How Calvin’s Twofold Kingdom Distinction Could Have Prevented ECT

From the beginning, it was apparent that the social-political cart driving the theological horse in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) negotiations was the pressure to form a common front against neo-paganism, secularism, materialism, and other consequences of modernity. We are not alone. British evangelicals faced similar pressures in the 1960s. J. I. Packer (1926–2020) was involved in discussions back then that pre-figured the ECT discussions in North America.1 In that situation, conservative British Christians felt the need to form a common front against the inroads of modernity into the church and society. Conservative Anglicans (Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals) needed to form a sort of union against the liberals. If the doctrine of justification got in the way, well, the cultural crisis was more important.

Reading the defenses of ECT and the reaction to the criticisms of ECT by confessionalists, it becomes clear that what drives the ECT process is the need to find grounds for some sort of union of conservative Christians over against liberals (and materialism and the other modernist “isms” of the age). If one presumes that, in order to cooperate on a social level, Christians must form some sort of nominal theological union, then the sort of open equivocation on the doctrine of justification represented by ECT becomes necessary. This happened because, in the twentieth century, Reformed and evangelical Christians neglected Calvin’s distinction between two spheres in God’s twofold kingdom.

There is another distinction embedded in Calvin’s two spheres view that might have prevented ECT: the distinction between nature and grace. The preservation of the best aspects of Western culture (e.g., civil liberties, the right to life, and religious freedom—including the right of Christians to teach and practice the orthodox Christian religion) belongs to the category of nature not grace. Some of our Reformed writers in both the classical and neo-Kuyperian periods have written about common grace.

The neglect of these distinctions helps to explain the attraction of ECT. There were other factors as well. Chuck Colson believed that one day we will all see that he was a visionary and that the private assurances of Cardinal Cassidy will bear fruit in a theological Reformation of the Roman Communion. History suggests that optimism was misplaced.

More to the point, it is not necessary to have such a theological union in order to make a cultural common cause. If both sides in these negotiations, especially the evangelical side, had only recognized that Christ rules sovereignly over creation and all nations, but administers that sovereign rule in two distinct ways—the need to equivocate on justification (i.e., to say two things at the same time using the same words) vanishes. Evangelicals (and there were some Reformed who signed the first two ECT documents) do not need to agree with Rome on soteriology, the church, the sacraments, Mary, the saints, eschatology, or virtually any other such theological question in order to cooperate with them in social questions. Indeed, given Calvin’s distinction between two spheres of God’s kingdom, we need not agree with Mormons on theological questions in order to cooperate with them socially. We may even cooperate with Muslims, Hindus, and agnostics (e.g., the late Nat Hentoff 1925–2017, who became an outspoken critic of abortion on demand) who share certain basic convictions about civil life. To cooperate, we need only agree that there exists certain fixed, embedded laws in creation. We need only to “hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The fundamental point that evangelicals (and many Reformed) need to recognize is that there are two spheres in God’s kingdom: the sacred and the secular. The spiritual kingdom is represented by the visible, institutional church. In that sphere, there is no compromising the means and the message of the kingdom. In worship, we live by the rule of worship. In the Christian life, we live according to the law of God, in the grace of God by faith alone. We are righteous with God by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo). The power and authority of the visible church is spiritual, it touches spiritual ends: faith and sanctity. Its means are spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline.

The secular sphere is also ruled by Christ but is administered quite differently. Its power is more than persuasion, its means are not spiritual but coercive, its principle is not grace but works and law. To be sure, the spiritual kingdom preaches the law and administers it (e.g., in the pedagogical use, the normative use, and in discipline) but it does so to spiritual ends. The civil magistrate may and should exercise forbearance or mercy, but not grace. The civil magistrate does not always bring to bear the full weight of the law, but this is in the interests of justice, not grace. The basic stuff of the civil sphere is law and that law is revealed in nature, in the human conscience, and is universally known by humans and has been used by civil entities since creation. Christians, who live in both kingdoms simultaneously, may cooperate as members of the civil kingdom toward common ends without agreeing on the sorts of issues entailed in ECT.

In Calvin’s twofold kingdom scheme, the sorts of negotiations and compromises built into the ECT process are unnecessary. We need not agree with Richard John Neuhaus (1936–2009) on anything but the existence and basic tenets of natural law in order to oppose the inroads of statism, the LGBTQ agenda, or whatever else needs attention in the secular sphere. As citizens of the secular sphere of God’s kingdom, we recognize our fellow citizens as image bearers, as persons with dignity, and we owe them our charity. There is no reason why we must agree with our Roman neighbors on the doctrine of justification in order to sign Covenants, Codes, and Restrictions when we buy a house. There is no reason to agree with the theology of our Mormon neighbors when we oppose homosexual marriage. There is no reason to agree theologically with our Muslim neighbors about the authority of the prophet in order to agree that children do not belong to the state but to their parents. We may well send our children to different schools, but we drive the same roads, pay taxes to the same civil entities, and submit to the same common laws that bind our outward, civil behavior.

In ECT, it appears that both the evangelicals and Romanists and agreed on too much and too little. For example, they agreed on too much when it comes to soteriology. They ought to have discussed how the two spheres of God’s kingdom relate to one another, but did not do so. When it comes to secular matters, it is irrelevant whether Cardinal Cassidy (1924–2021) was born again.2 What matters is whether he believed there is a fixed law to which even the magistrate is bound.

This is not to say that ecclesiastical negotiation (as distinct from private) with representatives of the Roman communion might not be important. It is useful, but the evangelical side of the ECT negotiations was not ecclesiastical. It was a group of Christians acting as private persons, not as representatives of ecclesiastical bodies. In too many cases, the evangelical representatives were unprepared for such discussions. Further, the evangelicals seemed to think that negotiation meant giving away the farm. We should call Rome to repent of her condemnation of the gospel (in session 6 of the Council of Trent, 1547), and we should repent of our too often nasty and bigoted caricatures of Roman theology, piety, and practice. Honest discussions would admit that the great differences still exist. Either we are justified sola gratia et sola fide and either the authority of the church is sola scriptura, or it is not. These two sides are antithetical. There is no synthesis necessary here and there was no need to confuse the two spheres of God’s kingdom.3

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


1. On this see McGrath’s biography of Packer.

2. I recognize the hypocrisy of citing Wikipedia, but it seems like the best short survey of Cassidy’s life. On the unreliability of Wikipedia generally see these resources.

3. This is a substantial revision of an essay that was first published in 2008.


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!

One comment

  1. In the 1990s, my church started a soup kitchen. We were quickly joined by people from other churches. It was a series of providences and small steps that showed us that we should welcome helpers from the community at large. For the reason for Christians to engage in things like food banks and soup kitchens is not grace but the third use of the Law.
    In the last century in the UK, the General Secretary of the InterVarsity Fellowship, publishing under the penname of A N Triton, wrote helpfully on the distinction between creational and Gospel responsibilities, culminating in the paperback, “Whose World”.

Comments are closed.