That Lutheran Two Kingdoms Doctrine and its Church-State Establishment

As I’ve said before on this blog, one of the oddities of contemporary discussions about the two kingdoms doctrine is the assumption that it entails the radical separation of church and state, with the latter rendered autonomous before God’s law. Even more odd is the sometimes stated claim that this radical two kingdoms doctrine is characteristic of Lutheranism and a supposed Lutheran political passivity (in contrast to an allegedly culturally transformative Calvinism).

In part this confusion goes back to early 20th Century works by prominent theologians like Ernst Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr, whose caricatures of Lutheran and Calvinist social teachings have been authoritatively rehashed in a myriad of scholarly and popular works. In part it stems from confusion about why so many Lutherans supported Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany. Calvinists like to ignore their own record of theologically justified complicity with racism and oppression in places like South Africa and the United States. They also seem oblivious to early Lutheran teachings about justified resistance to tyrants, teachings that helped spark the first great religious war after the Reformation and that by no means rendered Lutheranism politically passive during those early centuries.

In his Law and Protestantism John Witte describes at length how Lutheran jurists and theologians built on the two kingdoms theology of Martin Luther to lay the foundations for the Christian state. According to these Lutheran scholars, magistrates were to ensure material provision for the church, overseeing its care for the poor, education, teaching, discipline and ministry. Princes were to govern as Christian princes, and where they went against God’s law they were not to expect the cooperation or obedience of Christians. They were to govern society according to the Ten Commandments and the guidance of Scripture, under the careful influence of the clergy.

“For the Ten Commandments,” as Witte puts it, “were best interpreted by the Church and its theologians, not by the state and the Obrigkeit. The magistrate was thus obligated to draw on theologians and clergy in order to understand the moral and religious dimensions of the law.” As he summarizes his conclusions, “the jurists emphasized the need to establish an overtly Evangelical order of law, society, and politics in the earthly kingdom.”

Of course, many contemporary two kingdoms advocates, like their neo-Calvinist or neo-Anabaptist cousins, reject old assumptions about the obligation of civil governments to enforce true religion by punishing idolatry, false teaching, and blasphemy. As a result, they reformulate old doctrines, seeking to draw upon the wisdom of the past while avoiding its mistakes. Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen are no more interested in slavishly aping the reformers than were Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck (or is Stanley Hauerwas in imitating Menno Simons).

Some have taken to describing contemporary Reformed two kingdoms advocates according to the epithet “Radical Two Kingdoms (R2K).” Perhaps a better (and more respectful) descriptive term for such efforts would be “neo-two kingdoms.” Of course, the prefix ‘neo’ should by no means be seen as denigrating. All of us are trying to work out the implications of the Christian faith for our public life and witness, drawing on the theological insights of men who held very different assumptions and lived in very different times. We should be careful not to reduce the giants on whose shoulders we stand to mere proxies for our own cultural, political, and theological debates. We need to learn from them, not simply to use them; to build on their work in faithfulness to the demands of our own times, not nostalgically to yearn for some “golden age” of the past.


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 19, 2013, in Neo-Anabaptism, Neo-Calvinism, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on That Lutheran Two Kingdoms Doctrine and its Church-State Establishment.

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