Matthew C. Harrison and John T. Pless, eds.

Reviewed by Armin Wenz on 03/04/2023

“The man who considers something to be necessary which appears to others to be of little help, or even to be pernicious, does not hesitate to repeat the necessary teaching and is ready to make clear its necessity by summing up its essential elements. At the same time, precisely from the standpoint of necessity we cannot stop at summary repetition.” Such are the words used by Gerhard Ebeling, maybe the most prominent German Luther scholar in the second half of the twentieth century, in the introduction to his essay on page 12 of the book at hand, an essay which first was published in German in 1963 in one of Ebeling’s early books.

After having published voluminous collections of essays on equally controversial topics, such as women pastors (CPH, 2009) and closed communion (CPH, 2017), Harrison and Pless have ventured to equip the church of our day with another theological treasure chest which will prove its benefits for those who read, use, and apply it. Again, the editors added a question mark to the title of their book, making clear from the outset that important theological topics always lead us into conflict. “No other aspect of Luther’s theology has been so fiercely attacked as this doctrine. Where Luther drew a clear line between spiritual and temporal authority, and expressly emphasized that under no circumstances should these two realms be confused, this has been interpreted as if he had thereby opened the door to the secularization of society and given a completely free hand to the state. Some critics have gone so far as to see in this doctrine the ultimate root of the National Socialist ideology” (3).

This is no surprise, at all, when we take into account that conflict is intrinsic to the book’s topic anyway, since we are dealing with partially connected, partially overlapping, partially opposing spheres, realms, kingdoms, and powers. There is, after all, not only the kingdom to the left, and the kingdom to the right, but also the devil’s kingdom, seeking to destroy and confuse both kingdoms (18–20, 117, 127–128). And there is the angels’ kingdom, seeking to protect both kingdoms for the sake of mankind (128–130). Kenneth Hagen ends his excellent contribution with this magnificent statement: “Luther frames his understanding of the kingdoms with basically two horizontal and two vertical kingdoms. The frame is under siege by the devil and guided by the angels” (131). One may consult and pray Luther’s morning and evening prayer for this aspect. As long as the eschaton is still a matter of the future, the church and every responsible theologian will not escape the obligation to prove on the basis of the New Testament and the gospel (5) the necessity of our theological doctrines, especially when they are disputed or left behind by many. This is done, as Franz Lau says, “by pitting Scripture against Scripture” (36) and by pondering the biblical testimonies in all their fullness, including Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–17; Acts 5:29; John 18:22ff; and Matthew 5:38ff (35–36, 77). It is also noteworthy that the relevance of the biblical distinction of God’s right hand and God’s left hand is overwhelmingly obvious in both above mentioned volumes by Harrison and Pless.

The distinction of the two hands of God, which throughout the ages are active and creative in the two “kingdoms” on earth, on one side is surprisingly clear (and clarifying our sense of reality, 13) and simple, and on the other side is deeply complex and permeates the Scriptures as well as the confessions of the church and thereby, of course, also any theology which claims to be biblical, confessional, catholic, Lutheran. Distinction, not confusion, nor separation (9), is the Lutheran solution for the relationship between both kingdoms, between the   and the  , between the   relationship and the   relationship of mankind (26–29). Not only in this respect, the distinction of the two kingdoms is a result and a necessary implication of the distinction of law and gospel (14–18).

The complexity as well as the simplicity can be discovered in important passages of the Lutheran Confessions (Edmund Schlink’s excellent essay, taken from an English translation of his “Theologie der Bekenntnisschriften,” covers them all, 197–235), like Augsburg Confession Articles 16 and 28, the explanation of the Fourth Commandment and the Fourth Petition in the Catechisms, including the Table of Duties (433–442), parts of the Apology and the Smalcald Articles, and of course Formula of Concord Article 10 on the “Adiaphora” (193). The triune God as Creator and Saviour in his omnipresence and omniscience works in both realms, spheres, or kingdoms. In the world, that is, in the nations and peoples therein, God works through the law and through political human agents for the sake of preserving the world and protecting mankind against the evil one, who wants to destroy all human endeavours to organize common life by throwing everything into chaos and cruelty. In the church, that is, among God’s chosen people, God works through the gospel and the office of the ministry for the sake of saving ungodly sinners and reconciling them with their God and Creator through the precious blood and suffering of Christ. This also is directed against the evil one, who wants to destroy faith and love and the church through persecution and false doctrine. Wherever both kingdoms are confused, the theology of the cross is lost and a variant of the theology of glory creeps in (156–163).

The two kingdoms, thus, can be perceived and distinguished by looking at the means through which God works (the word here and the sword there), by looking at the goals which God brings about (temporal bliss here, eternal life there), by looking at the human agents, the “means and intermediaries” (33), through which God acts as through his “larvae” and “masks” (33) (political authorities here, the preachers of the gospel there). The very fact that both the incarnation of the Son of God and the work of the Holy Spirit through the mission of the church take place in time and space makes the relation between both realms and kingdoms inescapable for each generation. Manifold are the relations and touchpoints between both kingdoms. Manifold are the concrete manifestations of this relationship throughout history, from enmity, persecution, overreaching into the respective opposite realm from both sides, to peaceful mutual toleration, support, and even cooperation. And interestingly enough, the kingdom of the left can even serve as a metaphor for visualizing aspects of the kingdom of the right (130).

The complexity of the topic can already be discovered when Luther’s statements and positions are examined. Quite naturally, there are certain writings of the reformer which are named and elaborated upon by almost every scholar, discussing our topic from a historical perspective:

“Von weltlicher Obrigkeit/On Temporal Authority” (1523)—Nygren (5), Bornkamm (55, 103), Alfsvåg (79), Hagen (125–127), Slenczka (141–145), Stephenson (176–185), and Nestingen (189).

“Letter to the German Nobility” (1520)—Lau (32), Bornkamm (55, 92), and Slenczka (134–136).

“Whether Soldiers Can Live in a State of Salvation” (1526)—Bornkamm (103), Hagen (125–127), Slenczka (141–151), and Nestingen (189).

“Galatians” and “The Bondage of the Will”—Hagen (122–125) and Slenczka, (149–151).

There are differences of emphasis between the early reformer, who fought against papal theocracy, and the mature reformer, who fought also against the enthusiasts who wanted not only to terminate the abuse of power in both realms but who wanted to overthrow any authority on earth, thereby only producing chaos and bloodshed (7, 35, 79, 189, 334–350). To be sure, in his later years, Luther did not only talk about the “Two Kingdoms” but at least as prevalent also about the “Three Estates” or “Three Orders”: the Church, the Family or Household, and the State, as distinct, related, and interdependent agents of God’s preserving power (81–88). There were also situations when Luther was not able to make himself heard, both from the rulers and the ruled, like in the time of the Peasants’ War. And there was the question when and where legitimate resistance against ungodly authorities ends and when and where illegitimate rebellion starts (145–149). This was the case during Luther’s lifetime and even more so after his death. The Magdeburg Confession, unfortunately, did not make it into the Book of Concord. Nevertheless, it is a highlight of sound Lutheran theology, which is made very clear in the essay by Wade Johnston (“We Must Obey God Rather than Men: The Lutheran Legacy of Resistance,” 395–405). Concerning some of the aberrations of the old and tired Luther, John R. Stephenson gives some marvellous advice when he writes: “The two kingdoms doctrine affords the most efficacious remedy for Luther’s own excesses” (187).

All authors whose contributions the editors have chosen to include into this volume lived most of their years in the second half of the twentieth century, some (though not many) still making their contributions in the twenty-first century. The division into two parts (“I. Foundations in the Theology of the Lutheran Reformation”, and “II. Implications for Doctrine and Practice”) is not fully convincing, since some articles in the second part would better fit in the first. But that might be a matter of taste.

In the first part, the foundations are laid by two authors from Scandinavia (Anders Nygren from Sweden, 1949; Knut Alfsvåg from Norway, 2005), four from Germany (Gerhard Ebeling, 1963; Franz Lau, 1965; Heinrich Bornkamm with one essay from 1966 and two more contributions from his book   [German, 1953; English: 1966]; Notger Slenczka, 2012), and Kenneth Hagen from North America (1995). In the second part, thirteen contributions by North American authors from different Lutheran churches follow (Steven Paulson, John R. Stephenson, James A. Nestingen, Zachary Oedewaldt, Gregory Seltz, Erling Teigen, Kenneth F. Korby, Paul T. McCain, Peter Brock, Gregory P. Schulz, Wade Johnston, Matthew C. Harrison, and John T. Pless). This is supplemented by four prominent German names with rather older contributions (Hermann Sasse, 1932; Edmund Schlink, 1961; Jobst Schöne, 1969; Werner Elert, 1940). The biggest surprise for a present-day German reader is the appearance of Bornkamm (“Luther on the Nation”; “Luther on the State”) and Elert with the extensive eschatological chapters from his Dogmatics “Der christliche Glaube.” Both works are not really present any more in German theology or in the consciousness of present-day German theologians. But they sure are worth reading.

Concerning the application of the doctrine of the two kingdoms in certain historical situations, it certainly is no surprise that the editors included Hermann Sasse’s magnificent essay from 1932 “The Church and the Political Powers of Our Time” into this collection (236–256). Sasse, one year before the “great dictator” seized power, clearly and openly stated that Point 24 of the Nazi party program was in no way compatible with the biblical doctrine of man’s sinfulness and would—if implemented into state law—necessarily result in the persecution of the church. Zachary Oedewaldt (257–268) comments on this text by showing that both, the state and the church, had lost their specific identity at the outset of this conflict and that utilitarianism in both realms had driven out the quest for the truth (see also Brock’s essay, 372–375). Oedewaldt writes, concerning the time of Nazi rule in Germany: “It is not that the people turned their back on the church, but rather the church turned its back on them” (261).

This, to be honest, sends shivers through the bones of the reviewer, since my observations and my resulting sentiment concerning the many ways the churches and their representatives in their vast majority at least in Germany acted during the years of the COVID pandemic in the 2020s, is exactly the same: “It is not that the people turned their back on the church, but rather the church turned its back on them.” This happened in a situation which could be fittingly labelled a backslide into “medieval” practices. Thus it can be learned in one of Bornkamm’s contributions, when he writes concerning the endeavour of many medieval rulers in German territories to overreach into the church (111): “Without further ado, they made bold to interfere with church matters in emergencies (and it is always easy to construe any situation as an emergency).”

Concerning application to further historical and political situations, the reader of Jobst Schöne’s contribution will find interesting glimpses into the situation of the divided city of Berlin in post-war Germany with the communist East facing the capitalist West who was about to experience not only the revolution of the students (308–319). Only rare are explicit applications in our volume to our present time, which in many respects is a time of harvesting what had started with the not only sexual revolution in the 1960s. Some of the authors mention the relevance of the doctrine of the two kingdoms for topics like sexual ethics (including “gay marriage”) or abortion (85, 304–307, 376–394).

Steven Paulson, in his outstanding essay, takes this a step further. He does so by showing how the church, if it is faithful to the theology of the cross, proves itself to be a nuisance for the champions of “liberal democracy.” “Today the state particularly overreaches” (163). This is the case especially since the state nowadays without much ado confuses “the government’s powers of recognition with those of God himself. In short, people need their Creator’s recognition; they need His justification. The problem in the old world is that the only conceivable way people possess to get God’s recognition is through works of the Law, and so such people force the state to give them what God will not” (168).

The state cannot seem to reject religious zealotry without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and against all fears to the contrary, it is not the church that encroaches upon the state, but the state encroaches upon the church. . . . The state religion decides it can stand churchly laws and traditions of one sort or another as long as these laws and traditions are kept private and are not pushed on others in the public square – but it cannot stand the   The Gospel removes the false hope of the general faith that the Law actually saves. Thereupon is the actual end of history. History’s end comes not with a bang, but a whimper of gentle approval of the bourgeoisie that we have reached the best of all possible worlds in the form of liberal democracy and the freedoms it—and it alone—gives. The state will set you free. If Christ came to them and said, “I will set you free,” they would say: “But we have never been slaves to anyone, we are our own father. Who are You to claim we are unfree and need some savior other than ourselves?” Yet not only is this false faith produced by a liberal democracy appointed to destroy the preaching of the Gospel—to persecute it—it is positively and necessarily appointed to death instead of life in the old world, to nihilism instead of benign neglect. The government becomes preoccupied with structures of death, removing what it considers those who refuse its equality: abortion, the culmination of the right to medical care in the form of euthanasia, the redefinition of marriage as letting people love whomever they want (as long as there is the law of adult consent to enter a self-interested contract). . . . The state that authorizes itself also establishes its own power to make new laws as the only divine power left in the world. (168, 170–171)

Paulson takes the reader far beyond historical knowledge and theological correctness. He draws conclusions for the present situation which the churches in the Western world have settled in so comfortably and numb. Paulson’s observations hurt, ache, and are troublesome. But they—like the doctrine of the two kingdoms which he very wisely applies in his essay—serve as salutary medicine. Paulson’s essay should be read and pondered over and over again.

There are many reasons to be thankful to the editors that they have undertaken the important service to publish this book. May it serve as a helpful and enlightening contribution for the challenges which face the church in our day and age. May many Christians, theologians, and ministers of the church, Lutheran and beyond, experience, what Matthew C. Harrison writes so wonderfully about the teaching of the “Two Kingdoms”: “It is the particular greatness of Luther’s teaching that it frees the conscience, and stiffens the backbone when needed, in the context of life’s manifold and frequent challenges” (407–408).