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. They are also not the righteous things and the unrighteous things.  In fact, what we regularly call “the Church” itself belongs to both kingdoms, with the visible church dwelling in the kingdom of this world and the invisible church dwelling in the eternal kingdom.  Law, even when preached in the church, was always temporal and external.  Gospel, even when embodied in the individual Christian’s vocation, was always eternal and inner.  These two kingdoms are not opposed to one another, according to Luther, but they are different in form and goal.

Wright moves on in this chapter to discuss four different aspects of Luther’s thought.  He begins with the “early Luther” on the two kingdoms.  He then moves on to later refinements.  Thirdly, Wright addresses the “three hierarchies” and how they relate to all of creation.  Finally, the question of skepticism and certainty is set within the context of Luther’s two kingdoms.

The early thought of Martin Luther divided the two kingdoms into the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.  The kingdom of God was inner and spiritual, characterized by freedom, harmony, love, truth and righteousness.  Satan’s kingdom, on the other hand, was known by force, violence, temptation; in other words, Satan’s kingdom was equivalent with all of the temptations of the flesh.  Wright notes that:

Luther would explain that God ruled the invisible kingdom with His Word through faith and that God’s realm was not comprehensible through human reason.  Moreover, in the worldly kingdom, Luther later distinguished three orders of rule comprised of human institutions: the orders of daily life (home and livlihood), the state, and the church.

p 117

This early position appears in On the Freedom of the Christian Man, and it is the one most commonly articulated.  If this is all that one said about Luther’s thought, it would seem to appear quite different from the historical reality of the Reformation.  However, there is much more to the story, and Luther continued to work out his thought.  The worldly kingdom was a valid kingdom, and as Luther continued, the Christian had a genuine life of virtue and duty to live in that kingdom as well as the spiritual kingdom.

In Luther’s Genesis commentary, “the Reformer revealed how the distinction between the two kingdoms was basic to his understanding of God’s creation of man” (118).  The kingdom of the world is not merely a product of sin, but rather was a creation ordinance.  Luther writes:

Man was created for his physical life in such a way that he was nevertheless made according to the image and likeness of God– this is an indication of another and better life than the physical… Thus Adam had a two-fold life: a physical one and an immortal one.

p 119

Here we see something of crucial importance: the two kingdoms are not only sin vs. righteousness or God vs. Satan.  They are more basic than soteriology, even.  They represent the reality of the original creation.  For Luther, the state was “instituted only after sin” (Melanchthon held a different view- SW), but “the household institutions came into existence prior to that with the creation of Eve, while the church had existed even earlier” (119).  The kingdom of this world predates the Fall.

After the Fall, the situation became more complicated.  The kingdom of this world was given over to sin in a powerful way, and God’s dealing with sin involved a complex approach.  For Luther, “the purpose of the Mosaic Law was to reveal sin in preparation for the coming of Christ” (120).  It was a “middle” or “mixed” kingdom, as it was characterized by external laws.  “Hence, Luther referred to the Mosaic arrangement as one ‘between’ the two kingdoms, ‘half spiritual and half temporal.’  But this kind of ‘external rule’ was abrogated when Christ came” (120).

Luther’s view of the Mosaic Covenant was something of a “double” view, as he admitted that it was “corporeal, established with government and ceremonies” (121).  In other words, the Mosaic covenant was a worldly kingdom as well as a spiritual one.  The New Covenant was different:

Christ’s kingdom, Luther stated, was the kingdom of heaven and eternal life.  Moreover, it was a kingdom of truth, peace, joy, righteousness, safety, salvation, and everything good.  Though it was extended in the world, Christ’s kingdom did not belong to this world, for it preceded the world and was eternal.  Even more distinguishing, Luther noted that the governing of Christ’s kingdom was maintained by the Word, faith, and the Holy Spirit.  All of this contrasted with the kingdom of the world, which was governed by external force and the physical sword.

p 121

Luther also used the Pauline contrast of faith by hearing and sight.  “Luther labeled the spiritual kingdom, a ‘hearing kingdom’ [hor reich; perceived through the Word] while the kingdom of the world was a ‘seeing kingdom’ [sehe reich; perceived through the senses].”

Reason was a part of the worldly kingdom, for Luther.  It could not understand the things of the Spirit.  However, reason was perfectly appropriate for the worldly kingdom.  “It was one of the gifts that God had given to princes so that they could rule.”  “God wants men to use the light of reason and judgment or will for ordering the things of this world and for preserving honesty in outward life” (122).  Luther was very supportive of the proper ordering of the worldly kingdom, even promoting state-supported schools.  Luther’s political views were strongly authoritarian, giving the princes tremendous power.  This was appropriate, Luther believed, because of the rule of reason and nature.

The two kingdoms applied to justice and grace, as well.  “If you have sinned before man,” Luther said, “you must pay and atone for your wrongs before the judge” (124).  Luther was very critical of those who would use the gospel to eliminate civic justice, though he did encourage all Christians to allow the golden rule and law of love to inspire all of their worldly workings (141).

Wright then moves on to the “three divine orders” or the three hierarchies.  This is another layer to Luther’s thought, and it is here that most people fail to do him justice.  The three hierarchies are the church, the state, and the family/economic community, and each of them dwell in both of the two kingdoms.  As Wright says, “the Christian was two persons,” and we can extend this to the king and the clergy.  Each of the three hierarchies were doubled.

Underlying all of the kingdom of this world for Luther was nature:

In Luther’s thought, nature, or what was natural, represented the regular or quotidian means or ways that God had created to continue and maintain the physical world.  Luther described human reason and the things that people could learn with their reason and their senses as gifts that were human by nature.

p 127

Luther also believed that, “God’s law had been given to all people.”  Natural law included “both tables” of the law, and all men “knew to seek divine help and hope because God had put it ‘in the law of nature'” (128).  It was only because of sin that this was not consistently realized.  Each of the three hierarchies were expected to live by natural law, and Luther even identified this law with God’s righteousness.

Often confusing to students of the two kingdoms is how Luther is able to ask for the state to involve itself in “private” matters.  For Luther, the state was in charge of public education and charity, and he could even call upon them to reform the church.  There are two points to be made here.  Luther believed that education and public welfare were duties of the worldly kingdom, required by the law of nature.  As for the reformation of the Church, “Luther called upon the temporal authorities to interfere in the church’s business because the church was not doing all of its work.  He allowed the secular politicians to do this because they were Christians, not because of their office” (133).

That last line is worth repeating.  The secular politicians were Christians.    In their worldly duties they govern naturally (and even though nature knows both tables of the law, kings only enforce the second table by law), but in their spiritual duties, they protect the Church.  Statesmen were two people as well, and it is here that we can see the Conciliarist in Luther.  “The Church” included all Christians in all vocations, and the Christian statesmen were those Christians with the most practical power to accomplish the task of reformation.

Luther could also be quite pessimistic about the state.  “For the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name.”  He continues,” It is out of the question that there should be a common Christian government over the whole world or, indeed, over a single country or any considerable body of people, for the wicked always outnumbered the good” (136).  Luther was a strong adherent to the visible and invisible distinction within the church, and he did not equate the community of the baptized with the spiritual kingdom.  In fact, “baptism, preaching the gospel, and the Lord’s Supper were externals because it was only the Word that made them effective for salvation” (139).

The church, as two institutions in itself, had worldly duties.  “As the third divine order it also represented a human institution, with physical and temporal responsibilities” (139).  This is why the church must preach law and institute discipline, though these actions are worldly.  The church is both worldly and spiritual, as are all aspects of reality.

This point is where Luther is most commonly misunderstood.  It is all too easy to equate the two kingdoms with “the church” and “the world” (a combination of state and family), with the result looking something like the medieval hierocracy.  Yet this is exactly what Luther was combating.  Nor was he creating a modern “spirituality of the church,” because for Luther the church itself was both spiritual and earthly.  In the proper sense of the term, the church was spiritual, but this would be, of course, the invisible church.  The local congregation was always mixed and doubled, just as the family and commonwealth were mixed and doubled.  The three hierarchies each existed in both kingdoms, and in a way, we can see this construct approaching something very near the neo-Calvinist “sphere sovereignty.”  It is neither Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, nor the modern notion of “secular.”

Wright concludes with a discussion on the certainty of faith and the skepticism of this world.  This world was governed by reason, and though reason was sufficient, it could never attain total certainty.  This is why it was not to be brought into spiritual matters.  Yet in the same way, Luther did not believe that spiritual matters should be brought in to nullify worldly vocation.  While a theologian could speak authoritatively about the spiritual truths of the heavens, it was the astronomer who was responsible for explaining the physical heavens.

There is much to be said about this section of Luther’s thought.  For now I will content myself to report what it was that Luther believed.  After I complete my survey of Wright’s book, I will give my own reflections.  As can be seen already, however, I believe that Luther is misunderstood on this point by friend and foe alike.  In many ways, I believe Luther’s view is much better than many of his proponents present it, though I still have a few points of concern.

This entry was posted in godly prince, Martin Luther, two kingdoms by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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

  1. Very interesting, thanks. The bit in the middle about Luther thinking that the state was instituted because of sin but the household government was an original creation ordinance is provocative. Aristotle says that the polis (which we could probably get away with glossing as “the state” in this context) is the natural teleological fulfillment of the most basic government, household government. Luther seems to be following Augustine in saying that the state is the result of the Fall, but I’ve been wondering for some time if that’s a necessary conclusion theologically. If the state’s main concern is justice (which Aristotle says it is), then Augustine is surely right, since questions of justice wouldn’t arise before the Fall. But if the state’s main concern is more basic than justice, perhaps just overseeing the proper ordering of creation, it might not be necessary to take Augustine’s, and apparently Luther’s view of the state.

  2. Pingback: Wedgeworth Reviews Wright on Luther | RearViewMirror

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s