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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms” by Matthew Tuininga

Published Wednesday, June 12, 2019 By Brian Lee

In recent years, the “two kingdoms” teaching of the Reformed tradition has been a point of some contention. Speaking broadly, advocates of two kingdoms use it to place a greater emphasis on the spiritual authority of the church and discourage the church from engaging in the culture wars and politics of the civil realm.  Practically speaking, the result is less cultural critique and politics from the pulpit. The other side of this debate doesn’t deny the existence of two kingdoms per se, but tends to portray its proponents as “radical” in their distinction of the spiritual and temporal realms.  Hence, “Radical Two Kingdoms” (or R2K) has become a label of disapprobation. This view generally points to the historic practice of the Reformed churches and recognizes that they have frequently expressed a robust engagement with culture and politics. Abraham Kuyper, theologian and Prime Minister, seems to embody this approach. Practically speaking, this side of the divide believes Christians should more robustly engage in cultural transformation and the civil politics of this age. The church should not surrender the field of battle and allow our culture and politics to deteriorate further.  Matthew Tuininga’s book Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church is an extremely important and valuable work addressing one of the more contentious debates in the Reformed church today, and is required reading for those on both sides of the current discussion.

The debate often seems unfruitful, because the two sides often speak past one another. Advocates of two kingdoms emphasize the theory of the Reformed tradition, and discount its practice insofar as it seems to conflict with that theory. The other side emphasizes historical practice, noting that the theory cannot mean what proponents claim if, practically speaking, the Reformed churches have been so deeply enmeshed in the matters of this world.

This is precisely where I believe Tuininga’s work can make an important contribution to the clarity of thought on both sides of this debate. In the Introduction, he distinguishes between Calvin’s political practice and his political theory. It is always the case that theoretical commitments must be chastened by practical concerns and real world limitations, and because Calvin lived in such a tumultuous age of radical change in both the church and politics, this is even more so the case.

One of the great strengths of Tuininga’s book is how he distinguishes between Calvin’s practice and theory, and allows the historical context to clarify and explain the differences. Tuininga opens his book with a survey of different medieval and Reformation perspectives on church and state, and focuses in on the specific context of Calvin in Geneva and among the French Reformed churches.

One evidence of the depth of Tuininga’s study is that even knowledgeable readers are surprised by many of the insights he unearths.  For instance, I was unaware that Zwingli so identified the church with society that he saw the civil magistrates now fulfilling the governing role occupied by ruling elders in the New Testament (45).  It is against this backdrop of a conflation of the two kingdoms within the Reformed tradition that Calvin’s teaching on church and society must be understood.  For Calvin, this kingdom is not only a spiritual reality, but is also fundamentally an eschatological reality.  While it has begun, it has not yet been consummated, and cannot come in full until Christ returns in glory.  Because of its spiritual and eschatological nature, this kingdom must not be simply identified with the temporal kingdoms of this world; thus, the need to recognize two kingdoms. Tuininga writes:

For Calvin the fundamental difference between the two kingdoms is not that one is inward and the other is outward, but that one is spiritual and eternal, and the other is temporal and political. The visible church, in Calvin’s paradigm, truly administers the spiritual government of Christ. (184)

The irony is that Calvin, often thought of as the tyrant of Geneva, is an innovator in terms of the limits he wishes to put on the civil government.  It is his high view of the Kingdom of Christ that limits his view of the potential for any civil government to usher in that spiritual kingdom.  Furthermore, he desires more than any other magisterial reformer for the church to be free from the control of the state.  Tuininga summarizes that in context when he writes that Calvin offered “the sharpest distinction between church and commonwealth articulated by a mainstream theologian who did not reject Christian participation in civil government” (357).

One of the most fascinating chapters—and most heavily marked up in my review copy—is on “The Magistrate’s Care of Religion.” Here Calvin’s distinction between church and state reaches its limits, for he believes the state has a strong obligation to care for true religion. Ironically, Calvin draws this obligation from reason, natural revelation, and the common consent of nations, more than from Old Testament example. Thus, in defending the death penalty for adultery, Calvin appeals to Roman law and the common law of nations.  He actually defends the Jews for seeking the death penalty for Jesus (and Stephen), writing “the general doctrine was undoubtedly true, that it was not lawful for men to assume any honor which is due to God,” and that “they deserved to be put to death. … This example warns us to distinguish carefully between a general doctrine and the application of it” (284).  In like spirit, Calvin criticizes Athens for the free speech and toleration of Mars Hill, a policy that promoted “an infatuation with novelty and a predilection to idleness.”  Calvin is thus no friend of religious liberty, and supports the magistrate using the power of the sword to defend the church from error. But in a fascinating quote, Tuininga shows that Calvin understands the tensions inherent in defending a spiritual kingdom by physical force:

The kingdom of Christ, being spiritual, must be founded on the doctrine and power of the Spirit. …for neither the laws and edicts of men nor the punishments inflicted by them enter into consciences. Yet this does not hinder princes from accidentally defending the kingdom of Christ… It results, however, from the depravity of the world that the kingdom of Christ is strengthened more by the blood of the martyrs than by the aid of arms. (287)

Ironies abound—magistrates defend the kingdom of Christ, yet do so accidentally. Laws can’t sanctify hearts, and, ultimately, because we live in a fallen world, the church is strengthened more by persecution by the state, than by its active defense. Yet this shouldn’t stop godly rulers from indirectly seeking to protect and advance the cause of Christ’s kingdom (though the toleration of those entirely outside the sphere of the true faith—Jews and Turks—was encouraged).  Calvin, however, tries to distinguish this defense from active government of church affairs, and Tuininga raises an interesting point in this regard: Calvin’s use of public reason and common consent to defend the care of religion meant that the punishment of heresy requires a certain degree of common consensus. Where that consensus is lacking—such as our pluralistic and secular society—Calvin’s principles might lead him to advocate a different practice.

In closing, I’d like to return to the importance of Calvin’s Political Theology for informing contemporary debate on this topic, and focus on one of its scholarly strengths in particular.  If you flip through the pages of this book with your eye trained on the footnotes, you will notice the overwhelming number of references to Calvin’s commentaries, with references to sermons, letters, and other occasional writings.  The current generation of Calvin scholars has demonstrated that the Institutes is a small selection of Calvin’s overall output, and any comprehensive picture of his thought on a topic requires a broad survey of his biblical commentaries in particular.  Calvin commented on almost every book of the Bible, and by my rough count, it seems that Tuininga has quoted from Calvin’s commentaries on 39 different books.  This study is truly a labor of love, that reveals the author’s intimate familiarity with his subject.

The result is an incredibly deep and rich picture of Calvin’s thought on the two kingdoms, carefully situated in its historical context.  Tuininga also relates Calvin’s teaching on church and society to other topics, such as covenant and eschatology.  Because of the fullness of this portrait, every reader will find himself stretched and surprised by Calvin’s views.  Tuininga demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Calvin’s two kingdoms thought is not merely an antiquarian fancy, but an abundant resource for the church today, as she seeks to navigate the perilous shoals of church and society.

Brian Lee is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Washington, D.C. and the author of several popular articles and books, including Johannes Cocceius and the Exegetical Roots of Federal Theology: Reformation Developments in the Interpretation of Hebrews 7-10 (Reformed Historical Theology).  He lives in Alexandria, Virginia with his family. 

  • Brian Lee

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