imageBook review of The Ethics of Martin Luther by Paul Althaus, translated by Robert C. Schultz. Augsberg Fortress Press, 1972. Retail: $18.00.

Most of literature I have read on Martin Luther quickly brushes over his “Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms” likely because it is difficult to understand and to explain. Not so with Paul Althaus’ work The Ethics of Martin Luther originally written in German in 1965, but available for us monolingual Americans as well in a 1972 translation by Robert C. Schultz. Althaus’ primary focus is an explanation of Luther’s “Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms” – Luther’s view on the role of government and its relationship to Christians.

It is couched in the understanding of the Doctrine of Justification that Luther forms his Ethics. It is because of the freedom we have in Christ through his death on the cross for our sake that we are not burdened by God’s ethical demands. We are not called to be ascetics or moralizers, but to be free to love God and our neighbor.

Althaus writes, “Thus faith sets the Christian free. He is free to do his work with joy, in contrast to slavish worry, insecurity, and unhappiness of the man who has no faith, doubts how he stands with God, and does not know how he will satisfy God.”

The doctrine of the Two Kingdoms is to Luther’s way to explain the relationship of man to government. This doctrine should be of particular interest to Libertarian Christians as Luther argues for the separation of Church and State (against the Roman model of the times) and for government to be limited to its proper Biblical roles of punishing evildoers and keeping order in society.

Luther’s views can be summarized as follows:

1) Government is to punish evildoers (as the Left hand kingdom of God).
2) The church, The Right Hand Kingdom, is not to be involved in government itself, but in preaching the gospel.
3) The church and the government shouldn’t cross roles. People are never to be coerced into belief.
4) Christians must submit to the governing authorities. Christians should never rebel against a government even when the government commits crimes.
5) A person should never use violence as a person, but it is allowed when used in its office. This “office” can be either in the government (executioner, judge, soldier, etc) or in the family (the parents).
6) Laws should be formed by “reason.”
7) Christians are not necessarily better at government than non-Christians.
8) There is no “best” form of government.

Althaus also does a superb job explaining Luther’s views on vocation, marriage, and economics. His views on economics obviously predate marginal utility theory by centuries so he shouldn’t be condemned to strongly for suggesting a way of arriving at a reasonable price based on the cost of materials and the risk taken by the businessman. Despite this view, Luther argues “that Christ has not given us specific direction in the area of buying and selling but has left the regulation of this area to reason.”

I recommend Althaus’ Ethics of Martin Luther for its in-depth treatment of the difficult areas of Luther’s ethics. The book wasn’t persuasive enough to convince me of all of Luther’s views on government, but significantly improved my understanding.

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Doug Douma

Doug Douma is a Christian focused on advancing Biblical views as Truth on all topics into the mainstream discussion. His areas of interest include Christian philosophy, ethics, and Austrian Economics. He works as an engineering manager at an aerospace company near Austin, Texas.
  • It’s a bit anachronistic to say Luther “argues for the separation of church and state”. Those categories really didn’t exist at the time as we understand them now. Temporal authority wasn’t defined as a monopoly on coercion; that didn’t appear for a while. The Two Kingdoms doctrine was more about personal status – who do you answer to? – than institutional setup (unlike the Catholic doctrine of the Two Swords). Only a few megalomaniacal popes and later sovereigntists (Hobbes, Rousseau, etc.) ever argued for a single monistic church-state amalgam; the main stream of Catholic (Thomistic) theology always kept the two very separate, even if it wasn’t always so neat in practice.

    Point three above, to elaborate, has two propositions. Luther would agree with both, but I don’t think he would see one as necessarily following from the other. As far as I know, he didn’t question the idea that the church’s institutional form (though this is not the Church itself) had certain complementary rights to coercion.

    That’s not to say the Catholic conception was better than Luther’s. But except for his strong support of freedom of conscience, Luther’s influence on the church-state dynamic was not a clear step in the right direction like his theology was. He basically just replaced a universal Catholic church with a series of Landeskirche (national churches) which related to the temporal power in the same way, though with a lot less leverage than Rome had. Luther wrote to princes urging them to break with Rome and establish official Reformed churches. Germany and Sweden still have official Lutheran churches today.

    It could be argued that this got the ball rolling towards a voluntaristic and independent Church, but that was definitely not Luther’s intention. Separation of Church and State as we know it in America was really more of an Anabaptist idea (which is not an endorsement of their overall theology). They even maintained it was a sin for a Christian to hold office (Luther made the fifth point above writing against this particular Anabaptist doctrine). Unfortunately both Rome and the Reformers persecuted them heavily. The idea was just too far-fetched at the time; tantamount to anarchy. And from his writings, it seems anarchy was Luther’s greatest fear after the wrath of God.

  • I don’t think it’s anachronistic at all. Though all ideas evolve from listener to listener and the world is different now than it was in the age of Luther, Luther clearly argues for an important separation of church and state, even if he did not go nearly as far in separating the two as we might like.

    Regardless of intention on Luther’s part, his concept of salvation as personal, thus cutting out mediators cannot help but lead toward greater individual freedom. He may not have followed his views all the way to their broader implications, but whether he ever got there matters less than the core ideas he popularized.

    Point 7 above is key, and it alone, if thought on long enough and searchingly enough, will bring the idea of theocracy crashing down.

    But you’re right, of course, about how the Anabaptists played a pivotal role in creating a better and stronger separation of church and state.

    I don’t see any conflict at all between the idea of marginal utility and the practice of generally setting prices to be near the cost of production. Marginal utility will get them there in the long run any how, so a convenient short-cut for the seller who doesn’t want to alienate customers. I love the theoretical concept of marginal utility almost fanatically, but when I do business with people I know one of the things we both derive utility from is the ease of mind and relational desirability of not having to haggle over a price, so we almost always set the price of things we exchange at very near the cost of getting/assembling them.

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