Simul Justus et Peccator Or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Two Kingdoms

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The two kingdoms. Few phrases so short could be lobbed with such devastating effect into a parlor conversation at a Reformed theology conference these days--or a few years ago, at any rate, though perhaps new topics have now succeeded it as the favorite bones of contention. For many in our circles, the phrase instantly conjures up ecclesiastical battle lines, personal animosities, dark specters of half-guessed heresies; for others, it is a happy panacea, a cure for whatever ails you, theologically speaking. But for both friend and foe, the associations conjured up by the phrase often bear little relation to its historical usage, which was indeed extensive among our Protestant forebears. 

In this series of brief posts, I shall not try to clear up the historical question in any detail (I attempted that in introductory form a couple years ago at Political Theology Today), nor to engage polemically, any more than necessary, with the most popular versions of the doctrine currently on offer (having done my fair share of that some time ago, for instance here). Rather, I hope to dispel some of the contemporary confusion and suspicion around the issue by showing of what practical value the doctrine, classically understood, might be. I also hope to de-mystify the doctrine a bit, by showing how, rightly understood, many of its characteristic concerns are simply a matter of "Protestantism," full-stop. This will also hopefully help us avoid treating it as a simple panacea; to be sure, at some level, I will proudly proclaim that Protestantism is a theological panacea, but it has also been something of a Pandora's box. The teachings that we might characterize as belonging to classical Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine are shot through with tensions and even paradoxes, balanced often on a knife-edge between dangerous doctrinal pitfalls on either side. But so is all good theology. 

So, what are these teachings, these characteristic concerns? Well, Christian theology has always wrestled with "twoness," on seemingly every front: God and the world, special revelation and general revelation, redemption and creation, divine grace and human response, faith and works, justification and sanctification, soul and body, invisible and visible, church and world, etc. In the face of any one of these dualities, the oldest and easiest move in the polemicist's handbook is to cry "dualism." But this is merely a lazy dodge. Theology, quite clearly, cannot do well without clear distinctions between any of these pairs, even if, equally clearly, it can shipwreck by too sharply opposing any of these two terms to one another. At each point, a delicate balancing act is in order.

Likewise, it would seem careless to treat all these distinctions as just different versions of the same fundamental duality (a temptation that some overzealous two-kingdoms theorists have been prone to)--merely to pick one example, we obviously cannot equate the "redemption/creation" pair with the "soul/body" pair, since Scripture speaks clearly of the redemption and resurrection of our bodies. At the same time, it would be an untidy theology indeed that made no attempt to map these various dualities onto one another at all (i.e., for Protestants at least, divine grace, faith, and justification all fit together well on one side, in distinction from human response, works, and sanctification, on the other).

Martin Luther's theology, for all its notorious untidiness, was particularly characterized by its attempt to tie together these various dualities within a single framework, with plenty of appropriate qualifications (though it usually fell to his successors, particularly Melancthon, Calvin, Vermigli, and Hooker, to spell out those qualifications). For him, then, and for other magisterial Reformers who spoke of "two kingdoms" (or "two realms" or "two governments," to use perhaps clearer terms corresponding to Luther's Zwei Reiche and Zwei Regimente), they had in mind not primarily a pair of institutions (i.e., "church" and "state") but something much more fundamental. Human life is not a two-dimensional map onto which the two-kingdoms were drawn as a dividing line between spheres of jurisdiction, but rather, a two-dimensional map with which the "earthly kingdom" is coterminous, and of which the spiritual kingdom might be said to form the third dimension--the vertical God-ward relation which animates all the rest. At every point, the Christian must be attentive to the voice of God as he speaks in his word, and the face of God as he presents himself in his world, through what Luther calls "masks."

When one puts it this way, it becomes clear that this dividing line must run right through the church itself. The Reformers could speak of the church, in its visible gathered form, with officers and liturgical orders, as part of the "earthly kingdom"; but as the company of the elect, mystically united to her head, she is the fullness of the spiritual kingdom. But while the "visible/invisible church" distinction is not far off here, it is not sufficient either, for it, like the language of "kingdom" is much too static for what the Reformers had in mind. The geistliche Regimente was the spiritual ruling and reigning of God, His gracious life-giving action through the power of the Spirit. While clearly invisible in itself, this liberating rule makes itself manifest in the powerful reading and preaching of the Word (and that chiefly, but certainly not merely, in the context of formal worship), in the sacraments, and in the loving, faith-filled acts of the saints. 

Of course, these acts of love, in which the Christian makes himself "the most dutiful servant of all" are the very stuff of which the "earthly kingdom," the space east of Eden and west of the new Jerusalem, subject to human authority and prudential calculus, is made. But this simply highlights the fact that the language of "the two kingdoms" ought not serve to neatly divvy up the various elements of the Christian life into one or another sphere, but rather, often, ought to be viewed as two different ways of talking about the same elements. We are simul justus et peccator, at the same time free lords and dutiful servants, at the same time alive with Christ in the heavenly places and toiling in murky paths here below, and even as we enjoy the liberty of a conscience set free by grace, we live under the laws (natural and civil) that regulate our lives with one another as human creatures. To confuse these two rules is to risk libertinism or legalism, triumphalism or despair. 

In the four posts which follow, I will attempt, with as much brevity as I can muster, to spell out what good old "two-kingdoms" thinking might look like in four different areas of Christian concern: Two-Kingdoms Pastoring, Two-Kingdoms Ecumenism, Two-Kingdoms Politics, and Two-Kingdoms Economics.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at
Posted February 23, 2015 @ 3:55 PM by Brad Littlejohn

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