Monthly Archives: January 2019

The Political Science of the Reformation

The following post is the first of a two part essay titled The Political Science of the Reformation written by Bill Frame as a Recapitulation of a Presentation to the Adult Forum of United Lutheran Church in Red Wing, Minnesota, December 2, 2018

Part I: The Ruling Role of Reason in the Kingdom on the Left

Ever since Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon introduced me to their image of “God’s Kingdom on the Left”—in which I perceived a community of interdependent vocationists rendering service to their neighbors—I have wondered whether the Reformers supplied a Political Science to develop and sustain such a community. Here’s what I’ve learned so far.


The most notable feature of the two-fold government ascribed by both John Calvin and Martin Luther to God’s management of human affairs is the radical separation of the two “folds”. Indeed, this very separation of the two “kingdoms” (as Luther called them) seems to be the critical condition of obtaining the sanguinary influence of Grace through Faith and the Holy Spirit upon the political condition of mankind—for which both Reformers fervently prayed (without, may it be noted, even the slightest hint of messianism)! Let me try to make sense of this peculiar “separation-as-bridge” idea.


Here is Calvin’s description of the two kingdoms. It appears late in his 3rd Institute–just after his account of God’s liberation of us from servile obedience to Church, Law, and National Morality:


…there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction…by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol I, Book III, Ch 19, p. 847.)


The juxtaposition of this description of divine governance with a review of God ‘s liberation of us through Jesus Christ suggests the distinctive task of all modern political science, viz., to find and develop a reconciliation between our freedom and individuality, on the one hand, and our need of collaboration and civility, on the other.


The immediate question before us here is: Does the reconciliation of individuality and governance embraced by the Reformation offer mankind a more civil, just and sustainable community than the various alternatives otherwise forged in modernity, such as the Leviathan proposed by Hobbes and Locke; the Capitalism recommended by Adam Smith with preliminary support from David Hume; the Social Contract advanced by Jean Jacques Rousseau; the Republican Government enshrined by Federalism in the American Constitution of 1787, and the radically diverse and yet egalitarian “identity” cultures currently emerging from largely immobilized traditional democracies? (The ancient alternatives, described especially well and comprehensively by Aristotle, became obsolete with the rise of the modern state, and beyond our moral and ethical reach with the arrival of Machiavelli and the eventual and consequent dawning of The Enlightenment. The Reformers, however, remained open to Aristotle’s politics for managing the affairs of their Kingdom on the Left; Did that help their Political Science escape the strictures of modernity? We’ll see!)


So—how did each of these modern regimes square the demands of liberated individuals with the elements of political life that protect and domesticate that liberation? Hobbes supposed that human beings are better understood as in a “state of nature” obtaining before their entry upon political life. Hence, he imagines us on an equal footing with each other (in strength, cunning, property), and radically egocentric—rather than as drawn by a teleologic nature toward ever greater sociality, neighborliness and practical and theoretic wisdom (as Aristotle and a bevy of “heathen” thinkers admired by the Reformers thought). Hence, his Leviathan provides powerful, legal protection of each citizen’s right-to-life, and thereby frees us each of our deepest fear (viz., of violent death at the hands of a neighbor), to pursue a lengthening list of “human” rather than “civil” rights. (Even with John Locke’s sympathetic adjustment, the imagined vast “state” seemed incapable of producing even the modicum of patriotism necessary to provide a standing army of civilians willing to stay in the breach just when their lives were at risk!)


Smith’s notion of an exclusively economic society composed of liberated, self-interested individuals guided by “an invisible hand” and supported by a “moral sentiment” native to humankind  needed, nonetheless, a government capable of ameliorating the several dislocations produced by industrial life—such as the propensity to monopoly among entrepreneurs, and the “idiocy” that is certain to develop among division-of-labor workers in industrial manufacturing.


Rousseau’s  “correction” of Hobbes’ droll description of the “state of nature” (in which life consists of “a war of each against all” and is consequently “nasty, poor, brutish, solitary and short”)  with his naïvely social “noble savage”, and his substitution of a community-forming “social contract”  in the place of the minimalist guarantee of “the right to life” was attractive—but the astringent “civic virtue” on which it depended turned out to be beyond the moral reach of any polity known to or imaginable in modernity.


James Madison and the founders of the American Constitution of 1787 sought a “more perfect union” (than the Articles of Confederation) for a population whose tendency to fractionalization was limited by (and therefore made controllable) a combination of institutional checks and balances known as “Federalism”, and the “greater number of citizens and extent of territory” presented by the array and extent of the 13 colonies (and manageable “by republican [i.e., “representative”] rather than of [“direct”] democratic government”.  (As I will argue later, this majority-faction-stopping diversity of culture and economy that empowered the Federalist political science of the American constitution was very helpfully supplemented by a Christianity bearing a distinctive mark of the Reformation—namely, a separation that came to be described here as between church and state!)


To find whatever political science may have been created by the Reformers, we must look initially (and perhaps exclusively) into their conception of temporal government—which Luther called the Kingdom on the Left. The principal elements of the theology which Luther and Calvin largely shared were drawn from Scripture and applied ultimately to mankind by God’s Right Hand in what Luther called the Kingdom on the Right: That we are “justified” in our relationship with God by Faith alone; That we are thus freed from the intermediation of the priesthood and thus become equal members of the Priesthood of all Believers, and that there is nothing we can do, either alone or in company, to win salvation (which, according to the terms revealed by holy Scripture, is a gift of Grace freely given by a loving God).


Luther sets out to establish a sustaining institutional form, legal structure, and political ethic—let us provisionally call it a “political science”—for his Kingdom on the Left by carefully hewing to the methodological advice Calvin posits at the end of his summary of God’s two-fold government of mankind:


Now these two [realms] …must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man…two worlds over which different kings and different laws have authority. (Calvin, Ibid.)


From the beginning, Luther names “human reason” as the exclusive founder and caretaker of God’s Kingdom on the Left. Not only does he thus juxtapose Reason to Faith, but he credits Reason as capable (under certain conditions of rhetorical cultivation and experience) of resisting the sinful propensities of the flesh since The Fall as well as those stirred up in the world by Satan’s gratuitous blandishments.


This resistance is accomplished by the chief product of reason—”the sword of the [civil] law”—which, of course, “is in the world by God’s will and ordinance.” (Luther, “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed,” in Timothy F. Lull, ed., Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings (Minneapolis, c1989), p. 660-61. Both law and its enforcement have been among us from the beginning, “for the world and the masses are and always will be un-Christian, even if they are all baptized and Christian in name.” Moreover, even the best Christian soul, while on earth, is carried about in a mortal body and cannot, therefore, escape the need of law “to keep still and to maintain an outward peace.” (Ibid., p. 665)


Reason “is to have no jurisdiction over the welfare of souls or things of eternal value”, and the Gospel is to have no jurisdiction over temporal affairs.


[A] man who would venture to govern an entire country or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who should put together in one fold wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep, and let them mingle freely with one another, saying, ‘Help yourselves, and be good and peaceful toward one another. The fold is open, there is plenty of food. You need have no fear of dogs and clubs.’ The sheep would doubtless keep the peace and allow themselves to be fed and governed peacefully, but they would not live long, nor would one beast survive another. (Ibid., pps. 665-66)


A key rationale for this stark separation of the two kingdoms and of reason from faith is that reason finds the axioms of Luther’s Reform theology utterly incomprehensible—a form of “foolishness”—even when stated in the most “reasonable” imaginable form. “God comes down to you!” Do not follow the instincts of reason; do not climb up to Him!


He has made a ladder, a way, and a bridge, to come to you, and says: I descend from heaven to you and become a man in the body of the Virgin Mary. I lie in the manger at Bethlehem. I suffer and die for you. So believe in Me, and have the confidence to accept Me as Him who has been crucified for you. (Ewald M. Plass, comp., What Luther Says (St. Louis, c1959), p.173, Para. 504 (and passim in the section on “Reason”)).


A critical consequence of all this is that nothing much about reason—including role in the management of temporal affairs—can be learned from the Bible. So, from whom can it be learned? From a bevy of “heathen” political thinkers led by Luther’s theological nemesis, Aristotle!


[N]othing is taught in the Gospel about how [the Kingdom on the Left] is to be maintained and regulated….Therefore the heathen can speak and teach about this very well, as they have done. And, to tell the truth, they are far more skillful in such matters than the Christians….Whoever wants to learn and become wise in secular government, let him read the heathen books and writings. (Quoted from Luther on Psalm 101 by Duncan B. Forrester, “Martin Luther and John Calvin,” in Strauss and Cropsey, eds., History of Political Philosophy (Chicago, c1963), p. 290, note 36.)


Despite this (to some) surprising bow to Aristotle, et. al., Luther does not entirely skip over his own largely rhetorical contributions to the political science of his Kingdom on the Left.


I have written more splendidly and profitably of civil authority than any teacher has ever done (except perhaps St. Augustine) since the times of the apostles. In this I may glory with a good conscience and with the testimony of the world. (Plass, p. 575, para. 1749).


And again, in 1532:


…since the time of the apostles, the office of the state has never been praised in the manner in which we have praised it. (Ibid., para. 1750).


His ultimate peroration on temporal authority (in his essay on why and to what degree it should be obeyed) is a paean of praise for the political that is worthy of Cicero or Aristotle (except for its opening clause):


[N]ext to the Gospel…no better jewel, no greater treasure, no costlier gift no finer foundation, no more precious possession, exists on earth than a government that administers and upholds justice. Government authorities are properly called gods. So great are the virtues, benefits, fruits, and good works that God has placed into this estate. For not in vain has He called its administrators ‘gods.’ He does not want this to be a lazy useless, idle estate, in which people seek only honor, power, pleasure, or mere self-interest and wantonness. (Ibid., p. 576, para. 1753).


All this amounts to Luther’s brand of forensic ( or teaching) rhetoric: Strategic comments meant to cultivate popular respect and willing obedience to God’s left-handed rule. To it, both he and Melanchthon add a student-recruiting and curricular proposal for raising the standard of statesmanship and legislative acumen. In his exhortation to the rising number of Christian princes to build schools for the temporal kingdom (from which has emerged the world’s loyal Lutheran colleges, including even Swedish and German ones in America’s Upper Midwest), Luther argues that Councilmen should feel duty-bound to provide civic education to children whose parents fail to do so. As those into whose “faithful keeping” God has consigned “the property, honor and life of the city” (i.e., the poleis, the distinctive political form of classical Greece), the Princes are told that they would be remiss in their duty before God and man if they did not seek its/their “welfare and improvement day and night with all the means at their command.”



…the welfare of a city does not consist solely in accumulating vast treasures, building mighty walls and magnificent buildings, and producing a goodly supply of guns and armor…A city’s best and greatest welfare, safety and strength consist rather in its having many able, learned, wise, honorable, and well-educated citizens. They can then readily gather protect, and properly use treasure and all manner of property. (Luther, “To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany That They Establish and maintain Christian Schools (1524)”,  in Lull, op. cit., p. 713).

Read Part II of The Political Science of the Reformation.