xbn .

The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed, Pt. 2—From Luther to Calvin

(This is a continuation of a series begun last week. See Part 1 here.)

Any discussion of the doctrine of the two kingdoms must necessarily begin, historically speaking, with Luther.  Of course, the theme of “twoness” permeates the Christian political theological tradition from the beginning—“two there are by whom this world is governed”—that much seemed clear from quite early on.  But despite the antecedents we might find in Augustine’s theology of the two cities, or Gelasius’s of the two swords, Luther’s two kingdoms cannot be equated with either.  While they have more to do with medieval distinctions between the forum internum and the forum externum, they remain a distinctive and unique product of Luther’s theology, resting as they do directly on the bedrock of his doctrine of justification sola fide.

This connection with the doctrine of justification has not always been sufficiently recognized in the voluminous secondary literature, which has often, with the politicizing bias of modern thought, leapt too quickly to a reading of Luther’s kingdoms as two institutions—church and state—whose business must be strictly distinguished.  Of course, any sensitive reader of Luther has had to acknowledge that there is rather more going on in Luther’s theory than just that, but many have persisted in the conviction that something like this is envisioned. VanDrunen is among these in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, where he treats Luther’s two-kingdoms theory as a precursor of the Reformed version he will narrate (which he understands to be quite clearly a theory of these two institutions), although subsequent criticism has led him and his allies to back more and more away from the attempt to conscript Luther as a progenitor of their schema.

In his excellent recent study Martin Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, William Wright assails this tendency, calling us back to what the best scholars have always recognized—that Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms is on the contrary a comprehensive framework on which he hangs his understanding of God, man, and society, predicated on the reformer’s basic distinction between man as he is coram Deo and coram hominibus.  It flows, in short, from the doctrine of justification, with Luther’s famous concept of simul justus et peccator, his conviction that the realm of appearances is very different from the realm of spiritual realities.  Christ reigns mysteriously and invisibly over the kingdom of conscience, and no human authority may dare to interpose itself as the mediator of this rule; it is by faith alone that we participate in this kingdom, so we must not be deceived into identifying it with external works or rituals.  Perhaps better than the terminology of the “two kingdoms” then, the zwei Reiche, is that of the “two governments,” zwei Regimente.  The spiritual government is that by which Christ rules inwardly in the conscience by his Word and Spirit, the realm of grace; the temporal government (weltliche Regimente) is that by which Christ governs all external human affairs by law, in which he works not directly and immediately, but through the larvae, “masks,” of earthly governors and institutions.  Only the elect experience the former; the latter they share in common with the unregenerate.

From this it should be clear that it will not do to talk of any empirical institution (including the church) as being in the spiritual kingdom, but of course, neither will it do to suggest that any sphere of life is merely secular.  Human life is not a two-dimensional map onto which the two-kingdoms are drawn as a dividing line between spheres of jurisdiction, but rather, a two-dimensional map with which the civil kingdom is coterminous, and of which the spiritual kingdom might be said to form the third dimension—the vertical God-ward relation which animates all the rest.  This is particularly true of the church itself, which for Luther is just as subject to the paradoxical dualities of simul justus et peccator as is the justified believer.  In its hidden identity before God, the church is the “spiritual kingdom,” invisible as such to men, but taking visible form in the dynamic preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments.  In its visible, institutional dimension, as a gathered congregation that must be organized, ritualized, and governed, the church is part of the realm of what Luther calls “polity,” part of the sphere of human authority which it occupies in common with the more mundane concerns of the family and the civil magistrate.


Intimately connected with this doctrine is Luther’s teaching on Christian liberty, which from the beginning was shot through with this same twofold dialectic—“free lord of all, subject to none/dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  Inwardly before God, the Christian is not subject to the mediation of any human authority, or conscience-bound by its commands.  But by virtue of this very inward freedom, the Christian cheerfully accepts subjection to the needs of his neighbor (and, because of this, to human authorities) in the outward realm.  Outward matters were adiaphora, “things indifferent to salvation,” in which human law could command a believer’s conduct, but not his conscience.  Thus, when Luther insisted that Christian liberty did not overthrow political authority, this was not because he was carefully confining it within a sphere called “church,” outside of which the conscience could be bound, but because the two governments—over conscience and over conduct—were intrinsically incommensurable.


The foregoing may suggest that in fact, Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine was without significance for political theology—in which case, why are we talking about it?  In fact, it held profound significance for the future of Western political theory, in at least two respects.  First, by rejecting the idea that the teaching office of the church could hold any kind of political power, Luther’s doctrine upended the medieval political order and left the civil magistrate as the sole possessor of juridical authority.  Indeed, so much so that the church itself, to the extent that it must take an institutional and juridical form (as Luther soon came to recognize after his early idealism), fell under the oversight of the Christian magistrate, whose lay status was no longer any bar to a kind of leadership within the church.  Melanchthon in particular would systematize Lutheran doctrine in this direction, deeming that magistrates could wield authority and demand obedience in ecclesiastical adiaphora—questions of outward order, polity, and to some extent liturgy.

But if on one level Luther’s reform worked to concentrate power in the hands of the princes, it does not follow from this, as many popular and even scholarly narratives would have it, that it paved the way for absolutism.  On the contrary, the second effect of Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine was a decidedly liberal one, since it desacralized not merely the church hierarchy, but all human authority.  No longer the executive arm of the church’s spiritual authority, the magistrate could make no claims on conscience, no pronouncements on eternal matters.  Moreover, since there was no longer any authoritative earthly arbiter to fix the just bounds of the conscience, the Christian individual in principle could stand as judge over the commands of his magistrate, if the magistrate sought to go beyond the realm of adiaphora which limited his authority.  Naturally, there was a certain amount of tension between the magistrate’s authority to command in adiaphora and the individual conscience’s authority to determine when the boundary of adiaphora had been transgressed.  Thankfully, as we shall see, this proved to be a creative tension, stimulating Protestant political reflection for two centuries to come.


But we must move the story along, for there was more to the Reformation than Luther.  In Zwingli’s Zurich reformation, similar reforms came about, though on a rather different terminological and conceptual basis.  Neither Zwingli nor his successor or Bullinger formulated their theology in terms of “two kingdoms,” nor did they share Luther’s strict Law/Gospel dichotomy, meaning they were more willing to look to the Old Testament for guidance.  This meant that the “godly prince,” called to take charge of the Reformation of the church like a new Josiah, instructed by his “prophets,” the ministers, stood absolutely front-and-central in their concept of a reformed society.  As we have seen, though, the “godly prince,” charged with reform, was not inimical to Lutheranism, nor were the basic principles of Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine lacking among the Swiss.  For them, too, the core doctrines of justification by faith, Christian liberty, and the all-sufficiency of Scripture served to drive a sharp wedge between Christ’s spiritual government over conscience, and his rule over civil and temporal matters by human vicegerents.  The compatibility of the Lutheran and Reformed strands on these points can be seen in the thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli, an Italian reformer who spent much of his reforming career in England (on which he exerted an immense influence) and Zurich, and whose robust political theology combined the strong Hebraic themes of Zurich with Lutheran and Melanchthonian concepts of adiaphora and the two kingdoms.  If there was a difference between Luther and Zurich on these points, though, it was that the latter was not disposed to emphasize the “freedom of a Christian man” quite so much as the former.

The same must be said of Calvin and the more disciplinarist wing of the Reformed tradition which he, along with Oecolampadius and Bucer, came to represent.  These, while maintaining in principle the priesthood of all believers and the proclamatory, non-juridical essence of the church, found it necessary to give a much larger role to clerically-overseen church discipline.  This was in part a response to the demands of Anabaptists for a more visibly pure body of believers, in part the natural development of a new stress on sanctification as well as justification.  While none of these reformers denied Luther’s insistence on the necessity of distinction between these two, and the absolute priority of justification, it seemed increasingly necessary, as evangelical doctrine took hold, to demand that faith bear good fruit among those professing Protestant doctrine.  With this stress came a shifting accent in the doctrine of adiaphora: sanctification could not really be said to be “indifferent to salvation,” and so nor could anything that contributed to it.  Although Luther had never denied the “third use of the law,” it was increasingly emphasized by these other reformers, who viewed Scripture as a rule to guide Christian conduct individually and corporately.  Viewed from this perspective, the realm of adiaphora contracted, since those matters determined by Scripture could not really be considered indifferent, and the role of ministers, as teachers of Scripture, expanded to include the oversight and censure of morals.

It is not surprising then, that in Calvin, the man who most successfully integrated these new emphases into a theological synthesis and implemented them in a community’s practice, VanDrunen and others have identified the advent of a new, more institutional form of two kingdoms theology.  For Calvin and his heirs, it is contended, the “spiritual government” is now as comprehensive as Scripture itself, and being concerned with outward order and behavior, must  have outward mediators and rulers, independent from the civil government.  If so, however, the doctrine of Christian liberty would seem to be in peril, since now it would appear that the conscience is subject to human mediators within the spiritual kingdom, as VanDrunen makes clear in his exposition.


In the following segment, we shall examine Calvin a bit more closely, suggesting that he too is largely on the side of Luther, and shall turn our attention particularly to the English Reformation, where rival forms of two kingdoms doctrine, each claiming to be the best guardians of Christian liberty, come into the sharpest relief.


Note on sources: Obviously the foregoing exposition telescopes a number of highly contentious arguments and interpretations into a very condensed form.  To avoid cumbering this intro-level exposition with tedious notes, I have omitted citations of sources for all of the specific claims here.  However, the following texts are particularly foundational for the argument, and are recommended for further reading: F. Edward Cranz, An Essay on the Development of Luther’s Thought on Justice, Law, and Society; John Witte, Jr., Law and Protestantism; William F. Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms; W.D.J. Cargill Thompson, The Political Thought of Martin Luther; Pamela Biel, Doorkeepers at the House of Righteousness: Heinrich Bullinger and the Zurich Clergy; Bernard Verkamp, The Indifferent Mean: Adiaphorism in the English Reformation to 1554; P.D.L. Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers; W.J. Torrance Kirby, The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology.  If you want more details or want to argue with me over any point of interpretation, please comment below and also feel free to email me at w.b.littlejohn@gmail.com—the more people hashing out these issues, the merrier.


2 thoughts on “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed, Pt. 2—From Luther to Calvin

Comments are closed.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!