Thursday, June 29, 2006

Thy kingdom come! - part two

A few weeks ago I posted regarding the distinction between the church and the basileia tou theou, the kingdom of God. Before moving on, I'd like to clarify one thing: In saying that "Earth is not the kingdom, either; it is the place where the dominion of Christ is worked out," I do not intend to say that the kingdom doesn't have the aspect of being a realm or a place to be occupied. It certainly is, as indicated by Jesus' teachings that we can enter it as if passing through a needle's eye (Mark 10:25), and that he will drink wine with his disciples again there (Mark 14:25). But the primary teaching in the Gospels is that it is the reign of God present in Christ.

In two previous posts here (1) and here (2), I questioned some Christians' justification of physical violence in executing justice and bringing peace to this earth, namely, the plot of some members of the Confessing Church to assassinate Hitler and bring an end to WWII and the Holocaust. After all, Jesus said that "all who take up the sword shall perish by the sword" (Matt. 27:52). How different is this from theocracy or jihad? Theology here has ramifications spreading into all realms of ethics, including the ever-hot debates over laws governing abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, homosexual marriage, and the like.

This has prompted me to read up a little on the prevailing theology behind many leaders of the Confessing Church: Luther's "two kingdoms" doctrine, an extension of his theology concerning the proper aims and uses of the Law and of the Gospel. (You can read an excellent summary here.) Just as the Word of both law and gospel were horribly mingled in the medieval Western Church, so the church and state were also improperly intertwined and mixed in one another's business.

In essence, Luther says that God's government (reign) is carried out in two different ways, the earthly (secular) and the spiritual. This allows the church to be properly distinguished from the state but not separate from it, just as Christian saints live in the good world God created but are no longer of this world (John 17:15-19). (1) On the "left hand" God governs and preserves the entire world through Law. Just as God's law serves to both convict and guide the consciences of all people (cf. Rom. 2:15), so does God maintain order and the things which cultivate life for all people through the use of law (both civic and natural) and reason. Here God works for the preservation of structures that make life possible, such as marriage and family, commerce, work, property, etc. For this reason Paul and Peter admonish obedience to the government as long as they have freedom to worship God (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Pet. 2:13-14; cf. Luke 20:25).

(2) On the "right hand" God executes his spiritual reign through the church in the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. There is no higher authority here than Scripture, and the main concern is to make and strengthen disciples of Jesus Christ. Clergy are not to be lawmakers, and dukes don't work to preach the gospel. Both jobs have specific purposes, and mixing the two gets ugly. You can be a Christian and honor God in your secular vocation, and Christians can advise lawmakers, but they're distinct.

Inevitably Christians twisted and misinterpreted this doctrine, leaving many to blame Luther for the rise of the Third Reich and its atrocities. (I hate to tell them, but Luther was dead for 400 years at that point.) But now I see that at least according to this doctrine, Bonhoeffer actually did properly embody it, leading him to seek to end the war by means of killing Hitler. He and others, while under the spiritual reign of God, didn't seek revenge for their own arrest or abuses. And under that same reign, the love of Christ compelled them to seek the good of others ahead of themselves. But how was this to be done? Hitler didn't respond to his nor Martin Niemoeller's preaching of either law or the gospel. Thus out of love for the common good and the preservation of life for Jew and German alike, they decided to operate under the earthly kingdom's sword and "be a sinner, and sin boldly" while trusting even more strongly in the forgiveness in Christ.

[*Perhaps this also clarifies my post concerning the interface between biblical ethics and legislation.]

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