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Kingdom and Kingdoms

W. Robert Godfrey, Resident Faculty  |   November 1, 2008   |  Type: Articles
 
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Jesus Christ is king of all. His kingship over everything in his creation is the clear teaching of the Bible where he is called "the ruler of kings on the earth" (Rev. 1:5) and "King of kings and Lord of lords" (Rev. 17:14, 19:16). Since Jesus is king, all his subjects are obligated to serve and glorify him in all their callings.

The implication of the universal kingdom of Jesus is that there is no neutral realm in this world. All are either honoring him or rebelling against him. Clearly all Christians must seek to think and live as Christians in all that they do. In everything, we acknowledge Jesus as king.

While Jesus has one kingdom in the sense that he is king over all, many Reformed Christians have also spoken of Jesus ruling over two kingdoms. John Calvin, for example, made a sharp distinction in his Institutes of the Christian Religion between Christ as king of his spiritual kingdom and Christ as king of the civil or political realm. He wrote: "Therefore,... let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men....The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority" (III, 19, 15). Calvin is not denying that Christ is king of the church and of the state, but is asserting that Christ's kingship of the church operates very differently from the way in which his kingship of the state operates.

Later in the Institutes, when Calvin turns to discuss the political authority, he reiterates this point: "...man is under a twofold government...the kind that resides in the soul or inner man and pertains to eternal life...the other kind, which pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality....we must keep in mind that distinction which we previously laid down so that we do not (as commonly happens) unwisely mingle these two, which have a completely different nature" (IV, 20,1).

Zacharius Ursinus makes a rather similar point in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism when he turns to the subject of Christ as king and to his kingdom. He too stresses that while Christ is king of all, he must be seen as particularly King of his Church. He comments on Question 31: "The King of Kings is Christ, who was immediately ordained of God, that he might govern, by his word and Spirit, the church which he purchased with his own blood, and defend her against all her enemies, whom he will cast into everlasting punishment, whilst he will reward his people with eternal life."

Further he comments on Question 123: "The Kingdom of God is that in which God alone rules and exercises dominion over all creatures; but especially does he govern and preserve the church. This kingdom is universal. The special kingdom of God - that which he exercises in his church consists in sending the Son from the Father, for the very beginning of the world, that he might institute and preserve the ministry of the church, and accomplish his purposes by it....From these things it is apparent that this [special] kingdom is not a worldly, but a spiritual kingdom. This is taught in many of the parables of our Lord, as well as in the declaration that he made to Pilate, saying, 'My kingdom is not of this world.' We are here taught and commanded to pray that this kingdom may come, increase and be defended."

The language of the two kingdoms (church and state) clearly did not mean for Calvin that one kingdom belonged to Christ and the other did not. It did not mean that one kingdom was for Christian living and the other was not. It did not mean that one kingdom glorified God and the other did not. Christ for Calvin was truly and fully king in both kingdoms, but ruled the two kingdoms differently.

Calvin and the Reformed tradition in the sixteenth century made a sharp distinction between the kingdom of the church and the kingdom of the state as a response to one of the great debates of the Middle Ages. Many theologians and theorists had then debated whether the church or the state was supreme and dominant in a Christian society. Some argued that the church was supreme and that the state must be subordinate to it. Others argued that the state was dominant and that the church was subordinate to it. Calvin rejected both of these positions by distinguishing the two kingdoms of Christ as he did. The spiritual kingdom as the church was directly accountable to Christ alone who was King of the church and completely regulated the life of the church (its doctrine, worship, and offices) by the Bible. The temporal kingdom as the state owed obedience to Christ, but not through or under the church. The state had its own constitution adopted largely according to human wisdom. The Bible should guide the state, but did not exhaustively reveal the answers to all political decisions.

Despite Calvin's brilliant and critical distinction between the two kingdoms of Christ, in most of Protestant Europe the state in practice came more and more to dominate and subordinate the church. Especially as secular thinking increased in Europe, the influence of Christianity and the church declined. State tyranny was not just a theoretical problem, but became a reality in the French Revolution, and in the rise of communism and fascism.

In this modern situation in Europe, very different from the medieval problem that Calvin addressed, Abraham Kuyper arose as the great Reformed thinker to ponder how Christians could oppose state tyranny and maintain a Christian voice in the great social questions of his day. Kuyper rejected the medieval ideal of an official state church as the way to maintain a Christian influence in society. Rather Kuyper argued, in effect, an extension of Calvin's two kingdoms idea. Christ properly rules in this world in several kingdoms, or as he characteristically put it, "spheres." Instead of just two kingdoms, the church and the state, Kuyper recognized several kingdoms. He maintained the kingdoms of the church and the state, each with its unique responsibilities and governance before God. But he added others, most importantly the family. The family as an institution, Kuyper argued, is not fundamentally subservient to either the church or the state, but has its own character and responsibilities before God.

For Kuyper Christ should rule in each of these spheres, but he rules in each differently. In the church he rules through pastors and elders. In the state he rules through constitutional governors. In the family he rules through husbands and parents.

Kuyper argued for other spheres as well (such as science, voluntary associations, business, etc.), but he devoted most of his analysis to the church, the state, and the family. He believed strongly that the education of children (specifically elementary and high school) was the responsibility of parents. He believed that recognizing the family as a distinct kingdom was crucial to breaking the tyrannical tendencies of the state (and of the church). Since education is not neutral at any point, but either glorifies God or rejects him, Christian parents must seek a Christian education for their children.

Kuyper's commitment to Christian education was not a novelty that Kuyper introduced to the Dutch Reformed community. Conservative Calvinists, inspired by their orthodoxy and piety, had already founded Christian schools at the elementary and secondary levels. Kuyper encouraged those schools and believed that they should receive a fair share of financial support from the state for their work. He also believed that Christian scholars should form a Christian university to pursue academic studies from a Christian point of view. He saw this academic (he would have said scientific) enterprise as a distinct sphere ultimately accountable not to church, state or family, but only to Christ.

Kuyper's commitment to Christian education reflected a long standing Reformed commitment to school building. In America in the first centuries of our history public schools were often Protestant schools. As American education became more secular, Christian parents saw more clearly the need for Christian schools. Several of America's greatest universities were founded by Calvinists to be Christian schools, most notably Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Calvinists have all supported Christian education whether they have argued for it in terms of one kingdom, two kingdoms, or many kingdoms.

We can see through this quick survey of the history of Reformed thought that Christians have spoken about one kingdom, two kingdoms, and many kingdoms of Christ. These ways of speaking may sometimes seem a little confusing, but when we understand the different problems they are addressing it is easy to understand them. There may well be somewhat different ways of using these distinctions, and we should continue discussion to clarify all the implications of Christ's kingship in this world. We may find that as Reformed Christians we do not absolutely agree at all points. But where we are united around the Bible and the Reformed confessions and where we embrace the fundamental insights of Calvin and Kuyper sketched above, we should continue our discussion with kindness and charity. We should recognize the importance of supporting Christian education for the children of Christian parents. And above all we should unite in proclaiming that Christ is King of all.  

First published in Evangelium, Vol. 7 No. 2.

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