Blog Archives

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.

James K. A. Smith’s Failure to Engage VanDrunen on the Two Kingdoms Doctrine

Based on voices emerging from some corners of the Reformed tradition, you would think the future of Calvinism is Lutheran. At just the moment that neo-Calvinism has begun to be absorbed by wider evangelicalism and has become the de facto paradigm for Christian higher education in North America, scholars such as D. G. Hart, Michael Horton, and David VanDrunen argue that neo-Calvinists are not really Calvinists. Curiously, the basis for this claim is the neo-Calvinist rejection of the Lutheran model of two kingdoms that they see in Calvin and ‘the earlier Reformed tradition.’

So writes James K. A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, in the first paragraph of an essay in the Calvin Theological Journal designed to show that VanDrunen’s Lutheran two kingdoms is incompatible with the theology of Augustine. In contrast to this Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, Smith favors neo-Calvinism, which affirms that Christ’s redemption of creation undoes the curse upon our sin and returns the world to its eschatological assignment of forming and transforming creation for Gdd’s glory. In other words, according to neo-Calvinism our cultural work actually brings about God’s kingdom.

At the heart of Smith’s critique of VanDrunen are two assumptions. First, Smith assumes that VanDrunen’s two kingdoms doctrine is fundamentally that of Luther. Second, Smith claims that Luther’s two kingdom doctrine (and therefore VanDrunen’s as well) is essentially a doctrine of two realms. Based on these assumptions, Smith argues that for two kingdoms theorists,

The gospel of grace is announced and enacted within the spiritual realm of the church, but in the temporal, civic realm of our cultural life – the work of building schools and families and libraries – we are governed by natural law. We meet Christ as Redeemer in the Word and sacraments, who births in us a longing for his coming kingdom; but, in the rest of our mundane lives, we deal with God the Creator, giver of natural law. While Sundays give us a taste of the spiritual kingdom of heaven, the rest of the week we inhabit the earthly kingdom of the present. While in the church, we feast on the Word of God’s revelation, in our cultural lives in this temporal world we live by the ‘universally accessible’ dictates of natural law.

Now before turning to Smith’s argument as he develops it two things need to be noted up front. First, VanDrunen has never presented his two kingdoms doctrine primarily as that of Luther. On the contrary, his work has focused on the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine which is grounded in the theology of John Calvin. While VanDrunen traces the two kingdoms doctrine back to Luther (as any responsible historian must), his discussion of Luther is in his chapter entitled “Precursors of the Reformed Tradition.” Smith does not engage Calvin’s version of the two kingdoms doctrine at all in this essay, nor does he engage VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine.

To be sure, Smith makes clear in a footnote that he does not think one has to be enslaved to Calvin’s thought in order to be a Calvinist. But if his basic charge against VanDrunen is that he is moving Calvinism in a Lutheran direction, you would think an essential part of defending that charge would be actually to discuss Calvin. Smith way be willing to yield Calvin to the two kingdoms advocates, but then let’s be clear who are the Calvinists and who are the neo-Calvinists. Let’s not try to portray the Calvinists as Lutherans.

The second important thing to note – and this is the most important thing – is that Smith entirely ignores VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, in which VanDrunen lays out his own interpretation of the two kingdoms doctrine. This is unfortunate, because the view Smith engages in his essay is not the view VanDrunen outlines in that book. Indeed, VanDrunen is very clear in that book that Christ’s lordship is over all of life, that Christians should always engage in cultural activities in conformity with Christ’s lordship, and that they do so in the context of a spiritual antithesis that runs right through the common kingdom.

VanDrunen’s account of the two kingdoms in that book is not so much an account of two realms as it is of two ages and two governments. The basic thesis of the book is that while Christians still live in this age and must therefore participate in cultural activities in common with unbelievers in accord with norms of creation, they do so as those whose allegiance is to the kingdom of the age to come. That kingdom breaks into this world in a way that touches every area of life, but that does not destroy or replace the order and institutions of creation, grounded in the creation mandate as interpreted through the lens of the Noahic Covenant. The basic distinction VanDrunen makes is not between two realms into which life can be neatly divided, but between an institution that communicates to us the powers of the age to come (the church) and institutions that we share in common with unbelievers (civil government, the family, etc.).

Now I want to state and clarify up front that I endorse virtually every word of Smith’s account of Augustine’s theology in his essay. Smith’s account of Augustine is excellent and it is a helpful contribution to the debate in an area that is Smith’s strength.

But does VanDrunen’s argument break with Augustine, as Smith claims? In his City of God Augustine described two cities, one of the elect who love God and attain to the age to come, the other of the reprobate who love themselves and the things of this age. Augustine did not identify those two cities with the church and the state, as VanDrunen points out in his book, but he did argue that the two cities live and work together in the common affairs of this age. Augustine believed that unbelievers always abuse the things of this world because of their own self-love, and thus he refused to grant them the right to consider their affairs as just in any ultimate sense of the term. Only believers, who use things in love for God because of their participation in the city of God, can claim the virtue of justice. And of course this matches up nicely with VanDrunen’s insistence that the common affairs of this age never transcend a penultimate form of justice. Believers lay claim to ultimate justice by their participation in the city of God through the church, and they can reflect that reality in every area of life, but they can never turn the world’s activities into anything resembling true justice.

But what does Smith say about VanDrunen and other two kingdom theorists?

two-kingdom theorists misread Augustine because they anachronistically impose on him the realm-speak of Luther’s two kingdoms. That is, they end up construing the two cities as two different spheres. On this reading, we either shuttle back and forth between the two realms, or we straddle them – with our souls in one and our bodies in the other. Conversely, using a slightly different metaphor, these two spheres are two different levels: the earthly, temporal level is the realm of politics and culture; the spiritual, eternal level is the realm of the church. As citizens of the city of God who inhabit the earthly city, we spend our weekdays, so to speak, on the lower level, and make visits to the upper level in worship. The temporal realm, VanDrunen would say, is only penultimate, not ultimate. (129)

Now while some of the things Smith says here are accurate, other claims he makes in this paragraph make it quite clear that he has not read VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. VanDrunen does not think we shuttle back and forth between two realms in any way shape or form. We constantly live in the common realm because it is the present age. Even what the church does, in that sense, takes place in the common realm, which is why the church worships in buildings, maintains gender roles, and baptizes the children of believers. Again, VanDrunen’s emphasis is on two ages, this age and the age to come. The church is the sole institutional manifestation of the age to come because it is through the church that we lay hold of Christ. But the lived manifestation of that age takes place in all of life, in a manner consistent with the created orders of this age.

There is a clue here as to why Smith misunderstands VanDrunen, and it may be a clue to the breakdown in communication between neo-Calvinists and two kingdoms advocates in general. As a Kuyperian, Smith thinks in terms of sphere sovereignty, and so he interprets VanDrunen’s two kingdoms in terms of two spheres. And indeed, if the two kingdoms doctrine is simply a doctrine of two spheres, then it makes sense to think of it as a doctrine of two realms, and it makes sense to say we should abandon it, because Kuyper has clarified the whole picture by pointing out that there are more than two spheres. But in fact, the two kingdoms doctrine is not about the division of life into spheres. It arose out of the Augustinian tradition Smith is claiming, not the Kuyperian tradition he is defending.

What Smith fails to take seriously is why a two kingdoms doctrine was necessary to clarify medieval abuses of Augustine’s two cities theology. The medieval Roman church claimed that since all things should be directed to the love and obedience of God, all power should be exercised subject to the lordship of the papacy. Both swords – the spiritual sword and the temporal sword – belong to the pope, who then delegates one such sword to the magistrate on the condition that the magistrate exercises it obediently to the pope. Luther grasped that on this basis magistrates were wrongly claiming the right to interfere with the gospel by virtue of their possession of the sword, and bishops were wrongly claiming the right to use the sword against the Protestant churches by virtue their own secular power. Only the two kingdoms doctrine, he insisted, could distinguish the secular purpose of the sword from the spiritual means by which the gospel is to go forth into the world.

To be sure, Luther tended to talk about the two kingdoms doctrine in three different ways. First, building on Augustine’s two cities doctrine, he distinguished between those who serve God and those who serve the devil. Second, he spoke of two governments appointed by God to govern the world in which these two groups of people mix: coercive government by the sword and spiritual government by the Word and Spirit. Third, Luther often spoke of two realms, by which he meant the outward realm of the body and life in this world, and the inward realm of the eternal soul. Smith places all his emphasis on this third part of Luther’s doctrine, and he interprets it abstracted from the first two parts. In fact, I am sympathetic to Smith’s critique here because I think Luther did sometimes rely on a simplistic internal/external two realms distinction when applying his two kingdoms doctrine. The fact is, however, even Luther recognized that Christians were to serve Christ in every single area of life. It was Luther who described the obligations of a Christian prince in such rigorous terms that he concluded famously that a Christian prince is a rare bird in heaven. This is not the Luther that Smith takes seriously.

In any case, the important point is that Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine did a lot to clarify the problem of the two realms. While it is true that Calvin regularly used the language of two realms, or of an inward/outward distinction, closer analysis demonstrates that this was his means of speaking about eschatological realities, not about the dividing of life into spheres. He used the language of the body, the earth, politics, and civil life to refer to the things of this age that will pass away, and he used the language of the soul, heaven, and the Spirit to refer to the things of the age to come. He described Christ’s government of this age as extending to the outward man because political authorities cannot change the heart, relying as they do on the sword, while he described Christ’s government of the kingdom of the age to come as extending to the inward man because Christ regenerates the heart through the Word and Spirit.

VanDrunen’s basic concern about the neo-Calvinists is that they routinely talk as if Christians are actually bringing about the kingdom of God by means of our cultural work. Calvin never spoke that way (nor did Augustine), and the reason for this was his two kingdoms distinction. Calvin was clear, and here VanDrunen follows him, that Christ governs and expands his kingdom by the Word and Spirit alone. Smith’s discussion of Augustine is a helpful antidote to versions of the two kingdoms doctrine that compromise the authority of Christ over all of life, and that therefore downplay the antithesis. But Smith’s essay is profoundly misleading insofar as it pretends actually to engage VanDrunen’s substantive two kingdoms proposal.

Presentation at Trinity URC, Caledonia, MI 7:30pm; and Carl Trueman’s endorsement of the two kingdoms doctrine

Today I’ll be giving a presentation on the Scriptural basis for the two kingdoms doctrine at Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan (just outside Grand Rapids). Tomorrow vacation ends and I’ll be returning to something like regular blogging. Hopefully the presentation will be recorded, and I will put up a link to it at some point, as well as an electronic version of the paper on which it is based.

Carl Trueman has a very thoughtful reflection on Jason Stellman’s resignation from the Presbyterian Church in America on the Reformation21 blog. Trueman’s post provides an excellent perspective on the discussions over the two kingdoms doctrine and related matters of ecclesiology. As he notes, some people make Christianity all about ecclesiology and lose sight entirely of the gospel. To be sure, that does not make the two kingdoms doctrine less important to Reformed theology and practice. As Trueman puts it,

If high ecclesiology is important, then one might also say that Two Kingdoms theology too has some importance: it is a healthy means of avoiding the excesses of Christian America, Theonomy, and the various social gospels – left and right – out there. Moreover, it guards against the kind of elitist view of the Christian mind and calling that generates pastors of the performing arts but really offers nothing special to street sweepers and toilet cleaners.

The Gospel of Christ is what I try to keep central on this blog (hence my weekly Sunday posts), and I appreciate Trueman for his careful endorsement of the two kingdoms doctrine as well as for his wise and balanced assessment of its misuse. Trueman is a wise man.

If even Calvin says he views the church as Christ’s kingdom in this age, should we believe him? Surely Calvin got himself wrong …

In my last two posts on Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine (here and here) I showed that for Calvin the ministry of the visible church is the means by which Christ governs and expands his kingdom in this present age. I demonstrated that one does not have to read this interpretation into Calvin; Calvin himself tells us what he is doing in Book 4 of the Institutes, and he explains quite clearly and explicitly how the ministry of the church communicates the kingdom of God.

In this post I want to focus on Calvin’s explanation of how Christ’s spiritual government is mediated through the government of the church in the three distinct areas of doctrine, worship, and discipline. Here we enter into the foundations of the Reformed and Presbyterian confessional tradition, and I must offer a warning: Anglican-minded critics who appreciate their Calvinist heritage have obvious motivation to want to claim him for their own tradition by suggesting that he did not identify the church government with Christ’s spiritual kingdom.

Indeed, such attempts are a good reminder that in our understanding of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine the very legitimacy of the confessional Reformed tradition is at stake. In short, is Christ the one who governs his church in its doctrine, worship, and discipline, and are the officers of the church limited as ministers of Christ’s spiritual governance, or can human beings regulate these affairs based on their own wisdom and desires? To put it another way, is it really the case that we should all pack up and join the Anglican Church? Are we wrong to claim Calvin as part of the confessional Reformed tradition?

Thankfully the claim that Calvin identified church government with the political kingdom is more driven by a contemporary agenda than by a careful reading of Calvin’s own argument in Book 4 of the Institutes. It is to that argument that I now turn.

After describing the nature of Christ’s spiritual government through the ministry of the church in the first part of Book 4, Calvin turns to discuss what he calls the three parts of church government in Chapters 8-12. Before diving into the details, however, Calvin reminds his readers that he is talking about Christ’s spiritual kingdom, not the political kingdom. He writes, “I speak only of the spiritual power, which is proper to the church. This, moreover, consists either in doctrine or in jurisdiction [discipline] or in making laws [concerning worship].” (4.8.1) The terms Calvin continues to use – government, power, jurisdiction, making laws – all of which he consistently modifies with the adjective spiritual, make it quite clear that Calvin continues to operate with the basic two kingdoms distinction in view.

The first of the three parts of the spiritual government is doctrine (Chapters 8-9). Calvin declares up front that the church’s proclamation of doctrine is the direct expression of Christ’s government of his kingdom. “Now the only way to build up the church is for the ministers themselves to endeavor to preserve Christ’s authority for himself.” Thus it must “be kept within definite limits, that it may not be drawn hither and thither according to men’s whim.” (4.8.1) The power of the ministers of the church is strictly limited such that they may only do precisely what the Lord has commanded them to do. (4.8.2) “The power of the church, therefore, is not infinite but subject to the Lord’s Word and, as it were, enclosed within it.” (4.8.4) As he puts it later, “Our opponents locate the authority of the church outside God’s Word; but we insist that it be attached to the Word, and do not allow it to be separated from it.” (4.8.13) In other words, the church can only teach what Christ has revealed in his word, because otherwise the church turns into a merely human and secular institution. The very authority of the church to proclaim Christ’s word depends on its spiritual character.

The second part of the spiritual government is the power of making laws concerning worship (Chapter 10). Here too Calvin clearly distinguishes the ecclesiastical jurisdiction from the political order: “In this discussion we are not dealing with the political order, but are only concerned with how God is to be duly worshiped according to the rule laid down by him, and how the spiritual freedom which looks to God may remain unimpaired for us.” In other words, Calvin wants to distinguish the spiritual government of the church from the decisions human beings make about incidental and circumstantial matters of worship. But the substance of worship is to be regulated by Christ alone, through his ministers. When human beings seek to impose laws on worship not derived from Christ, “the Kingdom of Christ is invaded; thus the freedom given by him to the consciences of believers is utterly oppressed and cast down.” Calvin insists that Christians “should acknowledge one King, their deliverer Christ, and should be governed by one law of freedom, the holy Word of the gospel, if they would retain the grace which they once obtained in Christ.” (4.10.1)

Yes, the church – like the magistrate – must sometimes make laws to regulate incidental matters for the edification of the church. But these laws do not bind the conscience because they pertain to the outer forum rather than the forum of conscience. The regulative principle of worship was not something our Presbyterian fathers invented out of thin air. On the contrary, Calvin taught it clearly and explicitly and he grounded it in his argument that the church’s government of its worship must be Christ’s government of that worship. Only Jesus is the head of his church.

The third part of Christ’s spiritual government is church discipline (Chapters 11-12), which happened to be one of the most controversial issues dividing the Reformed movement in the 16th Century. Huldrych Zwingli had argued that Christian churches did not need to have their own elders or church discipline because the task of church discipline is fulfilled by godly civil magistrates. Zwingli believed that the church and the commonwealth were ideally the same thing such that the the New Testament elder is the modern-day magistrate and the New Testament Christian is the modern-day citizen. The church, as his successor Heinrich Bullinger argued, has two basic offices, that of the magistrate and that of the pastor. The result was that by the time Calvin arrived in Geneva no Reformed church practiced church discipline or excommunication. It was this problem that Calvin had in mind when he invoked the two kingdoms distinction in his discussion of church discipline in Book 4 of the Institutes. He writes, Read the rest of this entry

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.

The Syrian Church depends on Butcher Assad’s tyranny for safety. Should that matter to us?

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith (the revised American version, not the original), civil governments have a duty to protect all denominations of Christians.

as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.

Presumably this requirement is consistent with the idea that government should protect the liberty of all people, whether religious or not, and there is no need for it to be interpreted as favoring Christians over those of other faiths. But there are clearly still some among us who insist that civil government is part of Christ’s kingdom and that therefore it is responsible to advance that kingdom in one way or another. At the very least this would seem to require supporting a regime that protects Christians over revolutionaries who would not protect them. Right?

Enter Case Study 1: Syria. The Economist tells us what happened in Syria exactly one week ago:

EYE-WITNESS testimony leaves little doubt about what happened on May 25th in Houla, a small farming town on Syria’s western plain. Two hours after the noon prayer, tank and mortar fire from nearby Syrian army positions began to rain down on Houla and an outlying hamlet called Taldou, perhaps in response to an attack by rebel forces on an army checkpoint. Just before sunset armed men, some in combat uniform and others in civilian clothes, swarmed in from neighbouring villages. Moving from house to house in Taldou, they herded families into single rooms and systematically gunned and hacked them down, sparing not a soul. Another wave of invaders arrived later at night, some in armoured vehicles, and continued the slaughter.

UN observers who surveyed the scene the next day counted 108 dead, including 49 children. The massacre was one of the bloodiest yet in a civil war that has cost an estimated 12,000 lives since unrest started in March last year. But similar assaults, on a smaller scale and often carried out by the shabiha, as the government’s paramilitary thugs are known, have been taking place across swathes of the stricken country.

This is a horrible story, and there is little reason to be comforted that things are going to change anytime soon. The Assad regime is butchering its own people. The instability is spilling over into Lebanon and threatening to plunge that country into civil war as well. The “protestors” in Syria are associated with the “democratic” movements that have spread across the Middle East in the Arab Spring, most notably in Egypt. Syria’s ally is Iran, the greatest threat to peace in the Middle East, and Syria’s strongest non-Muslim supporter is the Russia of authoritarian Vladimir Putin. Seems obvious what should happen right? The international community, for the sake of its own protection, needs to find a way to bring down the Assad regime, and replace it with something more peaceable, stable, and democratic.

Not so says the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the New York Times:

It is clear by now that Russia’s government has dug in against outside intervention in Syria, its longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East. Less well known is the position taken by the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears that Christian minorities, many of them Orthodox, will be swept away by a wave of Islamic fundamentalism unleashed by the Arab Spring.

This argument for supporting sitting leaders has reached a peak around Syria, whose minority population of Christians, about 10 percent, has been reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition against Mr. Assad, fearing persecution at those same hands if he were to fall. If the church’s advocacy cannot be said to guide Russia’s policy, it is one of the factors that make compromise with the West so elusive, especially at a time of domestic political uncertainty for the Kremlin.

When Putin came to power in Russia a few months ago the Orthodox Church had just one request.

The issue of “Christianophobia” shot to the top of the church’s agenda a year ago, with a statement warning that “they are killing our brothers and sisters, driving them from their homes, separating them from their near and dear, stripping them of the right to confess their religious beliefs.” The metropolitan asked Mr. Putin to promise to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East.

The request was one that plunged deep into geopolitics, since Christian minorities are aligned with several of the governments that have faced popular uprisings. The statements on “Christianophobia” amount to a denunciation of Western intervention, especially in Egypt and Iraq, which lost two-thirds of its 1.5 million Christians after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

As one Syrian Christian living in Russia argued, Russia may not exactly have pure motives in its handling of the Syria crisis, but the West has hardly demonstrated much concern for Christians in the Middle East either.

“The West is pursuing its own interests; they are indifferent to our fate,” he said. “I am not justifying the Assad regime — it is dictatorial, we know this, it is despotic, I understand. But these guys, they don’t even hide their intention to build an Islamic state and their methods of battle, where they just execute people on the streets. That’s the opposition, not just the authorities. And we are between two fires.”

So what does the lordship of Christ over all authorities and powers demand here? It is not as if intervention in Syria will bring about any straightforward solution. None of the options on the table look very attractive. But for Christians uncertain about the secular purpose of government – wondering whether or not it is part of Christ’s kingdom or is bound to demonstrate its support for Christians above all else – this dilemma is all the more tortuous.

Of course, we’ve been here before. The 16th and 17th Centuries are full of stories of churches and Christians who compromised justice or peace in the name of protecting (or establishing) a certain form of Christianity. Judging by centuries of Christian decline in Europe, however, sacrificing justice for the sake of an alliance between religion and power hardly does the gospel much good. Whatever we may think about the implications of Christ’s lordship over all of life, assuming that that lordship corresponds to the government’s promotion of Christianity is not the way to go. There is no easy way to fix Syria, but I cannot help but think that distinguishing between two kingdoms, and recognizing that Christians should suffer wrong at the hands of government rather than be allied with injustice, is a helpful place to start.

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.]

%d bloggers like this: