Archive for the ‘Martin Luther’ Category

Christian Church and State: A Barthian Response to the Two Kingdoms Doctrine

Martin Luther believed that God has two ways of ruling, known as the two spheres or the two kingdoms–the law, which is carnal, and the Gospel, which is spiritual. These two spheres were completely separate. The law, which the civil government belongs to, rules by coercion. Its existence is necessary to restrain the “ravenous wolves” of the world, which are always pressing at the Christian community and threatening to destroy it. The church, on the other hand, belongs to the spiritual sphere. This is a sphere characterized by freedom from the law, by love, and by peace.

One way to think of the two kingdoms in Luther’s thought is that they represent the right and the left hand of God. Each hand does a different task and rules in a different way. The two kingdoms, therefore, are God’s kingdoms, and both have a divine mandate to resist a third kingdom, the kingdom of Satan. Luther emphasized, however, that the spiritual realm could not prevail over the carnal, and that the two must remain separate. Thus he advocated for a rigorous separation of church and state as having different priorities and different concerns.

There is much one could admire about Luther’s political theory. He dismissed the idea that religious states of life were holier than secular, claiming that God favored both the holiness of the priest and the housewife. Against the Anabaptist radical reformation, Luther advocated participation, rather than withdrawal from society, and particularly the government. And he tried to find a way to hold both the church and the state as good parts of God’s creation, without collapsing one into the other.

The problem with Luther’s system is that it results in a heavy dualism between the church, ruled by Christian morality, and the government, ruled by whatever morality is expedient for keeping order. The Christian believer, who participated in both spheres, while only belonging to the spiritual sphere, had little recourse, and little motivation, to challenge injustice in the secular realm. This resulted in a passive and impotent church when it came to political matters. One example might be the Lutheran Church in Germany during the 1930’s which allowed Christians to lead a double life as both a believing and practicing Christian and a supportive Nazi. However, the quietistic implications of his two kingdoms doctrine became evident in Luther’s own day, which manifested itself in a complacency toward the injustices of the German princes (to give you an idea, Luther wrote a treatise called essentially, “Against the Ravenous Murderous Hordes of Peasants”).

You see a similar approach to church and politics in much contemporary American political discourse. The idea is that you can be a faithful Christian and still support political agendas wildly divergent from your Christian beliefs. Joe Biden, for example, has argued that he is a faithful Catholic who attends Mass regularly and holds to what the Church teaches, but that in his capacity as a public figure, he feels justified supporting legislation supporting abortion, which is completely inconsistent with his Catholic beliefs, based on the principle of separation between church and state. This is an excellent example of the pervasive and long-lasting influence of Martin Luther’s “Two Kingdoms” theory.

As an alternative, in honor of this week of Christian unity, I turn not to Aquinas or any other Catholic thinker, but rather to Karl Barth. Karl Barth once wrote that “wherever there is theological talk, it is always or implicity political talk as well.” Barth believed that Christians should approach politics as they approach all things–Christologically. In a 1935 essay entitled “Gospel and Law,” Barth wrote that Christ establishes the relationship between law and Gospel, such that “we can certainly make the general and comprehensive statement that the law is nothing else than the necessary form of the gospel, whose content is grace” (80). The state, therefore, is a Christological sphere.

As a Christological sphere, Barth has a somewhat positive view of the state (though he still subordinates it to the church), but more importantly, he insists that the state, like the church, serves Christ. In Church Dogmatics IV/2, he writes that the state is not just called to resist sin, but is called to be an instrument of divine service, with its ministers acting as God’s ministers. The state becomes a sphere of wrath, according to Barth, when is deviates from the path of salvation wrought by Christ.

The implications for the Christian is that he is called to participate in the state and give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but always in a way motivated by and terminating in the service of Christ. This means that there is a harmony and coherence in the activity of Christians in the world. The Christian has a political responsibility to serve Christ, not by forming a “Christian political party,” but by serving the government in ways consistent with what Christ demands, and by supporting a political agenda consistent with Christ’s lordship. As Barth writes, “No neutrality with God is possible. We must choose between the true God and idolatry” (III/4, 307).

As we usher in a new president, and as we continue to reflect on and pray for Christian unity, I encourage my Christian readers to reexamine their opinions about church and state. Just as Christ is one, so too should the Christian life be one, not divided between secular and religious obligations and practices, but consistently and tirelessly oriented to the service of Jesus Christ.