Horton’s inglorious “two kingdoms” theology
Jan 11, 2013 by Joel McDurmon

A recent political post by the White Horse Inn’s Dr. Michael Horton illustrates the dialectic of two kingdoms theology, and why it is almost always a radical dialectic in practice. Pondering the then presidential election on the horizon, Horton essentially mused that it doesn’t much matter:

We can cast our votes while casting our fears on our risen and returning King. We can even promote our candidates (outside the church!), with restored sanity. United to Christ, we should be the most responsible and the least fearful people at the polls on November 6, 2012, because our King already achieved his landslide victory in Jerusalem during Passover, AD 33.

Horton made a further point to dismiss what he calls “the illusion that somehow our cultural and political labors are building or restoring Christ’s kingdom.”

Note especially this idea that we can only promote political candidates “outside the church.” While this could have some reference to 501c3 laws, I don’t think Horton found it necessary to remind his Christians readers of that point (which really only applies to spokespersons of the church). No, this is about the fact that Jesus, our king, reigns in the church, and that politics thing happens “outside the church.” Two kingdoms, and never the twain shall meet.

Now there is something of a renaissance in places in Lutheran studies arguing that Luther’s main point with the two kingdoms was that they were both God’s two kingdoms, and both are subject to His divine rule. Even the secular, civil kingdom is subject to God’s law, albeit revealed in human nature. I’ll discuss the logic of this below.

According to Matthew Tuininga, writing for the blog The Aquila Report, Horton recently affirmed this position during a panel discussion at Covenant College. Horton’s view is quite explicit: “Horton agreed that Scripture is necessary not just to the Christian doctrine of salvation but to the proper interpretation of natural law for the purposes of cultural and political engagement.”1

Even if this is true, I am still expecting a “but” to resound immediately afterward. Tuininga does not record one, but the duality inherent in the Radical Two Kingdoms position logically requires it.

Understanding our options

Granting the language of “two kingdoms” for the moment, here’s the logic. Either:

1) The natural law of the secular “kingdom” is based upon God’s moral law, or

2) It is not.

If it is based upon God’s moral law, then,

1) The natural law of the secular kingdom must be the same as that revealed in Scripture, and

2) The church should have a prophetic role in calling the civil government to adhere to Scripture in regard to law and punishment.


1) God and “God’s law” are divided and He speaks and governs man according to differing standards in each of the two realms, and

2) Civil rulers can justify anything as “God’s law” in their realm based on reason, nature, common sense, popular vote, expedience, or whatever, even if it contradicts Scripture.

On the other hand, if the natural law of the secular “kingdom” is not based upon God’s moral law, then:

1) The church has nothing to say prophetically or otherwise to the state, and

2) Civil rulers can legislate anything based on reason, nature, common sense, popular vote, expedience, or whatever, and

3) The church may not complain about anything the state legislates, no matter how egregious to life, liberty, property, or conscience.

By affirming the former sense (like Horton above), 2K proponents must ultimately look to Scripture to judge whether civil laws are righteous or unrighteous in God’s eyes. But where does Scripture give such content for civil laws? Only in the Old Testament civil laws. Here, the brake lights come on with smoke and tire marks and the whole bit. We are told these laws do not apply today.

When theonomists assert that these laws do apply today and that Christians ought to set them forth prophetically, the 2K brethren turn into Radical 2K (R2k) brethren and say, “The church has nothing to say to the civil government. Law is legalism. It’s not our job” (my paraphrases). It no longer matters at this point if the 2K proponent actually says Scripture is needed to interpret God’s law in nature. He won’t accept the only Scriptures available to do the interpreting, and then cedes the whole thing as “outside the church.”

We respond with the accusation that these R2K believers are pushing the civil realm outside of God’s rule and thereby giving license to ungodly laws in society. In response, they circle back around with their previous affirmation, “the natural law of the civil realm is an expression of God’s moral law in human nature.” And the discussion starts over again.

If this vicious cycle is to cease, it must be made clear that one or the other options in regard to the basis for civil law is absolutely unacceptable. If law in the civil realm is based upon God’s moral law, then it must be congruent with scriptural law. If not, then quit pretending that it is or must be.

The following is an attempt to show where the R2K doctrine logically leads based on historical example. This type of historical conclusion will hold true in either of two cases:

1) The church holds and practices that secular law is not based upon God’s moral law, or

2) The church officially holds otherwise, but fails to act on its convictions and does not act and speak prophetically to the civil order from the basis of revealed law.

While some people cry foul based on the so-called “Godwin’s law,” the fact is that these things happened in history, and the “two kingdoms” church either stood idly by or was pressured to remain silent based on its theology, until it was too late. Despite the sensitivities involved with Godwin’s so-called law, it should not deter us from serious studies of theological constructs in the midst of Nazi Germany.

Yes, we’re going to talk about Hitler

Both Luther and Calvin were inconsistent on this issue. Luther, especially, held on some occasions that the Christian has no business whatsoever promoting secular laws, that law is not Christian, that civil government exists only to coerce non-Christians into outwardly-righteous behavior, and that nothing in the civil realm could even properly be called “Christian.” I argue he gave license for the enactment of ungodly laws about which the church would in theory have to remain silent.

Because of other sayings and actions of his at other times to the contrary, some recent Lutheran theologians are able to present him in a different light, more positively. They even interpret the Barmen Declaration in the midst of the Nazi takeover of the Lutheran Church in Germany as upholding “that God prescribed rules and moral laws according to which the state must abide; that is, the synod recognized that the synod was not an autonomous sphere, which followed values or ethics evolved from laws inherent to that sphere.”2 I am not persuaded personally that the Barmen Declaration was so explicit, but it did represent resistance on the part of some churchmen to state intrusion into church matters. Likewise, Luther himself is presentable from certain angles as requiring basic moral standards for civil law. Of course, this starts the circular discussion above, and I don’t think Luther ever solved the tension in his system.

What’s more important, however, is that the 2K doctrine was so vulnerable in that, even for some of these resisters, it meant the church must stay silent on all other state matters. Yes, it could well enough claim its own prerogative in internal church affairs and doctrine, but on social and civil matters it had to acknowledge the state’s prerogative.

Richard V. Pierard wrote a fabulous essay some years ago entitled “Why Did Protestants Welcome Hitler?”3 While some of the factors were, of course, cultural and racist, others were overtly theological: the church’s own doctrine rendered it powerless to speak against the social evils, and Hitler consciously used the 2K teaching to remind the church to remain silent. Once adequately silenced, Hitler and others worked tirelessly to stack church leadership positions with Nazi-friendly clergy. Those opposed remained silent, due in large part to the grip of the 2K doctrine on their lips.

Pierard explains the historical buildup to this setting:

In the nineteenth century, however, German Lutherans made a strong bifurcation between the realm of public and private concerns. . . . Religion was the domain of the inner personal life, while the institutional and external, the public, so to speak, belonged to the worldly power. Redemption was exclusively the province of the church, while the law, determinative for the external conduct of human affairs, was solely the province of the state. Although Luther had taught that both realms served one another and were under the same God, the practical effect was that law and gospel were divided and the outer and inner lives of the faithful followed different directives. . . .

The Erlangen church historian Hermann Jordan declared in 1917 that the state, the natural order of God, followed its own autonomous laws while the Kingdom of God was concerned with the soul and operated solely on the basis of the morality of the gospel.4

This doctrine, while having the logical implications mentioned above, passed the piety test of most German Evangelicals because its 2K divide was presented as a protection for the church from secular interests:

By this teaching which neatly divorced the Christian from the natural life, Luther, so Jordan alleged, “maintained a pristine purity of both, preserved the Gospel from confusion with secular interests, and protected the state from the hypocritical application of evangelical motives in what is really its own proper sphere.”5

But the theological implications were being secretly worked out by those who had their eye on a civil agenda unhampered by any Word from the church:

These ideas where developed further by a group of theologians in the 1920s and 1930s . . . men who became identified with the pro-Nazi “German Christian” faction in 1932–33. They argued that there is a two-fold revelation of God, law and gospel. Law is God’s original revelation in creation, and it suffices to teach man to serve God and order his life morally. . . .

[B]y cutting law loose from its traditional biblical and Christian moorings, it opens the way for God’s law to be redefined along nationalistic and racial lines. What happens is that the Volk becomes the ultimate source of law and the church simply shares the ethos of the Volk. The Nazis could be welcomed as a manifestation of God’s law at work. . . .6

The same redefinition of God’s law can be done under any secular society, the Nazi extremes serving as only one loud reminder. Whenever the church does not prophetically proclaim God’s law as the standards for civil society, other political and social forces will mold and shape the moral landscape of society. Eventually, the morality of the Christian and the morality of the civil order will clash, and the Christian conscience must make tough decisions.

But with R2K doctrine, the establishment will push the church around, and the church will sit silently, afraid to speak to civil matters. The establishment will learn to speak the church’s pious language and start propagandizing it for the state’s own purposes. Eventually, the church begins to speak like the state. Eventually, the church is the propagandistic arm for the state. (Think: “we must keep the public schools!!!”) Eventually the church speaks for the state but in lofty platitudes it thinks are the language of the church. For example, Pierard relates that, “Positive Christianity” was “a useful term for the Nazis because it allowed the faithful to indulge in wishful thinking without having any concrete meaning.”7

What Hitler Really Said

It is important to realize that the rise of Hitler was not only allowed by the R2K doctrine, but Hitler was actively conscious of its teachings and exploited its weaknesses. He used the dichotomous doctrine on more than one occasion to put the clergy in their place when they got a bit too nosy or objectionable.

In a radio address on July 22, 1933, Hitler promised to stay out of the faith and doctrine of the church, which he called “purely internal affairs.” He also promised to give the church the “protection of the State.”

If I take up any position towards the elections in the Evangelical Church I do this solely from the standpoint of the political leader, that is to say, I am not moved to do so by questions of faith, dogmatics, or doctrine. These are purely internal Church affairs. But over and above these questions there are problems which compel the politician and the responsible leader of a people publicly to make known his position. They embrace “volkic” (völkische) and State interests in their relation to the Confessions.

National Socialism has always affirmed that it is determined to take the Christian Churches under the protection of the State. . . . Indeed, the Churches demand this protection from the State. . . .

Yet the R2K-conscious state always asks for a quid pro quo:

[I]n consideration for this protection, the State must require from the Churches that they in their turn render to it the support which it needs to secure its permanence. . . . The powerful State can only wish to extend its protection to such religious organizations as can in their turn become of use to it. . . .

In the interest of the recovery of the German nation which I regard as indissolubly bound up with the National Socialist Movement I naturally wish that the new Church elections should in their result support our new policy for People and State. For since the State is ready to guarantee the inner freedom of the religious life, it has the right to hope that in the Confessions those forces will be given a hearing which are for their part determined in their resolve to do all in their power for the freedom of the nation. . . . The inner religious questions and individual Confessions are not in any way concerned with this: it is not my task to adopt any attitude towards them.8

The church wanted the protection of the state, and since the church has nothing to say about politics or law, it would not mind making sure that its elected church officers are Nazi-friendly, would it, now? All the church needed was men faithful to the doctrine of the church. And after all, faith and redemption “are not in any way connected” with the civil realm, right?

Those clergy who detracted from the official 2K position and dared opposed Hitler’s laws were helped right back to their little realm of “inner religious questions.” In a speech given on October 24, 1933, Hitler reminded the public that the state was doing the church a service in guarding the line between the two kingdoms:

And above all we have dragged priests out of the depths of the political party struggle and have brought them back again into the Church. It is our determination that they shall never return to a sphere which is not made for them, which dishonors them, and which of necessity brings them into opposition to millions of people who in their hearts wish to hold to the faith but who desire to see the priests serving God and not a political party.9

But once the church’s voice is stifled in the public square, the role of culture-makers shifts to the secular realm. The state will see this need and fill that need itself—in the name of national unity. In the case of Nazi Germany, it realized that it was now the state’s educational role to create a unifying worldview for the nation. Hitler told this to a group of Nazi leaders, August 27, 1933: “[T]he unity of the Germans must be secured through a new Weltanschauung [worldview], since Christianity in its present form was no longer equal to the demands which were to-day made on those who would sustain the unity of the people.”10

We have more than just my deductions from Hitler’s quotes here and there. We have a direct exposition from him regarding “what he considered to be the relation of Church and State,” having been asked by the Nazi-friendly bishop Ludwig Müller. Hitler responded with a classic 2K doctrine clearer than Luther himself could give: “The Church, as such, has nothing to do with political affairs. On the other hand, the State has nothing to do with the faith or inner organization of the Church.”11

It was not long before some opposition from the church would occur, though less from the Nazified Evangelical Church and more from the Catholic side. Nevertheless, Hitler would use the 2K divide to scold the church and render her impotent.

In 1933 the Third Reich enacted forced sterilization laws for the “Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring.” In order to promote the purity of the next Aryan generation, the state passed a law to sterilize by compulsion all mentally ill, deaf, blind, deformed, and others. The Roman Catholic Church vocally opposed this legislation. Hitler responded publicly on January 30, 1934, by reminding the church that her role in society does not extend to civil matters:

The National Socialist Movement rendered a great service even in the past year by adopting legislation for this first attack on this menacing gradual decay of the people. When objections are raised, especially in clerical circles, and opposition started against this legislation, my reply is as follows: . . .

If things continue to develop as they have done for the last hundred years the number of those under care of the State would one day threaten to approach that of those who are, after all, the only maintenance of the community. It is not the Churches who provide for the hosts of these unfortunates but the people that has to do so. If the Churches were to declare themselves ready to take over the treatment and care of those suffering hereditary diseases, we should be quite ready to refrain from sterilizing them. But so long as the State is condemned to raise from its citizens enormous sums which are increasing from year to year—and which already amount to 350,000,000 marks in Germany—for the maintenance of these unfortunates, it is compelled to adopt the remedy which both prevents such undeserved suffering being handed down to posterity, and also obviates the necessity of having to deprive millions of healthy people of what is absolutely necessary to them in order artificially to keep alive millions of unhealthy people.12

The side lesson here is that the church (ostensibly) was not fulfilling its role of charity in regard to these people. When it fails in this regard, the state picks up the bill. When the state picks up the bill, it becomes a matter of civil law. Once it’s a matter of civil law, R2K says, the church no longer has a voice.

When matters reach this point, the state recognizes the failure and impotence of the church. The state realizes it has won total dominance. At this point, whatever resistance may arise from the church will be easy to squash through intimidation, propaganda, etc.

For example, in the following year, 1935, the Nazi Party released a paper outlining its position against the Catholic Church on the issue. The paper, entitled, “Task and Demands of the Nazi Racial Laws,” placed the following stark alternative before the Catholics:

either accept the law or go out of this common destiny, common space, and historic community of people.13 If the law is not accepted then there is a duty to defend the unity of the German people and State against any such brutal act of sabotage.1415

Indeed, at this point, the state considered any opposition from the church in the political realm not only out of bounds, but a “brutal act of sabotage,” against which the state must act in defense. Now, the church’s misstep across the 2K divide becomes an act against the state which is punishable by the state. Which means, also, that the church has nothing to say about that either.

The Catholic Church did not accept the law, nor did it leave the nation. Instead, the Vatican organized and eventually sent out a Papal Encyclical, “With Burning Concern,” condemning the most egregious aspects of Nazism. The editor of Hitler’s Speeches notes, “On 21 March 1937—Palm Sunday—the Papal Encyclical ‘Mit brennender Sorge’ was read from the pulpit in Catholic Churches; this condemned National Socialist racial doctrine and also the failure of the German State to observe the terms of the Concordat.

The Encyclical clearly dared to speak to political and socio-cultural matters:

8. Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community . . . above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.

9. Beware, Venerable Brethren, of that growing abuse, in speech as in writing, of the name of God as though it were a meaningless label, to be affixed to any creation, more or less arbitrary, of human speculation. Use your influence on the Faithful, that they refuse to yield to this aberration. . . .

10. This God, this Sovereign Master, has issued commandments whose value is independent of time and space, country and race. As God’s sun shines on every human face so His law knows neither privilege nor exception. Rulers and subjects, crowned and uncrowned, rich and poor are equally subject to His word. From the fullness of the Creators’ right there naturally arises the fullness of His right to be obeyed by individuals and communities, whoever they are. This obedience permeates all branches of activity in which moral values claim harmony with the law of God, and pervades all integration of the ever-changing laws of man into the immutable laws of God.

The Encyclical also recognized exactly where to find the content of those laws. While hardly theonomic and Reformed, the Pope here at least saw that “Nothing but ignorance and pride could blind one to the treasures hoarded in the Old Testament.”

15. In Jesus Christ, Son of God made Man, there shone the plentitude of divine revelation. “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by His Son” (Heb. i. 1). The sacred books of the Old Testament are exclusively the word of God, and constitute a substantial part of his revelation; they are penetrated by a subdued light, harmonizing with the slow development of revelation, the dawn of the bright day of the redemption. . . . Nothing but ignorance and pride could blind one to the treasures hoarded in the Old Testament.

16. Whoever wishes to see banished from church and school the Biblical history and the wise doctrines of the Old Testament, blasphemes the name of God, blasphemes the Almighty’s plan of salvation, and makes limited and narrow human thought the judge of God’s designs over the history of the world: he denies his faith in the true Christ. . . .

Hitler responded in in a speech on May 1. His response once again applied R2K doctrine and demanded the church to back down into its proper role (as the 2K doctrine would have it) or else the state would force it back:

Bend or Break! We cannot permit that this authority, which is the authority of the German people, shall be attacked by any other power whatever. That applies also for all Churches. So long as they concern themselves with their religious problems the State does not concern itself with them. But so soon as the attempt by any means whatsoever—by letters, Encyclica, or otherwise—to arrogate themselves rights which belong to the state alone we shall force them back into their proper spiritual, pastoral activity. They have no title to criticize the morals of a State when they have more than enough reason to concern themselves with their own morals. For the morals of the German State and the German people the leaders of the German State will be responsible—of that we can assure all anxious folk both within and without Germany.16

So here was the logic of the two kingdoms doctrine applied: there are two kingdoms, and the church cannot speak to matters of the worldly, civil kingdom. Thus, there are effectively two laws. This is exactly where Hitler had arrived. There is a morality of the church and there is a morality of the state. The church has no business telling the state what the morality of the state ought to be. Ergo: forced sterilization.

Ergo, abortion.

Ergo, euthanasia.

Ergo, disarmament of Jews.

Ergo, six million Jews dead.

Ergo, millions of others dead.

Ergo, racism. Occultism. Empire. World War.

Ergo, socialism, wealth redistribution, inflation.

Ergo, ad infinitum.

And the church, doctrinally, logically, has nothing to say to the state or in the civil realm.

Pierard lamented the fact that the 2K doctrine had been so prevalent in this manner at the time:

What is so disconcerting about this whole tragic story was that the ones who delivered the German Evangelicals over to National Socialism were scattered across the theological spectrum. The blame for the failure of the church to resist at a time when it could and should have—the period before January 1933—cannot simply be placed on the shoulders of the liberals.17

He more poignantly laments the fact that the two kingdoms doctrine still has the same vulnerabilities today. He leaves us with this warning:

Christians in the United States particularly need to take to heart the historical experience of their brethren in pre-1933 Germany. .  . . Just as the horrors of World War II constituted a judgment upon the German church, so Christians in other lands that do not maintain a prophetic stance toward their respective secular states are served notice that they, too, will be judged.18

The remedy: preach the whole counsel of God to every area of life.

If you believe the particular version of 2K which teaches that “Scripture is necessary not just to the Christian doctrine of salvation but to the proper interpretation of natural law for the purposes of cultural and political engagement,” then it is incumbent upon you to teach what Scripture says about that cultural and political engagement—the content of civil laws and punishments. For that topic is not “outside the church.”

When the government protects abortions, when the government demands Christian businesses fund abortifacients against Christian conscience, when the government maintains standing armies and unnecessary foreign invasions, oppressive levels of debt and taxation, 70,000 pages of unread new regulations every year, fiat money and monopoly control over it, massive entitlements built on debt secured by the labor of our children and grand children . . . the list could go on . . . . When the government does these things, it is the job of Christians and of the church to “maintain a prophetic stance” against the civil realm and declare those things as ungodly and tyrannical.

To avoid this task, or to condemn others for performing this task, is to be the practical equivalent of the German Evangelicals described above: forcing the church to remain silent while the state continues to encroach on every area of life. And history tells us how far that can go.

  1. If Horton denies this, and I have misrepresented him by quoting this, I will be happy to amend per his instructions. []
  2. William J. Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms: A Response to the Challenge of Skepticism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 33. []
  3. Fides et Historia 10/2 (Spring 1978): 8–29. []
  4. Pierard, 13–14. []
  5. Pierard, 14–15. []
  6. Pierard, 14–16. My bold emphasis. []
  7. James Zabel, quoted in Pierard, 23. []
  8. Hitler’s Speeches: April 1922–August 1939, ed. and trans. by Norman H. Baynes (London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1942), 1:374–377. []
  9. Hitler’s Speeches, 1:378–9. []
  10. Hitler’s Speeches, 1:377–378. []
  11. Hitler’s Speeches, 1:380. []
  12. Hitler’s Speeches, 1:384–385. []
  13. aus dieser Schicksals-, Raum- und Geschichtsgemeinschaft der Menschen. []
  14. gegenüber jedem solchen Sabotageakt brutal zu verteidigen die Geschlossenheit des Deutschen Volkes und Staates. []
  15. Hitler’s Speeches, 1:385n1. []
  16. Hitler’s Speeches, 1:389–90. []
  17. Pierard, 25. []
  18. Pierard, 25. []