A Cross And A Twofold Kingdom (2)


credit: ©R. Scott Clark

In Part 1 I sketched the history and current legal status of the Mt Soledad Cross and I indicated some ambivalence about that use of the cross. On the one hand, it seems clear that some opposition to the cross is less about “separation of church and state” (given the attempts to privatize the land on which the cross sits) and more about an attempt to remove the cross from public view. This animus is symbolic of the broader attempt to marginalize Christian speech and action (and speech and actions by Christians) from the public square. If the cross is still scandalous, that is a good thing. On the other hand, it appears that the cost of saving the public display of the Mt Soledad cross (and other public uses of the cross and other Christian symbols) will be to secularize it to such a degree that the cross must be shorn of its Christian significance. This is too high a price for Christians to pay. If we must make the unhappy choice between retaining a purely secular Mt Soledad cross or removing a cross with Christian signification, then we should choose the latter.

There is a way of thinking about this issue and others like it that I have found helpful. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin (1509–64) wrote of God’s “twofold reign” or “double government” in the world:

Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man (duplex esse in homine regimen): 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. These are usually called the “spiritual” and the “temporal” jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. 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 (1559 Institutes 3.19.15; Battles edition).

I understand that the term two kingdoms has become controversial. It seems to be as often misunderstood as it often used. Some critics suggest or claim explicitly that any distinction between one sphere and another in God’s providential rule over the world somehow diminishes his dominion. This way of thinking makes little sense to me. Others talk about “the two kingdoms” as if that phrase represented some monolithic analysis of Christ and culture. That too is quite false. Finally, some proponents of “two kingdoms” seem to think that it implies that Christians have no place or voice in the culture or political or common life of men. I reject this application of the distinction. To distinguish between two aspects of God’s kingdom is really just to ask a question: “How does God administer his sovereignty in this sphere?” It is one thing to ask a question, it is quite another to answer it and clearly, as people look for alternatives to early 20th-century neo-Calvinist approaches, they are arriving at different answers to the question.

One way forward might be two adopt a slightly different way of speaking about God’s sovereign rule over all things. We might do this on analogy with the traditional Reformed language about “the covenant” of God. Classic Reformed theologians frequently spoke about “the covenant” and then proceeded to distinguish clearly between the covenants of redemption (pactum salutis), works (foedus operum), and grace (foedus gratiae). They could speak of covenant and covenants, depending upon the context. There are moralistic versions of monocovenantal theology, e.g., those that conflate the covenants of works and grace but to speak of “one covenant” is not necessarily to subscribe the monocoventalism of the Shepherdites, the self-described Federal Visionists, et al.

I’m not sure when but sometime back it occurred to me that Calvin’s expression is duplex regimen is translated in the Battles edition as “twofold government.” That seems right. When we translate the phrase duplex gratia Dei, we use “twofold” or “double grace of God.” This phrase summarizes Calvin’s doctrine that God’s grace both justifies and sanctifies, that progressive sanctification is a consequence of definitive justification. On this see Cornel Venema’s fine work. Olevianus used the phrase duplex beneficium, which I usually translate “twofold” or “double benefit.” Thus, we should probably translate Calvin’s phrase “duplex regimen” as “double” or “twofold kingdom” or “twofold government.”

In this case, two distinguish, as Calvin did, between two spheres of God’s government in the world, is hardly to deny his lordship or the Christian’s place in the world. There is one God who administers his government in two distinct sphere. The context of Calvin’s use of the phrase is his discussion and defense of Christian liberty. There were three great threats to Christian freedom in the 16th century: Romanist legalism, which attempted to bind the Christian’s conscience with innumerable man-made rules and obligations (e.g., the church calendar, five false sacraments, and submission to the Roman bishop), libertinism, and spiritualism. The libertines wanted to use Reformation as an opportunity to throw off human government altogether. There were also religious radicals who thought that the nature of the new covenant is such and we are so guided by the Spirit now that we no longer have any need for human, civil government.

In 3.19.9 he wrote of the spirituality of Christian freedom, of its close connection to the freedom Christians have from the curse of the law. Under Rome, we had been placed under a man-made law. We were in a sort of Babylonian Captivity. Others, of course, were abusing their newly recovered Christian liberty as an occasion to sin. In 3.15.10 he complained about those who make a show of their liberty, as though unless others could see them using it, they were not truly free. In 3.19.11, he worked through the question of how we may exercise our liberty in Christ without causing offense (scandal) and how we should avoid being bound by the Pharisees (e.g., Romanist legalists), whom he described as “supercilious.” In 3.19.12 he discussed the relationship between Christian liberty and the weaker brother. Obviously, he was meditating on 1 Corinthians 8. In the next section he reinforced the normative character of the moral law, the law of love to God and neighbor, as the limit of Christian freedom. In 3.19.14 he described the freedom of the conscience as that which Christ has purchased with his blood. As we come to the section before us (3.19.15), then, it is clear that his chief interest has been to account for Christian liberty.

In 3.19.15, he begins with with a warning that Christian liberty does not mean that believers are free from human government. That was the error of the libertines and the radicals. We are, instead, he wrote, under a “duplex regimen,” one spiritual, which forms “the conscience to piety” and the other is “political” or civil. In this aspect of God’s reign in human affairs, we learn “civility” and “humanity.” Remember, one of the earliest criticisms of the Christians by the Greco-Roman pagans of the 2nd century was that they were uncivil and inhumane because they distinguished between adhering to civil law, so far as Scripture and conscience permitted, and their religion. For the pagans there was no distinction. A good Roman citizen offered sacrifices or poured out libations and swore fidelity to Caesar and the gods. To refuse the Roman cultus made one “inhumane” or a “hater of humanity.” So, Calvin wants to make clear that though Christians are not “of this world,” i.e., the source of their spiritual life is not of this world nevertheless, we are very much in this world and that, in both spheres, we live under the lordship of Christ.

Calvin distinguished between spiritual and temporal aspects of this twofold reign. The latter refers to “the life of the soul” and the former to “the present state.” We might say that one his historical and the other eschatological. Our civil, common life together with unbelievers has to do with this life. The civil, common sphere has to do with external conduct. Calvin was quite pointed that they must be considered separately. They are distinct spheres. The gospel does not free us from obligation to civil obedience and our civil obedience does not intrude on the realm of conscience before God. For Calvin, Christian freedom is bound up with this distinction.

He recognized that Paul, in Romans 13, connected our obedience in the civil sphere to conscience. He characterized this aspect of conscience as an “additional witness” or knowledge of the divine justice which exposes our sins. In 3.19.16 he explained that our works respect men but properly our conscience “regards God.” There is a broad sense in which conscience respects the magistrate but strictly it has respect to God alone. The laws that govern civil behavior affect our conscience insofar as we regard them as being from God and we are bound to them even if there is no one else about. Nevertheless, there is an spiritual and interior aspect to conscience over which the civil sphere has no say.

What are we to make of Calvin’s twofold distinction in God’s government of the world and how does it help us think about the Mt Soledad cross? The first inference I would draw is that Calvin was manifestly concerned to protect the liberty of the Christian conscience. One of the concerns I have had about some forms of neo-Calvinism is that there seems to be a relatively low regard for Christian liberty. Having applied the adjective Christian to whatever endeavor is at hand, some neo-Calvinists seem have little patience for dissent as if it is self-evident what the Christian view of x is or must be. In that regard, we should be careful that we do not fall back into the medieval and Roman pattern of obligating fellow Christians with rules and practices that are not “good and necessary” inferences from the Word of God. Beyond the scope of the explicit teaching of Scripture and “good and necessary” consequences, Christians are free to disagree. In this is so, then I think Christians may reach different conclusions about the Mt Soledad cross. Another way to put this is to say that I doubt that we may speak of “the Christian” view of the Mt Soledad cross.

Another inference we might draw is that the ambivalence expressed in part 1 is inherent in living in these two spheres of God’s government of the world. This Christian life is a semi-eschatological existence. The consummate state, the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God, has been inaugurated in the earth and is manifested institutionally in the visible church and Christians, as citizens of that eschatological kingdom live out their Christian lives as citizens of the kingdom wherever they are, as they fulfill their vocations in this world. Nevertheless, the consummation is not yet. We live cheek-by-jowl with unbelievers who, in civil terms, have as much right co-exist in the civil sphere as we do. Thus, in civil life, we will necessarily have to make compromises that we cannot make in the spiritual sphere.

Finally, we are free to work out life in the civil sphere differently than Calvin did. Christians are free to seek to return to the Constantinian settlement but Christians are also free to dissent from the quest to return to Constantinianism. That (Constantinianism, the medieval church-state complex) is a view that Christians have held. It’s also a historical fact that it is a view that Christians did not take before the 4th century. I agree with Abraham Kuyper. Constantinianism was a mistake. It is a possible implication of Christ’s lordship over all things but it is not a necessary inference. It is exceeding difficult to make a case for it from the New Testament. The main thing the New Testament writers (and early Christian writers in the second century) wanted from the magistrate was to be left alone to worship God in peace and to serve our neighbor without interference.

When we speak of “the Christian view” of p or q, we should probably restrict that use of the adjective “Christian” to those things that we confess together as churches. Yes, the Reformed and Presbyterian churches have confessed Constantinianism but since the 18th century and since the early 20th century, most have not. It is an area where confessional folk may agree to disagree.

Under God’s government, Christians live in two spheres simultaneously. Each of those spheres has respect to different aspects of our lives. The fact that there are two spheres will always produce tensions and uncertainties, as in the case of the Mt Soledad cross. However one thinks about this and other such issues, let us be as zealous as Calvin was to preserve the sanctity of the liberty of the Christian conscience whil, at the same time, guarding against the ever-present possibility of a hyper-spiritualism or libertinism that disregards our obligations to our fellow men under the second table of God’s moral law.


Ben Sasse is a Reformed Christian who is presently campaigning for the U. S. Senate from Nebraska. In his campaign he is not making theocratic arguments but he is arguing from the founding principles articulated in the Declaration and Constitution. This approach presents an interesting, practical and concrete contrast with the theory espoused by some that the only proper way to engage civil life is from a “transformational” perspective.

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One comment

  1. no, wish I could – sorry! please go ahead and delete my comment now you’ve seen it

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