Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine – between overconfidence and despair

At the heart of the controversy within Reformed circles over the two kingdoms doctrine is the assertion of two kingdoms advocates that not all of life’s activities or institutions should be identified with the kingdom of God. Although neo-Calvinism is by no means monolithic on this point, many neo-Calvinists, especially those writing the programmatic rhetoric at formative institutions like high schools and colleges, tend to speak of the creation in general as the kingdom of God, and of all Christian activity as kingdom work. The kingdom, in this view, is simply the realm of God’s authority. Barack Obama’s office as president is just as much a part of that kingdom as is the work of your local pastor because both are under the lordship of Christ. Within this universal kingdom the only legitimate distinction is between those whose work is loyal to the king and those who support the rebellion.

While we can debate the teaching of Scripture on this point, there should be little doubt that these claims are indeed neo-Calvinist, that is, that they break with the two kingdoms emphasis of the great theologian John Calvin. Although Calvin affirms, of course, that having ascended into heaven Christ is supreme over all things, both in heaven and on earth, he consistently clarifies that the kingdom of Christ proper only exists where human beings have voluntarily yielded themselves in subjection to Christ. He also emphasizes – over and over – that while the kingdom is spiritual (i.e., eternal, though not immaterial), the affairs and institutions of this age, including marriage, government, and yes, even cultural knowledge (see his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13) is temporal, transient, and will pass away.

That doesn’t mean Calvin thinks the kingdom isn’t present, or even that all that Christians do in this life should not be a testimony to the coming of that kingdom. On the contrary, Calvin insists that every Christian, whatever her vocation, should channel her efforts towards the cause of Christ. Even government should do all that it can to protect and promote the kingdom, while recognizing that the real work of that kingdom is accomplished through the preaching of the gospel and the ministry of the church.

In his 1560 dedication of his commentary on Acts to Lord Nicolas Radziwill, the chief marshal and head chancellor of Lithuania, Calvin carefully explained the two senses in which the kingdom is present in this age. While affirming that Christ decisively established his kingdom when he ascended into heaven, he acknowledges that the ordinary state of affairs this side of Christ’s return will be one of conflict, persecution, and suffering. He then writes,

When we speak of the kingdom of Christ, we must respect two things: the teaching of the gospel, whereby Christ gathers to himself a church and whereby he governs the same, being gathered together; second, the society of the godly, who being coupled together by the sincere faith of the gospel, are truly accounted the people of God…

This kingdom must always be distinguished from Christ’s broader kingship, which includes what two kingdoms advocates remind us is the temporal, or political kingdom.

For although the Son of God has always reigned, even from the first beginning of the world, yet after that, being revealed in the flesh, he published his gospel, and he began to erect a more famous tribunal seat than before, from which he now appears most plainly and is most glorious.

It is that “tribunal seat” that is represented in the ministry of the church, and it is in the society of Christians that its power is expressed.

But Calvin never suggests that the task of Christians is to somehow turn this world into the kingdom. For Calvin the restoration or renewal of the world begins to take place in the church, through the regeneration of believers, who then testify to their loyalty to that kingdom – and to its imminent transformation of all things – in their lives. Yet the restoration of “outward” or “external” matters, the transformation of all that is fallen and transient, awaits Jesus’ return.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries Protestant theologians began to claim Calvin’s theology as warrant and precedent for their attempts to bring the kingdom of God to expression in this age through the social gospel. Everything that the reformer said about obeying God’s law in government, family, or economics was taken as evidence that Calvin himself believed the task of Christians was to transform all of life into the kingdom. To this day some neo-Calvinists make the same claims, failing to recognize the significant extent to which their attitude towards culture and politics breaks with that of Calvin. Yet today there is little excuse for maintaining the naive optimism of the early 20th Century social gospel, though some are deceived by the spirit of our times; most transformationalists therefore tend to be pessimistic culture warriors on the verge of despair.

But if Calvin is our guide, such pessimism and despair is as unwarranted as was the naive cultural confidence that made such despair inevitable. Calvin saw the present manifestation of Christ’s transformation of the world in the church, its government and its society, and he constantly warned his readers and hearers that this side of Jesus’ return, the context for that manifestation would be one of suffering witness. In an age when the West is increasingly turning away from the legacy of Christianity, we would do well to reconsider the wisdom of that warning.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on January 28, 2013, in Calvin, Calvinism, Neo-Calvinism, Social Gospel, Two Kingdoms. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine – between overconfidence and despair.

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