Did Calvin think the visible church is part of the political kingdom?

A few days ago Brad Littlejohn wrote a critique of my article on the two kingdoms doctrine and the Reformed tradition. In his article Littlejohn made the provocative claim that for Calvin the visible church is part of the political kingdom, not the spiritual kingdom. He did not really defend this claim but he did cite an article by Steven Wedgeworth from the Credenda Agenda which actually argued that for Calvin the spiritual kingdom is the invisible church, in which Christ’s authority is unmediated. In this view, the visible church must be part of the political kingdom because it is built on the authority of Christ mediated through pastors and other officers.

I have written a full defense of my interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine that is forthcoming, but after writing it I came across two quotes in Calvin’s commentary on Hebrews that show just how wrong Littlejohn and Wedgeworth are. Commenting on Hebrews 4:12 Calvin notes that the preaching of the Gospel by men has the power of binding and loosing for eternity. He insists that this power is not just bound to the “internal word” as opposed to the mediated word:

For delirious and even dangerous are these notions, that though the internal word is efficacious, yet that which proceeds from the mouth of man is lifeless and destitute of all power. I indeed admit that the power does not proceed from the tongue of man, nor exists in mere sound, but that the whole power is to be ascribed altogether to the Holy Spirit; there is, however, nothing in this to hinder the Spirit from putting forth his power in the word preached.

So Calvin is quite clear that the Spirit’s power operates through the visible (and audible) preaching of the Word. Elsewhere he is clear that the Spirit does not ordinarily work apart from this means.

Then, commenting on Hebrews 12:10, Calvin argues that although magistrates are to defend the true religion, they can only do so in a temporal way.What is Calvin’s basis for this claim? The two kingdoms doctrine:

for though it belongs to magistrates to defend religion, yet we say that their office is confined to the limits of this life, for otherwise the civil and earthly government cannot be distinguished from the spiritual kingdom of Christ.

On Littlejohn’s interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine this statement makes no sense. For Calvin is absolutely clear that the office of ministers does extend to the future life. That’s the whole point of Christ’s teaching about the keys of the kingdom. But here Calvin is clear that the power of the civil and earthly government cannot extend to the next life, otherwise it would be part of the spiritual kingdom. In other words, the government of the ministers of the Word is necessarily part of the spiritual kingdom, because it extends to the next life. This is true both of preaching and of church discipline, which is based on the power of the Word.

Consider this a teaser for my fuller article. This is just one of a myriad of places in which Calvin argues the same thing. It’s what Book IV of the Institutes is all about.

[Note: This post has been updated to correct an error regarding who wrote the original article in Credenda Agenda.]


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 19, 2012, in Two Kingdoms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Did Calvin think the visible church is part of the political kingdom?.

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