The Third Dimension–Luther’s Two-Kingdoms Theology

An excerpt from a crucial section of my paper, “Natural Law and Which Two Kingdoms,” to be presented next weekend at the American Academy of Religion:

We must recognize that there were at least two sharply divergent conceptions of the “two kingdoms” that emerged from the sixteenth century, and, of course, a number of more or less consistent half-way houses between them.  Unsurprisingly, these different conceptions, and the way they used natural law, will undermine neat modern preconceptions about what natural law might be, and will suggest several different ways of applying it to a Christian society.  

Martin Luther offers a succinct statement of the first conception in 1521: “The kingdoms of the world are ruled by human laws which evidently have to do with things temporal; the kingdom of Christ is ruled by the pure and simple word of the Gospel.”  For the second, we have the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1578): 

“The Kirke . . . hath a certaine power granted by God, according to the which it uses a proper jurisdiction and governement, exercised to the comfort of the whole Kirke.  The Policie of the Kirk flowing from this power, is an order or forme of spirituall government . . . different and distinct in its own nature from that power and policie, which is called civill power, and appertaineth to the civill government of the commonwealth: albeit they be both of God.”

Whereas Luther predicates two realms, one of law and jurisdiction, and another of pure grace and liberty, in Scotland we seem back to something akin to Gelasius and the medieval “two swords” doctrine: “two there are by whom this world is governed”–the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities.  Both have power, law, and jurisdiction under Christ, but they govern different functions.  For Luther, on the contrary, we find all power, law, and jurisdiction classed as part of the civil kingdom; Mosaic law, evangelical law, and natural law all fall on this side of the equation.  In short, the “spiritual kingdom” is the Church, but what we would call the “invisible Church,” though perhaps a better term would be the “evangelical Church” taking visible form only in the dynamic preaching of the Gospel and administration of the sacraments.  The visible, institutional Church, the gathered congregation that must be organized, ritualized, and governed, is part of the realm of “polity,” part of the sphere of human authority which it occupies in common with the more mundane concerns of the civil magistrate.  Indeed, the visible Church is simply the communion of the faithful, and as such, includes the civil magistrate if he be Christian, and his government, if the society be Christian.  The continuing “Christendom” idea, the corpus Christianorum, and the civil jurisdiction over the Church that usually went with it, is thus not some inconsistent holdover that Luther’s two-kingdoms theory has failed to exorcise, as VanDrunen suggests, but is part and parcel of it.  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.

 

What does this mean for natural law?  Well, for Luther, the contrast is not so much between natural law and divine law (Scripture) as between law and grace.  Scripture contains law too, and this is taken to be harmonious with the natural law, helping to govern the civil kingdom as illumination and application of natural law principles.  As much that we would call “religious” falls within the realm of the earthly kingdom, so it falls within the orbit of natural law, which cannot thus serve as the means for a thoroughgoing separation of church and state.  Not that Luther offers us a complete fusion of church and state–mindful of the intimate relationship between the outward ministry of the visible Church, and the inward power of the Gospel which breaks through it, Luther was wary of making the institutions of the Church simply a department of State (although not very successful in preventing it), and argued for the importance of maintaining three distinct “hierarchies” within the earthly kingdom–state, church, and family.

  


Two Faces, Two Kingdoms

Each time I read through C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, Till We Have Faces, I’m struck by some new layer of meaning, some new profound insight, and this latest (fifth, I think) time was no exception.  One of the most emotionally wrenching and mentally jarring moments in the book comes on the very last page, the only bit not written from the perspective of Orual.  “I, Arnom, priest of Aphrodite, saved this roll and put it in the temple.  From the markings after the word might, we think the Queen’s head must have fallen forward on them as she died and we cannot read them.  This book was written by Queen Orual of Glome, who was the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world….”

On their own, there is nothing particularly arresting about these words.  However, to any reader who has traversed the pages of this book, following Orual on her psychological journey of love, hate, envy, insecurity, and pettiness, these words come like a splash of cold water on the face.  This is the same Orual who has been consumed, up till the final days of her life, with jealousy and self-love, who is Ungit, the embodiment of sin and ugliness, devouring everyone around her: “It was I who was Ungit.  That ruinous face was mine.  I was that Batta-thing, that all-devouring womblike, yet barren, thing.  Glome was a web–I the swollen spider, squat at its centre, gorged with men’s stolen lives.”

How can she be simultaneously the embodiment of wickedness and yet praised by her subjects as “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful”?   Read More


Two Faces, Two Kingdoms

Each time I read through C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, Till We Have Faces, I’m struck by some new layer of meaning, some new profound insight, and this latest (fifth, I think) time was no exception.  One of the most emotionally wrenching and mentally jarring moments in the book comes on the very last page, the only bit not written from the perspective of Orual.  “I, Arnom, priest of Aphrodite, saved this roll and put it in the temple.  From the markings after the word might, we think the Queen’s head must have fallen forward on them as she died and we cannot read them.  This book was written by Queen Orual of Glome, who was the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world….”

On their own, there is nothing particularly arresting about these words.  However, to any reader who has traversed the pages of this book, following Orual on her psychological journey of love, hate, envy, insecurity, and pettiness, these words come like a splash of cold water on the face.  This is the same Orual who has been consumed, up till the final days of her life, with jealousy and self-love, who is Ungit, the embodiment of sin and ugliness, devouring everyone around her: “It was I who was Ungit.  That ruinous face was mine.  I was that Batta-thing, that all-devouring womblike, yet barren, thing.  Glome was a web–I the swollen spider, squat at its centre, gorged with men’s stolen lives.” 

How can she be simultaneously the embodiment of wickedness and yet praised by her subjects as “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful”?  

 

In this story, I think that Lewis has eloquently and beautifully portrayed what the Reformers meant when they spoke of the two kingdoms in man, the distinction between civil justice and true justice.  Often the Reformers’ conception of total depravity sounds strange and harsh to us.  Luther will say things like “Even just and pious men, whose justice might be found pure outside God’s judgment in the realm of mercy, are in his His judgment not at all helped by this justice but are equal to the last and most vile sinners.”  Even our best works, he insists, are sins apart from Christ.  How can Luther speak like this, we wonder?  It is not just that he says that our good works cannot save us–he says that they are not even good.  If a man practices justice, surely that counts for something?  Surely it is better than committing injustice.  

Luther goes on to endorse the importance of justice in the civil kingdom, but separates this entirely from justice in the spiritual kingdom.  Any pagan, he says, can be just in the civil kingdom, just as much as any Christian.  But this justice, whether pagan or Christian, however appreciated it may be in the eyes of men, counts for nothing coram Deo.  Surely this is an unhelpful dichotomy, we say.  If God’s standard of justice bears no resemblance to what we humans recognise as justice, doesn’t this make God’s justice arbitrary?  

 

Lewis’s narrative, however, powerfully explains Luther’s logic.  We each have two faces–the face which we show toward the world, and the face that only God sees, unless he enables us to see it for ourselves.  Too often, our most loving actions toward other people turn out to be, as Orual realises, “a love that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love”–a love that devours and consumes others in its self-love.  Our best works of justice and mercy, our labours for the common good, turn out to be only distractions by which we seek to escape from the emptiness within us: 

“What did I not do?  I had all the laws revised and cut in stone in the centre of the city.  I narrowed and deepened the Shennit till barges could come up to our gates.  I made a bridge where the old ford had been. . . . I did and I did and I did–and what does it matter what I did?  I cared for all these things only as a man cares for a hunt or a game, which fills the mind and seems of some moment while it lasts, but then the beast’s killed or the king’s mated, and now who cares?  It was so with me almost every evening of my life; one little stairway led me from feast or council, all the bustle and skill and glory of queenship, to my own chamber to be alone with myself–that is, with a nothingness.”  

 

This darkness in our souls renders, from the eternal perspective, all the good works which we do outwardly worthless.  But of course, that is not Lewis’s (or Luther’s) final word.  We ought not think therefore that civil justice is pointless or meaningless. It does nothing for the person doing it, perhaps, if their soul is dark, but it does much for others.  Arnom meant it when he penned those words with grief, “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world….”  Part of Lewis’s point, I think, is to remind us how much good is done in the world by people whose souls are consumed with rottenness within, how many, no doubt, of our great heroes and saints were men and women who would be ashamed for us ever to read the journal of their inner thoughts.  And this can be a comfort to us, deeply mindful of our own sin and twistedness–that God works through broken vessels, through warped instruments, to accomplish good for his creatures upon earth.  Remembering this profound distinction between these two faces, these two justices, these two kingdoms, can teach us to appreciate outward justice where it may be found, not demanding of it an inward perfection, but neither putting too much trust in it, forgetful of the darkness that lies deep within each of us.

PS: Apologies to those who have been having trouble accessing the site, or their RSS feeds, in the past couple days.  I myself have been blocked from it several times.  Hopefully Squarespace will get their act together soon.

Luther on Women in the Ministry

In his fine book The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, P.D.L. Avis includes an interesting discussion of Luther’s view on women’s ordination. For Luther, this is based on the cornerstone Protestant doctrine of the universal priesthood, or the “priesthood of all believers.”  Says Avis,

“There is no need to point out that women share equally with men in the universal priesthood; they too partake of the royal priesthood that Christ imparts to his people.  Luther supports this from the common practice of women administering baptism: ‘When women baptise, they exercise the function of priesthood legitimately and do it not as a private act but as a part of the public ministry of the Church which belongs only to the universal priesthood.’  ‘A woman can baptise and administer the word of life by which sin is taken away, eternal death abolished, the prince of this world cast out, heaven bestowed; in short, by which the divine majesty pours itself forth through all the soul.’  When Luther grants women the power to administer baptism, he recognises that this carries with it all other priestly functions for, according to Luther, the sacrament of baptism includes the ministry of the word and is, moreover, superior to other priestly offices….There is then no suggestion in Luther’s thought that women are somehow incapable of bearing the priestly ‘character.'”

Luther did, however, still exclude women from the regular ministry, but this apparent inconsistency would seem to make sense in light of his “two regiments” doctrine–for the regular ordained ministry of the Church was understood as a matter of good order and expedience for the Church, an outward and, one could say, a “political” matter.  Still important, but not of the essence of the Church, in which all were equally priests to one another.  

Naturally, Luther thought that good order would not be served by “unqualified persons” such as women filling such a role in the Church.  But Avis observes that this means that women’s ordination is ruled out not on theological grounds, but pragmatic grounds.  “The logic of Luther’s overall position in fact dictates that the question of whether women should be ordained to the ministry should be answered purely in terms of social expediency.  They could not be denied the essential priesthood, but in the light of the sixteenth-century social structure they would inevitably have been regarded as ‘unqualified persons’ to exercise any public office, not only in the Church but in society at large.”

 

Of course, it is worth noting that few of the other Reformers followed Luther in his particularly radical version of the priesthood of all believers, and sought to articulate a more conservative position on the spiritual significance of ordained ministry, meaning a stronger stance on the issue of women’s ordination.  Calvin and the Puritans, for example, were to forcefully deny the right of women to baptize–one of the many hot-button issues in the protracted prayer book wars in the young Church of England.  (How this passing remark by Avis fits with this odd statement by Calvin that I blogged a couple months ago, I’m not yet sure.)



Freedom From Oneself: Christian Liberty in the Lutheran Reformation

For the past week, I’ve been so engrossed in trying to write an epic narrative of the rise and fall of the doctrine of of adiaphora–“things indifferent”–in the Reformation, that I’ve had no time for blogging, alas.  I haven’t even had time to distill some of the salient bits properly to post here.  So instead, I will just offer you a raw, uncut, uncensored, unedited excerpt from my rough draft.  This is the bit on Luther, who always makes for an exciting read.  

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The three standard components of the doctrine of Christian liberty, stated later most lucidly by Calvin, are as follows:

  1. “that the consciences of believers, in seeking assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law righteousness.” (III.19.2)
  2. “that consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of the law, but that freed from the law’s yoke they willingly obey God’s will.” (III.19.4; also particularly well-put by Melanchthon: “freedom does not consist in this, that we do not observe the law, but that we will and desire spontaneously and from the heart what the law demands.”)
  3. “regarding outward things that are of themselves ‘indifferent,’ we are not bound before God by any religious obligation preventing us from sometimes using them and other times not using them, indifferently.” (III.19.7)

It is critical that we understand the doctrine of adiaphora in this context if we are to understand its inner logic and guard against the misunderstandings that quickly took hold among both opponents and supporters of the Lutheran Reformation and were to plague all the reformations of the sixteenth century. 

Roughly put, we might want to say that the first part of Christian liberty consists in internal freedom, the second part consists in internal freedom in external obedience (voluntary obedience to the moral law of outward conduct), while the third part consists in external freedom.  But this would be a critical mistake (one made by many of Luther’s followers), failing to recognize the way in which all three parts of the doctrine are shot through by Luther’s “free lord of all/dutiful servant of all” dialectic, beautifully and masterfully articulated in his classic The Freedom of a Christian Man

“For man does not live for himself alone in this mortal body, in order to work on its account, but also for all men on earth; nay, he lives only for others, and not for himself. For it is to this end that he brings his own body into subjection, that he may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely….Yet a Christian has need of none of these things for justification and salvation, but in all his works he ought to entertain this view and look only to this object–that he may serve and be useful to others in all that he does; having nothing before his eyes but the necessities and the advantage of his neighbour….Here is the truly Christian life, here is faith really working by love, when a man applies himself with joy and love to the works of that freest servitude in which he serves others voluntarily and for nought, himself abundantly satisfied in the fulness and riches of his own faith.”  

The freedom of a Christian man is not so much a freedom for oneself, but a freedom from oneself, a liberation from the preoccupation with one’s own salvation and merit, from fear that one is not toeing the line and meeting the standards; instead, he can actually focus on serving his neighbor.  “No longer does he need to use his neighbor as party to some moralistic scheme of proving himself worthy,” explains Bernard Verkamp.  “Now instead, his love of neighbor can be genuinely altruistic.” (57)  Thus confident of his standing before God and animated by love of neighbor, the Christian can let this law of love take the place, to a certain extent, of all other laws–divinely-revealed laws in Scripture will serve merely as rules of thumb about what love will require in particular circumstances, while human laws can only serve as rules of thumb about what love might require in particular circumstances.  Such laws still have their place (both sorts), but it is a place subordinated to the agenda of the law of love.  While the principles of the divine law serve as divinely authorized sign-posts as to the form that love should take, and hence must be carefully, though freely, heeded, in the adiaphora, we are called to a creative response to circumstances, which takes into account, but is not slavishly bound to, existing laws.

Luther cites the example of St. Paul circumcising Timothy, so as not to offend the weak, while later refusing to circumcise Titus, so as not to give in to Judaizers.


Since Christian freedom is an inner freedom that expresses itself in outward servitude, it is not nullified by external bondage, as Luther is careful to explain. 

“Any man possessing this knowledge may easily keep clear of danger among those innumerable commands and precepts of the Pope, of bishops, of monasteries, of churches, of princes, and of magistrates, which some foolish pastors urge on us as being necessary for justification and salvation, calling them precepts of the Church, when they are not so at all. For the Christian freeman will speak thus: I will fast, I will pray, I will do this or that which is commanded me by men, not as having any need of these things for justification or salvation, but that I may thus comply with the will of the Pope, of the bishop, of such a community or such a magistrate, or of my neighbour as an example to him.” 

Calvin puts it even more sharply, asserting that if someone is obliged to abstain from meat for their entire life out of regard for their neighbor’s weakness, they are not on that account any less free. (III.19.10)

An interesting corollary of this (which will become quite important as our narrative goes on) is that the one who insists on an outward expression of liberty thereby reduces the doctrine back to a new legalism.  As Verkamp says, “Those who, like Karlstadt, would insist that certain human traditions must be abolished and rashly proceed to do so, err no less, Luther said, than the papists.  Theirs is simply a new type of tyranny.  The papists destroy freedom by commanding, constraining, and compelling Christians to do things which God has not commanded or required; Karlstadt and his kind do so by forbidding, preventing, and hindering the Christian from doing that which is neither prohibited nor forbidden by God.”  The very indifferency of the adiaphora meant that to assert one’s external liberty in them would be to attribute to them more significance than they actually possessed, to make one’s faith dependent again on externals.  Stephen Gardiner lodged this very charge against the Reformers in his Contemptum humanae legis (1541): “Tell me I pray you how these things agree in constancy and continuity of doctrine: we are by only faith justified and made acceptable to God, according to your doctrine, and yet a large part of our controversy bears upon food and wives.  If those things do not pertain to justification, why do you who are reclaimed from the elements of the world contend about them, as if without them no happiness could find place in a Christian man?”


As the example of Karlstadt, however, and the charge of Gardiner suggest, this dialectic would prove difficult to maintain in practice.   When Karlstadt and many of the radical Reformers sought to put Luther’s assertion of Christian liberty into visible practice, ripping away all of the un-Scriptural trappings that seemed to shackle the Church, it is not hard to see where they got the idea.  It was easy to miss Luther’s own qualifications of the doctrine amidst the forceful rhetoric of liberty and sola Scriptura, and in any case, Luther himself provided precedent of this self-assertive kind of Christian liberty, insisting in On the Freedom of a Christian Man that toward “wolves” who urge ceremonies upon as as necessary, “we must resist, do just the contrary to what they do, and be bold to give them offence, lest by this impious notion of theirs they should deceive many along with themselves. Before the eyes of these men it is expedient to eat flesh, to break fasts, and to do in behalf of the liberty of faith things which they hold to be the greatest sins.”  He himself was soon to provide a particularly shocking example of this behaviour in his marriage to Katerina von Bora.  

Of course, in this same passage, Luther went on to advise precisely the opposite course of action before the weak in faith who needed to be initiated slowly into Gospel liberty, but this was precisely the problem with the doctrine–there were no fixed rules!  The whole point, after all, was to be ready to respond as love demanded in concrete circumstances.  Although he might issue some general guidelines, Luther could not establish a priori which response in the adiaphora would be right or wrong; might even Karlstadt’s actions have been more or less the right ones under slightly different circumstances?  It would be easy to attack Karlstadt and other radical reformers as unprincipled, self-serving libertines, who perverted the doctrine of Christian liberty for their own pleasure, failing to understand that it was not a freedom for oneself but a freedom from oneself, and the magisterial reformers were certainly quick to launch these sorts of attacks.  No doubt this was often enough true, and many Protestants quickly twisted liberty into license.  But this need not be the explanation for every form of radicalism, as becomes clear by the time you get to characters like the Puritans, who, whatever Anglican polemicists might try and say, hardly look like libertines.  

An externalization of Christian liberty that forcefully rejected unbiblical ceremonies could very well be motivated by a desire to love and edify the neighbor.  If one was convinced that the ceremonies were being Pharisaically demanded in a way that hinder the proclamation of evangelical liberty, or were weighed down with superstitions that would turn Christians away into various forms of idolatry and works-righteousness, then one must refuse and reject such ceremonies.  All the magisterial reformers themselves said so.  But they also said that if rejecting the ceremonies would cause the weak to stumble, or if the ceremonies were edifying, not harmful, they should be retained.  Such a dialectic, difficult enough to apply accurately in the best of circumstances, was certain to only become more difficult as Protestant churches increased in size, and whole princedoms and finally kingdoms became Protestant.  For surely, if not in an individual congregation, certainly in a whole region there would be both “Pharisees” and “the weak”–some who needed to be showed the needlessless of the ceremonies, and some for whom the ceremonies were still needful; some whom the ceremonies led astray into superstition, and some whom the ceremonies legitimately edified.  Disagreements over proper practice in the adiaphora were sure to proliferate as the infant Reformation grew and spread.  

(stay tuned for more, hopefully)