Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Chapter 4)

The fourth chapter of William J. Wright’s Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms attempts to lay out the doctrine in its fullest.  As Wright has said earlier, this is not simply a political doctrine, nor is it one aspect of Luther’s theology, but rather it sits under all of Luther’s thought.  “Luther’s understanding of God’s two kingdoms represented his basic premise about the nature of reality.  In short, it was his Christian worldview” (114).  Wright states that the two kingdoms were employed by Luther to explain creation, imago dei, Christology, grace, the sacraments, and the proper exegesis of the Old and New Testaments.  The two kingdoms even provide the foundation for Luther’s distinction between active and passive righteousness and the law and gospel.

It is crucial that Luther’s distinction be given full treatment.  The two kingdoms were sometimes referred to as the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man or the Kingdom of Satan.  This is not the best nomenclature, however, because both kingdoms truly belong to God and are ordered by his divine laws, whether they be revealed biblical laws or the natural law.  There is ultimately only one king.  More precise is the language of “inner” and “outer” or “eternal” and “temporal.”  Wright states, “The kingdom of the world and all material, temporal things were part of the visible dimension of man’s existence, while the kingdom of Chirst and spiritual matters were part of the invisible dimension” (115).

The two kingdoms are not the Church and the State. Continue reading

Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Chapter 3)

Wright’s third chapter moves to the Northern humanists.  They were inspired by both Southern schools of humanism, the rhetorical and mystical.  Wright briefly summarizes Rudolph Agricola, noting that he was the first to introduce the “loci” method of theological writing.  Agricola continued Valla’s emphasis on rhetoric, rejecting assertions of truth in favor of persuasion of the heart.  Wright also mentions that the humanist-emphasis on history and philology lead to them rediscovering “the views of Christian antiquity in the works of the Greek Fathers and the Greek New Testament” (83).

Wright then moves to Erasmus of Rotterdam.  Erasmus saw himself as following ancients like Clement of Alexandria, Jerome, and Origen.  Wright lists Erasmus’ humanist distinctives involving skepticism:

Erasmus doubted the ability of reason to know reality and religious truths with any certainty.  He demonstrated the skeptical penchant for severely questioning all dogma.  He tended to doubt that Christian spiritual realities could be certainly known.  Hence, the prince of the humanists sought some external source of verification or probability in attempting to understand even the Scriptures, which he thought often obscure or ambiguous.  This was the origin of his emphasis of developing a consensus of the church over time, from the days of the church fathers to the present.

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Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Chapter 2)

The second chapter of William Wright’s book is really fine stuff. He explains the philosophical movements of the early Italian Renaissance, particularly focusing on the role of skepticism in humanism. Wright briefly explains the role of William of Ockham in leading up to these intellectual movements and then goes on to investigate in more detail the works of Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, and the Neo-Platonists: Ficino, Pico, and Giles of Viterbo. Brief mention is also made of other critics. The most significant figure for Luther, according to Wright, is clearly that of Lorenzo Valla and his brand of humanism.

Wright begins with Ockham, an important precursor to the Renaissance and humanist thinkers. Ockham critiqued the Realists, particularly taking issue with abstractions and the multiplication of terms. Wright points out that Ockham “reduced the number of Aristotelian categories from ten to two, retaining only substance and quality” (47). Yet Ockham was not a skeptic. Even though his emphasis on will seemed to undermine the intellectual status quo, Ockham still intended on resolving problems.

The intellectual skepticism which characterized the Renaissance humanists owed its inspiration to a more global picture. According to Wright, the larger academic culture was quite capable of producing new doubt:

One may point to several other sources of the general threat to certainty at the onset of the sixteenth century. Increasing trade and continuing warfare with the Moslems introduced competitive religious and cultural ideas. The Portuguese beginnings of European exploration and expansion along the coast of Africa during the mid-to late fifteenth century raised doubts about the authority of Aristotle and other ancient authorities with regard to the nature of humankind and what constituted human society. Accounts of the Spanish explorations in the New World fed a growing curiosity in Europe. Astronomical observations and theorizing raised questions about the accuracy of the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic understanding of the universe (Weltbild) and cosmology. The recovery and translation of early manuscripts brought forgotten ideas back to the forefront and sharpened the differences between ancient authorities. All of this information, both new and old, was widely disseminated by the newly developed printing press.

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Skepticism was thus perfectly understandable, as the vast amount of that which we did not know became apparent. The humanists would use this in their critiques against traditional human knowledge, but as Wright repeatedly points out, they did not use this skepticism against religion. To the contrary, religion was many times the great antidote to this situation. Continue reading

Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Chapter 1)

In the first chapter of William Wright’s Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms, we are given a summary of various readers of Luther. The wide-spread misunderstanding of Luther’s teaching on the two kingdoms can be explained, according to Wright, by a series of commentators who continue to develop the erroneous position. Each building on prior secondary sources, the later readers of Martin Luther found themselves quite removed from his original position.

Wright begins with 19th century Lutheran, Ernst Luthardt. According to Wright, Luthardt is one of the first Luther-commentators to promote the idea of autonomy in the civil sphere. Wright states:

The natural world, in this case, would be autonomous or free of God’s law, so that people could make their own rules as they go about their lives and work. Moreover, this talk of spiritual life and Luthardt’s general emphasis on morality seem to demonstrate charges that Luthardt reduced Christianity to a matter of mentality or Gesinnung, to the interior of the Christian. This would clearly be contrary to Luther’s teaching.


Wright then goes on to show that this is actually an inaccurate reading of Luthardt. Due to the recent misuse of traditional terms like “natural law” and “reason,” readers are easily confused when they read Luthardt. According to Wright, “Luthardt declared that even though these institutions were under reason, they ‘are not really profane, but God’s endowment, order, and will, and God is present in the same’” (22). Wright adds, “The natural law, which humankind knows through reason, was God-ordained too.”

So while many modern readers might be tempted to lay the blame of the modern “two-kingdoms” view on Luthardt, this is actually not the case. Of course, this is not to say that Luthardt plays no role in the development of the modern doctrine. In fact, Wright goes on to show that Luthardt was influential on the next major thinker in this line of thought, Ernst Troeltsch. Continue reading