Election 08's 'False Clerics and Schismatic Spirits'
The kingdoms are not antagonistic toward one another. Both are God's, and their dialectic is "one of the most valuable and enduring treasures of Luther's theology," wrote German theologian Paul Althaus. It is a treasure because of the liberating message proclaimed by Luther "that society need not be run by the Church in order to be ruled by God," according to William Lazareth, the former Lutheran bishop of New York. Yet too many Protestants have a hard time grasping the breathtaking implication of this insight, which reminds me of Luther's grumble in his commentary on Psalm 101:
Constantly I must pound in and squeeze in and drive in and wedge in this difference between the two kingdoms, even though it is written and said so often that it becomes tedious. The devil never stops cooking and brewing these two kingdoms into each other. In the devil's name the secular leaders always want to be Christ's masters and teach Him how He should run His church and spiritual government. Similarly, the false clerics and schismatic spirits always want to be the masters, though not in God's name, and to teach people how to organize the secular government.
This is not to say that every Lutheran is immune to the disease we see in this year's electoral battles; all too many Lutheran pastors in Nazi Germany hailed Hitler as a redeemer. But if Lutherans stick to their theology, they are more likely than others to eschew social gospel heresies that made Christian idealists welcome the United States, the Soviet Union, Communist China, and even Pol Pot's Cambodia as precursors of the kingdom of God. Lutheran theology teaches that transforming culture is precisely not what the gospel is all about. Christ made himself small not for "the culture" but "for me." He did not die at the cross to make our society nicer or fairer; no, he suffered to redeem the believer from sin, thus giving him eternal life.
In the 1930s, Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was later martyred for his resistance against Hitler, observed during his stays in America:
One of the characteristic features of church life in Anglo-Saxon countries, and one from which Lutheranism has almost entirely freed itself, is the organized struggle of the Church against some particular worldly evil. It is necessary to free oneself from the way of thinking, which sets out from human problems and which asks for solutions on this basis. Such thinking is unbiblical. The way of Jesus Christ, and therefore the way of all Christian thinking, leads not from the world to God but from God to the world. This means that the essence of the Gospel does not lie in the solution of human problems, and that the solution of human problems cannot be the essential task of the Church.
Nine years from now, in 2017, Protestants will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. This is a good time to remember its theological treasures, which differ from earthly treasures in that they multiply when shared. Where the world is concerned, Lutherans have perhaps the soberest message of all Protestant traditions. Like Paul and Augustine, Lutherans know that our secular reality cannot be fixed. They know that it is finite. It will disappear. Until that happens, though, we must roll up our sleeves and manage our fallen world as well as we can, preventing chaos and lovingly serving each other not by the gospel, which would be impossible, but by natural reason. We are free to act rationally in this world thanks to our knowledge of our redemption in the kingdom of grace. But the gospel has nothing to say about traffic rules, illegal immigration, the price of gasoline, or the deployment or withdrawal of forces to or from the Middle East. The gospel cannot really be associated with any worldly cause. The gospel will illume the Christians' good sense, we hope, and affect their personal comportment to the extent that it makes others curious about their faith. But the gospel is no instrument of secular power.