Discussions of Martin Luther’s writings on society, ethics, and politics in the English-speaking world tend to focus on his teaching concerning the two kingdoms, which divides authority into temporal and spiritual realms. Often overlooked is the larger theological framework within which the two kingdoms teaching is situated. In particular, his teaching concerning the three institutions (or “estates,” as they are more commonly called) has been, with a few important exceptions, largely neglected. According to Luther, Scripture references institutions or “con-creatures” (concreatae sint), created together with human beings, that bear God’s promise to provide for human creaturely life, especially in its social aspects. The three institutions are, Luther says, the church (or ecclesia), the household economy (or oeconomia), and politics (or politia). When Luther’s treatment of the three institutions is neglected, the teaching concerning the two kingdoms tends to take on a life of its own, leading to quietist interpretations of the Christian’s relation to governmental authority, or a division of human life into autonomous “worldly” and “spiritual” spheres, the latter understood in an individualistic and inward sense, none of which was intended by Luther.
In part, wariness of Luther’s political theology stems from appropriate concerns about how it was misused in early twentieth-century Germany to justify subservience to Hitler’s Nazi regime. A proper understanding of the institutions and how they function in Luther’s thought, however, will show that they help us to subject earthly authority (churchly, political, economic) to the criticism of divine revelation and force into the open the idolatry behind any claims of absolute authority by any of the three institutions. Such claims were made primarily by the church hierarchy in Luther’s time, the state in Nazi Germany, and, some might claim, by the economy in our own time. Further, without attending to the teaching on the institutions, Luther’s social and political ethics become separated from his larger theological commitments, dissolving their organic unity. The three institutions can give us much needed critical purchase as we seek to faithfully inhabit our vocations, and the institutions that support our vocations, in the world today. Therefore, my purpose is to set forth Luther’s teaching on the three institutions, indicating its inseparable connection to his larger theology of the Word of God, and then to spell out its implications for the way we might think about social life, ethics, and politics.