

Now I’m sure that there are some readers who will think that I have just violated Godwin’s Law, the law which warns against bringing up the Nazis in an ethical, political, or theological debate. Some people chided me in recent weeks for my bringing up the Nazis and the Holocaust on this blog at all. And to be sure, we should be very, very careful about how we use such history, or the lessons we attempt to draw from it.

But this history is relevant here for a very important reason. The German church often attempted to justify its silence before Hitler precisely on the basis of its two kingdoms doctrine. Anyone arguing that the church should maintain the two kingdoms doctrine needs to explain why this happened and why it was wrong. As a scholar writing my dissertation on the two kingdoms doctrine and associate teaching a course on the Holocaust, I have particular reasons to address the issue. In the next few weeks, therefore, you should expect more articles from me wrestling with the use of the two kingdoms under Hitler. If you don’t like them, you are warned. You don’t have to read them.

For now I want simply to emphasize that the two kingdoms doctrine teaches not that the church should avoid matters of public or political controversy, but that the church should limit its proclamation to what the word of God actually teaches. The two kingdoms doctrine warns not against the church speaking about politics, but against the church moving beyond the word in the name of politics. And I want to emphasize that those who say the church should refrain from addressing any issue that has been deemed by others to be political are not freeing the church from politicization. On the contrary, they are subjecting it to the very politicization they claim to fear. For if the church’s proclamation of God’s word can be muzzled by a regime or a democratic constituency, the church can be manipulated by that constituency. The kingdom of Christ has been made subject to the political kingdom.

Calvin warns repeatedly against this mindset in his commentaries on the prophets. Here I simply want to quote from his commentary on Micah:

Since then the prophets were the organs of the Holy Spirit, whoever attempted to silence them usurped to himself an authority over God himself, and in a manner tried to make captive his Spirit. For what power can belong to the Spirit, except he be at liberty to reprove the vices of men, and condemn whatever is opposed to God’s justice? When this is taken away, there is no more any jurisdiction left to the Holy Spirit. (Commentary on Micah 2:7)

We now see that the word of God is not bound, but that it puts forth its power against the highest as well as the lowest; for it is the Spirit’s office to arraign the whole world, and not a part only. ‘When the Spirit shall come,’ says Christ, ‘it will convince the world.’ He speaks not there of the common people only, but of the whole world, of which princes and magistrates form a prominent part. Let us then know, that though we ought to show respect to judges (as the Lord has honored them with dignified titles, calling them his vicegerents and also gods), yet the mouths of prophets ought not to be closed; but they ought, without making any difference, to correct whatever is deserving of reproof, and not to spare even the chief men themselves. (Commentary on Micah 3:10)

If the two kingdoms are genuinely to be distinguished, the ministers of Christ must be free to proclaim his word.

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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 12, 2013, in Abortion, Calvin, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Does the Two Kingdoms Doctrine Require the Church to Be Silent on Politics?.

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