Perhaps beginnings of today’s societal modus operandi can be traced as far back as the 1500’s and Martin Luther. Read and see if you agree that there are recognizable traits to be found in his thinking regarding the civic structure and law found in our society today. As we know, in some cases those hierarchies have taken leave of their rightful duties and responsibilities and assumed roles not are not so just or good for the whole of the population.

A two kingdoms theory came together in Luther’s mind in the later 1520’s and 1530’s and became a dominant gene in the genetic code of Lutheran theology and jurisprudence thereafter. “God has ordained two kingdoms or realms in which humanity is destined to live,” Luther argued, “the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. The earthly kingdom is the realm of creation, of natural and civil life, where a person operates primarily by reason and law. The heavenly kingdom is the realm of redemption, of spiritual and eternal life, where a person operates primarily by faith and by love. These two kingdoms embrace parallel heavenly and earthly, spiritual and temporal forms of righteousness and justice, government and order, truth and knowledge. But they remain distinct. The earthly kingdom is distorted by sin and governed by the law. The heavenly kingdom is renewed by grace and guided by the gospel. A Christian is a citizen of both kingdoms at once and invariably comes under the distinctive governments of each. As a heavenly citizen, the Christian remains free in his or her own conscience, called to live fully by the light of the gospel alone. But as an earthly citizen, the Christian is bound by law, and called to obey the natural orders and offices that God has ordained for this early life.” Luther’s two kingdom was a rejection of traditional hierarchical theories of being society and authority. For centuries, the Medieval Catholic Church had taught that God’s creation was hierarchical in structure, a vast chain of being emanating from God and descending through various layers and levels of reality. In this great chain of being, each creature found its place and its purpose, and each human society found its natural order and hierarchy. It was thus simply the nature of things that some persons and institutions were higher on this chain of being, some lower. It was the nature of things that some were closer and had more-ready access to God, and some were further away and indeed of greater mediation in their relationships with God. This chain of being theory, which some of you will recognize from Dante’s “Divine Comedy Essay”, was one basis for traditional Catholic arguments for the natural superiority of the pope to the emperor of the canon law to the civil law of the church to the state. Luther’s two kingdoms theory turned this traditional ontology onto its side. By distinguishing the two kingdoms, Luther highlighted the radical separation between God and humanity. For Luther, the fall into sin destroyed the original continuity and communion between the creator and creation. “There was no chain of being descending from God. There was no stairway of merit ascending to God. Persons are born in sin to the earthly kingdom and have access to the heavenly kingdom only through faith in God’s grace.” Luther did not deny the traditional view that the earthly kingdom retained its natural order, despite the fall into sin. There remained in effect a chain of being, an order in creation that gave each human being and institution its proper place and purpose in this life. But for Luther, this chain of being was horizontal, not hierarchical. “Before God, all persons and all earthly institutions were by nature equal.” Luther’s earthly kingdom was a flat regime, a horizontal realm of being with no person and no institution obstructed or mediated by any other in relationship to and in accountability before God. Luther’s two kingdoms theory also turned the traditional hierarchical theory of human society onto its side. For centuries, the Catholic Church had taught that the clergy were called to a higher spiritual service in the realm of grace, the laity to a lower temporal service in the realm of nature. The clergy were accordingly exempt from many obligations and activities of this earthly life like marriage, and warfare, and taxes, and litigating torts, and prosecutions for crime, and more. Luther rejected all of this. For him, clergy and laity were both part of the earthly kingdom and were both equal before God and all others. “It was just as virtuous, just as spiritually salutary to be a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker than to be a priest, a bishop, or a monk,” said Luther. Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers once laicized the clergy and clericized the laity. He treated the traditional clerical office of preaching and teaching as just one other vocation that any other person could pursue freely and fully in this life. He treated all traditional lay offices as forms of divine calling and priestly vocation, each providing unique opportunities for service to God, neighbor, and self. “Preachers and teachers of the church,” he insisted, “just like housewives, and magistrates, and judges, and soldiers, must carry their share of civic duties, pay their share of civil taxes, participate in their share of earthly activities just like everyone else.” To have a collar is not cool at all. And finally, Luther’s two kingdoms theory turned the traditional hierarchical theory of authority onto its side. Luther rejected the medieval two swords theory that regarded the cleric and the Canon law to be naturally superior to the magistrate and the civil law. In Luther’s view, God has ordained three basic forms and forums of authority for governance of this earthly life; the family, the church, and the state. All three of these are natural offices ordained by God. They represent different dimensions of God’s presence and authority. And they stand equal before God and before each other in discharging their natural callings. “Of these three estates,” said Luther, “only the state has formal legal authority, the authority of the sword to pass and enforce human laws for the governance of earthly life. The church is not a law-making or law-enforcing authority. It has no sword. It has no business involving itself in daily legal and political life. Its cardinal callings and signs are to preach the word, administer the sacraments, care for the poor and needy, catechize the young. It must be separate and distinct from the state and its makeup, ministry, and mission. Indeed,” said Luther, quoting Ephesians 2:14, “There must be, ‘A law of separation between church and state; separate in their form, separate in their function.'” Luther was more concerned with the function than with the form of the state. And in various writings, he endorses emperors, kings, princes, dukes, city councils, communal governance, whatever works. “Every magistrate,” he wrote, “from the highest king to the pettiest judge has to be regarded as God’s vice-regent in the earthly kingdom called to elaborate and enforce God’s word at will, to reflect God’s justice and mercy, to appropriate and apply God’s natural law. Every magistrate is also God’s instrument of judgment and wrath against human sin,” said Luther. “Princes and judges are the bows and arrows of God,” he wrote, “licensed to hunt down God’s enemies. The hand of the Christian magistrate, judge, or soldier that wields the sword and slays in a just cause is not man’s hand, but God’s.” And finally, “Every magistrate,” Lutheran wrote, “Is the father of the community. The pater politicus. The magistrate is called to care for his political subjects as if they are his children. And his political subjects are to honor and obey him as if he is their parent. Like a loving father, the magistrate must keep the peace and protect his subjects and their person’s property and reputations. He must detour his subjects from abusing themselves through drunkenness, prostitution, gambling and other vices. He must maintain his subjects to the community chest, the public hospital he must educate them through the public school the public library the public almshouse, the public hospital. He must educate them through the public school, the public library, the public lectern. He must see to their spiritual needs by supporting the ministry of the locally-established church and encouraging attendance and participation by Sunday observant laws, tithing, and other rules. And he must set an example of virtue and piety in his own home and private life for his faithful subjects to emulate.” These twin metaphors of the Christian magistrate as the lofty vice-regent of God and the loving father of the community describe the basics of Lutheran political theory for the next four centuries. For Luther, the state is divine in origin but earthly in operation. It expresses God’s harsh judgment against sin, but also God’s tender mercy for sinners. It communicates the law of God, but also the lore of the local community. The state depends upon the church for prophetic direction, but removes from the church all jurisdiction. Either metaphor standing alone could be a recipe for abuse of tyranny or officious paternalism as we’ll see in a moment. But both metaphors together provided Luther and his followers with the core ingredients of a robust Christian republicanism and a budding Christian welfare state. If I had all afternoon, I would walk you through the new bodies of law that this new Christian magistrate was to discharge in place of the pope and the Medieval Catholic Church, a whole new wrath of state laws on marriage formation, maintenance, and dissolution, childcare, custody, and control, property inheritance and domestic economy. Luther introducing many of the features of marriage and family life in his reforms and that of his jurists that really were the marriage law of the west until the middle of the 20th century before the Sexual and Divorce Revolution. If we had still more time, I would walk you through how Luther and his followers create the public school movement; introducing the idea of the public school as a civic seminary, a civic seminary open to boys and girls alike with mandatory school attendance, with instruction in the seven basic arts, a preparation for a vocational life, and ideally for those unusually precocious, preparing them for an education in a university and for service in church, state, and society. And if we had still more time, I would walk you through how Luther lays a lot of the foundations for the modern social welfare state and puts in place under this idea of the paternalistic pater politicus, the benign father of the community, the responsibility in the hands of the magistrate to care for the needy and the poor, the indigent, the outsider, the sojourner in their community. And to put in place many of the sturdy systems, state-run systems, that provide some of the early forms of the social welfare state in place of monastic, and guild, and fraternity, and sorority and other systems of diaconal care historically offered by the Catholic Church.



  1. Thought provoking. I ponder ……. what would the Roman Catholic Church be like if Luther didn’t challenge the Cathoilc traditions and doctrine.

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