A Brief Introduction to Temporal Authority

By Piotr Malysz

Two kingdoms?

The label “doctrine of the two kingdoms,” often applied to Luther’s views on temporal authority, is somewhat of a misnomer.  The reformer’s views are far more complex and, in actual fact, entail several distinctions, such as that between spiritual and worldly modes of governing, and that between spiritual and worldly kingdoms.  Luther also distinguishes between the kingdom of God and kingdom of the devil — a distinction that cuts through the former two.  What follows is a brief sketch of Luther’s conception of temporal authority.  It is an exposition rather than a critical examination.  The sketch is excerpted, with some changes, from my article “Nemo iudex in causa sua as the Basis of Law, Justice, and Justification in Luther’s Thought,” published in Harvard Theological Review 100:3 (2007), pp. 363-386.

Spiritual and worldly governments

In his 1526 treatise, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, written in the wake of the peasants’ revolt, Luther reiterates the distinction between the spiritual and worldly governments (understood as modes of governing), which he first introduced in his 1523 writing, Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Can Be Obeyed.[1] The spiritual government (das geistliche Regiment) employs no coercive power, “but it has the [preached] word, by means of which men are to become good and righteous, so that with this righteousness they may attain eternal life.”[2] Because this righteousness is one of faith, which is in the heart – first, all who are under the spiritual government are equal, “whether they be outwardly male or female, prince or peasant, monk or layman,” and, second, “they do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings can demand.”[3] They live out the Golden Rule in all its loving selflessness.  Consequently, “among Christians there shall and can be no authority; rather all are alike subject to one another.”[4] This harks back to Luther’s dialectical adage from his 1520 treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[5]

However, as Luther observes regretfully, not all people are “real Christians.”[6] The worldly government (das weltliche Regiment) must, therefore, seek to “bring about external peace and prevent evil deeds,”[7] and to this end it is entrusted by God with the coercive power of the sword, “so that those who do not want to be good and righteous to eternal life may be forced to become good and righteous in the eyes of the world.”[8] This government finds its expression not in spontaneous service but in responsibility exacted through various relationships of social and vocational dependence: one is father, child, master, servant, judge, citizen, or subject, etc.  One’s role in these relationships – much as one might be tempted to manipulate them to one’s own advantage – is clearly understood by reason, since, aside from the variety of positive laws pertaining to them, these offices (Ämter) are all founded on natural law: do to others as you would have them do to you.[9] Note that as it now takes the form of positive laws to preserve the structures of society, the Golden Rule is transformed into a transactional and retributive principle: the worldly government operates on the basis of reward and, more often than not, punishment: it pays back what is due.[10]

In sum, righteousness arises either out of faith, whereby it becomes the foundation of a person’s whole being before God and before the world, or is maintained externally by means of the sword.  Still, regardless of their differences, “God himself is the founder, lord, master, protector, and rewarder of both kinds of righteousness. There is no human ordinance or authority in either, but each is a divine thing entirely.”[11] The spiritual and worldly governments are both established by God.[12]

It is not simply because the worldly government is a mode of God’s activity that Christians are to participate in its operation after all.  The motivation is deeper.  To begin with, the spiritual regiment benefits from the existence of the worldly regiment[13] – external peace maintained by temporal authority enables the church to carry out its divine mandate: to call people from outward righteousness to the righteousness of faith, from temporal life to eternal life.  Christians’ participation in the structures of temporal authority assures, therefore, that the preservation of those structures, self-contained as they are, will not become an end in itself.  Luther’s scathing criticism of heavy taxes levied by compassionless, un-Christian, princes, or their attempts to rule over their subjects’ souls is a case in point.[14] More importantly, the Christian life is social and vocational existence par excellence – for this reason Christians cannot refrain from submitting to, and supporting, temporal authority.  It is the unbeliever who is the arch-individualist.  To appreciate the weight of this distinction, we must invoke Luther’s understanding of sin and with it his doctrine of the two kingdoms.

The human being in the spiritual and worldly kingdoms

The central issue underlying Luther’s Reformation breakthrough concerns no less than the identity of the human being – as such, and thus also before God.  Am I simply the sum of my works, as Aristotle would have it?[15] Even more pointedly, do I create myself through my works?  Or do I receive my being – am I justified – from the outside and only as such perform works?[16] For Luther identity can either be received by one, or else the person may, and indeed must, attempt to construct his own identity.  In the former case, what one is, as a creature, is determined by the love of God, who provides for all the needs of body and soul.[17] In the latter case, believing himself to be a free and autonomous shaper of his destiny, the person embarks on a pursuit of sources of security which could underwrite his being and provide him with a bargaining position before God.[18] He defines himself through his actions and commitments.  But, according to Luther, a human being can never be the locus of his own identity.  To believe otherwise means, first, to overlook God’s providential care of his creation, which includes the worldly government.  No work is simply one’s own.  Second, this posture is idolatrous, in that it seeks to influence God through his own gifts, which one has deceitfully ascribed to oneself alone.  Worse still, a blind search for sources of security[19] turns humans into slaves of their own self-justificatory activity, for to refrain from it would be tantamount to allowing one’s being to disintegrate.  Luther describes this enslaving pursuit of self-justification as being turned in on oneself (homo incurvatus in se ipsum) – sin.[20]

Instead of trusting in God, sinners trust in themselves.  Consequently, instead of loving the neighbor, they love themselves.  They are inexorably compelled to direct their works not to the neighbor, but ultimately to themselves.  What this means in practice is that the sinner’s works, however good they may appear, are ultimately only a modality of self-interest: works that appear good to fellow humans and would by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as crimes may, in fact, be mortal sins if they are used to serve one’s selfish goals and God’s agency is not explicitly, humbly and prayerfully recognized in them.[21] Regardless of the appearance, the reality is that, if left to themselves, sinners either abuse their socio-vocational roles or, constrained by the law, discharge their duties disgruntledly, selfishly and without much regard for others.  Small wonder then that “[w]here temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer hypocrisy is inevitable, even though the commandments be God’s very own.”[22] For the reformer, the sinner is the arch-individualist, and that in spite of all his activism.

Works, Luther insists, are by definition social: they are not self-serving but neighbor-serving.  Therefore, it is the Christian, not the self-justifying sinner, who, by allowing God through faith to define his spiritual and worldly identity, is alone free to work for others’ sake – free to love.  Defined by God and open to the neighbor, the Christian exists simultaneously before God (coram deo) and only as such also in the world (coram mundo).  Standing “before God in the Spirit,”[23] with his sins forgiven and his good works forgotten, the “Christian is a person to himself; he believes for himself and for no one else.”[24] All that matters in this kingdom of the Spirit (das geistliche Reich) is the cross of Christ and its re-creative impact upon the justified sinner, who, in turn, boasts only in Christ.  But complementary to this sphere is the kingdom of the world (das weltliche Reich), which is the realm where the Christian serves others, for here he is “not a person to himself, but on behalf of others”[25] – precisely because coram deo he already has God on his behalf.  It is, therefore, on account of their freedom to participate disinterestedly in the kingdom of the world, in the larger human – and not only Christian – community, that believers cannot refrain from involvement with worldly government (note, however, that in principle there is no strict correlation between the kingdom of the world and its actual, temporal, mode of government).  If the Christian were to withdraw from the world and refrain from exercising temporal offices, “he would be acting not as a Christian but even contrary to love; he would also be setting a bad example to others who in like manner would not submit to authority, even though they were not Christians. In this way the gospel would be brought into disrepute, as though it taught insurrection and produced self-willed people unwilling to benefit or serve others, when in fact it makes a Christian the servant of all.”[26] Hence Luther’s admonition that Christians pay taxes and assist the sword by whatever means they can “with body, goods, honor, and soul.”  Though they themselves have no need of temporal authority, its continuance is both beneficial and essential for one’s fellow human beings.[27]

To summarize, Christians’ participation in the socio-vocational structure of society is motivated not only by temporal authority’s divine sanction but, first and foremost, by the law of Christian love.  Freed from debilitating self-justification by the justifying act of God, Christians alone can afford to be selfless and are truly able to love.


[1] A more comprehensive introduction to what has come to be known as Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms and the two governments can be found, e.g., in Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther, 43-82; John R. Stephenson, “The Two Governments and the Two Kingdoms in Luther’s Thought,” Scottish Journal of Theology vol. 34:4 (1981), 321-337; W. D. J. Cargill Thompson, The Political Thought of Martin Luther (Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press, 1984), 36-61; Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. and ed. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 151-159, 314-324.

[2] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:99.

[3] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:88 (emphasis added).

[4] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:117.

[5] LW 31:344.

[6] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:88.

[7] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:92.

[8] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:99.

[9] “This also agrees with the natural law that Christ teaches in Matthew 7, ‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them’” (“Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:110-111); “For nature teaches—as does love—that I should do as I would be done by” (“Temporal Authority,” LW 45:127).

[10] “The emperor or prince … should not tolerate useless people, who neither feed nor defend, but only consume, are lazy, and live in idleness, and drive them out of the land” (“Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:128); “the kingdom of the world, which is nothing else than the servant of God’s wrath upon the wicked and is a real precursor of hell and everlasting death, should not be merciful, but strict, severe, and wrathful in fulfilling its work and duty. Its tool is … a naked sword; and a sword is a symbol of wrath, severity, and punishment. It is turned only against the wicked, to hold them in check and keep them at peace, and to protect and save the righteous” (“An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants” [1525], LW 46:70).

[11] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:100.  Cf. “the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments” (96).

[12] Antti Raunio notes correctly, contra Althaus, that Luther’s concept of the law involves no dualism, as if there were two Golden Rules, one self-interestedly and coercively reciprocal, applicable to unbelievers, and the other, motivated by love, pertaining to Christians.  Both the spiritual and worldly governments proceed from God’s love and seek nothing but a loving response.  What Raunio seems to overlook, however, is that the Golden Rule, when translated into the worldly government’s legal system, inevitably becomes transactional and prohibitive in character.  With no dualism involved, this transformation shows only that ultimately love cannot be legislated, as evidenced by Christians, who “do of their own accord much more than all laws and teachings can demand” (see n. 13).  I shall speak to this in more detail below.  See Antti Raunio, “Natural Law and Faith: The Forgotten Foundations of Ethics in Luther’s Theology,” Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenson (eds.), Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 96-124.

[13] “the temporal power is but a very small matter in the sight of God, and too slightly regarded by him for us to resist, disobey, or become quarrelsome on its account, no matter whether the state does right or wrong. But on the other hand the spiritual power is an exceedingly great blessing and much too precious in his sight for the very least of Christian men to suffer silently when it deviates one hairsbreadth from its proper function” (“Treatise on Good Works” [1520], LW 44:93).

[14] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:104, 105.

[15] Cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, II, 1103b.

[16] As a Christian, “[a] doer does not get this name on the basis of works that have been performed; he gets it on the basis of works that are to be performed.  For Christians do not become righteous by doing righteous works; but once they have been justified by faith in Christ, they do righteous works.  In civil life the situation is different; here one becomes a doer on the basis of deeds, just as one becomes a lutenist by often playing the lute, as Aristotle says.  But in theology one does not become a doer on the basis of works of the Law; first there must be the doer, and then the deeds follow” (“Lectures on Galatians” [1535], LW 26:256).

[17] Cf. Martin Luther, “Small Catechism” [II.2], The Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 345.

[18] “human nature is so blind that it does not know its own powers, or rather diseases, and so proud as to imagine that it knows and can do everything”; “Scripture … represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive” (“De Servo Arbitrio” [1525], LW 33:121, 130).

[19] Cf. Martin Luther, “Large Catechism” I.2.

[20] Cf. “Lectures on Romans” (1515-16), LW 25:291, 313, 345.

[21] “Heidelberg Disputation” (1518), [esp. Theses 3, 5, 7], LW 31:43ff.

[22] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:92.

[23] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:104.

[24] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:122.

[25] “Whether Soldiers,” LW 46:122.  In this particular context, Luther is speaking of the princes.

[26] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:94.

[27] “Temporal Authority,” LW 45:95.

One thought on “A Brief Introduction to Temporal Authority

  1. Daniel Turner

    “the kingdom of the world, which is nothing else than the servant of God’s wrath upon the wicked and is a real precursor of hell and everlasting death, should not be merciful, but strict, severe, and wrathful in fulfilling its work and duty. Its tool is … a naked sword; and a sword is a symbol of wrath, severity, and punishment. It is turned only against the wicked, to hold them in check and keep them at peace, and to protect and save the righteous”

    It is so striking to me how Luther’s view of temporal authority is so blatantly against scripture. It undermines the universality of the gospel by claiming that the governing authorities are merely instruments of brutality and wrath. It represents God as a maniacal bipolar loving savior/tyrant. Whereas the words of our Lord speak so antithetically to these claims:

    “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” -Mark 10:42-45

    How in the world can this be reconciled with, “the hand that wields this sword and kills with it is not man’s hand, but God’s; and it is not man, but God, who hangs, tortures, beheads, kills, and fights. All these are God’s works and judgments.” God is not responsible for torture by the powers that be. To say so is near if not blasphemy. It is rash and truly sadistic words such as these which enabled the “Third Reich” to claim their reign of horror and acts of aggression were ordained by God.

    No, instead God’s reign on Earth is represented anywhere, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” Unlike Luther’s grotesque opinion on civil government, God’s preferential option for the poor and contempt for those who maintain their authority by means of violence and economic oppression is firmly grounded in scripture. Luther was supported by the aristocracy, the elites, the landed classes; therefore, on the subject of temporal authority he does their bidding without fail, failing to speak out against the injustices of the feudal status quo. Against such repulsive views, God is speaking into existence a different kingdom which turns the order of such a “gentile” society upside down.

    “He turns rivers into a desert,
    springs of water into thirsty ground,
    a fruitful land into a salty waste,
    because of the evil of its inhabitants.
    He turns a desert into pools of water,
    a parched land into springs of water.
    And there he lets the hungry dwell,
    and they establish a city to live in;
    they sow fields and plant vineyards
    and get a fruitful yield.
    By his blessing they multiply greatly,
    and he does not let their livestock diminish.

    When they are diminished and brought low
    through oppression, evil, and sorrow,
    he pours contempt on princes
    and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
    but he raises up the needy out of affliction
    and makes their families like flocks.
    The upright see it and are glad,
    and all wickedness shuts its mouth.” -Psalm 107:33-43 ESV

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