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The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 3: From Calvin to Hooker

John Calvin
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[This is a continuation of a series begun two weeks ago.  See Part 1 here and Part 2 here.]

Unlike some other second-generation Reformers, we do not have to read between the lines to find a two-kingdoms doctrine in Calvin.  On the contrary, he is far less ambiguous even than Luther in setting it out at the center of his theology, inviting the question of why Calvin studies have until recently largely ignored the theme.  The doctrine appears in the all-important chapter III.19 of the Institutes, as Calvin concludes his discussion of justification and prepares to transition to his massive Bk. IV, entitled “The External Means or Aids By Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein.”  Inasmuch as Calvin scholarship has attended at all to his two-kingdoms idea, it has frequently assumed, as VanDrunen does, that in delineating the “two kingdoms,” Calvin intends to delineate the two distinct institutions within this sphere of external means—church and state.  However, from a structural standpoint, it is more compelling to see his distinction of the two in III.19 as a center-post, with the “spiritual government” pointing back to his discussion of the inward reception of the grace of Christ in Book III, and the “temporal government” pointing forward to his discussion of the external means in Bk. IV—on this basis, both the visibly-organized church and the state would constitute external means in the temporal kingdom.  Certainly Calvin’s word choice in describing the two seems to bear out such a reading:

The former [the spiritual government] has its seat within the soul, the latter [the temporal government] only regulates the external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom. 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. . . . The question . . . 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 (III.19.15).

The clear emphasis on “external” vs. “internal” seems a rather clear clue that Calvin is not, strictly speaking, discussing the spiritual kingdom in his discussion of the “external means” of ecclesiastical polity in Bk. IV.  VanDrunen, however, does not pick up on this clue, and feels the need to chide Calvin for all his talk of “external” vs. “internal”—doesn’t he realize that the Church and its ministry too are external?  “Calvin surely did not mean to suggest that the spiritual kingdom is concerned only about things that are immaterial,” he protests (p. 91); but it seems Calvin meant just this, writing in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians, “Christ’s spiritual kingdom . . . has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind.”  In this, Calvin certainly appears close to what we have seen of Luther.  Of course, it is true that while Calvin never changed his discussion in the Institutes on Christian liberty and the two kingdoms from what he penned in the original 1535 edition, he did develop new emphases which rendered these early reflections unclear and problematic.  In particular, Calvin massively expanded his section on the visible church in Bk. IV, and emphasized more and more the God-ordained character of its external means as the necessary channels through which Christ spiritually governs his church.  The office of clergy as “spiritual governors” was accentuated, as was the close Scriptural regulation of church order—emphases which undermined Luther’s priesthood of all believers and concept of adiaphora, respectively.  Yet in principle, Calvin never abandoned the idea that the institutional form of the church was part of the civil kingdom, and as such subject to considerable variation in different social and political circumstances.

All of this meant that, although Calvin sought to define with more precision the limits of civil jurisdiction, he never doubted that the external care for the church fell within these limits, declaring that it was “to foster and maintain the external worship of God, to defend sound doctrine and the condition of the Church” (IV.20.2)  As with Luther, however, this rule was executed according to principles of natural equity, not divine law, and in principle, the magistrates ruled according to their discretion, not the dictates of the clergy (although in practice, this was not always the case in Geneva).  The exercise of human authority, whether in church and state, remained—although tenuously—an exercise of prudence and charity in the government of things indifferent, not the voice of God.

 

This would begin to change, however, with the advent of jure divino Presbyterianism, as Calvin’s successor Beza and other followers began to claim that in the external government of the church, there was only one Scripturally-authorized system of polity and discipline.  Such a model would prove particularly appealing in Elizabethan England, where disputes over adiaphora had sorely tested the limits of Luther’s doctrine of Christian liberty.  Elizabeth’s Protestant bishops defended her authority to enforce uniformity in various ecclesiastical ceremonies, as matters purely external, and contended that this posed no problem for Christian liberty in the spiritual kingdom of conscience, since no doctrinal claims were being made about the ceremonies.  But for many English Protestants, the ceremonies did pose a problem of conscience, as they seemed inherently superstitious or popish.   The idea that the details of church order might be prescribed in Scripture promised a solution to such conflicts of conscience.  Even better was the idea that the church, conceived in terms of the ordained clergy, could autonomously govern its own affairs—a concept derived not only from Beza, but even more so from the paradigm of the “stranger churches,” which many English Protestants had experienced during their exile under Bloody Mary.  Such an independent body, moreover, could ensure a much purer and more disciplined membership than the “mixed multitude” of the national Protestant churches—in short, the visible church could approximate the invisible.

Taken together, these concepts—a detailed Scriptural blueprint for the church, Presbyterian ministers as the authorized interpreters of the same, and the ideal of a pure and disciplined body of “visible saints”—provided the building blocks for a new mutation of the two-kingdoms doctrine.  In England, this received its fullest expression in the works of Thomas Cartwright and Walter Travers in the 1570s and 1580s, although Andrew Melville was simultaneously advancing a similar paradigm in Scotland, where it would leave a lasting stamp.  For these men, as for VanDrunen, the two kingdoms represent two external manifestations of God’s rule—the one through ministers and their disciplinary regime; the other through magistrates and their disciplinary regime.  Each presided over a distinct society with distinct ends, and strictly defined responsibilities.

The implications for political theology were dramatic, dramatically upsetting the delicate balance in Protestant political theology between the magistrate’s secular (as an officer of the temporal kingdom ruling by human law) and sacred (as a principle member of the church charged with the care of the same) roles.  The Puritan project threatened either to reinscribe a high medieval papalist arrangement, in which the magistrate was bound to frame his laws according to clerical dictates, and enforce their policies, or else to disengage the civil polity from the church altogether, making a Christian commonwealth, their opponents charged, no different from a Turkish one.  The former route was more common in 16th- and 17th-century England and Scotland, whereas the latter has proved move attractive for later generations of jure divino Presbyterians, such as VanDrunen.

Perhaps most troubling of all was the Puritan propensity to sacrifice the Protestant doctrine of Christian liberty.  Ironically, by appealing to Scriptural law in their attempt to defend Christian liberty against meddling magistrates, they undermined this liberty by dramatically shrinking the realm of adiaphora.  Key gains of the Reformation were now undone as the believer’s conscience once again had to tread carefully around a thicket of moral and ecclesiastical regulations, fearful that any transgression was rebellion against God.

It was thus—paradoxically to our ears—in defense of Christian liberty that Richard Hooker took up his pen to justify the magistrate’s authority to impose religious uniformity.  We will examine this defense, and its legacy, in our fourth installment.

 

Key sources used for the foregoing argument include Harro Höpfl, John Calvin’s Christian Polity; P.D.L. Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers; Joan O’Donovan, Theology of Law and Authority in the English Reformation; Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement; A.F. Scott Pearson, Church and State: Political Aspects of Sixteenth-Century Puritanism; and Torrance Kirby, Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy.

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Brad Littlejohn has just completed a Ph.D at the University of Edinburgh, where he worked on the relationship between law, loyalty, and liberty in the thought of Richard Hooker under the supervision of Oliver O’Donovan. He has written one monograph and edited another on the 19th-century movement known as the Mercersburg Theology, but his real passion is in the fields of political theology and early modern history, in which fields he has written several articles and book chapters. He blogs at www.swordandploughshare.com.