Did Calvin Believe in Two Kingdoms?

We are being told from a certain segment of the Reformed theological community (the part located mainly in Escondido, California), that John Calvin was not a cultural transformationist. He allegedly did not believe that the civil realm was to be subject to Christ, the explicit principles of Christianity, nor even guided by the Holy Scriptures. On the contrary, the civil government is subject only to natural law or general revelation, not God's revealed law or the Bible. Kings are not subject to Jesus Christ, for Jesus Christ is head only of the church. Rather, Kings are subject to God only in a general sense, insofar as they implement laws in accord with natural laws known to natural reason. The Bible and Christianity is for the church, and the church alone.

So far, that's a typical "Two Kingdoms" view as articulated by its recent boosters. Those promoting this view insist that this Two Kingdoms approach is the view of the Magisterial Protestant Reformers. It is widely accepted that Luther taught a Two Kingdoms view, but they go further to insist that Calvin also held this view.

However, when I open up John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion, I find something rather puzzling. Before Calvin ever gets to writing the book, he begins with something called a "Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France." It seems fairly strange that a man who believes Christian doctrine to be irrelevant to the "civil" realm would dedicate his work on Christian doctrine to the head of the civil realm. But Calvin is more specific. He writes: "For the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, Most Christian King of the French, His Sovereign, John Calvin Craves Peace and Salvation in Christ." So... Francis is a "Christian" monarch. This way of speaking is anathema to modern Two Kingdoms advocates.

But maybe this is just Calvin being a product of his times. Maybe he is doing this as a 16th century convention. Maybe in principle he actually disagrees with the idea that Kings are subject to Christ and his Word. But not at all.

When offering his defense to Francis, he writes: "Worthy indeed is this matter of your hearing, worthy of your cognizance, worthy of your royal throne! Indeed, this consideration makes a true king: to recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom. Now, that king who in ruling over his realm does not serve God's glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage."

So a true king recognizes himself subject to God. But still: maybe that just means subject to God in a general sense, based on general revelation and natural law, not the explicitly revealed word of God in the Bible.

That won't fly, either. Because Calvin then immediately adds this: "Furthermore, he is deceived who looks for enduring prosperity in his kingdom when it is not ruled by God's scepter, that is, his Holy Word; for the heavenly oracle that proclaims that 'where prophecy fails the people are scattered' (Prov. 29:18) cannot lie."

Calvin may well have had complex views on the relation of the King to God's greater kingdom. But the idea that he embraces something resembling the Two Kingdoms theory of its modern advocates falls apart literally on the very first pages of Calvin's most significant work.

But, hey, who reads Prefaces anyway?

Brian Mattson