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date: 18 November 2019

Summary and Keywords

During the 20th century there was a remarkable change in the interpretation of Martin Luther’s approach to society. During the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries, many understood that Luther advocated a sharp separation between gospel and world, faith and politics, church and state. Faith or religion was understood to be a private affair that had nothing to do with the autonomous functioning of government and other secular institutions. Christians were to obey the existing powers, even if unjust or authoritarian, and serve their neighbor through acts and church institutions of mercy. Lutherans were called quietists, defeatists, and dualists, and Karl Barth alleged that Luther’s understanding of law and gospel allowed other gods to claim allegiance alongside Jesus the Lord. And then especially there were the Lutheran failures in the Nazi experience.

All of this spurred theologians to critically evaluate their tradition and to take a fresh look at Luther in order to assist the church to be a more responsible presence in a changing world. In the middle decades of the last century, there was an impressive outpouring of historical and theological studies on what was being called Luther’s “two-kingdoms doctrine.” These studies did not exonerate Luther from all the ills of the tradition that bears his name, but they did reveal that other ideas and interests led to Luther’s approach often being wrongly interpreted and ideologically misused. These studies offered new interpretations, often differing in their positions and emphases, which demonstrated the complexity, the “labyrinth” (Johannes Heckel), of Luther’s thought and also revealed something about the social location of the interpreter. Yet there was wide agreement that Luther in his life and his theology did not disdain or withdraw from social and political life. On the contrary; a revisionist strain saw Luther’s theological distinctions to be essential for the church both to preserve the uniqueness of the gospel and to encourage Christians to participate critically in society. Questions remained, yet many in various contexts found in Luther a way for the church to affirm both justification and justice.

This all too brief sketch of the controversial and checkered history of interpretation of Luther’s thought on society since the early 20th century sets the stage for turning to Luther himself. In addressing social and political issues, Luther moves out from the center of his theology. That center is justification, the belief that people, sinners before God, are forgiven and justified by faith alone because of Jesus Christ. Christians living in faith before God also live at the same time in the networks and institutions of society where they are freed and called to love their neighbor. For Luther Christians always live in these two realms or relationships in which God is active; the loving God who justifies also creates the world in which Christians and others live. Better labels for Luther’s approach than “two kingdoms” are “the twofold rule of God” or “the two realms.”

Luther works out his understanding of political authority and its relation to spiritual authority as part of the twofold rule of God. He does so while protesting the abuses in the church and leading a reforming movement. He is concerned to show the proper function of Word and sword and their relationship. His 1523 treatise Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed sets out his perspective, which later he developed and modified.

Keywords: Martin Luther, two kingdoms, faith and politics, church and state, justice and justification

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