The Lutheran Option to Live in Two Kingdoms

The world of Lutheranism is very different from the world of Calvinists.

I realized this when preparing for the philosophy subject test of the Graduate Record Examination at the end of my senior year of college.  Ethics would be a component of this sub-test.  My philosophy professor realized that I had not had an ethics course.  How was it possible for a new Lutheran college to have no ethics course in its Philosophy curriculum?  Clearly, ethics was not an important part of the Lutheran heritage.  In contrast, the study of ethics is fundamental to Calvinists.

H. Richard Niebuhr is considered one of the most important Christian theological ethicists in mid-20th-century America, best known for his 1951 book Christ and Culture.  In that book, he distinguished four types of relationships between Christians and their surrounding culture.  One is Christ against culture, as in the Benedict Option presented several blogs ago.  The second is Christ of Culture, as in 19th century Victorian England.  That is no longer a realistic option and it is not even desirable because it overrides biblical understandings of the faith.  The third is Christ above culture, where the Calvinist Option fits.  The fourth is Christ and Culture in Paradox, as exemplified by the Apostle Paul and centuries later by Martin Luther.

Luther was a Bible scholar and preacher.  He was not a systematic theologian, unlike John Calvin and his lawyerly Institutes of Christian Religion.  Most of Luther’s writing were extemporaneous sermons, which University students transcribed.  Relevant here is Luther’s distinction between two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.  Other phrases were between temporal and spiritual life, between person and society, between time in this world and time in eternity, between wrath and mercy.  He claimed that the expectations of the Christian life were independent of rules followed in governed social life.

Most of what we know of the kingdom of the world is his expectation of governments is his treatise on Against The Rioting Peasants in response to the Peasants Revolt of 1525.  In his Germanic way, Luther abhorred disorder.  Even if the result was that about 100,000 peasants were slaughtered.  That result was not only OK with Luther; he demanded it of the government.  Because they were in revolt, the peasants forfeited their status as citizens

In the context of that revolt, the government and society had the task of restoring order and providing safety for its citizens.  Key passages for Luther and Lutherans are Romans 13:1 “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.”  The other is Matthew 22:21, where Jesus said “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”

The Peasants Revolt also significantly changed Luther’s thinking about the Holy Spirit, whom the peasants claimed as their authority—”the Spirit told us to revolt.”  In the years before, Luther wrote hymns to the Spirit and referred frequently to the Spirit.   Afterward, he had little to say about the Spirit and began the Lutheran heritage of basically ignoring the Spirit beyond confessing him in the historic Creeds.

Obedience is basic to German culture, and obedience to the governing body is a basic characteristic of Lutherans.  There has been no Lutheran president of the USA; theologically political government is just not very important.  The kingdom that counts is the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of this world.

The basic question here is what kind of relationship Christians should have with the new Post-Modern culture of our times.  This relationship with the government was much easier when the national culture shared the biblical worldview.  That’s gone now.  But the need to live, work and raise children in the larger culture remains.  Withdrawing from it is just not realistic.  Rather influence it through the witness of living well within the Kingdom of God.

How have you experienced the tension between living out your personal Christian life in a hostile Post-Modern culture?  Can you offer examples of the conflict in your life or the lives of others?

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