Distinguishing Spheres Affirms Christ’s Lordship Over All Things (Part 3)

The Reformation brought about a significant shift in the theology, piety, and practice of parts of the Western church. One theological shift, which was evident in aspects of the practice of the Reformed church, was its insistence that the church was a distinct, divine institution, with its own offices and its own sphere of authority. Of course, this idea was not entirely new, nor were the Reformed, in the classical period, entirely consistent with their own doctrine. But this distinction between the secular sphere, over which the magistrate had authority, and the sacred sphere, over which the church had authority, did distinguish the Genevan Reformed church, the Heidelberg Reformed church, for a time, and Reformed churches in other cities from the church in Zürich and the Church of England. To greater or lesser degrees, the churches in those cities were creatures of the state. It was, after all, the insistence of Guillaume Farel (1489–1565) and John Calvin (1509–1564) upon the relative independence of the church from the City Council of Geneva which caused the city fathers to exile him to Strasbourg in 1538. One of the (mostly) untold stories of the Heidelberg Reformation was the struggle between those who adhered to what would come to be known as the Erastian theory and those who held the Genevan approach. Thomas Erastus (1524–1583) argued that the church was a creature of the state and should be controlled by the magistrate. Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587) argued the Genevan side of the case. Ultimately, the Genevans won this argument, but only briefly, as most of the Reformed were expelled from Heidelberg in 1576 upon the death of Frederick III and the accession of his very Lutheran son, Ludwig VI (1539–1583).1

In 1576, Olevianus articulated a theology of the two kingdoms that Augustine would have recognized.

It is certain that there are two spiritual kingdoms, even in this world: the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. Every person necessarily belongs to one or the other here in this life, for Christ the King himself speaks to his chosen vessel as follows: “For I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness of the things which you have seen.”2

He quoted Acts 26:16, 18 and Colossians 1:12–13 and then explained,

These verses make clear that there are two spiritual kingdoms even in this world. The one is the kingdom of Christ, made up of all who repent, believe in Christ, and are baptized in his name. It also includes their children, unless, when they are grown, through unbelief they reject the benefit that is offered. But the other is the kingdom of Satan and darkness, made up of all who do not repent and do not believe in Christ. Some of them are not baptized but hold baptism in contempt, like the Turks and Jews. Others are baptized but are nevertheless impenitent and unbelievers. Although they are baptized and join themselves to the visible church, nevertheless they remain in the kingdom and power of darkness until such time as they are converted and believe (Matt 28; 1 Cor 6:8–10, 12; 2 Cor 12:21).3

It is clear from reading Olevianus’ commentary on the Apostles’ Creed and in his several other works that he was not a Manichaean dualist. There are not two dueling powers in the universe. Olevianus was an Augustinian, a confessional Protestant, deeply influenced by Luther, Calvin, and Beza, among others. He was discussing the existence of two spiritual realms within the general providence of God.

His teacher Calvin spoke this way when addressing the same issues that Olevianus was considering in his introduction to the Creed, but the basis for Calvin’s and Olevianus’ struggle for the independence of the institutional church from state control was Calvin’s distinction between two spheres in God’s kingdom.4

Calvin wrote,

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.5

In order to understand this passage we should put it into context. The original heading of book 3 of the Institutes says, “The means by which we take hold of the grace of Christ and what fruit comes to us what effects follow.” Arguably, book 1 of the Institutes is on God the Father and creation. Book 2 concerns the Son and the accomplishment of our redemption. Book 3 explains the application of redemption by the Spirit to the elect. Book 4 of the Institutes considers the place where the Holy Spirit ordinarily applies redemption—the visible, institutional church.

In chapter 19, as he discusses the doctrine of Christian liberty, he turns to the question of human laws in section 14. Remember that the medieval church had burdened Christians with innumerable regulations and obligations. These, the Reformation said, were merely man-made. This was a form of legalism. Some, however, whom Calvin characterizes as “seditious,” have taken advantage of the doctrine of Christian liberty and “stirred up” Christians to think that “all human obedience were at the same time removed and cast down.”6

Thus, it is in the context of protecting the doctrine of Christian liberty from the libertine abusers that Calvin turns to the “twofold kingdom” (duplex regimen).7 One aspect of this twofold kingdom is spiritual and the other political. The purpose of speaking of God’s kingdom this way is to prevent Christians from stumbling on the “stone” (lapidem) of libertinism.8 The libertines were a group that had been active since 1525.9 By 1534, their second leader was Quintin of Hainaut. Calvin met him personally near Paris.10 The movement was gaining followers in areas where the Reformed also had a foothold (e.g., Valenciennes). Marguerite of Angoulême was reportedly giving them aid and comfort. They were a danger theologically because they taught “an esoteric and pantheistic form of determinism, characterized by a crass antinomianism and a libertine ethic and tinged with a radical eschatology.”11 In general, a libertine is a “A person (typically a man) who is not restrained by morality, esp. with regard to sexual relations; a person of dissolute or promiscuous habits.”12 It can also refer to “free thinkers.”

In order to protect the Reformation against the slander that it promoted Libertinism, Calvin critiqued the movement vigorously. He articulated his doctrine of a “twofold kingdom” so that Reformed Christians would understand that whatever they do, wherever they go, in whatever sphere they were operating, they were doing so under the lordship of Christ. Thus, far from being a vehicle for liberating Christians from Christ’s lordship, the very purpose of Calvin’s distinction was to place Christians under the lordship of Christ.

Next time we will see how Calvin distinguished the two spheres and how it enhanced the Christian life under the lordship of Christ.


  1. For more on Erastus see Charles D. Gunnoe, Jr. Thomas Erastus and the Palatinate: A Renaissance Physician in the Second Reformation (Leiden: Brill, 2011). Chapter 6 covers the church discipline controversy from an Erastian perspective. For an introduction to Olevianus, see R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ, Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology, ed. David F. Wright (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005). It was reprinted in 2008 by Reformation Heritage Books in the Historical-Theological Studies series; Clark, “Biographical and Historical Introduction: Caspar Olevianus and An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed,” in Caspar Olevianus, An Exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, trans. Lyle D. Bierma, Classic Reformed Theology series, ed. R. Scott Clark (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009), xi–xxix.
  2. Olevianus, Exposition, 9.
  3. Olevianus, Exposition, 9.
  4. The section heading, in Institutes 3.19.15, in the Battles edition of the 1559 edition, which reads “The two kingdoms,” is a modern invention. The section headings in the Battles edition do not exist in the original editions of the Institutes. Neither were the Institutes originally published with the extensive apparatus included in the Battles edition. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, vol. 20, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).
  5. Calvin, Institutes (Battles edition), 3.19.15. The Latin included in the parenthesis is not original to the Battles edition.
  6. Calvin, Institutes, 3.19.14.
  7. Joannis Calvini, Institutio christianae religionis (Geneva: Vignon, 1585).
  8. For Calvin’s critique of the libertines see Benjamin W. Farley, ed. John Calvin: Treatises Against the Anabaptists and Against the Libertines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1982).
  9. Farley, Treatises, 163.
  10. Farley, Treatises, 163.
  11. Farley, Treatises, 164.
  12. Oxford English Dictionary, s.v., “Libertine.”

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find the whole series here.


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

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. “The Reformation brought about a significant shift in the theology, piety, and practice of parts of the Western church. One theological shift, which was evident in aspects of the practice of the Reformed church, was its insistence that the church was a distinct, divine institution, with its own offices and its own sphere of authority.”

    The ‘right’ theology, piety, and practice continues to be the distinctive of the Reformation in a ‘church’.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane, deny the gospel, advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.