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Oberman’s View of Luther’s Two Kingdom Theory: a translation for Robert Goeser

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Because I was Prof. Goeser’s teaching assistant, he asked me to translate this important contribution on the Two Kingdom Theory by Heiko Oberman, who clears away a great deal of confusion that has arisen about it. The devil and the armies of his kingdom are still waging war against Heaven’s Kingdom of Christ. Those are the two kingdoms. In the Kingdom of Christ, that of the left is by the rule of law and that of the right is by the invitation of the Gospel. Governments can work inside the the Kingdom of Christ if they love the people and continue preserving the  marvelous creation of God. It is not like the Kingdom of God against government in the world per se. The three medieval estates are not concerned, except for the fact that Luther declared the priesthood of all believers, giving the vocation of Christ to all believers, even to those in governments as well as their subjects. Governments should remain in the left realm of the Kingdom of Christ and churches in the realm of the right. The devil uses their confusion to fight against the Kingdom of Heaven and to destroy God’s wonderful creation.

Erwin Iserloh and Gerhard Müller, editors,
Luther and the Political World, Scholarly Symposium in
Worms from 27th to the 29th of October, 1983. Prepared for
publishing by Johannes Koch, (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner
Wiesbaden GMBH, 1984), pages 27-34.

Heiko A. Oberman

1.2 Theses for the Two-Kingdom-Teaching

At any given time the short commentaries following the
theses contain, in part, my elucidations freely given in the
conference at Worms; and, in part, work in the criticism which
was offered there in the ensuing discussion, for which I am
thankful to the participants.

Thesis 1: John Heckel must be considered correct in his assertion
that the re-presentation of Luther’s teaching through evangelical
theology first led to the perplexing labyrinth of the Two-
Kingdom-Teaching. The thesis that the Two-Kingdom-Teaching is an
invention of post-Reformation dogmatics is no remedy, but a sham
offered in place of a solution. If one pays attention to the
older Catholic research on the Reformation, then it cannot be
ascribed to any constructions of Karl Barth whatsoever.
Commentary: In the following, the still unabated and richly
flowing secondary literature will not be considered nor
mentioned. But one exception must be made: it concerns the works
of John Heckel on the topic of the Two-Kingdom-Teaching, which
Martin Heckel – rightly – just published once more. Both by his
own achievement in research as well as the criticism provoked by
his works, John Heckel marks a valid caesura in the history of
the interpretation: the governing center of the Two-Kingdom-
Teaching is the lex charitatis; without question, its ethical
direction is correctly designated by this Latin codification.
But by that alone the escape from the labyrinth of the Two-
Kingdom-Teaching of Luther is not yet found. It can only be
found if the topic of this conference given me in advance, the
“Two-Kingdom and the Three-Estates-Teaching,” is limited
fundamentally to the first part, and precisely not coupled
together from the start with the Three-Estates-Problematic. How
devastating this coupling operates can be observed in the attempt
of the older Catholic research, to dissolve the Two-Kingdom-
Teaching of Luther’s into the Two-Regiment-Teaching. With that
Luther’s own realm of thought is “demythologized” and repressed.
Erwin Iserloh chose the line of argumentation in the discussion
that the research should not concern itself with the Two-Kingdom-
Teaching, but the Two-Regiment-Teaching, because the Two-Kingdom-
Teaching was already coined in the Bible and medieval times, and
because of that it could not be ascribed to the “goods” of
Luther’s own thought! This kind of an approach rests on the
erroneous, reductionist hypothesis that only original thought
(Sondergut) can be spoken of as Luther’s own thought (Eigengut).

Thesis 2: The Two-Kingdom-Teaching is too simple to permit it to
be left for systematic theology. Traced through its historical
context, it is basic and makes sense, but to modern categories of
thought it is repugnant. To begin with, it teaches nothing other
than the battle between the power of God and the army of the
Commentary: In the preface the stipulation was made not to
consider any secondary literature. How little this defense
against systematic alienation should be taken for a reproach
against all (contra omnes), can be seen, in that a further
exception in addition to John Heckel will here be made. The
contributions of Gerhard Ebeling point out the way in which
systematic theology can handle the Two-Kingdom-Teaching:
Wherever the historical (contextual) evidence does not
regulate the interpretation, the task of translation becomes
submerged under the compulsions of modern applications and
imposed meanings – whether from philosophical, political, or
religious sources – as the history of the treatment of this topic
richly illustrates. The historian should and must keep open the
possibility, whether or not the meaning of his historical writing
might consist in the result that absolutely no modern application
(applicatio) for it exists. Precisely for this reason it is here
necessary to anticipate the resulting conclusion, that the
“applicatio” of the Two-Kingdom-Teaching de facto not be called
into question, that it becomes much better viewed from the angle
of its potential use.

Thesis 3:  At any given time there are three different barriers,
which are tempting but distorting, and which have so far blocked
research. The first is of a systematic-theological origin,
combined with problems of a terminological nature; the two others
are of the secular-historical, or else, the theological-
historical kind.
Commentary: How little one realm of research can be made
responsible for the language confusion of today emerges from
these determination of the “three walls of the Romanists,” which
have made the labyrinth of the Two-Kingdom-Teaching into a
seemingly impregnable fortress. In their unavoidable task of
translation, the systematicians have been deserted by the

Thesis 4: One runs into the systematic-theological barrier there
where the Two-Kingdom-Teaching is joined with the Three-Estate-
Teaching into a theological union.

Thesis 5:  As a matter of fact, the Three-Estate-Teaching is
nothing other than a different use (usus) of the Two-Kingdom-
Teaching. As a medieval analysis of society, the Three-Estates-
Teaching is outdated in its factual content. As a concretion of
the teaching of the priesthood of all believers, however, it
remains unremittingly relevant in its substance and intention.
That is because the teaching of the estates breaks through the
monopoly held by the priests and monks, validating the goodness
of each vocation as worship-service of God: “All pure holiness
and holy life before God.”
Commentary to theses 4 and 5:  In the widespread rejection
of Luther’s Two-Kingdom-Teaching, a great role is played
throughout, by the reformers joining it with a teaching of the
medieval, patriarchal analysis of society, to which he felt the
Scriptures witnessed – and which was confirmed for him in
historical “experience.” In fact, however, the Two-Kingdom-
Teaching does not stand in a causal relationship with such a
conception of the state. The  task of systematics, which is
legitimate and not to be relinquished, is not the coupling but
the differentiation of the theologically permanent from the
historically past. Criticism of old Estates-Teaching basically
misses Luther’s Two-Kingdom-Teaching – so long as the doctrine of
the priesthood of all believers is not thrown out with it.
Thesis 6:  The customary entrance into the Two-Kingdom-teaching
via Luther’s writing, “Temporal Authority [and to what Extent it
should be Obeyed]” runs into a misleading terminological barrier.
As a rule one is driven by the vocabulary Luther uses into the
labyrinth of interpretation. It is shown by careful look into the
research literature, that the interpreters succumb to the danger
of not discerning the variant meanings of “kingdom,” and do not
perceive the mixing of the concepts “kingdoms” and “regiments.”
The sources therefore become questioned beyond their competence
or even become wrongly questioned.
Commentary:  The writing, “Temporal Authority and to what
Extent it should be Obeyed,” (1523) which is so tempting for this
topic, proves to be not only a danger, but also another chance
for research.  It yields much for the precise reason that it
compels the interpreter to distinguish terminologically, what
Luther himself did not consistently differentiate, viz., the
concepts, “kingdom” and “regiment.” The ambiguity does not
concern the concept “regiment” but the designation “kingdom,”
which – if one follows the Genesis Lectures of 1535-1545 – can be
enriched with even a third meaning: (1) “Kingdom” is “Kingdom of
God” or “kingdom of the devil.” (2) “Kingdom” stands for “kingdom
of the world” as God’s Kingdom of the Left (iustitia civilis),
which is distinguished from God’s Kingdom of the Right (iustitia
fidei). (3) “Kingdom” is finally also the translation of “regnum”
as a Latin Synonym for the estates, for which the  different
terms  “orders” (ordines) or status (status) can also be used.
This third level of meaning has so far not yet played a role in
the confusion, and therefore does not require further attention.
In face of the language confusion initiated by Luther, a
regulation of the language is now necessary. It is recommended to
distinguish between “Kingdom” and “realm,” so that God’s Kingdom
and the devil’s kingdom on one side, are not confused with God’s
Realms of the Right and of the Left on the other side, and
whatever is said about them. The Two-Kingdom-Teaching first of
all concerns the battle between the kingdoms, that means between
the power of God and the army of the devil. The right
understanding and the right coordination of the two Realms of
God, by which he rules in each differently by means of Law and
Gospel respectively, is the central point of the devil’s attack
in his larger battle against God’s Kingdom.
With that, both belong to the Two-Kingdom-Teaching: first
and foremost, the teaching of the battle of God’s Kingdom against
the devil’s kingdom; and in consequence, joined to that, the
teaching about the differentiation of the Realms of the Left and
of the Right [Hand] of God.

Thesis 7:   A historical barrier emerges where the writing on
temporal authority is interpreted quite accurately and
circumspectly, but the main statement it is making about the
limits of obedience, eludes the grasp by becoming isolated in the
history of ideas.
Basically, [this historical context] is the enduring
conflict with the Duke of Saxony, a fight that is often looked at
in the beginning as a mere introductory question of literature.
But in that way one becomes blind to the immediate comprehensible
historical matrix of the Two-Kingdom-Teaching, which is precisely
the continuing power struggles and conflicts between Electoral
Saxony and the Duchy of Saxony, because [for the approach
concerned with the history of ideas] this is supposedly
irrelevant for the theological interpretation of the teaching.
Commentary:  Just like the writing on temporal authority
should not be isolated theologically from the fundamental writing
on freedom, which appeared three years earlier (1520) and the
sermons which preceded that (1519), it should also not be
isolated from its immediate political context: Luther was held in
the altercations between Electoral Saxony and the Duchy of
Saxony, and faced the unavoidable task to meliorate or clarify
Electoral Saxony’s governing right of reformation (ius
reformationis) in the constant conflicts which flared up on the
These barriers of isolation produced an effect in a twofold
manner: remaining unhistorical, the common theological
interpretation of Luther’s Two-Kingdom-Teaching becomes
concentrated in the history of ideas and becomes largely detached
from the concrete political situation. And even historically, not
paying attention to the historical surroundings also leads into
error: Luther’s point of departure is the universal claims of
sovereignty of the papacy, his goal is the liberation of the
church from the Babylonian captivity. Rome’s church-state is no
special case, but an exemplary one for the confusing mixture of
the two realms, which becomes politically concretized in the
cities, bishoprics, and in the territories just as well.
Thesis 8:  The boundaries between the Electoral Principality
of Saxony and the Duchy of Saxony were in part consciously drawn
without clarity – a result of the main partitioning in Leipzig
(1485) – originally that was to secure in a series of cases the
intertwining of the feudal duties of the subjects and the
overlapping of the rights of sovereignty of the princes: Saxony
was supposed to become not divided but merely partitioned. By
constitutional law this conception preprogrammed conflict among
the Wettin [princes], which could only be made more acute because
of the religious question.
Commentary:  On December 28, 1527, in this situation of
Saxony’s partition, Luther formulated a proposal for a solution
for a typical conflictual case involving the brothers von
Einsiedel, which attempted to turn away the threatening violent
confrontation between Duke George and Elector John.  Luther
appealed to the Leipzig Treaty as a basis for a peaceful
settlement: these were principalities divided by treaties, in
consequence of which “each should be allowed to believe in his
principality, as he wished….” With that the famous sentence in
the Religious Peace of Augsburg, “cuius regio, eius religio” is
[found to be] the legal draft for the empire of Luther’s Saxon
solution: each prince may determine the religious politics on
his own territory.
Thus this solution as such is not primarily the unwanted
result of the later, alleged magisterial reformation, which was
established against Luther, as often maintained.
Thesis 9:  The “Two-Kingdom-Teaching” takes fire from the duties
and the boundaries of obedience, politically it seeks to
disentangle spiritual and secular power (Gewalt), and
historically it needs to be associated with the scope of the
Saxon territorial conflict. Thus it shows that Luther’s Two-
Kingdom-Teaching as a teaching of the Two Realms is a poised
political theology.
Commentary:  In the case of the brothers von Einsiedel the
principles of the writing on temporal authority were applied in a
territorial political way. Even for Duke George, an enemy of the
Gospel, his divine sovereign authority is not disputed. In his
domain the brothers have to endure the duke’s right concerning
the sacred (ius circa sacra), nevertheless without justifying the
policy of oppressing the Gospel perpetrated by Duke George.
Thesis 10:  The third and at the same time the most powerful
bulwark against the correct understanding of the Two-Kingdom-
Teaching is formed by its classification in dogmatic history. No
researcher passes by Luther’s Augustinian place of departure: the
teachings of the two cities (civitates) establishes the basic
form of the Two-Kingdom-Teaching. But it is incorrect for one to
lift up for praise as decisive and original in Luther that he
supposedly overcame the “dualism” of Augustine.
Commentary:  In so far as “dualism” refers to the opposition
between God’s Kingdom and Satan’s kingdom, precisely the contrary
is valid: Luther did not overcome the dualism of Augustine, but
sharpened it biblically.  He even dared to go ahead up to the
edge of the negation of the teaching of omnipotence. There are no
discussions of the problem of the two kingdoms for Luther, in
which the devil’s power of chaos is not considered as well: “Oh,
the devil has some choice evil in mind.”
Thesis 11: The opposition between God’s Kingdom and Satan’s
kingdom is not only a monument of the young Luther who,
allegedly, is still attached to Augustine. The mutual conflict of
the two kingdoms is an enduring, central plumb line for working
out the distinction of the two realms.
Commentary:  One must take a stand against  the often only
subliminal, implicit, but therefore more dangerous interpretation
of the two kingdoms – God’s and the devil’s – as a “medieval
transition stage” of the young Luther. The exegesis of the Lord’s
Prayer of September 1528 – one of the most important preparatory
works for the large catechism – is introduced with a beginning
sentence critical of tradition: “Now we want to let you know, how
each person should understand the Lord’s Prayer. I, myself, long
ago and even while I was a doctor, did not understand [it].” In
the year 1512 Luther had not yet grasped the cognitive horizon of
understanding the Lord’s Prayer.  In the following he now states
what cannot be misunderstood: “In the Lord’s Prayer you see that
there are two kingdoms in opposition: the kingdom of Satan and
the world against God’s.”
The spectacle of the great battle of the two kingdoms is
also manifest in Luther’s inscription of dedication in the
splendidly printed “Windsheimer” Bible. It’s probably in the year
1536 that Luther makes a present of a sample of this Bible (the
Lufft-Bible, printed in 1535 in Wittenberg) not by accident to a
politician, namely, the chancellor of Ansbach, George Vogler.  On
the first page as a dedication for the chancellor, Luther
summarizes the basis of his political theology in a most brief
John XIX [18:36]
“My Kingdom is not from thence” –
that is: My kingdom is not
a worldly kingdom. Why?
Because in the worldly kingdom
the majority hold to the devil’s
kingdom  As stands in Ps. 2 [1f.] Why do
the heathen rage and the nations plot in vain
The kings, etc. But my kingdom holds completely with God against
the devil.
John XI [11:25]
I am the life and resurrection
Who believes in me, shall live
even if he die immediately
Domino Georio Vogler, dearest brother
Martinus Luther Doctor
Thesis 12:  There is no development of Luther’s away from the so-
called dualistic conflict between God and Satan into a
differentiation between Law and Gospel, between God’s Kingdom and
the kingdom of the world.
Commentary:  The distinction of the different kingdoms,
first between God’s Kingdom in opposition to Satan’s kingdom, and
next the distinction between the Realms of the Gospel and Law,
for Luther belong inseparably together. The distinction between
the realms is situated by God, but is always threatened and
undermined by Satan. It is his aim to exchange the Gospel for the
Law, and precisely in this way, to endanger both Realms of God:
faith and world, Gospel and Law, that they fall into the kingdom
of Satan.
Thesis 13:  Concerning the differentiation of the kingdoms and
realms, the opposition always maintained between Luther and
Calvin does not stand.
Commentary:  With the appeal to the Geneva reformer it is
easy to overlook the fact that John Calvin, (even before he comes
to his differentiation of the “administrationes” in Book IV of
his “Institutes,” [i. e.] in Book III – where he treats
“libertas Christiana,”) like Luther differentiates just as
clearly between the concepts “regiment” and “kingdom,” which he
used interchangeably, and the realms.
In a summary already in 1531 he can make the necessary
distinction between the double government (duplex regimen) and
kingdom (regnum) in a poetic  and rhetorically impressive way:
“One we may call the spiritual kingdom (regnum spiritualis), the
other, the political kingdom (regnum politicum).  These two,
however, that we divide, must always be separated one from the
other with a watchful eye…For they are in humanity just like
two worlds, over which both, different leaders (reges) and
different laws preside.”
In the edition of the year 1543 he adds as an explanation:
“This distinction is made not because the Gospel teaches about
the liberty of the spirit, [but] we draw to the false political
Thesis 14:  Even now up into the most recent discussions
concerning disarmament and rearmament, one customarily overcomes
the medieval Luther with the modern Calvin. Therefore it needs to
be established that Calvin borrowed without deletion the analysis
of the two realms of values, that of Luther’s “freedom before
God” (libertas coram Deo) and his “freedom before persons”
(libertas coram hominibus), and in just the same way that the
Wittenberger interpreted them in his tract on liberty and that on
temporal authority.
Commentary:  According to Calvin Satan reigns in a sphere
confined and at the same time controlled by God under the hand
and sovereignty of God (sub Dei manu et imperio). What Calvin
does not have is the end-time dualism, the unconditional and
ceaseless struggle between God’s Kingdom and Satan’s kingdom that
continues until the end. That is a basic difference, which
effects considerable consequences for all passages (loci).
Thesis 15:  Luther’s Two-Kingdom-Teaching has a double purpose:
For the first, it is about the disentanglement of spiritual and
temporal power (weltliche Gewalt), for the second, it concerns
the legitimation of governing authority (Obrigkeit) as an office
established by God in a creation which is threatened by the
Commentary:  The purpose of the disentanglement complies
with the question of the governing authority and to what extent
it should be obeyed. Luther’s answer in its differentiation is
unambiguous: “For himself” the Christian needs no law, and
precisely because of that, also needs no governing authority. The
Christian “for others,” however, needs the law and the governing
authority, the way God in his sustaining love ordained for
Secondly, since the end of the year 1527, the Two-Kingdom-
Teaching answers the challenge of the Anabaptists, who likewise
place the government’s authority, which is established by God,
into question, who – just like the pope – interchange the law and
the gospel. In opposition to old and new enthusiastic dreamers
(Schwärmer) this teaching needs to be maintained: For the realm
of faith absolute passivity is the value that holds – without the
works of the law. In the realm of the world, on the other hand,
absolute activity is required. Here faith is a restless thing,
i.e., that which allows no rest (emsig Ding).
Thesis 16:  This is a double purpose declared against a double
front, as Luther can say glancing back over the path of his life:
since the time period of the apostles, hardly anyone has taught
like he has, so magnificently and usefully about governing
Commentary:  Precisely here – and not before here – lies the
connection of the Two-Kingdom and the Three-Estates-Teaching,
where Luther’s political theology takes a concrete stand to the
questions of the social and political order.  For him as a
political theologian, the honorable title, “Doctor of Good Works”
cannot be contested.
Thesis 17:  By means of the confusion of the two  regiments,
Satan’s kingdom threatens both the church and the world.
Commentary:  Satan causes that perverse exchange, which
drives Christians into activity “without grace” (gnadenlose) in
the realm of faith, and misleads them into a “pious” withdrawal
from the world. The confusion of the realms leads to a contempt
for the creation, to chaos in the world, and insurrection in the
Thesis 18:  In conclusion, after a look at the significance of
the Two-Kingdom-Teaching for today, two kinds of results of this
historical work can be pointed out: The Christian is placed into
service of the world, at the same time the devil is extracted
from the world in such way that it becomes secular.
Commentary:  The service (Dienst) or duty of the Christian
in the world, for Luther is associated with the preservation of
right (Recht) and protection for humanity and creation, both
always threatened by Satan. In faith, the Christian is secure
(geborgen) in time and eternity. To the Christian, faith gives
the gift of freedom  and the capability of love, to be sure,
without being equipped with advance knowledge in dealing with the
family and upbringing, with business, politics, and the state.
The Christian is assigned to the coalition with non-Christians,
who already for Luther make up the vast majority of Christendom
(Corpus Christianum). The true Christ is a bird seldom seen, a
rare bird (rara avis).
The intensification of Augustine’s “dualism” leads to a
fundamental, now, a reformational transvaluation of the world,
worldliness, and worldly service. Not only the governing
authority is placed in an immediate relationship with God, but
the worldly office (Amt) as such. This dualism of Luther does
not lead to the bedeviling (Verteufelung) of the world, but to
secularization, i.e., to taking the diabolical
(Entdiabolisierung) out of the world in the service of God. In
front of the mirror reflecting the demonic, destructive power of
Satan, both realms: Gospel and Law, Faith and Work, Redemption
and Creation, are placed under the loving care provided by God
and,  at one and the same time, in the realm of the world, are
submitted to human care – to spite the devil: Hold fast onto
Christ, present and mighty – everywhere in heaven as on the
earth. Ridicule and mock the devil for his whole gruesome claim
at lordship (Herrschaft). – “Invoke Christ everywhere present and
powerful, insult and laugh at the ferocious and arrogant one


Written by peterkrey

June 29, 2013 at 10:17 pm

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  1. My relatives always say that I am killing my time here at net, however I know I am getting knowledge daily by reading
    such nice articles or reviews.


    September 11, 2013 at 5:45 pm

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