A couple weeks ago, we began a short series of posts from TWI looking at what we can learn from church history about how to faithfully follow Jesus in the political sphere, with Kaitlyn Schiess looking at Augustine and the City of God. Our next contributor is Rev. Dr. Michael Allen, the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Dr. Allen advances our conversation by moving us forward nearly a thousand years to the time of the Protestant Reformation, and he shared what a couple men from that period–two Martins–have to teach us about a Christian approach to politics.

The following is a transcript of Dr. Allen’s content which he shared with our learning cohort. The content has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Political Chasm

I think it is wonderful that you are trying to be renewed not only by looking at Scripture, but by retrieving biblical wisdom from the past.

There are some difficulties that come with that, though. When we look at the political theology of the Reformers, we must understand that they are on the other side of a fairly large chasm from us. The chasm is the work of the Constitutional Convention, the formulation of a Bill of Rights and of a disestablished religious setup, of the First Amendment and the freedom of religion. These were things that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli–pretty much every Christian of their time–could not have possibly imagined. In other words, they live in a different imaginative world. The kind of political realities they could imagine are multiple, but they do not include what you and I participate in, in terms of representative democracy. We want to be aware of that and look back carefully and contextually.

There’s a biblical passage that can serve as a guide for us here. If you think about Hebrews 11, the Jewish Christians being addressed there by that anonymous author are told of many who have gone before them, in the so called “Hall of Faith.” In that chapter, the people mentioned were called to faithfulness and obedience by God, often in ways that we never would be (e.g., being asked to build a boat because God’s going to bring judgment on the earth). Noah’s calling will never be ours, exactly. Nevertheless, at the start of chapter twelve, they are described as “a great cloud of witnesses.” We are to look to them; they testify to what God calls his people to. But we don’t see that cloud of witnesses and try to repeat identically everything they did or said. Rather, we’re told, “Since we have so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with endurance the race set before us,” knowing that God’s call will be different in many ways. There will be some abiding principles (the Ten Commandments, the call to faith, hope, and love), but the precise vocations, duties, and challenges will be different. Nevertheless, the author believes we can glean wisdom from those who have gone before us, whose callings were different. Those who lived before Christ can still serve as examples for those who come along after Christ.

I want to suggest that passage as a parallel, as an analogy. Even though we are going to look at some figures from the 16th century long before we experienced constitutional representative democracy, we can still glean biblical wisdom about faith, hope, and love and the way in which God wants us to work for justice and mercy as we seek to love God and neighbor in the public sphere. We want to think about nonidentical repetition, gleaning principles from their successes and their failures that might be applied in a fresh and new way today.

Martin Luther and Temporal Authority (1523)

As we dive in, let me set a new background. The first area I want us to look at is Martin Luther’s teaching on temporal authority, and to do so, you have to understand something about the medieval world in which Luther and other European Christians lived and moved and had their political being. There are a number of factors to this, but the one I want to highlight is the influence of Pope Boniface. Pope Boniface is the bishop of Rome, at this point an undivided, Western church (this is before the Reformation). At the beginning of the 14th century, he issues a papal bull titled Unum Sanctum (1302), and it addresses that the world is one kingdom, one domain, and that God, through the declaration of Christ in Matthew 16, has declared that the successor to Peter is the emissary who governs that entire sanctum or domain. This teaches what we call papal supremacy, the idea that the Bishop of Rome has universal jurisdiction over this world between the two comings of Christ. He has jurisdiction, yes, over the appointment of archbishops, priests, deacons, and the like, but also over political appointment and political governance. Another implication of this is that clerics actually have authority with respect to what we would call temporal or secular matters. They can address in a binding way what we would know as earthly political realities. A still further implication of this is that clerics or the church cannot be taxed by the state; they are outside the binding authority of the state and its purse. So, Boniface’s teaching, which is on the books for 200 years before the time of Luther, really presents this notion of what we would call papal supremacy and clericalism, where pastors or ministers have authority over political figures in this world.

And that is where Martin Luther is going to offer a shocking counter proposal. I want to turn your attention to a 1523 treatise by him. Luther wrote many different things about the public sphere, but one that is most telling is his writing On Temporal Authority. Sometimes you will see it titled On Secular Authority, and while that is accurate, the word “secular” can be misunderstood in our day and age. We might equate “secular” with “godless,” and that is not what Luther means by the term. He simply takes it to mean this temporal life before the coming of Christ, the terrestrial world as opposed to things heavenly and eternal. Luther here is addressing what we would call daily public affairs, political authority in this world. In this text on temporal authority, he has two targets in mind, two temptations.

Temptation number one is the teaching of Boniface–this idea of the church, and specifically the cleric’s, authority over all political affairs. Luther wants to argue against them that there is an integrity to the political life, the temporal life of Christians, and that clerics do not have the authority to bind ordinary Christians, particularly magistrates or public servants in that sphere. Secondly, Luther is mindful that there is a radical reformation that is kicking up. Luther is already about six or seven years into the beginnings of the Protestant movement in Germany, and others have become overly exuberant. Luther believes that these folks, known as the radicals or the spiritualists (or as they would become known later, the Anabaptists), that they are going too far. They are arguing that there is no place at all for earthly public life unless it is the public governance of the church itself. In other words, we ought to have completely regenerate communities; you cannot in any way mix with a public sphere that involves unregenerate or non-Christian people. The Anabaptists would say the church has to flee that mixed city and create holy spheres where the people of God govern both daily and eternal affairs.

In reality, Luther wants to say in this treatise that while Rome may appear so pompous and formal, and the Anabaptists appear so revolutionary and radical, they are actually two sides of the same coin. Both of them have failed to see that while the church is governed by a ministerial group–priests, pastors, and others–there is another kingdom, another sanctum, another sword that is given over not merely to those who are regenerate but to those who are called to political life–as magistrates, princes, and kings. Luther wants to defend the distinct integrity of that sphere over and against both Rome and its clericalism and the Anabaptists and their notion of a fully regenerate community that governs both earthly and heavenly affairs.

Luther is prompted by a number of texts to make this point. One that is really significant is Mark 12, where Jesus is approached and asked if he and his disciples ought to pay taxes. Jesus points out whose face is on the coin, and he speaks of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Interpreters then and now will point out that boxes in what you give to Caesar–you don’t give your innermost self or your ultimate love to Caesar–but Jesus does affirm that you give your daily care to Caesar, that it is right to serve as a citizen and follow the protocols that are governed by the magistrate. Further, Luther will acknowledge that oftentimes while there are lousy leaders on the clerical side, so there are lousy leaders on the political side. And in both spheres, it is appropriate–that while you can raise issues and advocate–it is nonetheless appropriate that you submit. Luther argues that earthly politics has its own integrity and space, that there is a spiritual significance for the ordinary, temporal, secular realm, and for the role of laity, the non-ordained figures who play a decisive role in earthly politics.

Now, Luther (and his opponents) cannot imagine the kind of secular, temporal sphere that you and I experience. He is not thinking of democracy in the form in which we practice it. So, when Luther is calling for the integrity of a secular sphere, he is saying specifically that a Roman Catholic priest or bishop–or even the Holy Father himself–none of them can claim to bind and authoritatively direct the role of a German prince, or an Italian monarch, or a king in France or England. He is arguing that there are other monarchs, other magistrates, and they have distinct responsibility.

We might ask, given that we do not live in a monarchy, what are ways in which there might be drift toward parallel temptations? What are ways in which clericalism might somehow challenge and tempt, where pastors might presume overtly or subtly, to bind and to authoritatively restrict the exercise of earthly temporal politics? What are ways in which Protestant, Presbyterian, or nondenominational pastors might exercise hard or soft power seeking to bind the conscience of ordinary Christians, be they mere citizens or office-holders? I suspect we can imagine a number of ways today this spirit is alive and well in our political life and in our churches.

Martin Bucer and The Kingdom of Christ (1550)

When we hear Luther argue for the importance of the secular, temporal sphere of earthly government, where magistrates are not the minions of the Pope or clerics, one thing we might intuit from that is that the world is divided, that God only cares about eternal, heavenly matters, and we are given responsibility to care for earthly, temporal matters. You can imagine how this Lutheran idea might lead people to think that God leaves us to improvise in the earthly sphere, and, therefore, that the magistrate has a blank check to do what they think is best. There are enough magistrates and monarchs, and perhaps voters, who probably operate that way for several hundred years! But that is not what Luther imagines. He and the other Reformers believe that while there is a distinct integrity to the earthly political sphere, and while non-clerics have real authority given them by God, that does not mean they are given a free pass. Rather, their office, power, and action are to be governed by the Word of God.

To best understand this idea, we can look to another figure, another German Reformer, Martin Bucer. The reformer from Strasbourg can be helpful for us in two different places. First, he teaches us not only the importance of Christian liberty and freedom–that we are free from the tyranny of the Pope or any cleric that might try to bind our conscience–but also that we are free to serve and to care for our neighbor, and that we are free to glorify God with our daily, earthly lives (paralleling Luther’s own argument in his famous treatise, “The Freedom of the Christian”). Second, Bucer teaches the importance of institutions and of discipline for that freedom to be lived out in a productive rather than a parasitic way. Bucer understands, as does Luther in his own way, that freedom can easily go parasitic, it can easily be an autonomous free pass to do whatever you want and not think of others. While Bucer does not want the Pope to tell you what you ought to do as a magistrate or political agent, he does want God to tell you what to do.

Bucer is going to care greatly not just about having the right kind of political integrity and space, but the right kind of discipleship for that. It is fascinating that his friend, the more famous Reformed reformer John Calvin, actually failed to catch this lesson. Calvin early on was called into the work of reform in Geneva, Switzerland, and he was an abysmal failure at first. He got himself fired within a few short years, and he largely did so because he wanted to put Reformed worship and theology on the books without enacting institutional rhythms and protocols that would lead to the kind of right exercise of that right faith and practice. In other words, he wanted the results without the right kind of ethos and culture. He was fired and kicked out, and during his exile from Geneva, he goes to Strasbourg. He becomes an understudy of Bucer, learning from him as his assistant and fellow pastor. Calvin views Bucer as a mentor. He is called back to Geneva after a few years and remains there for over two decades, bringing about remarkable reformation in every sphere of Genevan life, largely because he takes the lessons he gleaned from Bucer and puts them into practice in Geneva. He does not just want to have a Protestant, Reformed confession of faith, but also caring greatly for the way in which discipline is enacted. He does not want to have simply a Protestant liturgy, but also a system of catechesis and formation that shapes a people to come and approach worship in the right sort of way. Calvin’s success is one demonstration of Bucer’s witness.

But what is also interesting is that at the end of his life, Bucer is kicked out of Strasbourg and is forced to be in exile because of political happenings and the reintroduction of the Roman Catholic church in the city. He has to flee to England, and Thomas Cranmer and others in the Church of England welcome him to Cambridge. He is appointed the Regius Professor of Divinity, and he spends his last two years of life in exile there under the reign of King Edward VI. Edward is the most Protestant of the various monarchs of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. This is when the Church of England comes to its fullest Protestant (and Reformed) convictions, largely through the work of people like Bucer.

I want to direct your attention to a work he writes dedicated to Edward. It is basically his thanks offering to him for having him as a refugee. It is called The Kingdom of Christ. It was written in 1550, a year before Bucer dies. The book is essentially guidance to the magistrate, addressing the nature of the kingdom of Christ. The hope is to shape Edward as he understands and leads England as a Christian nation. Bucer wants to point out, first of all, that the kingdom belongs to Christ, that it is Christ who reigns here. In other words, while the kingdom is a temporal sphere, that does not mean godless. It simply means it is a sphere pertaining to daily affairs and attended to by a magistrate, as opposed to a heavenly sphere governed by clerics or pastors. Christ reigns in the civic sphere.

Secondly, Christ reigns by his Word. Bucer teaches Edward that he is duty-bound to pay attention to the Word. Now, that does not mean that Edward is duty bound to do whatever a pastor or priest may say, but it does mean that he is called to listen to them as they can pass along the teaching of God’s Word. In other words, he ought not be suspicious of them or become a cynic (as many of us are tempted to be), but he ought also not “drink the kool-aid” and believe that anything and everything that they think has divine authority and is binding on his conscience. As the magistrate, Edward is to listen to the ministers as they point him to God’s Word, and as a baptized Christian himself, he is to faithfully study and prayerfully meditate on God’s Word. Moreover, in his unique position as the magistrate, he is singularly responsible to make sure that England is governed in a Christian fashion.

Now, Bucer suggests that the rubric, the guide and rule of this, is the Ten Commandments. Going back to Augustine, the Ten Commandments have been used as a summary of all the ethical teaching of the Bible. That is what Bucer suggests Edward needs to remember, that he is duty bound to cultivate a republic or a state wherein the Ten Commandments mark out the kind of life for God’s people. And that means the Reformation is still a world where the magistrate actually cares about the worship of God. Bucer, Calvin, the Leiden synopsis of the 17th century, they each believe that the magistrate ought to care greatly that there is a church–a godly, evangelical, scriptural church–that is rightly giving glory to God. They need to enact laws that encourage and do not discourage that. They are also duty-bound to make sure that this is a good neighborhood, where the suffering and poor are cared for, where those with power are not allowed to run roughshod over the powerless. The magistrate needs to care about both tables of the law. The kingdom of Christ is going to survey all the Scriptures, using the Ten Commandments as a framework for the kind of governance, which Bucer believes Edward needs to enact if he is to be a godly Christian magistrate. Notice what is going on here: Bucer, a minister and professor, is trying to point the magistrate to scriptural teaching. Two things stand out. First, the magistrate ought to be bound by Scripture. If the Bible calls Edward to certain things, he ought to obey them. Secondly, the pastor cannot use the trump card of their own clerical authority. Rather, the pastor has to demonstrate from Scripture the points he is trying to make when he is calling the magistrate or political agent to action.

Finally, it is also worth taking a look at what is motivating Bucer here. While Mark 12 was a common reference point in Luther’s teaching, one of many Pauline texts that motivates Bucer is this idea that we find in Romans 11:33: “from God, through God, and to God are all things,” the implication being that we ought to glorify God and grant him all glory. Bucer takes that to mean not just heavenly and eternal things, but also earthly, terrestrial, and secular things. We ought to give God glory there as well. Other texts, such as Colossians 1-2, taking thoughts captive to Christ, Christ being the creator of all things, the one in whom all things hold together. These ideas of cosmic Christology are dominant throughout. That said, Romans 11:33 appears to be his guiding principle for thinking about political life in a Christian, biblical lens.

How do we glorify God in all things? It means that not just my worship, piety, and prayer are devoted fully to God, but also my daily affairs as I relate to neighbors, as I go about my temporal and secular affairs, those also are arenas for giving glory to God. Luther believed this, but Bucer goes further by talking about how this can be cultivated. You have magistrates who are formed by the Word of God and by their participation in the life of the church of God, who are going to be served and ministered to, but not lorded over by, the ministers of the Word who point them to Scripture. That way, in their personal life as well as their public policy, they seek to cultivate the kingdom of Christ.

In summary, the political sphere is also a kingdom of Christ. The political sphere is a kingdom where Christ appoints a second sword, a magistrate. That magistrate is not given a free pass but is themselves to be catechized and discipled by God’s Word and served by the ministers of the Word who point them more fully into Holy Scripture. Moreover, these ministers cannot lord it over and authoritatively dictate how the magistrate is to exercise their authority.


These case studies from the Reformation–Luther in the 1520s and Bucer in the 1550s–and their texts on the temporal authority and the kingdom of Christ, give us a lot to think about political engagement in our time as Christendom wanes and we live as a cultural minority.

First, regarding political governance in this time period: from Luther to Bucer to Calvin and others, they envision political reign and power as being not clerically or ecclesiastically dominated, but still being biblically formed. Second, they think political power and agency is not going to be theocratically dictated, but it is nonetheless going to be theologically governed. Let me end with the example of Bucer writing to King Edward VI about England in the year 1550. According to Bucer, Edward is not Joshua and England is not Canaan, but Jesus reigns over both and, therefore, both need to bow to Jesus’ authority as it is expressed in his Word.