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.
The two kingdoms doctrine is an old one, and in its classic formulations it had virtually nothing to do with many of the claims and causes for which it is invoked today. It was initially formulated by Martin Luther with at least three basic concerns in mind. The first was to clarify the truth that the believer enjoys Christian freedom regardless of his or her external circumstances. In other words, though I may be a slave or oppressed, sick or poor, in Christ I am still free and no one can take that freedom from me. The external affairs of this world are the concerns of a kingdom that cannot be strictly identified with the gospel blessings of the kingdom of God.
The second intent was to reject Roman claims about the hierarchy of grace over nature, claims that had led medieval theologians to argue that the Sermon on the Mount was not binding on ordinary Christians in this natural life and that the power of the church was superior to, and even the source of, civil government. Against this Luther argued that the Sermon on the Mount is binding on ordinary believers in the spiritual kingdom though not on the coercive civil kingdom, and that God has ordained civil government to preserve peace and justice in this world independently of the authority of the papacy or church.
The third purpose for which Luther articulated the doctrine was to insist on the unique way in which the kingdom of God goes forth and the church is built and expanded: through the preaching of the word and the administering of the sacraments. Luther thus initially appealed to the doctrine to reject the interference of civil authorities in the spread of the gospel, arguing that while the civil kingdom operates by the sword, the kingdom of Christ advances by the word and Spirit.
Although the two kingdoms doctrine is often associated with Lutherans rather than the Reformed, Calvin appropriated it for a very significant purpose. His initial mention of it in the Institutes was in relation to the same matter with which Luther had been concerned, Christian freedom. Calvin argued that Christian liberty could not be used, as he believed it was being used by the Anabaptists, to overthrow civil government or the other institutions and hierarchies of this world because it pertains to a different kingdom. When speaking of Christian liberty, these things must be kept separate.
But Calvin’s most important use of the doctrine led him down a path Luther had merely hinted at, initiating a distinctly Reformed version of it. He appealed to the two kingdoms doctrine to emphasize the difference between spiritual power and civil power, the church and the state, insisting that the two must not be confused. In part Calvin was responding to the dominant Reformed view of that time, which argued that it was the state’s task to bring about the reformation of the church, and that therefore the functions of church discipline and poor relief were matters of the state, not the church. In contrast to these positions Calvin argued that because the spiritual kingdom is distinct from the civil kingdom, its government and character must also be distinct. Thus the New Testament’s call for elders who administer church discipline and for deacons who care for the poor cannot be conflated with the New Testament’s confirmation of the legitimacy of civil power. In other words, the New Testament offices were not simply temporary measures ultimately to be replaced by Christian civil magistrates. On the contrary, church discipline conducted by elders and ministers, including excommunication, was crucial for the proper functioning of the church, and the diaconate was a spiritual office reflective of the righteousness of the kingdom of God, not a secular office. It was thus Calvin who essentially established the offices of elder and deacon as we know them today, and insisted on their importance. Calvin thus followed the logic of the two kingdoms doctrine to establish a distinctive Reformed doctrine of church government.
These efforts did not go uncontested. Although the two kingdoms doctrine became less explicitly prominent in places where Reformed church government was easily established, it continued to guide those who had to assert the biblical government of the church against the claims of monarchs and politically established bishops who did not want to give up their authority over it. Thus it passed from Calvin through Theodore Beza to the Marian exiles and early Puritans who wanted the English church to be thoroughly reformed in the late 16th Century.
Most significantly, the father of English Presbyterianism Thomas Cartwright, who had studied in Geneva, appealed to the two kingdoms doctrine to argue in the 1570s that Queen Elizabeth was not the head of the church and that church government was not a matter indifferent, over which political authority might exercise its will. Rather, Cartwright insisted, though Christ is king over all and though the monarch truly rules on his behalf through her civil power, Christ’s kingship is twofold, and therefore her power does not extend to the kingdom of God, or the church. The church has its own distinctive government and power, which operates through offices appointed in Scripture. Archbishop Whitgift and the theologian Richard Hooker strongly rejected Cartwright’s two kingdoms doctrine because they were apologists for the royal supremacy over the church and for the episcopal form of government in that church. Although Whitgift rejected the two kingdoms distinction entirely, Hooker actually sought (unsuccessfully) to reformulate it for royalist purposes, evidence as one scholar notes, to his conviction that the doctrine was central to Protestant orthodoxy and therefore to the legitimacy of his defense of royal supremacy.
The two kingdoms doctrine thus served as the foundation for those who argued that the Church of England needed further reformation, and as such it once again came to prominence in the Puritan resurgence of the English Civil war in the 1640s. By this time it was Scottish Presbyterian theologians like Andrew Melville and Samuel Rutherford who were its most prominent proponents, as the Scottish Presbyterians had long been trying to establish Reformed church government in Scotland and viewed the English Civil War as an opportunity to do so in England as well. Once again, for these men, the two kingdoms doctrine became the chief means of asserting that Christ alone is head of his church, and that its government is responsible to him, not to the king, even as the king has his own legitimate civil authority in the temporal kingdom.
The leading English political theorists of the 16th Century both recognized the importance of the two kingdoms doctrine in the turmoil of the day. Thomas Hobbes argued in his 1651 Leviathan that theologians’ claims that the church represented a different kingdom from the state was the source of all the turmoil and conflict within a country that needed an absolute monarch with absolute power. He explicitly and repeatedly rejected the two kingdoms doctrine in order to defend his famous theory of absolutism, arguing that even the clergy receive their power of preaching and administering the sacraments from the king, not directly from God.
Later in the century John Locke recognized the utility of the two kingdoms doctrine when he appealed to it in his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration to argue that religion was not the affair of the civil magistrate and that Puritans and other Protestant dissenters should therefore be free to establish their own churches. It is interesting to note that England did not finally achieve religious toleration until the Dutch king William of Orange ascended to the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Netherlands had long been a model for English Puritans seeking Reformed church government and religious toleration alike precisely because since the early days of the first William of Orange it had essentially operated according to a de facto two kingdoms model.
Of course, none of the classic two kingdoms proponents from Calvin to the Scottish Covenanters believed that the doctrine challenged Christ’s authority over civil government or culture in any way, shape, or form. In fact, such a conclusion would have been unthinkable for them. The purpose of the doctrine was to defend the church and its biblical autonomy from the claims of civil powers to have the right to control the church. In fact, for most of its history the two kingdoms doctrine was associated with the overreach of the church, not with a withdrawal from culture or politics. Its proponents were accused of seeking to establish a collective clerical papacy because they insisted that civil government should defer to the government of the church on spiritual matters. All the early Reformed two kingdoms proponents defended the kingship of Christ over both church and state.
If this is the heritage of the two kingdoms doctrine, why is it so controversial today? There are a number of reasons. First, the separation of church and state has carried the day, and few people argue against it. As a result, the doctrine has lost its urgency and few people remember it. Second, in more recent times various figures have sought to revive the two kingdoms doctrine for new causes, and the doctrine is often associated with these causes rather than with its classic Reformation formulations. For example, many theologians have appealed to two kingdoms arguments in order to reject the social gospel. In fact, I have repeatedly heard Reformed preachers and theologians who are themselves wary of the two kingdoms doctrine use a precisely two kingdoms logic in this way. The controversy arises when people appeal to the doctrine to question causes closer to home. For instance, some have used it to challenge the politicization of many evangelical churches directly involved in the political work of the Christian Right. Others have used it to challenge what they perceive as the excesses of Neocalvinism and its failure to distinguish the advancement of the kingdom of God through the work of the church with the work of cultural transformation.
Usually when I hear people opposing the two kingdoms doctrine today it is because they think it entails the abandonment of something like Christian education, or of a Christian worldview that guides the actions of Christians in every aspect of life. While there have been some recent two kingdoms proponents who do move in this direction, it is a massive theological and historical mistake to allow those people – who are most certainly in a minority – to define the two kingdoms doctrine and to control the way in which we speak of it. To do this ignores the importance the doctrine has held in establishing precisely the kind of Reformed biblical autonomy and church government that we value so highly and on which the integrity of the Reformed tradition depends. In fact, I am yet to speak to a confessional Reformed person who does not affirm the two kingdoms doctrine when defined in its classical sense as I have described it here, as a simple distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world, over both of which Christ rules, though in different ways. The real debate should not be about whether or not we hold to a two kingdoms doctrine or not. The real debate should be about what that two kingdoms doctrine means in our contemporary context.
We desperately need clarity on this matter if we are to overcome the increasing contentiousness and suspicion relative to the two kingdoms doctrine in our churches. We do not help ourselves when we make sweeping condemnations of doctrines or ideas or persons or institutions based on their tendentious association with some controversial claim and without any sensitivity towards the history of Reformed doctrine and practice. We should together affirm that Jesus Christ has been given all authority in heaven and earth, that earthly powers must kiss the son lest he be angry and they perish in the way, and that Christ builds his church as the expression of the kingdom of God through the power of the word and Spirit. We should resist together the twin dangers of the politicization of the church and of the church’s failure to proclaim the whole kingship of Christ over all of life. And then we should get to the real work of figuring out what exactly this proclamation looks like.