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The Two Kingdoms Doctrine at Calvin Seminary: John Bolt

Amid all the discussions and debates over the two kingdoms doctrine in conservative Reformed circles – which tends to revolve around questions of how the Bible should be used in political and cultural engagement – people easily forget that one of the main reasons why Calvin articulated the doctrine in the first place was to demonstrate that the future “heavenly” kingdom of God should not be conflated with the earthly or political order of the created world. As we might put it in modern theological terms, Calvin rejected what he perceived as the Anabaptist tendency of having an “over-realized eschatology.”

Contemporary critics of the two kingdoms doctrine object that Calvin repeatedly described the effect of the gospel in terms of restoring creation to its natural order. Yet as Brad Littlejohn helpfully points out in a recent article, they tend to forget the distinction between the transformation that looks forward to the eschatological kingdom of God (glorified creation, or what Calvin called the heavenly kingdom) and the restoration that in a limited way looks back toward the created order.

In a little noticed essay in John Calvin and Evangelical Theology Calvin Seminary’s John Bolt (sometimes oddly claimed as an opponent of the two kingdoms doctrine) makes a similar argument while demonstrating the importance of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine for his broader eschatology. He writes,

While not disputing that Calvin’s theology provides rich resources for a strong this-worldly, the-kingdom-is-already emphasis, I shall argue that the formulation of this emphasis in recent scholarship potentially misrepresents Calvin and also that in our context it is important to accent the equally strong two-kingdoms, other-worldly, not-yet dimension of Calvin’s eschatology. (243)

Bolt identifies the former tendency with the liberal cultural protestantism Americans associate with the social gospel, expressed more recently in the liberation theology of the Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann. And he is not entirely critical of this trajectory of thought. He agrees that Calvin’s eschatology affirms the close relation between redemption and creation. “Calvin does indeed think of the renewal that is the fruit of Christ’s work as cosmic, involving the whole creation. Salvation is the restoration of lost order, a restoration that had already taken place in Christ, ‘especially in his death and resurrection.'” He agrees with David Holwerda that “The history of salvation which becomes visible in the church contains within it the meaning of the history of the world. And the renewal manifesting itself in the body of Christ is the renewal that embraces the whole creation.” (251)

Even here, it is important to note, Bolt reminds us that for Calvin the kingdom is very closely identified with the church. It is in the church that the renewal of the creation is primarily manifest in this age. For all his emphasis on Calvin’s theology as a theology of hope, for instance, even T. F. Torrance clearly acknowledges Calvin’s view that the church is the institutional expression of the kingdom in the age preceding Christ’s return.

Yet Calvin stresses that the cultural and political work that Christians do does not establish the kingdom of Christ on earth. Rather, it witnesses to the kingdom that exists in Christ and that is manifest primarily in the church’s communion with Christ.

Calvin is an Augustinian on this score while Moltmann’s eschatology of hope is part of a tradition of challenge to Augustine. Instead of seeing the kingdom of God as a spiritual reality manifested primarily in the church, as Augustine did, Moltmann joins a long line of theologians of messianic eschatology or historicizing eschatology that was present in the early church, repudiated by Augustine, but revived by the twelfth-century Calabrian Abbot, Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135-1202).

In that sense the Anabaptists of Calvin’s day, who wanted all of life to conform to the egalitarian and pacifist structure of the coming kingdom of God, were guilty of the same over-realized eschatology as are contemporary liberals who want to transcend nature by eliminating the significance of gender (whether in terms of gender roles or in terms of traditional institutions like marriage, both of which the New Testament indicates will be transcended in the kingdom that is coming; cf. Luke 20 and Galatians 3). And this is what Bolt means to reject when he says that for Calvin “gospel categories are not to be applied to the arena of law, politics, and statecraft” (260).

To be sure, figures like Augustine and Calvin believed that faithful cultural and political engagement need to contribute to the restoration of the natural, created order (i.e., natural law). But they absolutely rejected the suggestion that such affairs should be transformed according to the character of the future kingdom that is inherently heavenly and spiritual. Restoration, in short, is to be distinguished from transformation. The former takes place even now; the latter awaits Christ’s return. For all their criticism of theologians like David VanDrunen for exaggerating the distinction between creation and redemption some neo-Calvinist theologians seem to miss the significance of precisely this point.

Bolt writes of the transformationalist model:

Calvin strongly opposes this tradition, believing it the greatest confusion to think of the kingdom of Christ in non-spiritual, earthly, forms…. It is patience and endurance in our pilgrim life of suffering that Calvin accents, not a history-grabbing, world-transforming revolutionary program for action. (258, 259)

When Calvin talks about the establishment of the kingdom in the earth, even when he has the role of the magistrates in that process in view, he is thinking of the establishment of the true church rather than the conformity of the social or political order to the future heavenly kingdom. That’s why it’s so important not to minimize the close correlation that Calvin made between the spiritual kingdom and the church, and the clear distinction he made between the things of this age (earthly things) and the things of the age to come (heavenly things). For while it is true that believers witness to the power of the kingdom and to the lordship of Christ in everything that they do, even in the political kingdom, the focal point of that kingdom is in the place where Christ rules by his word and Spirit, the communion of the saints that is the church.

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T. F. Torrance on Calvin’s understanding of the church as the new humanity

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T. F. Torrance offers the following excellent summary of Calvin’s eschatology. Note how the two kingdoms tension is implicit throughout – reaching in hope and joy to the new creation; living in the midst of history:

“[The] stress of Calvin upon the risen humanity of Christ has a double significance for eschatology. On the one hand, union with Christ means that we are already in the new creation, and are so joined to the new humanity that our whole life reaches upward and forward in eager hope and joy to the renewal of creation; but on the other hand, union with Christ and participation in His new humanity means that we must live out that humanity from day to day in the midst of history. ‘Thy kingdom come, and thy will be done on earth, as it is done in heaven.’

“The church that engages in that prayer must continually meditate upon Christ and on its new life in Him which waits to be revealed, sot hat here and now the new life may be known and lived out among men. Through the church, in Word and Sacrament, the new humanity in Christ is already operative among men, and it is only through the operation of that new humanity that this wild and inhuman world of ours can be saved from its own savagery and be called into the Kingdom of Christ in peace and love.”

– T. F. Torrance, “Foreward to the English Edition,”in Heinrich Quistorp, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Last Things

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