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The 'Two-Kingdom' Lutheran Calvinism

Modern Reformation's September/October 2000 article by Michael Horton, "Defining the Two Kingdoms: One of Luther's and Calvin's Great Discoveries," both signals the dramatic inroads of retreatist Lutheran amillennialism into the Reformed camp and publicizes the increasing neo-Calvinistic abandonment of Biblical law.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin,
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Modern Reformation's September/October 2000 article by Michael Horton, "Defining the Two Kingdoms: One of Luther's and Calvin's Great Discoveries," both signals the dramatic inroads of retreatist Lutheran amillennialism into the Reformed camp and publicizes the increasing neo-Calvinistic abandonment of Biblical law. Horton, associate professor of Apologetics and Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary-California, expressly repudiates the centuries-old notion of Christendom (p. 22), a culture anchored in Christianity, reflected in the Byzantine Empire, the later medieval world, and much of Reformation Europe.1 Horton identifies Christendom as "the myth behind the crusades, the Inquisition, and such American institutions as slavery and the doctrine of manifest destiny, which give narrative justification for the slaughter of Native Americans" (ibid.). How the evil practice of racial slavery on these shores could have originated from the "myth" of Christendom when African slavery sprung unquestionably from pagan practice on a pagan continent is mystifying, and Horton's similar identification of "the slaughter of Native Americans" with the "myth" of Christendom may cause us to query whether he has considered the extensive record of savagery perpetuated by American Indians on white Protestant settlers. In this age of political correctness that intrudes itself into the pages even of Reformational magazines, perhaps this is simply too much to ask.

Two-Kingdom Augustinianism
Horton suggests that Luther and Calvin revived Augustine's two-kingdom approach (for Augustine it was actually two cities, the City of God and the City of Man). The spiritual kingdom or city is the sphere of redemption, the church, and the people of God. The earthly kingdom or city is the sphere of providence, secular government, and unbelief. Horton argues that both Calvin and Luther held to this distinction, though Calvin less clearly. In this he is surely correct. Luther's advocacy of the two kingdoms is well known,2 as are the dreadful implications of this doctrine in Nazi Germany, when it led a large portion of the Lutheran Church to sacrifice the lordship of Christ for a godless, racist dictator, Adolph Hitler. Anyone who has read the concluding chapter of Calvin's Institutes knows that the Reformer decried what was subsequently to become the Puritan idea of civil law grounded in Mosaic legislation, proposing instead a basic law order common to all nations, by which Calvin presumably meant a vague natural law undergirding the positive law system of most of the Western world to that point in other words, a natural theology as it relates to the state. The early Reformers' commitment to this tack is as understandable as it is inexcusable. Despite the fact that we today consider the Reformation a distinct break in Western culture, it was for the most part much more medieval than modern.3 Medieval Christianity had developed a distinctly sharp nature-grace division in which the church under the aegis of a sacerdotal caste dispensed grace to all within its institutional walls, while not demanding a rigorously Biblical adherence to all spheres (like the state) outside the church so long as they maintained a cordial relation to the church itself.4 Western Christendom, until the Reformation, and even somewhat afterward, was distinctly ecclesiocentric church-centered.5 Generally, the state was Christian, not in any substantively Biblical sense, but rather in a relationally ecclesiastical sense the emperors and other civil magistrates were (usually) dutiful members of the Latin Church. At times, as in the Carolingian era, the state dominated and subordinated the church to its own purposes.6 This was surely true during almost the entire existence of the Byzantine Empire in the East.7 The state was not rigorously Biblical, but it was nominally Christian.

Calvin, unlike Luther, urgently stressed the spiritual independence of the church. In this way, as Dawson notes, he and the subsequent Reformed church carried on the best of the medieval Roman Catholic tradition, which countered a strong state with a strong church.8 Both Calvin and Luther, however, were unceasing enemies of the Roman Catholic Church, and were willing to cede extensive authority to European magistrates sympathetic to the Reformation in order to break Rome's monopoly. An unintended consequence of this action was the subsequent growth of European statism: by the eighteenth century, the tyranny of European states had replaced the tyranny of the Roman church. Some would argue that this is a high price to pay for ecclesiastical independence. Others would suggest that the Reformers should have opposed autocratic states with the same vigor they opposed an autocratic church, though it is highly doubtful whether the Reformation would have succeeded without the assistance of numerous European princes. While, therefore, we may be able to temper our criticism of the Reformers by accounting for the difficult historic exigencies that confronted them, we cannot so easily excuse those like Horton in today's church who use their forebears' nature-grace distinction to advise a Christian retreat in the face of a rapacious secularism that threatens to devour not only society but the church itself.

The Medieval Nature-Grace Dualism
Ironically, Horton argues against the Reformers' break with the medieval world for precisely the wrong reason. He suggests they did not sufficiently distance themselves from Christendom and return to Augustine's two-kingdom view. This surely was not their problem. Their real problem was in refusing to break with the nature-grace distinction with which Horton himself now feels quite comfortable. The later Reformed and Presbyterian tradition, to a large degree, corrected this problem. The English and, particularly, the American Puritans were advocates of the Christianization of society, including the state, particularly in the form of Biblical law.9 Horton is distinctly unhappy about this side of the Calvinist tradition (he speaks deridingly of "the triumphalism that ... produced the courageous confidence of the New England Puritans" [p. 21]). He equally frowns on Richard Niebuhr's identification of the paradigm of "Christ Transforming Culture" with Calvinism, though he is forced to acknowledge that this was precisely the tack of Dutch Calvinist Abraham Kuyper (p. 24). Kuyper was decisively anti-medieval and reflects real progress in the Reformed tradition. He recognized that the Christian family, church, state, and other spheres of human life should be independent but cooperative institutions all Christian, all operating under God's authority.10 He did not argue against Christendom, only against the medieval version of Christendom that subordinated society to the institutional church. He advocated a Christian civilization in which each major sphere of human society family, church, science, school, and state stood directly under Jesus Christ's authority. This is a Reformed theocentric vision, not a medieval ecclesiocentric vision. But it, no less than medieval Christianity, advocated the idea of Christendom.

Christian Civilization in the Reformed Tradition
This is too much for Horton, who urges a retreat back to Calvin's more medieval paradigm. Remarkably, Horton commends Calvin's residual commitment to French humanism and its idea of the state as permissibly non-Christian (ibid.). In other words, it is Calvin's classical humanism, not his Biblical Christianity, which should guide Calvinists in forming their view of the state. It was, interestingly, this pagan, classical component of Western culture that rose to prominence in the eighteenth century when Europe began to jettison the Christian component of its heritage.11 The Renaissance humanism (the revival of ancient classical culture) which Horton champions as Calvin's great contribution to church-state-society relations was the driving force behind the evils of secularization we observe today.

Horton follows Calvin, though not the best part of the Reformed tradition, in advocating dual standards for human life and society: Biblical Christianity within the church, and natural law in the sphere of the state, a natural law by no means identified with a Christian culture, as it surely was in medieval Christendom, despite the latter's defects. What Horton really argues for is a distinctively non-Christian society in which the Christian church is permitted to exist and exert a measure of influence on that society. This is far, far removed from the Reformed tradition. The Westminster Divines recognized the continuing authority of the "general equity" (however this is defined) of the Mosaic judicial law.12 Then there are Puritan New England, whose commitment to Biblical authority in the state is well known;13 Knox's Scotland and its Scottish Covenanters, who have long advocated the authority of Christ in the nation's political instruments;14 and from the Dutch Calvinists' "sphere sovereignty," which saw the state as desirably subordinated to Jesus Christ's authority.15 Society, including the state, according to most of the Reformed tradition, must be Christian. Nor will it do for Horton and other Reformed Lutheranizers to assume one may jettison the Reformed views of the Christianization of society by dismissing theonomy, "the abiding validity of the law in exhaustive detail."16 The fact is, a wide portion of the Reformed tradition supports the Christianization of the state, partly by means of holding God's authorization of the state to implement the written law of God, whatever may be their view of theonomy.17

The Betrayal of the Reformed Tradition
In repudiating large portions of the Reformed tradition, and advocating a return to the Augustinian idea of "two kingdoms," Horton is disposing of the entire notion of Christian civilization. He is undoubtedly aware that such a notion, though a prominent feature of the Reformed tradition, is a hard sell in an increasingly pluralistic world. It was, of course, no less a hard sell in the pre-Constantinian world. The unifying principle of that world was the Roman Empire. The unifying principle today is equally the state. This is a frequent combination in history: religious pluralism and statist monism the state, not religion, is the unifying force in all of life. Or, rather, the state as religion is the unifying force in all of life.

To imply that the state is the sphere of reason while the church is the sphere of grace is to pose a duality of authoritative sources that the Bible and much of the Reformed tradition will never permit. These Lutheranizing Calvinists are, I repeat, abandoning hope in Christian civilization. This swerves not only from Byzantine and medieval Christianity, but also Reformed Christianity, and counters with the Lutheran paradigm. What we are witnessing in Horton's essay, as well as in other recent Reformed writings,18 is the Lutheranization of the Reformed church. Unlike the Reformed tradition, the Lutheran alternative has consistently maintained the "two-kingdoms" theory.19 The church is the realm of grace, and the state and the wider society is the realm of nature ("natural law"). This theory is ripe for murderous but shrewd tyrants like Adolph Hitler, who take advantage of the church's withdrawal into the four walls of the institutional church and its willingness to be seduced by a state that can convince the church of the validity of a "natural" regime. By contrast, few sectors of the church have stood as vigorously and courageously against political tyranny as the Reformed church, because the latter has refused to limit Christ's authority to the church but has recognized that the magistrate too is bound to submit to the law of God in the Bible. Post-Reformational Calvinists strike fear into the hearts of political tyrants because these Calvinists refuse to limit Biblical authority to the church.20 Two-kingdom advocates, on the other hand, are ripe pickings for these tyrants.

For the Reformed church to embrace the Lutheran "two-kingdom" theory is to surrender a critical distinctive of its faith and to compromise Jesus Christ's authority in all dimensions of life. To argue that society, including the state, is permissibly non-Christian is necessarily to argue that it is permissibly anti-Christian. The issue is not whether each member of society must be a Christian, and certainly not whether the state should force anyone to become a Christian, ideas and practices which Calvinists abhor. Rather, the issue is whether we will continue to advocate and work for Christian civilization Biblical Christianity as the unifying principle of all of life individual, family, church, science, arts, media, education, technology, and even the state. The founder of Westminster Seminary, J. Gresham Machen, loyally carried forward this Reformed tradition when he declared, as quoted in the previous editorial: "The Christian cannot be satisfied so long as any human activity is either opposed to Christianity or out of all connection with Christianity. Christianity must pervade not merely all nations, but also all of human thought."21

This is surely not what Horton wants, but to argue for anything less is to deny the sovereignty of God and betray the Reformed tradition.


1. Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London, 1960).

2. Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought (Oxford, 1993 edition), 205-211. See also Kenneth Hagen, "Luther's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms," God and Caesar Revisited - Luther Academy Conference Papers No. 1, Spring, 1995, 15-29.

3. Alister E. McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation (Grand Rapids [1987], 1993).

4. Albert Mirgeler, Mutations of Western Christianity (Montreal, 1964), 53, 142.

5. Philip Schaff, Medieval Christianity, in History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, 1910), 4:12-13.

6. Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe (London, 1948), 171-184.

7. Steven Runciman, Byzantine Civilization (New York [1933], 1994), 55.

8. Christopher Dawson, The Judgment of the Nations (New York, 1942), 45.

9. James Jordan, "Calvinism and 'The Judicial Law of Moses,'" in Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. 5, No. 2 [Winter, 1978-79], 17-48.

10. Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, 1931), 78-109.

11. Dawson, Making, 229.

12. Sinclair B. Ferguson, "An Assembly of Theonomists?: The Teaching of the Westminster Divines on the Law of God," in eds., William S. Barker and W. Robert Godfrey, Theonomy: A Reformed Critique (Grand Rapids, 1990), 315-349.

13. George Lee Haskins, Law and Authority in Early Massachusetts (New York, 1960), ch. 9.

14. W. Stanford Reid, "John Knox, John Calvin, and the Scottish Reformation," in eds., James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller, Church, Word, and Spirit (Grand Rapids, 1987), 149-151. Today this tradition is perpetuated by the National Reform Association. See ed., William O. Einwechter, Explicitly Christian Politics (Pittsburgh, PA, 1997). The web site is

15. Abraham Kuyper, "Sphere Sovereignty," in A Centennial Reader, ed., James D. Bratt (Grand Rapids, 1998), 461-490.

16. Greg L. Bahnsen, Theonomy in Christian Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1984 edition).

17. Robert C. Beckett, "Biblical Principles for the Relation Between Church and State," in Proceedings of the International Conference of Reformed Churches (Neerlandia, Alberta, Canada, 1997), 156 and passim. See also H. B. Harrington, "The National Confessional Response to Theonomy," in ed., Gary Scott Smith, God and Politics (Phillipsburg, NJ, 1989), 68-72.

18. D. G. Hart, "What Can Presbyterians Learn from Lutherans?", Logia, Vol. 8, No. 4 [Reformation, 1999], 3-8. Logia is a Lutheran journal. Hart is a professor at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia.

19. Scott Murray, "Law and Gospel: The Lutheran Ethic," Logia, Vol. 4, No. 3 [July 1995], 15-24.

20. N. S. McFetridge, Calvinism in History (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada [1882], 1989), 1-72.

21. J. Gresham Machen, "Christianity and Culture," Education, Christianity and the State (Jefferson, MD, 1987), 50.

  • P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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