The Importance of Luther’s Doctrine of the Three Estates

The Importance of Luther’s Doctrine of the Three Estates June 10, 2021


When we think of Luther’s thought as it relates to culture and our life in the world, what comes to mind are his doctrines of vocation and of the Two Kingdoms.  But there is a third teaching that is critical in its own terms and in helping us apply the other two:  The Doctrine of the Three Estates.

I came across a quite brilliant article on the subject by Dr. Michael Laffin from the University of Aberdeen.  He is the author of a book I now want to read entitled The Promise of Martin Luther’s Political Theology: Freeing Luther from the Modern Political Narrative.

This article was published in the journal Ad Fontes, a publication of the Davenant Institute, a study center that happened to have had me as a speaker last week.

Just as writers on the Two Kingdoms often refer to them as the two “realms” (a word which means “kingdom”), Laffin refers to the Three Estates as “institutions” (a word that means “estates”).  But perhaps the less-medieval terms are more clarifying for modern readers.

Here are the first two paragraphs from Michael Laffin, Inhabiting the Places of Promise: Martin Luther’s Teaching on the Three Institutions [my bolds]:

Discussions of Martin Luther’s writings on society, ethics, and politics in the English-speaking world tend to focus on his teaching concerning the two kingdoms, which divides authority into temporal and spiritual realms. Often overlooked is the larger theological framework within which the two kingdoms teaching is situated. In particular, his teaching concerning the three institutions (or “estates,” as they are more commonly called) has been, with a few important exceptions, largely neglected.  According to Luther, Scripture references institutions or “con-creatures” (concreatae sint),created together with human beings, that bear God’s promise to provide for human creaturely life, especially in its social aspects.[1] The three institutions are, Luther says, the church (or ecclesia), the household economy (or oeconomia), and politics (or politia). When Luther’s treatment of the three institutions is neglected, the teaching concerning the two kingdoms tends to take on a life of its own, leading to quietist interpretations of the Christian’s relation to governmental authority, or a division of human life into autonomous “worldly” and “spiritual” spheres, the latter understood in an individualistic and inward sense, none of which was intended by Luther.

In part, wariness of Luther’s political theology stems from appropriate concerns about how it was misused in early twentieth-century Germany to justify subservience to Hitler’s Nazi regime. A proper understanding of the institutions and how they function in Luther’s thought, however, will show that they help us to subject earthly authority (churchly, political, economic) to the criticism of divine revelation and force into the open the idolatry behind any claims of absolute authority by any of the three institutions. Such claims were made primarily by the church hierarchy in Luther’s time, the state in Nazi Germany, and, some might claim, by the economy in our own time. Further, without attending to the teaching on the institutions, Luther’s social and political ethics become separated from his larger theological commitments, dissolving their organic unity. The three institutions can give us much needed critical purchase as we seek to faithfully inhabit our vocations, and the institutions that support our vocations, in the world today. Therefore, my purpose is to set forth Luther’s teaching on the three institutions, indicating its inseparable connection to his larger theology of the Word of God, and then to spell out its implications for the way we might think about social life, ethics and politics.

[Keep reading. . .]

We have vocations in all of the estates, and God’s reign over His temporal kingdom is carried out by means of these “institutions” that He created for human life.  The “oeconomia”–a Latin word meaning literally the laws of the house, from which our word “economics” is derived–includes the family and the means by which the family makes its living.  In the late middle ages, virtually all economic labor–whether of peasant farmers, merchants, craftsmen, the nobility, kingship–was a family affair.  Today, we spin off “economic” vocations from the family, and in the popular usage “vocation,” which comes from the Latin word for “calling,” has come to mean “occupation” or “profession,” as opposed to the various offices and relationships that God calls us to.

Also, Luther’s conception of the Estates is not that of the middle ages or the French Revolution, in which each person belonged to one and only one of the estates–the Church, the Nobility, or the Commons–categories that entrenched the medieval social hierarchies.  For Luther, each person belongs to all of the estates at once:  all Christians constitute the Church; we are all citizens of our community with its temporal government; we all belong to and have a role in supporting a family.

I am interested in Laffin’s point that any of the three estates can become idolatrous when it asserts itself over the others.  It is certainly true that Luther strenuously opposed political rule by the Church, as in both the papacy’s claim to exercise temporal authority over secular rulers and in the anabaptists’ attempt to set up Christian communes.  So much for today’s theories of Catholic integralism, Reformed theonomy, Pentecostal New Apostolic Reformation, and other theocratic schemes.  At the same time, Luther insisted that the political order must not presume to rule the church in its spiritual workings.  Nor, it follows, should the church or the state take over the functions of the family or, by extension, the economy.  So much for totalitarianism.  Or, Laffin suggests, for making the economy our “absolute authority,” as it has become by some of us conservatives, traditional liberals, and consumer capitalists in general.

For an excellent resource on this topic–including the key passages from Luther–see Rev. Bryan Wolfmueller’s post Thinking Like a Lutheran:  The Three Estates.


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