In a fascinating column in RealClearReligion the famous sociologist of religion Philip Jenkins compares the radical Islam of figures like Sayyid Qutb (author of Milestones and an intellectual father of modern day Islamism) with 16th Century Calvinism. Jenkins’s overall point is to demonstrate that a religion often evolves in positive ways only by first passing through dark times. In the case of the West, he suggests, the Enlightenment followed the radicalism and iconoclasm of the Reformation; Protestants had to destroy much of what came before them in medieval Christianity in order to forge new ways to the future.
In the process of making this argument Jenkins accurately portrays a side of 17th Century Calvinism that most present-day Calvinists would find troubling. Speaking of the Dutch Reformed iconoclasts of the 1560s, he writes,
Beyond smashing images, the insurgents had other ideas that look strikingly familiar to anyone familiar with radical Islam today, with thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Mawdudi.
The Calvinists of the 1560s sought to remodel society on the basis of theocratic Old Testament law strictly interpreted, with the role of the sovereign measured by how far he or she submitted to God’s will. Some thinkers devised a pioneering theory of tyrannicide, justifying the removal of any allegedly Christian ruler who betrayed Christ’s true church. Protestant radicals pursued a harsh policy of reading rival believers out of the faith, defining the followers of images as utterly anti-Christian, deadly enemies of God.
In the English-speaking world, the heirs of 1566 were the Puritans, the radicals who dreamed of an austere New England. When Puritans seized power in England itself in the 1640s, their agents toured the country, smashing statues and windows in every parish church they could find. By the 1640s, at the height of Europe’s death struggle between Protestants and Catholics, Calvinist ideas that to us seem intolerably theocratic dominated not just the Netherlands, but also New England, Switzerland and Scotland, and were struggling for ascendancy in the whole British Isles. Religious zeal often expressed itself through witchcraft persecutions.
To be sure, what Jenkins describes here was not true of all Calvinists. John Calvin himself, living in an earlier century, explicitly rejected the sort of strict allegiance to the Old Testament civil law that Jenkins here describes, and he absolutely rejected the theories of tyrannicide and rebellion articulated by some of his followers. But Jenkins nevertheless accurately describes a strand of Calvinism, and his description of the violence and disorder that was sparked by radical Calvinist notions of what allegiance to God in the public square demanded is truthful, if not representative of the whole tradition.
One question we might ask here is to what extent was this old militant Calvinism different from the Islamism with which our nation is in conflict today. If Calvinists today were advocating theories of resistance and revolution, or if they were suggesting that the current U.S. government of Barack Obama is illegitimate such that Christians do not owe it allegiance, would the state have to launch a campaign against them as well? What if they were defending tyrannicide, based on the belief that Barack Obama is a tyrant?
Actually, this is not so theoretical. If there is one thing I have learned since starting this blog, it is that there are a number of Calvinists out there today who would espouse virtually all of these views (perhaps even tyrannicide? I’m not sure …). I don’t think most Reformed Christians give the time of day to these thinkers, but there is a minority that is with them all the way.
These people are some of the most vocal critics of the two kingdoms doctrine that is being advocated with various nuances by figures such as Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen, and they are certainly hostile to any sort of criticism of the culture war model of political engagement. As they like to point out, modern day two kingdoms advocates do not apply their theory exactly like our 16th and 17th Century forbears would have. The contemporary two kingdoms doctrine must therefore be illegitimate – both historically and theologically.
But I would like to ask those who find these arguments persuasive, do you really want to go back to the heyday of Calvinist revolution and theocracy? Is it the American project that you reject – with its commitment to religious liberty and the separation of church and state? And if so, how do you distinguish your own cause from that of the Islamists, especially the more respectable groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, or the intellectual followers of Sayyid Qutb? To those who, like me, find this brand of Calvinism profoundly troubling, how do you reject it without some sort of distinction between the two kingdoms, between the kingdom of Jesus, and the political institutions of this age?
Jenkins appreciates the fact that the violence and revolution associated with early Calvinism was an important part of the story of how the democratic liberties and political structures that we take for granted came to exist. Calvinism had its own growing pains, and the best political theological insights from its earlier years need to be extracted from a number of assumptions and applications that were inconsistent with the teaching of Scripture. But not every Calvinist views things this way. That’s why we need to keep making the point.
In a very thoughtful post at the Gospel Coalition Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), points out the difficulty that Evangelicals have convincing the broader culture of the immorality of actions that do not seem to have a victim. The problem is with our society generally, DeYoung suggests. We tend to think that an action is only immoral if it has an immediate victim.
To be sure, Americans are not always consistent on this point. “Think of spanking or speed limits or prohibiting harmful substances. Some victimless crimes are still crimes, and sometimes insisting on the right thing produces ‘victims.’” But in general, and especially when matters of sexual immorality are in view, Americans default to their ordinary tendency. If you are not hurting someone, we won’t stop you from doing what you want to do.
DeYoung notes two basic points in response to this pervasive approach to morality. First, he points out that Christians need to do a far better job exploring the effects that sinful actions have on others.
[W]e must do more to show the long term consequences of seemingly innocent behavior. This is not a call to play the victim card but to do our homework. The sexual revolution of the 1960s seemed like a good idea at the time. But now we know that communities were made weaker, women have not been made happier, and children have been put at greater risk. Just because everyone seems happy with the sin right now doesn’t mean people won’t suffer in the long term. Just look at no-fault divorce.
Second, he notes that not all crimes have victims per say.
While oppression is always sin, sin cannot be defined solely as oppression. Sin is lawlessness (I John 3:4). An action is morally praiseworthy or blameworthy based on God’s standard. This definition will not be accepted by many, for God has largely been removed from our culture’s definition of evil. But try we must. The culture war is not the point except to the degree that God is the point. And our God rests too inconsequentially upon our country and our churches. The world needs to see the true nature of sin as God-defiant. Only then will it know the true nature of our sin-defiant Savior.
I entirely agree with DeYoung on both points but I have to admit that a little clarification would be helpful in terms of whether we are talking about civil law or about basic morality. DeYoung’s discussion is about morality in general but many of his examples come from the realm of civil law or from political controversies. The fact is that when it comes to civil law it is important for us to show that actions have an unjust effect on other people if we want the government to condemn those actions. The whole purpose of government is to enable us to live together in peace and basic justice. Government should not and is not capable of making us moral before God or worthy of the kingdom. On the other hand, we should never pretend that the civil law is exhaustive of morality. To paraphrase with a twist one character from O Brother Where Art Thou, you may be right with the state of Mississippi, but God is a little more hard-nosed (the actual line in the movie pertains to the gospel, not the law: “Even if that did put you square with the Lord [Delmar's baptism], the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”).
The way that Reformed theology classically dealt with this point was to distinguish between the first and third uses of the law on the one hand, and the second use of the law on the other (note, here I am using John Calvin’s numbering; others put the uses in a different order). The first use of the law places the sinful human being before God’s absolute standard and demonstrates to that person how unworthy he or she is to attain to the blessing of the kingdom. The third use of the law teaches the regenerate human being how to conform to that same standard having been made worthy of the kingdom. Both of these uses emphasize the relation of a person before God, both in terms of outward actions and in terms of the heart. This is what DeYoung is getting at in his second point above.
But the civil law is different. It does not judge a person according to the standard of the eternal kingdom of God, but according to the needs of human society in the passing present evil age. It does not consider the heart; it is merely interested in outward actions. If such actions cannot be demonstrated to bring concrete harm to others, government has no interest in prohibiting them. Government prohibits things like murder, theft, and adultery, not sins like lust, covetousness, or hypocrisy.
Am I splitting hairs here? I don’t think so. I agree with virtually every point DeYoung makes in his post but it is still unclear at the end of that post whether his concern is about what government does or whether it is about the Christian witness to the moral law of God for the sake of the gospel. Given that DeYoung’s basic question is about how concerned we should be to determine whether or not immorality always has a victim, and given the fundamental role that question plays in the distinction between the civil use of the law and the other uses of the law, I would think keeping the difference between politics and morality straight is important. In our ridiculously politicized society, Christians could afford some clarity on this point.
There are many Christians who think that as the kingdom of God progressively unfolds in this world it will transform our culture at every level, all the way up to the highest levels of government. For these Christians, and they fall all along the political spectrum from the right to the left, government is itself part of the kingdom of God, and should be governed according to Christian principles, whether those principles are those of Jesus in the New Testament, or whether they are the laws of Moses in the Old.
This does not bother me so much. After all, there will always be divisions among Christians, and we do need to work through these issues. What I am concerned with here is the attempt that people make to claim John Calvin as support for this sort of project. Protestant Liberalism claimed Calvin for the social gospel long ago, and H. Richard Niebuhr cemented Calvin’s place in our minds when he made him a poster-boy for transformationalism in his Christ and Culture.
A simple consideration of Calvin’s discussion of civil government in the final edition of the Instititutes, however, demonstrates just how misguided is this reading of Calvin. Calvin discusses civil government at the very end of the Institiutes, in Chapter 20 of Book 4, and he only does so after specifying that the political kingdom needs to be carefully distinguished from the spiritual kingdom of Christ. Even then, however, he feels the need to explain to his readers why he is discussing politics at all. And when he does so, he admits that the main reason why he is addressing civil government is to respond to those who think that government must conform to the New Testament standard of the kingdom of God, or that it has unlimited power. Calvin writes,
For although this topic seems by nature alien to the spiritual doctrine of faith which I have undertaken to discuss, what follows will show that I am right in joining them, in fact, that necessity compels me to do so. This is especially true since, from one side, insane and barbarous men (i.e., the Anabaptists who taught that Christians could not serve as magistrates or soldiers) furiously strive to overturn this divinely established order; while, on the other side, the flatterers of princes, immoderately praising their power, do not hesitate to set them against the rule of God himself. Unless both these evils are checked, purity of faith will perish. (4.20.1)
Calvin goes on to again explain the two kingdoms doctrine, and the way in which it distinguishes between Christ’s spiritual kingdom and civil government, and throughout much of the chapter he explains why the Anabaptists are wrong to confuse the two. In one particular statement that should make any transformationalist shudder he writes, “it makes no difference what your condition among men may be or under what nation’s laws you life, since the Kingdom of Christ does not at all consist in these things.” (4.20.1)
Now those of you readers who think government should follow the Mosaic Law may be noticing at this point that nothing I have said here refutes the argument that Calvin thought government should rule by the Torah. And the fact is, Calvin constantly uses the Old Testament and the laws of Moses to make arguments about what government should or should not do. I do not deny that.
But the reality is that Calvin did not believe the laws of Moses or the nature of Israel was a binding example on Christian civil governments, and he only used the Old Testament insofar as he believed it testified to the demands of natural law. When he defended the obligation of government to advance the true religion, for instance, he was just as likely to invoke the example of Plato or Cicero as he was Moses or David. Again, if you are one of those people who worries when Christian political theologians rely on Enlightenment philosophers to make certain arguments, it is worth asking, why was Calvin allowed to use Plato, but I cannot use John Locke?
The proof for this interpretation of Calvin appears in section 14 of Chapter 20 when Calvin turns to the laws with which “a Christian state ought to be governed.” Yet he immediately declares that no one should expect a long treatise on this subject and that Calvin is only going to present the bare minimum. In fact, he writes, he would have preferred not to discuss the issue at all, and the only reason he is going to do so is to refute those who think that government should be administered according to the laws of Moses.
I would have preferred to pass over this matter in utter silence if I were not aware that here many dangerously go astray. For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common laws of nations. Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish. (4.20.14)
To be sure, Calvin did not think the law of Moses was irrelevant for modern nations. He viewed the civil and judicial laws of Israel as specific “formulas of equity and justice,” the formulas of which were unique to Israel but which reflected natural law insofar as they represented timeless truths of equity and justice. And as Calvin writes,
It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men. Consequently, the entire scheme of this equity of which we are now speaking has been prescribed in it. Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws. Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule, directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves. (4.20.16)
For Calvin, in short, the standard for government is natural law, not the kingdom of Christ or the Mosaic Law. And that is why even when Calvin defended the argument that government should enforce the true religion he relied primarily on arguments from philosophy and nature rather than on Scripture (see especially 4.20.9).
The result is that we should follow Calvin’s example, not necessarily his conclusions. Calvin believed, with Plato and virtually everyone before Christianity invented the idea of the secular, that government was inseparable from true religion. Now insofar as natural law and the idea of the secular are inherently Christian ideas I agree with Calvin. But along with most philosophers and theologians of our day, who disagree with the belief of most philosophers and theologians of Plato’s and Calvin’s days that natural law demands that government enforce true religion, it would seem to me that Calvin was wrong in his conclusions. Scripture and natural law are our authorities, I would remind you, not Calvin and Plato.
Those who think we are to imitate our forefathers in what they did rather than in the method they told us to follow may have a problem with this use of Calvin. That’s fair enough. But whatever you think about whether or not government should punish Jews, Muslims, atheists, and the various Christian denominations you disagree with, don’t try to pretend Calvin thought that politics was kingdom activity, or that it should be organized after the manner of Israel. He wasn’t on your side.
There are many conservative Christians who think that if pastors faithfully preached the Bible they would demonstrate from Scripture that government should not tax people for the purpose of providing for the needs of the poor, and that government should not insure health care for those same poor. The argument here is not that solid political philosophy or even wisdom lead to these conclusions; it is that Scripture authoritatively teaches them.
It is helpful to pay attention to the reality that many orthodox Christian denominations (including most notably the Roman Catholic Church) teach precisely the opposite from Scripture, and it is even more helpful to note that leading Christian theologians throughout the ages have held quite different views of the nature of property and liberty than do many contemporary Christians. That does not mean contemporary Christian conservatives are wrong economically or politically, but it may suggest that their views do not exactly derive from Scripture.
Given that many of these Evangelicals are Reformed, it is worth considering what Calvin taught was the obligation of government towards the poor.
Calvin believed that the civil magistrate is appointed as God’s servant to use the sword to ensure that the poor receive at least a modicum of equity. In fact, because they receive their authority from God magistrates must imitate God by providing special protection for the poor above and beyond that of their other subjects (see Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 10:1). Writing on Psalm 72, which he views in part as a description of “the end and fruit of a righteous government,” Calvin notes that “God takes a more special care of the poor than of others, since they are most exposed to injuries and violence… David, therefore, particularly mentions that the king will be the defender of those who can only be safe under the protection of the magistrate” (Comm. Ps 72:4).
Commenting on Psalm 82, a psalm of prophetic judgment on unjust rulers, Calvin writes that “a just and well-regulated government will be distinguished for maintaining the rights of the poor and afflicted.” The reason for this is that it is the poor and afflicted who tend to need the magistrate, not those who are rich and prosperous. Calvin suggests that if magistrates grasped this truth, “that they are appointed to be the guardians of the poor, and that a special part of this duty lies in resisting the wrongs which are done to them, and in repressing all unrighteous violence, perfect righteousness would become triumphant through the whole world” (Comm. Ps 82:1-4).
In a sermon on 2 Samuel 1:21-27 Calvin declared that although it is very rare, “it is praiseworthy for a good prince to relieve his subjects’ poverty.” Indeed, it should be considered to be the virtue of a king or prince if he keeps his subjects in comfort and promotes their wealth. “Then they can grow richer as they run their households, and each one can have enough for himself and his descendents. When, I say, a prince maintains these conditions, he will be valued far more highly.”
In another sermon (on 2 Samuel 5:1-5 Calvin compared a good king to a good shepherd. “Now two things are required of a shepherd. The first is that he provide his animals with good pasture, and then that he keep them safe from all thieves and wolves and trouble. Now that I say is what princes must do. If they think that they will render an account to God for the charge that is committed to them, they must see to it that their subjects live in peace and that they are maintained; and then, in the second place, that they defend them against all troubles.
When it comes to the details of how magistrates should succor the poor, of course, Calvin gives few details (he did not preach political sermons per say), but the details he does give are significant. He indicates at one point that magistrates should provide for the poor by building poor-houses, hospitals, and even schools (Comm. Is 49:23). He is harshly critical of forms of usury in which the poor are taken advantage of, and yet he insists that the alternative to usury is not refusing to lend to the poor, but ensuring that the needs of the poor are met (Serm. Deut 23:18-20). In his sermon on Deuteronomy 15:11-15 he defended a prohibition of begging for the sake of “common order and honesty” and on the basis of “nature”, but then insisted that such a prohibition is only just if the government ensures that the poor do not need to beg. Part of “keep[ing] order and policy,” he suggests, is establishing “hospitals … for such needs.”
From this it is evident that Calvin did not view the generous acts of individuals or even the organized operations of groups as sufficient for meeting the needs of the poor. For the civil government to enforce a ban on begging it was responsible to ensure that poor relief was sufficiently funded, organized, and regulated. Calvin’s judgments therefore suggest that he believed the state did have a role in providing for the poor (or at least in ensuring their provision), and he grounded that belief in Scripture.
Of course, Calvin may have been wrong. But it is worth remembering that if there was anything he was absolutely committed to in his preaching and in his teaching it was only to declare what Scripture itself declares. Calvin was rigidly careful about this. To be sure, nothing Calvin wrote or said suggests anything one way or another about the wisdom of a particular program or policy in our own day and age. But Calvin’s words do suggest that if we are going to declare the teaching of Scripture regarding government’s obligation for the poor we had better be sure that we are not spouting off our own political or economic opinions. And if we actually pay attention to preachers who do faithfully teach Scripture to us we might discover that it is our own views that are out of line with the will of God.
Based on voices emerging from some corners of the Reformed tradition, you would think the future of Calvinism is Lutheran. At just the moment that neo-Calvinism has begun to be absorbed by wider evangelicalism and has become the de facto paradigm for Christian higher education in North America, scholars such as D. G. Hart, Michael Horton, and David VanDrunen argue that neo-Calvinists are not really Calvinists. Curiously, the basis for this claim is the neo-Calvinist rejection of the Lutheran model of two kingdoms that they see in Calvin and ‘the earlier Reformed tradition.’
So writes James K. A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, in the first paragraph of an essay in the Calvin Theological Journal designed to show that VanDrunen’s Lutheran two kingdoms is incompatible with the theology of Augustine. In contrast to this Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, Smith favors neo-Calvinism, which affirms that Christ’s redemption of creation undoes the curse upon our sin and returns the world to its eschatological assignment of forming and transforming creation for Gdd’s glory. In other words, according to neo-Calvinism our cultural work actually brings about God’s kingdom.
At the heart of Smith’s critique of VanDrunen are two assumptions. First, Smith assumes that VanDrunen’s two kingdoms doctrine is fundamentally that of Luther. Second, Smith claims that Luther’s two kingdom doctrine (and therefore VanDrunen’s as well) is essentially a doctrine of two realms. Based on these assumptions, Smith argues that for two kingdoms theorists,
The gospel of grace is announced and enacted within the spiritual realm of the church, but in the temporal, civic realm of our cultural life – the work of building schools and families and libraries – we are governed by natural law. We meet Christ as Redeemer in the Word and sacraments, who births in us a longing for his coming kingdom; but, in the rest of our mundane lives, we deal with God the Creator, giver of natural law. While Sundays give us a taste of the spiritual kingdom of heaven, the rest of the week we inhabit the earthly kingdom of the present. While in the church, we feast on the Word of God’s revelation, in our cultural lives in this temporal world we live by the ‘universally accessible’ dictates of natural law.
Now before turning to Smith’s argument as he develops it two things need to be noted up front. First, VanDrunen has never presented his two kingdoms doctrine primarily as that of Luther. On the contrary, his work has focused on the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine which is grounded in the theology of John Calvin. While VanDrunen traces the two kingdoms doctrine back to Luther (as any responsible historian must), his discussion of Luther is in his chapter entitled “Precursors of the Reformed Tradition.” Smith does not engage Calvin’s version of the two kingdoms doctrine at all in this essay, nor does he engage VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine.
To be sure, Smith makes clear in a footnote that he does not think one has to be enslaved to Calvin’s thought in order to be a Calvinist. But if his basic charge against VanDrunen is that he is moving Calvinism in a Lutheran direction, you would think an essential part of defending that charge would be actually to discuss Calvin. Smith way be willing to yield Calvin to the two kingdoms advocates, but then let’s be clear who are the Calvinists and who are the neo-Calvinists. Let’s not try to portray the Calvinists as Lutherans.
The second important thing to note – and this is the most important thing – is that Smith entirely ignores VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, in which VanDrunen lays out his own interpretation of the two kingdoms doctrine. This is unfortunate, because the view Smith engages in his essay is not the view VanDrunen outlines in that book. Indeed, VanDrunen is very clear in that book that Christ’s lordship is over all of life, that Christians should always engage in cultural activities in conformity with Christ’s lordship, and that they do so in the context of a spiritual antithesis that runs right through the common kingdom.
VanDrunen’s account of the two kingdoms in that book is not so much an account of two realms as it is of two ages and two governments. The basic thesis of the book is that while Christians still live in this age and must therefore participate in cultural activities in common with unbelievers in accord with norms of creation, they do so as those whose allegiance is to the kingdom of the age to come. That kingdom breaks into this world in a way that touches every area of life, but that does not destroy or replace the order and institutions of creation, grounded in the creation mandate as interpreted through the lens of the Noahic Covenant. The basic distinction VanDrunen makes is not between two realms into which life can be neatly divided, but between an institution that communicates to us the powers of the age to come (the church) and institutions that we share in common with unbelievers (civil government, the family, etc.).
Now I want to state and clarify up front that I endorse virtually every word of Smith’s account of Augustine’s theology in his essay. Smith’s account of Augustine is excellent and it is a helpful contribution to the debate in an area that is Smith’s strength.
But does VanDrunen’s argument break with Augustine, as Smith claims? In his City of God Augustine described two cities, one of the elect who love God and attain to the age to come, the other of the reprobate who love themselves and the things of this age. Augustine did not identify those two cities with the church and the state, as VanDrunen points out in his book, but he did argue that the two cities live and work together in the common affairs of this age. Augustine believed that unbelievers always abuse the things of this world because of their own self-love, and thus he refused to grant them the right to consider their affairs as just in any ultimate sense of the term. Only believers, who use things in love for God because of their participation in the city of God, can claim the virtue of justice. And of course this matches up nicely with VanDrunen’s insistence that the common affairs of this age never transcend a penultimate form of justice. Believers lay claim to ultimate justice by their participation in the city of God through the church, and they can reflect that reality in every area of life, but they can never turn the world’s activities into anything resembling true justice.
But what does Smith say about VanDrunen and other two kingdom theorists?
two-kingdom theorists misread Augustine because they anachronistically impose on him the realm-speak of Luther’s two kingdoms. That is, they end up construing the two cities as two different spheres. On this reading, we either shuttle back and forth between the two realms, or we straddle them – with our souls in one and our bodies in the other. Conversely, using a slightly different metaphor, these two spheres are two different levels: the earthly, temporal level is the realm of politics and culture; the spiritual, eternal level is the realm of the church. As citizens of the city of God who inhabit the earthly city, we spend our weekdays, so to speak, on the lower level, and make visits to the upper level in worship. The temporal realm, VanDrunen would say, is only penultimate, not ultimate. (129)
Now while some of the things Smith says here are accurate, other claims he makes in this paragraph make it quite clear that he has not read VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. VanDrunen does not think we shuttle back and forth between two realms in any way shape or form. We constantly live in the common realm because it is the present age. Even what the church does, in that sense, takes place in the common realm, which is why the church worships in buildings, maintains gender roles, and baptizes the children of believers. Again, VanDrunen’s emphasis is on two ages, this age and the age to come. The church is the sole institutional manifestation of the age to come because it is through the church that we lay hold of Christ. But the lived manifestation of that age takes place in all of life, in a manner consistent with the created orders of this age.
There is a clue here as to why Smith misunderstands VanDrunen, and it may be a clue to the breakdown in communication between neo-Calvinists and two kingdoms advocates in general. As a Kuyperian, Smith thinks in terms of sphere sovereignty, and so he interprets VanDrunen’s two kingdoms in terms of two spheres. And indeed, if the two kingdoms doctrine is simply a doctrine of two spheres, then it makes sense to think of it as a doctrine of two realms, and it makes sense to say we should abandon it, because Kuyper has clarified the whole picture by pointing out that there are more than two spheres. But in fact, the two kingdoms doctrine is not about the division of life into spheres. It arose out of the Augustinian tradition Smith is claiming, not the Kuyperian tradition he is defending.
What Smith fails to take seriously is why a two kingdoms doctrine was necessary to clarify medieval abuses of Augustine’s two cities theology. The medieval Roman church claimed that since all things should be directed to the love and obedience of God, all power should be exercised subject to the lordship of the papacy. Both swords – the spiritual sword and the temporal sword – belong to the pope, who then delegates one such sword to the magistrate on the condition that the magistrate exercises it obediently to the pope. Luther grasped that on this basis magistrates were wrongly claiming the right to interfere with the gospel by virtue of their possession of the sword, and bishops were wrongly claiming the right to use the sword against the Protestant churches by virtue their own secular power. Only the two kingdoms doctrine, he insisted, could distinguish the secular purpose of the sword from the spiritual means by which the gospel is to go forth into the world.
To be sure, Luther tended to talk about the two kingdoms doctrine in three different ways. First, building on Augustine’s two cities doctrine, he distinguished between those who serve God and those who serve the devil. Second, he spoke of two governments appointed by God to govern the world in which these two groups of people mix: coercive government by the sword and spiritual government by the Word and Spirit. Third, Luther often spoke of two realms, by which he meant the outward realm of the body and life in this world, and the inward realm of the eternal soul. Smith places all his emphasis on this third part of Luther’s doctrine, and he interprets it abstracted from the first two parts. In fact, I am sympathetic to Smith’s critique here because I think Luther did sometimes rely on a simplistic internal/external two realms distinction when applying his two kingdoms doctrine. The fact is, however, even Luther recognized that Christians were to serve Christ in every single area of life. It was Luther who described the obligations of a Christian prince in such rigorous terms that he concluded famously that a Christian prince is a rare bird in heaven. This is not the Luther that Smith takes seriously.
In any case, the important point is that Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine did a lot to clarify the problem of the two realms. While it is true that Calvin regularly used the language of two realms, or of an inward/outward distinction, closer analysis demonstrates that this was his means of speaking about eschatological realities, not about the dividing of life into spheres. He used the language of the body, the earth, politics, and civil life to refer to the things of this age that will pass away, and he used the language of the soul, heaven, and the Spirit to refer to the things of the age to come. He described Christ’s government of this age as extending to the outward man because political authorities cannot change the heart, relying as they do on the sword, while he described Christ’s government of the kingdom of the age to come as extending to the inward man because Christ regenerates the heart through the Word and Spirit.
VanDrunen’s basic concern about the neo-Calvinists is that they routinely talk as if Christians are actually bringing about the kingdom of God by means of our cultural work. Calvin never spoke that way (nor did Augustine), and the reason for this was his two kingdoms distinction. Calvin was clear, and here VanDrunen follows him, that Christ governs and expands his kingdom by the Word and Spirit alone. Smith’s discussion of Augustine is a helpful antidote to versions of the two kingdoms doctrine that compromise the authority of Christ over all of life, and that therefore downplay the antithesis. But Smith’s essay is profoundly misleading insofar as it pretends actually to engage VanDrunen’s substantive two kingdoms proposal.
For all sorts of legitimate reasons, many conservative Christians are suspicious of mainstream institutions of higher education, particularly those institutions that have departments devoted to the study of theology or religion. So often it seems that pastors, churches, and denominations are corrupted by the learning or the liberal agenda that flows out of these places. Frequently men and women who seem to be solidly orthodox Christian believers enter a seminary or university and leave several years later with little left of their faith. Numerous leading liberal theologians grew up in evangelical or pietist homes, all following the same sad story.
Given such history, thoughtful Christians reason, why attend these schools at all? There is virtually nothing to gain from them, and yet there is everything to lose. Better to ignore what the liberals are doing and only read books or associate with people who make an unofficial list of approved sources.
There is a significant degree of plausibility to this reaction, but ultimately it is fraught with danger. It is not that the story told here is false. On the contrary, in the case of far too many pastors and theologians it is tragically true. However, the conclusion drawn from it is false and ultimately damaging to the truth. Let me provide several reasons why.
First, it is the very withdrawal from the academy, and the refusal to engage it constructively (and critically) that makes conservatives so vulnerable to it. If I sit in church for 18 years, attend a Christian college, and perhaps even a Christian seminary, and am never forced to take liberalism’s arguments seriously, by the time I get to a liberal university or seminary I am extremely vulnerable. My version of Christianity will be built on an untested foundation and my account of liberalism will be a caricature rather than the reality. I might enter the classroom determined to stand up for my faith, but I have no idea what is coming. My cardboard faith will easily be cut to shreds.
On the other hand, and second, it is engagement with the academy that makes orthodox Christian theologians so effective. Think of John Calvin or, more relevant to our time, J. Gresham Machen. These men were powerful and persuasive (and their theology was deep) for the very reason that they took their opponents seriously, and wrestled with the foundations of their own commitments. They acknowledged the most troublesome challenges to the Christian faith, and respected them enough actually to try and understand them and demonstrate why they were wrong. Just think of Machen’s defense of the virgin birth. Would the church have been stronger had Machen never gone to Germany to study in the world of Protestant liberalism?
Third, and perhaps most controversially, we actually do have something to learn from liberal theology. Yes, I can read Schleiermacher, or James Cone, or Paul Tillich, and learn something about the gospel that I would be far less likely to learn if I only ever read conservative theologians. Let me illustrate from my own experience.
One of the efforts I determined to make a few years ago was to take liberation theology seriously enough to engage it. I read much of the work of Gustavo Gutierrez and James Cone, wrestled with their claims regarding Scripture and history, and considered thoughtfully their criticisms of traditional expressions of Christian thought. I noted where they disagreed with mainstream conservative theologians, and why, much of the time, they were wrong to do so.
Then something surprising happened. I looked up what older theologians like John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, or Augustine had to say about many of the same matters, and found that not infrequently they agreed more with the liberal theologians than with contemporary conservatives. Repeatedly I found that Gutierrez and Cone offer criticisms of conservative thought that were right on the money, and that would have been shared by some of the greatest (and most orthodox) theologians in church history. That was an eye-opener.
For instance, seeing how seriously Gutierrez takes Scripture’s teaching regarding the poor and the oppressed woke me up to how casually conservative Christians usually use (or ignore) these texts. Where a conservative might spiritualize the beatitude regarding the poor in Luke 6, Gutierrez refuses to do so. Whereas a conservative might describe those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” or who are persecuted for “righteousness’ sake” as those who yearn for justification or are believers, Gutierrez demonstrates that these verses actually refer to a basic yearning for justice, and to the suffering experienced by those who fight for the cause of the oppressed. And in every one of these cases, when I turned to Calvin’s commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, I found him closer to the interpretation of Gutierrez than to the assumptions of many conservative Christians. Without Gutierrez I would not have noticed that.
Or take another example. James Cone’s most poignant criticism of “white theology” is that white American theologians have interpreted the Bible in such a way as to maintain the economic and political status quo. For instance, Presbyterian theologians defending the spirituality of the church in the 19th Century ensured that biblical teaching would not challenge racial slavery, and deferred to the interests of slaveowners rather than leading their congregations to discipline those who abused their slaves. Cone sees this, and he demonstrates how theologians can allow their own social interests to dictate their reading, interpretation, and proclamation of Scripture.
While Cone’s rejection of traditional Christian theology goes too far, far too much of his criticism of conservative American theology is legitimate. I discovered this when I turned to James Henley Thornwell’s defense of slavery. Although Thornwell claimed that his arguments rested on Scripture alone, he argued that loving your neighbor as yourself does not require asking yourself whether or not you would want to be a slave, and he insisted that racial slavery was defensible based on the conclusions of science regarding the slower development of the African American race. Read in the context of theologians like Thornwell (or R. L. Dabney, who viciously opposed allowing blacks to serve as Presbyterian pastors or elders in white churches) James Cone is humbling in the best sort of way.
These are just a few examples. I could provide many more. The reality is that it is easy for conservative Christians to fall into a ghetto mentality, a form of fundamentalism that makes it difficult for us to perceive our own errors. Reading those we regard as our opponents, and loving them enough to take their criticisms of our positions seriously, can help us to escape this mentality. It can force us to re-examine our own assumptions and commitments in the light of Scripture. It can remind us that to be conservative is not to be Christian. Sometimes the liberal position is actually the Christian one.
We should not imagine that our preaching is somehow improved when it simply reflects the assumptions of conservative fundamentalism. It is not good for the cause of Christ when the poor come into our churches and notice how slightly we pay attention to what Scripture says about their plight. It is utterly disastrous when an African American visits a Presbyterian church in Atlanta and hears the white pastor declare that Ephesians 2 has nothing to do with racial reconciliation. Far too often I have heard the full gospel of Scripture reduced by a conservative pastor to a few cliches of piety rendered unthreatening to American middle class apathy. Yet when we only read or engage our own people, this is often what happens.
We may think that the dangers still far outweigh the gains of engaging the academy, and there is no doubt that for many individuals this is in fact the case. I would never encourage a Christian with no theological training at an orthodox school to enter a liberal school with an open mind. But Christians can never abandon the academy. We need our sharpest critics. We have much to learn even from those who abandon the Christian faith (and who are well aware of the areas in which we are most hypocritical). We must continually allow ourselves to be challenged: are we really following Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Are we really proclaiming the whole gospel?
If even Calvin says he views the church as Christ’s kingdom in this age, should we believe him? Surely Calvin got himself wrong …
In my last two posts on Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine (here and here) I showed that for Calvin the ministry of the visible church is the means by which Christ governs and expands his kingdom in this present age. I demonstrated that one does not have to read this interpretation into Calvin; Calvin himself tells us what he is doing in Book 4 of the Institutes, and he explains quite clearly and explicitly how the ministry of the church communicates the kingdom of God.
In this post I want to focus on Calvin’s explanation of how Christ’s spiritual government is mediated through the government of the church in the three distinct areas of doctrine, worship, and discipline. Here we enter into the foundations of the Reformed and Presbyterian confessional tradition, and I must offer a warning: Anglican-minded critics who appreciate their Calvinist heritage have obvious motivation to want to claim him for their own tradition by suggesting that he did not identify the church government with Christ’s spiritual kingdom.
Indeed, such attempts are a good reminder that in our understanding of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine the very legitimacy of the confessional Reformed tradition is at stake. In short, is Christ the one who governs his church in its doctrine, worship, and discipline, and are the officers of the church limited as ministers of Christ’s spiritual governance, or can human beings regulate these affairs based on their own wisdom and desires? To put it another way, is it really the case that we should all pack up and join the Anglican Church? Are we wrong to claim Calvin as part of the confessional Reformed tradition?
Thankfully the claim that Calvin identified church government with the political kingdom is more driven by a contemporary agenda than by a careful reading of Calvin’s own argument in Book 4 of the Institutes. It is to that argument that I now turn.
After describing the nature of Christ’s spiritual government through the ministry of the church in the first part of Book 4, Calvin turns to discuss what he calls the three parts of church government in Chapters 8-12. Before diving into the details, however, Calvin reminds his readers that he is talking about Christ’s spiritual kingdom, not the political kingdom. He writes, “I speak only of the spiritual power, which is proper to the church. This, moreover, consists either in doctrine or in jurisdiction [discipline] or in making laws [concerning worship].” (4.8.1) The terms Calvin continues to use – government, power, jurisdiction, making laws – all of which he consistently modifies with the adjective spiritual, make it quite clear that Calvin continues to operate with the basic two kingdoms distinction in view.
The first of the three parts of the spiritual government is doctrine (Chapters 8-9). Calvin declares up front that the church’s proclamation of doctrine is the direct expression of Christ’s government of his kingdom. “Now the only way to build up the church is for the ministers themselves to endeavor to preserve Christ’s authority for himself.” Thus it must “be kept within definite limits, that it may not be drawn hither and thither according to men’s whim.” (4.8.1) The power of the ministers of the church is strictly limited such that they may only do precisely what the Lord has commanded them to do. (4.8.2) “The power of the church, therefore, is not infinite but subject to the Lord’s Word and, as it were, enclosed within it.” (4.8.4) As he puts it later, “Our opponents locate the authority of the church outside God’s Word; but we insist that it be attached to the Word, and do not allow it to be separated from it.” (4.8.13) In other words, the church can only teach what Christ has revealed in his word, because otherwise the church turns into a merely human and secular institution. The very authority of the church to proclaim Christ’s word depends on its spiritual character.
The second part of the spiritual government is the power of making laws concerning worship (Chapter 10). Here too Calvin clearly distinguishes the ecclesiastical jurisdiction from the political order: “In this discussion we are not dealing with the political order, but are only concerned with how God is to be duly worshiped according to the rule laid down by him, and how the spiritual freedom which looks to God may remain unimpaired for us.” In other words, Calvin wants to distinguish the spiritual government of the church from the decisions human beings make about incidental and circumstantial matters of worship. But the substance of worship is to be regulated by Christ alone, through his ministers. When human beings seek to impose laws on worship not derived from Christ, “the Kingdom of Christ is invaded; thus the freedom given by him to the consciences of believers is utterly oppressed and cast down.” Calvin insists that Christians “should acknowledge one King, their deliverer Christ, and should be governed by one law of freedom, the holy Word of the gospel, if they would retain the grace which they once obtained in Christ.” (4.10.1)
Yes, the church – like the magistrate – must sometimes make laws to regulate incidental matters for the edification of the church. But these laws do not bind the conscience because they pertain to the outer forum rather than the forum of conscience. The regulative principle of worship was not something our Presbyterian fathers invented out of thin air. On the contrary, Calvin taught it clearly and explicitly and he grounded it in his argument that the church’s government of its worship must be Christ’s government of that worship. Only Jesus is the head of his church.
The third part of Christ’s spiritual government is church discipline (Chapters 11-12), which happened to be one of the most controversial issues dividing the Reformed movement in the 16th Century. Huldrych Zwingli had argued that Christian churches did not need to have their own elders or church discipline because the task of church discipline is fulfilled by godly civil magistrates. Zwingli believed that the church and the commonwealth were ideally the same thing such that the the New Testament elder is the modern-day magistrate and the New Testament Christian is the modern-day citizen. The church, as his successor Heinrich Bullinger argued, has two basic offices, that of the magistrate and that of the pastor. The result was that by the time Calvin arrived in Geneva no Reformed church practiced church discipline or excommunication. It was this problem that Calvin had in mind when he invoked the two kingdoms distinction in his discussion of church discipline in Book 4 of the Institutes. He writes, Read the rest of this entry
One of the misconceptions about Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine I occasionally encounter is the idea that Calvin viewed the government of the church (and indeed, the whole visible church) as part of the political kingdom rather than as part of Christ’s spiritual kingdom. This is a somewhat surprising reading of Calvin that suggests a conflation of his views with those of Martin Luther rather than a close reading of the Institutes or of Calvin’s commentaries (although, of course, Luther also worked out his two kingdoms doctrine in terms of two governments). Part of the confusion is the result of the fact that people fail to realize that for Calvin the kingdom of Christ proclaimed in the gospels is a spiritual kingdom. I showed how Calvin defines that kingdom in a previous post. For now it is crucial to note that in Calvin’s two kingdoms distinction the “spiritual kingdom” is the kingdom of Christ proper, while the “political kingdom” is a product of God’s providential rule. The latter, as I noted, can submit to and promote the kingdom of Christ, but it does not become that kingdom. That’s why Calvin consistently identifies his kingdom with the church or with the ministry of the gospel.
Calvin introduces the two kingdoms distinction with the following words:
let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life – not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. (3.19.15)
Now it is quite evident that when Calvin refers to the spiritual kingdom he does not mean that this government is unmediated by human beings. Rather, what he means is that this government has power to shape the “inner mind,” thus affecting the welfare of the soul for eternity. This is clearly the contrast that he has in view when he writes, “For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior.” The comparison is not between unmediated authority and mediated authority; it is between government that can touch the soul, and government that can only touch the body. It is a distinction between government by the Word and Spirit, and government by the sword.
It is also crucial to note that when Calvin distinguishes what pertains to piety and the soul from what pertains to the body and life in this world he is not making the two kingdoms distinction a separation of two realms, as some theories might suggest. Rather, contrasting the heavenly with the earthly, the soul with the body, and the spiritual with the temporal is Calvin’s ordinary way of distinguishing between the two ages. The earthly, the bodily, and the temporal pertain to the “present age” while the heavenly, the soul, and the spiritual pertain to the age to come (i.e., the kingdom of Christ). The very reason for the two kingdoms doctrine is that the kingdom of the age to come breaks into the present age through Christ’s spiritual government. It’s institutional expression is in the ministry and offices of the church.
In fact, Calvin tells us explicitly that when he distinguishes between the two kingdoms he is not breaking with the medieval tradition of distinguishing between the two kinds of institutional jurisdiction. As he notes, the twofold governments “are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction.” As the editors of the McNeill edition point out, Calvin is invoking the language of the thirteenth century debates over papal claims to the fullness of power in both temporal and spiritual affairs. Calvin notes that he likes this classic way of making the distinction because it indicates that political government pertains only to “the present life,” while the latter pertains to the eternal soul. To be sure, Calvin intends to reform the classic understanding by clarifying the nature of spiritual government as that which operates by the power of the Word and Spirit alone. He utterly rejects the claim that the church possesses temporal power. But this does not mean he thinks civil government possesses spiritual power. Emphasizing the distinction between the two will form the heart of Calvin’s critique of the Catholic view of ecclesiastical government throughout Book IV, and it was a basic theme of his ministry in his struggle with the city government of Geneva to establish an autonomous church government with independent spiritual offices.
Finally, it is crucial to see that Calvin insists from the start that the two kingdoms or governments must be considered separately. “Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other.” (3.19.15) This leads us to expect that in the coming pages we will find a discussion of church government separate from that of civil government. And in fact, that is precisely what Calvin tells us he is doing in Book IV, and that is precisely what we find there.
In three places Calvin tells us what he is doing in Book IV, and it is consistent with his declaration that the two kingdoms must be examined separately. First, at the end of his introduction of the two kingdoms doctrine in 3.19.15 he informs us that he will speak of civil government in “another place.” Then he adds that he will “also … forebear” to speak of “church laws” until Book IV, where he will discuss the “power of the church.” Clearly Calvin is distinguishing between the government of the church and civil government, both of which he will discuss in Book IV.
Second, in 4.1.1, as the editors of the McNeill edition point out, Calvin outlines Book IV: “Accordingly, our plan of instruction now requires us to discuss the church, its government, orders, and power; then the sacraments; and lastly, the civil order.” So here again, we are told to expect the discussion of the church, its offices, its discipline, and the sacraments separately from civil government, or the civil order. And this seems to line up nicely with the two kingdoms distinction.
Finally, in case we are still not clear on what he is doing, in 4.20.1, at the beginning of his discussion of civil government, Calvin sums up what he has done up to this point and what he is about to do, explicitly invoking his earlier two kingdoms discussion. He writes, “Now, since we have established above that man is under a twofold government, and since we have elsewhere discussed at sufficient length the kind that resides in the soul or the inner man and pertains to eternal life, this is the place to say something also about the other kind, which pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality.” In other words, Calvin views all of the precedeing discussion about church government, its offices, its discipline, and its worship as the government “that resides in the soul or the inner man and pertains to eternal life.” In contrast, he is beginning his discussion of the other kingdom, which pertains to civil justice and outward morality, only in “this … place” in Chapter 20. The entire outline of Book IV, in short, is built on the two kingdoms distinction.
It is quite clear that Calvin viewed the ministry of the church and the civil government as the institutional expressions of the twofold government in human beings. Indeed, over and over one finds Calvin identifying the kingdom of Christ with the church, or with the preaching of the gospel. In the next post on Calvin I’ll look a little more closely on how Calvin works out his two kingdoms doctrine in terms of the specific ministry and government of the church.
In the debates over the two kingdoms doctrine people often focus on the nitty-gritty questions of application. Should the church preach against abortion? Should Christians send their children to public schools? Should the government promote Christianity? Of course, there are obvious reasons why people like to discuss what is practical. But another reason why the conversations often devolve into this kind of tug-of-war is because people think of the two kingdoms doctrine as being about two different airtight realms, as if one set of institutions and activities can be placed in one realm, and another set of institutions and activities can be placed in the other, with the two being mutually exclusive.
The problem is, this is not what the two kingdoms doctrine has classically been about, and it is doubtful whether this kind of separation can be done in the way that some people seem to want to do it. Rather than understanding the two kingdoms doctrine in terms of two separate realms within this world, it would be more biblical and more faithful to the reformers to understand the two kingdoms based on the distinction between the present age and the age to come, between the created (and cursed) world and the kingdom of God. The two kingdoms doctrine is needed because the kingdom of God breaks into this age, without immediately destroying or transforming this age. There is an eschatological tension that somehow needs to be sorted out.
Calvin explains this dynamic very clearly in his explanation of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, in his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Matthew 6:10). He writes,
We must first attend to the definition of the kingdom of God. He is said to reign among men, when they voluntarily devote and submit themselves to be governed by him, placing their flesh under the yoke, and renouncing their desires. Such is the corruption of the nature, that all our affections are so many soldiers of Satan, who oppose the justice of God, and consequently obstruct or disturb his reign. By this prayer we ask, that he may remove all hindrances, and may bring all men under his dominion, and may lead them to meditate on the heavenly life.
This is an incredible passage. Calvin is clearly defining the kingdom of God as God’s redemptive reign evidenced by the voluntary submission of human beings. In other words, the kingdom of God cannot be conflated with God’s providential sovereignty over all things, or even with the judgment that he exercises through civil government, which operates by the sword. How then does the kingdom appear to us visibly?
This is done partly by the preaching of the word, and partly by the secret power of the Spirit. It is his will to govern men by his word: but as the bare voice, if the inward power of the Spirit be not added, does not pierce the hearts of men, both must be joined together, in order that the kingdom of God may be established. We therefore pray that God would exert his power, both by the Word and by the Spirit, that the whole world may willingly submit to him… The substance of this prayer is, that God would enlighten the world by the light of his Word – would form the hearts of men, by the influences of his Spirit, to obey his justice – and would restore to order, by the gracious exercise of his power, all the disorder that exists in the world.
Again, Calvin is eminently clear here. The kingdom of God appears through the transformation of human beings by the power of the Word and Spirit, and it is inherently non-coercive. But note that this kingdom is not limited in its power to the proclamation of the Word. Rather, it is expressed through the way in which believers obey God’s justice, and in that sense it is reflected wherever order is restored in the world as a result of voluntary submission to God.
The problem, as Calvin notes, is that the world is still full of disorder and iniquity. And “to whatever extent iniquity abounds in the world, to such an extent the kingdom of God, which brings along with it perfect righteousness, is not yet come.” Calvin therefore explains that there is another way in which God reigns that must be distinguished from the kingdom of God:
There is still another way in which God reigns; and that is, when he overthrows his enemies, and compels them, with Satan their head, to yield a reluctant subjection to his authority, ’till they all be made his footstool.”
In other words, in this present evil age God restrains the wicked through coercion. He does this providentially but he also does it by means of civil government. Yet this part of God’s reign is in its very essence coercive and restraining. It does not build up the kingdom of God.
From this it is clear that while the two kingdoms doctrine is fundamentally about eschatology, it must be expressed institutionally. The state expresses God’s providential reign because it depends on the use of the sword. The church, on the other hand, administers the kingdom of God because it is the steward of the Word by which the Spirit operates. And contrary to certain people, the Word and Spirit is at work in the spiritual government of the church not only in the preaching of the Gospel, but also in the exercise of the keys of the kingdom through church discipline (by pastors and elders), in the church’s declaration of doctrine, in the church’s worship of God, and even in the work of the deacons. That is why Calvin repeatedly identifies the kingdom of God with the church.
Although Calvin thought the state also has something to say about religion, he is clear that it does so only in the same restraining and coercive sense that God reigns apart from the kingdom of God. Even where the state can be said to build up the kingdom it only does so by providing outside support, that is, by promoting the work of ministers, who are the ones that truly build Christ’s kingdom.
From all this it is clear that the two kingdoms doctrine is better understood as a doctrine of two ages and two governments, rather than of two realms. For as the power of the kingdom extends in this present evil age, believers are to walk “in Christ” (that is, in the power of the kingdom of the age to come) in everything that they do. On the other hand, the world in which they do this still very much remains the present evil age, governed by God’s providential rule and by coercive government. So while Christians may be living according to the laws and customs of this world, they are to do so in a way that is compatible with their allegiance to the kingdom of God. This is why it can be so difficult to iron out how Christians should act when engaging the various tasks and activities of this age. We are called to mix the age to come with the present evil age in everything we do, and that is no easy matter. This is, after all, the age of suffering service.
The classic example of this is Paul’s instruction to slaves and masters. In the kingdom of God there will be neither slave nor free. Yet Paul does not demand that Christians entirely separate themselves from the institution of slavery (which would have been impossible in that day). Instead, he calls masters and slaves to treat one another lovingly “in Christ.” Of course, this undercuts the very sinful rationale that undergirds the institution of slavery, and if Christians faithfully follow their Lord the resulting institution simply will not be slavery as the world understands it (this explains why the Southern Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church was misapplied. The Southern Presbyterians were right to argue that slavery is not inherently sinful, but they underestimated the degree to which the Gospel transforms the institution, and they utterly failed to discipline their members consistent with that Gospel).
The same could be said about marriage, although unlike slavery marriage is a divinely created institution. Jesus says there will be no marriage in the kingdom of God, and Paul indicates that in Christ there is no male nor female. Nevertheless, Christians still remain in this world, and so they cannot pretend that gender, sexuality, procreation, and care for children do not exist. Indeed, Christians are still bound by God’s natural law in all of these elements of the created order. Even here, however, Christians are to act in such a way as to communicate that these relationships and callings are not ultimate. Husbands and wives love one another after the model of the relationship between Christ and the church, and children obey their parents “in the Lord.”
For all the debate and argument over the two kingdoms doctrine, I suspect that Christians actually agree about virtually all of this. What we usually argue about is the application. But it would at least be helpful if we understood where we agree and where we disagree. There is enough to argue about without having to invent disagreements where they do not exist.
As I have exhorted in various Reformed and Presbyterian churches over the past few years, and as I have spoken with Reformed pastors, elders, and believers in various places, I have repeatedly been asked of my opinion of the two kingdoms doctrine. In many cases the question is stated with great concern, the two kingdoms doctrine being associated in the mind of the one asking my opinion of it with the denial of the legitimacy of Christian education or of the kingship and authority of Christ over all of life. What is clear is that I am not being asked about the classic Reformed two kingdoms doctrine of the 16th and 17th centuries, the doctrine that was used to defend the biblical autonomy of the church over against the erastian claims of the state, as well as the right of the church to establish its own Reformed church government according to Scripture, and to administer its own church discipline.
And yet I am usually unsure how to answer the question. Am I troubled about the claims often made on the basis of the two kingdoms doctrine today? Yes. Am I concerned about some of the controversies and mistrust it has sparked in our churches? Very much so. Do I think the two kingdoms doctrine should be abandoned? I do not understand how it could be abandoned without losing the very foundation that the Reformers laid for the biblical autonomy and integrity our Reformed churches have enjoyed for nearly five hundred years. Read the rest of this entry