David VanDrunen develops Two Kingdoms Theology through church history in his book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. I quoted earlier from VanDrunen when he identified two important themes of commonality with the world and antithesis against the world in a 2nd century letter called the Epistle to Diognetus.
Moving forward, VanDrunen summarizes Martin Luther’s discussion of the Two Kingdoms:
Early in this treatise [“Temporal Authority”], Luther asserts that temporal authority, with its law and sword, exist by God’s ordinance. Citing Genesis 4:14-15 and 9:6, he says that they have thus existed since the beginning of the world and have been confirmed by the law of Moses, John the Baptist, and Christ. Luther then divides the human race into two classes, those belonging to the kingdom of God (true believers) and those belonging to the kingdom of the world. The former, he explains, need neither law nor sword, but the latter do and are under their authority. In light of this, God has established two governments in order to complement these two kingdoms. The purpose of the spiritual government is for the Holy Spirit to produce righteous Christians under the rule of Christ and the purpose of the temporal government is for restraining the wicked and non-Christians by the temporal sword. The world cannot be ruled in a “Christian and evangelical manner” since most people are not real Christians and a common Christian government is therefore impossible. Thus, Luther states that “one must carefully distinguish between these two governments” and yet affirm the existence of both, one to produce righteousness and the other to secure “external peace and prevent evil deeds.” In fact, Luther says, “Christ’s government does not extend over all men; Christians are always a minority in the midst of non-Christians.”
With these ideas in hand, Luther propounded a novel reading of the Sermon on the Mount’s exhortations to shun violence and retaliation. In opposition especially to those who proposed that Christ commanded these things not to all Christians but only as counsel to those who wished to be perfect, Luther urges that these commands apply to all Christians, though only to Christians. Christ commands Christians refrain from violence because the sword has no place in Christ’s kingdom. Non-Christians, on the other hand, are “under another government” and by external constraint are “compelled to keep the peace and do what is good.” Christ sanctioned the sword, but he made no use of it and rules by his Spirit alone, the sword serving “no purpose in his kingdom….” Thus, Christians are under a spiritual government that does not bear the sword–hence the commands of the Sermon on the Mount–and non-Christians are under a temporal government that indeed uses the sword to keep order among the wicked. For Luther, the Sermon on the Mount was not intended for some Christians who wished to attain a higher righteousness, but was the norm for all Christians, all of whom are under Christ’s spiritual government.
Luther’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount through the two governments paradigm, however, did not separate Christians entirely from use of the sword or make political life irrelevant to them. He goes on to explain that though Chistians have no use of the law or sword among themselves, they submit to its rule and even do all that they can to help the civil authorities, in order to be of service and benefit to others. In fact, he explains, “If he did not so serve he would be acting not as a Christian but even contrary to love….”
This counter-intuitive conclusion leads Luther to encourage Christians to seek out temporal occupations, even those that require using the sword: “If you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords, or princes, and you find that you are qualified, you should offer your services and seek the position….” Luther reconciles these seemingly contrary injunctions by emphasizing that Christians should never take up these tasks for the purpose of their own vengeance, but only for the safety and peace of their neighbors. And so, when a matter arises concerning themselves, Christians live according to Christ’s spiritual government, “gladly turning the other cheek and letting the cloak go with the coat when the matter concerned you and your cause.” This, claims Luther, brings harmony to the Christian’s life in both kingdoms: “at one and the same time you satisfy God’s kingdom inwardly and the kingdom of the world outwardly.” Shortly thereafter, Luther announces the final reconciliation of life in the two kingdoms: “No Christian shall wield or invoke the sword for himself and his cause. In behalf of another, however, he may and should wield it and invoke it to restrain wickedness and to defend godliness.”
(Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, p. 56-58)
Whether or not we agree with Luther’s precise understanding of the Two Kingdoms, he raises very important questions that we need to work through:
- What really can we expect from those who have not yet been brought to life through the gospel of Jesus Christ? In other words, is it actually possible to redeem culture? To what extent is it possible even to reform culture?
- Do we need to upgrade our view of Christ’s reign over his church? In particular, do we need to move beyond seeing the church merely as a social club and actually as the place where Jesus Christ reigns by his Word (which, interestingly enough, is called the sword of his Spirit in Ephesians 6)? How should that change how we “do church”?
- Is the motivation of the “safety and peace” of our neighbors the entire motivation for cultural pursuits–even those where Christians take up the state’s sword–or are there further motivations? I’m personally still trying to get my head around the motivation for cultural pursuits, as I wrote about here.
Thoughts on what Luther says here?