The Mod | “Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms” by Matthew Tuininga

An incredibly deep and rich picture of Calvin’s thought on the two kingdoms.

Because of the fullness of this portrait, every reader will find himself stretched and surprised by Calvin’s views. Tuininga demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that Calvin’s two kingdoms thought is not merely an antiquarian fancy, but an abundant resource for the church today, as she seeks to navigate the perilous shoals of church and society.


In recent years, the “two kingdoms” teaching of the Reformed tradition has been a point of some contention. Speaking broadly, advocates of two kingdoms use it to place a greater emphasis on the spiritual authority of the church and discourage the church from engaging in the culture wars and politics of the civil realm.  Practically speaking, the result is less cultural critique and politics from the pulpit. The other side of this debate doesn’t deny the existence of two kingdoms per se, but tends to portray its proponents as “radical” in their distinction of the spiritual and temporal realms.  Hence, “Radical Two Kingdoms” (or R2K) has become a label of disapprobation. This view generally points to the historic practice of the Reformed churches and recognizes that they have frequently expressed a robust engagement with culture and politics. Abraham Kuyper, theologian and Prime Minister, seems to embody this approach. Practically speaking, this side of the divide believes Christians should more robustly engage in cultural transformation and the civil politics of this age. The church should not surrender the field of battle and allow our culture and politics to deteriorate further.  Matthew Tuininga’s book Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church is an extremely important and valuable work addressing one of the more contentious debates in the Reformed church today, and is required reading for those on both sides of the current discussion.

The debate often seems unfruitful, because the two sides often speak past one another. Advocates of two kingdoms emphasize the theory of the Reformed tradition, and discount its practice insofar as it seems to conflict with that theory. The other side emphasizes historical practice, noting that the theory cannot mean what proponents claim if, practically speaking, the Reformed churches have been so deeply enmeshed in the matters of this world.

This is precisely where I believe Tuininga’s work can make an important contribution to the clarity of thought on both sides of this debate. In the Introduction, he distinguishes between Calvin’s political practice and his political theory. It is always the case that theoretical commitments must be chastened by practical concerns and real world limitations, and because Calvin lived in such a tumultuous age of radical change in both the church and politics, this is even more so the case.

One of the great strengths of Tuininga’s book is how he distinguishes between Calvin’s practice and theory, and allows the historical context to clarify and explain the differences. Tuininga opens his book with a survey of different medieval and Reformation perspectives on church and state, and focuses in on the specific context of Calvin in Geneva and among the French Reformed churches.

One evidence of the depth of Tuininga’s study is that even knowledgeable readers are surprised by many of the insights he unearths.  For instance, I was unaware that Zwingli so identified the church with society that he saw the civil magistrates now fulfilling the governing role occupied by ruling elders in the New Testament (45).  It is against this backdrop of a conflation of the two kingdoms within the Reformed tradition that Calvin’s teaching on church and society must be understood.  For Calvin, this kingdom is not only a spiritual reality, but is also fundamentally an eschatological reality.  While it has begun, it has not yet been consummated, and cannot come in full until Christ returns in glory.  Because of its spiritual and eschatological nature, this kingdom must not be simply identified with the temporal kingdoms of this world; thus, the need to recognize two kingdoms. Tuininga writes:

For Calvin the fundamental difference between the two kingdoms is not that one is inward and the other is outward, but that one is spiritual and eternal, and the other is temporal and political. The visible church, in Calvin’s paradigm, truly administers the spiritual government of Christ. (184)

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