Pseudo-Lutheran Two Kingdoms Doctrine: Regressive and Irresponsible

Pseudo-Lutheran Two Kingdoms Doctrine: Regressive and Irresponsible May 28, 2020

In an era when the anxiety of influence and the need for distinctive “branding” reaches fever pitch, it’s not surprising groups would reach for doctrines or slogans that express their individuality.

Lutherans among other denominations cultivate such distinctives in an attempt to distinguish themselves among the teaming proliferation of Christian movements.

I’ve learned a few of these over the years, the categories that are supposedly uniquely ‘Lutheran’: Law/Gospel dialectic, by faith alone (or more broadly, the “Solas” of the Reformation), orders of creation, justification as a ‘hub’ of Lutheran theology, etc.

But perhaps the most popular and most commonly utilized in the latter part of the 20th century, one I had drummed into me at seminary and have heard referenced countless times over my career, most recently in the troubling Draft Social Message On Government and Civic Engagement, is the notion of “Two Kingdoms.”

Two Kingdoms is most frequently presented in our denomination as a given. Kind of a “well obviously there are two kingdoms, a kingdom on the right and the left, one spiritual that works on the inner person, and a kingdom on the left, one that works on the outer social and political world.”

The draft social message even claims, “Martin Luther and Lutherans after him believe that God rules all of creation. Lutherans historically have recognized God’s governance in two distinct but connected ways traditionally called the “right” and the “left” hands of God.”

Traditionally. Historically. You’d think with such claims the drafters of the social message were under the impression “Two Kingdoms” thinking has been a constant in the Lutheran movement from Luther to the present day.

Except, it hasn’t. Actually, the concept of the “Two Kingdoms” almost completely disappeared in the Reformation churches in the period after Martin Luther. As recent editors of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics point out: “It was occasionally used in Neo-Lutheranism after 1900. Only after the beginning of the German Church Struggle in 1933 did the Lutheran churches make a confessional issue of it. A dichotomous and divisive understanding of the doctrine was dominant at that time. This version of the two kingdoms doctrine allowed the churches to avoid accepting coresponsibility for injustice in the political sphere. The argument that the church is not allowed to obstruct world government, Obrigkeit, became a means of self-justification and excuse by all those who without protest accepted open governmental injustice” (60).

Bottom line: It is worrisome in 2020 that Lutherans are again centering “Two Kingdoms” thinking, when the most recent instance of centering such thinking was designed to avoid accepting coresponsiblity for injustice in the political sphere.

Some theologians point out that it is not the Two Kingdoms doctrine as such, but the misuse of the doctrine, that is problematic. For example, in Bonhoeffer, his consideration (and challenge of) Two Kingdoms led him to the development of an understanding of the one Christ reality. This led him to resistance to National Socialism. I’ll return to this point in a bit.

So, here comes a document from our (supposedly/hopefully?) progressive ELCA leadership centering once again, as during National Socialism, Two Kingdoms thinking.

Not surprisingly, the social message ends up exhausting tons and tons of space defining the two kingdoms and their roles. As Bonhoeffer points out in his Ethics, when pseudo-Lutheran two kingdoms theology becomes a focus, “reality as a whole splits into two parts, and the concern of ethics becomes the right relation of both parts to each other” (56).

In the meantime, we know from the statistics (and here I illustrate my own political bias on these matters) that the ELCA as a voting population may have played a significant role in electing the morally bankrupt Donald Trump.

“Just as an example, in areas with 35 percent Evangelical Lutheran Church of America adherence, the pro-Trump effect direction is consistent, but the coefficient is even larger. Ten percent ELCA counties had a 4.7 percent swing for Trump; 25 percent ELCA counties had an 8 percent swing for Trump; 35 percent ELCA counties had an 11 percent swing for Trump.”
So, it begins to become clear why a social message drafted for the ELCA in 2020 would once again re-introduce Two Kingdoms. It becomes a way to accommodate ourselves to the reality that although perhaps much of our denominational leadership is progressive and sees a responsibility to resist the autocratic rule of our current administration, our members more generally supported this regressive regime.
Thus we illustrate our true lack of will to resist unjust government by adopting a doctrine that simply baptizes the status quo of government as the “left hand of God.” If you return briefly to the social message itself, you’ll see all the descriptions of left-handedness have to do with vacuous notions of service and good will within public office.
Government by the consent and participation of the governed allows Christians (Lutherans) to engage in public service as their vocation. This has public benefits. Public servants should receive public gratitude (they should be paid well). Such public service is neighborly service to strangers. Such public servants should exercise “civility” and aim for good “regulations.”
Then and only then, the document lists reform and calling attention to abuses of power as functions of public servants, but here notably not in their role as the church (remember, that’s just the inner spiritual realm), but in their left-hand role as public servants, and then only after considering a variety of mitigating circumstances that qualify such reform and calls to accountability.
This is, you might say, rather weak sauce.
And it doesn’t get any better. As readers continue through the document, the full responsibility for what we might call the prophetic work of civic engagement is placed not on the church as an institution, but on the “vocation of the baptized.”
In other words, good luck y’all, in your left hand functions as citizen and public servants, go do that “public of strangers” thing, but the church over here as an institution, we’re just all about that right hand work of forgiving sins. We’ll absolve you when you mess up, and not much more. (and a few final words about our supporting “nonpartisan” forms of civic engagement… as long as it doesn’t trouble us as a church too much).
In the meantime, we have Bonhoeffer, “As hard as it may now seem to break the spell of this conceptual framework of realms, it is just as certain that this perspective deeply contradicts both biblical and Reformation thought, therefore bypassing reality. There are not two realities [kingdoms], but only one reality, and that is God’s reality revealed in Christ in the reality of the world… because this is so, the theme of two realms, which has dominated the history of the church again and again (think here of Augustine and his epigones), is foreign to the New Testament” (58).
So what’s at issue here? Well, it’s about the misuse of the Two Kingdoms doctrine as much as anything else, which very frequently comes down to the various ways it connections to additional concepts like “orders of creation,” “vocation,” “estates,” or (as Bonhoeffer proposed in his own ethics), “mandates.”
Let’s compare Bonhoeffer and a contemporary conservative Lutheran to see what’s really at issue. First Bonhoeffer:
“In the name of a better Christianity Luther used the worldly to protest against a type of Christianity that was making itself independent by separating itself from the reality in Christ. Similarly, Christianity must be used polemically today [partisan?] against the worldly in the name of a better worldliness; this polemical use of Christianity must not end up again in a static and self-serving sacred realm. Only in this sense of a polemical unity may Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms [Zwei Reiche] be used. That was probably its original meaning” (60).
In other words, if the two kingdoms doctrine is used as a heuristic to simply explain the separation of the spiritual and secular realms and justify things as they are, it is being misused and abused. It was originally meant as a polemic, and this kind of polemic seems to be the very kind of thing the social message of the ELCA is avoiding in an attempt to be civil and “nonpartisan.”

So then consider Lyman Stone on Two Kingdoms:

“By the twentieth century, nothing remained in the European Lutheran churches of the ancient prophetic voice preaching repentance to rulers. In a classic case of too little, too late, a few Lutheran heroes, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, could not make up for the wider Lutheran response to the threat of Nazism—which ranged from outright exuberance to strategic collaboration to vague neutrality.”
 There is absolutely no doubt we are under threat today. Significant threat. And in a way quite similar to that tragic moment in European Lutheranism in the face of the Nazi regime, we are considering a document that leaves essentially nothing of the ancient prophetic voice preaching repentance to rulers. There’s literally nothing in the entire document that positions the church to prophetically call rulers to repentance.
There is definitely creative work that can still actually be done around this. The Two Kingdoms doctrine has inspired some directions of interest. It could be that Bonhoeffer’s concept of the four “mandates” was too tied to his north Saxon culture, and we need a more robust notion of institutions (see Ernst Wolf) or some other way of thinking through the theological relationship between the various structures of the world (corporations, government, culture, family, church).
Especially important in any church document on government and civic engagement will be tools for being-over-against-one-another, precisely because there are so many ways large institutions (not just government, but also corporations) can cause significant harm that necessitates church against and vocal resistance.
But also, the church needs tools to take on its responsibility in the world in which it finds itself. Not just a spiritualized right hand of God that will forgive us when we mess up, but rather an articulation of Christian responsibility as the willingness to take on guilt as part of a life lived fully in this world, even co-responsibility with God for the course of history.
Instead of “How do I act such that my action is good?” Instead: “the ultimate question for responsible people to ask is not how they are to extricate themselves heroically from the affair, but how the life of a coming generation can go on.” (Letters and Papers from Prison, 7)
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