White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Defining the Two Kingdoms

Published Thursday, July 5, 2007 By Michael S. Horton

Two eschatologies, or views of history and creation’s destiny, clashed in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. One was rooted in the triumphalism that marked Anglo-American Protestantism since the Spanish Armada’s defeat in 1588 and produced the courageous confidence of the New England Puritans. The other was rooted in the disillusionment with society’s gradual improvement that so characterized nineteenth-century Evangelicalism. Postmillennialism and premillennialism (see definitions on page 46) are the terms most commonly used now to delineate those two distinct approaches.

Millennialism, whatever the prefix, concerns the triumph of “Christendom” from the conversion of Constantine the Great in 313 to the Great War (World War I). In the fifth century, St. Augustine sharply distinguished the “two cities,” with their own special origin, purpose, destiny, message, and methods. And yet, Augustine reluctantly conceded to the use of the secular sword in suppressing the Donatists, a schismatic group similar to the radical Anabaptists known to the reformers. Like Augustine, both Luther and Calvin defended in theory a two kingdoms approach that they did not always follow in practice. While Augustine, Luther, and Calvin were “amillennial” in their eschatology (i.e., non-millenarian), they were still under the sway of the Christendom model. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Holy Roman Empire often played out its identity as the fulfillment of the Old Testament theocracy, the true Israel of God. The emperor was a blend of King David (hence, the Holy part of the name) and Caesar (hence, the Roman part). The whole empire and, in fact, all Christian states, composed the corpus Christianum, the body of Christ. And this “one kingdom” of God would grow and spread its unified cult and culture, its worship and its civilization, to the ends of the earth.

This is the myth behind the crusades, the Inquisition, and such American institutions as slavery and the doctrine of manifest destiny, which gave narrative justification for the slaughter of Native Americans. Needless to say, the confusion of the two kingdoms has yielded the lion’s share of blame for the atrocities committed in the name of God and his Messiah. In the nineteenth century, most Protestants were optimistic. Temperance societies emerged as one of many movements organized around the vision of a Christianized America. In the last quarter of that century, fellow evangelicals Josiah Strong and D. L. Moody would represent the growing cleavage between the triumphalistic postmillennialists and the pessimistic premillennialists. “The kingdoms of this world will not have become the kingdoms of our Lord,” Strong opined, “until the money power has been Christianized.” (1) Long before the conservative-liberal polarizations, American Evangelicalism had championed the so-called social gospel, as one notices in the following comment from liberal preacher Horace Bushnell:

Talent has been Christianized already on a large scale. The political power of states and kingdoms has been long assumed to be, and now at last really is, as far as it becomes their accepted office to maintain personal security and liberty. Architecture, arts, constitutions, schools, and learning have been largely Christianized. But the money power, which is one of the most operative and grandest of all, is only beginning to be; though with promising tokens of a finally complete reduction to Christ and the uses of His Kingdom…. That day, when it comes, is the morning, so to speak, of the new creation. Is it not time for that day to dawn? (2)

But evangelist D. L. Moody marched to the beat of a different drum. Although initially quite representative of Charles Finney’s social activism, Moody became increasingly pessimistic about the extent to which earthly empires could become the kingdom of God. “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel,” he would later write. “God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.'” (3) Whereas revival was usually regarded as an instrument of Christianizing society through evangelism and social action, Moody saw it as a means of converting individuals. The American version of the Holy Roman Empire regarded the proliferation of Protestant hospitals, colleges, and men’s and women’s societies, as signs of God’s approval and, indeed, of the advancement of the kingdom of God.

As historian George Marsden has documented in various places, both the Christian Right and the Christian Left derive from this late nineteenth-century Evangelicalism. (4) It is this quite recent train of thought (or, more precisely, activism), rather than the profound reflection of Augustine and the reformers that guides contemporary evangelical activism. Ironically, even staunch premillennialists like Jerry Falwell sound similar to the postmillennialists of yesteryear. It’s one thing to inconsistently act out a two kingdoms position and quite another to act out a Christendom model because one has confused a particular culture with the kingdom of God.

We know that Augustine taught the two kingdoms approach. This view made it possible for profound Christian involvement and influence in secular society, while at the same time never giving in to the naïve assumption that any human culture or nation is-or can become-truly righteous or good. For only at the end of the age, when Christ returns, is the wheat separated from the chaff, and until that time, we work on two different agendas: One for the kingdom of Christ (salvation), and another for the kingdom of man (social improvement), and both for the glory of God.

Earthly Kingdoms and the Heavenly City

Accordingly, the earthly kingdoms establish diverse laws and customs that will engender earthly peace-no small accomplishment for humanity after the fall. But the heavenly city is always different in its ambitions, seeking heavenly peace and calling people out of the nations into the kingdom of God. This does not mean that they then are no longer citizens of the earthly city, but that they do not derive their ultimate comfort, satisfaction, or hope from it. Secular society is a gift of God before and after the fall and it must be cultivated by Christians as well as their nonbelieving neighbors. In fact, “God can never be believed to have left the kingdoms of men, their dominations and servitudes, outside of the laws of His providence.” (5) But the earthly city is always Babylon-it is never converted, as are its inhabitants, into the dwelling place of God. The kingdom of God advances through the proclamation of the Gospel, not through force: “This city is therefore now in building; stones are cut down from the hills by the hands of those who preach truth, they are squared that they may enter into an everlasting structure.” (6)

Luther appropriated Augustine’s New Testament insights, although he reacted against church domination over the secular sphere by making the church subject to the state. (In fairness, the same approach was taken by Zwingli, Bucer, Bullinger, and even to some extent Calvin.) “Secular government has laws which extend no further than to life and property and to external things and relations on earth. For over the soul God can and will let no one rule but himself alone,” Luther said. The two kingdoms approach represents the Lutheran consensus.

But what about Calvin and Calvinism? Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr’s heavy typecasting in Christ and Culture distinguishes Calvinism as a “Christ Transforming Culture” model. There have been reasons to argue that case, I suppose. In the Dutch Calvinism of theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, for instance, there is a heavy emphasis on recognizing the authority of God and of his Christ over all spheres of life and not just religion. While Presbyterianism in the northern United States tended to confuse the two cities, dominated as it came to be by postmillennial optimism, southern Presbyterianism sharply distinguished the two kingdoms-often perhaps in the interest of protecting the institution of slavery by separating faith from practice.

But when it comes to the confessional standards of Reformed and Presbyterian bodies, as well as their most representative dogmatics or systematic theologies, one easily discerns a consensus around the biblical and Augustinian two kingdoms doctrine. To demonstrate this conclusion, let’s turn briefly to Calvin.

Calvin Appreciates God’s Fallen World

Trained in some of the most distinguished circles of French humanism, Calvin was familiar with a wide range of literature and other subjects. Far from repudiating this heritage, he continued to appreciate its strengths even as he came to recognize more clearly the weaknesses in secular thought. “Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers,” he pleaded, “let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.” He continues:

What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone on the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature?… Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen?… Those men whom Scripture calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of earthly things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good. (7)

Opposing what Calvin called the contrived empire known as Christendom was not popular in the sixteenth century, with Roman Catholics or Protestants. And Calvin was still not as clear about how this worked out in practice as we might have hoped. Nevertheless, he insists, we must recognize that we are “under a twofold government,… so that we do not (as commonly happens) unwisely mingle these two, which have a completely different nature.” Just as the body and soul are distinct without being necessarily opposed, “Christ’s spiritual kingdom and the civil jurisdiction are things completely distinct.” But he continues:

Yet this distinction does not lead us to consider the whole nature of government a thing polluted, which has nothing to do with Christian men. That is what, indeed, certain fanatics who delight in unbridled license shout and boast…. But as we have just now pointed out that this kind of government is distinct from that spiritual and inward Kingdom of Christ, so we must know that they are not at variance. (8)

So here the Genevan reformer stood, between the Christ of culture (Rome) and the Christ against culture (Anabaptists). Because of God’s goodness in creation and providence, the secular kingdom could not be renounced without incurring divine displeasure, but because of sin and rebellion against God the cities of this world would never be reconciled to God apart from his final judgment at the end of history.

Anabaptist zeal to escape the world meets with Calvin’s rebuke at every turn. The Schleitheim Confession (1527) of the Anabaptists argued the following dualism that would also heavily mark American fundamentalism:

We are agreed on separation: A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them [the wicked] and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations. This is the way it is: Since all who do not walk in the obedience of faith, and have not united themselves with God so that they wish to do his will, are a great abomination to God, it is not possible for anything to grow or issue from them except abominable things. (9)

Hence, most Anabaptists withdrew entirely from civil society to form their own communities. Ironically, these communities became a new confusion of kingdoms: the secular and spiritual government were regarded as one and the same, just as they had been in Christendom. While some Anabaptists withdrew, others sought to overthrow existing governments and institute the kingdom of God by force, as in Thomas Muntzer’s ill-fated peasant revolution. The problem with the Anabaptists on this point, Calvin argued, was that they would not distinguish between creation and fall or between the two kingdoms instituted by God. In this way, justification before God was confused with moral, social, and political righteousness, undermining both civility between Christian and non-Christian as well as the Gospel. So, Calvin writes, “How malicious and hateful toward public welfare would a man be who is offended by such diversity, which is perfectly adapted to maintain the observance of God’s law! For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain.” (10) After all, Calvin says, “It is a fact that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved on the minds of men.” (11) Unbelievers can rule justly and prudently, as Paul indicates, even under the more pagan circumstances of his day (Rom. 13:1-7).

Calvin’s Distinctiveness from Luther on the Practice of Two Kingdoms

Where Calvin differed not only from Luther but also from his Reformed elders and colleagues, was chiefly in the practice of two kingdoms theory. For one thing, Calvin had been expelled from Geneva precisely because he and the other ministers had insisted on the liberty of the church in the spiritual affairs of the people. Zurich’s city council had ruled the church, as had Strasbourg’s, Bern’s, and Basel’s-while Zwingli, Bullinger, Bucer, Oecolampadius, and other reformer-pastors of those cities fully concurred. Why were Calvin and Farel so disagreeable to this order? Only after pleading earnestly and successfully for Calvin’s return did the city council of Geneva finally surrender at least some of its jurisdiction to the consistory (the pastors of the several Genevan churches with their elders). Even when Michael Servetus, the outspoken anti-trinitarian, was burned at the stake in Geneva, Calvin’s only role was that of witness. In fact, Calvin had pleaded with the city council for a less painful form of execution, but the support of even “gentle Phillip” Melanchthon was on the side of the traditional execution for heretics. As in many other controversies (such as weekly communion), Calvin lost to the conservatism of the city council.

On the right of resistance to tyrannical rulers, Calvin shared the conservatism of the other reformers, especially at a time when so many princes suspected all Protestants of the radicalism of Thomas Muntzer and the radical Anabaptists. Nevertheless, Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza, along with a number of other Reformed theologians especially in Germany and France, began developing what became the modern “right of resistance” to tyrants. For Luther, the prince is always to be obeyed, at least in the sphere of earthly things. Calvin’s view was almost identical to that but with the door sufficiently cracked (e.g., Institutes 4.20) to allow for the possibility that tyrants could be opposed on legal grounds by lesser nobility-but never by the masses. One does begin to discern in Reformed attitudes a greater interaction between the two kingdoms. Although both are clearly distinguished, there is perhaps a stronger emphasis in Reformed theology upon the continuity of creation and redemption. The image of God is defaced, but not lost, in sinful humanity. While cultural activity can never be redemptive, the redeemed will view creation and cultural activity with new spectacles. The enormous interest in cultural pursuits that the Reformed tradition produced was never seen as entirely separate from heavenly citizenship, but a constructive outworking of it.

To be sure, there is a tension in the Reformed position to see all of life under the reign of God and yet to affirm “we do not yet see all things subjected to Christ.” Some err on the side of triumphalism (an over-realized eschatology emphasizing the “already”), while others err on the side of pessimism (an under-realized eschatology emphasizing the “not yet”). But if Calvinists are not expected to endure tyranny, they are also not given liberty to take justice into their own hands or to exercise the judgment reserved for the King of kings on the last day. Nor are they to seek to impose their distinctively Christian convictions on society through the kingdom of power, as both Rome and the radical Anabaptists tried to do, but are to pursue their dual citizenship according to the distinct policies of each kingdom.

At the end of the day, at stake in distinguishing the two kingdoms is the distinction between law and Gospel. Those who confuse civil righteousness with righteousness before God will be likely to confuse moral reform in society with the kingdom of God. And yet, here again there is a subtle difference between the Lutheran and Reformed approaches. While the Reformed firmly insist on the distinction and, in fact, the opposition of law and Gospel with respect to the question of our acceptance before God, they do not believe that the law only accuses everyone at all times. There is a third use of the law, which Lutherans also accept in principle. According to this use, the law guides believers who can never again fall under its threats and condemnation. Law and Gospel are not in opposition unless we seek to find satisfaction before God. But they are always distinguished at every point. The law can guide us in godly living, but it can never-even after we’re justified-give us any life.

Just as we cannot derive any life from the law, we cannot derive any confidence in our cultural triumphs in so many fields. As with law and Gospel, our earthly and heavenly citizenship are not opposed unless we are seeking a way of salvation for a nation. But once we recognize that there is no everlasting rest from violence, oppression, injustice, and immorality through our own political or cultural works, we are free to pursue their amelioration with vigorous gratitude to God for his saving grace in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we pursue this cultural task looking back to the creation which God blessed and looking forward to this same creation that will be restored when the kingdoms of this world will finally be made the kingdom of our God and of his Christ forever, world without end. Amen.

  • Michael S. Horton


1 [ Back ] Josiah Strong, "Our Country," in William G. McLoughlin, ed., The American Evangelicals, 1800-1900: An Anthology (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1976), p. 196.
2 [ Back ] Quoted by Josiah Strong, op.cit.
3 [ Back ] Cited in Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 38.
4 [ Back ] George M. Marsden, The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience: A Case Study of Thought and Theology in Nineteenth-Centry America (New Haven: Yale, 1970); and George M. Marsden, Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), especially chapter 3.
5 [ Back ] Ibid., 222.
6 [ Back ] Ibid., 208.
7 [ Back ] Institutes, 2.2.15.
8 [ Back ] Ibid., 4.20.1-2.
9 [ Back ] Mark Noll, ed., Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 1997).
10 [ Back ] Institutes, 4.20.8,14.
11 [ Back ] Ibid.
Want to see more articles like this?
Support MR