Friendly Chatter About the Two Kingdoms – A Response to Brad Littlejohn

Last week Brad Littlejohn wrote a fair and thoughtful essay over at The Calvinist International engaging my recent essay on the two kingdoms at Reformation 21. Littlejohn poses some questions, and I want to try and answer most of those questions here.

As Littlejohn points out, this is not the first interaction we’ve had, and our previous interaction was not entirely ideal. I believed the best way to overcome the impasse was gradually to clarify my own views. I have done that in a few essays on this blog and will do it further (and more definitively) in the next articles on Reformation 21. All that said, both public and private interaction with Littlejohn suggests we are making some progress, and for that I am grateful.

Now I do have one quibble with Littlejohn’s introduction. I have not largely conceded that the Lutherans, the Zurich Reformed, and the English Reformed “shared the kind of two kingdoms doctrine that we have here [at the Calvinist International] outlined and advocated. What I conceded was that the implications of Richard Hooker’s formulation of the two kingdoms doctrine was more in line with the political theology of the Zurich Reformed (who, as far as I am aware, never explicitly articulated a two kingdoms doctrine) and with Lutherans like Melanchthon (not necessarily Luther, who’s views are too complicated to engage in this post – perhaps I’ll comment more on him at a later date) than with that of Calvin. Of course, other English Reformed theologians like Thomas Cartwright disagreed with Hooker, and I think these legitimately claimed to represent some of the concerns of the two kingdoms theology articulated by John Calvin and threatened in the English doctrine of the royal supremacy.

Later Littlejohn identifies three main criteria for distinguishing the two kingdoms and asks whether I agree with his formulation. He writes:

We might identify here three main criteria distinguishing the two kingdoms: 1) of the age to come vs. of the present age (though this does not deny overlap, as if Christ’s government did not make itself known or felt in the present), 2) by the word rather than by outward elements or instruments (though this does not deny that Christ’s government comes to us wrapped up in outward elements and instruments, from which it remains nonetheless distinct), and 3) through the power of the Spirit, vs. through the work of human mediators (though this does not deny that human beings become media through whom the Spirit accomplishes His gracious work).

I do differ with this formulation somewhat. I fully agree with the first distinction, but I find the second and third distinctions so qualified by what is in the parentheses as to be unhelpful. After all, Calvin describes the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments as “outward” elements and instruments through which Christ governs his spiritual kingdom, and he argues that the work of the Spirit should not be separated from these outward means, exercised by human mediators. I fear Littlejohn’s formulation here simply confuses the fact that for Calvin Christ’s spiritual government of his kingdom occurs through the visible means of the ministry of the church, and that this point is absolutely fundamental to Calvin’s account of the two kingdoms doctrine (as I will seek to show in my second Reformation 21 piece).

In place of Littlejohn’s second and third distinctions I would offer a distinction between two governments (Calvin’s language), one of which works through the word and Spirit, reaches to the inward person, and is by definition the mark of the visible church, the other of which works by means of coercion or other outward means, cannot transform the inward person, and is the mark of all secular (i.e., temporal) institutions.

Of course, Littlejohn helpfully acknowledges that “Calvin tends to undermine the inward/outward distinction somewhat, by elaborating the structures of outward offices that play a necessary role in the spiritual government of the church, and thus also tends to undermine the distinction between the two ages, by suggesting that Christ’s spiritual reign could be clearly identified visibly here and now.” I would suggest that Calvin is not undermining the distinction between the two ages but simply demonstrating that they overlap: the church is the body of Jesus who is the beginning of the new creation. As it holds fast to Christ it participates in the blessings of the age to come and witnesses to those blessings in this age, so constituting a city on a hill and a light to this world. Calvin liked to refer to the ministry of the church in particular as an embassy of Christ’s kingdom.

It is this that explains why the work of the diaconate is “spiritual” and why it is an expression of Christ’s kingdom in a way that the work of a civil magistrate is not. Littlejohn requests quotations from Calvin on this point and I will oblige in a follow up post that will hopefully be published tomorrow.

Later in the essay Littlejohn asks some pointed questions. First, “Was Cartwright’s version of the two-kingdoms doctrine a faithful republication or development of Calvin’s?” I have to confess up front that I do not know Cartwright well enough to answer this question in detail; I am largely familiar with Cartwright through Hooker’s work rather than the other way around. I do believe that insofar as Cartwright distinguished between Christ’s rule over the political kingdom as God but not as man he moved the two kingdoms doctrine in a direction that was unfaithful to Scripture. It is as the ascended Christ that Jesus is raised above all authority (both in this age and in the age to come) (Eph 1:21). On the other hand, I think that Cartwright was right to reject the idea that the civil magistrate is in any sense the head of Christ’s church, and I think he was developing Calvin in a legitimate way when he insisted that the government of basic matters of worship and discipline should be in the hands of the ministers whose obligation was to mediate the rule of Christ.

Second, Littlejohn asks, “Was opposition to the royal supremacy a necessary conclusion to be drawn from the two kingdoms doctrine?  Or even from the Calvinist form of it?  Or were defenders of the royal supremacy legitimate in their claim to be champions of the two-kingdoms doctrine?” I believe opposition to the royal supremacy was a necessary conclusion to be drawn from Calvin’s version of the two kingdoms doctrine (though obviously not from all versions of it, as Hooker’s arguments testify). I believe defenders of the royal supremacy were championing a version of the two kingdoms doctrine that broke in fundamental ways with that of Calvin.

Third, he asks, “If it is true that Reformed Christians ‘never arrived at unanimity on the political implications of the doctrine’—by which we take him to be acknowledging that some saw it as precluding royal supremacy and others did not, some saw it as the basis for a theocratic state and others for a somewhat secular state—then does this not suggest that modern two-kingdoms advocates are wrong to insist that the doctrine requires a particular political-theological stance vis-a-vis the relationship of church and state?” I believe it does suggest that. I believe many of the contemporary debates over the two kingdoms doctrine are actually debates over what the two kingdoms doctrine should mean. Of course, I believe some versions of the doctrine are more faithful to Scripture than are others. I do not believe that under any circumstances it would be legitimate for a civil magistrate to assume for himself or herself rule over the preaching, worship, or discipline of Christ’s church.

Towards the end of Littlejohn’s essay he suggests that I have not “satisfactorily explained how a doctrine that in its inception was primarily intended to bolster lay power against the pretensions of clerical power became a doctrine that was primarily intended to bolster clerical power against the pretensions of lay power.” I do not have the space here to go into detail, but I would point out that from the very beginning Luther posed the two kingdoms doctrine as a response to magistrates who were hindering the work of the gospel (See Secular Authority, To What Extent It Should Be Obeyed), though his views on this point did later change somewhat. More importantly for the Calvinist two kingdoms doctrine, however, Calvin clearly used the doctrine as a basis for his opposition to the civil magistrate’s authority over the process of church discipline. In fact, the struggle over church discipline was arguably the most significant conflict between Calvin and the magistracy during his time in Geneva, and there is no question that Calvin proteges like Beza and Cartwright picked up on this.

Littlejohn goes on to write, “Tuininga appears to endorse, that ‘the institutional expression of the kingdom in this age is the church, not the state, the family, or any other created institution’—while this claim may admit of an acceptable interpretation, we would wish to emphasize that qua institution, the Church shares in the nature of other created institutions, and qua institution, cannot rightly be identified as the kingdom of Christ.” I basically agree. In its essence, as defined by the marks of the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments, and as experienced in the communion of the saints, the church is Christ’s body, and it participates in and reflects the age to come in a way that no other institution does. That does not mean that the church is removed from the secular age nor does it mean that it is removed from being under the authority of civil government in secular matters or that it can ignore the significance of other created institutions in its midst (i.e., relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, etc.). Sociologically it can be said that the church is an institution (or sphere) of the secular kingdom.

But Littlejohn is still worried about what I mean when I say the church is the “institutional expression” of Christ’s kingdom, and he concludes his essay by writing “We would merely close by asking whether it is possible to continue to use language of the visible church as the “institutional expression of the kingdom of Christ” without falling into the trap of thinking of the spiritual kingdom as a “sphere” of human life in this way.

This statement reflects the basic fear of Littlejohn and the other authors of the Calvinist International as I understand it. To summarize, they worry that if the kingdom of Christ finds any unique, concrete, tangible, outward expression in one place, then its authority and claims are separated from the rest of life. The result is that the rest of life is outside of the lordship of Christ.

This is a legitimate fear. There have been those, such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, who believed that religion is merely about worship and piety. However I am not one of those people, nor was Calvin. It is patently obvious to me, as it was to Calvin, that the preaching of the word calls believers to a whole way of life shaped by God’s moral law and by the example of Jesus. The implications of this way of life extend to every single thing that human beings do. Even civil government has the obligation to kiss the Son and to recognize the limits on its own authority.

Now it is fully possible (and necessary) to recognize that the claims of the Lord Jesus extend to every area of life while recognizing that only where the word and Spirit have changed human beings and drawn them voluntarily into a community does the kingdom actually come to social or institutional expression (Ephesians 4). It is also fully possible to recognize that until the actual resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the cosmos certain created institutional structures that will never be part of the kingdom of Christ will remain, and that the institutional expression of the kingdom in the church is always qualified by the ongoing existence of these structures (see Ephesians 5-6). Finally, it is fully possible to recognize that short of the transformation of all things Christ rules through violently coercive structures (i.e., civil government) that will not exist in the kingdom of peace, and that therefore cannot be conformed in every respect to the standards of the kingdom that is coming (Romans 12-13).

In short, as long as the two kingdoms doctrine is understood eschatologically (i.e., in terms of two ages) and in terms of two governments rather than two spheres, the overlap between the two kingdoms will always qualify any talk of their separation. As long as the statement that the church is the institutional expression of Christ’s kingdom is understood as qualified by these realities, the dangers Littlejohn fears can be held at bay.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on September 21, 2012, in Calvin, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Friendly Chatter About the Two Kingdoms – A Response to Brad Littlejohn.

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