Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Augsburg Confession (Part 8)

Article XIV—Of Civil Affairs
Concerning civil affairs, they teach that such civil ordinances as are lawful are good works of God; that Christians may lawfully bear civil office, sit in judgments, determine matters by the imperial laws, and other laws in present force, appoint just punishments, engage in just war, act as soldiers, make legal bargains and contracts, hold property, take an oath when the magistrate requires it, marry a wife, or be given in marriage.


They condemn the Anabaptists who forbid Christians these civil offices. They condemn also those that place the perfection of the Gospel, not in the fear of God and in faith, but in forsaking civil offices, inasmuch as the Gospel teacheth an everlasting righteousness of the heart. In the meantime, it doth not disallow order and government of commonwealths or families, but requireth especially the preservation and maintenance thereof, as of God’s own ordinances, and that in such ordinances we should exercise love. Christians therefore must necessarily obey their magistrates and laws, save only when they command any sin; for then they must rather obey God than men (Acts v.29).

One of the hot button issues of recent years is Christianity and culture. Yet as this section of the Augsburg Confession reflects, this was also a front burner issue in the days of the Reformation. (It is always an issue, but times of social transition force the issue on us keenly.) In Article 14, the AC endeavored to clearly differentiate the Lutheran approach from the Anabaptist beliefs (cf. the Schleitheim Confession here and here).

Underlying this statement is the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms. Luther drew a sharp distinction between the spiritual power of the church and the secular power of the state. Early on in his ministry, he wrote:

God has ordained two governments among the children of Adam - the reign of God under Christ, and the reign of the world under the civil magistrate, each with its own laws and rights. The laws of the reign of the world extend no further than body and goods and the external affairs of the earth. But over the soul God can and will allow no one to rule but himself alone.

This thinking was fairly radical for his day, and was very similar to views held by Anabaptists. However, Luther gradually modified and nuanced his position, clearly distancing himself from the Anabaptist positions. His more mature and complex position has been summarized in this way by John Witte, Jr.:

The earthly kingdom is the realm of creation, of natural and civil life, where a person operates primarily by reason and law. The heavenly kingdom is the realm of redemption, of spiritual and eternal life, where a person operates primarily by faith and love. These two kingdoms embrace parallel heavenly and earthly, spiritual and temporal forms of righteousness and justice, government and order, truth and knowledge. These two kingdoms interact and depend upon each other in a variety of ways, not least through biblical revelation and through the faithful discharge of Christian vocations in the earthly kingdom. But these two kingdoms ultimately remain distinct. The earthly kingdom is distorted by sin and governed by the Law. The heavenly kingdom is renewed by grace and guided by the Gospel. A Christian is a citizen of both kingdoms at once and invariably comes under the distinctive government of each (Law and Protestantism, 5).

It should be noted that although Luther maintained the separation of powers or jurisdictions between the government of God and the government of the world, in practice the Lutherans ended up with the head of the state ruling over the church. All of this constitutes another chapter in the ongoing effort of Christians to live as citizens of heaven while still living in this world. May we learn from their successes and failures so that we may bring maximum glory to Jesus Christ as the true Lord of all.

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