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).




Augustine: A Doctor of the Church Speaks

St. Augustine (Aurelius Augustine or Augustine of Hippo) lived from 354-430 A.D. He was born in North Africa, educated in Rome, studied philosophy, and became a Christian in the year 388 at the age of thirty-one. Three years later, he was made Bishop of Hippo in what is today Algeria in North Africa, where he spent the rest of his life. He is recognized as a thinker foundational to Roman Catholic thought and Doctor of the Church.

In the year 410, when Augustine was 54 years old, Aleric the Visigoth entered Rome, and for three days his barbarian troops sacked the Eternal City. This was an event of profound importance for the Roman Empire and Western Civilization. Many histories date the decline of Rome from this event. Almost immediately, pagan writers complained that the Christian faith was responsible for the terrible event. To writers such as Volsianus, the event signaled that Christianity, with its crucified God and preference for peace, was responsible for the event. Augustine spent almost the remainder of his life writing City of God (circa 426). [1] The book is addressed to his friend, Marcellinus, who first brought the need for a response to the attacks of the pagans to Augustine’s attention.

The Two Cities

Augustine begins his analysis with his most basic and most famous distinction—a distinction between the “City of God” and the “City of Man.” The first is the city of Christ founded by love and entered by faith. The second is the earthly city founded by violence and conquest. The City of God is the Heavenly City made up of those who believe in Christ and worship him alone as its King and Founder. The Earthly City is founded on the lust for domination that has motivated the actions of human empires since the beginning of time. [2] This radical dichotomy between the City of God and the City of Man sits at the basis of the analysis Augustine offers of the Roman Empire and its decline.

Let’s begin with a short look at the notion of the church as the Heavenly City and some of the distinctions that Augustine makes in his analysis of the two cities. In Revelation, John sees a vision of the church coming down from heaven:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4).

The heavenly city which John saw descending from heaven is the New Jerusalem made up of those who worship God in “Spirit and in Truth.” [3] It is the Bride of Christ, dressed as a bride make ready for her new husband, which is Christ (v. 2). It is the church. This is where another distinction Augustine makes is important: He distinguishes between the church in heaven that rests from its labors (the church triumphant), and the church on earth that continues to witness to Christ in history (the church militant). At the end of history, these two churches will become one Church Triumphant.

Here is a point that is not clearly dealt with in City of God: The Heavenly City is present in and a part of the Earthly City. The decent of the Heavenly City is the church present and active in human history. Believers in Christ are not some separate tribe or nation, one of many religions and people in the world. It is present and active among all the nations and peoples of the world. Augustine often draws too great a distinction between the two cities. The human race is one people within which those who follow Christ are to be found. If one sees Israel as the church present in the Old Testament this is also clear. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the other patriarchs until the founding of the Kingdom of Israel were believers in the LORD God while sojourning and residing as aliens in other nations. The same is true during the captivity and when Israel was part of the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman empires: the people of God were part of two cities, one their city of faith and the other their city of residence.

Augustine, in my view unfortunately, draws and almost irreconcilable distinction and opposition to the character and destiny of his two cities. There were those in Augustine’s day, and there are those in our own day, who did and do not believe that secular life and the life of faith can be reconciled. This is not the case. While the Heavenly City seeks a peace that can only be found by faith, it accepts and even uses the peace of the Earthy City. [4]

The Peace of the Two Cities

The Earthy City seeks an earthly peace that is important for all people on earth, including Christians:

So, too the earthly city which does not live by faith seeks only an earthly peace, and limits to goal of its peace, of its harmony of authority and obedience among its citizens, to the voluntary and collective attainment of objectives necessary to human existence. The heavenly city, meanwhile—or rather that part that is on pilgrimage in mortal life and lives by faith must use this earthly peace until such times as our mortality, which needs such peace has passed away. [5]

The Earthly City seeks a human good when it seeks social harmony and peace through the means at its disposal. Christians, while they are on earth, seek the same kinds of peace in their human life, and so make use of these human goods for heavenly purposes. Human existence is made better and more livable by the attainment of its earthly ends. The Church seeks the good of every earthly city of which it is a part and, in many respects, the same earthly peace non-Christians seek. In other words, within any concrete society, Christians and non-Christians are often seeking the same thing: that social peace that can only be found when there is justice and a fair social order.

Because the City of Man is founded on the discipline of human striving, it is dependent upon the ceaseless vigilance of its members to retain those virtues, martial and otherwise, upon which it depends for its existence. For Augustine, the rise of Rome was an earthly blessing caused by its form of government, warlike society, and discipline. [6]The Fall of Rome, likewise is the inevitable result of the decline of those virtues that made Rome great.

This is no less true today in America than it was in ancient Rome. Christians are not only responsible to maintain Christian virtues, but responsible to be Christians while supporting those virtues that make for social peace within the society in which they are found.

The Tolerance of the Heavenly City

In Augustine’s day, as in our own, there were those who complained about the exclusiveness and the difference Augustine draws between the earthly and heavenly cities. The Heavenly City is not a closed and exclusive society. The Heavenly City is a universal city, and is held together by a common faith, not by common customs, laws, traditions and the like:

So long, then, as the heavenly City is wayfaring on earth, she invites citizens from all nations and all tongues, and unites them into a single pilgrim band. She takes no issue with diversity of customs, laws and traditions whereby human peace is sought and maintained. Instead of nullifying or tearing down, she preserves and appropriates whatever in the diversity of diverse races is aimed at one and the same objective of human peace, provided only that they do not stand in the way of faith and worship of the one supreme and true God. Thus, the heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other human beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship. [7]

There could not be a more eloquent defense of religious tolerance and the willingness of Christians to cooperate with all people of good intentions than this quotation sets out. Christians are drawn together not by racial or cultural ties, but by their common faith. The invitation to become citizens of the Heavenly City is not limited to those of one race, nation, or set of customs. The diversity of human customs, laws and traditions are human goods, part of the Earthly City.  Christian faith makes no judgement about these things so long as they are religiously neutral and not against notions of justice. Furthermore, the Heavenly City not only tolerates but works for the same human goods as does the earthly city, so long as its worship and internal customs are not at stake.

As Western society continues its process of secularization and a sometimes aggressively pagan culture emerges, Christians have much to learn from Augustine’s attitude. As members of a nation and community, we have the same desire for social peace as to non-Christians. We desire the same level of justice as do other groups. We should not only tolerate but actually celebrate the differences of custom and tradition that compose post-modern society. The only “red line” for Christians is the protection of our own freedoms to live according to Christian morality and worship God according to the customs of the Christian faith.


Next week, I will continue with Augustine’s City of God. The focus next week will be on the notion of Justice and how the idea of Peace, which lies at the foundation of Augustine’s political theology supports his notion of the kind of justice that the two cities seek for their citizens. I want to continue to analyze the way in which Augustine’s radical separation of the earthly and heavenly cities can have unhealthy implications for the way in which Christians relate to others in a secular society such as ours.

[1] St. Augustine, City of God tr. Gerald G. Walsh, S.J. et all, abridged ed. (Garden City, NY: Image Books, 1958), hereinafter “Image Edition.” Unless otherwise specified, all quotes come from this edition. When noted, quotes may come from St. Augustine, City of God tr. Henry Bettenson (London, ENG: Penguin Books, 1984), hereinafter “Penguin Edition.”

[2] Image Edition, at 40-41.

[3] In John 4, when Jesus meets the woman at the well, she tells him that the Samaritans worship God on Mount Gerazim and the Jews on the Mount in Jerusalem. In response, Jesus says, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-23). This indicates that the “New Jerusalem” will be the human heart and not a physical place.

[4] In his last communication with his disciples, Jesus tells them that he gives them peace, but not a peace that is identical to that peace that the world gives: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” John 14:27).

[5] Id, at 464.


[7] Id, at 465.