The Visible Church as Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom: Did VanDrunen get it wrong?

In my post of a few days ago I demonstrated that we do not have to speculate on what Calvin meant by his two kingdoms doctrine or on how he related it to the distinction between the government of the church and civil government. Calvin himself tells us. However, there are still some who argue that the ministry of the church is part of the political kingdom, not part of the spiritual kingdom, and that therefore the church should not be said to be the institutional expression of the kingdom of Christ.

In fact, one of the absurd claims made by certain reviewers of David VanDrunen’s book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (and by certain critics of my own writing) was that he was wrong to identify the institutions of church and state with Calvin’s two kingdoms. Such a criticism can be rendered plausible on a superficial reading of Calvin that tries to force his two kingdoms doctrine to amount to the distinction between the invisible and the visible church. But paying attention to what Calvin actually says about the relationship between Christ’s spiritual kingdom and the ministry of the church demonstrates that VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine was substantively correct.

Calvin begins Book 4 by discussing the meaning of the statement in the Apostle’s Creed that expresses belief in the church. He points out that this belief “refers not only to the visible church (our present topic) but also to all God’s elect.” (4.1.2) But of course, central to the argument of the Reformation was the claim that not every church that claims to be a church is truly a church. The key question is therefore to determine what a church is. And Calvin’s answer is that the church is wherever we see Christ’s spiritual kingdom visibly present. “From this the face of the church comes forth and becomes visible to our eyes. Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.” (4.1.9)

But is this church, which becomes visible to us in the ministry of the gospel, the same thing as the spiritual kingdom of Christ? Is the ministry of the church Christ’s spiritual government? Again, Calvin is quite clear:

Isaiah had long before distinguished Christ’s Kingdom by this mark: ‘My spirit which is upon you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall never depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your children, or … of your children’s children.” From this it follows that all those who spurn the spiritual food, divinely extended to them through the hand of the church, deserve to perish in famine and hunger. God breathes faith into us only by the instrument of his gospel. (4.1.5)

In other words, Christ’s spiritual government of his church – which has power over the conscience and the inward man and which pertains to heavenly things – occurs through the outward means that he has appointed. Of, course, Christ could have chosen to govern his kingdom immediately, but he did not. “For, although God’s power is not bound to outward means, he has nonetheless bound us to this ordinary manner of teaching.” We therefore do not have the right to separate the ministry of the church from Christ’s spiritual government. Rather, “God himself appears in our midst, and, as Author of this order, would have men recognize him as present in his institution.” (4.1.5)

In case we are still not clear, after pages and pages of explanation in Chapter 2 Calvin ties everything together in one summary statement, a statement that makes it patently obvious (as he himself says) that the visible church is Christ’s kingdom for the very reason that the visibility of the church is contained in the ministry of the word by which God reigns: “To sum up, since the church is Christ’s Kingdom, and he reigns by his Word alone, will it not be clear to any man that those are lying words by which the Kingdom of Christ is imagined to exist apart from his scepter (that is, his most holy Word)?” (4.2.4)

Having shown that because of its ministry of the word the church is Christ’s kingdom in this age, Calvin then turns in Chapter 3 to discuss the offices of the church through which that ministry occurs. Here again, he argues that the proper government of the church is Christ’s spiritual government of his kingdom:

Now we must speak of the order by which the Lord willed his church to be governed. He alone should rule and reign in the church as well as have authority or pre-eminence in it, and this authority should be exercised and administered by his Word alone. Nevertheless, because he does not dwell among us in visible presence, we have said that he uses the ministry of men to declare openly his will to us by mouth, as a sort of delegated work, not by transferring to them his right and honor, but only that through their mouths he may do his own work – just as a workman uses a tool to do his work. (4.3.1)

It is quite clear here that Calvin is identifying the ministry of the church with Christ’s spiritual government of his spiritual kingdom as outlined in the basic two kingdoms distinction. His consistent language in this section is to speak of the “human ministry which God uses to govern the church.” This government is a spiritual government because it is the means Christ has appointed by which the Holy Spirit’s power is conveyed:

through the ministers to whom he has entrusted this office and has conferred the grace to carry it out, he dispenses and distributes his gifts to the church; and he shows himself as though present by manifesting the power of his Spirit in this his institution, that it be not vain or idle… Whoever, therefore, either is trying to abolish this order of which we speak and this kind of government, or discounts it as not necessary, is striving for the undoing or rather the ruin and destruction of the church. (4.3.2)

Calvin goes on to declare that the “ministry of the gospel” is the very “administration of the Spirit and of righteousness and of eternal life” (4.3.3). For this reason it serves to “establish his Kingdom everywhere by the preaching of the gospel” (4.3.4).

But does Calvin view only the work of pastors and teachers, as opposed to that of elders (church discipline) and deacons (care for the poor) as the spiritual government of Christ’s kingdom? In my next two posts on Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine I will look more closely at Calvin’s discussion of the various parts of church government, but for now I simply want to note that already in Chapters 3-4 Calvin hints that he views the work of elders and deacons as part of the ministry of Christ’s spiritual kingdom.

In 4.3.8 Calvin introduces two permanent offices in the church in addition to those of preaching and teaching. These he describes in terms of the functions of “government and caring for the poor.” These functions too, he argues, are appointed by God and cannot be changed or usurped: “there is nothing in which order should be more diligently observed than in establishing government; for nowhere is there greater peril if anything be done irregularly.” (4.3.10) In fact, Calvin indicates that he views the offices of elder and deacon as offices of the church’s ministry.

We have stated that Scripture sets before us three kinds of ministers… For from the order of presbyters (1) part were chosen pastors and teachers; (2) the remaining part were charged with the censure and correction of morals; (3) the care of the poor and the distribution of alms were committed to the deacons.” (4.4.1)

This comment suggests that when Calvin talks about church government as being the delegation of the ministry of Christ within the church, he is talking about elders and deacons in addition to pastors and teachers. The whole institution of church government is in view when he declares that “Christ is present with us. How? By the ministry of men, whom he has set over the governing of the church.” (4.4.9) As I will demonstrate in the next few posts, Calvin consistently insisted that the work of the elders and the deacons is spiritual, not secular. For Calvin, it is obvious, the visible church is the institutional expression of the kingdom of God in this age.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on June 1, 2012, in Calvin, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Visible Church as Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom: Did VanDrunen get it wrong?.

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