Politics and Kingdoms: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Discussing politics as a Christian is fraught with difficulties. Part of the problem, however, might be the theological categories that we often resort to in such discussions.
For instance, I know the Two Kingdoms perspective of both Lutheranism and Calvinism. Yet, having spent the last several days once again looking at the context of the doctrine, I think it falls short. I will admit the genius of the doctrine within the context of the Reformation era, especially when compared to the medieval struggle and endless debates between the temporal and spiritual powers of that era. We must, however, admit that the Reformers (or, indeed, other commentators of Church and State from Augustine to Locke) knew nothing whatsoever of a secular state in the modern sense and/or meaning. To have imagined a state that was divorced from religious ties would have simply been beyond them. Instead, in their own time, they cast a theory to fit their own time and circumstance. Moreover, while it may be true that the reformers had certain marked differences in their view of Church and State (Zwingli being the outlier here), they nevertheless shared in a basic community of ideas. At the heart of this community of ideas was that God ruled in two ways, in the Church through Grace and the means of grace; and through the State, by the means of Law. (One might also add to these two kingdoms, the “subset” of the family, as Luther did in his Marburg sermon.)
Now, I will freely admit that this is, owing to space, a very simplified view of this Reformation doctrine. Yet, it will serve as the basis for some observations and questions.
The first observation is that this doctrine was drawn up in the context of monarchical and/or aristocratic rule. While in Geneva, Calvin sought to mitigate the “divine right” of rulers through the combined efforts of the consistory and the council. The arrangement, however, lasted for only a generation through the time of his successor, Theodore Beza. By the time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Reformation Wars of Religion, all parties recognized the results the Peace of Augsburg of 1555, in which each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state (the principle of cujus regio, eius religio) although this was restricted to Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism in Western Europe. Apart from a few Swiss cantons and some Italian city-states, the idea of a republic or a democracy with a multiplicity of faith communities was largely unknown. In most regions the norm was a ruler who occupied his or her place as a matter of divine right in which there was also a state church. This model stretched across Europe and even had a significant influence on the early colonization of the Americas. (For example, in Massachusetts, Congregationalism remained the tax payer supported established church until1833.)
A second observation is that the options for displacing someone who governed by “divine right” were limited. There were few, if any, internal legal remedies in the emerging monarchical nation-states. The medieval papal remedy of excommunication of a ruler, which thereby supposedly loosed the bonds of allegiance of people to their sovereign, had already been found to be almost worthless in the Reformation era. (This had been especially true in the case of the Tudor dynasty in England.) If one had a wicked or godless ruler, whose actions touched upon obedience to the Gospel, the alternatives were 1) to disobey the ruler and pay the penalty for one’s disobedience (Luther and Calvin agreed upon this) or 2) outright rebellion. In the time and historical context of the development of the Two Kingdoms doctrine, there were few, if any, alternatives. While in the post-Reformation era one might believe that it was desirable for rulers to conduct themselves as Christians, there was little recourse if they failed to do so. Indeed, even where the sovereign was not a Christian, or was immoral, or was a bad ruler, his or her authority as a ruler, according to this doctrine, was not to be diminished on that account.
I would suggest that we are a good deal removed from the context that gave birth to the doctrine of the two kingdoms. The doctrine may have been good in itself for the time, but the times have changed. The Reformation ideal of the priesthood of all believers informed the constitutional theories of John Locke, just as the covenant theology of Calvinism led to the idea of the social-contract (itself a precondition of constitutional democracy). Both of these contributed to the vision of John Adams that America might possess a “government of laws, and not of men.” In contrast to the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, our rulers would not possess a divine right to rule and would be held accountable by laws.
Like the reformers, however, we are still bound by the absolute distinction between spiritual and secular authorities in conformity with Christ’s oft repeated words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s”. Yet, what do these words entail when we live in a republic bound by laws with leaders whom we elect? Certainly, it is not the creation of a theocracy. Rather, I believe that the answer may lie in another Reformation ideal, that of vocation. The Reformation rediscovery of vocation transcended the old medieval dualism of sacred (religious) and secular callings. The believer stood in a relation of faith to God, and God gave the believer his or her office or work. Into that office or work the believer brought their faith, their values, their ethics. Yet, in a republic, in which there is no ruler by divine right, our vocation includes bringing our God given intelligence to the task of asking questions, voting and participating in the structures of our republic. It also involves questioning and critical inquiry after we leave the voting booth. Moreover, as believers, it may well involve the assessment of character, ethics, morality and policies in line with our Christian faith. I would suggest that all this is also a part of our vocation. Elected leadership, does not constitute a divine right to rule. In the modern nation state, we may even find that as in the time of the Reformation, we do not obey laws that violate conscience and, thereby, suffer the penalties of the law. The point is, that we are not bound to an unexamined acceptance of the authority of any but Christ and, as he is oft depicted, he rules from the cross.
As Calvin said, in the last sentence of the Institutes:
“…We were redeemed by Christ at the great price which our redemption cost him, in order that we might not yield a slavish obedience to the depraved wishes of men, far less do homage to their impiety.”
Inst. IV. 20. 23