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.
Wright identifies Troeltsch as the primary culprit for the wide-spread misreading of Luther’s position on the two kingdoms. Wright states:
In his Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, Troeltsch argued that, with his teaching about the two kingdoms, Luther had promoted a dual morality for Christians; that is, one Christian moral law over against a worldly moral code under autonomous reason. According to Troeltsch, in Luther’s teaching, the Decalogue and the natural law were opposed to one other.
Wright goes on to say:
Troeltsch spoke of the “autonomy of the various zones of value” (Wertgebiete). Hence, many scholars believe that he was responsible for promoting the idea that ethical values develop out of unique historical experiences; that is, the are autonomously determined in their own spheres (the economic sphere, for example). Of course, this was most certainly not a view presented by Luther in the sixteenth-century.
Wright finds that Troeltsch promotes a Machiavellian Luther. He does not go so far as to sanction an immoral state, and Troeltsch also noted that “reason” and “natural law” are divine institutions. Nevertheless, Wright believes that Troeltsch “had opened a door that would be difficult to close” (28). Wright sees the misreadings of Luther that will appear in the works of Weber and Niebuhr both directly stemming from Troeltsch. Indeed, it would be Niebuhr’s famous Christ and Culture that most widely promoted this new misreading of Luther’s view.
The next major epoch in misunderstanding Luther comes, according to Wright, with the rise of German National Socialism and the opposition to it, lead primarily by Karl Barth. Many German Christians used the concept of Luther’s two kingdoms as a way to either support or compromise with the rise of Nazism. In combating Nazism, Karl Barth went all the way to the root, as he saw it, rejecting the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Wright also points out that Barth rejected the distinction between law and gospel and natural law. In their place, Barth promoted what he called, “the Lordship of Christ.” This is summed up in Barth’s own words:
The church must stand for social justice in the political sphere and in choosing between the various socialistic possibilities (social-liberalism? co-operativism? Syndicalism? free trade? moderate or radical Marxism?) it will always choose the movement from which it can expect the greatest measure of social justice (leaving all other considerations on one side).
Though hardly uncontroversial in his own right, Karl Barth was another figure who was able to widely spread a false view of Luther’s teaching on the two kingdoms. Even many non-Barthians (indeed anti-Barthians) in the Reformed churches promote a notion of “the Lordship of Christ” over and against the “Lutheran” position. While disagreeing with much of Barth’s theology, the majority of Reformed thinkers accepted his characterization of Lutheranism.
Wright doesn’t fail to mention more recent voices of protest against the false reading of Luther. He lists many theologians who are working to correct our understanding of Luther’s two kingdoms. Notable among these names are: Bornkamm, Ebeling, Gloege, Gustav Wingren, Gustav Tornvall, Edward Cranz, Brian Gerrish, Andreas Pawlus, and Rudger Gebhardt. Most recently, Wright believes that Robert Kolb and Charles Arands’ book, The Genius of Luther’s Theology, accurately presents Luther’s views. They say:
To use Luther’s language, Christians live in two worlds, one heavenly and the other earthly. Into these we place the two kinds of righteousness, which are distinct and separate from each other.
Wright concludes his chapter in saying:
They warned the reader that it would be a mistake to think of these two worlds as spheres of sacred matters versus natural or secular ones, which was what Luther accused the monastic clergy and Anabaptists of his day of doing. Such a false distinction might tempt some to adopt either a hierarchical understanding in which the world (creation) would be unimportant, or the world would be autonomous of the laws of God. The present study is dedicated to preventing both of these false understanding of Luther’s historical teaching.