A pastoral search committee labors long and hard to find a candidate that will revitalize their stagnant congregation. They settle on a dynamic preacher, still in his prime, who is committed to church growth. Only one problem: he’s been divorced and remarried. It sounds like he was not the at-fault party, but a sizeable minority of the church opposes the call on the grounds that he does not meet the biblical qualifications for an elder; besides, they think his church-growth techniques suspiciously worldly. An ugly church split ensues.
A Christian school provokes a fierce debate among its participating families when it decides to take its theological identity more seriously, tightening up its confession of faith and instituting daily chapel services. Many parents protest that a school is not supposed to be a church, while others insist that they, as parents, are responsible for the spiritual formation of their children, and they aren’t about to trust the school with that.
After months of the Covid-19 pandemic has forced unprecedented restrictions on many churches, a group of congregations decides to begin defying public health ordinances banning indoor public worship. These are, they conclude, an open violation of the constitutional separation of church and state, as well as a flat contradiction of God’s own commands. “We must obey God rather than men,” the pastors declare in their letter of defiance.
What do all these situations have in common?
Each of them forces upon us questions of how our spiritual obligations intersect with the other aspects of life in this world, of what it means to obey God as well as human authorities, and of what responsibilities God entrusts to the different institutions through which we structure our Christian lives.
Each of them pits difficult prudential questions against one another; and in each, we can rest assured, one or both parties will try to simplify the complex issues by insisting that they are standing, simply and courageously, on “biblical” principles, while their opponents are compromisers.
Each, in short, represents a situation on which the concept of the two-kingdoms is likely to be invoked.
(Mis)Understanding The Two Kingdoms
“The two kingdoms” is a phrase which is likely to evoke a quizzical expression among many evangelical Christians, a dismissive eye-roll among others, and a solemn nod of approbation among a hardy minority. Whether or not they are familiar with it, however, most Christians intuitively operate with some such distinction between “spiritual” and “temporal” spheres—and for most, it is probably a long way off from what their Reformational forebears meant when they invoked the doctrine as one of their central bulwarks against Roman Catholicism.
Many Christians seem to think that distinction of “the two kingdoms” corresponds more or less to the modern Western “separation of church and state,” with “the spiritual kingdom” (the “things of God”) equating to “the church” and “the temporal kingdom” to “the state.” Even those who do not use these terms tend to think in terms of a stark division between spiritual-churchly and secular-political spheres of life.
Clearly, though, this can’t have been what the Protestant reformers meant, as they hailed reforming princes as new Hezekiahs, Josiahs, and (in the case of Queen Elizabeth) Deborahs, cleansing the church of its idols and protecting and fostering only the true worship of God. To be sure, the Reformers had plenty to say about the distinction of vocation between priest and prince, but they never suggested that one was bound to give public and institutional expression to the kingship of Christ and the other was not.
Others, less institutionally-minded, think or speak reflexively of a distinction between the “sacred” and the “secular,” between those areas of their lives where they are bound to explicitly confess faith in Christ and render obedience to God, and those in which they co-exist with unbelievers in a realm of shared neutral standards. For the past several decades, Christians have fought intense battles over whether schools, science, or politics can fall on the “secular” side of this divide, or whether perhaps we ought not to say that all of life is sacred. The Reformers would have been a bit perplexed both by the claim that “all of life is sacred” and by the idea that a society could be neutral as to the object of its ultimate loyalty.
Still others, influenced perhaps by the categories of neo-Calvinism but reacting against them, are liable to categorize human life in terms of spheres of “creation” and “redemption.” The spiritual kingdom, on this schema, is all about the redemption of our souls by the work of Christ, whereas the temporal kingdom corresponds to the shared terrain of “creation” that God merely preserves by means of reason and natural law.
This last framing of the issues comes perhaps closest to what the Reformers had in mind, but with a crucial distortion. Creation and redemption, after all, are verbal nouns; they name activities, rather than static realms. Yet some modern two-kingdoms theorists have described them almost as hermetically sealed domains—which, when combined with the frequent distinctions between “soul” and “body” that appear from the Reformation onward, can create the Gnostic impression that God is interested only in the redemption of our souls and not the renewal of our bodies.
Dynamic Reigns, not Static Realms
In fact, to recover the original genius and vitality of Reformation teaching, we must eschew the idea of static realms and foreground the idea of dynamic activity. The very term “the two kingdoms,” a poor English translation of German and Latin originals, is apt to lead us astray. Although Martin Luther did speak of “two kingdoms,” (Zwei Reiche in German) he used this chiefly to refer to the struggle of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan.
When talking about the duality of the Christian life, he spoke more often of Zwei Regimente—two “reigns,” “rules,” or even “regiments,” as the concept has been variously translated. The static spatial language of “kingdoms” conveys the idea of human life a two-dimensional map onto which the two kingdoms are drawn as a dividing line between spheres of jurisdiction.
To recover the original genius and vitality of Reformation teaching, we must eschew the idea of static realms and foreground the idea of dynamic activity
If we must use such language at all, we should say that for the Reformers, human life is rather a three-dimensional reality of which the whole horizontal dimension is coterminous with the temporal kingdom, with the spiritual kingdom forming the third dimension—the vertical God-ward relation which animates all the rest. Even better, perhaps, to say that human life is a three-dimensional reality into which God-in-Christ acts through two distinct forms of activity: one essentially inward, hidden, direct, and unmediated; the other largely outward, visible, indirect, and mediated through human agents.
As such, the two-kingdoms doctrine was an emphatic rejection of the claims of the Roman Catholic church, according to which spiritual authority was mediated through, and indeed confined to, the this-worldly hierarchy of the papal church, and grace was tied up in physical forms and doled out in response to works of penance and charity. For Luther, the spiritual kingdom is sustained by faith alone, the bond through which Christ rules the soul, while the believer is set free to live and love in the temporal kingdom using the tools of sanctified reason and law. The Christian must be attentive to the voice of God, speaking spiritually in his Word, and the face of God as he presents himself temporally in his world, through what Luther calls “masks”: laws, institutions, and other people. In his Institutes, Calvin would distinguish the two kingdoms in terms of “the forum of conscience” and the “the external forum” (III.19.15).
When one puts it this way, it becomes clear that this dividing line must run right through the church itself. The Reformers could speak of the church, in its visible gathered form, with officers and liturgical orders, as part of the “earthly kingdom”; however, as the company of the elect, mystically united to her head, she is the fullness of the spiritual kingdom. But while the “visible/invisible church” distinction is not far off here, it is not sufficient either, for it, like the language of “kingdom” is much too static for what the Reformers had in mind. The geistliche Regimente was the spiritual ruling and reigning of God, His gracious life-giving action through the power of the Spirit. While clearly invisible in itself, this liberating rule comes to us through the powerful reading and preaching of the Word and reception of the sacraments, and manifests itself in the loving, faith-filled acts of the saints.
Two Kingdoms and Sola Scriptura
For the Protestant Reformers, this two-kingdoms concept was deeply interwoven with what we now call the solas of the Reformation. Sola fide declared that the life-giving reign of Christ over the hearts of believers was received and administered by faith alone. Of course, this faith did not remain alone, but the only thing that made the works of the believer authentically Christian works was the fact that they were done in faith; there are plenty of unbelievers who refrain from stealing, love their wives and children, and do a pretty good job of running businesses or governments. It is not primarily what the Christian does in the world, but why he does it that comprises the “spiritual kingdom” dimension of Christian life.
But sola Scriptura was just as important. For many of the Reformers, the two kingdoms offered a crucial hermeneutical key for navigating the complex landscape of Scripture, and parrying Catholic attacks on the viability of Scripture as a supreme authority.
While they famously insisted on the “perspicuity of Scripture”—the idea that Scripture was clear and comprehensible even to the relatively unlearned—they were careful, in a way that some of their followers would not be, to stress that this was only true when it came to “spiritual kingdom” matters, that is, matters of faith and salvation. When it came to the accomplishment and application of Christ’s redeeming work, Scripture was, as Richard Hooker would argue, absolutely “sufficient unto the end for which it was instituted,” without need of any supplement from human reason (save as the instrument through which we receive and interpret it).
In other matters, however, Scripture makes no claim to be either the sole or the sufficient source for wisdom about how to act, although it remains our highest and final authority against which all other sources of wisdom must be tested. Reason, nature, history, custom, and testimony all play a crucial role in guiding the believer in the temporal kingdom. The Reformers were thus remarkably flexible about many questions on which Protestants would later harden their views: the proper structures for church government or civil government, or the best way to pursue Christian education. These institutional questions about how precisely to divide and delegate authority over different aspects of the Christian life were all essentially temporal kingdom questions, on which Scripture certainly offered some guidance, but not necessarily any final answers.
How the Two-Kingdoms Doctrine Still Help Us
So, what does a retrieval of the Reformational two-kingdoms doctrine offer to the church today? Many things, to be sure, but I will highlight just three.
(1) It keeps the gospel central. As a wisecrack once said, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” So it is in the church, above all, and yet how terrible we are at doing it! Most often, our energy, attention, and righteous zeal are absorbed in issues that are surely not the main thing, while genuine gospel issues are ignored or obscured.
Reformational two-kingdoms thinking enables us to cut away the dross surrounding the precious jewel of the gospel, without thereby dismissing everything else as worthless. “Dross,” after all, just means metal that is not jewelry-quality; but most such metals still have important uses. Just so, the myriad temporal kingdom questions of Christian life deserve our faithful attention, so long as we do not confuse them with the gospel.
(2) It reminds us of the difference between God’s work and our work. It is true, and good theology, to say that in everything we do, “God is at work in us, both to will and to work his good pleasure.” But it is also good theology to draw a distinction between salvation, in which God alone has power to achieve any lasting effects, and the Christian life, in which the Spirit strengthens us to use our will and reason and human ingenuity to carry the gifts that we have received out into the world. In the former, God does not fail to achieve his purpose; in the latter, he often allows us to fail.
The two-kingdoms doctrine preserves this key distinction, preventing us from either boasting of our own works where Christ alone reigns, or of attributing to Christ those wavering, bumbling steps of discipleship in the domains where God reigns only indirectly.
(3) It can reduce our conflicts to manageable proportions. When we make every issue a gospel issue, or attribute to God our own works, we risk escalating every conflict in the church and indeed in politics to a high-stakes showdown of fidelity vs. unbelief. When we speak indiscriminately of the whole world being “Christ’s kingdom,” and of our work as “kingdom work,” we make it very hard to brook compromise or admit mistakes, an error compounded by our misuse of sola Scriptura to describe every position we approve as “biblical” and every one we disapprove as “unbiblical.” There are, it turns out, plenty of things that are “unbiblical” in terms of “not being in the Bible” that are nonetheless good things to do, and indeed plenty of “biblical” examples that do not necessarily bind us today (such as the necessity to stone blasphemers).
The two kingdoms doctrine gives us space to have impassioned debates about difficult questions of Christian discipleship—like those three examples given at the outset of this essay—without saying that Christ’s kingdom is at stake, and implicitly unchurching those who disagree.
The two-kingdoms doctrine will not answer all of our questions, especially when it comes to politics, where many are so eager to invoke it. Indeed, part of its glory is its refusal to do so. The Reformers and many of their heirs recognized that politics mattered a great deal, and argued strenuously from Scripture and nature in defense of different forms of government and indeed different answers to the question of the proper relationship of church and state. But they recognized also that these were downstream questions, not matters of fundamental doctrine, thus opening up space for a rich diversity of Protestant political theologies to flourish in different cultural soils and political circumstances over the centuries.
All of these represent, in their own ways, attempts to do justice to Luther’s great two-kingdoms paradox: “the Christian is free lord of all, subject to none; the Christian is dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”