Sloppy scholarly claims about Calvin force me to beat a dead horse

As I’ve been discussing the nature of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine over the past few days I keep coming across claims that Calvin did not interpret or apply the two kingdoms doctrine in institutional terms. I am not coming across these claims in scholarly works on Calvin. No, the claims are coming from non-scholarly articles or from reviews by scholars who have not published any significant work on Calvin’s political theology. Today someone pointed me to another review, this one by Henreckson in the Journal of Church and State, in which Henrickson claims that “For the early Reformed, the distinction between spiritual and civil realms was not primarily institutional, as it is for VanDrunen …”

I am sorry if you are tired of all this, but the obviously someone needs to continue to point out the obvious. I would rather talk about what we should do with the two kingdoms doctrine, or how we should apply it, but so be it. To be sure, Henreckson is correct about many in the Reformed tradition, including Zwingli, Bullinger, Hooker, etc. But it is not true about Calvin.

This morning I quoted Avis and Wendel. Here are two more scholars.

John Witte, in his Reformation of Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2007), states:

In a few passages in this early period, Calvin seemed to equate the heavenly kingdom with the church and the earthly kingdom with the state. He stated flatly, for example, that ‘the church is Christ’s kingdom’ and that the earthly kingdom is ‘the political order of laws and lawgivers.’ But such passages must be read in context. Calvin’s early two kingdoms theory was not simply a political theory of institutions, but a theological framework designed to distinguish the realms not only of church and state, but also of soul and body, spirit and flesh, inner life and outer life, conscience and reason, redemption and creation. (44)

Note, Witte agrees that there were other dimensions to Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine. But it was also institutional. And the institutional aspect of his doctrine became more pronounced as time went on.

As his thinking matured, and he took up his pastoral and political advisory duties in Geneva, Calvin began to think in more integrated and more institutional terms. He blurred the lines between the earthly kingdom and heavenly kingdom, between spiritual and political life, law and liberty. He also focused more closely and concretely on the institutional responsibilities and relationships of church and state. (56)

Harro Hopfl, in his classic The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1982), writes extensively of Calvin’s understanding of the relation between church and state, and he shows how the two kingdoms doctrine is explicitly about this institutional relationship. As he states in one place:

Our account of Calvin’s conception of a Christian commonwealth must begin where he did in any matter of politia, at the top. The apex is the two-fold regime of magistrates and ministers. The ‘form’ of the latter, both as ecclesiology and as the ecclesiastical constitution of Geneva, has already be described … By contrast, the ideal form envisaged for the other head of the two-headed regime was nowhere clearly laid down. (152-153)

As his reference suggests, Hopfl has described the ecclesiastical regiment (or kingdom) earlier in his book. He argues like Witte that initially Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine was less institutionally developed, but that as Calvin developed his ecclesiology it became more pronounced. This inevitably created conflict with the civil magistrates, which marked Calvin’s entire ministry in Geneva. As Hopfl writes,

For the City of God and the civitas terena are inevitably in tension, but nowhere more so than when the former is understood as the visible church represented by a spiritual regime, organized in every detail for authoritativeness and autonomy, confronting a secular regime which on Calvin’s account owes neither being, form nor legitimacy to the church. (122)

To be sure, Calvin thought the magistrate should enforce both tables of the law, and thus should enforce the true religion and protect the church, just like the kings of Old Testament Israel. He did not advocate the separation of church and state in the modern sense. VanDrunen admits that, as did I in my original essay. But to say that Calvin did not understand the two kingdoms doctrine institutionally is a claim I have not seen any major Calvin scholar make. We can argue over how Calvin understood the relationship between the two governments, and we can argue over whether he was right or wrong, or how we should apply it today. But one thing is clear. Calvin understood the two kingdoms doctrine institutionally, and that understanding played a major role in his political theology and ecclesiology. Indeed, that institutional distinction decisively shaped the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition moving forward, and it played a major role in the gradual (if bumpy, chaotic, and sometimes counter-productive) ride of the West towards the separation of church and state, a ride that proceeded because of or despite Bucer, Beza, Cartwright, Rutherford, Williams, Milton, Locke and numerous others.

The reason why Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine is so helpful is not because we want to slavishly imitate him. It’s because he articulated the theological basis for the distinction between Christ’s spiritual kingdom and the political kingdom in a way that is bursting with wisdom and insight. In a time of increasing pluralism, as we wrestle with the relationship between the church and the state, it is immensely valuable to study why Calvin distinguished between the two kingdoms, and on what theological basis. To fail to do so is to abandon our own tradition.


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 Sloppy scholarly claims about Calvin force me to beat a dead horse.

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