A Cultural Warrior’s Meditation for Reformation Day

A recent correspondent pointed me to a bulletin insert offered by the PCA Christian Education and Publications Committee. The theme of the insert is the “Reformation, Calvin, and Government.” There are two questions here. The first is historical, the second is pastoral or ecclesiastical. The insert begins with a fairly extravagant suggestion about Calvin’s importance (“has been described as the greatest theologian since the Apostle Paul”) that reeks of chauvinism. I am as big a fan of Calvin as anyone. I have actually enjoyed the Calvinpalooza (2009) though I can understand why some might be a little wearied by it. Calvin himself would have rejected violently any such an assessment of his importance. Without Augustine, without Anselm, and without Luther, there’s no Calvin.

The second claim made by the insert is “Calvin believed God was more than a Sunday God only interested in the spiritual part of our life. For him God was the sovereign king over all of life. His kingdom is a totally inclusive one, nothing is left out. He made no distinction between the natural and the spiritual or the secular and the sacred.” The insert claims, for Calvin, “There is no public or private dichotomy as far as God is concerned. He is sovereign over all. He is the head of the church, and he is king of his kingdom. His truth and authority apply to both the public and private arenas.”

This is just historical nonsense and logical confusion. First, there is no question for advocates of a “two kingdoms” ethic whether Christ is Lord of all. The question is how Christ has willed to exercise that Lordship in this world. The writer seems to assume that unless one speaks only one way about Christ’s Lordship that one has implicitly denied that Lordship. This is classic case of begging the question.

The insert continues:

Calvin strongly denied the idea that God belongs to the private or spiritual area of life but not in the public square, unlike what is popularly maintained today. The Apostle Paul’s words, “in all things Christ preeminent” were for Calvin what life and reality were all about.

One wonders whether this passage passes the test established by the bulletin insert:

Therefore, to perceive more clearly how far the mind can proceed in any matter according to the degree of its ability, we must here set forth a distinction.  This, then, is the distinction:  that there is one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly.  I call “earthly things” those which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds.  I call “heavenly things” the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it.

Of the first class the following ought to be said:  since man is by nature a social animal, he tends through natural instinct to foster and preserve society.  Consequently, we observe that there exist in all men’s minds universal impressions of a certain civic fair dealing and order.  Hence no man is to be found who does not understand that every sort of human organization must be regulated by laws, and who does not comprehend the principles of those laws.  Hence arises that unvarying consent of all nations and of individual mortals with regard to laws.  For their seeds have, without teacher or lawgiver, been implanted in all men.

…Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, 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.  If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.  For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself.

A little later, this writer makes clear what he means by “heavenly things” or “the kingdom of God:”

It therefore remains for us to understand that the way to the Kingdom of
God is open only to him whose mind has been made new by the
illumination of the Holy Spirit. f94 Paul, however, having expressly entered  this discussion, speaks more clearly than all [1 Corinthians  1:18 ff.]. After condemning the stupidity and vanity of all human wisdom and utterly reducing it to nothing [cf. <460113>1 Corinthians 1:13 ff.], he concludes: “The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they  are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” [<460214>1 Corinthians 2:14]. Whom does he call “natural”? The man who depends upon the light of nature. He, I say,
comprehends nothing of God’s spiritual mysteries. Why is this? Is it
because he neglects them out of laziness? No, even though he try, he can
do nothing, for “they are spiritually discerned.

It therefore remains for us to understand that the way to the Kingdom of  God is open only to him whose mind has been made new by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Paul, however, having expressly entered  this discussion, speaks more clearly than all. After condemning the stupidity and vanity of all human wisdom and utterly reducing it to nothing, he concludes: “The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they  are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” Whom does he call “natural”? The man who depends upon the light of nature. He, I say, comprehends nothing of God’s spiritual mysteries. Why is this? Is it because he neglects them out of laziness? No, even though he try, he can do nothing, for “they are spiritually discerned.

Who is this radical “two-kingdom” writer who dares to distinguish between sacred and secular, between heavenly and earthly, between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom common to believers and unbelievers? It is Calvin himself in Institutes 2.2.13, 20.

For Calvin, there was no question of Christ’s dominion over all things but there was also no question of whether there are distinctions to be made about how Christ administers his dominion over all things. He routinely distinguished between our roles as private persons and our roles as public citizens, even though he did so in a context that assumed the essential correctness of the civil enforcement of the first table of the decalogue.

Calvin consistently distinguished between “sacred” things and “common” or secular things. For Calvin, the visible institutional church as the expression of the Kingdom of God, belongs to the “sacred” and that life that is common to believers and unbelievers is secular. For Calvin, the adjective “secular” was not a dirty word. It was a way of recognizing that we live in two cities at the same time. The Apostle Paul was at once a citizen of the heavenly kingdom (Phil 3:20) and the Roman empire. He did not confuse the two. He fulfilled his vocations in both kingdoms.

The underlying (and sometimes explicit) assumption of the bulletin insert, as it continues, is that to make such distinctions is somehow to deny Christ’s lordship over all of life. This is just wrong. It’s not true and people need to stop saying it.

The bulletin insert condemns as “dualistic” the very distinctions that Calvin himself made, which makes Calvin a “dualist” and it implies that if we do not embrace Calvin’s view of the civil enforcement of the first table, we are guilty of dualism. The truth is that there was a tension between Calvin’s two-kingdom doctrine and aspects of his view of the civil magistrate. The American Reformed and Presbyterian Churches resolved that tension in favor of his two-kingdoms doctrine.

It is very strange to see the CEP of the PCA publishing theocratic material (advocating the civil enforcement of the first table of the decalogue) for Reformation Day and it is disappointing to see them promulgating such a sloppy and amateur reading of Calvin’s theology when the primary sources are so readily available and when there is so much good scholarship on Calvin’s theology on this matter.

I appreciate the desire to challenge God’s people to take their faith seriously and to apply it to every area of life, but this rhetoric and ham-fisted approach is both historically false and theologically (and ethically) misleading and oddly inappropriate for Reformation Day. In a time when we can surely no longer assume that “we all know what the gospel is,” (as I heard in seminary in the mid-80s) why not take the opportunity presented by Reformation Day to make clear once again what the gospel is and why it is so essential to our Christian faith and to the Christian life? In a time when the PCA GA, not very long ago, faced the question of the nature of the gospel and continues to face it as some of her ministers continue to promulgate the very errors rejected by GA in 2007, why not re-state the gospel as we confess it in the Westminster Standards?

Calvin’s approach to the civil magistrate is interesting and difficult, in certain respects, and worthy of consideration but on Reformation Day? Isn’t that usually the day where we think about the Reformation solas? Just as I have grave difficulties with the facile and misleading picture presented of Calvin so I have problems with using Reformation Day as a platform to advance the conservative, religious culture-war agenda via church bulletin inserts. When one considers that the PCA has roots in the Southern Presbyterian tradition, which valued the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church,” (a two-kingdoms ethic, if ever there was one) it is just plain puzzling to read this insert. It almost seems like an April Fools joke, except the calendar does not really give much hope that it is.

RESOURCES

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


3 comments

  1. yeah, i think it’s hard to popularize any historical figure without doing an injustice to history – perhaps a bigger problem is the idea of hero “worship” or valuing – yes – I think there’s a lot of great Christians whose example should be followed – but do we do so at the expense of history, or depravity? From a pastoral standpoint that is a tricky call.

  2. Preach it, Dr. Clark! At lunch, while running, I listened to your talk, “Who is Afraid of Martin Luther?” Terrific stuff–it made this former Luthern Church Missouri Synod type weep. “We are all Lutherans!” Away with the moralists!

  3. My goodness, but that’s a one-sided reading of Institutes 4.20. Calvin may have had his tensions on the matter, but that chapter always struck me as more Two Kingdoms than Kuyperian, even before I knew what those categories were.

    In fact, in his historical context, his emphasis on the reality of two kingdoms was the bold part, not his emphasis on God being sovereign over all of life. Divine/cultic power in the political sphere was nothing new to Rome, and the contrary idea of complete state sovereignty even over religion was soon to appear (Hobbes and others) if it had not already. From a political philosopher’s standpoint, it’s actually the assertion of two distinct kingdoms, under Christ, that makes Calvin noteworthy.

    I’m PCA, so these be my people; but I do hope not to see that in my own church next month.

Comments are closed.