A Reformer Speaks: Martin Luther on Politics

Since we are getting close to Halloween, I decided to go a bit out of sequence and follow the blogs on City of God with one about Luther and his “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, which is a development of Augustine’s position.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born in what is today the eastern part of Germany, then a province of the Holy Roman Empire. His father desired him to become a lawyer. As a result of an experience during a thunderstorm, Luther vowed to become a monk, which he did. In 1505, Luther entered an Augustinian Monastery and became a monk. Eventually, he became a professor of theology. As an Augustinian, the work of St. Augustine was important to his formation as a thinker. During his formative years, be became increasingly critical of the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church of 16thCentury Europe.

The Reformation

His intellectual and moral critique of Rome culminated on October 31, 1517 when he posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg church door. These theses set out a critique of the Roman Catholic Church. The church immediately opposed Luther’s ideas, and by October 1518, the Protestant Reformation began in earnest. [1]

It is impossible to fully understand either the Reformation or Luther’s political theology without reference to the conditions in Germany at the time. While Luther was critical of the theology and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, the princes and secular leaders of Germany were unhappy with the power of the Roman Catholic Church and the policies of the Holy Roman Empire under which they labored. They tired of the cost of supporting the Roman Church and especially the cost of building St. Peter’s at the Vatican. Many of the German princes backed Luther partly from political motives.

The Two Kingdoms in Luther’s Day

During the Middle Ages, the church and the state formed a kind of unified sovereignty in Europe. Many activities, such as marriage, divorce, family law issues, etc. that we would call secular issues, were not treated as such. The church had earthly governing powers. At the same time, particularly in Germany, tensions had arisen between the princes of Germany, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Roman Catholic Church. One source of tension had to do with the alliance between the leaders of the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church, which the princes of Germany felt was not to their benefit.

Luther’s formulation of the Two Kingdoms Doctrine attempted to carve out two spheres of responsibility, what we would call the “secular” and the “sacred,” and give each its own area of sovereignty and the kind of integrity it needed to accomplish its responsibilities. [2] In so doing, Luther was anxious to allow the church to find the intellectual and moral space to overcome the corruptions he saw in the Medieval Roman Catholic Church. Fundamentally, Luther wanted to separate the activities of the church and princes so that the church might be and become the Bride of Christ it was intended to be without the corruptions of its role in the medieval state. Luther never foresaw nor would he have supported in his own day the modern notion of a “secular state.” The princes of Germany, as he saw it, were simply another set of stewards of God in earthly matters as he was a steward of God in matters of the faith.

If Luther wanted freedom for the church, the German princes had in mind a greater degree of freedom from both Rome and the seat of the empire. They wanted freedom from taxes, indulgences, and other burdens they felt were unjust. In modern terms, their interests were secular. Luther’s formulation of the Two Kingdoms doctrine was not intended to create the modern secular nation state, but in large measure he created a vocabulary and way of thinking that allowed the modern distinction between the secular and the sacred to later on develop. [3]

The Powers of Secular Rulers

It should not surprise anyone that an Augustinian monk would be influenced in his political thinking by  St. Augustine and his distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. Luther adapted the distinction Augustine drew and used it to analyze how God exercises sovereignty through both the church and its leaders and through the state and its leaders. Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, one sacred and the other secular. Luther believed that, under the overall sovereignty of God, each of the church and the state has its own sphere of sovereignty and its own duties within its sphere of responsibility and competence.

In 1523, Luther set out his political views in a tract known as “On Secular Authority.” [4] God rules the City of God through the gospel, the activity of his Spirit in history, and the church. God rules the world through his chosen earthly leaders. God has given earthly rulers the power of the sword to maintain social order and justice. According to Luther’s own thought, the citizens of the kingdom of God would need no secular authority because if the world were composed of all devout Christians, no secular authority would be needed. [5] However, because of human sin and the fact that the world cannot be ruled by grace, the power of secular government is necessary and those who rule must rule with force. [6]

The best way to think about the Two Kingdoms doctrine is to begin with the notion that God is the Lord of All. Christ was sent to save the world through the Gospel, and the church is God’s chosen vehicle for the task of redeeming humankind. This is the first kingdom, what Jesus called, “The Kingdom of God.” In addition to the task of inviting people into the Kingdom of God, their remains the task of ordering concrete human life in an imperfect world. The family, communities, and earthly kingdoms exist to order human life on this earth. God has ordained earthly government in order to maintain peace and basic justice in the world, just as God ordained spiritual government by the word and Spirit to gather men and women into Christ’s kingdom.

I think a pause for analysis at this point might be required. In my view, as indicated in the previous blogs on City of God, the hard distinction between the two cities in both Augustine and Luther, with the resulting separation of law and grace, is the fount of many problems. Had the Fall never occurred, there would still have been the need for secular laws and regulations. Society would still have to determine safe speeds for travel, how safely to design and manage cities, and a host of other problems requiring secular power. This is a part of what is entailed in “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:28). The idea that human beings might have lived in a society without political organization is flawed.

Furthermore, in today’s world, the fundamental principle that underlies the doctrine: that the Christian God is Lord of All and rules the world in two orders is impossible to maintain. The fact is that large numbers of people in Europe and the United States do not recognize any god, and if they do it is not the God and Father of Jesus Christ. Therefore, the assumption that “God is LORD of all” in the sense that Luther would have understood it  is no longer operative in Western culture. The  secularization of our society and culture requires a reconsideration of what the distinction between the City/ Kingdom of God and City/Kingdom of Man makes for contemporary politics.

Finally, as indicated above, there are many aspects of earthly life that impact human life that cannot be determined solely on the basis of Christian faith. To complicate matters, in our culture there are many people who consider it wrong for the church to even consider that it is responsible for the spiritual or public life of people, even in majority Christian nations.

These factors are why I prefer to think of their being One Earthly City to which all people belong and a group of persons within that Earthly City who follow the Way of Christ and serve their neighbors in self-giving love. These people are not the only members of the Earthly City, but have been set apart by God in a special way to serve the their families, communities, and state  with wisdom and Christ-like love.

The Two Kingdoms and Public Disorder

As the Reformation gained force, rebellion and violence began to spread throughout Germany. The leaders of the revolts were revolutionary and utopian, as well as, in some cases, pretty clearly mentally unhinged. [7] The result was social chaos. Luther was disturbed by this, both because it cast into doubt his own work (some of the worst offenders had been disciples of his) and because of the chaos that ensued. He wrote to the princes of the area encouraging them to act. In his Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit, he said:

Although I expect that Your Princely Graces will know better than I can advise you how to deal with this, it is nevertheless my duty to apply my submissive energies to make a contribution, and I ask Your Princely Graces most humbly to take a serious view of this, and from your responsibility and duty to exercise reasonable force to defend yourselves against such mischief and prevent rebellion. For Your Princely Graces know well that your power and worldly sovereignty are given to you by God with the command that they should be used to keep the peace and punish the unruly, as St Paul taught in Romans 13. So Your Princely Graces should neither slumber nor miss this opportunity. God will demand an answer of you if you neglect to use the sword which has solemnly been entrusted to you. And the people and the world would not forgive it if Your Princely Graces were to tolerate and suffer such rebellious and outrageous violence. [8]

Here we see at work Luther’s vision. The Princes of Germany had been appointed by God to create peace and justice within their domains. It was their duty to act to restore order, and it was Luther’s duty to point out the necessity for action. The two kingdoms were both working in tandem to secure the blessings of peace on the people of Germany. It was not long before the princes did act and violently squelched the rebellion. Before it was over 80,000 people died. Luther himself did not urge the violence, but his name has been associated with it ever since.

The Reformation is, in some ways, responsible for the revolutionary rhetoric and activity that we find present in our society today. Cut off from tradition and faith in historic institutions, a certain number of people respond with revolutionary violence, which eventually must be put down in order to restore public order and peace. Luther (and many like him today) wanted a change in his society, but he also recognized, again drawing on his Augustinian tradition, that governments exist to maintain public peace and justice—and when they fail to do so the entire society suffers.

Bonhoeffer and the Two Kingdom’s Doctrine

During the period before and during the Second World War, the German state church was complicit in the activities of the Nazi regime, eventually being effectively controlled by the Nazi regime. Some thinkers concluded that the radical separation of the roles of earthly and spiritual rulers recommended by Luther was at the root of the problem. [9] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor and martyr, was one of the first to see that the Nazi regime was evil and must be opposed by the church. One writer puts his views like this:

Bonhoeffer’s primary concern with the two kingdoms doctrine as it was being used in his own time was that it allowed for a kind of radical independence of the world from the church, the former understood as secular and the latter as sacred. As Bonhoeffer writes, “This division of the whole of reality into sacred and profane, or Christian and worldly, sectors create the possibility of existence in only one of these sectors: for instance, a spiritual existence that takes no part in worldly existence, and a worldly existence that can make good its claim to autonomy over against the sacred sector.” Bonhoeffer finds this division to be deeply antithetical to the biblical faith and the central insights of the Reformation: “There are not two realities, but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world.” [10]

The quote from Bonhoeffer included above summarizes my concerns with both the approaches of Augustine and Luther: they create an artificial separation of the one reality of the world created by God, and such a dramatic separation between the sacred and the secular that it is difficult to create a theology or practice that recognizes the either the ultimate goodness of creation and human created powers or the capacity of the Word of God to work a gradual sanctification of the structures of human life. In its secular form it deprives the church and its leaders of the capacity to speak to political matters in ways that encourage secular justice and social peace.

Bonhoeffer believed that the Two Kingdom’s doctrine as it was understood by the German church resulted in its inability to stand and speak against Hitler in a unified and effective way. This failure of the German church can be present in the contemporary church, but in a different way: too close an alliance between religious and secular leaders can result in the cooption of the church and its failure to see and confront sin and evil. This capacity is seen on the right and the left of contemporary religious life and among Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious groups. On the other hand, a complete division denies the secular order the views of its religious citizens, including Christians.


As these series of blogs continue, we will return again and again to the complex relationship between churches and religious believers and secular authorities. At this point, it is enough to point out that my evolving belief is something like the following:

  1. It is a mistake to think of religious faith and political action as separate spheres without recognizing that they interpenetrate one another. Just as we live in one relational world physically, we live in one relational world politically. It is not possible to separate one’s religious beliefs and roles (or lack thereof) and secular beliefs and roles. We all should live one integrated and whole life.
  2. Religious people, including Christians, should be free to speak into the secular arena and to participate in the secular arena without artificial or secular imposed limitations.
  3. The Vision of the Heavenly City is both a vision and a transcendental ideal that Christian believers serve and seek. (This does not mean that there is no heaven or after-life, nor does it mean that there is no “Heavenly City.” It just means that, so far as our life on earth is concerned, the vision of a perfect city of peace and justice is an ideal towards which we strive, not a reality in which we can now live.) This vision of a society of peace and justice, where the wisdom and love of God rules, is a deposit of faith given to the church to guide its public activities.
  4. The Heavenly City becomes part of the Earthly City as believers conduct their public life with practical wisdom and self-giving love for the Earthly City to which we belong, including those with little or no faith or a very different faith than ours.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This is not the place to outline the long history of unrest with the medieval Roman Catholic Church that preceded the Reformation. For a long time, many people had criticized the lack of Biblical fidelity and corruption of the church. Luther’s 95 Theses were a match lit on already dry straw.

[2] The very terms “Secular” and “Sacred” would never have occurred to Martin Luther. He was a fully medieval person in which the distinction we find to obvious was both unknown and impossible. His concern was to empower the church to reform itself, not to reform the Holy Roman Empire.

[3] This is not the place to engage in this line of thought, which I will develop further in future posts. The secular state is a creation of the Enlightenment and Modern World. Its gradual development was given impetus by the religious wars in Europe after the Reformation, which caused many people to lose faith and to desire some kind of separation between secular and religious leaders. Their goal was to allow for social peace in the face of religious diversity—a problem we face today.

[4] See, Martin Luther, Secular Authority: To What Extent Should It Be Followed, trans. C. M. Jacobs, in Works of Martin Luther, vol. 3 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1930).

[5] Id at 225-273.

[6] Id.

[7] I am basing some of this analysis on Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York, NY: Viking Press, 2017), see Chapter 16: Fanaticism and Violence, pp 311-336.

[8] Martin Luther, Letter to the Princes of Saxony Concerning the Rebellious Spirit (June 1524), https://andydrummond.net/muentzer/PDFs/luther_letter_princes.pdf (downloaded October 14, 2020)

[9] I will return to this point before these blogs are over. Not all scholars, and especially Lutheran scholars agree with this analysis. They would hold that those who were corrupted by the Nazi regime misread Luther.

[10] Jordan J. Ballor, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Two Kingdoms, And Protestant Social Thought  Today” La Revue Farel Vol. 6/7 (2011-12), 67. The citations are from Deitrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Scott, ed. Clifford J. Green (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 57-58 (https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=367099102068003121066067095127027107038049048023079045090090084025028117024113026112053049038042059099045107068071098103118028020036071089003016114009124107088092052093054079118024104019087121000000123123118016094066078024077107074108087067123067117&EXT=pdfdownloaded October 21, 2020).




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