The Lutheran Two-Kingdoms Doctrine And Subservience To The State In Modern Germany -- By: Richard V. Pierard

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 29:2 (Jun 1986)
Article: The Lutheran Two-Kingdoms Doctrine And Subservience To The State In Modern Germany
Author: Richard V. Pierard

The Lutheran Two-Kingdoms Doctrine And Subservience To The State In Modern Germany

Richard V. Pierard*

A debate has raged during the past few decades within German Protestant and particularly Lutheran circles over the so-called “doctrine of the two kingdoms.” It has, as Heinrich Bornkamm aptly puts it, “produced an almost unmanageable quantity of literature.”1 In such a brief space it is not possible to deal with the manifold aspects of the debate,2 but this essay will examine the doctrine as it was formulated in early twentieth-century Lutheranism and point out ways in which it reinforced the concept of authoritarian government. It must be emphasized that the traumatic experiences of the Third Reich forced theologians to rethink their understanding of the teaching. As a result a variety of interpretations exists today among Lutherans, but few are willing to abandon it entirely.

I. What Isthe Two-Kingdoms Doctrine?

The concept of an eschatological tension between the two kingdoms or realms is found in the NT and Augustine, and some ideas about the two kingdoms (Reiche) and two forms of governance (Regimente) were expressed by Luther, but this did not constitute a central part of his theology. Since he never made a systematic exposition of the doctrine, interpreters have constructed it from a brief treatise of 1523, On Secular Authority: To What Extent We Owe It Obedience, and passing comments he made over a thirty-year period. Because the material that can be drawn from the Wittenberg Reformer’s works is vague, confusing, and at times contradictory, any definition or exposition of the two-

*Richard Pierard is professor of history at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.

kingdoms doctrine is simultaneously an exercise in interpretation. The description that follows is taken largely from post-World War II writers like Heinrich Bornkamm, Ulrich Duchrow and Helmut Thielicke, who have sought to go behind the early twentieth-century accretions and get at Luther’s essential understanding of it.3

Luther sees God’s power in history engaged in an unrelenting struggle with the power of evil (the kingdom of the devil), one that will continue to the end of time. As God has the goal of establishing his ultimate reign of perfection (the kingdom of God), he fights against the power of evil in every dimension of existence. Human beings live in both realms, and God gives them the power of reason that will help to keep them from misusing their human capabilities. Reason means parti...

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