Calvin on the Church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom: getting the two kingdoms doctrine right

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.


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 30, 2012, in Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Calvin on the Church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom: getting the two kingdoms doctrine right.

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