In his article, “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” Jonathan Leeman proposes a doctrine of two ages as a helpful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world. Building on the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and recent developments in New Testament studies, Leeman offers this as a helpful corrective to various “doctrines of the two” at play in church history, including that of the two kingdoms, which Leeman identifies with Martin Luther.

In fact, there’s good precedent for Leeman’s proposal, and it comes from none other than the 16th-century reformer John Calvin. Ironically, though, Calvin presented his theology in precisely the terms that Leeman opposes: two kingdoms. As I show in my forthcoming book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Calvin’s two-kingdoms theology was nothing if not a two-ages eschatology. It was his attempt to explain how the future kingdom of Christ (the age to come) breaks into the present age even while the present age continues. The two ages overlap, and Christians inhabit both at the same time. As a result, Christians are subject to a “twofold government,” to two different kinds of authorities, which Calvin called two kingdoms (Institutes 3.19.15).

Calvin’s Two Ages

Calvin often described these two kingdoms by distinguishing between what’s earthly and what’s heavenly in human beings, or between what’s inward and what’s outward. But Calvin didn’t use these terms to denote a dualistic view of humans any more than the apostle Paul when speaking of the contrast between flesh and Spirit.

Rather, Calvin used “inward” and “heavenly” to refer to the age to come, which breaks into this age through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers—even as from an outward and earthly perspective things seem to go on as they always have, under the shadow of death and decay. For example, he writes:

I call “earthly things” those which do not pertain to God or his kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call “heavenly things” the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it. (Institutes 2.2.13)

Notice the overlap between these two categories. Since God is the Lord of all, true justice has direct implications for the present life and its affairs. These aren’t neat and tidy categories, as if life can be divided into different realms or spheres. Rather, earthly things will pass away, while heavenly things are eternal since they have to do with the kingdom of Christ.

Calvin’s Two Kingdoms

This distinction had direct implications for the nature of God’s government of humans through the church and civil institutions. Calvin believed that when Jesus proclaimed the coming kingdom of God, he was proclaiming something fundamentally new—something fundamentally transformative, radically different from the sort of rule God exercises over all things. It was the kingdom of the age to come.

This kingdom breaks into the present age through Christ’s Word and Spirit through the ministry of his church. That’s why Calvin called the kingdom spiritual; and when he said the church and its work is spiritual, this is what he meant. He defined the church according to the same marks as he defined the spiritual kingdom: the ministry of Christ’s gospel and the ministry of Christ’s sacraments.

In contrast, Calvin defined civil government as a temporal institution ordained by God for the present evil age, yet destined to disappear when all things are made new at Christ’s return. God remains sovereign over temporal authority, but we ought not confuse such authority with Christ’s kingdom.

Civil government ensures that a measure of justice, righteousness, and peace prevails in a world torn apart by sin. But whereas Christ establishes true spiritual justice, righteousness, and peace through his Word and Spirit, civil government can only coerce outward forms of the same—what Calvin called “civil righteousness”—by means of the sword.

He thus insisted that civil government cannot directly advance Christ’s kingdom. The best it can do is indirectly support its work by protecting it from opposition and facilitating its work. The church, for its part, fulfills its spiritual mission by proclaiming God’s kingdom and its righteousness as it applies to every area of life.

Implications in 16th-Century Geneva

This explains why Calvin was willing to risk his ministry on the church’s right to exercise church discipline. The church’s power and purpose is of an entirely different sort than the state’s, he insisted, and civil discipline is insufficient to ensure the integrity of the church.

An individual guilty of abusing his wife, for instance, should not merely be subject to civil punishment. He should also be prohibited from enjoying spiritual communion at the Lord’s Supper until he repents and seeks reconciliation through the discipline of the church. The two governments have overlapping concerns because the two ages overlap, but their work must still be kept fundamentally distinct.

This point appears in Calvin’s insistence that the church must care for its own poor as an expression of the nature of Christ’s kingdom and its righteousness. That such care is a material concern, and that civil government is also responsible to care for the poor, merely demonstrates that the two ages overlap. The institutions of spiritual and civil government are fundamentally distinct, despite having overlapping jurisdictions.

Implications for Today

Why does this matter for churches today? It shows us the tremendous resources we might find in Calvin’s political theology as we seek to re-envision a biblical model of cultural and political engagement. Calvin was devoted to preaching, teaching, and practicing Scripture, and that emphasis shows in his two-kingdoms theology. His theological reflection on these matters remains deeply relevant to the mission of the church today precisely because it’s so rooted in Scripture.

Of course, we cannot simply take Calvin’s thought and apply it to our own time without substantial reflection. Calvin assumed the existence of Christendom. We inhabit a pluralistic society increasingly devoted to secular liberalism. There are self-proclaimed two-kingdoms advocates today who would claim the two-kingdoms distinction calls us to keep religion and politics entirely separate, as if they are hermetically sealed realms that have nothing to do with each other. Yet such is clearly a distortion of Calvin’s thought, which is decisively rooted in the New Testament’s rich distinction between the present age and the age to come.

The New Testament teaches that Christians experience the kingdom of God through the work of the Spirit even as we continue to give expression to its power in the various vocations of this age. We inhabit the tension between the “already” and the “not yet,” being caught between the two ages. 

Nowhere is this tension clearer than in the Book of Ephesians, which Calvin emphasizes so heavily in his writings on the church. All things have been subjected to Christ, and he has been given as the head of all things to the church, which is his body. The walls that divide nations are being shattered. The ascended Christ is pouring gifts on the church, and through its ministry believers are being built up into maturity in his body (Eph. 1–4). Nevertheless, Christian husbands and wives, Christian parents and children, and Christian masters and slaves still have temporal obligations to one another. They’re called to serve one another—and their nonbelieving neighbors—in Christ, practicing the righteousness of the kingdom in their vocations, even as they remain responsible to fulfill the tasks of a passing age (Eph. 5–6).

The same dynamic applies to Christian political engagement. Believers are called to witness to Christ’s kingdom and its righteousness as his Spirit works in every area of our lives, including politics, but as long as the present age endures we will need coercive civil government to do its work.

As long as there are two ages, there will also be two kingdoms.