There is something healthy about returning to one’s roots. When it comes to evangelical Christianity, its roots are found in the soil of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What's The Fuss All About?

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  • The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What's The Fuss All About?

    by Matthew Tuininga

    Editors' Note: This essay is the first of three. The second will describe John Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine while the third will explain the two kingdoms doctrine as it is taught in Scripture.

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

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

    It is this distinction between the two ages, and between the institutions of one age and the kingdom of the age to come, that forms the foundation of the classic doctrine of the two kingdoms, as articulated by Martin Luther and John Calvin. The reformers argued that Christ governs and expands his kingdom through the ministry of the word by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, the reasoned, he does so in such a way as not to nullify the order of creation or the institutions that God has created to govern that order, most importantly those of civil government and the family.

    For Martin Luther, the two kingdoms doctrine was necessary in order to refute the longstanding claims of the papacy to hold all power, both spiritual and temporal, by virtue of the pope's office as the vicar of Christ. The Catholic "two swords" doctrine taught that the pope delegates the "temporal sword" to the magistrate on the condition that the magistrate exercises it obediently to the pope. Luther realized that on this basis magistrates were wrongly claiming the right to interfere with the gospel by virtue of their possession of the sword in service to the pope. Moreover, Luther continued, 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.

    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 are mixed together: coercive government by the sword to maintain peace and basic justice in the world, and spiritual government by the word and Spirit to gather men and women into Christ's kingdom. 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. To be sure, contrary to popular impressions, Luther did not believe Christians could live and act as if they were not Christians in the affairs of this world. He believed that believers are to live in love to their neighbors as servants of Christ, though in a manner compatible with their earthly vocations. It was Luther who said that a Christian prince is a rare bird in heaven.

    Although the two kingdoms doctrine is often associated with Lutheranism, it actually played a crucial role in Calvin's thought as well. In addition to the basic Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, which Calvin articulated in the 1536 edition of the Institutes, Calvin gradually articulated an understanding of the spiritual government of the church in distinction from the political government of this world. For Calvin, in contrast to both Luther and the Zwinglian branch of the Reformation, the church was to have its own pastors and elders who practiced church discipline ministerially and organized the basic elements of worship according to the word of Christ. In addition to the pastors and elders, Calvin argued for deacons who, in a spiritual manner distinct from that of civil government, cared for the needs of the poor. Calvin, like Luther before him, tended to use the two kingdoms doctrine to demonstrate why the Anabaptists were wrong in their insistence that Christians should never bear the sword. He also tried to show that those who thought Christianity overthrows the economic, social, or political structures of this age were misguided.

    Over time Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine came to characterize the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian traditions, particularly after Thomas Cartwright used it to defend the autonomy of the church from the royal supremacy of the English Queen Elizabeth I. Although Reformed Christians never arrived at unanimity on the political implications of the doctrine, it became absolutely foundational to their distinctive theology of the church.

    In time, of course, this foundation was largely forgotten, though a version of it persisted as the Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, and another version endured in the hearts of the Scottish Covenanters. In large part, the reason for this forgetfulness was that the challenge of the state against the church's autonomy and authority had evaporated. But in the late nineteenth century a new challenge arose. Protestant liberalism, particularly the version epitomized in the social gospel, sought to emphasize the immediate implications of the kingdom of Christ in this world. Any Protestant doctrine deemed too conservative, or too tolerant of the status quo, was minimized or abandoned. The kingdom of God, it was said, was to transform all of the institutions of this life, and this was to be the goal of all Christians in all their vocations, including politics.

    The recent revival of interest in the two kingdoms doctrine is in large part explicable as a confessional Reformed response to this social gospel. A number of scholars and theologians have laid claim to the doctrine, while adjusting it to varying degrees to reflect developments in theology and politics (as well as personal convictions). Some contemporary two kingdoms advocates, particularly Darryl Hart, have stepped on the toes of many conservative evangelicals by arguing that the evangelical attitude toward the church and politics is often nothing better than a conservative version of the social gospel. In several books, including The Lost Soul of American Protestantism, A Secular Faith, and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, Hart has skillfully demonstrated the pietist post-millennial origins of both American evangelicalism and the social gospel, arguing that these groups have far more in common than most scholars would like to admit. In contrast, Hart argues, confessional Reformed Christians have always been much more careful not to identify the kingdom of God with social or political transformation. They have rightly recognized that the institutional expression of the kingdom in this age is the church, not the state, the family, or any other created institution.

    Part of the reason that Hart's version of the two kingdoms doctrine is somewhat controversial is that at times Hart has pressed the distinction between the two kingdoms to the point of separation. Indeed, if the classic two kingdoms doctrine denoted the difference between two ages and two governments, Hart has often written about it as if it amounted to a distinction between two airtight spheres, one the sphere of faith and religion, and the other the sphere of everyday life. While it is clear that Hart views these two spheres as expressions of the two ages, by speaking of them in terms of separate spheres he ends up downplaying the overlap between the two ages. This tendency becomes all the more marked in Hart's more polemical moments.

    For instance, while Luther or Calvin argued that even in their vocations Christians serve Christ, are bound by his moral law, and are to do everything that they do in service to him, Hart sometimes speaks as if faith and Scripture have little to say about life in this world. To be sure, in key moments, Hart admits that Christianity does teach certain truths about the image of God or about the temporal nature of life in this world. For Hart, these are truths that should shape the way in which Christians engage politics. Indeed, Hart defends his very concept of secularity on the basis of orthodox Christian eschatology. Likewise, he acknowledges that Jesus is Lord over both the eternal and the temporal kingdoms, and that in every area of life Christians are to obey God according to their consciences. But often, Hart's criticism of the misuse to which American Protestants have framed Christian claims obscures these basic commitments. Part of the problem is that Hart says relatively little about the ongoing validity and binding authority of natural law, in contrast to classic versions of the two kingdoms doctrine, which include substantive accounts of natural law. This makes it possible at times to get the (false) impression that Hart thinks there is no determinative moral standard for Christian political or cultural engagement.

    That said, Hart's historical critique of American evangelicalism is far more valid than many of his critics would like to believe. As a conversation I recently had with a prominent liberal evangelical ethicist suggests, Hart's criticism of mainstream Protestantism is much needed and can be very refreshing to those caught up in the politicization either of evangelicalism or of the mainline churches. His willingness to challenge the way in which Protestants simplistically conflate their own political preferences with the teachings of Scripture makes him an unpopular but needed correction to the hubris of Christian activists on both the right and the left.

    A much more theologically substantive contemporary version of the two kingdoms doctrine is that of David VanDrunen. Like Hart, VanDrunen's initial work on the two kingdoms doctrine was historical. Unlike Hart, VanDrunen's target was not so much American evangelicalism as it was a brand of the neo-Calvinism that was so influential in the denomination in which he grew up.

    In his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen argued that certain neo-Calvinists' emphasis on the role of human beings in establishing the kingdom of God through the transformation of every area of life was a break with the tradition's classic emphasis on the future and spiritual nature of Christ's kingdom, in contrast to the kingdom of this world. He argued that some neo-Calvinists have placed an illegitimate eschatological burden on the church by confusing the obligation of Christians to witness to the lordship of Christ, which Scripture requires, with an obligation to turn all of life into the kingdom. In short, VanDrunen argued, these neo-Calvinists have confused creation with redemption, forgetting that the new heavens and the new earth are caught up with Christ, and that they break into this age only in the church, however believers may witness to that reality in their daily lives.

    In his more constructive theological work, Living in God's Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen offers a substantive exegetical argument for the two kingdoms doctrine. He argues that far too many Christians confuse their calling in keeping the creation mandate with Adam's task in fulfilling that mandate before he fell into sin. As a result, they continue to think of their cultural work as the work of bringing creation to its eschatological sabbath rest, failing to see that Jesus has definitively brought creation to its fulfillment in his death and resurrection. The task of believers in this age, he argues, is better thought of in terms of faithful obedience to Christ under the terms of the Noahic Covenant. Jesus establishes his kingdom. We merely witness to it.

    Although VanDrunen also speaks of the two kingdoms in terms of two realms from time to time, he tends to be clearer than Hart that life in this age cannot neatly be divided into two spheres, one of which is religious and the other of which is not. He affirms that the antithesis runs through the temporal kingdom and that believers are to follow the teachings of Scripture in all that they do in their secular vocations, including politics. At the same time, like Hart, VanDrunen is quick to emphasize that Scripture does not give us the amount of precise instruction in these matters as many Christians would like to believe. And, like Hart, he thinks pastors need to keep politics out of the pulpit as much as possible, preaching only what is clearly taught in Scripture and leaving matters of application to the wisdom and consciences of believers. Unlike Hart, VanDrunen articulates (and is continuing to articulate) a rigorous doctrine of natural law that demonstrates the moral character of all of life under Christ's lordship.

    One of the emphases common to both Hart and VanDrunen is the importance of recognizing the importance of the church as the institutional expression of the kingdom of Christ in this age. The kingdom is otherworldly in the sense that it is future and its full consummation awaits Christ's return. The way in which we access that kingdom, they argue, is through the regular means of grace, specifically preaching and the administration of the sacraments. When we emphasize all of life as kingdom activity, just as when we view all of life as worship, we lose sight of what is distinctive and vital about the church itself.

    One of the ways in which modern advocates could strengthen the two kingdoms doctrine is by further emphasizing and clarifying its fundamentally eschatological character, particularly in light of the fact that the two kingdoms are often confused with two spheres into which life is to be divided. It may be that part of the problem is a conflation of the two kingdoms doctrine with Abraham Kuyper's concept of sphere sovereignty. But Kuyper's spheres denote different areas into which human life under Christ's lordship are to be divided; they do not designate the eschatological distinction between this age and the age to come. As such, the concept of sphere sovereignty is a sociological concept that is consistent with but different from the two kingdoms doctrine. We confuse the two when we think of the two kingdoms as two spheres (because they denote two governments) but forget that they also denote two overlapping ages. As 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5-6 make clear, because Christians live between two ages, they cannot turn everything they do into the kingdom of God, but they are to do everything that they do in obedience to Christ's lordship.

    Editors' Note: This essay is the second of three. The first introduced the two kingdoms doctrine while the third will explain the two kingdoms doctrine as it is taught in Scripture.

    In the various political theological debates that have raged across the Reformed tradition over the centuries, virtually every group and every theologian has claimed the support of the legacy of John Calvin. When English Puritans and Elizabethan bishops clashed over the royal supremacy in sixteenth century England both sides claimed the support of John Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine for their position. In the early twentieth century it became fashionable for liberal scholars to claim that Calvin's theology of culture was one of "Christ transforming culture" claiming that theology as a precedent for the social gospel. Resisting this emphasis were those theologians and pastors who picked up on Calvin's repeated contrast between earthly things and the heavenly life to argue for radical discontinuity between the coming kingdom and life in this world. In the debates regarding theonomy both those who supported the continuing relevance of the Torah's penal code and those who rejected it found support for their positions in Calvin's various arguments on civil punishment and natural law.

    Given this background, it is no wonder that Calvin has become a battleground in the controversy over the two kingdoms. Yet, as with so many of these controversies, it is both anachronistic and impossible to try to fit Calvin into the contemporary two kingdoms debate. The best we can do is to understand what the reformer himself taught about the two kingdoms, how he fit the doctrine into his broader theology, and to what extent we find it helpful to us today.

    The Two Kingdoms in the Context of Calvin's Eschatology

    Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine has to be understood in the context of the reformer's eschatology because most of the terms he used to describe the doctrine - spiritual/temporal, heavenly/earthly, soul/body, inward/outward, ecclesiastical/political - are eschatological in Calvin's thought. In Institutes 2.2.13 Calvin writes,

    I call 'earthly things' those which do not pertain to God or his kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call 'heavenly things' the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it.

    For Calvin, things that are political or earthly are things that are temporal, secular, or passing away. Things that are spiritual or heavenly are things that are eternal.

    But while Calvin constantly referred to this world or to the body as things that are passing away, he qualified such comments by his clear teaching that the work of Jesus is to redeem the entire cosmos. Calvin repeatedly stated that, when Jesus returns, he will bring all things back to the order that they lost by virtue of the Fall. He used passages like Romans 8, which speaks of the creation's yearning for redemption, to explain other passages like 2 Peter 3, which declares that the creation will be destroyed with fire. Calvin reasoned that the creation, in a manner analogous to the resurrection of the body, would be transformed and glorified in substance, though not in its temporal accidents.(1) He spoke of Christ's lordship over the world as extending to all things, even to the point of insisting that no human being who is merely in Adam has any right to claim possession over anything.(2)

    On the other hand, Calvin passionately and consistently argued that, short of Christ's return in glory, believers should expect nothing but life under the cross. Although "in the resurrection there is a restoration of all things," and although "supremacy belongs to [Jesus] in all things," in the present age, the kingdom is realized properly only through the spiritual government that Jesus exercises in the church, as he transforms the body of believers in voluntary obedience to him.(3) While Christ will return all things to their proper order when he returns, in the meantime Christians are to devote themselves to service to God and their neighbors with a mindfulness that the institutions, possessions, and glories of this life will pass away. Calvin even went so far as to argue (repeatedly) that God purposely makes Christians suffer more than the rest of the world as a means of conforming them to the image of Jesus. Further, Calvin argued that God did this in order that they might put their hope entirely in the future return of Christ. Believers are to live as pilgrims whose hope is in Christ and in their future heavenly glory.(4)

    How should we make sense of this eschatological tension within Calvin's thought? First, any account of Calvin's understanding of the redemption of the world has to take seriously his emphasis on the return of Christ as the decisive moment at which that transformation will take place. Short of that consummation of the kingdom, Calvin believed the kingdom is manifested in the world only where the word and Spirit brings human beings into voluntary obedience to God.(5) Second, any account of Calvin's view of the way in which grace transforms nature has to come to grips with Calvin's insistence that the goal of creation was always to be elevated and glorified into something greater than it was at creation. "For we cannot think upon either our first condition or to what purpose we were formed without being prompted to meditate upon immortality, and to yearn for the Kingdom of God (2.1.3). For this reason the gap between the present life and the kingdom is not simply a result of human disobedience; no matter how sanctified believers become, they still await the putting off of the mortal flesh and the transformation of the cosmos.

    It is against the backdrop of this eschatology, and in the specific context of his discussion of justification by faith and the meaning of Christian freedom, that Calvin articulated the two kingdoms doctrine in the following statement:

    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. 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. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority. (3.19.15)

    Before turning to the way in which Calvin applied the two kingdoms doctrine to the church and to civil government it is crucial to make a few points about what Calvin is and is not doing here.

    First, the two kingdoms are not subsidiary parts of the one spiritual kingdom of Christ that is held out to believers in the gospel. Rather, the spiritual kingdom, mediated to believers through Christ's spiritual government, is the kingdom of Christ. For the kingdom of Christ is spiritual, a point Calvin constantly makes in his criticisms of Judaism and of Rome.(6)

    Second, Calvin does not say here that one kingdom is invisible and unmediated while the other is outward and mediated, as some have argued. The fundamental distinction here is not a distinction of visible and invisible realms, in that sense. Rather, when Calvin compares a government that pertains to the soul with a government that pertains to the present life he is thinking primarily of an eschatological distinction between what is eternal in the human being (i.e., the soul) and what is passing away (i.e., the mortal body). When he says that one kingdom resides in the inner mind while the other pertains to outward behavior he is contrasting a power that transforms and orders people by regenerating them inwardly (proclamation of the gospel) with a power that can only coerce or manipulate (civil government).

    This interpretation is born out by a careful analysis of Calvin's discussion of the church in the first few chapters of Book Four of the Institutes. After introducing the distinction between the invisible and the visible church Calvin declares that the visible church is identifiable by the particular marks of the outward means of grace, the same marks by which we identify Christ's kingdom.

    We see how God, who could in a moment perfect his own, nevertheless desires them to grow up into manhood solely under the education of the church. We see the way set for it: the preaching of the heavenly doctrine has been enjoined upon the pastors... 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' (4.1.5)

    As he puts it a little later, Scripture teaches that it is "the presbyter's office ... to feed the church, and administer the spiritual kingdom of Christ" (4.5.9). To be sure, ministers of the gospel only communicate Christ's spiritual government if they faithfully preach his word. Where this does not occur, as in the case of Rome, the clergy constitute a merely human tyranny, with no relation to Christ's kingdom or his church. "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)

    Spiritual Government

    At the heart of Book Four (Chapters 8-12), Calvin explains that the spiritual government of the church consists in three areas: the church's 1) teaching, its 2) discipline, and its 3) ordering of worship. He specifies that his concern at this point is not with the church's political power (or the magistrate's political power over the church) but with "the spiritual power, which is proper to the church" (4.8.1).

    1. The teaching ministry of the church is inseparable from the word because it is a ministerial expression of Christ's spiritual government rather than a discretionary exercise of rule appropriate within the political kingdom. When the ministers go against or beyond the word they are therefore usurpers of Christ's kingship. When ministers faithfully communicate Christ's word to the people, on the other hand, it is Christ himself who speaks, and the people are to regard the preaching as such. When ministers preach faithfully they are endowed with "sovereign power" such that "by God's word" they "may compel all worldly power, glory, wisdom, and exaltation to yield to and obey his majesty; supported by that power may command all from the highest even tot he last" (4.8.9).

    2. Calvin distinguishes the church's power over its worship into two parts expressive of the two kingdoms doctrine. On the one hand, he notes that to a certain extent the worship of the church must be regulated by the civil magistrate. For instance, Calvin believed that the time and place of worship was a matter of "political order" rather than of the substance of Christ's kingdom (cf. 4.10.27). In Chapter 10, however, he is primarily 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" (4.10.1). In short, here Calvin uses the two kingdoms doctrine to distinguish between the way in which the church participates in Christ's kingdom through the substance of worship and the way in which it necessarily conducts itself as an institution in a secular age, i.e., in the political kingdom. The former matters must be ordered carefully according to the word of Christ alone and cannot be compromised at the whims of either priests or magistrates lest "the kingdom of Christ is invaded" (4.10.1).

    3. It was Calvin's application of the two kingdoms doctrine to the discipline of the church that brought him into greatest tension with the government of Geneva as well as with the Reformed churches outside of Geneva. For here Calvin broke with the Zwinglian or Swiss Reformed by arguing that civil law was insufficient for the discipline of the church, and that the ecclesiastical process of discipline was integral to the church's exercise of the keys of the kingdom. Calvin begins by suggesting that the church needs a spiritual polity distinct from that of civil government. "For as no city or township can function without magistrate and polity, so the church of God ... needs a spiritual polity. This is, however, quite distinct from the civil polity, yet does not hinder or threaten it but rather greatly helps and furthers it" (4.11.1).

    Calvin goes on to explain, clearly with the Zwinglians in mind, why the office of elder and the church's distinct process of church discipline is so necessary.

    Some imagine that all those things were temporary, lasting while the magistrates were still strangers to the profession of our religion. In this they are mistaken, because they do not notice how great a difference and unlikeness there is between ecclesiastical and civil power. For the church does not have the right of the sword to punish or compel, not the authority to force; not imprisonment, nor the other punishments which the magistrate commonly inflicts. Then, it is not a question of punishing the sinner against his will, but of the sinner professing his repentance in a voluntary chastisement. The two conceptions are very different. The church does not assume what is proper to the magistrate; nor can the magistrate execute what is carried out by the church." (4.11.3)

    In fact, Calvin goes on to declare, the two functions are "so different that they cannot come together in one man" (4.11.8). Why are they so different? Because the church's judgment of excommunication is nothing less than the voice of Christ himself, and only Christ's ministers operating strictly according to his word have the authority to make such a judgment. What's more, magistrates themselves must be subject to this ministerial authority.

    For great kings ought not to count it any dishonor to prostrate themselves as suppliants before Christ, the king of kings, nor ought they to be displeased that they are judged by the church. For inasmuch as they hear almost nothing but mere flatteries in their courts, it is all the more necessary for them to be rebuked by the Lord through the mouth of priests.... Indeed, the whole sequence of the action ... ought to have that gravity which bespeaks the presence of Christ in order that there may be no doubt that he himself presides at his own tribunal.(4.12.7)

    Civil Government

    Calvin invokes the two kingdoms distinction in the first sentence of Chapter 20, his discussion on civil government. Up to this point, he notes, he has discussed the government "that resides in the soul or inner man and pertains to the eternal life." Now he will discuss "the other kind, which pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality."

    Calvin declares up front that his concern in this chapter is with the Anabaptists, those who will not be content "unless the whole world is reshaped to a new form." He argues that the Anabaptists are guilty of conflating the freedom of the gospel ("spiritual freedom") with political freedom. But, he writes, "whoever knows how to distinguish between body and soul, between this present fleeting life and that future eternal life, will without difficulty know that Christ's spiritual kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct." It is vanity to "seek and enclose Christ's kingdom within the elements of this world" for "it makes no difference what your condition among men may be or under what nation's laws you live, since the kingdom of Christ does not at all consist in these things" (4.20.1)

    But while Calvin does not believe the political kingdom can be conformed to the freedom of the gospel he nevertheless believes that civil government is necessary to preserve outward order and piety in the age before Christ's return. For although "spiritual government, indeed, is already initiating in us upon earth certain beginnings of the heavenly kingdom, and in this mortal and fleeting life affords a certain forecast of an immortal and incorruptible blessedness" the reality is that this world is still dominated by hypocrisy and even outright enmity towards God and the gospel. Government is therefore necessary to coerce stubborn human beings into obeying - at least outwardly - the moral law of God (4.20.2).

    In the 1536 edition of the Institutes Calvin argued that the sword should not be used to persecute heretics and false teachers (2.28). By the time the second edition came off the press he had already removed that passage (although it reappears, intriguingly, in the 1560 French edition). In all subsequent Latin editions he argued that government is to enforce the first table of the law as well as the second, both of which are expressions of natural law, the law of love, and of God's timeless moral law, all of which for Calvin amount to the same thing. To be sure, Calvin did not believe civil government was obligated to conform slavishly to the civil laws and penalties in the Torah. But he did believe government was to be concerned with the preservation of outward piety, in addition to justice.

    Calvin insisted that government has the duty of "rightly establishing religion" (4.20.3) in order that God might be honored, the public be protected from scandal, and people who did not yet believe the gospel or accept the law might be exposed to its proclamation. Calvin considered the arguments of the Anabaptists that government should not enforce the true religion but he rejected those arguments on the grounds of the example of Old Testament Israel, prophecies concerning magistrates in Psalm 2 and Isaiah 49, and Paul's declaration in 1 Timothy 2:2 that Christians should pray that government might allow them to "lead a peaceful life under them with all godliness and honesty," a passage Calvin interpreted as meaning that government should actively promote godliness and punish ungodliness (4.20.5).

    Calvin therefore argues strongly that magistrates are not simply to be concerned with "profane affairs" but that in their "most holy office" they are to serve the cause of the kingdom of Christ in the manner appropriate to them (4.20.4). To be sure, this does not make their office an office of the kingdom of Christ. Christ governs his spiritual kingdom by means of the word and the Spirit, not by means of the sword, and civil magistrates have no ability to communicate that inward, spiritual rule. But Christ calls all people to work out their vocations and use their resources to advance the kingdom, and Calvin did not distinguish the magistracy in this respect.(7)

    Calvin's Significance for Contemporary Debates

    Of course, in their initial versions, both the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Belgic Confession of Faith articulated the responsibilities of magistrates consistent with Calvin's understanding as described above. But most churches in the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions amended those confessions by abandoning their claims concerning the responsibility of civil government to enforce the first table of the law or to establish the true religion. The question is, did these confessional adjustments simply reflect the influence of the times, or were they motivated by Scripturally grounded, theological convictions?

    Certain contemporary two kingdoms advocates argue that the theological basis for these shifts can be found in Calvin's own two kingdoms doctrine, although not in his application of that doctrine. They tend to argue that Calvin was inconsistent, simply a product of his time, and bound by the assumptions of Christendom. But if such is the case, where does Calvin's argument, or his exegesis, break down? And how can we be so sure that it is not we who are simply products of our time, bound by the assumptions of modernity?

    A second question concerning the legacy of Calvin concerns the relationship between the freedom of the gospel and the political kingdom. In the past hundred years, the church has been greatly influenced by the social gospel, by liberation theology, and more recently by neo-Anabaptism, all of which reject Calvin's claim that the freedom of the gospel has nothing to do with political circumstances. Contemporary critics of the two kingdoms doctrine need to ask themselves how they can avoid these alternative theological (and political) approaches if they abandon Calvin's two kingdoms distinction.

    Finally, a third question pertains to Calvin's distinction between natural law, or the moral law, and the written law of the Torah. Calvin believed it was insufficient to prove that civil government should enact a particular law or enforce a particular punishment simply because that law or punishment could be found in the law of Moses. Yet he clearly believed that Scripture is to guide Christian understandings of natural law. Contemporary two kingdoms advocates claim that in a pluralistic, democratic context Christians should be slower to use Scripture as a trump card in public debates, but they need to clarify how it is that Scripture informs Christian political engagement in a democratic and pluralistic society.

    Editors' Note: This essay is the third of three. The first can be read here, the second here.

    The fundamental biblical truth that is expressed in the two kingdoms doctrine is that the Christian's hope is to be fixed not on the things of this life that we see and experience all around us - our families, our work, politics - but on the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we are promised a kingdom that will transform and transcend all of these things. This conviction, in turn, arises out of Christ's teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that though believers' lives are often characterized by poverty, mourning, an unsatisfied hunger and thirst for justice, and humiliating persecution, they are nevertheless said to possess the "kingdom of heaven," a kingdom in which they will be comforted, satisfied, and granted the inheritance of the earth (Matthew 5:1-12). It expresses Jesus's command to his disciples to pray that God's kingdom would come and his will be done, for even as the things of this earth are destroyed or lost, Christians must live so as to store up treasures in heaven, where nothing is destroyed or lost (Matthew 5:10, 19-21). It seeks to take seriously Jesus' exhortation to his disciples not to worry about the matters of this life, the things after which the nations seek. It is not that they are unimportant, but that if believers seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness "all these things will be added to you" (Matthew 5:25-33).

    The Two Kingdoms in Scripture: "Not only in this age, but also in the one to come."

    The New Testament continually highlights the tension between the kingdom that is coming and the affairs of this age. Although Jesus declared that "the kingdom is within you" (Luke 17:21), his disciples were constantly wondering when he would actually restore all things. In fact, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem in the days before his crucifixion, the Jewish leaders tried to trap him by forcing him openly to declare the revolutionary implications of his kingdom for marriage and politics. Jesus responded by describing the difference between the present age (in which men and women marry) and the age to come (in which there will be no marriage), between Caesar (to whom Christians are to give his due) and God (to whom is believers' ultimate allegiance (Luke 20). Jesus's trial before Pilate likewise revolved, in part, around whether or not his kingship challenged that of Caesar. Yet Jesus declared that his kingdom is not of, or from, this world (John 18:36). His point was not that the kingdom does not pertain to material things (it will transform all things!) but that it is not of or from this age (i.e., secular). (1) In terms of politics, that means the kingdom of Christ is not like a secular kingdom : "If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting" (18:36). Instead, Jesus's kingdom rules through the proclamation of the truth, to which those who are of the truth listen (18:37).

    The same tension continues even after Jesus' ascension to the right hand of God. On the one hand, Jesus declares categorically, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18). In Ephesians 1:21, Paul writes that Jesus was seated in sovereignty at God's right hand, "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age [i.e., secular authority] but also in the one to come [i.e., the kingdom of God]." Christ is not only head over "all things" (1:22) but in him "all things, whether on earth or in heaven," are reconciled (Colossians 1:19). Indeed, in him "all things exist" (1:17). The entire creation is therefore groaning, waiting for the transformation that is coming (Romans 8:19-22). As Abraham Kuyper said, there is no square inch of creation over which Jesus Christ does not claim, "Mine!". Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that outside of Christ there is only abstraction.

    On the other hand, none of this nullifies the continuing normativity of the created order, what Christian theologians have classically called natural law, or of the authorities God has ordained to govern that order (i.e., civil government, parents). This is a fundamental point, because it has been in the name of the realization of the kingdom on earth that social liberals - from the Anabaptists of Calvin's day to the liberation theologians of our own - have advocated numerous destructive social or political policies subversive of that order (i.e., millennial revolution, pacifism, common ownership of goods, radical feminism, same-sex marriage).

    For Calvin, the two kingdoms doctrine was a way of explaining why believers are called to live in the hope of the coming kingdom in such a way as not to over-anticipate its transformation of the present age. He continually reminded Christians of the passing and temporary nature of all things outside of Christ, including the social and political order, pointing to passages like 1 Corinthians 7:29-31: "From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away."

    Believers must therefore continue to submit to, honor, and give thanks for even pagan rulers (Romans 13; 1 Timothy 2:1-2). Although in Christ there is no male nor female (Galatians 3:28), women are nevertheless to maintain the natural order in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35; 1 Timothy 2:11-12) and to submit to their husbands at home in an institution of marriage that is to remain undefiled (Ephesians 5:22-24). Although in Christ there is no slave nor free (Galatians 3:28), slaves are still to obey their earthly masters as unto the Lord (Ephesians 6:5-8).

    In all of these relationships believers demonstrate their allegiance to the Lordship of Christ in all things not by overthrowing the secular order, but by fulfilling their vocations and doing everything "in Christ" or "as unto the Lord." This service to the just and the unjust alike, though not necessarily reflective of believers' ultimate destiny, testifies to their hope in Christ such that others will ask them for a reason for the hope that is within them (1 Peter 3:1-15). Their service demands that believers act with justice and virtue according to the will of God. It therefore has a transformative effect on their relationships, but it does not encourage them naively to imagine that they can bring the kingdom by their own efforts.

    How then does the kingdom advance in the New Testament? In every case the expression of Christ's universal lordship is explained not in terms of social or political power but in terms of the proclamation of the truth (John 18:37) and the preaching of the gospel to all nations, that they might keep his commandments (Matthew 28:19-20). It is the preaching of the gospel and the biblical administration of church discipline, the "keys of the kingdom," that open and close the kingdom of heaven (16:19; 18:15-20). The transformation for which the creation groans is contingent upon the proclamation of the gospel and the revelation of the sons of God (Romans 8:19). Christ's headship over all things - the existence of all things in him - is sure, but he has been given as head to the church (Ephesians 1:22-23), not to the world (or to put it another way, to the world, but only through the church). Only by believing the gospel and holding fast to Jesus (seeking first his kingdom) can anyone secure his or her participation in that headship (all these things will be added to you). The people of the world have their "minds set on earthly things" (Philippians 3:19) but believers set their hearts and minds on "things above, where Christ is" (Colossians 3:1-4) because they know that the future transformation of all things, the new creation, exists in his body, whose return they await. "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Philippians 3:20-21).

    Perhaps the most obvious expression of this reality is Ephesians 4, the passage Calvin used to link his two kingdoms doctrine with its institutional implications for church government. Paul explains that the fruits of Christ's ascension, in which he was made Lord of all things, is expressed in his pouring out of the gifts of the church's ministry. It is as the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers equip the saints for ministry and build up the body into Christ that the saints "grow up in every way into him who is the head" (Ephesians 4:7-16). This is Paul's presupposition when he declares in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, "For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future - all are yours, and you are Christ's, and Christ is God's."

    Thus, the church is the only corporate expression of the kingdom in this age. It is only as we join ourselves to the body of Christ, the body of those who hold fast to Jesus, that we participate in the kingdom that is coming. And although we witness to our citizenship in this kingdom in every single thing that we do in this age, doing everything "as unto the Lord," the primary form this witness to Christ's lordship takes is that of submission, service, and sacrifice in an often hostile and oppressive world. Only after believers, like Jesus and in conformity to his example, set aside the glory that they have been promised, take up the form of a servant, and humble themselves to the point of death, can they be confident that God will exalt them above every knee "in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Philippians 2:5-11). Only by following in the way of the Lamb that was slain, to the point of martyrdom if necessary, do the witnesses of the Lamb conquer with him (Revelation 12:11; 14:4).

    The call of the Christian life is therefore not to establish the Lordship of Christ through conquest or external cultural transformation but to witness to Jesus's lordship by imitating him in his sacrificial service. When we conform to Christ's example faithfully the effect on our various vocations and communities will indeed be profound. Those in government will recognize the Lordship of Christ (Psalm 2) and seek to use their power to secure peace and justice for those under their charge, rather than self-aggrandizement, and to protect the church in order that it might fulfill its task (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Those in positions of economic power will serve those placed under them rather than dominate them (Ephesians 6:9). Husbands will sacrifice themselves for their wives in imitation of Christ, recognizing their equality together in him (Ephesians 5:25-33). Those who have been given gifts, talents, or riches will use those resources to provide for those who are in need (Ephesians 4:28; 1 Timothy 6:18). About all of these cultural affairs, in which believers engage in common with unbelievers, Scripture has much to say.

    Addressing the Controversies: The Authority of Scripture and the Example of Israel

    This point, of course, clashes with the rhetoric of some two kingdoms advocates who want to emphasize how little Scripture says about political or cultural engagement. And to be sure, there is distinct danger at both extremes here. On the one extreme are those Christians who find the need to seek explicit Scriptural justification for every little thing that they do, an approach that creates the enormous temptation to read into Scripture things that simply aren't there, or to apply passages in ways they were never meant to be applied. But it is just as problematic to overreact to that mistake by pretending that Scripture has nothing to say about Christians' vocations, social life, or political engagement, or by requiring pastors to refrain from teaching what Scripture clearly teaches.

    Far better is to determine (and preach!) the principles revealed in Scripture, some of which I have outlined above, while maintaining humility consistent with our call to be servants (and therefore refraining from preaching) about the way in which those principles might apply to concrete circumstances, organizations, or policies. All of the major Reformed confessions contain rigorous affirmations of general revelation or natural law, in part relying on the broad Christian consensus about the meaning of Romans 2:14-15. And while Christians should never seek to interpret natural law without using the lens of Scripture, they should also be careful not to confuse the lens with what we see through that lens. It is one thing to humbly seek to articulate a worldview based on Scripture. It is another thing arrogantly to assume that the worldview we have articulated is the teaching of Scripture itself. Most of what we know about mathematics, science, or history is not derived from Scripture, although Scripture shapes how we interpret it. We should expect the same when it comes to our understanding of culture, economics, or politics.

    But this brings us to the question of the significance of Israel and the Mosaic Law for contemporary life. Paul's approach to the question is to emphasize that Christians are not bound to the law's written code, while affirming that they are obligated to follow the law of love, for which the guidance of Scripture is profitable and necessary. This has led Christian theologians since the medieval period to distinguish between the moral law, which is always binding on Christians, and the ceremonial and judicial laws, which are not. But of course, the real question is how we determine which parts of the Mosaic Law are judicial and which parts are moral.

    Crucial here is Jesus' statement to Pilate in John 18:36, echoed by Paul in 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, that Christ's kingdom does not rule through earthly violence. If the model for the realization of the kingdom in the time between Christ's first and second coming is Old Testament Israel, these statements make no sense. Israel did use the sword to establish the kingdom, and the Mosaic Law is full of instructions as to how precisely that sword should be used. But given what we know about Israel's function as a type of Christ's kingdom that was to come, it is quite erroneous to assume that those instructions apply to all civil governments, or even to all Christian civil governments. Augustine emphasized just this point when he explained that Jesus's pardoning of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 amounted to a setting aside of the Old Testament penal code. Just as significant is Paul's declaration in Galatians 3:13 that Christ fulfilled the the Law's proclamation of a curse on those put to death under that code (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Clearly the judicial laws had a typological purpose similar to the ceremonial laws. They cannot be reduced to the moral law binding on all nations.

    But what of the example of Israel more generally? Occasionally the claim is made that the distinction between the offices of magistrate and priest found in the Old Testament amounts to the same thing as the distinction between the two kingdoms. But that is not the case. In Israel there was a distinction between magistrate and priest (and prophet) but both offices were considered to be part of one kingdom. Likewise, the early reformers such as Zwingli and Bullinger viewed the magistrate and the pastor as two offices in one church (or Christian commonwealth). But that is not the two kingdoms distinction. According to the two kingdoms distinction, Christ embodies within himself the kingdom of God to which Israel pointed, exercising uniquely the offices of king, prophet, and priest. Christians ministerially express these offices of Christ in various ways, but there is no evidence in Scripture that civil magistrates do as well. On the contrary, Christ's kingdom is not of this world and therefore does not make use of the secular sword.

    Although Calvin and the other reformers argued that magistrates should enforce the first table of the law and even work to establish the true church, I believe that their argument for this was based on flawed exegetical, philosophical, and experiential reasoning. The exegetical flaw was the assumption that the Mosaic penal code was an expression of the timeless natural law, resulting from their failure to see the degree to which it, too, was typological. The philosophical flaw was the reliance on the arguments of Plato and other pagan philosophers as evidence that even the natural law requires magistrates to enforce the true religion. The experiential flaw was their lack of confidence in the preaching of the gospel and the sovereignty of God to preserve the church against the gates of hell.(2)

    The thrust of Scripture's teaching therefore confirms the two kingdoms doctrine, although it takes us in a different direction than Calvin's application suggested. It clearly affirms the lordship of Jesus over all things (i.e., the secular or temporal kingdom), while at the same time explaining that the reign of Christ's kingdom (i.e., the eternal kingdom) is expressed at present only through the church. To be sure, Christians witness to the reality and future of the kingdom in all of life, but the way in which they do so is in imitation of Christ, the one who set aside his glory to take up the form of a sacrificial servant. One day the kingdom will come in its fullness, as Christians pray, but for now believers do God's will on earth as it is in heaven by taking up their cross and following Jesus.
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