May 2, 2010
(This post is actually short!)
In the last section of the chapter, “Precursors to the Reformed Tradition,” VanDrunen examines a figure whose name is regularly identified with “two kingdoms” theory, though rarely with the concept of natural law--Luther. He seeks to show that both of these ideas played a crucial role in Luther’s political theology, which was in close continuity with the catholic strands he has already identified, and which set the stage for a more mature and systematic development in Reformed thought.
Before turning to briefly consider this discussion, I wanted to add one more thought to the previous post. I’d mentioned some key distinctions in patristic and medieval political thought that VanDrunen glosses over, and I wanted to add one more--which person of the Trinity is seen as the source of political authority? This was an important variation within the broad “two swords” stream. Some medieval thinkers, such as the Carolingians (if I remember rightly), saw the prince as a vicar of Christ--just as Christ was prophet, priest, and king, so, in his Church, some were called upon to imitate his prophetical office, preaching the word, some were called upon to imitate his priestly office, administering the sacraments, and some were called upon to imitate his kingly office, administering civil justice. In such a conception, the “two swords” did not correspond to a neat division between creation and redemption--rather, both were operative in the sphere of redemption. Other versions of the doctrine saw the prince as the vicar of God, receiving his role from God the Father, the creator, and thus, to a certain extent at least, independent of Christ’s redemptive work. This version is much more congenial to VanDrunen’s project, but a better historical sketch would have taken note of both versions.
Now, what about Luther? VanDrunen turns to Luther’s classic treatise On Temporal Authority to consider his two kingdoms doctrine. For Luther, civil authority had been established by God since creation. Those who are in Christ are members of his kingdom, which needs no temporal sword, and so for themselves, they never wield it, but they do wield it for the sake of unbelievers, those who live still in the kingdom of the world. In the second half of the treatise, Luther argues that the temporal authority must never extend to rule over spiritual matters, or to exercise any coercion over faith.
VanDrunen calls our attention to several salient points: first, there is a strong antithesis between Christians and the world, not merely eschatological, but ethical. Second, there is a large area of commonality--both Christians and non-Christians live under temporal authority and both can wield it, though, significantly, “Luther does not treat it as a morally neutral realm, but gives civil rulers strong exhortations to exercise their sword with justice and within the limits of their authority” (60). Luther moves beyond Augustine in treating coercive temporal authority as something good and God-ordained, and in insisting that the Christian is really and truly a citizen of both kingdoms, rather than, as with Augustine, only one. (At this point, I sense that VanDrunen is interpolating aspects of Luther’s later treatise The Sermon on the Mount, since, in On Temporal Authority, he certainly seems to speak as if the Christian is a citizen only of one kingdom, and simply works as an alien within the other.) VanDrunen concludes here by saying that the Reformed view generally follows the lines that Luther has sketched, though with three differences: 1) a different use law-gospel distinction, 2) a difference in what is placed under each jurisdiction, and 3) a difference regarding the use of coercion in matters of faith.
Van Drunen’s discussion of Luther on natural law is structurally similar to his discussion of Ockham on the same issue--the main point is simply to demonstrate that, contrary to popular stereotypes, Luther cheerfully employed this category in his ethical and political thought, and that he equated the Decalogue with the natural law. VanDrunen does not go much beyond demonstrating this, and again leaves out of consideration any further questions, such as about how the natural law relates to the evangelical law. So, as before, I feel that VanDrunen hasn’t yet shown us much of significance, though perhaps that was not his intent at this point.
A couple of critical remarks are also in order regarding the discussion of Luther on the two kingdoms. First, I still see nowhere (even in the footnotes) a recognition that many scholars now argue that “two kingdoms” is simply a mistranslation (and hence, a misunderstanding) of Luther’s view, which should rather be rendered as “two regiments.” This seems a much too significant issue to simply leave unmentioned. Second, VanDrunen asserts that On Temporal Authority can be taken as representative of Luther’s political thought as a whole, and yet there is a considerable difference between its viewpoint and that of later works, such as The Sermon on the Mount. For example, Luther does not seem to have remained consistent in his initial insistence that spiritual matters lay outside the purview of the magistrate. Admittedly, Luther is not meant to be the main focus of the book, but this oversimplistic engagement with him makes it look as if VanDrunen is simply picking and choosing the version of Luther that fits best into the rest of his narrative.