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An Introduction to the Reformed Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms

January 5th, 2017 | 17 min read

By E. J. Hutchinson

I'm really excited to publish this post today from my friend Eric Hutchinson, classics professor at Hillsdale CollegeOne of the projects I see Mere O taking on in the coming days is trying to outline some basic principles of political theology. Times of upheaval and institutional evolution are often ideal times for this sort of discussion because the upheaval has a way of leveling the ground and providing a sturdy foundation for building new things.

Toward that end, I'm excited to have Eric here today helping us define some principles that allow us to avoid the sloppier variations of two kingdom thinking that you run into in some Reformed circles and the sloppier transformationalism that you sometimes come across with more broadly evangelical sorts.

There is much confusion today as to what we mean, and what we ought to mean, when we talk about what Oliver O’Donovan calls “the doctrine of the two,” whether we are referring to “two kingdoms” or to “two cities”.

In the popular imagination, both of these terms refer to “church and state.” However, that is not at all how the terms were understood traditionally by most western Christians. In this post, I’d like to focus on the first term, “two kingdoms,” and describe what it does mean from the Magisterial Protestant perspective. If one does not accurately grasp the Protestant doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” he will be hard-pressed to make any sense of the position of classical Protestantism on “church” and “state.” To explain what that doctrine is, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion provides as convenient a starting place as any for the basic distinction.

In Book 3, in his discussion of Christian liberty, Calvin writes:

Therefore, lest [the privilege of liberty] prove a stumbling-block to any, let us observe that in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are bold to perform (see Book 4, chap. 10, sec. 3-6). To these two forms are commonly given the not inappropriate names of spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, intimating that the former species has reference to the life of the soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely honorably, and modestly. The former has its seat within the soul, the latter only regulates the external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom. (3.19.15)

At first, one might think that Calvin is speaking of “church” and “state,” as the “spiritual” and “temporal” or “civil” kingdoms. But that would be a mistake. We already have a couple of clues: one relates to the “soul,” the other to “external conduct.” One relates to the “conscience,” while the other to instruction as to our duties as social or political animals. Note that Calvin does not limit this realm to the merely “secular” (in the modern sense, i.e., what is “godless”).

Still, as he continues, what he means by the “civil kingdom” is perhaps still not completely clear:

Now, these two, as we have divided them, are always to be viewed apart from each other. When the one is considered, we should call off our minds, and not allow them to think of the other. For there exists in man a kind of two worlds, over which different kings and different laws can preside. By attending to this distinction, we will not erroneously transfer the doctrine of the gospel concerning spiritual liberty to civil order, as if in regard to external government Christians were less subject to human laws, because their consciences are unbound before God, as if they were exempted from all carnal service, because in regard to the Spirit they are free.

According to Calvin, Christian liberty, in which the conscience is “unbound before God,” is not to be transferred to the “civil order.” It does not mean exemption from the laws. But the crucial question is, what belongs under the heading “civil order”? Does it mean what we nowadays normally consider the “political” (matters of public policy, economics, and so on), or does it also include what we nowadays normally consider “ecclesiastical” (church order, laws, and son on)? These are subjects he defers for the time being:

We shall elsewhere have an opportunity of speaking of civil government (see Book 4, chap. 20). For the present, also, I defer speaking of ecclesiastical laws, because that subject will be more fully discussed in the Fourth Book when we come to treat of the Power of the Church.

But before he leaves the topic, he crucially emphasizes again the distinction between the “internal” and “external,” which corresponds to what he means by the distinction between the “spiritual” and the “temporal” or “civil”:

The question, as I have said, though not very obscure, or perplexing in itself, occasions difficulty to many, because they do not distinguish with sufficient accuracy between what is called the external forum, and the forum of conscience.

Even from what has been said so far, it should be clear that we should at least be very wary of transferring Calvin’s references to the first kind of government to the “church.” One kingdom or government is “spiritual,” “internal,” “in the soul,” and relates to “conscience”. The second is “temporal,” “civil,” “external,” and relates to “matters of the present life.” The careful reader will note that the latter categories in many respects map more closely onto the institutional church than the former do. This is something many of us understand almost intuitively: A church might discipline a person for committing adultery, but not for having lustful thoughts.

In confirmation of the suggestion in the previous paragraph, it is of some significance that Calvin treats ecclesiastical laws under the second set of categories. Why? Because God alone is Lord of the first set of categories; God alone is Lord of the conscience. His discussion is part of an argument against what he considers the tyranny of the Church of Rome, but we should mark well the point at issue. The point of controversy is not that Rome “legislates,” or enacts church constitutions, but rather that such constitutions must be obeyed upon pain of damnation. Calvin objected to this because their “laws” bind the conscience, since submission to them is necessary for salvation, and thus they fall afoul of Paul’s warnings in the letter to the Galatians. As Calvin says, “My intention here then is, to impugn constitutions of this description; constitutions enacted for the purpose of binding the conscience inwardly before God, and imposing religious duties, as if they enjoined things necessary to salvation” (4.10.2).

Calvin’s solution is closer attention to the above-mentioned distinction that was missed by Rome, namely, the distinction between the “external forum” and the “forum of conscience,” which Calvin here emphasizes again. In doing so, he significantly draws a parallel between church constitutions and “secular” laws:

Many are greatly puzzled with this question, from not distinguishing, with sufficient care, between what is called the external forum and the forum of conscience (Book 3 chap. 19 sec 15). Moreover, the difficulty is increased by the terms in which Paul enjoins obedience to magistrates, “not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake” (Rom. 13:5); and from which it would follow, that civil laws also bind the conscience. But if this were so, nothing that we have said of spiritual government, in the last chapter, and are to say in this, would stand….Properly speaking…[the conscience] respects God alone, as I have already said. Hence a law may be said to bind the conscience when it simply binds a man without referring to men, or taking them into account. For example, God enjoins us not only to keep our mind chaste and pure from all lust, but prohibits every kind of obscenity in word, and all external lasciviousness.

This law my conscience is bound to observe, though there were not another man in the world. Thus he who behaves intemperately not only sins by setting a bad example to his brethren, but stands convicted in his conscience before God. Another rule holds in the case of things which are in themselves indifferent. For we ought to abstain when they give offence, but conscience is free. Thus Paul says of meat consecrated to idols, “If any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake;” “conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other” (1 Cor. 10:28, 29). A believer would sin, if, after being warned, he should still eat such kind of meat. But however necessary abstinence may be in respect of a brother, as prescribed by the Lord, conscience ceases not to retain its liberty. We see how the law, while binding the external work, leaves the conscience free. (Institutes 4.10.3-4)

It is in this respect that Rome errs. Rome confuses the two kingdoms and supposes she can create religious obligations that bind not only externally but internally. But the true teaching is that the “internal forum” is free absolutely, even when a person obeys a church constitution out of charity and the general obligation to submit to the established authorities.

Notice what this means, however: it means that ecclesiastical laws respecting “things in themselves indifferent” are strictly analogous to the laws of the magistrate, as neither touch the inner man. What then? In this respect, the institutional church is not the “spiritual kingdom,” but rather is part of the temporal, external, civil kingdom, because one is not justified before God and adopted as a child of God on the basis of obedience to human authorities, but rather by faith alone.

This distinction between the “external” or “earthly” forum and the “forum of conscience” is so significant to Calvin that he repeats it again and again. Thus in the paragraph immediately following the one just quoted, he writes:

Let us now return to human laws. If they are imposed for the purpose of forming a religious obligation, as if the observance of them was in itself necessary, we say that the restraint thus laid on the conscience is unlawful. Our consciences have not to do with men but with God only. Hence the common distinction between the earthly forum and the forum of conscience. When the whole world was enveloped in the thickest darkness of ignorance, it was still held (like a small ray of light which remained unextinguished) that conscience was superior to all human judgments. Although this, which was acknowledged in word, was afterwards violated in fact, yet God was pleased that there should even then exist an attestation to liberty, exempting the conscience from the tyranny of man. (Institutes 4.10.5)

Yet this seems to pose a problem with respect to the words of the Apostle Paul in Rom. 13.5 (“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience” [ESV]). Once again, note that Calvin uses a text about the magistrate (that is, civil, temporal authority) to explain the status of church constitutions.  

But we have not yet explained the difficulty which arises from the words of Paul. For if we must obey princes not only from fear of punishment but for conscience sake, it seems to follow, that the laws of princes have dominion over the conscience. If this is true, the same thing must be affirmed of ecclesiastical laws. I answer, that the first thing to be done here is to distinguish between the genus and the species. For though individual laws do not reach the conscience, yet we are bound by the general command of God, which enjoins us to submit to magistrates. And this is the point on which Paul’s discussion turns—viz. that magistrates are to be honoured, because they are ordained of God (Rom. 13:1).

Meanwhile, he does not at all teach that the laws enacted by them reach to the internal government of the soul, since he everywhere proclaims that the worship of God, and the spiritual rule of living righteously, are superior to all the decrees of men. Another thing also worthy of observation, and depending on what has been already said, is, that human laws, whether enacted by magistrates or by the Church, are necessary to be observed (I speak of such as are just and good), but do not therefore in themselves bind the conscience, because the whole necessity of observing them respects the general end, and consists not in the things commanded. Very different, however, is the case of those which prescribe a new form of worshipping God, and introduce necessity into things that are free.  (4.10.5)

Ecclesiastical laws, instituted by church authority, have the same status as all other human laws. They do not bind the conscience as to what they specifically command and forbid, but only give commands to provide for the temporal welfare of society, which is why God has commanded that the authorities be obeyed (when their laws do not contradict the Law of God).

Thus the conscience is bound by the general command of God, and not by specific matters commanded by earthly authorities. They do not “reach to the internal government of the soul” or in themselves have any effect on man’s standing before God. It is for this reason that the Magisterial Reformers had no problem with a church calendar properly understood. The problem with the constitutions of Rome was, again, that through them Rome attempted to bind the conscience as to one’s standing before God (think here of “holy days of obligation”), and in so doing altered the worship of God. In other words, the problem was precisely that Rome did not see the institutional church as part of the temporal kingdom. To miss that fact, furthermore, is to embrace a form of the Roman error. As Calvin had already said at the beginning of 4.10,

They say that the laws which they enact are spiritual, pertaining to the soul, and they affirm that they are necessary to eternal life. But thus the kingdom of Christ, as I lately observed, is invaded; thus the liberty, which he has given to the consciences of believers, is completely oppressed and overthrown. I say nothing as to the great impiety with which, to sanction the observance of their laws, they declare that from it they seek forgiveness of sins, righteousness and salvation, while they make the whole sum of religion and piety to consist in it.

What I contend for is, that necessity ought not to be laid on consciences in matters in which Christ has made them free; and unless freed, cannot, as we have previously shown (Book 3 chap. 19), have peace with God. They must acknowledge Christ their deliverer, as their only king, and be ruled by the only law of liberty—namely, the sacred word of the Gospel—if they would retain the grace which they have once received in Christ: they must be subject to no bondage, be bound by no chains. (Institutes 4.10.1)

Given all that has been said, we should not be surprised when Calvin echoes much of the language used in his discussion of ecclesiastical law in his famous discussion of civil government (Institutes 4.20). I touch here only on its opening paragraphs to make the point. He begins as follows:

Having shown above that there is a twofold government in man, and having fully considered the one which, placed in the soul or inward man, relates to eternal life, we are here called to say something of the other, which pertains only to civil institutions and the external regulation of manners. (Institutes 4.20.1)

Calvin believes that he needs to do this to chart a middle path through the Scylla of Anabaptist radicalism that wishes to overthrow divine order and the Charybdis of sycophantic authoritarianism:

For although this subject seems from its nature to be unconnected with the spiritual doctrine of faith, which I have undertaken to treat, it will appear as we proceed, that I have properly connected them, nay, that I am under the necessity of doing so, especially while, on the one hand, frantic and barbarous men are furiously endeavouring to overturn the order established by God, and, on the other, the flatterers of princes, extolling their power without measure, hesitate not to oppose it to the government of God. Unless we meet both extremes, the purity of the faith will perish.

He goes on:

And first, before entering on the subject itself, it is necessary to attend to the distinction which we formerly laid down (Book 3 Chap. 19 sec. 16, et supra, Chap. 10), lest, as often happens to many, we imprudently confound these two things, the nature of which is altogether different. For some, on hearing that liberty is promised in the gospel, a liberty which acknowledges no king and no magistrate among men, but looks to Christ alone, think that they can receive no benefit from their liberty so long as they see any power placed over them. Accordingly, they think that nothing will be safe until the whole world is changed into a new form, when there will be neither courts, nor laws, nor magistrates, nor anything of the kind to interfere, as they suppose, with their liberty. But he who knows to distinguish between the body and the soul, between the present fleeting life and that which is future and eternal, will have no difficulty in understanding that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things very widely separated.

When we read these words in the context of what was said above, we can understand them properly. Ecclesiastical laws do not belong to the “spiritual kingdom,” but form part of the civil order. These two kingdoms are as different, Calvin says, as body and soul. Indeed, even contemporary advocates of the twenty-first century reimagining of the two kingdoms as essentially “church” and “state” must at some points revert to Calvin’s understanding if they wish to avoid conclusions they find disagreeable. Consider, for example, the question of women’s ordination. The “church and state” reading of the two kingdoms would lead directly to it via Gal. 3.28 if they did not implicitly understand this point:

[L]et us, considering, as Scripture clearly teaches, that the blessings which we derive from Christ are spiritual, remember to confine the liberty which is promised and offered to us in him within its proper limits. For why is it that the very same apostle who bids us “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not again entangled with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1), in another passage forbids slaves to be solicitous about their state (1 Cor. 7:21), unless it be that spiritual liberty is perfectly compatible with civil servitude? In this sense the following passages are to be understood: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). Again, “There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11). It is thus intimated, that it matters not what your condition is among men, nor under what laws you live, since in them the kingdom of Christ does not at all consist.

But this interior freedom--the freedom that exists in the inner forum of conscience, as we saw above--does not do away with civil order, of which the institutional church forms an important part. In the second paragraph of 4.20, Calvin writes:

Still the distinction does not go so far as to justify us in supposing that the whole scheme of civil government is matter of pollution, with which Christian men have nothing to do. Fanatics, indeed, delighting in unbridled license, insist and vociferate that, after we are dead by Christ to the elements of this world, and being translated into the kingdom of God sit among the celestials, it is unworthy of us, and far beneath our dignity, to be occupied with those profane and impure cares which relate to matters alien from a Christian man. To what end, they say, are laws without courts and tribunals?

But what has a Christian man to do with courts? Nay, if it is unlawful to kill, what have we to do with laws and courts? But as we lately taught that that kind of government is distinct from the spiritual and internal kingdom of Christ, so we ought to know that they are not adverse to each other. The former, in some measure, begins the heavenly kingdom in us, even now upon earth, and in this mortal and evanescent life commences immortal and incorruptible blessedness, while to the latter it is assigned, so long as we live among men, to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church, to adapt our conduct to human society, to form our manners to civil justice, to conciliate us to each other, to cherish common peace and tranquillity.

All these I confess to be superfluous, if the kingdom of God, as it now exists within us, extinguishes the present life. But if it is the will of God that while we aspire to true piety we are pilgrims upon the earth, and if such pilgrimage stands in need of such aids, those who take them away from man rob him of his humanity. (Institutes 4.20.2)

The importance of this paragraph for understanding the Magisterial doctrine of the two kingdoms cannot be overstressed. The “heavenly” or spiritual kingdom relates to eternal life and is begun “in us”; and it is not to this kingdom that the external worship of God, as such, belongs. Calvin is perfectly clear here: It, and other things like it, belong to the civil or temporal kingdom. They form part of the warp and woof of human life.

Calvin, like Aristotle, believed that man was a political animal. That is, he was made to share life in common with others and to be part of human society. Therefore the civil fostering of external religion should be seen as an aid to the nurture of pilgrim piety while we live this life on earth in community with others, in addition to its being commanded by the law of nature (a subject to be dealt with in a future post): such aids are necessary because the kingdom of God does not “extinguish” our present life. This present life remains fundamentally human, temporal, and civil, and so we need assistance of just that kind. For that reason, the worship of God and the condition of the church can be seen as matters of public concern in a way that does not violate the distinction between the two kingdoms, but rather in a way that is explicitly underwritten by the distinction between the two kingdoms.

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E. J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Associate Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College, where he also directs the Collegiate Scholars Program. He is the editor and translator of Niels Hemmingsen’s On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method.