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Luther and the Niebuhr Brothers, April 15, 1990

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In Four Parts

  1. Luther and the Peasants War  2. Luther and the Niebuhr Brothers

3. Apologists for Luther’s Theology and the Two Kingdom Theory

4. Luther and the Great German Peasants’ War: a Little Known Story

     (a continuation of sections recovered from 5 ¼ in. floppy disks)

Part 2

Luther and the Niebuhr Brothers

April 15, 1990

by Peter D.S. Krey

We  will  look  in  vain  for  a monograph by the Niebuhr  brothers  specifically on the  Peasants  War  of 1525 in  Luther’s  Germany.  But Reinhold  and  H.  Richard  Niebuhr certainly  refer  to  and  have  reactions  to Luther’s relationship with the peasant  uprisings, as well as to Luther’s theory of the two Kingdoms, in so far as  they  deal  with  them.  This  essay  alternates  between the  history  in the horizon of Luther’s contemporaries, and the  historical  vantage‑point  from  our  time, looking back at  the  actors  in  this  Sixteenth Century theater of history  from  consequential  historical  experience  and additional  reflection.   This  is  naturally  unfair  to them because  of  the  historical  limitations of the people we study in the past.  We  have our own historical limitations, however, and we find  that some  historical  figures  were very  great and the grandeur of their historical impact exceeds that of some of the great figures of our day. But  from  our  own  limited  life  and  thought,  which  is  so  different, a hopefully fresh perspective becomes possible.

Already   at   the  beginning  Reinhold  Niebuhr’s  sharp  criticism  of Luther against the peasants in his Nature and  Destiny  of Man was  mentioned. [In a previous chapter of this work.] But Reinhold had concerned himself  with  these same issues in Moral Man and Immoral Society as  well  as returning to them and  analyzing them again in The Structure  of  Nations  and Empires. (He may have done more  in  other works that I have not read.) H. Richard Niebuhr spends  some  time  with Luther in his section of Christ and Culture  devoted  to  the  paradoxical  model.  Before this he dealt  with  him  in  The  Social Sources of Denominationalism and The  Kingdom  of  God in America. In Christ and Culture, H.  Richard   recognized   the  large  contribution  which  the  Christian  dualist made in reinvigorating both Christianity and  culture by the dynamic action that the tension has set free.  H. Richard appreciates the contribution of Christian dualists, but records two major criticisms: Sometimes their dualism tends to lead  to antinomianism  and cultural conservatism.  The  latter characterization  was  naturally  devastating  in 1951. The relativizing  of  rules  and laws has doubtless led some to cast  aside  all  rules  for  civilized  living. “They have claimed  Luther  or  Paul   as authority for the contention that  it  makes  no  difference  whether  men  are sinfully obedient  or  sinfully disobedient to the law, whether they are  obedient  or  disobedient  to sinful law, whether they sinfully  seek  truth  or  live as sinful skeptics, whether they are  self‑righteously moral  or  self‑indulgently amoral.”[1]

Dialectics can be pretty slippery. H. Richard maintains  that  the  dualist  needs  the  other  kinds  of Christians  as a corrective, as much as the cannon chose to include  the  Gospel of  Matthew  and the Letter of James  along  with  St.  Paul.[2]

The conservatism of the dualists comes  about  because  of  the  tendency  to think of “law, state  and  other institutions as restraining forces,  as dikes against  sin,  preventers  of anarchy, rather than positive agencies  through which men in social union render positive service  to  neighbors  advancing  toward true life.”[3]

A tendency  in  Luther  and Paul exists to relate temporality and  finiteness to sin in such a degree as to move creation and  fall  into  very close proximity, which does less than justice  to  the  creative  work of God.[4]

For Luther the wrath  of  God  is  not  only  against  sin  but  the whole temporal  world.  “Dying to self and rising with Christ are doubtlessly   more  important;  but  self‑centeredness  and finiteness   belong  so  closely  together  that  spiritual transformation  cannot  be expected this side of death.”[5]

Everything  on  this  side  is  transitory  and  dying  and however  important  cultural  duties, Christian life is not in them.

Luther  can  be  said  to have disparaged the material reasons  for  the peasant unrest unjustly. I believe Luther just  did  not have the social and political language to be able  to  help  the  parties  in the conflict to relativize their  claims and demands in order to be able to negotiate.  In  the  face of the criticism above, that Luther neglected the  society and compartmentalized himself in the religious institution  alone,  we have to say yes and no. The fact is  that  somehow the whole structure of the medieval world was shaking,  as  if  what  brought  a  rift into the surface   of  the  society was an  earthquake, which  came  from  far  below,  from  the “nominalist”   depths.   Because   Luther   turned   to   a particularistic   existentialism,   the   whole   could  be vacated,  the  system  scrapped,  the  individual  could be abstracted  out, and actually the whole of Europe could get carved  up  into  smaller national compartments, as well as more  tightly  sealed  social  compartments that progressed from the estates to classes.

It  is  possible  for  a  theology  to  function  like psychologism,  where the external conditions are considered unreal.  Luther  did  not  go that far, but considered them unimportant,  because  they are proximate and not ultimate, to  use  Reinhold’s  terms. It is possible for a philosophy to  function  as  a sociologism where internal features are considered  unreal.  This  is  the case with Marxism, which relegates  the  whole  Reformation to shadowy superstitious epiphenomena, and reinterprets the whole story as a early‑ bourgeois  revolution  with  Thomas  Müntzer replacing the historical  Luther  in  significance. What is the person to the  Marxist but an inner ensemble of social conditions? No psychological  space  is granted by the one, nor any social ground  by the other. And while asking questions concerning Marxism:  “What  is a  heresy but the revenge for a forgotten truth?”   That  was  to  bring  wholeness and soundness into social  space. Perhaps it was the great medieval synthesis that brought the  Lutheran  revolt  for  Hebrew  particularism  and existentialism.

H. Richard describes the  conservatism of Luther to be one that delimited the earthly kingdom’s  function  alone  to  restrain evil, while such scholars as H. Bornkamm, G. W. Forell and  K. Holl disagree.  Reinhold, however, explores H. Richard’s view of Luther’s conservatism farther.  Luther, according to Reinhold left discriminate justice out of his two kingdom theory, which he developed from Augustine’s  two  cities. Reinhold also argues that Luther did not consider the  ambiguity  of  reason to be able to build and destroy, nor  finally  the  rational  balancing  of  opposing social forces.  Thus Luther  saw  only  destruction  and anarchy in the peasants,  missing  the justice, the more democratic social project,  e.g., the  bid  for  peasant  councils.  He  sees justice  only in  the  Princes,  whom he later determined to be bloodhounds,  as  he later called them. In their orgy of violence he  could  only see the reestablishment of necessary order. On  the  other hand, if Thomas Müntzer had not been a mere preacher  who  thought  he  was  a  general, and had really known  how  to  fight,  say  in some pitched battle on soft turf,   where   mounted   troops   would have been  useless,  and  had outflanked  the princes and won, there would have been five regional  peasant uprisings that would have had to struggle  for  supremacy,  like the already established electors.  And who  knows  how  many  of the “ungodly” Müntzer would have purged  until  he  thought  only the Godly were at hand for the  kingdom? But this is mere conjecture. [He spoke about purging the ungodly, but he himself was really purged along with about 80,000 peasants.] Let us also attempt to think with the conceptual sophistication of the Niebuhrs.

In  his book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, H.  Richard  is  very  hard  on Luther. He asserts that the Reformation  failed  to  meet  the  religious  needs of the peasants  and  other disenfranchised  groups  of  the  day.[6]

It remained  the  religion  of  the  middle  classes  and  the nobility.  Here  it  is  obvious  that  H. Richard does not subscribe  to the two kingdom theory. “Honestly and naively the  peasants  of Germany had believed that Luther’s appeal to  the New Testament was an appeal not to Pauline theology alone  but  to  the  ethics  of  the Sermon on the Mount as well.”[7]

Here he also asserts that the  peasants discovered that “the priesthood of all believers, ”  meant deliverance neither from  the  abstruseness  of  dogma, nor from  the  formality  of sacramentalism,  nor  from the inequalities of political and economic   ethics.  Luther  had  a  dual  standard  of  Old Testament  precepts  for  the  rulers  and  Christian New Testament self‑ sacrificing  meekness  for the peasants, their economic  underlings.  He  places  the  peasants  under the requirements  of  the  Sermon  on  the Mount, and gives the rulers  the  leeway  of  the most cynical real‑politic…The latter words that belong to Reinhold, capture  H.  Richard’s  meaning well.  They lambast Luther’s pamphlet, “Against the Thieving Hordes of Peasants” ‑  a  production  which has well been called a `disgrace to literature,  to  say  nothing of religion.'”[8]

H. Richard thought  the  dualism  of former Catholic social ethics was superior  to  Luther’s,  because  at  least  it  favored  a spiritual  rather  than  primarily a political and economic aristocracy,  which used the guide‑line: “The ass will have blows and the people will be ruled by force.”[9]

H.  Richard  does  not  have  conceptual clarity here. What  is  the  Reformation  if  the political and ecclesiastic institutions  were not being  redefined in order to properly fulfill  the  functions they were called to. Looking at the predicament  from  the standpoint of social class, makes H. Richard  take  this  view.  Heinrich Bornkamm depicts Luther’s Doctrine of the Two  Kingdoms in a very abstruse and complex way.  But by and large it is not so complex when   it  is  understood.  When  H.  Richard  attacks  the formality  of sacramentalism, then he does not realize that the  sacrament  can  be shared informally as well. The very harsh  judgment  against Luther is noticed and comes up time and again. The  poor  need  a  religion of emotional fervor and social Reconstruction,  which Luther and Calvin did not offer.[10]

Later  in  the  same  book, H. Richard explains that many different  groups  rallied  around  the  banner of Luther’s revolt   against  the  medieval  church:  Protestants  with purely  religious interests against the secularized church,  peasants  and  proletarians for long sought realizations of their   hopes,   humanists  against  the  irrationalism  of superstition,  the  knights  for  national  and  provincial interests,  and  bourgeoisie  who  wanted to establish their interests  against  the  aristocracy  and  hierarchy. These movements  were  excluded  from  the  Reformation, while the middle‑class  was  taken  up  in Calvinism and the nobility was  given  sanctuary  in  Lutheranism,  and the poor were sent empty  away  to  find  another  home  for  their faith.[11]

Against  this  kind of a social argument, F. Lau shows that the   popular  movement  of  Lutheranism  among  the  lower classes  was  not   stopped  by  the  Peasants’  War, because it continued in North German   cities   from   1526‑1532.  (See  below.)  In  the  Count’s War in Denmark 1533‑1536,  on the other hand, there is the argument that the  peasantry,  bourgeoisie,  and  Catholicism supporting  Christian II fought Lutheranism and the nobility and  the  duke,  who  became  Christian III.[12]    (The former argument,   then,   contradicts  the  class‑specificity  of Lutheranism, and the latter seems to support it.)

It  is  difficult to accept the fact that the violence on  the  part  of  the peasants was so roundly condemned by Luther,   but   the   “legitimated”   violence  so  roundly accepted.  The  violence  of  the  “protestant inquisition” against  the  religion  of the poor, that of the “Anabaptists,” was not  questioned  very  much either. When the Swabian League authorized   continued  punitive  “police  action”  against peasant  leaders  who may have escaped, years after the end  of  hostilities,  if Anabaptists were discovered, they were also executed forthwith.

There  is  no doubt that studying Ernst Troeltsch adds a  social  sensitivity  and  perception that Luther did not have.  Could  it be, however, that false  modern  political expectations are imposed on  Luther?  It is also unfair to characterize Luther’s position   against   the  peasants   as  a  cold  political calculation  (to sacrifice them to save his Reformation and the  Gospel),  as  much  as  it is unfair to consider it an unconscious  class  prejudice  against the lowest estate of the   day.   Luther   certainly  shared  the  interests  of Frederick  the  Wise,  Duke  John  and  John Frederick. The chasm  between the estates of the day was very difficult to cross.  But  other  ingredients explaining his position are more real.

In  Christ  and Culture H. Richard takes philosophical and  theological  umbrage  with Luther, i.e. in his dualism and  total  depravity doctrine moving the Fall too close to the  Creation,  almost placing its goodness in question. In The  Social  Sources  of Denominationalism, he takes social umbrage  with  Luther ‑ from the point of view of caste and outcasts.  Does  caste  have  to  be  an indelible external reality,  unchangeable  and  to  be accepted? Luther used a term  for  the  office of the minister which undermined the ontological  distinction between a clergy and layperson  and made  the  distinction  merely functional. G. H. Meade uses this  same  concept when he searches for the possibility of an   ideal  society  in  his book,  On  Social  Psychology.  “The development   of   the  democratic  community  implies  the removal  of  castes  as essential to the personality of  the individual;  the  individual is not to be what he is in his specific  caste  or  group as against other groups, but his distinctions   are   to   be  distinctions  of  functional difference  which  put  him  in  relationship  with  others instead  of  separating  him.”[13]

Again what Luther could apply  to  the relationship of lay and clergy, he could not extrapolate  for the “ontological distinctions” between the estates.  He  states  in  opposition  to  the  third of the Peasants’  Twelve  Articles:  “It happens that this article wishes  to  make  all  people  equal,  and of the spiritual kingdom  of  Christ  a  worldly, external kingdom, which is impossible.  Because a worldly kingdom cannot endure, where there  is no inequality in persons, where some are free and others  imprisoned,  some  Lords  and  others  subservient, etc.”[14]

The  priesthood  of  all  believers  still goes farther  than  Luther  could  understand and go along with. His  theological  insight  penetrated much farther than his social  imagination.   G.  H.  Meade actually refers to the medieval  world  and  its  estates in his analysis, which I just  quoted,  and  shows  how slaves pass over into serfs, peasants,  artisans,  citizens  and in all stages there are increased  relations….[15]

Here particularism on Luther’s part  may  well  be  an  underlying  factor,  and  a social universalism, democratization,  i.e.  a greater “catholicism” was required.

From  H.  Richard’s  The Kingdom of God in America, it is possible to list the following criticisms of Luther:

1/  Luther  staked  everything  on  the freedom of the Word  of  God ‑ which the more skeptical will regard as too great   a   trust  in  the  Word  alone  to  sway  princes, ecclesiastics, and rulers of economic life.

2/  Luther  seemed to hold that God’s sovereignty over so‑called  “natural  things”  was not as seriously impaired as  in  the  realm  of the spirit and thus the actual civil law and institutions truly represented the natural law.

3/  He  regarded all “outward” things with monastic or pietistic indifference  (as already mentioned).

4/  Only  God  can  rule the human spirit and only the spirit is really important.

5/  The  freedom of the Word is the most important and and  it  is  all  right  to yield to political and economic forces  in  what seem to be purely temporal matters. And if only  the Word is unshackled it will convert rulers and the rich  and  so  produce paternal, loving, reasonable rule on earth.[16]

For  these  points  it  is  good to look into Luther’s famous  Eight  Invocavit Sermons through which he calmed and put down the  rampage  of  the  iconoclasts  in  Wittenberg after his hasty  return  from  the  Wartburg.  The necessary changes for the Reformation could proceed by God’s Word alone and not by human hand or force of arms.

On the other hand, Zwingli interestingly enough,  applies  economic  sanctions on the Catholic Forest cantons,  which  refused  to  allow  reformed  pastors into their congregations.   The   armies  from  these  cantons attacked  Zwingli  in retaliation and in the second battle, Zwingli  lost  his  life.  Zwingli had seen the outnumbered and  divided  Swiss mercenaries get massacred far away from home   in  the  bloody  senseless  battles  of  Novara  and Marignano  in  1513 and 1515. In his revulsion against this system,  he  had  attacked  the  practice  of  the Swiss of sending  the farm hands (Landsknechte) out as mercenaries where there was not  sufficient income from the farms for their upkeep. He  needed  soldiers  when  the Catholic cantons attacked and defeated and killed him.  He also had needed the alliance with Philip of Hesse, which  of  course  did not come about because of Luther and his  inability to agree on the doctrine of Holy Communion. (Note the consequence attached to their agreement.) Luther’s  agenda  for the Reformation was  faith in the Word of God alone rather than the pressure  of  sanctions, let alone possible coercion. Here the two kingdom  theory  again  plays  a  role.  Using such means  could be a rational approach for  the  secular  government, but, according to Luther they should not be used for  spiritual  goals. They are a rational means for some political goals, but they should not be used as theological means  by the church, which is based on the Gospel and persuasion.

The question can be asked: Would  the  repeal of Apartheid legislation not also include  spiritual  goals?  Today with Nelson Mandela freed in  South  Africa,  it  seems the economic sanctions really brought  progress in social justice there. Churches as well as governments participated. Where is here the Word alone? Karl  Marx  asserted  that an “idea always disgraced itself insofar as it differed from an interest,” [17] – that  an idea  only if supported  by  an interest started a movement.  His position comes  from  a  materialistic view, naturally. Perhaps it is good  to  go to the power of the Word alone for the matters of  the  spirit,  because does not the spirit determine human  actions? The flesh is weak. That certainly means the spirit  is  weak,  even  though  it  may  be willing. (Mat. 26:41)

Luther  certainly  meant  that  the  Word, the Gospel influences  those  people who have opened themselves to it, and  through  His  Word,  God  works making changes that the godless  cannot  hinder. Do we go over into materialism too much  today,  and  perhaps  weigh down and make ineffectual the  spirit?  This  can  be  considered  in  relation  with Luther’s  dictum:  “For  the Word of God comes, whenever it comes, to change  and renew the  world.”  [18]  Now  does  that necessarily mean the word  alone?  It  also means God acting in history to bring it  to pass. That means God’s interest, and certainly those who  adhere to God’s will. In this way the interest is also carried,   and   what’s   more  a  congregation,  a  church community  carries  the  Gospel.  To pick up a social class that  carries  the  idea  and makes it a movement is only a step  farther from saying an idea needs an interest to give it  the  power  to become a movement.

H. Richard shows that churches   have   become   class  specific  and  carry  the interests  of  their  class.  The  Gospel, the Word of God, needs  to  be  pure and confront human interests with God’s will.  In  the  concept of the Word alone is implicit trust and  faith  in  God,  and  God  acting.   Because  a Thomas Müntzer  turns  to violence, i.e. the use of force, Luther exclaims  that  Müntzer  has  experienced a shipwreck in his faith.

Perhaps,  then  sanctions,   coercion,  and  represented interests  do  play  a  role in secular, rational political considerations,  but  they are  not  so  effectual  as  the Word alone,  where  God  is  acting.  And with that it seems that real  change  and  permanent social improvement can rely on this  spiritual  power  more. Luther could have led actions against  the monasteries and forced the nuns and monks out. With  the  Word he convinced them, and in their hearts they agreed  that  the perfection, which they sought, was not possible in such  an  isolated  group;   they then  left  the monasteries  of  their  own  accord.  Marx would argue that only  because  the  Word was congruent with their interests did  the  Word have power to move them. Not so. Persons can be  convinced  of the truth even when it goes against their own  interests:  witness  how  many  Communists  pressed by Stalin  almost  agreed  and  became  resigned  to their own being   purged   for   the  sake  of  their  value  of  the revolution.  Or  in  the  Peasants’  War look at the idealist Florian  Geyer, who was very rich and stood to gain nothing from  his joining the peasants, and indeed lost everything, even  his own life, because he did. When getting into the soul and religion the  materialist  conceptions  play havoc  with  inner integrity  (Mat.10:30.),  but  when looking at large social groupings,  the  materialistic  considerations seem so much more to come into the foreground.

Reinhold  Niebuhr  reflected on  working  out  an adequate political ethic in a more focused way than  his  brother.  Following Luther, I believe that Reinhold was also a dualist  and  rooted  squarely in the paradoxical model.  As  much  as he criticized the two kingdom theory, he  was perhaps   convinced  by  a more sophisticated version of it.  We  begin with his in-depth analysis of Luther’s stance on  the  peasants  in 1525 in The Nature and Destiny of Man Vol.  II,  already alluded to above. His critique of Luther extends  to Calvin as well, even to the entire contribution of  the  Reformation,  which  however  has a more important place  in the history of Christian thought and life than we realize.[19]

That Reinhold’s critique is  harsh  will become  obvious: “The Lutheran Reformation  was  betrayed  meanwhile  into  the  hands  of social  reaction.[20]

Perhaps  he  also  looks at Luther through  the  lens  of  this  particular  historical issue: namely  the  failure in social justice for the peasants. He does    show    a   sincere   appreciation   for   Luther’s psychological  understanding of love. But Luther interprets the  power  of righteousness psychologically.[21]

He finds quietistic  tendencies  in  Luther,  however, in spite of the great  merits  of Luther’s rich analysis of faith and love. Luther  sometimes  lapses  into  the  mystic  doctrines  of passivity   or   combines   quietism   with   a  legalistic conception  of  the  imputation  of righteousness.  “Without works”  degenerates  into  “without  action.”[22]

(Below it will  be  shown  how  these  arguments  do  not  grasp  and comprehend  Luther’s  very self‑conscious,   in‑depth theology,  that  penetrated  realities in faith deeper than his  critics.  Note  that  by  dint of his existentialistic theology Luther  sometimes  chooses  to  be  quietistic.) Actually  Luther teaches that the justification of faith is the  release  of  the  soul  into  action  and  not  the encouragement   for  indolence.[23]

Also  in  the  barren Lutheran  orthodoxy  of  the  seventeenth‑century, “justification  by  faith”  degenerated into “righteousness of  belief”  becoming  destructive  of the moral content of the  Christian  life, while the moral content has some  warrant  in Luther’s own thought.[24]

Luther’s greatest weakness, for Reinhold, is his  analysis  of  grace  in its relation with the law. The problem  does  not  arise in the idea of  justification, but in  sanctification.  Luther’s vision of love, joy and peace which  the  redeemed  soul  enjoys in Christ is an ecstatic transcendence  over  all the contradictions in history, the inner  contradictions  of  the  “ought,”  the sense of moral obligation,  obligation  to  the  law and  therefore all the careful  discriminations  of justice, which belong to “law” in  the broadest sense.[25]

This leads to a highly personal and  interior  sanctification. Where H. Richard says Luther thinks  of  the state in purely negative terms, to restrain evil,  Reinhold  sees  Luther having solely a negative view of  the law. But Reinhold feels that “There is a constantly increasing  sense of social obligation which is an integral part  of  the  life  of  grace.”[26]

This  conception of Luther’s  relation  of  grace with the law need not lead to antinomianism,  but  to  an  indifference to relative moral discriminations.  From  utter seriousness for the ultimate, the  proximate  does not receive sufficient concern for all the  intermediate  points,  all the approximations  of  justice. In other words  a  defeatism  comes  about  in  which  the understanding   of   the  ultimate  problem  in  historical existence  precludes any understanding of all the proximate problems.[27]

Reinhold  shows that there are an infinite variety  of  structures and systems in which people seek to organize  their  common  life  in  terms  of  some  kind of justice.   And higher  approximations  of  justice  are possible.  All  these mechanisms help people fulfill their obligations to   their neighbors beyond the possibilities offered in direct  personal relationships.[28]

These  mechanisms  can  be  positive ways that people help each other beyond  direct  personal,  individual relationships,  and  therefore  they  are not only negative restraints.  With  conviction,  he  states: “The Kingdom of God  and the demands of perfect love are therefore relevant to  every  political  system  and impinge upon every social situation  in  which  the  self seeks to come to terms with the  claims of other life.”[29]

By this statement Reinhold seems  to  have  a  different  approach  to the two kingdom theory.  He tries to spell out how the society is  impinged, namely  beyond  the individual. But even Reinhold envisions kingdom  of  God beyond history and it remains an aspiration for or judgment upon  any  standing order. Perhaps his statement: “This is another instance in  which  the  sectarian conception of  the  relation  of  the  gospel  to  social problems  is right and the Reformation is wrong.”[30]

Reinhold requires a  different approach from the two kingdom theory.  According to Luther,  because of this theory, the law relates to social  problems  and  not  the  Gospel,  except indirectly through individuals. (See Forell below.)

Reinhold does not say  how to accomplish the requirements of love through  the  state  where  human outreach has to extend  beyond directly  personal relationships.  He  may see  the  Kingdom of God and perfect  love  as constant correctives, which are goals that always remain unattainable yet  have to  be  striven  for.  It is to the realm of the state that Luther relegates secular reason,  justice,  negotiation, and compromise in temporal  affairs.  Reinhold  may feel that for the sake of discriminate  justice, the  proximate  realm also requires religious  motivation.   He later argues, however, that the  distinction  between  the secular and religious realms remains the  most  creative  in the history of western culture.[31]

Perhaps  given the case of the peasants war, Reinhold feels that  the  dualism  of  the  two  kingdoms  brought about a failure  in Luther’s response, but he would not be amiss if he emphasized  the  teaching of Luther that God works in both kingdoms,  the  strange  work  of  love  in the one and the proper  work  in  the  other,  and  the Christian person is always  in both kingdoms having different roles. Perhaps it is  possible  that the failure of Luther consisted in being schizoid  in  the  Peasants’  War.  Because  of  his fear and despair he may have  split the two kingdoms so that only the God of wrath  could  appear in the world. “Yet God so loved the world so that he  gave his only begotten Son,” not for the church, but for the  world.  Perhaps   emphasizing the positive and negative sides  of the law and state, Reinhold could also argue that God  does  his  proper work in the worldly kingdom as well.

Here  Reinhold argues that Luther erred by placing the emphasis on  saved  by “faith,” where as it should be  saved by “grace.”  It is  by  grace alone, rather than by faith alone, that peace is  found;  because  it  is  not our acceptance of grace by faith,  but  grace  itself,  which  is  determinative.[32]

According  to  Reinhold,  this  made goodness possible also outside  the  Christian  life. That would then puncture the walls of Luther’s two kingdom theory again.  Reinhold  feels that Luther split the two kingdoms apart  so that no creative tension remained for them. He offered a  Luther  quote  from  the  commentary on Galatians to the effect  that  the Gospel is placed in heaven and the law on earth.  The  righteousness  of  the  gospel is heavenly and that  of  the  law  is earthly. According to Luther, Gospel and law have to be distinguished like  the  heaven  is  from  the  earth.  Faith and conscience   should   utterly  exclude  the  law,  Luther continues, and  the law should be left  on  earth. Contrary to the Gospel, in civil  policy obedience  to the law is required and nothing should be  known of conscience, the Gospel, grace, remission of  sins,  heavenly  righteousness  and Christ himself. For civil policy, Moses  only  with  the  law  and  the works of the law are required.  With these statements, all the tension is gone and Luther split up  the   kingdoms  in  an  absolute  way, according to Reinhold.[33]

Luther   rigorously  applied  the  separation  of  the “worldly”   kingdom   from  the  “spiritual”  one  for  the peasants.  He  met  the demands of  the peasants for greater justice  with the charge that they confused the two realms. Reinhold  states  Luther  was  “complacent”  to  the social inequalities  of feudalism and added a degree of perversity to   his   social   ethic,   because  he  enlarged  on  the distinction  between  an  “inner”  kingdom  and  an “outer” kingdom,  so that in effect he made a distinction between a public  and private morality. The rulers were approached as the  custodians  of  public  morality  and advised to “hit, stab,  kill”  when  dealing  with the rebels…Luther had a morbid  fear  of  anarchy  and  was  willing  to  grant the “Obrigkeit”   any   means   to   suppress  it.  But  Luther admonished   the  peasants  as  private  citizens  to  live according  to the Sermon on the Mount and that their demand for  justice  violated  the ethic of nonresistance. Niebuhr continues  that  by thus “transposing an “inner” ethic into a   private  one,  and  making  the  “outer”  or  “earthly” authoritative   for   the  government,  Luther  achieves  a curiously  perverse social morality.”[34]

It is worthwhile to   continue   quoting   Reinhold   here:   “He  places  a perfectionistic   private   ethic  in  juxtaposition  to  a realistic,  not  to say cynical, official ethic. He demands that  the  state  maintain  order  without too scrupulous a regard  for justice; yet he asks suffering and nonresistant love  of the individual without allowing him to participate in  the  claims  and  counter‑claims  which  constitute the stuff  of  social  justice.  The  inevitable consequence of such  an  ethic  is to encourage tyranny; for resistance to government  is  as important as maintenance of government.”[35]

Now  to  list  more criticisms and corrective insights from Reinhold here:

1/  Luther’s  pessimism and defeatism in social ethics led  to  an  absolute distinction between the “heavenly” or “spiritual”  and  “earthly” kingdoms destroying the tension between  them  and  the  final  demands  of  God  upon  the conscience  for  progressive  realizations  of  the good in history.   2/  When H. Richard took the dualism of Luther to task for  leading  to  possible  antinomianism  above,  Reinhold takes  it  to task for making any attempt at social justice useless  for  the  same  reasons.  Why  struggle for a more righteous  social  order  when  every  social order will be tainted  by  sin,  and  even an unjust order is sanctified, and  therefore  consciences  can  be  easy  about  what  is temporal  and  unimportant  because it is not a question of the  ultimate.  Although  social  antinomianism  is guarded against,  there  is  no obligation for Christians to change social structures. (See Footnote No. 28)

3/  You  can’t  understand  the ultimate, if you don’t diligently pursue the proximate.[36] 

4/  Luther  develops  no  consistent  criteria for the achievement  of relative justice. Any order therefore that happens  to  be  established  by  a  state  is uncritically accepted, because a standard of justice is lacking.

5/   The  state  is  not  in  an  order of creation, a directive  given  from  God  in  the  very structure of the created   world.   And   uncritical  obedience  to  such  a government,  which  Luther  demanded   is  not  part of the requirement of such an “order”. [37]

In  this  last  criticism, Reinhold has the spirit and temper of  the Germany of 1937 in mind rather than Luther, who  modeled  incredible  courage  in  civil  and ecclesiastic disobedience,  except  that this peasant uprising seemed to make  him  forget  this  part of his life, and he could not muster  this  feeling,  although  he  could make a stand if Lutherans  were asked to turn in their newly translated New Testaments.  His ecclesiastic and civil disobedience flared up there  again  quickly  enough.   Much can be said about all of  Reinhold’s  Luther  and  Reformation  criticism.  It is valuable  and  needs to be heard. But there is another side too  that  needs  to  be  understood in order to be fair to this  particular  historical  period  and  the  tragedy  of Luther’s  belated reactions to this uprising. We cannot yet go  into  the  problem  of  the  causes of the peasant war. Reinhold  is  fair in that he does not go into the Luther’s betrayal  of the peasants so very much. He takes issue with Luther’s teaching in the pamphlets he wrote. What  is  very  unfair to Luther is the unhistorical way  that  Reinhold  takes  Luther to task, leaving out the historical  context. He did not do a careful reading of the history  here in question, and therefore fell into the trap that  Prof.  Grane  spoke of, making Luther into a villain.

Luther  did  not  present  the  rulers  with  a cynical and public,  unscrupulous  official ethic while admonishing the peasants  to  a perfectionistic private one from the Sermon on  the  Mount.  His first pamphlet “On the Twelve Articles of  the  Peasant  Estate”  almost 30 pages long was written without  any   judgement  or  condemnation  on them. Luther teaches  them  about their situation, about their inability to  use  the  Gospel  according  to  his theology, to cover their  struggle  for material gain and justice. But he bids both   the  rulers  and  the  peasants  to  negotiate  with detachment,  for after all their material situation was not an  ultimate  concern.  He  presents  both  parties  in the conflict  with  advice  and  admonishment,  and  is perhaps harder  on  the peasants than on the Lords, but he has some harsh words for them, too.

Reinhold  goes  to  the  second  writing, “Against the Murderous  and  Thieving  Hordes  of  Peasants. Against the Raging  (attacking,  storming) Peasants” to write the whole title.  Here  Luther  is  not delineating any social ethic. And  it  is wrong and unfair to give the impression that he is.  Luther is writing in a completely different historical situation.  The  peasants  have amassed 35,000 men alone in Saxony.  They  are razing the castles to the ground and are plundering  and destroying monasteries. (Luther had not yet left  his  Augustinian  monastery!)  It  is  impossible  to determine   exactly  when  Luther  wrote  this  angry seven  page pamphlet,  but  in  it he lists the three major offenses of the  peasants.  He  tries  to  get  the  ruler of Saxony to mobilize  against  the  oncoming threat. Frederick the Wise feels  it  would  be  wrong to attack his own subjects, and feels  that  they might deserve the ire of the peasants. He withdraws  and  dies  in  his  castle at Lochau on May 5th, 1525  still maintaining that a peaceful settlement could be negotiated.  Now  if  the moderate peasant leaders, Ulrich  Schmid,  Sebastion Lotzer and Christoph  Schappeler  had  led  the  peasant  movement  in Thuringia  and  Saxony  instead  of  the violent Thomas  Müntzer, then the passivity of Frederick  the  Wise  would  have  been  right,  and Luther instigation to stop the peasants wrong.  Especially  in  the  Weingarten  Treaty that the peasants made with Georg Trucksses, commander of the Swabia League’s army, most of the peasants there demonstrated that they wanted to negotiate and not do  battle.  But  Thomas Müntzer in Thuringia, with Heinrich Pfeiffer, another peasant leader, who was called Schwertfeger, that means, “a sword-sweepser,” certainly wanted to fight and in no uncertain  terms. He intended to slay the ungodly. On the eve of the battle of Frankenhausen, he presided over the the beheading of three men. Luther knew Thomas Müntzer. [See the chapter: “The Great German Peasants’ War: a Little Known Story.”]

Below  another  problem  with  the  publication of the “Hard  Little  Pamphlet”  will  be discussed, that explains why  Reinhold  as  well  as the offended people of Luther’s day  misunderstood and confused the contexts and intentions for  which  the  exhortation  to the violence of the rulers was written. Luther   had  been  doing  a  whirlwind  trip  through Thuringia  at  considerable danger to his life, admonishing pastors  who  were stirring up the peasants in the uprising to  calm  them  and prevent bloodshed. In this trip he must have  already  seen their real situation, where a wholesale  insurrection  was  afoot.  Luther  had  to  break  off this campaign  because  of the news of Frederick’s death. On his return  to  Wittenberg  he must have written this hard book against  the  rebellious  peasants.  His protector had just died.  The  new  elector  Duke  John  was  as benign and as sensitive  as old Frederick. Luther tried to get him moving to  see  the desperate state of affairs. It can be heard in the  funeral  sermon he preached for his old protector, who never  once  gave  him  a personal audience, never left the old     faith, and  never allowed  his    church (Allerheiligenstift)  in  Wittenberg  to  give up the mass. [38]

All interaction with Luther had been through Spalatin, Luther’s friend and Frederick’s advisor at court. Luther  in  his  hard  little book  admonished the non‑Christian   rulers  that  they  could  also  put  down  the rebellion  as  a  service  to the people. But the Christian rulers  he  admonished  to first pray, because God could be using  the  peasants to punish the land, and they might all perhaps  die.  Mind  you  the  peasants  at  this  time are leaving  a  wake of destruction and have no opposition. The three  battles  with  decisive  defeats all come around May 15th.  Philip  of  Hesse,  Duke  George of Saxony, and Duke Henry  of  Braunschweig,  and the Graf of Mansfield took to the  field  with about 6,000 troops, but lots of cannon and gunpowder.  Duke  John  was  conspicuous  by  his  absence! Later,   however,   he   joined   them  in  the  taking  of Mühlhausen. Now  Luther  advised  the Christian rulers to pray and repent.  He  advised  them  to  give  the  peasants another chance  to  negotiate.  (This  is the hard little book!) He explained  to  the  rulers  that  many  peasants  had  been compelled  to  join the rebellious ones, and they were in a kind  of  purgatory  not  of  their  own choosing, and they should  receive  mercy.  But  then although the rulers were Christian,  they  had  a duty to protect their subjects and they  should  attack  the  peasants who were tearing up the country  and  “smite,  stab,  slay”   knowing  that if they died   against  the  heavy odds, they were dying in service of  God  and  could  be  considered  martyrs. This is not a cynical   official   ethic,  but  a  realistic  and  always shocking  mandate  to  those  who  are  responsible for the defense of a country to fight the necessary  bloody battle.

This  pamphlet  was  certainly written around the time of  Frederick’s  death,  when Luther was returning from the campaign  to convince the peasants not to rise up. That the peasants  would  all  fold  up  and become massacred in two weeks  was  not  known.  (Perhaps  the  fear  was  like the irrational  fear  of  a slave rebellion among the masters.) That  the  Pamphlet  came  out  somewhat later because of a printing  delay  can  have also exacerbated and changed the effect  of  it, because then it would have been interpreted as  merciless revenge on defeated peasants. But there is no indication  anywhere  exactly  when  the  book  appears  in print,   although   as  early  as  May  26th,  John  Ruehel mentions  it and the charge that Luther writes about in his letter  to  Nicholas  von  Amsdorf  dated May 30, 1525.[39]

This  means  that  it  was  definitely  out  before  Thomas Müntzer’s  execution  on May 27th and could very well have been  out  before  the Battle of Frankenhausen on May 15th. It   would  be  interesting  to  discover  how  long  other pamphlets  usually  took  to  print,  also considering that this one is only 8 pages long. Clearly  Reinhold  is  reacting  to  Luther  without carefully   reviewing   the  history,  but  reviewing  only documents  and  ideas  without their historical context. To be  fair  to  Reinhold, however, the way Luther’s pamphlets were  published,  put both “The Admonition…” and “Against the   Murderous  Peasant…”  together,  giving  the  false impression  that  they  were  written at the same time. But against  Reinhold,  in  the Twelve Article pamphlet, Luther tried  to  explain  his two kingdom theory to the peasants.  They  were  not living  in  a democracy but a kind of monarchy  slightly mitigated and modified as an Empire. The peasants  were  trying to win more rights, but they were often pressed back into serfdom, especially those who belonged to monasteries and were ruled by prince-abbots. They didn’t have  much standing. The burghers were trying to work out a slight  increase  in  their  rights  in  the  medieval free cities;  the  serfs  chafed at their low status. If the  peasants  had  won,  who  is  to  say  that  a greater approximation of  justice would  have  been  achieved? They would have avoided their own massacre, – of course only until the emperor would have come to avenge the Lords. They might have  perpetrated  some  carnage  under  Müntzer, if he had gotten to purge the ungodly. Luther’s  assessment of the situation was probably more informed and  realistic  ‑  that  the  violence  would have reaped havoc all over the empire. (Below we will see that G.  Franz  agrees with Luther that even if the peasants had been   successful, they would have soon been crushed even by the rulers  from  the  North, let alone the emperor.)  We  will  have  to consider the positive   and   completely  uncontrolled  aspects  of  the peasants  war  later.  The  latter were very pronounced, as romantically as we cherish the former. Luther’s  first writing to the peasants was begun on a visit  to  Eisleben  on  the  20th  of  April  and  finally appeared  in  print  on May 9th.[40]

This is quite late and not  very effectual for all the action in the other regions of  southern  Germany,  nor  very  much  for  the  Müntzer actions  near  Luther,  for  that  matter.  But when Luther wrote  this work, neither the news of the uprisings already in  progress  in  the South, the  bloodbath of Weinberg, nor the   murder  of  Graph  Helfenstein  by Jaecklein Rohrbach had   reached  him. Otherwise his pamphlet could never have been  written in such an irenic way. Luther is teaching the peasants  and  is  always  very wary of their justice issue and   their  armed  uprising  becoming  confused  with  his approach  to  spreading the Reformation. Luther does not at all  want  to  jeopardize  the discovery of his Gospel, and may  well  have  considered all the peasants expendable for the  many  generations  of people who would benefit from it among  the   progeny.  Luther  may  well have considered the long  haul  ‑  and was also ever wary that the Emperor with Catholic  forces would invade and try to erase all advances that  had  been  made in this religious movement ‑ and this of  course did happen with the Schmalcald War of 1546‑1547, and  again  with  a vengeance in the Thirty Years War 1618‑1638.  If Luther had joined forces with the peasants or the free  Knights  two  years  before, it could have provoked a much earlier invasion. Not  only  Luther’s  morbid  fear of anarchy should be mentioned  perhaps,  and considered  by  Reinhold Niebuhr, because  another  fear  must  have  taken  its  toll on the people  of  the  time.  (Although never is anything said of this.)  There  must  have  been  terror  in the face of the brutality  of  the rulers of the day for whoever flouted or thwarted  their  absolute power over their serfs. They were judge,  jury and executioners all rolled into one personage with  often  times arbitrary judgements pronounced at their whim  and  will.  And they were torturers prone to the most brutal  punishments  of  their  victims.  This  was the age where  someone  who  crossed his Lord could get the penalty of  being  drawn  and quartered by four horses galloping in opposite  directions,  a  hapless  victim  could be roasted alive,  broken  on  a  wheel,  tortured in chambers, and if lucky,  quickly  beheaded,  to have their head impaled on a spear  or  the  gate  of  the city. And not only the rulers practiced  this  kind  of  medieval  barbarity.  Thomas Müntzer  threatened Luther, “that gentle flesh in Wittenberg,” with  the  taunt,  that  he  could smell flesh roasting at Wittenberg,  donkey  flesh[41] ‑ by which he imparted his purposes  to  Luther  upon  his  victorious entry into that city.    And  when  Luther  heard  that  Müntzer  had been executed,   he   asked  very  curiously  to  have  his  end described  to  him in every detail, because he thought that very  important.  When  he  heard  that  Müntzer  had been tortured  before  his  beheading,  he seemed to be somewhat embarrassed,  saying, yes, certainly, the princes must have had to do that…[42]

In  Reinhold’s  The  Structure of Nations and Empires, he  not  only  criticizes  Luther,  but also shows areas of agreement.  Hopefully  this  analysis will throw more light on  what  considerations  a  sophisticated  political ethic could have on Luther’s stance in the peasant uprisings. To  review  his  thought  here  he  first criticizes Luther  in  the  context  of  the general Christian freedom from  the  social  orders.  And  here  is  where  the  self contradiction  in human freedom becomes paradoxical because it  can  be  used creatively or destructively, for the sake of  others  or for subordinating all interests to one’s own aggrandizement.[43]

Because   the   basic   appeal   of Christianity  seemed  to  be  to  the individual, it seemed only  negatively relevant to the community, and that is the conclusion  Luther came to when he formulated the theory of the  two realms. The Christian faith, he goes on to say, is not   satisfied   with   so   rigorous  an  individualistic interpretation,  because  the gospel also contains a vision of  an  ideal universal community. The Israel of God is not a  natural  community,  but a redeemed community. The rigor of  its universalism and its eschatological character, i.e. the  hope of its possibility only at the end of history and not  within  history,  seems to make it critically relevant to  the  task of organizing either a universal  community in history,  or  any community at all.[44]

“The eschatological character  of  the vision  of  a  perfect  and  universal community  is  consistent  in  both  the  Old  and  the New Testaments.”[45]   But the prophetic Kingdom of God does not annul,  but  transmutes  all  fragmentary  achievements  of human  history.   In another part of his book he again says much  the  same  criticism:  in  Luther’s theory of the two realms  the  earthly  one is conceived as realm of coercive order  in  a  world  of  sin,  which lacked the concern for discriminate  justice  the fruit of Aristotelian thought in the  Middle  Ages.[46]  In  all  this  of  course it seems Reinhold  has  not  really  comprehended  Luther’s theology about  the  natural  orders, nor the factor of his decision for  quietism, “quietive or motive” (Forell’s terms) in the individual’s  response  to  the  natural  orders  or social orders.  Reinhold  sees  Luther  not  in  his comprehensive theology,  but  through  his lens here of Luther’s reaction to the Peasants War.  But  to  continue  the review of his ideas:  Luther is more  pre‑modern  than  those  political  writers  such  as Marsilius  of Padua in his Defensor Pacis 1324 and Dante in De  Monarchia because although they too attacked the Papal temporal  dominion,  they  did  not  react  with dualism as Luther  did.  Dante  as opposed to the pessimism of Luther, was  a  political  optimist, who demonstrates the virtue of seeking  the proximate happiness attained by the harmony of the  historical community and the weakness of setting goals for   this  community  in  terms  of  both  perfection  and universality  which  are  beyond  the  capacity  of  mortal humans  to  attain,  since  they  are  both finite in their perspectives  and  suffering  from that inner contradiction in  use  of  their  freedom.[47]

Here Reinhold seems to be agreeing  with Luther, because Luther said much the same in his   analysis   of   the   millenialists  above.  However, Reinhold’s   political   ethic  is  fashioned  to  be  more resourceful  for the sake of justice. Then to continue: the optimistic   utopianism  of  Dante  is  challenged  by  the secular  realism  of  a  Machiavelli  and  Hobbes,  and the religious  realism  of  a  St.  Paul and the Reformers. The realists,  Reinhold  feels, are excessive in their estimate of  human  egocentricity  and  oblivious  to  the fact that human  rational  values  always  display  both creative and destructive  tendencies,  building  just communities on the one  hand  and  on  the  other, disturbing the peace by the rationalization of particular interests.[48]

In   continuing  his  commentary  in  the  history  in question,  it seems that the Peasants’ War was really rising in  opposition  to  the major influences of the Reformation and  the  Renaissance,  because the peasants wanted the old communal  autonomy  of  their villages and the law that had been  based  on their communal way of life to continue. But Reinhold  says:  “Both  the Reformation and the Renaissance were  to  explore  the private possibilities of the self in its transcendence  over  the  communal  situation.   The Reformation  emphasized  the  individual  character  of the relation  of  the self to the divine; and the impossibility of  any  human  fulfillment  bridging the chasm between the fragmentary  character  of  the  historical and the divine. The  Renaissance  was  to  explore  all  the individual and cultural  possibilities  of  the  self once it was freed of ecclesiastical  authority.”[49]

Both  these  explorations depend  upon  the radical distinction between the political or  communal  and the “eternal” or private ends of humanity, which  Dante  had  maintained.  Luther also maintained these distinctions to be sure.  Reinhold  tried  to  clarify these community and individual issues  by showing  the  paradoxical  relation between  the self and the community. The community is at once the  fulfillment and the frustration of the self. It is the fulfillment  in  that the self cannot fulfill itself within itself.  The self only becomes a  true self by engaging its interests and creativity in the community, from which it receives its meaning.[50]

But the individual has the capacity to transcend the   community,   conceiving   ends   that  transcend  the possibilities  of  history  as  bound  in  nature.  But the fulfillment  of  human physical life and historical success must  be sacrificed for the attainment of this integrity of the  spirit.  This is the eternal as distinguished from the temporal  end  of human existence.[51]

Here the distinction between  the  proximate  and  the  ultimate  also  seems to emerge,   and  the fact that the Reformation could not have been  possible,  if  the  Reformers had not taken a radical decision for the ultimate. (See Forell below) Perhaps  it  helps  to  reflect  here upon the problem that  Luther  could  sacrifice  his  own material gain, but should  not  have  required the peasants to do so. However, if  they were going to move under the banner of the Gospel, and  the  ultimate,  then  they would have had to sacrifice the  proximate  gains  like Luther. This does not work very well  for  an aspiring estate. And the terms “proximate and ultimate”  are  not  sufficient  to  get  at  these complex realities. Reinhold   goes  on  to  point  out  that  the  modern bourgeois  culture  has  always  been  a  compound  of  the religious   appreciation  of  the  incongruous  individual, [rising   above   all   social   meanings,   and   communal fulfillment  and  frustrations,]    and   the   social individualism   of   commercial   classes   [whose   social mobility,  flexible  forms  of  property,  and emancipation from  traditional  vocations,  established  their dignity.][52]

Reinhold continues that  secondly individual selfhood had  to  be  defined  in a situation of self‑contradiction. The  Fall, or the golden age compared to the actual age for Stoicism  tries  to  express  the  verity  that  the  final possibilities  of  social  virtue  cannot be realized. (The consequences  of  “original sin”?) Human  beings experience the  fact that the capacity of human freedom to transcend a finite  situation  does not lead inevitably to a more valid or  more universal norm of conduct, but can lead, and often does,  to  the  sanctification of the finite and contingent situation  as  the ultimate one. In every new historical or social  situation  some individual, class, nation or social force  will claim more than its share of goods, and pretend to  more dignity than is its right, because it looks at the common  situation not from a transcendent and disinterested perspective,  but  from its own perspective, which it false identifies  as  the  ultimate  perspective.[53]

(Precisely Luther’s  charge  against  the peasants!) For this there is some  remedy,  but  ultimately  there is no remedy, because every  triumph  of  human  culture  or  of  the  human mind remains  subject  to  the  ambiguity  of  human  existence. Humans  are  both  creatures  and  creators  of history and inevitably   they   forget  their  limits.  Sophistication, adequate  accumulation  of  knowledge, and a good sociology of  knowledge  can  mitigate  this problem, but no force in culture or history can eliminate it.[54]

Reinhold  shows  Christ  to  be  the  key  and central figure  resolving this paradoxical dilemma of history. “God was  in  Christ,  reconciling  the world to himself” is the assurance   which   gives   authentic   Christianity   that paradoxical  combination of pessimism and optimism which is a  perpetual  source  of creativity, so long as it does not become   the   symbol   of  the  historical  nullification, pessimistic or optimistic, of the original message.[55]

What  we have here are the safe‑guards I believe, that Reinhold  puts onto his political ethic in order to make it commensurable  with  the  two  kingdom theory which he does not  hold.  Therefore  he  states: pessimism prevents every eminence  in  history, cultural or political, from claiming absolute  validity.  And  optimism  prevents  the  drama of history,  with  all  its  patches  of meaninglessness, from being  conceived  as  a  “tale,  full  of  sound  and fury, signifying  nothing.”  Man does participate in two natures. And   the   Reformation,   Reinhold  shows,  was  not  very successful  in relating religious visions to our collective life.[56]

Reinhold  is interpreting Dante here, and shows that  he  succeeded  in  distinguishing  the  two realms of collective and individual destiny, of historical and trans‑historical  possibilities,  which  clerical  absolutism had obscured.  Then  in  a  statement  fraught with a pessimism equal   to   Luther’s,   Reinhold   continues  that   papal absolutism’s   inordinacy   may  prove  that  the  ultimate truths  of  the  Christian faith are acceptable only to the individual, and are  almost  bound  to  be  misused  by collective  humans  and their majesties.[57]

Just that the grace  which Luther ascribes to these individuals, is their faith  active  in love in the social orders, able to change social   structures  from  within,  which  is  a  plenteous redemption   that   gives   more  optimism.   (Anticipating Forell) Reinhold  continues  by  referring  to the  very strong anti‑papal  reaction which ensued from the popes who had in a  realist, not to say cynical way, transmuted  the city of God  into  an instrument of dominion. The Augustinian hope, as  well as the purpose of the reformers was to rechange it back  into  a  community of grace.[58] Luther’s two realms are  an  adaption of Augustine’s, but Luther’s earthly city lacks  the  expansiveness  of Augustine’s. [Contrary to Reinhold’s point of view, relative justice as  a balance of forces does not disappear in Luther’s version.] And Luther  divides  the realms  as  if one were of believers and the other  unbelievers.  Again  Reinhold  charges, what we have quoted  many  times  now: Practically, Luther’s doctrine of the  two  realms  establishes  an  ethical  dualism between public  and  private,  inner  and  social, morality. In one sphere  the  ethic of the Sermon on the Mount prevailed, in the  other,  not  justice,  but  order.[59]

And naturally Reinhold   makes   this   judgment  explicitly  because  of Luther’s  stance  in  the peasant revolts. Luther’s realism was  betrayed  by  the  rigor  of its anti‑papalism and the virulence   of  its  reaction  to  the  previous  political sentimentality,   into  an  irresponsible  attitude  toward problems  of  discriminate  justice.[60]

As realists the Reformers  were  all proponents of the parochial community, and  the  problem  of  the  larger  order between parochial communities  disappears  from  their horizon. The world has had   to   suffer  long  for  the  optimism  which  had  an unrealistic  approach  both  to  the  problems of the world community  and  toward  the justice in the local community. The  realists,  on the other hand, became the fountain  head of  an  uncritical  political absolutism and particularism. The  chasm  has  to be bridged by putting political realism into  the  service of justice, however defined.[61]   So far,  my review  of the pertinent places in the  Anatomy of Nations and Empires by Reinhold Niebuhr.

In  responding to the Niebuhrs, it will be necessary to  reflect  on  the  two kingdom theory as presented by H. Bornkamm,  W.  Lazareth,  and  by  G.  Forell,  the  latter presenting  the  social  ethics  of Luther. In this it will have  to  be  shown  how Luther overcomes:

1/ the dualism so often  charged,  the  breaking  of  the  tension that would assure  moral  and just actions,

2/ the negative as well as positive  dimensions in the earthly kingdom: i.e. not order only,  also  justice,  (interventions of coercion and force only,  versus  the  balance  of social forces),

3/ not mere quietism,  also  active  engagement  in changing the social structures,

4/  not  accepting any social arrangement, but having   a   standard   of   justice  that  makes  possible distinctions  between  lesser and greater approximations of justice.  That  is  a  pretty  large  order.  What makes it possible  to  transcend  the  autonomies  of  the different realms   of   modern   life,   science,   economics,  “real politic”.  How  can  Christ  be  included,  if  our modern secularization  has  excluded  Him to the incredible extent that  called  the  World  War  II church to make the Barmen Declaration?  Is  there a relation between the officers and guards  of  the  World War II extermination camps, who were “good  family people” in their private lives, but were able to  operate the gas chambers in their public lives (sealing their  lives  off  into  separate  air‑tight, vacuum‑packed compartments)  and  the  relegation of the peasant cause to the  private  and  the  Princes  cause to the public? After putting  this  into  so  many  words,  it  does  seem quite different,   but   there  is  one  similarity.  The  social violence  that  the  structures of the day fostered against the  peasants comes close to a Sixteenth Century historical atrocity,   because   it  was  a  so  easily,  cruelly  and arbitrarily  legitimated violence. Luther had two roles for sure,  one  to rally the strange work of God, and the other his  proper  work.  But  the  two  histories,  medieval and modern  World War II, are unique and individual, and hardly related. It  is  quite  clear  that  Luther has been Reinhold’s theological   mentor  to  rather  large  extent:  note  his explication  of  the paradox of human, not to say Christian freedom,  and  his  in‑depth  cognizance of the paradoxical relation   of   the   self   to   the  community,  and  the impossibility  of  a historical elimination of ambiguity or ultimate  evil.   What  Reinhold  delivers  is a barrage of concepts  very  helpful  in  political analysis: proximate, ultimate, conservative, complacent, sentimental, defeatist,  realist,  optimist,  approximations of justice, etc.  Naturally  when we pleaded Reinhold’s Serenity Prayer above,  we  had to admit that it begs the question, because the  point  of  controversy  here is what could really have been  changed  and what had to “quietistically” be accepted as  that  which  cannot  be changed, and how do we know the difference? In  some  ways  it  seems  that  Luther had a self‑conscious    theology    and   even   ethics   that   stood existentially  in  faith  before God. And the extent of his theological  penetration  always  seems  to play havoc with the  Niebuhrs’  charges  of  conservatism  and  dualism and quietism.  If  Luther  did  place  the Christian individual into  the  social orders and charge him/her to live a faith active   in  love,  responding  by  acting  or  not  acting according  to  God’s  will  perceived  in  faith,  then the dualism  seems  inaccurate,  the  qietism  and conservatism seem  to  describe  anyone, but not the real Luther. But if Luther  is  looked  at  from this one particular historical catastrophe,  and  by  his stance in this series of peasant uprisings,  then  all three of these charges seem to stick.  Or  do they? And so failing an answer our quest to overcome this  theological  insecurity  continues, because how could such  a comprehensive theology of Luther’s fail in this one regard?

Or  do  we  have  to  look at it from another point of view  by  asking better questions than we have been capable of  up  to  now? In any case many of the quotes criticizing Luther  do  not seem to do him justice. Perhaps some of the problem  could  stem from Luther’s use of dialectics. Above H.  Richard  criticized  Luther for his being able to bring on  the  danger  of  antinomianism,  and Reinhold felt that slippery   dialectics  could  raise  havoc  with  attempted projects  of  social  justice.  There  is  one  place where Reinhold  argues  that  the  dialectics  of the Reformation were  not  expansive  enough:  Reinhold refers to a fact of the  history of the Reformation that would suggest that its insights  would  have  to  be related to the whole range of human   experience   more   “dialectically”   than  it  had succeeded  in  doing.[62]

The  fact he is referring to is that   the  Reformation  either  regarded  the  problem  of  justice  as  insoluble by reason of human sinfulness, or it solved  the  problem  too  simply  by appeals to presumably transcendent  standards  of justice supposedly untainted by human  sin.  But  wanting   an  absolutely  secure and safe position,   this   group   from  the  Reformation  had  the pretension   to   be   beyond  historical  ambiguities  and contradictions.  The Reformation made a polemic against the premature  transcendence  over  history in Catholicism, but was   frequently  tempted  to  commit  the  same  error  as Catholicism  (with  different instruments of pretension) as it  was  to  commit  the  opposite error.[63]

Therefore the Reformation  insights  must  be  related to the whole range of  human  experience  more  “dialectically”. The “yes” and “no”  of  its  dialectical affirmations: that the Christian is  “justus et peccator,” both “sinner and righteous”; that history  fulfills  and  negates  the  Kingdom  of God; that grace  is continuous with, and in contradiction to, nature; that  Christ  is what we ought to be and what we cannot be; that  the  power of God is in us and against us in judgment and  mercy;  that  all  these  affirmations  which  are but varied  forms of the central paradox of the relation  of the Gospel  to  history  must  be applied to the experiences of life  from  top  to  bottom. There is no area of life where “grace”  does  not  impinge. There are no complex relations of  social  justice to which the love of the Kingdom of God is  not  relevant.  And  there  are no areas or experiences where  historical  insecurity  and  anxiety  are completely transcended except in principle or momentary ecstasy.[64]

Whether   this   expansive,   comprehensive  dialectic avoids  the possibility of antinomianism in face of the law and  social  justice  is  hard to say. Reinhold seems to be offering  another  approach  to  the  individual and social problem,  a  political  ethic  in  place of the two kingdom theory.  Whereas  the  latter  is  a  theological grid, the former  is  an approach with many concepts fashioned out of political  experience  in  struggle for social justice, and much  scholarship,  reflection  and  analysis  of political theory and social issues in history. Major Themes in Niebuhrian Luther Criticism To  summarize  the  major themes, then,  in Niebuhrian criticism   of  Luther  for  our  study,  themes  that  our apologists  of the two kingdom theory and Luther’s theology will need to answer:

1/   Dualism, the splitting or divorce of the two realms

a/ Breaking the moral tension by over‑intensifying the religious tension.

b/  On  a  practical  level  the  doctrine  of the two kingdoms  established an ethical dualism between public and private,  between  inner  and  social  morality. In the one sphere  the  perfectionistic  ethic  of  the  Sermon on the Mount   prevails  and  in  the  other  order,  rather  than justice. This was Reinhold’s criticism above.

c/ Other reasons for splitting apart the two realms

2/   Conservatism (or being socially reactionary and quietist)

a/ Monastic indifference to material and economic possessions

b/ Negligence of proximates by almost exclusive concern with ultimates

c/  Defeatism and pessimism leading to complacency for social justice

d/ Realism for the sake of social order, but not for justice

f/ No standards of justice by which to evaluate social structures

g/  Emphasis on reason and pagan resources for earthly realm, but no emphasis on justice

h/ The law and the earthly realm seen only negatively, only restraining and not also aspositive and constructive agents

i/ Earthly realm relegated to unbelievers

j/ Gospel for the individual and only negatively relevant to the community

3/   Perversity of social ethic and double standard

a/ For the rulers a realistic, external, public, official and almost cynical ethic, but a perfectionistic, private and inner ethic for the peasants.

b/ Luther’s stance encouraged tyranny, for resistance to government is as important as maintenance of government.

c/ Luther resisting only for ultimate faith issues, never for material proximate concerns…again:

d/ pessimism ‑ defeatism ‑ conservatism.

4/   Total depravity and the Orders

a/ Creation placed too close to the Fall

b/ in contradiction with actual orders of creation

c/ social orders for practical purposes identified with the natural law, even whatever the social structures happen to be.

d/  Are the orders those of creation or of redemption?  Redemption: Christ and the vision of an ideal community, but at the end of, never within history.

5/   Total spiritual and social transformation never expected this side of death and the Parousia (Second Coming) But partial increments in approximations of maturity and justice.

6/   Desertion, exclusion of lower classes

a/ not attempting to relate to their needs

b/ becoming class‑specific as Lutherans.

c/  Priesthood of all believers and abstruse theology,

d/ inequalities of political and social ethics. ( This theme can be related to #3.)

7/   Luther appealed only to St. Paul, when the peasants also expected him to appeal to the Sermon on the Mount in considering their plea for his help.

8/    The Word alone and faith in God’s action or Sentimentality versus realism.  Freedom of the Word alone versus institutions, economic and political establishments that will not release power without struggle by means of sanctions, strikes, demonstrations of people power, armed struggle, etc. Today the Word alone sound like ideology of powerful to disempower the oppressed.

9/   Luther’s two kingdom theory as  compared with that of St. Augustine  a/ deficiency in discriminate justice  b/ relegating the believers to one realm and the unbelievers to the other.

10/  Sanctification issue

a/ Grace versus the law.

b/ largely personal and interior, rather than social and external

11/  Appeal of Christianity only to individual or to the community as well?

a/ Vision of the ideal community also in the New Testament.

b/ Paradox of freedom of the self and community

c/contradiction and ambiguity

d/ individual and the Reformation, the Renaissance and the bourgeoisie.

12/  Paradoxical relation of the Gospel and history

a/  The  kingdom of God does not annul, but transmutes fragmentary historical achievements

b/ a narrow versus a comprehensive dialectic.  These  themes  could  certainly  be related and merged some  more,  but  the point is to cover the majority of all the  criticism  reviewed in the writings of the Niebuhrs in order  to  be  able to have an adequate overview  in facing them  and  meeting  them as squarely and as courageously as possible   with  the  scholarship  of  the  apologists  for Luther’s theology and the two kingdom theory.

What  is a  heresy but the revenge for a forgotten truth?


[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1951, p. 187.

[2]  Ibid.

[3]  Ibid., p. 188.

[4]   Ibid.

[5]  Ibid., p. 189.

[6]  H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism, New York: The World Publishing Company, 1929, p.  34.

[7]  Ibid.

[8]  Ibid., p. 35.

[9]  Ibid., p. 36.

[10] Ibid., p. 37‑38.

[11]  Ibid., p. 92.

[12]  Henry S. Lucas, The Renaissance and the Reformation, New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1960, p. 493.

[13] George Herbert Meade, On Social Psychology, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934, p. 273.

[14] Luthers Werke IV, Weimar Ausgabe, p. 284.

[15]  G.H. Meade, op. cit., p. 273.

[16]  H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America, New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1937, p. 37‑38.

[17]  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Holy Family, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), page 96.

[18]  From Luther’s The Bondage of the Will, LW 33:52.

[19]   Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man,  Vol. II, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943, p. 184.

[20]  Ibid.,p. 180.

[21]  Ibid.,p.186.

[22]  Ibid.,p.187.

[23]  Ibid.,p. 188.

[24]  Ibid. (Lazareth below counters this argument by himself criticizing traditional Lutheranism. He attempts a progressive revisionism of the two kingdom theory which is closer to the real historical Luther’s intention.)

[25]  Ibid., p. 188‑189.

[26]  Ibid., p.190.

[27]  Ibid., p.191.

[28]  Ibid., p.192.

[29]  Ibid.

[30]  Ibid.,p.193n. (Social antinomianism, p. 193, is guarded against by the teaching: “Let every man endeavor to do his duty diligently in his calling and help his neighbor to the utmost of his power.”)

[31]  Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959, p.127.

[32]   Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man,  Vol. II, p. 186‑187. Here a note from my brother, Philip Krey: “American theologians usually opt for Augustinian emphasis on grace over Luther’s emphasis on faith.”

[33]   Ibid.,p. 192. Luther has two functions of the law, the theological and the civil. It is the theological function of the law that contains the accusation of the sinner. Reinhold is not presenting Luther fully because he does not include all the distinctions that Luther makes.

[34]   Ibid.,p. 194.

[35]  Ibid.,p.194‑195.

[36]  Ibid.,p.211.

[37]  Ibid.,p.195‑198.

[38]   Gerhard Brendler, Martin Luther ‑ Theologie und Revolution, Cologne: Pahl‑Rugenstein Verlag, 1983, p. 305.

[39]  Luther’s Works Vol. 49, Letters, II, Philadelphia: Fortress Press,1972, p. 113.

[40]  Luthers Werke, IV, p. 409.

[41]  Gerhard Brendler, op.cit. , p. 338. (This insinuation might be unfair, because it was not written in Müntzer’s antagonism in the last days, but probably earlier, in 1524.  But T. Müntzer would probably have had Luther executed had he been able to take Saxony and Wittenberg.)

[42]  Margaret A. Currie, trans., The Letters of Martin Luther, London: The MacMillan Company, Ltd., 1908, p. 139. (In his letter to John Ruehel of May 15th, 1925 Luther asserts that it was pitiable to so treat  T. Müntzer. “Thanks for news about Müntzer. I should like to hear how he was taken prisoner, and how he behaved, for it is well to know how such haughty spirits act. That the poor creature should be so treated is pitiable. But what can we do? and it is God’s will that fear should be instilled into the people. If this were not done, then Satan would do even more mischief. The one misfortune is preferable to the other. It is the judgment of God. He who takes the sword shall perish by the sword. So it is a consolation that this spirit should be made manifest, to let the peasants see how badly they have acted, and perhaps they may cease plotting and improve. Do not take all this so to heart, for it may be for the good of many souls, who, through fear, may desist.”

[43] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires, 1959, op. cit., p. 90.

[44]  Ibid., p. 91.

[45]  Ibid.

[46]  Ibid., p. 92 and p.128.

[47]  Ibid., p.132.

[48]  Ibid., p.133.

[49]  Ibid.

[50]  Ibid., p.134. (Interesting here is the different way that P. Teilhard de Chardin says the same thing. It is a false alternative to oppose the individual against the group.  To contrast unity (element, individual) with plurality (whole, collective) is a false habit of mind. “the coming together of separate elements does nothing to eliminate their differences. On the contrary, it exalts them. In every practical sphere, true union (that is to say, synthesis) does not confound; it differentiates.” In his Future of Man, New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1959, p.53. And again page 302, “Must I again repeat the truth, of universal application, that if it be properly ordered union does not confound, it differentiates?”)

[51]  Reinhold Niebuhr, The Structure of Nations and Empires, 1959, op. cit., p. 134.

[52]  Ibid., p. 134‑135.

[53]  Ibid., p. 135.

[54]  Ibid., p. 136.

[55]  Ibid.

[56]  Ibid., p. 137‑138.

[57]  Ibid., p. 138.

[58]  Ibid., p. 141.

[59]  Ibid., p. 143.

[60]  Ibid., p. 144.

[61]  Ibid.

[62]   Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man,  Vol. II, 1943, op. cit., p. 204.

[63]  Ibid., p. 203.

[64]  Ibid., p. 204.


H. Richard Niebuhr. Christ and Culture.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1951.

———————–.  The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1937.

———————–. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. New York: The World Publishing Company, 1929.

Reinhold Niebuhr. The Nature and Destiny of Man,  Vol. II. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943.

———————-. The Structure of Nations and Empires. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1959.

Henry S. Lucas. The Renaissance and the Reformation. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1960.

George Herbert Meade. On Social Psychology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934.

Martin Luther.  D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische GesamtausgabeWerke. 61 vols. Weimar, 1983-1993. (WA)

Martin Luther. The Bondage of the Will, (LW) vol. 33, from:

Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut Lehmann, eds. Luther’s Works. 55 vols. St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955-86.

Margaret A. Currie, trans. The Letters of Martin Luther. London: The MacMillan Company, Ltd., 1908.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Holy Family.  Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975.

Gerhard Brendler. Martin Luther ‑ Theologie und Revolution. Cologne: Pahl‑Rugenstein Verlag, 1983.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Future of Man.  New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1959.


Written by peterkrey

May 6, 2012 at 7:42 am

Posted in Luther, Theology

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