Wholly Citizens: an excerpt from Joel Biermann’s new book
Editor’s note: As we approach our annual faculty author reception on campus, we thought we’d give our global online community a taste of the brand new book from Professor Joel Biermann, Wholly Citizens: God’s Two Realms and Christian Engagement with the World, with special thanks to the publisher for permission to reprint.
Systematic theology endures a certain degree of opprobrium even from within the church. And while it must be granted—albeit grudgingly—that some individual practitioners of the art of systematic theology certainly have contributed to its infamy, the larger problem stems from a perception that doctrine, which is of course the immediate purview of systematic theology, is largely irrelevant for “real life.” Christians, whether those that occupy the pews or the pulpits, are primarily driven it seems by the desire for practical and applicable discussions and learning. A good sermon is one that speaks to the actual life and needs of the listeners, today. A good pastors’ conference is one that sends the participants home with immediately applicable ideas—and if the conference can generate a sermon series or provide out-of-the-box Bible study material so much the better. In such a pragmatics-driven culture a creeping disregard or even disdain for systematic theology is hardly surprising. Systematic theology is deemed too cerebral and perhaps even inherently scholastic. Again, I am well aware—from sometimes hard personal experience—that the stereotype is not entirely unfounded or unjust. Nevertheless, the truth is that when rightly grasped, the very premise and definition of systematic theology should dispel all suggestions or suspicions of its irrelevance. Systematic theology is simply the contemporary application of God’s timeless truth. In other words, systematic theology carefully considers and appraises the immediate context of the church and the world and then from the wealth of the church’s deposit of truth, or its regula fide, it selects and speaks the appropriate aspect of God’s truth for that culture. Indeed, if systematic theology is irrelevant, then it is not systematic theology. By definition, it must be both relevant and applicable to the immediate reality that surrounds it.
The truth of this claim is amply attested by the present discussion of the two realms. The teaching is grounded in the church’s received tradition, the living content of the faith. It is doctrinally rich and profound as it describes the intricacies of God’s work of creation, preservation, and his omnipotent rule over every aspect of the world. Yet, the teaching is eminently practical, guiding people to a better understanding of God’s purposes and their individual roles within those purposes. With the goal of concrete application firmly in view, it seems wise to begin with my own attempt at a clear, succinct, and yet comprehensive account of the two realms that is faithful to the teaching and practice of Luther.
The Two Realms Pattern and Guide
The teaching of the two realms, or more traditionally and familiarly the two kingdoms, is not the idea of Martin Luther, or a creation of his immediate successors. It is an aspect of the church’s deposit of faith, one part of the regula fidei which encompasses all the doctrinal content impacting both church and world as it relates and systematizes the narrative of God’s activity in and for the world. Like any teaching, it can be misunderstood, twisted, and otherwise perverted into false and harmful caricatures of its true self; but as the dictum reminds us, abuse of a teaching does not negate the truth of the teaching. The structure and explanation offered here, then, is simply my effort accurately to capture and describe this doctrinal reality in a way beneficial to people living in the early years of the third Christian millennium. As with most facets of the Church’s doctrine, the ideas are not complicated, and deceptively easy to state. God reigns over his creation, which has been infiltrated and distorted by the consequences of man’s rebellious sin. According to his promise God continues to unfold his plan to restore his creation and fulfill his original design for this world. God is at work in this broken world in two distinct ways, advancing his final purposes through both the temporal realm and the spiritual realm. Each realm has a peculiar sphere of responsibility and concern: the temporal realm most interested in the present, day-to-day affairs and interactions between the different creatures occupying God’s world, and the spiritual realm focused on the relationship between creatures and the Creator and the ultimate fulfillment of this world’s destiny at the eschatological consummation. Within these two realms God provides institutions and leadership to accomplish his purposes and guides this process through his multifarious and dynamic revelation.
 In the greeting line after one divine service in the first years of the new millennia a retired clergyman, upon learning of my position in the department of systematic theology, unhesitatingly and unsmilingly opined: “There’s nothing wrong in the church today that is not the fault of systematicians.” The account is purely anecdotal, but quite representative, I think.
 For those interested in the historical evidence of this claim, John Witte provides an outstanding account of the early reformer’s efforts to come to terms with the civil implications of their teaching. See Witte, John Jr. Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
For more information about the book, here’s the abstract:
Wholly Citizens addresses the right relation between the church and individual Christians in light of the reformation teaching of the two realms—especially as presented by Luther. Rather than exploring the oft-considered texts of Luther from the 1520’s, this book begins with a careful reading of Luther’s Commentary on Psalm 82 (1531), considers subsequent interpreters of Luther, and highlights those who have missed critical aspects of Luther’s teaching, in particular the failure to understand the interrelation and cooperation between the temporal and spiritual realms. The book especially drives home and explores the idea that the church and Christians are responsible for the world, and must speak directly about and to the world in meaningful ways—thus ruling out separation and quietism. The book’s final two chapters apply the thesis of the two realms to the concrete situation facing believers in the early 21st century enabling readers better to understand the relationship between church and state and the ways that it should rightly manifest itself. The book argues that most interpreters of Luther misappropriate Luther by seeing him as a supporter of a wall of separation, while on the other hand those clamoring for the preservation of the rights of Christians and the church are also out of step with a right understanding of the two realms.