The Two Kingdoms Doctrine, Part Two: John Calvin

Matthew Tuininga
The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What's The Fuss All About? Part 2: John Calvin

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. 

Matthew J Tuininga is a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society at Emory University, currently writing his dissertation on John Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at

1. See his commentary on Romans 8:19-22 and on 2 Peter 3:10-11.
2. See his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15:27.
3. Commentary on Colossians 1:18. See also the commentary on Ephesians 4:6.
4. For themes see especially the Institutes, Book 3, Chapters 8-10.
5. See the commentary on 'Thy kingdom come' in Matthew 6:10.
6. For a few examples, see the commentaries on Isaiah 59:21 and 2 Thessalonians 2:4, and the Treatises Against the Anabaptists and against the Libertines, 87. For a broader discussion of the spirituality of Scripture's teaching on the kingdom see the Institutes, Book 2, Chapters 10-11.
7.For instance, In 1548 Calvin wrote a long letter to the Protector Somerset of England, who was governing the realm in the name of the boy king Edward VI. Calvin told Somerset that he was to advance God's honor "until you have established his kingdom in as great perfection as is to be looked for in the world." What did Calvin mean by this? As he explains in the rest of the letter, he means that Somerset must establish the preaching of the gospel and the worship of God, preventing attacks against it. "Thus ought earthly princes to rule and govern, serving Jesus Christ, and taking order that he may have his own sovereign authority over all, both small and great." But it is the preaching of the gospel that Somerset is to establish that Calvin identifies with the kingdom of God, not Somerset's own governing activity. "And herein you may also perceive why the Gospel is called the Kingdom of God. Even so, albeit the edicts and statutes of princes are good helps for advancing and upholding the state of Christianity, yet God is pleased to declare his sovereign power by this spiritual sword of his word, when it is made known by the pastors."