Archive Eric Parker Nota Bene Sacred Doctrine The Two Kingdoms

Martin Luther’s Two Kingdoms, Virtue Ethics, and Lucas Cranach’s Painting ‘Gesetz und Gnade’

Readers of TCI will undoubtedly be interested to know about the upcoming publication of a volume of collected essays covering various topics related to the transition from Medieval to Early Modern concepts of “mediation.”

Though all of the articles in this volume are well-researched and together make the volume worth the price (cf. the two on John Donne), the article authored by myself will prove particularly pertinent to the readers of TCI. My contribution to this volume consists of a critique of Terrence Irwin’s characterization of Martin Luther’s virtue ethics and a reappraisal of Luther’s concept of “virtue” from the perspective of his “two Kingdoms” distinction. I offer this critical reassessment  for the sake of a theologically contextualized reading of Lucas Cranach’s Gotha altarpiece (1529) traditionally known as Gesetz und Gnade. I argue that Cranach’s piece is a pictorial representation of Luther’s doctrine of the two Kingdoms as it applies to the relationship between civic and theological virtue. Here is the abstract from my contribution, chapter 7, entitled “The Mediation of Lutheran Platonism: Lucas Cranach’s Painting Gesetz und Gnade“:

Recent interpretations of Cranach’s altarpiece place the piece within the genre of antithesis. For Joseph Koerner, the stark division in the piece, between the man on the left panel being driven into hell by death and Satan and the man on the right standing bathed in the blood of Christ, represents a stark either/or dichotomy wherein the interpreter is meant to loose one’s ability to choose through the condemnations represented in the left panel. Terrence Irwin argues for a similar dichotomy in Luther’s moral theory. According to Irwin, Luther departs from the Western tradition of eudaemonistic ethics by eliminating the necessity of self-love for the pursuit of moral virtue. Parker argues that these interpretations do not contextualize Luther’s moral theory within the German theology of the time, which was influenced by the negative theology of the Pseudo-Dionysius and Johannes Tauler. When viewed through the lens of the Neoplatonic concept of procession, abiding, and return, Luther is seen to give a place for Christian civic responsibility rather than reject eudaemonism. He argues, rather, that faith (modeled on the two natures of Christ) unifies the Law and the Gospel, action and contemplation, and thus, it must become incarnate and proceed outward in the form of all of the virtues. Gesetz und Gnade, therefore, represents these two aspects of faith in unity: the Law that prepares the soul for its return by reducing the intellect and the self to nothing, and the Gospel which enables the believer’s return to union with the One who is Christ and, ultimately, true self-love in loving oneself in one’s neighbor.

The volume, entitled Mediating Religious Cultures in Early Modern Europe, is scheduled for release on Dec. 15th 2013.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.