Nick Seeking Understanding

Essays from an Edinburgh MTh

Church and State in Luther April 4, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — Nick Brindley @ 11:51 am


That there was a development in Luther’s thinking about the rights and responsibilities of the secular power in the field of religion has long been recognised. A tension between the radical separation of the “two kingdoms” in his writings of the early 1520s and the affirmation of the Christian prince’s leading role in the Church from the latter part of that decade is obvious and much remarked.[1]

In recent years a debate has taken place between two English speaking scholars of Luther on this question. James Estes has argued that the later Luther is best seen as agreeing with Philipp Melanchthon on the cura religionis, the idea that within the community of Christians the secular ruler has the responsibility to take care of  the spiritual as well as of the material well-being of those under their care. The residual resistance that Estes recognises in late Luther texts are regarded as inconsistencies rather than a distinct position and due to the influence of Ockhamist philosophy rather than to the evangelical doctrines of the Reformation.[2]

This thesis been contested by David Whitford who has argued that the evangelical identification of saving faith as the offering of a free conscience remains central to Luther’s thought to the end. Whitford accepts the movement towards a stronger role for the magistrate but asserts a greater difference between Luther and Melanchthon in terms of the theology of this shift. Luther’s resistance to the rule of the secular magistrate in matters of religion is seen by Whitford as principled and consistent.[3]

This essay will consider this question, of the limits of the responsibilities of the civil magistrate in Luther, though the lens of this recent debate and develop some systematic and ecclesiological considerations from it. In the end the difference between Estes and Whitford will be seen to be less one about the historical-theological questions of the content and development of Luther’s thought than about the assessment of two possible approaches to them.

Estes favours the greatest possible consistency and coherence in thought and practice. He sees Melanchthon’s development of a system that could account theologically for the evolving reality of Lutheran politics and ecclesial organisation as a step forward. Whitford, on the other hand, prefers the purity of early evangelical doctrine, of the freedom of conscience and individual responsibility.

This essay will argue that the tensions in Luther’s thought, recognised by both Estes and Whitford but assessed differently, were always inherent in the teaching of the Reformer. It will argue further that these tensions (or “paradoxes” to borrow a term from that great nineteenth century Lutheran Soren Kierkegaard) are not an accidental property of Luther’s thought. Rather it will suggest that they constitute the heart of the continuing importance and relevance of this founding figure of the modern world and the modern Church. In them we see the traces of the paradoxical reality of Christian life in the already and not-yet of God’s rule and the signs of the way in which the Christian is called to be in but not of this fallen world.

Luther early and late: the evolution of Two Kingdoms

The early Luther: two kingdoms, two regiments

Luther’s early teaching on the relationship of the secular and spiritual powers is best captured in Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed a text written in 1523 in response to moves by the Catholic Duke of Saxony to suppress Luther’s translation of the New Testament. In it he distinguishes sharply between the secular sword, needed to suppress the outworking of sinful assaults on peace and order and the spiritual authority that works towards true righteousness through the proclamation of the Gospel. These two “regiments” both express God’s sovereignty over creation, being two aspects of God’s rule.[4]

This is not the only meaning of the phrase “two kingdoms” in the early Luther, though. He also has a strong sense of an eschatological struggle between the forces of good, loyal to God, and the forces of evil lead by Satan. These also form two kingdoms., that of God and that of the Devil or of the world. Alongside the idea of God’s universal rule there this idea of a war.[5]

Crucial to this distinction is the idea that salvation, the central concern of the spiritual power, is a matter of faith and not of any kind of work. Complete freedom is required in the spiritual domain since saving faith must be that of the free conscience. There can be no compulsion in this regard. This drives the sharp separation of the two governments with an irresistible logic.[6]

The late Luther: the Christian prince and the Christian community

When one examines the writings of the later Luther this logic has been much modified by the experience of the Reformation struggles as well as by further reflection. His concern that papalist doctrine subordinated the civil magistrate to ecclesial authority thus preventing both from fulfilling their divinely ordained roles[7] was now supplemented by resistance to the Anabaptist teaching that the Christian was free from all loyalty to secular authority.[8] His defence of the validity of coercive rule was now mounted on two fronts.

Further the experience of the Saxon church in benefiting from the support of a Lutheran ruler and of the chaos and dislocation of a collapse of all ecclesial authority made Luther increasingly aware of the necessity of structures of rule within the Church considered as a human institution. From the later 1520s he supported and participated in a system of control over the reformed Saxon church that based itself on the power of the Elector while asserting the independence of spiritual judgement.[9]

This combined with the long-standing awareness that the Christian was not freed from sin in this world, that the Christian was a member simultaneously of the spiritual and of the secular realm and that two governments had to cooperate in shaping the life of the community.[10]

Continuity, discontinuity, history and theology

Texts like the preface to the instructions to the visitors or the commentary on Psalm 101, with their clear adoption of a legitimate role for the prince in the organisation of the church and the suppression of false teaching appear at first sight to be in sharp conflict with the earlier demand for complete autonomy of the spiritual from the secular government and rejection of any mixing of their domains.[11] Furthermore in Melanchthon and later Lutheran orthodoxy the granting of oversight of the church to the prince was asserted and defended. It is this that leads Estes to argue for a complete reorientation of Luther’s thinking in this regard.[12]

However it is impossible to ignore the reality that the characteristic centrality of the freedom of conscience in religion and of separation of the two kingdoms continues to be a theme in the later Luther.[13] It is this that causes Estes to convict him of failing to think through the new position consistently and Whitford to claim that he remained true to his early evangelical teaching against Estes’ identification of his later position with that of Melanchthon.[14]

The late Luther: consistencies and inconsistencies

Blasphemy and sedition: religious and civil order

In defending the role of the magistrate in religion while continuing to assert the freedom of conscience in faith one path Luther takes is making the case that religious dissent is not always or easily distinguishable from political dissent. Blasphemy he argues can easily become or justify sedition.[15]

The arguments for this position are twofold and each of them will be important when we come to consider the contemporary significance of these debates within and about Luther.

On the one hand he suggests that rejection of God’s sovereignty over the world will be closely aligned to rejection of the sovereignty of God’s appointed magistrate. The magistrates are “gods” who stand as God’s representatives and recognition of the authority of one is necessary to proper recognition of the other.[16]

On the other hand he thinks that dissension on matters of religion will lead to dissension in the civil sphere so that a properly functioning polity requires uniformity in religion even where this comes at the cost of some sacrifice of religious truth, so that Lutherans should not preach the evangelical message where they are in the minority or opposed by the magistrate.[17]

The prince as Christian: thinking about David

Another important dimension of Luther’s late position is his consideration of the position of the Christian ruler as a Christian. The ruler qua ruler is bound by natural law and could perform their function as ordained by God by following the advice of the great pagan thinkers about secular government.[18] However the Christian prince is not operating only on this basis but has in addition the responsibilities laid upon them by the Gospel.[19]

This implies first that they will follow the moral teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, which while it does not, given the individual’s responsibilities to others as determined by their station, preclude use of the sword does demand a selfless disregard of their own interests.[20] Secondly it means that they have, as Christians, to promote the truth of the gospel and in particular to promote and protect those who teach it and repress those who oppose it.[21] This is the first virtue of the prince.

In exceptional cases this duty can go still further and the prince can himself become the means for the direct promotion of God’s truth. David is the outstanding example to rulers and takes direct command in religious affairs. Because of the extraordinary character of his inspiration by God he could promote right religion without separation of the roles of religious teacher and king.[22]

The impossibility of compelling belief: the great problem

However even in this later phase of his career where Luther had come to accept the necessity of coercive religious discipline and the possibility of convergence of the two governments in the case of an exceptional inspired individual he still retained his belief in the dependence of saving faith on the freedom of the individual conscience in matters of faith.[23] As Luther states in the late lectures on Genesis “the Gospel is something heard … It is not with the sword … but with … the doctrine of faith that … [Christ] will rule.”[24]

Luther’s core belief in free interiority as central to the saving relationship with Christ means that however much realism about the political situation and reflection about the harm done by false teaching might force him to concede a religious role to the secular power a residual space for the  choice of believing or not believe had to be retained.

Systematic reflections

Interiority and exteriority: how to think the Church

What can we learn from this account of Luther’s career about the nature of the Church as an institution? The first thing to note is that Luther always made a distinction between the Church and the spiritual kingdom. In the early 1520s, when the separation of the two kingdoms was most starkly stated this was not primarily a call for the autonomy of the Church and the civil authority. After all Luther and his evangelical allies did not constitute a church and were excluded from the Church. The consolidation of ecclesial structures loyal to Luther’s teaching was possible only on the basis of support from Lutheran princes and took place only in the second half of the 1520s.[25]

Luther believed that the true Church was recognisable not by any institutional mark but only through the presence of the twin features of the Word truly preached and the sacraments properly administered.[26] Even this, though, was ancillary to faith. Salvation was not a gift of the Church or mediated by it. Salvation was a gift of God given directly to the individual believer by grace through faith. The exterior and temporal work of the Church, while valuable, was secondary to the interior work of God’s grace active in faith. This left the Church in an ambiguous position between the two governments.

Living between the times: how to think the State

The issues with the civil authority are rather different. There is a problem with how to reconcile the necessity of coercive authority exercised by human agents with God’s sovereignty which is intensified once a role is given to this authority in the regulation of religious affairs.

Luther is clear both that political authority properly so called between human beings is a feature of the fallen world and did not exist in the pre-lapsarian condition[27] and that once established its proper exercise does not require any form of directly revealed Law or instruction.[28] The existence of coercive authority founded on natural law is an ordinance of God but responds to the presence of evil (the kingdom of Satan) in the world. This combination of trust in God’s sovereignty with recognition of a struggle between rival powers is a difficult one to maintain.

This problem changes its shape once a positive role is accorded to the secular power not only in the secular but also in the spiritual domain. If the magistrate can contribute to spiritual salvation through regulation and control of the church as well as keeping the peace and preserving life then the place of the “sword” in the plans of Providence becomes ambiguous. Is it only a negative response to the consequences of sin or does it also have a positive role in salvation?

Luther’s response to this is deeply ambivalent, as is clearest in the long and tortuous discussion of the figure of David in his reflection on Psalm 101 written as advice to the new Lutheran Elector of Saxony in 1535. The conclusion, insofar as this text can be said to have one, is that the promotion of religious truth by a secular ruler is an exception, a feature of the rule of a directly inspired individual.[29] This must indicate a profound trouble in Luther’s thought, a moment of theological crisis.

Luther and modernity: thinking Church and State at once

The Church and the civil authority both occupy both realms in the thought of the late Luther. The Church is the site within which the Word is taught and saving faith facilitated but it is also a human institution and a site of struggle between God’s rule and that of Satan, as are all earthly institutions. It can degenerate and fall into the power of Antichrist, as has the church of Rome, and it can come to rely on the secular power as its ally and protector, as has the evangelical church of Saxony. The preacher and teacher is the instrument used by God for the work of salvation and the Church the setting for his or her work.

Similarly the civil authority, a merely defensive measure in the thought of the early Luther has come to have an increasingly positive role in the work of salvation. Whether this is theologised in terms of the relationship between sedition and blasphemy, which tends to assimilate the prince to God[30] or through the figure of David as the inspired servant of God a movement is made towards a Holy state. However Luther’s continuing teaching of sola fide means that this movement can never be completed. It remains an anxious and conflicted teaching which opens up a space for us to think about how to think the coexistence of a Church shrunk to a minority with a state which is self-consciously secular in the sense of recognising no religious responsibility and no dependence on God.


The ambiguities and conflicts in Luther’s work should be seen as a positive rather than a negative feature of it. They reflect his lively sense of the world we inhabit as one that is at odds with the way God would have it be; of the world as riven with conflict between God and Satan; of the possibility of a live and saving relationship to God in faith which nonetheless leaves the believer as a sinner; of the dual existence of the Christian as at once subject to the Law and the sword and as a free member of the spiritual kingdom where equality is the order and coercion is unnecessary.

These paradoxes are inherent in a Christianity that takes seriously both dimensions of its eschatological teaching. That Christ will at a future time return in judgement to end the waiting and resolve the injustices and conflicts of our fallen world; and that the Kingdom of God is here and now, that through faith we enter into that Kingdom and dwell within it in the midst of our earthly life, that redemption is already completed.

This structure works itself out in both Church and state and in their relationship to one another, even in societies where public discourse recognises neither the universal nature of the Church nor the divinely ordained character is civil rule. For the Christian thinker who takes seriously the idea of God’s sovereignty this public discourse cannot have the last word. Luther’s distinctive combination of a natural law account of the nature of civil rule with a rigorously Christocentric doctrine of salvation through faith; his ability to hold together a view of the Church as constituted only by Word and sacraments with an institutional flexibility that can accommodate a variety of forms and of articulations with the power of the sword provides post-Reformation theology with valuable resources for rethinking our position in a secularised legal field without resort either to nostalgia for an organic Christendom or to a sectarian refusal of our citizenship.


Cargill Thompson, W. D. J. and Broadhead, P. (1984) The political thought of Martin Luther, Brighton: Harvester.

Estes, J. M. (2003) ‘Luther on the role of secular authority in the Reformation’, Lutheran Quarterly, 17(2), 199-225.

Estes, J. M. (2005) Peace, order, and the glory of God : secular authority and the church in the thought of Luther and Melanchthon, 1518-1559, Studies in medieval and Reformation traditions,, Leiden: Brill.

Hinlicky, P. R. (2010) Luther and the beloved community : a path for Christian theology after Christendom, Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: W.B. Eerdmans.

Höpfl, H., Luther, M. and Calvin, J. (1991) Luther and Calvin on secular authority, Cambridge texts in the history of political thought, Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kramm, H. H. W. (1951) ‘Luther’s teaching on Christian responsibility in politics’, Lutheran Quarterly, 3(3), 308-313.

Lindberg, C. (1976) ‘Theology and politics : Luther the radical and Muntzer the reactionary’, Encounter, 37(4), 356-371.

Lohse, B. (1999) Martin Luther’s theology : its historical and systematic development, Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Lose, D. J. (1999) ‘The Ambidextrous God : Luther on Faith and Politics’, Word & World, 19(3), 260-267.

Luther, M. and Atkinson, J. (1966) Luther’s works. Vol. 44-47, The Christian in society, Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Luther, M. and Gritsch, E. W. (1958) Luther’s works. Vol. 39-41, Church and ministry, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press.

Luther, M. and Lehmann, H. T. (1957) Luther’s works. Vol. 31-34, Career of the reformer, Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press.

Luther, M. and Pelikan, J. (1955a) Luther’s works. Vol. 1-8, Lectures on Genesis, Saint Louis: Concordia.

Luther, M. and Pelikan, J. (1955b) Luther’s works. Vol. 12-14, Selected psalms, Saint Louis: Concordia.

Nessan, C. L. (2005) ‘Reappropriating Luther’s two kingdoms’, Lutheran Quarterly, 19(3), 302-311.

Nestingen, J. A. (1999) ‘The Two Kingdoms Distinction : An Analysis with Suggestion’, Word & World, 19(3), 268-275.

Sauter, G. (2007) Protestant theology at the crossroads : how to face the crucial tasks for theology in the twenty-first century, Grand Rapids, Mich. ; Cambridge: W. B. Eerdmans.

Stumme, J. R. and Tuttle, R. W. (2003) Church and state : Lutheran perspectives, Minneapolis: Fortress Press.

Whitford, D. M. (2004) ‘Cura Religionis or two kingdoms: the late Luther on religion and the state in the lectures on Genesis’, Church History, 73(1), 41-62.

[1]    e.g. (Lohse 1999) pp314-325

[2]    (Estes 2005) p6

[3]    (Whitford 2004)

[4]    (Höpfl 1991)

[5]    (Höpfl 1991) p8-9

[6]    (Höpfl 1991) p24-25

[7]      LW 13 p194

[8]      LW 13 p62

[9]    LW 40 269-273

[10]  (Estes 2003) p12-18

[11]    LW 13 p193

[12]  (Estes 2003) p220

[13]    e.g. LW 13 p62

[14]    (Estes 2003) p 20-21 and (Whitford 2004) p22

[15]  LW 13 pp46-47

[16]  LW 13 p46

[17]    LW 13 p63

[18]    LW 13 pp199-201

[19]    LW 13 p52

[20]    LW 13 p54-5

[21]  LW 13 p52

[22]  LW 13 p189

[23]  LW 13 p 62

[24]  LW 8 p329

[25]  (Estes 2003) p18

[26]    LW 13 p90

[27]    LW 1 p104

[28]   LW 13 p198

[29]    LW 13 p223-4

[30]    LW 13 p44


One Response to “Church and State in Luther”

  1. […] the heathen in how to organise the affairs of this world (I’ve just written an essay on this, here). There is no reason to expect that Christians will be better or different in formulating policy or […]

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