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My Lecture on the Two Kingdoms Doctrine in Scripture

My lecture on the two kingdoms doctrine in Scripture, which I gave at Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan on June 8 is up on Trinity’s SermonAudio page. Thanks for those involved for taking care of that.

For those of you interested in my biblical argument for the two kingdoms doctrine, this is the fullest presentation I have yet made (whether written or oral). I’m always grateful for feedback, whether here in the comments or via email.

The two kingdoms doctrine rises or falls with the biblical case for it. In the end, what Luther, Calvin, Kuyper, or others have said only matters so much.


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.

The Two Kingdoms and the Reformed Tradition

This article originally appeared in the February issue of Christian Renewal.

As I have exhorted in various Reformed and Presbyterian churches over the past few years, and as I have spoken with Reformed pastors, elders, and believers in various places, I have repeatedly been asked of my opinion of the two kingdoms doctrine. In many cases the question is stated with great concern, the two kingdoms doctrine being associated in the mind of the one asking my opinion of it with the denial of the legitimacy of Christian education or of the kingship and authority of Christ over all of life. What is clear is that I am not being asked about the classic Reformed two kingdoms doctrine of the 16th and 17th centuries, the doctrine that was used to defend the biblical autonomy of the church over against the erastian claims of the state, as well as the right of the church to establish its own Reformed church government according to Scripture, and to administer its own church discipline.

And yet I am usually unsure how to answer the question. Am I troubled about the claims often made on the basis of the two kingdoms doctrine today? Yes. Am I concerned about some of the controversies and mistrust it has sparked in our churches? Very much so. Do I think the two kingdoms doctrine should be abandoned? I do not understand how it could be abandoned without losing the very foundation that the Reformers laid for the biblical autonomy and integrity our Reformed churches have enjoyed for nearly five hundred years. Read the rest of this entry

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