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Why We Need Natural Law More Than We Need a Theory About It

Protestants are currently experiencing revival of interest in natural law. For a long time most Protestants dismissed natural law as a Roman Catholic concept, one that carried with it all sorts of semi-Pelagian assumptions about human nature and the powers of reason. Even worse, they associated it with the Enlightenment and its Deistic abandonment of orthodox Christianity.

Even today many conservatives and liberals alike find their reasons to reject natural law. For conservatives the concept serves as a Trojan horse for the rejection of scripture, a dangerous elevation of human reason and autonomy. For liberals the captivity of natural law thinking to the concerns of “pelvic ethics” suggests that it is simply a way for religious conservatives to pretend they are using public reason, when in fact they are simply expounding traditional Roman Catholic attitudes toward sexuality, marriage, and birth control.

Both of these dismissive views share a common confusion about natural law, one well summarized by the French Reformed sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul in his 1946 The Theological Foundations of Law, written just after World War II had destroyed law in Ellul’s native France:

“Too often … natural law is defined as a doctrine, as an interpretation of legal facts, as a philosophy of law… Yet natural law is not primarily this philosophy. It is first of all a phenomenon which exists not as an idea, but as a concrete event in history… As such, it cannot be disclaimed any more than the fact of religion or the fact of the state can be disclaimed.” (14)

Ellul identifies the philosophy of the Stoics and the theologies of Aquinas and Calvin as examples of relatively sophisticated natural law theories that had virtually no impact on actual law. Real natural law, he insists, is something on which we reflect, not something that we construct.

Ellul thinks natural law arose at a point in human history shortly after religion and magic became differentiated from law and morality. At that stage

“Law is established by custom or legislation, independently of the religious power, as if it were a spontaneous creation of society under the impact of economic, political, and moral factors. It is not dictated and created in one piece by the state. It is not imposed from outside. It springs directly from within society, from the common sentiment and the common will.  These may not of necessity be consciously intended to result in a juridical creation, but they are certainly consciously experienced as a habit and obedience. This law rests on the adherence of the people who brought it into existence. This adherence is won because the law is merely the expression of the conscience of these people and of the circumstances in which they live. There is no alternative to adhering to this code.” (18-19)

By the time theories of natural law arise, Ellul argues, the phenomena is already in its decline. “It is indeed the moment when man ceases to be spontaneously ‘within the law.’ He places himself outside the law and examines it. Law becomes an object of speculation and interpretation.” (19)

It is but a short step from the systematic analysis of natural law to its replacement by positive law. “It does not take long for this view to reach the jurist, who in turn tries to organize law in a rational way.” Soon law becomes becomes a creation of the state.

“[A] juridical technique is worked out which is increasingly precise, increasingly rational, and increasingly removed from spontaneity. At this point the code hardens. It becomes a consecrated abstraction, always trailing behind social and political evolution, always in need of being brought up to date by arbitrary innovations, more or less adapted to the conditions of society. Law becomes the affair of jurists, receiving authority and sanction from the state.” (19)

No longer is law viewed primarily as the expression of an organic public consensus concerning justice, but it is viewed as an alien imposition on the part of those who have power. No longer are laws enacted as general rules of justice to be applied and enforced with prudence and equity, but law is seen as a mass of particular rules and regulations designed to foresee every possible circumstance and eventuality. Law becomes ruthlessly logical and systematic, yet blind to justice itself. “It is adequate for all material interests, yet inadequate for justice.” (32)

Here we are faced with the specter of tyranny, no matter what our system of government, as law becomes simply a means by which the powerful exploit the weak. After all,

“juridical technique is at the disposal of whoever wishes to take advantage of it… it may be utilized by any kind of power in history. When this happens, a definite purpose is ascribed to this intrinsically neutral technique. The technique is manipulated according to new and arbitrary criteria, substituted for the ideas of justice and natural law.”(32)

Having been a leader in the French resistance, Ellul identifies Nazism and Communism as the phenomena that he has in mind. In both cases the natural law of justice was abandoned and law was manipulated as a flexible tool for a new and greater purpose (i.e., ideology). The inevitable byproduct of this development is the collapse of the rule of law itself. The state is raised above the law and those under its rule know it. Why should they voluntarily submit to rules that have no grounding in right or justice? The power of the law now simply consists in fear and coercion, and people will disobey it when they get the chance and when it suits their interests.

Ellul describes these developments as history. Natural law, he thinks, has been lost, and no amount of theorizing or theologizing can recover it. The only hope for humanity is a revival of civilization on the part of God himself. I get the sense this sentiment would resonate with many American Christians today. Why even bother reasoning about politics or the law? Things are too far gone for that.

I think Ellul’s analysis of natural law and its history has much to be said for it, but I think he wrongly reduces history to an inevitable evolutionary process over which humans have little control. I also think that he – and many contemporary Christians – are too quick to dismiss the moral sensibilities of a world that remains under the common grace of God. Ellul wrote in the shadow of a shattered Europe, with millions of the dead able to testify to what law had become in the hands of dictators and soldiers, guerrillas and criminals. But even in the late 1940s and 1950s Americans were much more optimistic (witness the baby boom) because they realized that the European experience was not the whole story.

Indeed, it was out of the ashes of World War II that a system of international law and human rights emerged that can only, only be explained as an example of natural law at work. It is true that this system is codified and enforced to varying degrees around the world. It is also true that while it approximates certain Christian moral sentiments better than did the laws of traditional societies, it largely ignores others. But this is nothing new under the sun. Anyone who tells you there was a golden age of morality and law hasn’t read much history.

Ellul rightly characterized the dangers facing a society that has lost its allegiance to justice (i.e., to natural law), but if the West has received another lease on life, Christians would do well to engage in the hard work of strengthening and rebuilding moral consensus rather than seeking to overcome it with the use of brute force (all the while complaining about its demise). Jesus is still Lord, the sun continues to shine, and rain continues to fall on the just and the unjust alike. That suggests there is still something to be said for the world after all.

The Limits of Law: Cathleen Kaveny on Law’s Virtues

In past posts on this blog I’ve presented Calvin’s argument that the government cannot simply punish all forms of immorality. The civil law cannot directly correspond to the moral law. The government’s toleration of a particular action does not imply its approval of that action. The classic example for this argument, which Calvin discusses in multiple places, is Jesus’ interpretation of the Jewish Torah’s law of divorce. The Torah permits divorce but as Jesus points out, “In the beginning it was not so.” Although divorce is unjust, the Law permitted it due to the hardness of men’s hearts, and regulated it to ensure that men treated their wives with at least a modicum of justice.

In her recent book Law’s Virtues, Cathleen Kaveny, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, tries to work out the implications of this principle as it is articulated by Thomas Aquinas. She argues that it is not sufficient to say that a good law must promote virtue in the persons whom it is seeking to regulate. We must also recognize that law itself must conform to certain virtues, or principles. She presents this point through a statement of Isidore of Seville, as quoted by Thomas Aquinas:

Law shall be virtuous, just, possible to nature, according to the custom of the country, suitable to place and time, necessary, useful; clearly expressed, lest by its obscurity it lead to misunderstanding; framed for no private benefit, but for the common good.

Kaveny emphasizes in particular the principles, which she thinks cultural warriors on both ends of the political spectrum often ignore, “possible to nature” and “according to the custom of the country.” Of course, she doesn’t think custom is the sole standard for civil law. As Thomas Aquinas argued quite clearly, civil law must be at least consistent with natural law or it becomes simply a perversion of law, even no law at all. Nevertheless, Kaveny thinks we need to take the customs and potentialities of a society much more seriously than we do.

She explains the limits of law in terms of four principles. First, enacting and enforcing laws costs money. Governments must always take into account whether the financial cost of a particular law outweighs its benefits to society.

Second, a law is unjust if its enforcement requires unjust action on the part of the government. As Aquinas says, government cannot prohibit and punish all evil, because to do so would require it to trample upon much that is good. In Kaveny’s words, “In some instances, the concrete steps a state would need to take to enforce a particular law are themselves morally repugnant.”

Third, we must remember that civil law has to be designed for ordinary persons (sinners), not for saints. It needs to be realistic or the impossibility of obeying it will lead to the collapse of the credibility of law itself.

Finally, Kaveny points out, we need to remember that criminal law is only “a small sliver of the legal framework necessary to promote the common good.” There are many more ways in which a state can express approval or disapproval of a particular action, in which it can encourage or discourage a certain practice, than through criminal law. And again, to stress the fundamental principle, permission does not imply sanction.

It’s a helpful argument, and overall, I really like Kaveny’s approach. But of course, the question arises, what about fundamental human rights, like the right to life? Can a government ever permit the unjust taking of innocent life based on the principles of law Kaveny articulates? Kaveny does an excellent job demonstrating that there are indeed circumstances in which a government has to tolerate certain immoral practices, including unjust killing, simply because it is impossible for the government to enforce a prohibition of those practices. Her main example here comes from the Wild West, in which no civil authority had a sufficient monopoly over the use of force to prevent settlers from having the right to protect themselves and their property, despite the violent abuses to which that right led.

I think Kaveny is correct on the basis of the above cited principles that sometimes it is wise and even virtuous for government to leave certain actions, including sometimes killing, unpunished, and that this does not implicate the government in sanctioning such murder. At the same time, I worry that Kaveny places too much emphasis on the authority of custom.

Kaveny writes,

In the end, however, custom has the last word. ‘Custom has the force of a law, abolishes law, and is the interpreter of the law.’ Aquinas recognizes that even if the purpose of a law is sound, it cannot prevail if it ‘is not possible according to the custom of the country…. For it is not easy to set aside the custom of a whole people.’

It appears that Kaveny is talking about more here than simply the physical impossibility of a government enforcing the right to life, or even than the fact that in some cases a government would have to be unjustly invasive into people’s lives to enforce its prohibition of murder. She is talking about what is deemed acceptable according to the relative customs of a people. Does this include racially oppressive custom, the custom of economic exploitation, or permissive custom relative to sexuality and privacy? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding Kaveny here (I haven’t yet read the whole book). I hope so. But I’m not satisfied with her argument that criminal law should not always seek to secure fundamental rights.

Perhaps I’ve simply been too immersed in the lecture I gave yesterday on the German Protestant Church’s response to the Holocaust. But I’m inclined to think that when we are talking about rights as fundamental as the right to life, only the principles of possibility and justice should constrain a government in its responsibility to protect the weak. A government that tolerates the custom of a society when it permits the murder of those human beings it refuses to recognize as persons (whether on the basis of race, health, age, slave status, or birth) has forgotten that its fundamental obligation is not to the people but to God, from whom the right to life is derived.

That Lutheran Two Kingdoms Doctrine and its Church-State Establishment

As I’ve said before on this blog, one of the oddities of contemporary discussions about the two kingdoms doctrine is the assumption that it entails the radical separation of church and state, with the latter rendered autonomous before God’s law. Even more odd is the sometimes stated claim that this radical two kingdoms doctrine is characteristic of Lutheranism and a supposed Lutheran political passivity (in contrast to an allegedly culturally transformative Calvinism).

In part this confusion goes back to early 20th Century works by prominent theologians like Ernst Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr, whose caricatures of Lutheran and Calvinist social teachings have been authoritatively rehashed in a myriad of scholarly and popular works. In part it stems from confusion about why so many Lutherans supported Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany. Calvinists like to ignore their own record of theologically justified complicity with racism and oppression in places like South Africa and the United States. They also seem oblivious to early Lutheran teachings about justified resistance to tyrants, teachings that helped spark the first great religious war after the Reformation and that by no means rendered Lutheranism politically passive during those early centuries.

In his Law and Protestantism John Witte describes at length how Lutheran jurists and theologians built on the two kingdoms theology of Martin Luther to lay the foundations for the Christian state. According to these Lutheran scholars, magistrates were to ensure material provision for the church, overseeing its care for the poor, education, teaching, discipline and ministry. Princes were to govern as Christian princes, and where they went against God’s law they were not to expect the cooperation or obedience of Christians. They were to govern society according to the Ten Commandments and the guidance of Scripture, under the careful influence of the clergy.

“For the Ten Commandments,” as Witte puts it, “were best interpreted by the Church and its theologians, not by the state and the Obrigkeit. The magistrate was thus obligated to draw on theologians and clergy in order to understand the moral and religious dimensions of the law.” As he summarizes his conclusions, “the jurists emphasized the need to establish an overtly Evangelical order of law, society, and politics in the earthly kingdom.”

Of course, many contemporary two kingdoms advocates, like their neo-Calvinist or neo-Anabaptist cousins, reject old assumptions about the obligation of civil governments to enforce true religion by punishing idolatry, false teaching, and blasphemy. As a result, they reformulate old doctrines, seeking to draw upon the wisdom of the past while avoiding its mistakes. Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen are no more interested in slavishly aping the reformers than were Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck (or is Stanley Hauerwas in imitating Menno Simons).

Some have taken to describing contemporary Reformed two kingdoms advocates according to the epithet “Radical Two Kingdoms (R2K).” Perhaps a better (and more respectful) descriptive term for such efforts would be “neo-two kingdoms.” Of course, the prefix ‘neo’ should by no means be seen as denigrating. All of us are trying to work out the implications of the Christian faith for our public life and witness, drawing on the theological insights of men who held very different assumptions and lived in very different times. We should be careful not to reduce the giants on whose shoulders we stand to mere proxies for our own cultural, political, and theological debates. We need to learn from them, not simply to use them; to build on their work in faithfulness to the demands of our own times, not nostalgically to yearn for some “golden age” of the past.

A Reformation21 Essay on the Two Kingdoms

Reformation 21 has posted an essay by me introducing readers to the two kingdoms doctrine. It is the first of a series of three, the second of which will discuss John Calvin’s version of the doctrine, and the third of which will consider the doctrine in light of Scripture. Here are the first few paragraphs:

When Jesus came to Jerusalem for the last time before his crucifixion, his arrival was marked by a triumphant entry into the city and the crowds proclaiming Jesus as the messianic king (cf. Luke 19:28-40; Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11). When the Pharisees failed to persuade the crowds from proclaiming such things, they changed strategies and tried to force Jesus to say something that would place him and his kingdom in conflict with the authority of Rome. In a series of three public interrogations the religious leaders of the Jews asked Jesus about his authority, the relation of his kingdom to civil government, and the relation of his kingdom to the family.

The result was fascinating. While Jesus refused to answer the Jews’ question about his authority, realizing that they knew well where his authority came from, he demonstrated that his kingdom is not in inherent conflict with the institutions of this world – whether government or the family – because it is of another age. To be sure, all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus (Matt 28:18), and one day these earthly institutions will pass away (1 Cor 7). But in the meantime, the order of this world continues. Therefore, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25). What’s more, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Luke 20:35). Christ is king but the order of creation, fallen as it may be, continues.

It is this distinction between the two ages, and between the institutions of one age and the kingdom of the age to come, that forms the foundation of the classic doctrine of the two kingdoms, as articulated by Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Read the rest here.

The Wishful Thinking of the Neo-Anabaptists: could government avoid using the sword?

In my doctoral program at Emory University I have come into contact with many graduate students who consider themselves pacifists. Some of these individuals consider themselves liberals, but many more self-identify as Evangelicals. The most prominent Christian ethicist in the academy today is a sharp critic of liberalism as well as of the Christian Right, and although he is no ordinary Evangelical he is highly influential among Evangelical students and scholars. He also happens to be a strong defender of the Anabaptist tradition of nonviolence, which he learned from the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, and he is the leading representative of the school of thought many have taken to calling Neo-Anabaptism.

Why is it Neo-Anabaptism? Over at the blog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) Mark Tooley explains,

A consistent pacifism, aligned with Anabaptist tradition, would disavow all interest in government, as Mennonites and their brethren in past times typically did.   They refused to serve in the military, or in any form of government.  They usually did not dispute that government was God ordained.  Nor did they criticize others’ involvement in it.  They largely lived as separatists, accepting the government without trying to influences its policies.

Modern day neo-Anabaptists are less consistent.  They adamantly reject, for themselves and for everybody else, all “violence” and force, disputing the civil authorities’ vocation especially for military action.  Often they are vaguer about domestic police.

Tooley goes on to point out some of the absurdity of the Neo-Anabaptist position, noting how odd it is for someone who opposes coercion to support the government’s coercive suppression of the right to bear arms.

In my experience in the academy Tooley’s critique here is spot-on. Virtually all of my pacifist friends insist that while war is wrong, and even the violent suppression of criminals is wrong, the basic functions and work of government do not depend on these immoral practices. Both Yoder and Hauerwas, in various places, suggest that it is a myth that civil government depends at all on violent coercion, or on the use of the sword. They use this basic claim to defend various forms of involvement of Christians in civil government. Yet as Tooley writes,

All government is premised on force.  Every government everywhere, at all times, if it has any power, will dispatch armed individuals to apprehend any persons who violate its laws and, ultimately, detain them in places surrounded by armed individuals empowered by lethal force.

In that sense the basic flaw of Neo-Anabaptism is its wishful thinking. The early Anabaptists may have condemned the involvement of Christians in violence, but while they recognized that civil government is outside of the perfection of Christ, virtually all of them insisted that it was nevertheless legitimate, ordained by God, and had the right to use force. They never suggested that the basic functions of government could proceed without such coercive force. And as a result, they usually abstained entirely from involvement in the work of civil government.

In fact, early Anabaptism relied heavily on its insistence that all of life should be interpreted through the lens of the conflict between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan. There was no room for compromise in this conflict, and therefore while Christians could recognize God-ordained purposes for the state, they could not participate in its methods.

Although it is often forgotten in contemporary debates, Calvin articulated the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine in part to demonstrate the problem with Anabaptist views of the state. While he agreed with the Anabaptists that churches should discipline Christians to ensure that they live consistent with God’s moral law, and while he agreed that the kingdom of God becomes increasingly manifest in the life of the church even in this age, he utterly rejected the idea that the kingdom could be realized to the point that civil government would not be both necessary and good. Because he recognized that Christians still live in the present age, and that God still orders the present age morally, he argued that Christians function in two kingdoms, the spiritual kingdom and the political kingdom. In their vocations in the latter, including political and civil vocations, they might sometimes do things that will never take place in the kingdom of God – such as take up the sword.

One of the reasons why many of my own professors at Emory are interested in my project on the two kingdoms doctrine is because they recognize that the two principal trajectories dominant in academic Christian ethics – the first being that of the social gospel and liberation theology, the second being that of Neo-Anabaptism – fail to take seriously the character of Christian life as lived between two ages. Both the liberals and the Neo-Anabaptists abandon realism at key points in order to stress the immanence of the kingdom of God. There is a desperate need for a new ethical paradigm, and the resources in the Reformed tradition for this new paradigm, particularly in its two kingdoms doctrine, are impressive.

Critics of the two kingdoms need to take seriously the major alternatives out there. For years Christian ethics has been dominated by the social gospel and liberation theology. Now it is becoming dominated by Neo-Anabaptism. Is returning to the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine really such a bad way to help us avoid these two options?

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.

Calvin on the Church as Christ’s spiritual kingdom: getting the two kingdoms doctrine right

One of the misconceptions about Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine I occasionally encounter is the idea that Calvin viewed the government of the church (and indeed, the whole visible church) as part of the political kingdom rather than as part of Christ’s spiritual kingdom. This is a somewhat surprising reading of Calvin that suggests a conflation of his views with those of Martin Luther rather than a close reading of the Institutes or of Calvin’s commentaries (although, of course, Luther also worked out his two kingdoms doctrine in terms of two governments). Part of the confusion is the result of the fact that people fail to realize that for Calvin the kingdom of Christ proclaimed in the gospels is a spiritual kingdom. I showed how Calvin defines that kingdom in a previous post. For now it is crucial to note that in Calvin’s two kingdoms distinction the “spiritual kingdom” is the kingdom of Christ proper, while the “political kingdom” is a product of God’s providential rule. The latter, as I noted, can submit to and promote the kingdom of Christ, but it does not become that kingdom. That’s why Calvin consistently identifies his kingdom with the church or with the ministry of the gospel.

Calvin introduces the two kingdoms distinction with the following words:

let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life – not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. (3.19.15)

Now it is quite evident that when Calvin refers to the spiritual kingdom he does not mean that this government is unmediated by human beings. Rather, what he means is that this government has power to shape the “inner mind,” thus affecting the welfare of the soul for eternity. This is clearly the contrast that he has in view when he writes, “For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior.” The comparison is not between unmediated authority and mediated authority; it is between government that can touch the soul, and government that can only touch the body. It is a distinction between government by the Word and Spirit, and government by the sword.

It is also crucial to note that when Calvin distinguishes what pertains to piety and the soul from what pertains to the body and life in this world he is not making the two kingdoms distinction a separation of two realms, as some theories might suggest. Rather, contrasting the heavenly with the earthly, the soul with the body, and the spiritual with the temporal is Calvin’s ordinary way of distinguishing between the two ages. The earthly, the bodily, and the temporal pertain to the “present age” while the heavenly, the soul, and the spiritual pertain to the age to come (i.e., the kingdom of Christ). The very reason for the two kingdoms doctrine is that the kingdom of the age to come breaks into the present age through Christ’s spiritual government. It’s institutional expression is in the ministry and offices of the church.

In fact, Calvin tells us explicitly that when he distinguishes between the two kingdoms he is not breaking with the medieval tradition of distinguishing between the two kinds of institutional jurisdiction. As he notes, the twofold governments “are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction.” As the editors of the McNeill edition point out, Calvin is invoking the language of the thirteenth century debates over papal claims to the fullness of power in both temporal and spiritual affairs. Calvin notes that he likes this classic way of making the distinction because it indicates that political government pertains only to “the present life,” while the latter pertains to the eternal soul. To be sure, Calvin intends to reform the classic understanding by clarifying the nature of spiritual government as that which operates by the power of the Word and Spirit alone. He utterly rejects the claim that the church possesses temporal power. But this does not mean he thinks civil government possesses spiritual power. Emphasizing the distinction between the two will form the heart of Calvin’s critique of the Catholic view of ecclesiastical government throughout Book IV, and it was a basic theme of his ministry in his struggle with the city government of Geneva to establish an autonomous church government with independent spiritual offices.

Finally, it is crucial to see that Calvin insists from the start that the two kingdoms or governments must be considered separately. “Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other.” (3.19.15) This leads us to expect that in the coming pages we will find a discussion of church government separate from that of civil government. And in fact, that is precisely what Calvin tells us he is doing in Book IV, and that is precisely what we find there.

In three places Calvin tells us what he is doing in Book IV, and it is consistent with his declaration that the two kingdoms must be examined separately. First, at the end of his introduction of the two kingdoms doctrine in 3.19.15 he informs us that he will speak of civil government in “another place.” Then he adds that he will “also … forebear” to speak of “church laws” until Book IV, where he will discuss the “power of the church.” Clearly Calvin is distinguishing between the government of the church and civil government, both of which he will discuss in Book IV.

Second, in 4.1.1, as the editors of the McNeill edition point out, Calvin outlines Book IV: “Accordingly, our plan of instruction now requires us to discuss the church, its government, orders, and power; then the sacraments; and lastly, the civil order.” So here again, we are told to expect the discussion of the church, its offices, its discipline, and the sacraments separately from civil government, or the civil order. And this seems to line up nicely with the two kingdoms distinction.

Finally, in case we are still not clear on what he is doing, in 4.20.1, at the beginning of his discussion of civil government, Calvin sums up what he has done up to this point and what he is about to do, explicitly invoking his earlier two kingdoms discussion. He writes, “Now, since we have established above that man is under a twofold government, and since we have elsewhere discussed at sufficient length the kind that resides in the soul or the inner man and pertains to eternal life, this is the place to say something also about the other kind, which pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality.” In other words, Calvin views all of the precedeing discussion about church government, its offices, its discipline, and its worship as the government “that resides in the soul or the inner man and pertains to eternal life.” In contrast, he is beginning his discussion of the other kingdom, which pertains to civil justice and outward morality, only in “this … place” in Chapter 20. The entire outline of Book IV, in short, is built on the two kingdoms distinction.

It is quite clear that Calvin viewed the ministry of the church and the civil government as the institutional expressions of the twofold government in human beings. Indeed, over and over one finds Calvin identifying the kingdom of Christ with the church, or with the preaching of the gospel. In the next post on Calvin I’ll look a little more closely on how Calvin works out his two kingdoms doctrine in terms of the specific ministry and government of the church.

Why it’s so important to affirm two kingdoms: Calvin on the Lord’s Prayer

In the debates over the two kingdoms doctrine people often focus on the nitty-gritty questions of application. Should the church preach against abortion? Should Christians send their children to public schools? Should the government promote Christianity? Of course, there are obvious reasons why people like to discuss what is practical. But another reason why the conversations often devolve into this kind of tug-of-war is because people think of the two kingdoms doctrine as being about two different airtight realms, as if one set of institutions and activities can be placed in one realm, and another set of institutions and activities can be placed in the other, with the two being mutually exclusive.

The problem is, this is not what the two kingdoms doctrine has classically been about, and it is doubtful whether this kind of separation can be done in the way that some people seem to want to do it. Rather than understanding the two kingdoms doctrine in terms of two separate realms within this world, it would be more biblical and more faithful to the reformers to understand the two kingdoms based on the distinction between the present age and the age to come, between the created (and cursed) world and the kingdom of God. The two kingdoms doctrine is needed because the kingdom of God breaks into this age, without immediately destroying or transforming this age. There is an eschatological tension that somehow needs to be sorted out.

Calvin explains this dynamic very clearly in his explanation of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, Thy Kingdom Come, in his Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists (Matthew 6:10). He writes,

We must first attend to the definition of the kingdom of God. He is said to reign among men, when they voluntarily devote and submit themselves to be governed by him, placing their flesh under the yoke, and renouncing their desires. Such is the corruption of the nature, that all our affections are so many soldiers of Satan, who oppose the justice of God, and consequently obstruct or disturb his reign. By this prayer we ask, that he may remove all hindrances, and may bring all men under his dominion, and may lead them to meditate on the heavenly life.

This is an incredible passage. Calvin is clearly defining the kingdom of God as God’s redemptive reign evidenced by the voluntary submission of human beings. In other words, the kingdom of God cannot be conflated with God’s providential sovereignty over all things, or even with the judgment that he exercises through civil government, which operates by the sword. How then does the kingdom appear to us visibly?

This is done partly by the preaching of the word, and partly by the secret power of the Spirit. It is his will to govern men by his word: but as the bare voice, if the inward power of the Spirit be not added, does not pierce the hearts of men, both must be joined together, in order that the kingdom of God may be established. We therefore pray that God would exert his power, both by the Word and by the Spirit, that the whole world may willingly submit to him… The substance of this prayer is, that God would enlighten the world by the light of his Word – would form the hearts of men, by the influences of his Spirit, to obey his justice – and would restore to order, by the gracious exercise of his power, all the disorder that exists in the world.

Again, Calvin is eminently clear here. The kingdom of God appears through the transformation of human beings by the power of the Word and Spirit, and it is inherently non-coercive. But note that this kingdom is not limited in its power to the proclamation of the Word. Rather, it is expressed through the way in which believers obey God’s justice, and in that sense it is reflected wherever order is restored in the world as a result of voluntary submission to God.

The problem, as Calvin notes, is that the world is still full of disorder and iniquity. And “to whatever extent iniquity abounds in the world, to such an extent the kingdom of God, which brings along with it perfect righteousness, is not yet come.” Calvin therefore explains that there is another way in which God reigns that must be distinguished from the kingdom of God:

There is still another way in which God reigns; and that is, when he overthrows his enemies, and compels them, with Satan their head, to yield a reluctant subjection to his authority, ’till they all be made his footstool.”

In other words, in this present evil age God restrains the wicked through coercion. He does this providentially but he also does it by means of civil government. Yet this part of God’s reign is in its very essence coercive and restraining. It does not build up the kingdom of God.

From this it is clear that while the two kingdoms doctrine is fundamentally about eschatology, it must be expressed institutionally. The state expresses God’s providential reign because it depends on the use of the sword. The church, on the other hand, administers the kingdom of God because it is the steward of the Word by which the Spirit operates. And contrary to certain people, the Word and Spirit is at work in the spiritual government of the church not only in the preaching of the Gospel, but also in the exercise of the keys of the kingdom through church discipline (by pastors and elders), in the church’s declaration of doctrine, in the church’s worship of God, and even in the work of the deacons. That is why Calvin repeatedly identifies the kingdom of God with the church.

Although Calvin thought the state also has something to say about religion, he is clear that it does so only in the same restraining and coercive sense that God reigns apart from the kingdom of God. Even where the state can be said to build up the kingdom it only does so by providing outside support, that is, by promoting the work of ministers, who are the ones that truly build Christ’s kingdom.

From all this it is clear that the two kingdoms doctrine is better understood as a doctrine of two ages and two governments, rather than of two realms. For as the power of the kingdom extends in this present evil age, believers are to walk “in Christ” (that is, in the power of the kingdom of the age to come) in everything that they do. On the other hand, the world in which they do this still very much remains the present evil age, governed by God’s providential rule and by coercive government. So while Christians may be living according to the laws and customs of this world, they are to do so in a way that is compatible with their allegiance to the kingdom of God. This is why it can be so difficult to iron out how Christians should act when engaging the various tasks and activities of this age. We are called to mix the age to come with the present evil age in everything we do, and that is no easy matter. This is, after all, the age of suffering service.

The classic example of this is Paul’s instruction to slaves and masters. In the kingdom of God there will be neither slave nor free. Yet Paul does not demand that Christians entirely separate themselves from the institution of slavery (which would have been impossible in that day). Instead, he calls masters and slaves to treat one another lovingly “in Christ.” Of course, this undercuts the very sinful rationale that undergirds the institution of slavery, and if Christians faithfully follow their Lord the resulting institution simply will not be slavery as the world understands it (this explains why the Southern Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church was misapplied. The Southern Presbyterians were right to argue that slavery is not inherently sinful, but they underestimated the degree to which the Gospel transforms the institution, and they utterly failed to discipline their members consistent with that Gospel).

The same could be said about marriage, although unlike slavery marriage is a divinely created institution. Jesus says there will be no marriage in the kingdom of God, and Paul indicates that in Christ there is no male nor female. Nevertheless, Christians still remain in this world, and so they cannot pretend that gender, sexuality, procreation, and care for children do not exist. Indeed, Christians are still bound by God’s natural law in all of these elements of the created order. Even here, however, Christians are to act in such a way as to communicate that these relationships and callings are not ultimate. Husbands and wives love one another after the model of the relationship between Christ and the church, and children obey their parents “in the Lord.”

For all the debate and argument over the two kingdoms doctrine, I suspect that Christians actually agree about virtually all of this. What we usually argue about is the application. But it would at least be helpful if we understood where we agree and where we disagree. There is enough to argue about without having to invent disagreements where they do not exist.

Sloppy scholarly claims about Calvin force me to beat a dead horse

As I’ve been discussing the nature of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine over the past few days I keep coming across claims that Calvin did not interpret or apply the two kingdoms doctrine in institutional terms. I am not coming across these claims in scholarly works on Calvin. No, the claims are coming from non-scholarly articles or from reviews by scholars who have not published any significant work on Calvin’s political theology. Today someone pointed me to another review, this one by Henreckson in the Journal of Church and State, in which Henrickson claims that “For the early Reformed, the distinction between spiritual and civil realms was not primarily institutional, as it is for VanDrunen …”

I am sorry if you are tired of all this, but the obviously someone needs to continue to point out the obvious. I would rather talk about what we should do with the two kingdoms doctrine, or how we should apply it, but so be it. To be sure, Henreckson is correct about many in the Reformed tradition, including Zwingli, Bullinger, Hooker, etc. But it is not true about Calvin.

This morning I quoted Avis and Wendel. Here are two more scholars.

John Witte, in his Reformation of Rights (Cambridge University Press, 2007), states:

In a few passages in this early period, Calvin seemed to equate the heavenly kingdom with the church and the earthly kingdom with the state. He stated flatly, for example, that ‘the church is Christ’s kingdom’ and that the earthly kingdom is ‘the political order of laws and lawgivers.’ But such passages must be read in context. Calvin’s early two kingdoms theory was not simply a political theory of institutions, but a theological framework designed to distinguish the realms not only of church and state, but also of soul and body, spirit and flesh, inner life and outer life, conscience and reason, redemption and creation. (44)

Note, Witte agrees that there were other dimensions to Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine. But it was also institutional. And the institutional aspect of his doctrine became more pronounced as time went on.

As his thinking matured, and he took up his pastoral and political advisory duties in Geneva, Calvin began to think in more integrated and more institutional terms. He blurred the lines between the earthly kingdom and heavenly kingdom, between spiritual and political life, law and liberty. He also focused more closely and concretely on the institutional responsibilities and relationships of church and state. (56)

Harro Hopfl, in his classic The Christian Polity of John Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1982), writes extensively of Calvin’s understanding of the relation between church and state, and he shows how the two kingdoms doctrine is explicitly about this institutional relationship. As he states in one place:

Our account of Calvin’s conception of a Christian commonwealth must begin where he did in any matter of politia, at the top. The apex is the two-fold regime of magistrates and ministers. The ‘form’ of the latter, both as ecclesiology and as the ecclesiastical constitution of Geneva, has already be described … By contrast, the ideal form envisaged for the other head of the two-headed regime was nowhere clearly laid down. (152-153)

As his reference suggests, Hopfl has described the ecclesiastical regiment (or kingdom) earlier in his book. He argues like Witte that initially Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine was less institutionally developed, but that as Calvin developed his ecclesiology it became more pronounced. This inevitably created conflict with the civil magistrates, which marked Calvin’s entire ministry in Geneva. As Hopfl writes,

For the City of God and the civitas terena are inevitably in tension, but nowhere more so than when the former is understood as the visible church represented by a spiritual regime, organized in every detail for authoritativeness and autonomy, confronting a secular regime which on Calvin’s account owes neither being, form nor legitimacy to the church. (122)

To be sure, Calvin thought the magistrate should enforce both tables of the law, and thus should enforce the true religion and protect the church, just like the kings of Old Testament Israel. He did not advocate the separation of church and state in the modern sense. VanDrunen admits that, as did I in my original essay. But to say that Calvin did not understand the two kingdoms doctrine institutionally is a claim I have not seen any major Calvin scholar make. We can argue over how Calvin understood the relationship between the two governments, and we can argue over whether he was right or wrong, or how we should apply it today. But one thing is clear. Calvin understood the two kingdoms doctrine institutionally, and that understanding played a major role in his political theology and ecclesiology. Indeed, that institutional distinction decisively shaped the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition moving forward, and it played a major role in the gradual (if bumpy, chaotic, and sometimes counter-productive) ride of the West towards the separation of church and state, a ride that proceeded because of or despite Bucer, Beza, Cartwright, Rutherford, Williams, Milton, Locke and numerous others.

The reason why Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine is so helpful is not because we want to slavishly imitate him. It’s because he articulated the theological basis for the distinction between Christ’s spiritual kingdom and the political kingdom in a way that is bursting with wisdom and insight. In a time of increasing pluralism, as we wrestle with the relationship between the church and the state, it is immensely valuable to study why Calvin distinguished between the two kingdoms, and on what theological basis. To fail to do so is to abandon our own tradition.

Did Calvin think the visible church is part of the political kingdom?

A few days ago Brad Littlejohn wrote a critique of my article on the two kingdoms doctrine and the Reformed tradition. In his article Littlejohn made the provocative claim that for Calvin the visible church is part of the political kingdom, not the spiritual kingdom. He did not really defend this claim but he did cite an article by Steven Wedgeworth from the Credenda Agenda which actually argued that for Calvin the spiritual kingdom is the invisible church, in which Christ’s authority is unmediated. In this view, the visible church must be part of the political kingdom because it is built on the authority of Christ mediated through pastors and other officers.

I have written a full defense of my interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine that is forthcoming, but after writing it I came across two quotes in Calvin’s commentary on Hebrews that show just how wrong Littlejohn and Wedgeworth are. Commenting on Hebrews 4:12 Calvin notes that the preaching of the Gospel by men has the power of binding and loosing for eternity. He insists that this power is not just bound to the “internal word” as opposed to the mediated word:

For delirious and even dangerous are these notions, that though the internal word is efficacious, yet that which proceeds from the mouth of man is lifeless and destitute of all power. I indeed admit that the power does not proceed from the tongue of man, nor exists in mere sound, but that the whole power is to be ascribed altogether to the Holy Spirit; there is, however, nothing in this to hinder the Spirit from putting forth his power in the word preached.

So Calvin is quite clear that the Spirit’s power operates through the visible (and audible) preaching of the Word. Elsewhere he is clear that the Spirit does not ordinarily work apart from this means.

Then, commenting on Hebrews 12:10, Calvin argues that although magistrates are to defend the true religion, they can only do so in a temporal way.What is Calvin’s basis for this claim? The two kingdoms doctrine:

for though it belongs to magistrates to defend religion, yet we say that their office is confined to the limits of this life, for otherwise the civil and earthly government cannot be distinguished from the spiritual kingdom of Christ.

On Littlejohn’s interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine this statement makes no sense. For Calvin is absolutely clear that the office of ministers does extend to the future life. That’s the whole point of Christ’s teaching about the keys of the kingdom. But here Calvin is clear that the power of the civil and earthly government cannot extend to the next life, otherwise it would be part of the spiritual kingdom. In other words, the government of the ministers of the Word is necessarily part of the spiritual kingdom, because it extends to the next life. This is true both of preaching and of church discipline, which is based on the power of the Word.

Consider this a teaser for my fuller article. This is just one of a myriad of places in which Calvin argues the same thing. It’s what Book IV of the Institutes is all about.

[Note: This post has been updated to correct an error regarding who wrote the original article in Credenda Agenda.]

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