Sunday, May 3, 2009

Two Kingdoms: Implications for a Christian Ethic


Luther’s writings “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved” and “Temporal Authority: To What Extent it Should Be Obeyed” are helpful resources for encountering a sound biblical understanding of two governments: spiritual and secular. Approaching what may be called a Christian ethic, one must see that God divinely orders both realms in his infinite and inscrutable mercy and love. It is impossible to overemphasize Luther’s breakthrough concerning Christian freedom and the radical nature of justification by faith alone when considering the implication for a Christian ethic, and daily life under an established political and social order. For a Christian is simultaneously lord and servant, sinner and saint, spiritually subject to God in faith, and physically subject to all in God’s orders of creation. The freedom of the forgiveness of sins received through faith granted in Christ opens up the orders of creation to man. Where man had once been curved in on himself, dead in sin, and blind to his divinely fashioned post, faith has ripped him out of his obsession of self preservation and placed him at the doorstep of his fellow human creature.

As the freedom of a Christian deals with receiving faith, life, and salvation from God, Luther views vocation as a position where the Christian freely serves his or her neighbor in fervent love and acts of mercy. Although this love is created and fed by faith, vocation does not exact a governing role over faith. In the way that salvation is claimed by God in Christ in the spiritual realm, love takes root by and through faith in daily vocation. The works that take place in vocation do not merit any divine or redemptive favor but remain on earth where they belong. In Luther’s Large Catechism he further distinguishes the two kingdoms: “In God’s sight it is actually faith that makes a person holy, it alone serves God, while our works serve people.”[1] Gustaf Wingren, summarizing Luther’s theology aptly puts it “God does not need our good works but our neighbor does.”[2] God does however, desire faith – a faith which is ultimately claimed in Christ’s reordering of the cosmos in the crucifixion and resurrection. Visually, vocation and the temporal realm can be seen as existing on a horizontal plane in which a Christian does not escape from the world but is rather organically reincorporated into it for the purpose God’s love toward his creation. The spiritual realm is accessed vertically by Christ’s descent into the flesh of the virgin – who encounters man and remakes him at the event of the cross. Although these are distinguished realms (temporal and spiritual) they are not wholly separated for the Christian but rather reconciled and brought into a divinely ordered harmony.

Considering Luther’s formative years among Augustinian ascetics, whom denied the earthly for all things spiritual, it is quite remarkable how Luther so completely destroyed the medieval conception of “spirituality,” in turn handing over the true holy orders of creation back to the church and family. The incarnation and Christ’s bodily Word and Sacrament for Luther puts man back into communion with God and makes the temporal realm not something to be denied, but rather to be declared good (Gen. 1:10). That the fullness of God desired to become human flesh and blood and dwell among men proves that God loves his creation – desiring to be intimately near. A Christian ethic proceeds from this goodness - the goodness of creation, the goodness of Christ, and the goodness that man may boast as his own, through faith in Christ. The goodness of the spiritual realm in turn, becomes earthly in the sacraments and the bodily Word. A sacramental theology sanctifies daily life and contextualizes the temporal/earthly kingdom in Christ’s cross and the gifts that flow from it. The temporal kingdom of the sword and earthly law and justice now operate for the Christian rather than against him, for all authority on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus Christ.
It is Luther’s understanding that coerced social order by temporal governance is not necessary for the baptized Christian who is faithfully nurtured in the spiritual milk of Christ’s cross but remains divine in its origin serving the common good, suppressing evil and preserving peace. The ‘realist’ might be critical of this assessment, yet Luther is ever focused on the wholly new creation who finds true freedom in the new and joyful bondage of God’s justifying act in and through Christ. This faith which is freely granted does not move the Christian to live in idleness but makes the law and works unnecessary for any mans righteousness and salvation. True good works – the ripest fruits of faith only proceed when one may see that there is no work left to be done – that Christ has truly finished all the work. When the promise of forgiveness of sins and heaven are physically handed over to the church the Sabbath day rest finds its true meaning – that we may rest that Christ may work in us. When man’s activism is crushed and the universal battle for self justification and heavenly assent is silenced by the Gospel, he may return to his earthly post with the faith-filled eyes which need not stray any longer. God’s divine condescension, incarnation, and movement into the human heart focuses man’s sight not on a lofty spiritual realm but on the earthly where God has promised to be – in the sick and the needy, the broken hearted, the captive, the child, in fact all of creation who is dependent upon God and fellow creature for love and mercy.

The spiritual freedom which opens one up to the earthly realm is lived by and through another – Jesus Christ, marked by God’s reestablished communion with his creation, in which God is creator, man is creature, and the alienation from the law is consumed and buried – forever forgotten. This relationship in Christ has a “vertical” quality, which contrasts the earthly realm of family, neighbors, rules, and various social roles. This is to say that the established relationship between Creator and creature is unassailable by all that which exists throughout the bitter despairs, challenges and temptations of daily life. Luther notes however, that God is ruler of both kingdoms, “First we must provide a sound basis for the civil law and sword so no one will doubt that it is in the world by God’s will and ordinance.”[3] However, later on in Luther’s treatise on temporal government he also writes that redeemed Christians suffer and persist in daily life apart from coercive civil law:"…among themselves (Christians) and by and for themselves, need no law or sword, since it is neither necessary nor useful for them. Since a true Christian lives and labors on earth not for himself alone but for his neighbor, he does by the very nature of his spirit even what he himself has no need of, but is needful and useful to his neighbor. Because the sword is most beneficial and necessary for the whole world in order to preserve peace, punish sin, and restrain the wicked, the Christian submits most willingly to the rule of the sword, pays his taxes, honors those in authority, serves, helps, and does all he can to assist the governing authority, that it may continue to function and be held in honor and fear.”[4]

Luther is careful to continue with a precise distinction between his understanding of the spiritual and earthly kingdoms. His theology never borders on Christians utopias as remotely possible. Although he retains a belief that the new creature in Christ fulfils and exceeds temporal law obediently and joyfully, such theocratic or Christian governance is impossible, “…for the world and masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name.”[5] From Luther’s own personal experience with “anfechtung,” his awareness of the enormity of sin and the human condition without external restraints he describes as, “…loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone…” This worldly government he sees as necessary to subdue disorder and evil passions while administering earthly justice. In Luther’s lecture on Genesis he historically pieces together how the fallen man made the care-free social order of paradise into a coercive order through which civil law must function:“Moreover, there was no government of the state before sin, for there was no need of it. Civil government is remedy required by our corrupted nature. It is necessary that lust be held in check by the bonds of the laws and by penalties. For this reason you may correctly call civil government the rule of sin, just as Paul calls Moses also the minister of death and sin.”[6]This post-sin justice from the law is universal and cross-cultural and maintains social order in a way to protect people in body and property. The earthly life of a free Christian is bound to secular authorities and its social, financial, and physical demands. The spiritual life of a free Christian is not jeopardized by the various offices of vocation expressed in the horizontal plane with all the possible elements of diversity assumed by a given post.It is common for many to confuse the kingdoms of heaven and earth, to merge them, contort them, or alternatively to completely separate them as did the Gnostic heresies of both ancient time and of today, leading either to moral libertinism or self-righteous asceticism and pacifism. For example, some protest the act of war and killing as intrinsically evil and contradictory to the faith of Christian. Although Luther is well aware of the misery of war and injustice, he also clearly sees the other side of war, “But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honors and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is; and I observe that it amputates a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish”[7]
Retributive killing in response to murder, Luther sees as divine in its origin, rooted in Cain’s fear of the sword after killing Abel, as well as God’s extremely definitive laws after the flood, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Luther sees capital punishment as a basic precept of earthly justice which remains constant regardless of the winds of political or moral persuasion, “The credit or blame belongs to men if this law instituted by God is not carried out; just as other commandments of God, too, are broken.”[8]It is important to understand vocations defined by war and punishment, to highlight the visualization of the volatility of various earthly offices, to grasp Luther’s conviction that the free and faithful Christian is undisturbed in matters of faith. We have seen the necessity of the offices of the civil judge, the soldier, and the executioner. These offices, in which violence and killing can be commonplace, can be maintained by the free Christian fulfilling his or her civil duties commanded by God. Luther insists that while the soul is bound up in the body of Christ, the body remaining in this earthly life remains bound to worldly rulers. Therefore the duties that go along with these offices pertain to earthly justice and matters of civic duty, which can neither jeopardize nor nullify standing with God when performed in faith. Earthly justice therefore must be carefully distinguished from spiritual justice which is only defined through means of grace and Christ’s encounter with his dearly beloved.In Luther’s treatise to comfort the consciences of soldiers he writes, “For the very fact that the sword has been instituted by God to punish evil, protect the good, and preserve peace is powerful and sufficient proof that war and killing along with all the things that accompany wartime and martial law and have been instituted by God.”[9] The violence and “all things that accompany” wartime having no impact on salvation for the free Christian seems very much a liberating concept for the consciences of those holding offices dealing in such works of violence and turmoil. Luther makes certain to even reach out to the executioner, the most feared villain in medieval society – to extend mercy and calm his conscience, “There must be those who arrest, prosecute, execute, and destroy the wicked…”[10] One can imagine a masked executioner holding a bloody sword after severing the head of a criminal, yet if Christian, remains faithful and righteous before God in both spiritual and civic realms. Therefore there is a distinction between person and office – between spiritual and earthly. The distinction is that God creates and defines man in his post rather than his illusionary self-creation in his various spheres of life. For all Christians, in fact every human creature, God has the first and last Word, whether it be under the mercy of the cross or under His wrath, “I don’t know you..depart from me” (Lk. 13:27).
Luther’s reverence for social order as directed by civil government is absolute, yet for the free Christian does have its’ limits. Where temporal government has dominion over the citizenry and property, its’ authority comes to a screeching halt where it encroaches on spiritual matters, “Therefore where the temporal authority presumes to prescribe laws for the soul, it encroaches upon God’s government and only misleads souls and destroys them.”[11] This type of infringement would be for a government to coerce a soul to believe that which is contradictory to Scripture, or to inhibit the hearing of the gospel and the reception of the sacraments of the church. The teaching and treasures of the church are handed over to Bishops and Pastors to be servants of Christ and freely give to all. As for heresy, government is also incapable of serving the church – for the sword is of no use, “Here God’s Word must do the fighting.”[12]In response to a government which coerces unbelief in matters of faith or hinders Christ gifts, Luther instructs the free Christian to rebuke the corrupt authority by saying, “It is not fitting that Lucifer should sit at the side of God. Gracious Sir, I owe you obedience in body and property; command me within the limits of your authority on earth, and I will obey.”[13] Therefore, government has no divinely ordained right to sit with God and intrude upon matters of the soul. This passage also highlights the confusion of the two kingdoms that such a government would seek. Luther never entices a Christian reader to raise up against such an authority but rather only deny its’ power in the territory of the spiritual realm, which carries faith. The matter of faith for the free Christian is not to react with hostility or anger to temporal rule. Luther’s every thought and argument is focused squarely on new life in Christ, which leaves no room for violent or hostile resistance to authority, “Christians do every good thing of their own accord and without constraint, and find God’s word alone sufficient for them.”[14]A Christian ethic is a new state of affairs where liberty is marked by release from the law and condemnation where a submissive and peaceful heart operates joyfully in the social order under temporal authorities. Luther asserts that God has dominion over both spiritual and earthly kingdoms, where only the Christian in faith can find harmony between the two, mediated by God’s act on the cross. The Christian who receives citizenship in heaven is not spiritually deterred or jeopardized by faithful execution of ones God-given vocation. God divinely rules through civil government and works all things for his creation through his established social order. As for the intricacies of social justice as relates to temporal matters, Luther is not excessively entrenched, for his meditations are focused wholly on the condition of the soul for the free Christian, where temporal rule cannot tread. For a Christological Interpretation of Temporal Authority I have written here.

[1] Kolb, Robert, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand. The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p. 406.
[2] Somewhere in Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation.
[3] LW 45:85.
[4] LW 45:94.
[5] LW 45:98.
[6] LW 1:104
[7] LW 46:92.
[8] LW 45:88.
[9] LW 46:95
[10] LW 46:103.
[11] LW 45:105.
[12] LW 45:114.
[13] LW 45:112.
[14] LW 45:118.

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