The two kingdoms doctrine is a Protestant Christian doctrine that teaches that God is the ruler of the whole world and that he rules in two ways. The doctrine is held by Lutherans and represents the view of some Calvinists. John Calvin significantly modified Martin Luther's original two kingdoms doctrine[1] and certain neo-Calvinists have adopted a different view known as transformationalism.

In Martin Luther's thought

Luther was confronted with seemingly contradictory statements in the Bible. Some passages exhort Christians to obey the rulers placed over them and to repay evil with retribution, but others, such as the Sermon on the Mount, call for passivity in the face of oppression.

His solution was the two kingdoms doctrine (also called two different powers or two different ways of reigning). It posits that God rules everything that happens everywhere through the use of two kingdoms. One kingdom he calls variously the kingdom of law, of man, or of old Adam. The other he calls the kingdom of Grace. In the first kingdom, man, using reason and free will, can both completely know and perform all outward righteousness. No Bible or holy spirit is necessary.[2] Augustine's model of the City of God was the foundation for Luther's doctrine, but goes farther.[3]

According to this doctrine, the spiritual kingdom, made up of true Christians, does not need the sword. The biblical passages dealing with justice and retribution, therefore, are only in reference to the first kingdom. Luther also uses this idea to describe the relationship of the church to the state. He states that the temporal kingdom has no authority in matters pertaining to the spiritual kingdom. He pointed to the way in which the Roman Catholic Church had involved itself in secular affairs, and princes' involvement in religious matters, especially the ban on printing the New Testament.[4]

God has therefore ordained two regiment(s): the spiritual which by the Holy Spirit produces Christians and pious folk under Christ, and the secular which restrains un-Christian and evil folk, so that they are obliged to keep outward peace, albeit by no merit of their own

— Martin Luther[5]

This law-gospel distinction parallels and amplifies the Luther's doctrine of Christians being at the same time saint and sinner, a citizen of both kingdoms. Luther described them as slaves of sin, the law, and death while alive and existing in the earthly kingdom, but when dead in Christ, they become instead lords over sin, the law, and death.[6] The law-gospel distinction can be traced back to Melancthon's 1521 commentary on Romans,[7] Melancthon's 1521 Loci Communes at high decibal,[8] and the 1531 Apology of the Augsburg Confession which frames each of its articles as a law-gospel pairing.

In Reformed theology

Reformed (or radical) Two-Kingdoms (R2K) advocates have portrayed Calvin as a keen disciple of Luther on this issue. Calvin deployed two-kingdoms language with somewhat different aims and his practical stance was more activistic. He sought to protect the church from the encroachments of the state, and to emphasize that Christians have a spiritual obligation to the state, but that the temporal realm does not have the independence that it was ascribed by Luther.[9] Despite similarities in language, this difference helps to account for the profound contrast between the passivity of the Lutheran tradition toward the state and the historic pattern of social and political activism evident among Reformed Christians. Calvin's role in Geneva underscores his conviction that distinctively Christian concerns have an important role in the public arena, and that magistrates are obligated to further Christian virtues.[1]

Calvin, as well as later Reformed orthodox figures, clearly distinguish between God's redemptive work of salvation and earthly work of providence. Scottish theologian Andrew Melville is especially well known for articulating this doctrine, and the Scottish Second Book of Discipline clearly defined the spheres of civil and ecclesiastical authorities. High orthodox theologians such as Samuel Rutherford also used the Reformed concept and terminology of the two kingdoms. Francis Turretin further developed the doctrine by linking the temporal kingdom with Christ's status as eternal God and creator of the world, and the spiritual kingdom with his status as incarnate son of God and redeemer of humanity.[10]

The Reformed application of the doctrine differed from the Lutheran in the matter of the external government of the church. Lutherans were content to allow the state to control the administration of the church, a view in the Reformed world shared by Thomas Erastus. In general, however, the Reformed followed Calvin's lead in insisting that the church's external administration, including the right to excommunicate, not be handed over to the state.[10]

Response and influence

Luther's articulation of the two kingdoms doctrine had little effect on the practical reality of church government in Lutheran territories during the Reformation.[11] With the rise of cuius regio, eius religio, civil authorities had extensive influence on the shape of the church in their realm, and Luther was forced to cede much of the power previously granted to church officers starting in 1525.[12] However, Calvin was able to establish after significant struggle in Geneva under the Ecclesiastical Ordinances a form of church government with much greater power. Most significantly the Genevan Consistory was given the exclusive authority to excommunicate church members.[13]

James Madison, the principal author of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, explicitly credited Martin Luther as the theorist who provided the proper distinction between the civil and the ecclesiastical spheres.[14]

Luther's distinction was adopted by John Milton and John Locke. Milton wrote A Treatise of Civil Power. Locke later echoed the two kingdoms doctrine:

There is a twofold society, of which almost all men in the world are members, and from that twofold concernment they have to attain a twofold happiness; viz. That of this world and that of the other: and hence there arises these two following societies, viz. religious and civil.[15]

Sociologist Max Weber also wrestled with the tensions embedded in Luther's Two Kingdom Doctrine in his essay about the nature of politicians, Politics as a Vocation.

In Roman Catholicism

The Catholic Church has a similar doctrine called the doctrine of the two swords, in the papal bull Unam Sanctam, issued in 1302 by Pope Boniface VIII. Boniface teaches that there is only one Kingdom, the Church (here meaning the Catholic Church), and that the Church controls the spiritual sword, while the temporal sword is controlled by the State, although the temporal sword is hierarchically lower than the spiritual sword (the flesh matters less than the soul; cf. Mt 10:28), allowing for Church influence in politics and society at large.

In Oriental Orthodoxy

While the Popes of Alexandria held immense political influence within the Roman Empire even into the 6th century, the Oriental Orthodox Coptic Church has generally shunned the marriage of ecclesiastical authority to political power, at least since it became evident that Chalcedonian orthodoxy would be the official christological position of the Byzantine imperial church (pejoratively labeled melchite, meaning "of the king"). The Coptic Church, which accounts for the majority of Egyptian Christians, has never sought to control or subvert the historically Islamic government of Egypt.[16]

See also


  1. ^ a b Ecclesial Calvinist
  2. ^ Apology of the Augsburg Confession, art 18, free will
  3. ^ Gritsch 1986, p. 48.
  4. ^ Sockness, Brent W. (1992). "Luther's Two Kingdoms Revisited". Journal of Religious Ethics. 20 (1): 93. Retrieved November 10, 2013. – via EBSCOhost (subscription required)
  5. ^ Stephenson07/01/2002, John R. "The Two Governments and the Two Kingdoms in Luther' Thought".
  6. ^ Only the Decalog is Eternal, Martin Luther's Antinomian Disputations, translated by Holger Sonntag, Lutheran Press, 2008, p. 161
  7. ^ Concordia 1992
  8. ^ Philip Melancthon, Common Places 1521, Concordia 2014, cf. p. 163 on old/new man
  9. ^ Calvin, Institutes, IIII.19.15; IV.20.1-32
  10. ^ a b VanDrunen 2007.
  11. ^ MacCulloch 2003, p. 157.
  12. ^ MacCulloch 2003, p. 164.
  13. ^ MacCulloch 2003, p. 238.
  14. ^ Madison (1821), To Schaeffer (Books) (scan).
  15. ^ Locke, John (1858), On the Difference between Civil and Ecclesiastical Power (Books) (scan).
  16. ^ "Encyclopedia Coptica". Egypt: The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church.


Further reading

  • Ouweneel, W.J.; Boot, J. (2017). The World is Christ's: A Critique of Two Kingdoms Theology. Ezra Press. ISBN 978-0-9947279-6-1.
  • The two 'Kingdoms' (PDF), AU: Lutheran Church, Commission on Social and Bioethical Questions, 2001, archived from the original (PDF) on 2005-10-27.