If even Calvin says he views the church as Christ’s kingdom in this age, should we believe him? Surely Calvin got himself wrong …

In my last two posts on Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine (here and here) I showed that for Calvin the ministry of the visible church is the means by which Christ governs and expands his kingdom in this present age. I demonstrated that one does not have to read this interpretation into Calvin; Calvin himself tells us what he is doing in Book 4 of the Institutes, and he explains quite clearly and explicitly how the ministry of the church communicates the kingdom of God.

In this post I want to focus on Calvin’s explanation of how Christ’s spiritual government is mediated through the government of the church in the three distinct areas of doctrine, worship, and discipline. Here we enter into the foundations of the Reformed and Presbyterian confessional tradition, and I must offer a warning: Anglican-minded critics who appreciate their Calvinist heritage have obvious motivation to want to claim him for their own tradition by suggesting that he did not identify the church government with Christ’s spiritual kingdom.

Indeed, such attempts are a good reminder that in our understanding of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine the very legitimacy of the confessional Reformed tradition is at stake. In short, is Christ the one who governs his church in its doctrine, worship, and discipline, and are the officers of the church limited as ministers of Christ’s spiritual governance, or can human beings regulate these affairs based on their own wisdom and desires? To put it another way, is it really the case that we should all pack up and join the Anglican Church? Are we wrong to claim Calvin as part of the confessional Reformed tradition?

Thankfully the claim that Calvin identified church government with the political kingdom is more driven by a contemporary agenda than by a careful reading of Calvin’s own argument in Book 4 of the Institutes. It is to that argument that I now turn.

After describing the nature of Christ’s spiritual government through the ministry of the church in the first part of Book 4, Calvin turns to discuss what he calls the three parts of church government in Chapters 8-12. Before diving into the details, however, Calvin reminds his readers that he is talking about Christ’s spiritual kingdom, not the political kingdom. He writes, “I speak only of the spiritual power, which is proper to the church. This, moreover, consists either in doctrine or in jurisdiction [discipline] or in making laws [concerning worship].” (4.8.1) The terms Calvin continues to use – government, power, jurisdiction, making laws – all of which he consistently modifies with the adjective spiritual, make it quite clear that Calvin continues to operate with the basic two kingdoms distinction in view.

The first of the three parts of the spiritual government is doctrine (Chapters 8-9). Calvin declares up front that the church’s proclamation of doctrine is the direct expression of Christ’s government of his kingdom. “Now the only way to build up the church is for the ministers themselves to endeavor to preserve Christ’s authority for himself.” Thus it must “be kept within definite limits, that it may not be drawn hither and thither according to men’s whim.” (4.8.1) The power of the ministers of the church is strictly limited such that they may only do precisely what the Lord has commanded them to do. (4.8.2) “The power of the church, therefore, is not infinite but subject to the Lord’s Word and, as it were, enclosed within it.” (4.8.4) As he puts it later, “Our opponents locate the authority of the church outside God’s Word; but we insist that it be attached to the Word, and do not allow it to be separated from it.” (4.8.13) In other words, the church can only teach what Christ has revealed in his word, because otherwise the church turns into a merely human and secular institution. The very authority of the church to proclaim Christ’s word depends on its spiritual character.

The second part of the spiritual government is the power of making laws concerning worship (Chapter 10). Here too Calvin clearly distinguishes the ecclesiastical jurisdiction from the political order: “In this discussion we are not dealing with the political order, but are only concerned with how God is to be duly worshiped according to the rule laid down by him, and how the spiritual freedom which looks to God may remain unimpaired for us.” In other words, Calvin wants to distinguish the spiritual government of the church from the decisions human beings make about incidental and circumstantial matters of worship. But the substance of worship is to be regulated by Christ alone, through his ministers. When human beings seek to impose laws on worship not derived from Christ, “the Kingdom of Christ is invaded; thus the freedom given by him to the consciences of believers is utterly oppressed and cast down.” Calvin insists that Christians “should acknowledge one King, their deliverer Christ, and should be governed by one law of freedom, the holy Word of the gospel, if they would retain the grace which they once obtained in Christ.” (4.10.1)

Yes, the church – like the magistrate – must sometimes make laws to regulate incidental matters for the edification of the church. But these laws do not bind the conscience because they pertain to the outer forum rather than the forum of conscience. The regulative principle of worship was not something our Presbyterian fathers invented out of thin air. On the contrary, Calvin taught it clearly and explicitly and he grounded it in his argument that the church’s government of its worship must be Christ’s government of that worship. Only Jesus is the head of his church.

The third part of Christ’s spiritual government is church discipline (Chapters 11-12), which happened to be one of the most controversial issues dividing the Reformed movement in the 16th Century. Huldrych Zwingli had argued that Christian churches did not need to have their own elders or church discipline because the task of church discipline is fulfilled by godly civil magistrates. Zwingli believed that the church and the commonwealth were ideally the same thing such that the the New Testament elder is the modern-day magistrate and the New Testament Christian is the modern-day citizen. The church, as his successor Heinrich Bullinger argued, has two basic offices, that of the magistrate and that of the pastor. The result was that by the time Calvin arrived in Geneva no Reformed church practiced church discipline or excommunication. It was this problem that Calvin had in mind when he invoked the two kingdoms distinction in his discussion of church discipline in Book 4 of the Institutes. He writes,

the whole jurisdiction of the church pertains to the discipline of morals … For as no city or township can function without magistrate and polity, so the church of God (as I have already taught, but am now compelled to repeat) needs a spiritual polity. This is, however, quite distinct from the civil polity, yet does not hinder or threaten it but rather greatly helps and furthers it. Therefore, this power of jurisdiction will be nothing, in short, but an order framed for the preservation of the spiritual polity. (4.11.1)

Calvin is absolutely clear here that he is distinguishing the spiritual government of the church by the pastors and elders, through the means of the keys of the kingdom, from the political government of the magistrates. He draws on the distinction between the two kingdoms in 3.19.15 when, referring to 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Romans 12:7-8, he declares that in his references to those who rule Paul is not discussing the magistrates, but “those who were joined with the pastors in the spiritual rule of the church.” Here again it is obvious that when Calvin discusses the “spiritual rule” of the church he is talking about the concrete government exercised by faithful pastors and elders on behalf of Christ. Christ himself governs through these men: “Christ has testified that in the preaching of the gospel the apostles have no part save that of ministry; that it was he himself who would speak and promise all things through their lips as his instruments.” (4.11.1)

Calvin is so determined to reject the view that the magistrate should have authority over church discipline that he returns to the Zwinglian argument in the third section of Chapter 11. He again invokes the two kingdoms distinction when he writes,

Some imagine that all those things were temporary, lasting while the magistrates were still strangers to the profession of our religion. In this they are mistaken, because they do not notice how great a difference and unlikeness there is between ecclesiastical and civil power. For the church does not have the right of the sword to punish or compel, not the authority to force; not imprisonment, nor the other punishments which the magistrate commonly inflicts. Then, it is not a question of punishing the sinner against his will, but of the sinner professing his repentance in a voluntary chastisement. The two conceptions are very different. The church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate; nor can the magistrate execute what is carried out by the church. (4.11.3)

But is this government of the church in discipline simply another part of the political kingdom? No, Calvin expressly states that it is part of the spiritual kingdom. He writes that “the church cannot go without the spiritual jurisdiction which it had from the beginning… For, when emperors and magistrates began to accept Christ, this spiritual jurisdiction was not at once annulled but was only so ordered that it should not detract from the civil jurisdiction or become confused with it.” (4.11.4) Then he goes on, “this is the aim of ecclesiastical jurisdiction: that offenses be resisted, and any scandal that has arisen be wiped out. In its use two things ought to be taken into account: that this spiritual power be completely separated from the right of the sword; secondly, that it be administered not by the decision of one man but by a lawful assembly.” (4.11.5) The Reformed and Presbyterian insistence that the church’s discipline is that of Christ was not the product of English Puritans and Presbyterians who misinterpreted Calvin. On the contrary, the doctrine that Christ governs his kingdom through the keys he has entrusted to the church in its discipline was clearly taught by Calvin himself.

It is not hard to see here that Calvin used the two kingdoms doctrine to defend an institutional distinction between the church and the civil government. Calvin was not vague about what he was trying to do. Attempting to collapse Calvin’s view into the views of theologians like Zwingli, Bullinger, and Hooker, as some with a particular agenda still seek to do, is like trying to say Presbyterians and Anglicans believe the same things about the government of the church. Over and over Calvin appeals to the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal kingdoms (or governments, or jurisdictions), and over and over he applies this distinction to the difference between the government of the church and the government of the civil magistrate. He lays out the implications of the two kingdoms doctrine for the church’s government over doctrine, worship, and discipline.

In doing this, Calvin laid the foundation for what became the distinctive confessional heritage of Presbyterianism in its conflict with the Church of England. As the Presbyterians would argue, only Christ is head of his church, and no king or queen can claim power over it. Human beings do not need to establish their own government over the church because in the ministry of the church in its doctrine, worship, and discipline, Christ himself rules. When we see people attack the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine we need to be aware that it is the basic doctrinal foundation for the entire Reformed and Presbyterian confessional tradition. We cannot afford to abandon it.

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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 6, 2012, in Calvin, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on If even Calvin says he views the church as Christ’s kingdom in this age, should we believe him? Surely Calvin got himself wrong ….

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