America has bequeathed to the church a fixation on politics. It’s not merely that American Christians are politically active, but that church-institutions in the public space have taken it upon themselves to engage in political action of various kinds and from various perspectives. The “religious right” has been a fixture of the American political landscape for several decades, but now also is the so-called “religious left.” From both ends of the spectrum (and all the stops in between), Christians have felt compelled to engage with politics by injecting what they value theologically into the wider societal conversation.
Indeed, we inhabit a time in which “political theology” is eminently fashionable. Christians decry the secularization of public space as a symptom of the disenchantment of the worldly realm. Some question whether a lack of political involvement means a denial of the earthly dimensions of the kingdom of God. Quietism and political indifference are condemned as an impotent retreat from Christian responsibility to shape a just and moral society. If the church forsakes its duty to bear moral witness in the political realm, what is the church even good for?
Such a narrative blames the Reformation and the doctrine of two kingdoms – at least in part – for the torn moral fabric of modern life. It is argued that the Reformation initiated a split between the earthly and the spiritual, which was then brought to completion by the Enlightenment, having fully removed God’s activity from the world in either deism or atheism. It is the Enlightenment that has bestowed on the modern world a form of political liberalism that not only separates the church from the world but that actively marginalizes Christian public witness. So goes the usual, historical argument against the Reformation’s doctrine of the two kingdoms.
It is enough to say that the Reformation did not result in the moral chaos so feared by many of its hesitant and conscientious detractors.
Indeed, one of the great concerns about the Reformation from the very start was that the gospel preached so freely would give license for people to indulge all their wicked proclivities without consequences. Such dissenters, especially certain Renaissance humanists, agreed with many Protestant critiques of medieval theology and the abuses that came with it. But they maintained the practical and ethical utility of holding onto a system of doctrine and moral teaching that would restrain the masses from vice.
As it turned out, religious conflict a century later would unleash more bloodshed on Europe than did the supposedly licentious political theology of the reformers. As Luther’s catechisms demonstrate, the early Lutherans were thoroughly invested in the reform of preaching according to the gospel, but also the reform of human vocation in ordinary life as well. Others could more adequately and comprehensively catalog the political ramifications of the Reformation in the German lands and Scandinavia than I can here. But it is enough to say that the Reformation did not result in the moral chaos so feared by many of its hesitant and conscientious detractors.
What is important about the Lutheran Reformation and its approach to the political––which is by no means monolithic––is that it hardly entailed a withdrawal from the public and earthly realms. Instead, the two-kingdoms doctrine involves a reform of how to understand God’s agency and activity in the world. A doctrine of grace perfecting nature, like in some of the medieval traditions, unifies God’s action in creation and redemption toward a common goal of enacting human fellowship with God. Even the political is, in some way, “sacramental,” for it too advances humans in their achievement of a moral union with God as the highest good.
The two-kingdoms doctrine by no means surrenders the political realm to secular independence, apart from God’s activity. What it declines to do is render God’s providential governance of the world in terms of the gospel. The purpose of the church is to proclaim the forgiveness of sins given and distributed to sinners in word and sacrament. The preaching of the law is necessary in the church, but it is not the essence of the church’s preaching office. Only the gospel has pride of place in the church’s proclamation. As C.F.W. Walther memorably has stated, the gospel must predominate.
On the other hand, it is the purpose of the government to enforce obedience to God’s law in creation, restrain wickedness, and promote an ordered civil realm. Such a task is distinct from the gospel’s work of justifying sinners and freeing them from captivity to the powers that enslave the world. This is not a retreat from engagement with politics, but a distinctly theological judgment about how God is active in providing for the world, restraining sin, and ordering human society.
Indeed, the gospel frees the Christian for life in the world, including political involvement. Likewise, God’s work in the law and the creation may indeed drive people to take refuge in the comfort of the gospel. Yet this dynamic does not mean a confusion of law and gospel, but the recognition that they are both words of God. God is the one who uses his word to accomplish his purposes. Trouble arises when we begin to suspect that we can use God’s word to accomplish our own purposes, especially political and moral ones.
Christians are free to engage in political matters, even as Christians, but the church as an institution has a responsibility not to lobby for specific political ends, however worthy and just they might be.
Turning to a contemporary application of such a construal of the civil and the churchly realms, the two-kingdoms doctrine calls into question some typical ways of framing Christian involvement in politics. If the church’s function in the world is defined by its preaching of the good news to the lawless and the sinful, then its public witness is surprisingly constrained. The maintenance of public morality is not the church’s responsibility since God has established the institutions of family and government for this purpose. Christians are free to engage in political matters, even as Christians, but the church as an institution has a responsibility not to lobby for specific political ends, however worthy and just they might be. An overactive, politically engaged church inevitably ends up confusing law and gospel––which really means that neither is heard.
Surely such a perspective will be condemned for its rather modest approach to the church’s public vocation. Such a constrained view of the two-kingdoms will undoubtedly be faulted for withdrawing the church’s voice from the urgent conversations that animate a morally chaotic society like our own. But it is also clear that Christians themselves have shirked the responsibility for their own engagement with the political realm, and offloaded such responsibility onto the institution of the church.
Indeed, I would go so far as to say that making the church the primary agent of moral regulation in public life is, itself, unhelpfully limited and constrained because it devalues the earthly authorities and institutions that God has established to promote the good of the creation. A retrieval of the two-kingdoms perspective from the Reformation tradition is now necessary, not to evacuate God’s work in the world from the public realm, but to clarify exactly how it is that God is at work providing for and sustaining the world that he has made for himself and for us.