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Steve Hein and The Two Kingdoms

"Mr. Hein" in this essay is long since "Dr. Hein-" and an old college theology prof of mine.

He's the guy who really brought home to me (and about thirty other students at Concordia, River Forest back in 1979) what the Gospel was all about.

Here in Washington, the National Holocaust Museum bookstore does a good business selling books which trash Luther and his doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, ascribing it to Lutheran "quietism" and subservience to the State.

Actually, the Museum itself doesn't have much use for Luther, choosing to uncharitably regard a few uncharacteristic ravings in the last few years of his life, when he was old and sick and his sanity is a debatable matter, as representing his attitude toward the Jews as a people, while disregarding a lifetime of sympathy for them in the anti-Semitic world of the Middle Ages and his writings in their defense.

The books in question are invariably written by Reformed or Roman Catholic authors who don't understand the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the first place. Come to think of it, I can count such writers I've encountered who do on the fingers of one thumb.

Luther taught that God exercises His sovereignty in two ways- through compulsion, and through love. Contrary to what all those Reformed writers seem to think, Luther's "Kingdom of the Left Hand" is not the State, and his "Kingdom of the Right Hand is not the Church. Ecclesiastical government, church conventions, congregational meetings, boards, and church councils are all "Left Hand" stuff. So is absolutely everything that has to do with rules, with laws, with punishments and penalties, and with enforced authority.

It's true that God's "Kingdom of the Right Hand," in Luther's thought, is found only in the Church. But it is not identical with it. Rather, the Kingdom of the Right is the realm of forgiveness, of grace, of voluntary and heartfelt obedience and allegience springing from the Good News of God's grace in Christ.

All human beings are God's subjects in the Kingdom of the Left Hand. Only Christians, however, are subjects of God's Kingdom of the Right. The distinction is really parallel, not to the principle of the separation of Church and State, but to the distinction between Law and Gospel.

Luther was adament that the devil is always trying to "brew (the Two Kingdoms) into one another." That happens when the State dictates to the Church what it can preach- or, as in America, where a de facto state religion (the sentimental, works-oriented religion of the god of the Lowest Common Denominator) holds sway. No, it is not identical with the seperation of church and state- although the affinity is so obvious that it's curious that so few folks see it. Of course, those who write about it (other than Lutherans) usually don't understand it in the first place. Certainly Karl Barth didn't-- and neither do the authors of those books in the Holocaust Museum bookstore, who misinterpret it as a yielding of the political realm effectively to the devil.

I agree with Steve Hein. I believe that the Two Kingdoms is not merely a clear Scriptural teaching, but the merest common sense. That's one reason why I get really, really nervous when there is talk about the "Christian Right" (or Left), or where-- as happened in a congregation I have a great deal of respect and affection for last July 4- a patriotic songfest was held in close connection with the service, and an American flag draped over the makeshift pulpit. For that matter, despite the bovines to which most Lutheran congregations would give birth to were it suggested that it be removed, the American flag has absolutely no business in the front of a church- a uniquely American custom which puzzles and offends Christians from other nations. The Church as such owes allegience to only one country- a heavenly one- and despite the desirability of our loving and praying for our earthly commonwealth, the appropriateness of having a symbol of division among the members of the Body of Christ in the front of a church is nearly as questionable as the very notion of having a symbol of a loyalty other than our loyalty to God in the chancel as a matter of principle. There are First Commandment issues involved here- though comparatively few Americans would see them.

Which is precisely why the Two Kingdoms, and the issues arising from their distinction, needs to be raised, and raised often.

The American flag should not be used as a religious symbol. Conversely, it should be condemned even more emphatically when the cross is made a political symbol. The cross has nothing to do with politics or policy or legality. It has everything to do with God's forgiveness of lawless folks like you and I- and His transformation of our hearts, not through the coersion of the Law, but through the promises of the Gospel, the Law having previously having done its work of revealing our failure to meet God's minimum standards on our own.

The Kingdom of the Left Hand is the realm of Luther's oft- referenced "Master Jack the Hangman." The Kingdom of the Right is the realm of the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. And no matter how many books are written by those who want to argue otherwise, never the twain shall meet.

Same God, but entirely different Kingdoms with entirely different citizenship. Nothing but trouble happens when they are "brewed together" or confused.

I am a Christian who happens, largely for moral reasons, to be a conservative Republican. But there are lots of Jews and Moslems and agnostics and even atheists who agree with me as to those reasons, and the issues which they involve. It's not so much that it's wrong (as many on the Left want to argue) to bring God into our political discussion of these things; it's just dumb. For one thing- as witness the people who share the socially conservative point of view on such issues but not the religious committment of Christians who speak out on them- it is unnecessary to resort to theology to make a point accessible by means of the very currency of the Kingdom of the Left Hand: common sense. And anybody who would be convinced by the language of sin and divine commandment is already convinced; there is no danger of the political realm being used to "impose Christianity on others," for the simple reason that a majority of people in this democracy will always be unconvinced by arguments that appeal to a religion to which only a minority (or at best a plurality) subscribe.

No, it's not a bad thing when the Kingdoms are brewed into one another because Christianity is somehow imposed on people. Christianity, you see, is not a matter of the Kingdom of the Left Hand, but rather of the Right.

Rather, it's dumb politics. It convinces nobody, and alienates lots of people- while, more seriously, confusing the free, lavish, and breathtaking grace of a God whose unconditional love knows no bounds with rules and laws and coersion.

There's too much of that stuff going on as it is.

I reject the confusion of the Two Kingdoms, not because I oppose the Gospel, but precisely because there is nothing more fatal to it than forgetting that God's program is salvation by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith- and not through any set of rules and laws. And certainly not through a political program.


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