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

I just got in my copy of William J. Wright’s Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms.  It looks to be quite valuable, and my plan is to blog a sort of summary and review of the book.  Wright is going to argue that Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms has been misunderstood in recent days, and he will seek to explain the true doctrine.

This is particularly relevant for my ecclesiastical community, because recently two reactions to Martin Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms have come to prominence.

The first reaction is that Luther’s view is uniquely Lutheran, denying any distinctively “Christian” or “biblical” imperative in the political realm.  That realm is the kingdom of man, which knows Jesus Christ as its creator, but not its redeemer.  This realm also lacks any unique moral or ethical character and is therefore properly “secular” in the modern sense.  The Reformed, it is said, took a different track, emphasizing the kingship of Christ in the public sphere.  Modern day Calvinists, therefore, ought to eschew the “Lutheran” doctrine of the two kingdoms.

The second reaction agrees with the first’s positive description of Luther’s doctrine, but denies that it was uniquely Lutheran.  Calvin held to it as well, this group says, and it is therefore genuinely “Reformed” to defend a neutral public realm, free from any distinctive “Christian” or “Biblical” imperatives.  More recent proponents of the “transformation” of the public realm are not traditional, but rather “neo-Calvinistic.”

It has been my view, for some time now, that both of these reactions are incorrect.  The first indeed misses that Calvin held to a doctrine of the two kingdoms, based on the common law of nations, but the second misunderstands what Luther taught.  Both reactions miss what the doctrine of two kingdoms was all about.  Wright’s book ought to be a helpful tool in mediating this disagreement.

It is, of course, valuable in its own right as well, and my interest in historical theology compels me to give an accurate summary of Wright’s work itself.  I will begin with his introduction.

Wright begins by noting that Luther received his intellectual formation from Renaissance humanism.  Lorenzo Valla, perhaps more than any other, shaped his thought in the early days.  Skepticism, rightly understood, caused Luther to intensely study source materials, and by use of this humanist skepticism, Luther was forced to rely on the Word of God for certainty. It is in this context where the “two kingdoms” take on their respective roles.

Luther’s two kingdoms were the eternal and the temporal.  (Calvin’s were the same.)  At times the language of visible and invisible is used, but the distinction is ultimately between God and man, between heavenly things and earthly things.  “This view of the two kingdoms,” Wright says, “was very different from the Platonic and Neoplatonic ideas about reality…” (13).  Rather than divide reality between body and mind, Luther “from the start… counted everything that concerned body and mind as the concern of the letter or law, while the gospel concerned heavenly and spiritual things” (13-14).  Wright repeats for good measure:

One should also emphasize, from the start, that Luther’s view of the two kingdoms was distinguished from all Platonic or Neoplatonic systems of thought by the fact that he understood the mind or intellect (that is the reasoning power of people) to belong to the flesh, that is, the kingdom of the world.  The Neoplatonic dichotomy was that of things or copies versus ideas or forms and the ideas were, simultaneously, an objective reality outside the material world and an innate reality within the human mind.  In contrast to the Neoplatonists, Luther understood God’s two kingdoms as two separate, alien realities, which shared only the fact that God governed them.

p 14

Wright also disputes that Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms was a specifically “political” construct.  It not really a sacred vs. secular conflict (in the modern sense), much less is it an early articulation of the separation of church and state.  Rather, the two kingdoms included all of life.  Wright states, “In essence, it is my contention that the existence of God’s two kingdoms was a Christian reality for Luther.  The concept represented Luther’s Reformation worldview or Weltanschauung (15).”


7 thoughts on “Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms- A Review (Intro)

  1. Steve, this looks really interesting. But you mention something that leads me to ask: Do you know of any sources comparing/contrasting scholasticism to humanism at the time of the Reformation and after?

  2. I don’t know anything that sets out to just do that, but I would imagine Coppelston would be a good resource, and I’m quite sure Heiko Oberman’s various works on Luther and on the Reformation spend some time on this.

    It might also be worthwhile to check out some books on Valla and Erasmus.

  3. Mark,

    Eric Parker has mentioned some books on that subject on his blog, but other than the fact that some of them have to do with a man named “Sturm,” I don’t know which posts offhand. Alas, books like that are usually extremely expensive.

  4. Not free, but unavoidable:
    1. Erika Rummel, ed., Biblical humanism and scholasticism in the age of Erasmus (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

    2. Erika Rummel, The Humanist-Scholastic Debate in the Renaissance & Reformation (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995).

    3. J. H. Overfield, Humanism and scholasticism in late medieval Germany (Princeton University Press, 1984).

    4. Charles G. Nauert, “Humanism as Method: Roots of Conflict with the Scholastics,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 29, no. 2 (Summer 1998): 427-438.

    5. Charles G. Nauert, “The Clash of Humanists and Scholastics: An Approach to Pre-Reformation Controversies,” Sixteenth Century Journal 4, no. 1 (1973): 1-18.

  5. Steven,

    Wright is excellent, and your summary of him excellent.

    Mark, Erika Rummel’s book on humanism and scholasticism is still good, and I think can be found pretty easily.


  6. Pingback: Wedgeworth Reviews Wright on Luther | RearViewMirror

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