The following is the full text of a presentation delivered at Wheaton College on September 23, 2016, for an event co-sponsored by The Davenant Trust and the Center for Applied Christian Ethics. I am very grateful to Drs. Vincent Bacote and Bryan McGraw for their hospitality and engagement. The full video of the event, including their responses and the extended discussion time following, can be viewed here. Much of this presentation is taken from chapter 1 of my forthcoming book The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, May 2017).
Life Between Two Loyalties
From the moment that Christ enigmatically rebuffed Herod’s political theologians with the words “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” his followers have had to grapple with the challenge of living under “different kings and different laws.” At various times and places, some have been so bold as to imagine they had removed the sting from Christ’s statement, whether by bringing God and Caesar into alliance, by restricting their kingdoms to different worlds, or by ensuring that Caesar would adopt pluralistic policies that would grant free rein to any religious conscience. Each such solution has in due course been exposed as an over-optimistic illusion, leaving Christians to grapple anew with the tensions of their dual citizenship. Whatever the failures of Reformation political thought, it must at least be credited with its refusal to blithely dismiss the problem; indeed, fewer questions, as I hope this study will show, were more central to early Protestant theology and churchmanship.
Let us begin, then, by tracing the legacy of Protestantism’s proclamation of freedom in relation to Western political order. Certainly, few deny that a central contribution of Protestantism, what Alister McGrath calls its “dangerous idea,” was an epistemological revolution: the insistence on the freedom of individual Christian consciences to determine Scripture’s meaning for themselves. Luther’s famous words at Worms offer a memorable summary of this freedom:
Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
From this right of “religious conscience,” argues John Witte, flowed “attendant rights to assemble, speak, worship, evangelize, educate, parent, travel, and more on the basis of their beliefs.” And from these flowed, in due course, rights of constitutional order. Thus did spiritual freedom give birth to civil freedom. But obviously, this spiritual freedom was not a freedom to do just anything, but even in Luther’s formulation, goes hand-in-hand with obedience. We are free in relation to human authority because we are bound in relation to God; God has spoken in His Word, and “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), as the apostles said. On the basis of this subjection, the Protestant could stand against all the demands of earthly authorities who might overstep their bounds, whether in church or in state.
Viewed in this light, then, Luther’s declaration that his “conscience is captive to the Word of God,” and the freedom this entails, is simply a manifestation, or an intensification, of the conflict of loyalties that is a recurrent feature of human society. The potential for such a conflict, between loyalty to God and man, conscience and community, is probably as old as humankind. Indeed, it is famously represented in the ancient Greek tragedy Antigone, which presents the possibility that a higher law than that of the state might demand civil disobedience by a pious individual. But the dilemma thus generated is not yet by any means the modern dilemma of conscience and authority. For Antigone represents the clash of two publicly-available value claims, both of which would have been easily recognized by the play’s audience: the claims of piety towards the gods and loyalty toward the fatherland. The clash between these two equally ultimate claims is tragic, but not terribly destabilizing to the social order. For Antigone is not Kierkegaard’s Abraham, called to a lonely journey of faithfulness which none can understand; she remains firmly within the universal, as he would have put it, a tragedy but not an enigma. Creon may rage against her act of treason, but he can hardly have been mystified by it; the religious rites on which she insists are part and parcel of the state cult which sustained the social order over which Creon presided.
When a Greek two generations later, Socrates, did dare to claim individual insight which stood in some tension with the state cult, he denied that this gave him any license to disobey the laws of Athens, to which he submitted unto death. Although the Christian martyrs five centuries later were similarly to submit to their Roman executioners, something has clearly changed between Socrates’s “I am that gadfly which God has attached to the state … arousing and persuading and reproaching you,” and Polycarp’s “Eighty and six years have I served him and he has done me no wrong; how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” For Polycarp and the early Christian martyrs, the God for whom they died was described as another King to whom they owed an allegiance which trumped any that Caesar could claim, a declaration which confused and enraged the Roman authorities. Christ himself may have offered a distinction of the just bounds of the different jurisdictions when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” (Mark 12:17 ASV) and most of the early Christians were sincere in their protestations of civic loyalty. But the possibility of conflict could not be denied, and that mere possibility destabilized the entire Roman public order. For a brief triumphal season under Constantine, it may have seemed that the conflict of loyalties could be resolved under a godly emperor, but the ambiguities of the Arian controversies soon dispelled that illusion, and for Western Christendom at least, Augustine’s doctrine of the “two cities” would confirm the incommensurability of the reign of God and the reign of earthly rulers in this present age.
To this extent, Christianity itself could be said to have announced a spiritual liberty which could not avoid some kind of transfer to civic polity; the mere presence of the faithful within the commonwealth, and their allegiance to a different king, demanded some kind of public recognition and adjustment of the legal order, if that order was not to crumble altogether. In point of fact, the Western Roman political order did crumble, though not under the weight of Christianity, and the power vacuum it left postponed for several centuries much of the conflict between earthly kings and the heavenly King that might otherwise have seemed inevitable. When a resurgence of political power did occur in the eleventh century, it was in an environment less like that of Polycarp and more like that of Antigone. That is to say, the long leavening of Christianity throughout the European social order meant that the claims of piety, just as much as those of political loyalty, had an assured public status. Indeed, the institutional consolidation of the papacy in this same period meant the claims of piety had a more assured public status than did the claims of the civil power. If Antigone was no Abraham, Gregory VII most certainly was not.
As conflicts of loyalty then proliferated between the high and late medieval monarchs and pontiffs, these, unlike the conflicts of the early church, could in principle be adjudicated within a common frame of reference, within the terms of the Christian faith and the duties it demanded of clergy and laity, subjects and rulers. However sharp their contentions, the papal legates and imperial publicists never felt they had collapsed into mutual incomprehension. Indeed, although their ambition was never fully realized, the popes certainly aspired to render all conflicts of loyalty completely tractable by means of their supreme epistemological authority. That is, if the spiritual and temporal orders were part of one Christian society under one king, Christ, who had fully revealed his will to his people, then in principle no conflict was necessary, so long as that will was fully understood. As the popes claimed ever more emphatically to be able to declare that will to the world, they hoped to define beyond all ambiguity the Christian’s many duties to his several authorities in their several hierarchies, with the pope at the top of it all. All loyalties could in principle be harmonized underneath this one visible authority.
Protestantism, as part of its doctrine of Christian liberty, shattered this synthesis (which had never worked very well in practice anyway). By depriving the Pope—indeed, any human authority—of the power to authoritatively declare the voice of God, the reformers liberated the Christian conscience from any absolute human epistemological authority, the authority to determine truth. Henceforth, Scripture alone could infallibly declare to believers the will of God, and although other authorities might make claims upon the outward conduct of believers, only God could bind the heart.
Of course, this dialectic was hardly a stable one; the possibility of a conflict of loyalties had returned with a vengeance. How could a believer be sure that her loyalty to God, the supreme and final good, might not come into conflict with her loyalty to the magistrate, the fallible guardian of the temporal common good? No human authority could finally dictate what God demanded, and what God demanded, human authority could not demand.
Luther’s Two-Kingdoms Theology
It was this tension that has informed all variations of Protestant political theology, including the various options that have been put forward at various times under the heading “two kingdoms.” The original formulation of so-called “two-kingdoms doctrine” was Luther’s, and it was not, as often misunderstood, itself a political doctrine (as if the two kingdoms were “church” and “state”) but it was the foundation for his political doctrine, and indeed his whole understanding of God, man, and society.
It flows from Luther’s doctrine of justification and his famous concept of simul justus et peccator (man is “at the same time righteous and a sinner”), 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 (Luther used both terms). The spiritual government is that by which Christ rules inwardly in the conscience by his Word and Spirit, the realm of grace; the temporal or “worldly” government 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.
Now let me highlight a few key elements of this approach, which I would want to broadly endorse, before moving on to complicate the picture somewhat.
The first thing that should be obvious is that this is clearly not a one-kingdom view, such as one sometimes encounters in oversimplistic or triumphalistic accounts of Christian vocation in the world. Our job, we are sometimes told, is to help grow, expand, build Christ’s kingdom, and we do that by extending his lordship into every area of life. Every sphere, from church to education to business to politics, is to be brought under Christ’s lordship in a fairly undifferentiated sense, such that the progress of Christ’s kingdom, can be assessed and measured by how extensively and intensively it has penetrated the life of the world. Neo-Calvinism is often blamed for this way of thinking, although of course many neo-Calvinists are much more careful and nuanced on this score than others. In contrast to any such one-kingdom view, Luther’s two-kingdoms view insists on a clear separation of the visible and invisible realms. The redeeming work of Christ remains essentially invisible. Now I mean that in the most precise sense possible—essentially invisible: that which makes it what it is is invisible, though its results may take visible form. Thus I mean that the most visible aspects of worldly life—families, businesses, bosses, laws, governments, political protests, charities feeding starving children, etc., although they may be arenas in which the fruit of Christ’s redeeming work becomes visible, are not themselves either agents or objects of redemption. Thus all of our activity in these mundane—though important—arenas of life assumes a penultimate status.
Second, it should be clear however that this delineation of two kingdoms does not underwrite a secular public square in the strong modern sense, which is to say, a public square that finds its meaning and function without any reference to God and Christ. These are God’s two kingdoms; Christ’s two governments, not Christ’s kingdom and the devil’s kingdom, or Christ’s kingdom and then some no-mans land. What we are dealing with is two modes through which Christ rules all things on behalf of his father—as preserver and sustainer of his created order, through intermediaries, and as redeemer of his people, the heirs of the new creation, directly and without intermediaries.
Third, as I have already highlighted, on this formulation the visible church itself is not the spiritual kingdom, since it is, well, visible, and we have just seen that this kingdom, —or perhaps better, this mode of Christ’s government—is essentially invisible. Think about it, really. The vast majority of what makes up the life of a local church are things that it will have in common with non-churches, things that belong squarely to the this-worldly structures of creation. Obviously buildings, budgets, treasurers and the like. But even more churchy things. Teachers? The school down the street has that. Membership vows? The Rotary Club has that, or at least, I assume it does. Excommunication that removes a member from the rolls? Plenty of voluntary societies have that too. Singing with musical instruments? Glee club has that. Special uniforms for its leaders (for lots of denominations)? Schools and governments have those. In fact, the closer we look, the more it turns out that the only thing that ultimately makes a church a church instead of all these other things is the what for at the heart of all these outward trappings, which is to say, the Word of God and faith. And that last one really is the key. A congregation where the Word of God is being read and sung but without a spark of faith in anyone present is not a church in anything more than a sociological sense, it is not a site of Christ’s spiritual reign. On the other hand, since James tells us that faith without works is dead, it should also clearly be the case that if true faith is present, it ought to make itself known in the visible appearance of everything a church is supposed to be and do: have ministers proclaiming the Word, have congregants praying and singing it back to God, have sacraments being celebrated with faith and thanksgiving, have sinners repenting of their sins and, if they persist in them, have appropriate forms of discipline, have deacons ministering to the poor and needy, etc.
Two Dangers of Two Kingdoms Theology
This then gives us the profound tension at the heart of Protestant ecclesiology and political theology: there is a danger of wanting to make Christ’s spiritual reign too visible and also a danger of wanting to make it too invisible. Let’s tackle the latter problem first, since its peril is perhaps a bit more obvious.
In the Reformation period, this danger of making the spiritual kingdom too invisible presented itself whenever churches allowed civil rulers to make the church little more than a department of state, its public practice and witness carefully circumscribed and domesticated to fit the political priorities of the moment, even if these were quite at odds with the church’s mission of converting and discipling. This danger is often called “Erastianism,” a term I prefer to avoid both because it is much too broad and because its usual meaning is historically speaking rather unfair to Erastus himself. Better to call it Hobbesianism, for in Thomas Hobbes we see one of its fullest and starkest formulations. Hobbes will say, more or less, “By all means believe the Gospel deep down in your heart, but when it comes to what you do, well then, now we are talking about the realm of man, not of God, and you must act and indeed worship in the way the political sovereign directs, for the sake of the temporal common good.” Such a civil religion might even encourage and direct the preaching of the Gospel, so long as this is not taken to mean anything more than, “seek Christ’s forgiveness for your sins,” a Gospel without any law, for the only law is that of the ruler.
In more recent times, we are of course familiar with this danger taking a slightly different form in the quietistic two-kingdoms theology of the German church under Nazism. Or perhaps, if we may get closer to home, the somewhat subtler civil religion of American evangelicalism. Here too, the Gospel is often deprived of almost any content beyond the individual forgiveness of sins, a proclamation of liberty that makes no futher demands, so that the Christian is not burdened with any convictions that might prevent him or her from adopting the priorities of American nationalism, with its military ambitions and its consumeristic market-state. Evangelical churches then spontaneously (rather than under the coercion of Hobbes’s Leviathan) march in lockstep with these values and practices, adorning their sanctuaries with American flags, celebrating national holidays with the sacred fervor once reserved for saints’ days, and preaching a message that by and large accepts the enthronement of the idols of the age.
Now let’s talk about the externalizing danger, the problem of trying to make Christ’s spiritual reign too visible. This problem actually takes two forms, one passive and one active; although these look at first like opposites, they can easily slide over into one another. Both forms begin by saying: “Faith cannot remain without works; the church’s confession of Christ cannot remain invisible, but must take form in public obedience to his Word. Therefore we must look to God’s Word to show us the shape of that public obedience, and dutifully put it in practice. Thus does the kingdom of Christ become manifest in the world.” Now what could be wrong with that? At face value, it sounds like pretty straightforward Christianity. But that last sentence is where the beginning of the trouble comes in. After all, the Reformers were always clear in affirming that when it came to the spiritual government of his kingdom, God’s Word tells us all we need to know. For Luther, this was simply part and parcel of his protest against the Pope’s tyranny over conscience, which made salvation dependent on accepting the man-made inventions of the Roman church. But once we move out into the realm of practice, this kind of role for Scripture becomes more problematic. For while the tenets of required belief can be defined quite briefly, the same does not go for action, since it is inherently complex and circumstantially dependent; Scripture cannot give us anything like exhaustive guidance. The demand that Scripture guide our practice, coupled with the conviction that the presence or absence of the kingdom of Christ depended on our receiving and acting on this guidance rightly, could generate an intense pressure to find precise Scriptural commands where they simply didn’t exist. It should be evident on a sober reading of Scripture that even when it comes to Old Testament Israel, we find general principles and a smattering of far-from-exhaustive case laws; when it comes to the New Covenant people, we have only the former. But this did not stop several parties in the Reformation, first in the Anabaptist movements on the Continent and then also in some more radical variants of puritanism and presbyterianism in Britain, from insisting that the kingdom of Christ had been given a detailed constitution that must be implemented whatever the cost. There are still Anabaptists and jure divino Presbyterians today who make the same mistakes, but there are also Christians of many other stripes who are tempted to reduce a blueprint for Christian public life to a list of Biblical prooftexts.
As we noted, this danger can take a passive or an active form. On the one hand, one could insist that this detailed constitution applied only to the institutional church and left most of Christian life untouched; on the other hand, one could adopt a more activist stance, seeking to apply Scripture legalistically to earthly political life as well, and thus tending to collapse the two kingdoms. In practice, the difference between these two forms proves rather unstable, since any attempt to confine the biblical constitution to the church rather than politics requires that the state concur with this particular drawing of the boundary lines, and requires the zealous biblicist to adopt quite a different hermeneutic when it comes to biblical guidance for civil law. Ultimately, then, this externalizing danger can be just as hazardous as the internalizing one, since, as Richard Hooker says, “Whenever people hide their own errors under the cloak of divine authority, it is impossible for anyone to imagine what will come of it, until time has revealed the fruits.”
Conclusion: The Need for Good Hermeneutics
How then do we avoid these pitfalls? The basic answer, I would submit, is surprisingly straightforward: good hermeneutics. We can and should agree with those who insist that since “faith without works is dead,” Christ’s invisible reign in the hearts of believers cannot remain invisible, but must display itself in communities of obedience to his Word. But we need to be a little more thoughtful about what obedience to his Word means. Let us quote Hooker again:
“There is no reason in the world wherefore we should esteem it as necessary always to do, as always to believe the same things; seeing every man knows that the matter of faith is constant, the matter contrariwise of action daily changeable, especially the matter of action belonging unto Church polity. … Which kind of laws (for as much as they are not in themselves necessary to salvation) may after they are made be also changed as the difference of times or places shall require” (Laws III.10.7; FLE 1:244.21–245.7).
In other words, Scripture itself does not hold itself out as governing belief and action in the same way, simply because belief and action are very different sorts of things. The difficulty of assigning one-size-fits-all rules to govern faithful Christian action, and especially of assigning one-size-fits-all rules to determine how communities should order their lives together, ought to be a hint to us that maybe this isn’t what we should be looking for in Scripture. In fact, why should we? God does not want to deal with us as children, after all, but seeks to build up a people with the maturity and wisdom to critically apply the moral order revealed in his Word as changing times and conditions demand. And it should be evident that this need for maturity, wisdom, and flexibility applies just as much in ordering the social life of the visible church as it does in ordering the social life of the commonwealth. Hence Luther’s wisdom in defining the visible, institutional form of the church as a kind of polity, firmly anchored in the temporal kingdom. This temporal kingdom, then, with all its callings and institutions, is the field for Christian witness and Christian obedience; there is indeed no square inch of creation over which Christ does not claim kingship and in which we should not seek to render obedience to Him. But whereas we can and must demand a timeless creed of Christian truth as the standard for the spiritual kingdom of salvation, we must be altogether more flexible, responsive, and ready to settle for incremental improvements when it comes to the temporal kingdom in which Christian life is lived out. Whereas the spiritual kingdom, properly speaking, is unmixed, consisting only of those who have confessed Christ with true faith, the temporal kingdom is inevitably mixed, requiring us to find ways of living peaceably together with those who have not rendered obedience to Christ.
Addendum: Five Theses for Protestant Social Thought
- The Christian’s freedom, because it is a freedom before God, can never be overthrown by this-worldly oppression or injustice—“who shall separate us from the love of Christ? …”
- Because the Christian’s freedom is a freedom for the neighbor, the Christian can never rest content to see his neighbor suffering under injustice or oppression. The freedom of a Christian does, therefore, issue in social activism.
- However, love of neighbor also means that the Christian recognizes that unjust social structures are often better than no structures at all, so Christian social action must proceed with prudence and patience.
- Because of this need to balance the good of reform with the good of order, the Christian recognizes that even as we look to Scripture for guidance, we will be able to perceive only dimly in advance the exact form our action should take in concrete circumstances.
- Because the Christian does not identify the kingdom of Christ with earthly political structures, he can face the imperfection of all our efforts at reform with patience and gratitude for each incremental change.
 Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 2.
 Quoted in Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abindgon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 185.
 Witte, Reformation of Rights, 2.
 For the framework of a “conflict of loyalties” and the need for political-theological strategies to “harmonize loyalties,” here and throughout, I am profoundly indebted to John Perry’s excellent book The Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 Plato, Apology 31a.
 Eusebius, Church History 4.15.20.
 For a good introduction to these contentions, see Oliver and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, eds., From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought, 100–1625 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), parts 3 and 4.
 To be sure, the doctrine of papal infallibility was still a long way off from crystallization in this period, and the precise de jure authority asserted, and de facto authority realized, by the papacy ebbed and flowed from the thirteenth century to the sixteenth. Such authority was certainly on the rise again, however, by the time Luther lodged his protest, quickly showing him that any meaningful reform would require a fundamental reconception of the nature of the church’s authority.
 For a particularly full statement, see Article XXVIII of the Augsburg Confession. For a discussion of the knots into which this claim of individual hermeneutical authority tied the reformers, see Susan Schreiner, Are You Alone Wise? The Quest for Certainty in the Early Modern Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), ch. 3.