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Martin Luther’s Approach to Culture

This entry is part 3 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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When Martin Luther (1483–1546) begins making reforms in the church, one of the most significant issues he faces is the relationship between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Thus, Luther articulates an understanding of antithesis and commonality that in many ways reflects what came before him but in such a way that he is often credited as the first to express a robust two-kingdom doctrine. Luther, like Augustine before him, articulates a doctrine of two metaphysical kingdoms, one comprised of believers and the other of un-believers. And, as in the Epistle to Diognetus and City of God, he argues for a strict antithesis between the two kingdoms: “There are two kingdoms, one the kingdom of God, the other the kingdom of the world. . . . God’s kingdom is a kingdom of grace and mercy . . . but the kingdom of the world is a kingdom of wrath and severity.”1 However, he also adds thought different from Augustine in that he draws connections to two institutions as well, governments that God has placed over the two kingdoms, the church for the spiritual kingdom and civic governments for the temporal kingdom.2 The ecclesiastical realm is ruled by Scripture alone and has responsibility over spiritual matters; the civic governments have jurisdiction over temporal matters and are ruled by natural law.

This combination of an understanding of Diognetian/Augustianian metaphysical kingdoms with articulation of separate governments provides Luther with a way to articulate the tension between antithesis and commonality, something that had been more difficult for Augustine. A Christian, according to Luther, is a member only of the kingdom of God and is thus subject to ecclesiastical authority in spiritual matters. However, as one who lives now upon the earth, a Christian should also subject himself to civic rulers in temporal matters for his own good and the good of those in the society around him, even though he is not a member of the kingdom of the world. He insists, “If you see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords, or princes, and you find that your are qualified, you should offer you services and seek the position.”3 Yet he maintains a careful distinction between kingdoms and their governments, arguing that each government has jurisdiction only in matters given to them; he insisted that temporal authority may “extend no further than to life and property and external affairs on earth, for God cannot and will not permit anyone but himself to rule over the soul.”4 However, Luther did associate the visible aspects of the institutional church with the earthly kingdom (since they are temporal after all), and thus he saw those aspects to be under the jurisdiction of the civil powers.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.



Endnotes:

  1. Martin Luther, “An Open Letter On the Harsh Book Against the Peasants,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Jan; Oswald Pelikan and Helmut Lehman (Philadelphia and St. Louis: Fortress and Concordia, 1955), 46:69. []
  2. Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Walther I. Brandt (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1962), 45:85–92. []
  3. Ibid., 45:95. []
  4. Ibid., 45:104–5. []

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