The Lutheran reform tradition stands as a vibrant witness and provides a rich resource for faithful people today as we speak truth to religious and secular power and work for justice for our neighbors.
Lutheranism was born as a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church. A decisive feature for reform was the medieval synthesis of imperial and papal power, the Holy Roman Empire, which had created an atmosphere of fear linked to an ever-increasing system of laws from cradle to grave. Martin Luther sided with those who defended the freedom of secular authority from the church and its biblically attested independent power as a divine institution (Romans 13:1). By the end of the sixteenth century, secular territorial rulers imposed either Roman Catholicism or Lutheranism on their subjects, thus creating territorial state churches. Only after the eighteenth-century Enlightenment could free churches be organized, especially in the United States.1
Life in Two Realms
As a biblical scholar and student of Augustine (354–430), Luther advocated a "two kingdoms" theory that viewed earthly life as an interim marked by two activities of God called "two realms."2 The interim is the time between the ascension of Jesus and his return at the end of time. With the "left hand," the law, God rules the realm of sin, based on the original and inherited sin as the desire to "be like God" (Genesis 3:5). With the "right hand," the gospel, God rules the realm of faith linked to hope for an eternal life. The two realms are like two intersected circles; Christians live in this intersection with law and gospel as the word of God.3
The law has three functions: (1) to preserve order in the world against the constant threat of chaos; (2) to confess the continuing power of sin and to repent, turning to the gospel; and (3) to develop a spiritual discipline for survival in the face of continual temptations to fall back into sin.4 The gospel is the message "that Christ has atoned and paid for all sin and apart from any human merit has obtained and won for people the forgiveness of sins."5
The third function of the law is the result of a reality check that reveals the continual power of sin as self-righteousness in believers who impose their views on others and even persecute those who are unable to join. As a satirical critic of New England Puritan theocracy put it, "The Puritans first fell on their knees and then on all aborigines."6
The departing Jesus commissioned the disciples to a worldwide mission, marked by baptism. Jesus himself promised that he would be with them through the Holy Spirit as "advocate" (Matthew 28:19-20; John 16:7). Baptism is the centerpiece of a spiritual formation or catechesis demanded by the third function of the law to combat the constant threat of sin. Through baptism, we are daily born again as the basis for a lifelong spiritual discipline governed by the anticipation of the return of Christ. At the center of such discipline is the Lord's Supper as "a foretaste of the feast to come."7
Christians are people on "the Way" (Acts 24:14) to a future "where righteousness is at home" (2 Peter 3:13). They are "strangers and foreigners on earth," en route to their homeland, the city of God (Hebrews 11:13, 16). They are "ambassadors for Christ" in a strange land (2 Corinthians 5:20). That is why they must be "wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). They, like physicians, must be good diagnosticians in order to project a prognosis.8 Yet their discernment of disease must be linked to a childlike faith praising God like cooing doves, the symbol of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:16). "Serpenthood" and "dovehood," as it were, are necessary to survive suffering, persecution, indeed terror (when family members murder each other, Matthew 10:20-22). Thus the church is an end-oriented (eschatological) pilgrim church, or "the church militant," involved in the conflicts of the world caused by sin. Its members must stay cool, be serene, indeed exhibit a gallows humor in extreme situations — as the old Luther did: "All that's left is to sink into my grave. I'm done for, except for tweaking the pope's nose a little now and then."9
The Lutheran doctrine of the third use of the law is the theological foundation for life in the interim. It has a single, seemingly simple focus defined by Jesus as the double commandment of love: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40, italics added).
When such love is realized, it strives, above all, for justice, symbolized by a scale. Given the conditions of earthly life in the interim, the scale always tips to the side of the law rather than to the side of the gospel. Few, if any, are able to treat others as they themselves wish to be treated. Although this "golden rule," or ethics of reciprocity, is known almost everywhere in the world, its realization leaves much to be desired. At best, it creates a temporary balance between good and evil to stem the tide of chaos. That is why the biblical good neighbor is depicted as a Samaritan, a member of a sect with whom "Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans" (John 4:9). Members of the Jewish elite, a priest and a Levite, are the bad neighbors who ignore the victim of a road gang. But the Samaritan is the good neighbor (he "showed him mercy," Luke 10:37), thus establishing a balance — justice — by enabling him to be again a healthy member of society.
Lutherans can become once again pioneers of a reform movement, this time focusing on justice.
Justice is also recommended by Jesus in regard to taxes. He flipped a Roman imperial coin and, when the head of the emperor appeared, he said, "Give ... to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21).
The Lutheran confessions follow suit: secular government is instituted by God, and Christians may "without sin" participate in such a government. "But if a command of the political authority cannot be followed without sin, one must obey God rather than any human beings (Acts 5:29)."10
Christians are to be part of and partners with the secular government in the work for justice, be it in their own country or in the world at large. But they cannot be owned and ruled by secular government — the worst form of injustice. The German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a double agent, working for Hitler's Military Counter-Espionage Department and participating in a carefully planned yet unsuccessful military attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944.11
He could not live with the horrible political sins of trying to conquer the world by force and to exterminate Jews by a holocaust. Just before he was hanged, he left a message for a surviving friend: "This is the end — for me the beginning of life."12
Earthly life will end once and for all, ushering in "new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home" (2 Peter 3:13). Hope for such a future makes Christians cope with the trials and tribulations on their trek through time. Work for justice can unite them on their journey through the interim. It is the only wise and mature way of enduring the journey. Sometimes, sufficient justice may be achieved only by a harsh discipline that, like a Marine boot camp, unites and shapes a variety of recruits for action against an enemy. Their motto, Semper Fidelis
("always faithful") is also fitting for the members of "the church militant."
|For Further Reading|
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Scribners, 1963.
Braaten, Carl. E., and Robert. W. Jenson, eds. Christian Dogmatics. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. Volume 2. Eleventh Locus: Gerhard O. Forde. "The Christian Life."
Ellingsen, Mark. "The Two Kingdoms in America." Dialog No. 45 (2006): 366–75.
Gardner, E. Clinton. Justice and Christian Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Gassmann, Günther, and Scott Hendrix. Fortress Introduction to the Lutheran Confessions. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999. Chapter 6: "The Christian Life."
Gritsch, Eric W., and Robert W. Jenson. Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and Its Confessional Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976. Chapter 10: "Christian Life." Chapter 13: "Politics — Two Kingdoms?"
Stumme, John, and Robert W. Tuttle, eds. Church & State: Lutheran Perspectives. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.
Such discipline recommends itself for church leaders as a paradigm for love of God and country. It is no longer possible in the United States to do business as usual in the face of grave sins in the form of terrorism; an overextended credit system; unsatisfactory education, health care, and energy supply; and a decline in faith and morals. These sins can no longer be fought by military and culture wars, by exporting American democracy, or by an ostrichlike attitude. Strangleholds of hatred must give way to caring embraces, motivated by justice as the first, most obvious, step towards a new human spirit, spiked with the spirit from the world to come. Unearthing classic insights, Lutherans can become once again pioneers of a reform movement, this time focusing on justice.
Two revolutionary events mark the history of the relationship between God and country: the fusion of church and state by Constantine 1 in 313 and the separation of them by the First Amendment to the American Constitution in 1791. The First Amendment makes religion a private matter of the individual citizen who may be a Christian citizen of a world to come through membership in a church or an atheist — a very problematic situation.13
But there is an affinity between the Christian doctrine of the separation of human and divine powers (as expressed in the trinitarian creeds) and the American doctrine of the distinction between three governing powers: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial (as expressed in the Constitution and amendments). If one of these powers dominates the others, tyranny threatens. That is why "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance" (Thomas Jefferson). Two renowned brothers in American theology, Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, have shown how precarious vigilance is in American history.14 Reinhold Niebuhr's "Serenity Prayer," used by Alcoholics Anonymous, can serve as a guideline for the relationship of God and country: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference."
Serenity, courage, and wisdom can unite Christians and non-Christians to work for the best possible equity between citizens who are increasingly burdened by injustice. Above all, Christian spiritual formation should be guided by the powerful biblical insight that Christ is as present in the neighbor in need as he is in the eucharistic celebration. "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are a member of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40, italics added). These words should be a wake-up call for Christians to live in disciplined discipleship with each other and with non-Christians for the sake of justice. To ignore "the least of these" means to ignore God in Jesus Christ.
The enduring admonition to live, or die, for God and country has a familiar militant ring. The earthly "church militant" must get used to encountering God and country in "the least of these." This encounter calls for a move from penance to justice: to confess the sin of apathy and to become a good neighbor again. That is how traditional patriotism can be paired with the Christian tradition of hope and thus strengthen the resolve to cope with life in the mean, mean time.
Eric Gritsch is emeritus professor of church history, the Lutheran Theological School at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he also directed the Institute for Luther Studies.
- See Eric W. Gritsch, A History of Lutheranism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
- Another designation for "kingdom" (from the German Reich, an abbreviation of Königreich, "royal realm"). Luther also used other terms for secular authority, such as "estate" (Stand), "hierarchy" (Hierarchie), and "rule" (Obrigkeit). His two-kingdoms ethic is shaped by Augustine's major work, The City of God.
- See the succinct description of the law-gospel dialectic in the "Confession of Faith," 2.202b. ELCA Constitution.
- Formula of Concord, Epitome VI, 1, Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert (Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2000), p. 502.
- Ibid., V, 5, p. 500.
- Recorded in Alden T. Vaughn, New England Frontiers: Puritans and Indians, 1620–1675, 2d ed. rev. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), vii.
- Offertory in Lutheran Book of Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978), 66. Book of Concord, "Small Catechism" on baptism, 360:12. How contemporary spiritual discipline or catechesis can be done is demonstrated by Eric W. Gritsch, A Handbook for Christian Life in the 21st Century (Delhi, NY: American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 2005).
- The serpent is not only a symbol of temptation but also of healing as the bronze serpent of Moses (Numbers 21:9) and as "the Son of Man" (John 3:14); it is the logo of ancient Greek and contemporary medicine derived from the Greek physician Asclepios (ca. 420 BCE) who is portrayed with a serpent curled around his staff, its head touching his left hand.
- Eric W. Gritsch, The Wit of Martin Luther (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 66.
- Book of Concord, Augsburg Confession XVI, pp. 49–50.
- Detailed account in Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, 2d ed. rev. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).
- Ibid., p. 927.
- Indicated by the insertion of "God" in the oath of allegiance and by unending debates about love of God and love of country.
- Reinhold Niebuhr in The Irony of American History (New York: Scribner, 1952) and Richard Niebuhr in The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Willett, Clark & Company, 1937. Reinhold Niebuhr's critical insights have been employed to demonstrate by historical analysis why and how respect for the United States has declined in recent decades. See Andrew J. Bacevich, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2008).
This article appeared in the May / June 2009 issue of Lutheran Partners (vol. 25, no. 3).