The “two kinds of righteousness”. What does this mean? (part III of III)

03 May
Luther?: "My name is Martin Luther and I approve this message."

Luther?: “My name is Martin Luther and I approve this message.”

“The crux of the Lutheran Reformation rested on maintaining the distinction between divine righteousness (which is salvific before God) and human righteousness (which is good for the world)” (K&A, 30)

“In large part, the doctrine of justification, like the closely related doctrine of original sin, is a question of anthropology: How do we define a human being?”  (K&A, 22)

Part I

Part II

As I noted in part I, there is no question that Luther taught a distinction between the two kinds of righteousness – something he even called “our theology”:

“This is our theology, by which we teach a precise distinction between these two kinds of righteousness, the active and the passive, so that morality and faith, works and grace, secular society and religion may not be confused.  Both are necessary, but both must be kept within their limits.” (Luther, “Lectures on Galatians, 1531-1535”)

In a recent paper (see here for link to paper), my pastor mapped this idea with Luther’s theological anthropology.


Again, in their book The Genius of Luther’s Theology, Robert Kolb and Charles Arand contend that it was  “[Luther’s] anthropological presupposition that God shaped human life according to two dimensions (two kinds of righteousness), and the theological presupposition that God works through His Word in its manifold forms” (K&A, 12). This, the authors tell us, is a “Wittenberg way” of “thinking biblically and theologically” (K&A, 14), and it is something they have attempted to “properly translate[] across the centuries and cultural barriers.” They wish to “explore the genius of Luther’s way of thinking, the matrix within which he explored the text of Scripture and applied its truths to the everyday lives of people” (K&A, 19).

I note that all of this seems a laudable and noble goal – obviously, being able to faithfully and forcefully communicate Biblical and Confessional theology to the world in which we live is of concern to us all.  I try to do the same thing here (see the series starting here for a more vivid example).

Zeroing in on the “two kinds of righteousness” concept in more detail, they say,

“The first presupposition posits that what makes human beings genuinely human creatures of God in his sight is his grace and favor alone, to which we respond with total trust in him; what makes us genuinely human in relationship to other creatures is our performance of works of love, which God designed to be our way of living out our trust in him” (K&A, 12).

Indeed, they claim, the “two kinds of [human] righteousness” are “two distinct ways in which every human creature pursues existence, two dimensions to what it means to be human” (K&A, 25).

Near the end of the introduction of their book, Kolb and Arand make an analogy which Professor Kolb had made earlier in a 2007 paper* regarding the two kinds of righteousness as a “nervous system” of the Wittenberg body of doctrine:

“This volume, therefore, is not a text book on Christian doctrine but a conversation about the genius of Luther and Melanchton’s way of thinking.  It is an exploration of decisive elements in the matrix or conceptual framework, the nervous system, of Wittenberg theology.  It aims to prepare Lutherans and non-Lutherans alike for viewing God’s world through biblical lenses, lenses ground by the Wittenberg reformation” (p. 20, see also p. 14 and 17 for more “nervous system” analogies)

Also in the book, they say that 2KR provides a “useful framework for understanding the whole of Luther’s corpus” and is “an indispensable tool for dealing with the perennial temptation to consider human existence one-dimensionally” (K&A 26).

Not only this, but in another earlier article**, Kolb also says that “in [Luther’s] exegetical studies, as he ran through the passages of Scripture, he found this concept to be a true and accurate description of what it means to be human” and that in “differentiating the two dimensions in which human creatures were created to be human, or righteous, Luther was establishing as his fundamental hermeneutical principle”**.  Also, regarding this understanding of the two kinds of righteousness (outlined above), Kolb says that it “is impossible to understand the Lutheran tradition without recognizing and employing it”.  That is why “Lutheran churches need to witness to Christ using the distinction of identity and performance, the distinction of passive and active righteousness. This insight into humanity enriches our ability to make the gospel of Jesus Christ meet individual human needs as we draw those outside the faith into the company of Christ’s people.”

Returning to the nervous system metaphor, Kolb says this in the 2007 paper mentioned above (see * below):

Even though the Wittenberg theologians did not have a way to describe it, it is true that presuppositions run like a nervous system or a circulatory system through the entire body, shaping a number of the specific topics. Therefore, we can recognize the critical role of the distinction of two kinds of righteousness— the two dimensions of humanity—as a critical anthropological presupposition for the exposition and proclamation of a number of topics of Biblical teaching even if this is not made explicitly clear in the tradition

In other words, here Professor Kolb says that he is simply making explicit that which was perhaps tacit for Luther and other refomers: Luther’s anthropological presuppositions, either formed or simply reinforced by his reading of Scripture, drove his theological expression, which in large part is what those following Luther attempted to capture in the Lutheran church’s confessional documents.

All of this is why I submit that Kolb and Arand are putting forth the doctrine of the two kinds of righteousness – along with the way God works in His world (through the Word) – as a “controlling theological paradigm”***  From their introduction to their book and in Kolb’s papers referenced above, it seems very clear that they believe their understanding of Luther’s concept of “two kinds of righteousness” mirrors his – and that it is sufficient to be the foundation of a new Lutheran – Christian! – systematic approach.

At this point let me briefly say that there is much that appeals to me when I read Professors Kolb and Arand (and other 2KR proponents).  I appreciate much of the work they have done – and there is in fact a lot about it that seems very good to me.


In the end I need to say this: Kolb and Arand have certainly “re-framed” matters in an interesting way, and I am eager to learn not only about their reasons for their re-framing (above), but also the implications or possible implications of this re-framing.****  Does it – as I believe it does – raise some very fundamental theological questions?  And to what extent they have faithfully communicated the contours of Luther’s thought?  Putting the best construction on the author’s intentions, what about others familiar with their work?  Is their new systematic approach perhaps more “hijack-able” than others?

I think that these are all important questions.  If you think that they might be as well, you can begin exploring a bit more by reading their book and my series next week where I critique the book and its weaknesses.


* Kolb, Robert. 2007. “God and his human creatures in Luther’s sermons on Genesis: the reformer’s early use of his distinction of two kinds of righteousness.” Concordia Journal 33, no. 2: 166-184 (see pp. 170 and 173)

**Kolb, Robert. “Luther on the Two Kinds of Righteousness; Reflections on His Two-Dimensional Definition of Humanity at the Heart of His Theology.” Lutheran Quarterly 13, no. 4 (December 1, 1999): 449-466, quotes from pp 465, 451)

*** It would be similar to the doctrine of law and gospel.  Some people place more weight on this doctrine of law and gospel than others (some seeing it as the interpretive or methodological key for Luther in particular and Lutheran theology in general), but all would see it as a key teaching that helps us think rightly about other teachings, putting things in their proper place.

****I am brought to mind by words I read from the Baptist theologian Albert Mohler this week: “Faithfulness will be found in the stewardship of words, in the pattern of sound words revealed in the Holy Scriptures…”

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Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Uncategorized


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