Karl Barth’s Criticism of Calvin’s Two Kingdoms Doctrine

In his 1938 essay “Church and State,” written on the eve of World War II, the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth offered a sharp criticism of the ‘two realms’ doctrine taught by Calvin and the other reformers. Barth lauded the reformers for distinguishing divine justification, the gospel, faith, and the mission of the church from human justice, the duties of citizenship, and the state. He praised them for showing, in contrast to the Anabaptists, “that the two are not in conflict, but that they can very well exist side by side, each being competent in its own sphere.”

But Barth criticized the reformers for not going beyond that. “Clearly we need to know not only that the two are not in conflict, but, first and foremost, to what extent they are connected.” Barth claimed that Calvin offered insufficient explanation of the degree to which civil government belongs to the external means by which God invites human beings and retains them within the society of Christ. He alleged that Calvin failed to develop the implications of his claim that all earthly rulers are subject to Christ, and consequently of his embrace of a Christian political order. In short, he accused the reformers of failing to develop a gospel foundation, a “Christological foundation,” for the state.

The result of this failure, Barth believed, was that Christians had constantly been tempted toward too great a separation of church and state. It had become all too easy, based on the distinction between true justice and civil justice, to construct “a highly spiritual message and a very spiritual Church.” On the other hand, as events in Germany made all too clear, it had led to the construction of “a secular gospel of human law and a secular church.”

The two kingdoms distinction was legitimate as far as it goes, therefore, but it had failed to answer the vital question: “is there an actual, and therefore inward and vital, connection between the two realms?” Or as Barth puts it in the first paragraph of the work, “is there a connection between justification of the sinner through faith alone … and the problem of justice, the problem of human law?” How does the order, peace, and freedom of the kingdom of God relate to the political order.

“Is there, in spite of all differences, an inner and vital connection between the service of God in Christian living … and another form of service, what may be described as a ‘political’ service of God, a service of God which, in general terms, would consist in the careful examination of all those problems which are raised by the existence of human justice, of law, or, rather, which would consist in the recognition, support, defence, and extension of this law – and all this, not in spite of but because of divine justification?”

Barth’s answer, of course, is that there is a fuller connection, and that it is clearly taught in scripture. But his own political theology turns out to be highly dialectical (and paradoxical). The doctrine of the state is to be understood in the context of Christology, he argues, with the state being called to respond obediently to the preaching of the gospel and the law on the part of the church (though without appeal being made to the word or the Spirit in the running of its affairs, given that the state encompasses nonbelievers and is therefore broader than the community of faith!). The state is an allegory of the kingdom of God (though it never becomes the kingdom of God!). It is the outward circle of the reign of Christ (though not to be confused with its inward circle, the church!).

But what is most striking about Barth’s argument is his complete failure, as Reformed critics like Emil Brunner pointed out, to grasp what was the real political theological teaching of the Reformation. For at the heart of Barth’s criticism of the reformers was his absolute rejection of natural revelation or natural law (although even here he granted the useful functioning of a “so-called natural law”). This rejection led him to confuse the reformers’ embrace of the temporal and secular nature of civil government under the natural law with a practical denial of the sovereignty of Christ.

In fact, contrary to Barth’s claims, Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine was thoroughly Christological from start to finish. Calvin recognized that, having ascended to God’s right hand, Jesus holds sovereignty over all authorities, both in this age and in the age to come. In fact, Calvin claimed that Christ is the heir of all things and that human beings only enjoy the legitimate use of material things insofar as they are in Christ. Thus all civil government properly belongs to Christ, is obligated to honor Christ, and must enforce his law insofar as that is possible. Indeed, Calvin even argued that civil government is obligated to establish, defend, and maintain the ministry of Christ’s kingdom (a position whose first and third tenants – establish and maintain – Barth was right to reject)!

At the same time, Calvin recognized that although all legitimate justice, law, and government is subservient to Christ and his purposes, and therefore is an outward reflection of true justice, law, and government, these categories cannot be collapsed into one because through the power of the gospel Christ accomplishes something different from anything that the state can accomplish. By his word and Spirit Christ creates true justice rather than mere civil justice, he fosters the spiritual use of the law rather than the mere civil use of the law, and he establishes his spiritual government rather than mere civil government.

Barth was right to call for a clear understanding of the relationship and connection between the two kingdoms in the context of Christology, one that would help Christians to see that the righteousness created by the gospel is the righteousness that takes concrete form in this world. But he was wrong in claiming that Calvin failed to offer this in his two kingdoms theology.


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 18, 2014, in Calvin, Calvinism, Karl Barth, Law, Natural Law, The Reformation, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Good to see you back at it, Matt! What kept you away?

    If I may, one quick, clarifying question. When the ascended Christ “creates” true vs. civil justice, and spiritual vs. civil law and government, are we talking quantity or quality? Is the justice different in kind, or simply a greater purity thereof? It is the *use* of the law/government that the exalted Christ establishes, or a higher law/government altogether?

    Or am I missing it and it is something else altogether?

    Again, welcome back!

    • Thanks Brian! I had to get the dissertation and some other things done; I was always planning to get back to it after that.

      As for your first question, Calvin is primarily referring to quality, i.e., civil justice/righteousness is only outward. It can please human beings but it cannot please God. That said, Calvin wouldn’t have excluded quantity at some level, I don’t think. As to your second and third questions, Calvin would emphasize the continuity of the law of God. Natural law, the Decalog, the law of Christ, are ultimately all the same moral law. Positive civil law can add things, but it can never contradict that moral law, and should always strive to adhere to it. There are certain things that can be done by civil government that cannot be done by private persons, of course, and that distinction corresponds to the distinction between the two kingdoms to a certain extent, but it is more a function of vocation than of two different standards of law. I hope that helps.

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