Archive Civic Polity Ecclesiastical Polity W. Bradford Littlejohn

Tuininga’s Kingdoms and the Reformed Tradition

Another recent essay on the two-kingdoms doctrine that has been getting some attention across the web comes from Matt Tuininga, a Ph.D student of John Witte’s at Emory University.  Tuininga’s essay, “Two Kingdoms and the Reformed Tradition,” is a clear example of why, as we have been contending, the dispute over Reformed two-kingdoms teaching today, and the many political-theological questions it raises, must be resolved not merely on theological grounds, but on historical grounds.  For while Tuininga admirably seeks to oppose what he sees as harmful consequences of modern Reformed two-kingdoms teaching of the Westminster West variety, he repeats the same historical myth about the emergence of the two-kingdoms doctrine, and what it was intended to assert.  It is almost as if he has swallowed whole the mythology that VanDrunen supplies in the first five chapters of his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, and then quietly set aside the last five chapters.  Since Tuininga does not present his essay as a scholarly argument—there are no footnotes—it is difficult to know what sources he bases his historical claims on.  The following response, then, shall not seek to provide a thoroughgoing scholarly critique, lest I betray a certain obsessiveness by a rejoinder that is out of all proportion to the original provocation.  The time, perhaps, is long overdue for us to provide a thorough and detailed exposition of the sixteenth-century doctrine, but for now, the following shall avoid extensive footnoting and quotation (except at one point where it will prove necessary to rebuff some particularly erroneous assertions).

First, it should be emphasized that Mr. Tuininga deserves appreciation for his clear pastoral concern about the ways that current R2K doctrine has caused consternation among many believers.

Usually when I hear people opposing the two kingdoms doctrine today it is because they think it entails the abandonment of something like Christian education, or of a Christian worldview that guides the actions of Christians in every aspect of life. While there have been some recent two kingdoms proponents who do move in this direction, it is a massive theological and historical mistake to allow those people – who are most certainly in a minority – to define the two kingdoms doctrine and to control the way in which we speak of it.

He rightly recognizes that the Reformers were not out to reject a Christian understanding of culture, or to bifurcate the Christian conscience in a way that many modern two-kingdoms proponents seem to do.  And he is also to be lauded for his desire to be faithful to the hard-won doctrinal achievements of his Reformed theological heritage.  He laments that hostility toward modern R2K theory has led many to throw the baby out with the bathwater, rejecting any kind of two-kingdoms doctrine, however important that may have been to the Reformers.

Do I think the two kingdoms doctrine should be abandoned? I do not understand how it could be abandoned without losing the very foundation that the Reformers laid for the biblical autonomy and integrity our Reformed churches have enjoyed for nearly five hundred years.  The two kingdoms doctrine is an old one, and in its classic formulations it had virtually nothing to do with many of the claims and causes for which it is invoked today.

He ends the essay with an impassioned plea for mature, thoughtful, historically-informed debate, rather than idle sloganeering, and he forthrightly asserts, against fashionable prejudices “that Jesus Christ has been given all authority in heaven and earth, that earthly powers must kiss the son lest he be angry and they perish in the way.”

To all of this, we cannot but add our three cheers.  The modern two-kingdoms doctrine is being used in ways clearly contrary to the spirit and purpose of the original Reformed teaching; we do need to return to that teaching, and seek to apply it anew in our own day, rather than tossing it overboard because of its abuse, and we do need to confess that Jesus should be acknowledged as king over both kingdoms.  Unfortunately, however, I fear that we will be hindered rather than helped in our attempt to clearly and faithfully retrieve our Reformed heritage if we follow Tuininga’s route of resourcement.

The narrative of Reformational two-kingdoms teaching that Tuininga traces in this essay, it must simply be said, bears little recognizable relation to the teachings of the two leading Reformers he appeals to.  He begins well, to be sure, saying that Luther’s first concern in formulating the doctrine was “to clarify the truth that the believer enjoys Christian freedom regardless of his or her external circumstances. . . . The external affairs of this world are the concerns of a kingdom that cannot be strictly identified with the gospel blessings of the kingdom of God.”  This alone ought to be enough to refute the Puritan use of the doctrine that Tuininga subsequently examines, for they maintained that it was precisely in matters of external government of the Church and liturgy, which were to be identified with the gospel blessings of the kingdom of God, that Christian freedom was being lost.  Unfortunately, Tuininga moves on quickly, without pausing to reflect on the full significance of Luther’s teaching here.

He notes also the purpose of the Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine in challenging “Roman claims about the hierarchy of grace over nature,” which is true, and then comes to his chief interest:

The third purpose for which Luther articulated the doctrine was to insist on the unique way in which the kingdom of God goes forth and the church is built and expanded: through the preaching of the word and the administering of the sacraments. Luther thus initially appealed to the doctrine to reject the interference of civil authorities in the spread of the gospel, arguing that while the civil kingdom operates by the sword, the kingdom of Christ advances by the word and Spirit.

But of course, Luther did no such thing, and certainly not initially.  On the contrary, Luther wrote his To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation precisely to ask them to intervene in the spread of the gospel, to see that the papacy was resisted and the Reformation advanced in their territories.  While he certainly did think that the civil kingdom operated by the sword, and the spiritual did not, he felt that in a time of tumult, the evangelical churches could scarcely do without the faithful use of that sword in their protection.  To be sure, Luther did later have certain misgivings about the extent to which the German princes came to manage ecclesiastical affairs, and hoped that once the churches were well-reformed and stabilized, much of this oversight would be unnecessary.  But he did not deploy the two-kingdoms doctrine in this context, where it would have hardly applied, given that for Luther, church, state, and family were the “three estates” within the civil, temporal kingdom; none were to be identified with the spiritual kingdom of faith and salvation.[1]  Indeed, on Tuininga’s terms, it is very difficult to understand the nature of Luther’s protest against Rome—if he was seeking to argue for the autonomy of the visible Church over against encroaching civil authorities, isn’t this precisely what the papal Church had been doing, with considerable belligerency, over the preceding four centuries?

Moving forward, we might note (as Tuininga does not), that most of Luther’s leading followers did not share much of even his rather limited concern about civil management of church affairs—Zwingli, Bullinger, Melanchthon, Bucer, Cranmer, Vermigli, and others all being vigorous proponents of the “erastian claims of the state” which the two-kingdoms doctrine was intended, according to Tuininga, to combat.  And, tellingly, they frequently propounded this view explicitly in terms of the doctrine of the two kingdoms.[2]

What about Calvin, though?  Tuininga naturally draws our focus to him, as the great champion among the Reformers of the freedom of the church from state interference.  Of course, there is certainly truth in this stereotype, though we would do well to remember that the arrangement in Geneva was far from what we would recognize today as a strict separation of church and state, and there was considerable overlap in jurisdictions, particularly when it came to diaconal ministry.  But the key question is whether Calvin sought to articulate this distinction of jurisdictions in terms of the two-kingdoms doctrine—was the Church as a visible institution the “spiritual kingdom”?  Tuininga, without offering any citations, assumes that it was; in this, he follows VanDrunen, who does offer a few citations.  In each of VanDrunen’s citations, however, it is clearly the invisible Church that Calvin is referring to when he identifies it with the spiritual kingdom.[3]  The equation that Tuininga makes is simply not justified by the text of the Institutes—when Calvin articulates his basic two-kingdoms doctrine in III.19, ecclesiastical jurisdiction is not discussed.  And when ecclesiastical jurisdiction is discussed in IV.10-11, Calvin does not appeal to the two-kingdoms doctrine, except to deny that ecclesiastical laws may bind the conscience, for that would be an intrusion upon the spiritual kingdom—one made, not by the state, but by the visible church!  Indeed, as Wedgeworth has also pointed out, Calvin explicitly makes ecclesiastical polity a matter of the civil kingdom in his Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11.[4]

To this point in his essay, then, Tuininga has not produced any allies for his claims as to the original purpose of the two-kingdoms doctrine.  But at last he produces them—Thomas Cartwright and the Elizabethan Puritans.  In doing so, Tuininga does render us a historical service: by singling out the prominent role of Elizabethan Puritan Thomas Cartwright in the development of two-kingdoms teaching, Tuininga fills a gaping hole in VanDrunen’s exposition in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.  For, as I have argued elsewhere, it is in fact Thomas Cartwright and his allies (among whom one should include Scots such as Andrew Melville[5]), almost alone among sixteenth-century Protestants, whose basic doctrinal paradigms, especially regarding the two kingdoms, bear a close resemblance to those of VanDrunen and his allies.  VanDrunen, of course, has no interest in highlighting this resemblance, because despite revealing “secularizing” moments, hinting the that the civil sphere is simply irrelevant to theology, theirs is on the whole the kind of totalizing, theonomic vision for Christian society that modern R2Kers so fear and despise.  That theonomic and separationist agendas should prove bedfellows is certainly curious at first glance, but a close investigation (such as I am undertaking as part of my Ph.D work) discerns a real logic to their union.

Tuininga’s summarizes Cartwright’s contribution as follows:

Most significantly, the father of English Presbyterianism Thomas Cartwright, who had studied in Geneva, appealed to the two kingdoms doctrine to argue in the 1570s that Queen Elizabeth was not the head of the church and that church government was not a matter indifferent, over which political authority might exercise its will. Rather, Cartwright insisted, though Christ is king over all and though the monarch truly rules on his behalf through her civil power, Christ’s kingship is twofold, and therefore her power does not extend to the kingdom of God, or the church. The church has its own distinctive government and power, which operates through offices appointed in Scripture.

While this claim is unmistakably true, and Tuininga is perceptive to enlist Cartwright as a chief apologist for the two kingdoms as a doctrine of separation of church and state, this insight is rendered singularly unhelpful by Tuininga’s failure to grasp the theological context preceding and surrounding Cartwright.  Indeed, had Tuininga recognized the existence of rival two-kingdoms doctrines, and presented Cartwright as the champion of the one he wished to appropriate, that would have been understandable, though we might have asked for full disclosure about the novelty and minority status of Cartwright’s brand of teaching relative to its rivals.  But so thoroughly has Tuininga adopted Cartwright’s standpoint that he proves unable even to recognize the rival paradigms as two-kingdoms doctrines at all.

The two-kingdoms doctrine, he asserts, was all about ensuring the autonomy of the church from the state, and therefore any defenders of the magistrate’s care for religion recognized the need to repudiate the doctrine.  In the most baffling passage of his essay, he declares,

Archbishop Whitgift and the theologian Richard Hooker strongly rejected Cartwright’s two kingdoms doctrine because they were apologists for the royal supremacy over the church and for the episcopal form of government in that church. Although Whitgift rejected the two kingdoms distinction entirely, Hooker actually sought (unsuccessfully) to reformulate it for royalist purposes, evidence as one scholar notes, to his conviction that the doctrine was central to Protestant orthodoxy and therefore to the legitimacy of his defense of royal supremacy.

It is at this point that one most craves footnotes, for it is hard to imagine how Tuininga could have read either Whitgift or Hooker and reached such a conclusion.  If the “one scholar” he alludes to is Torrance Kirby, as it would seem most likely to be,[6] one must wonder if Tuininga has actually read Kirby’s penetrating analysis of Hooker’s “reformulation,” in which he convincingly shows it to be a restatement of the standard Reformed formulation.  At no point in Whitgift’s lengthy engagement with Cartwright do we see him display a willingness to jettison the Reformed doctrine of the “two kingdoms” (or, as it is also, and perhaps better described, the “two regiments” or “two governments”); rather, he repeatedly insists on it, maintaining that Cartwright has hopelessly confused the meaning of the relevant terms, refusing to recognize that the Church itself exists in both kingdoms.  Whitgift is indeed so lucid on the point that we had best let him speak in his own defense:

But whiles you confound the spiritual and the external regiment of the church, you confound both yourself and your reader also.  In the spiritual regiment Christ is only the Pastor, and all other be his sheep; in the external regiment there be many other pastors.  In the spiritual regiment Christ is only the Archbishop, and governeth all, to whom all other must make their account; but in the external government there be many archbishops, as the state of every church requireth.  In the spiritual government Christ is only the Prince, the King, the Judge, and in respect of him all other be subjects; but in the external government there be several countries, several kings, princes, magistrates, judges.  Again, in his spiritual kingdom of Christ, and the regiment of his church, there is no respect of persons, but all be equal: in the external regiment and government there is and must be degrees of persons.  To be short, in respect of Christ and his spiritual government, there is neither magistrate nor archbishop, etc.; but, in the respect of men, and the external face of the church, there are both, and that according to Christ’s own order; as shall hereafter be declared.  So that now you may perceive your error to be in not rightly distinguishing the states and times of the church and government.[7]

Hooker, too, is convinced that Cartwright has obfuscated the two-kingdoms doctrine by inability to define terms.

The Puritans, he says charge

that whereas we make two kinds of power, of which two, the one being spiritual is proper unto Christ; the other men are capable of, because it is visible and external: we do amiss altogether, they think, in so distinguishing, forasmuch as the visible and external power of regiment over the Church, is only in relation unto the Word, the Sacraments, and Discipline, administered by such as Christ hath appointed thereunto, and the exercise of this power is also his spiritual government: therefore we do but vainly imagine a visible and external power in the Church differing from his spiritual power.[8]

In other words, the Puritans insist, as Tuininga does, that the external administration of the Church must be understood as part of Christ’s spiritual kingdom. Hooker has little patience with such equivocation surrounding the basic Protestant distinction between the spiritual and the external:

Such disputes as this do somewhat resemble the wonted practicing of well-willers upon their friends in the pangs of death, whose manner is even then to put smoke in their nostrils, and so to fetch them again, although they know it a matter impossible to keep them living.  The kind affection which the favorers of this laboring  cause bear towards it will not suffer them to see it die, although by what means they should be able to make it live, they do not see.[9]

Attempting to settle things once and for all, then, he lays out the relevant distinctions with a zeal for precision that would have made Turretin himself proud, discerning that it is ambiguity over the word “spiritual” that has caused so much confusion:

To make things therefore so plain that henceforth a child’s capacity may serve rightly to conceive our meaning: we make the spiritual regiment of Christ to be generally that whereby his Church is ruled and governed in things spiritual.  Of this general we make two distinct kinds; the one invisibly exercised by Christ himself in his own person, the other outwardly administered by them whom Christ doth allow to be the Rulers and guides of his Church.  Touching the former of these two kinds, we teach that Christ in regard thereof is particularly termed the Head of the Church of God; neither can any other creature in that sense and meaning be termed head besides him, because it importeth the conduct and government of our souls, by the hand of that blessed Spirit wherewith we are sealed and marked, as being peculiarly his.  Him only therefore we do acknowledge to be that Lord, which dwelleth, liveth, and reigneth in our hearts; him only to be that Head, which giveth life and salvation unto his body; him only to be that fountain, from whence the influence of heavenly grace distilleth, and is derived into all parts, whether the word, or sacraments, or discipline, or whatsoever be the mean whereby it floweth.

As for the power of administering those things in the Church of Christ, which power we call the power of order, it is indeed both Spiritual and His; Spiritual, because such duties properly concern the Spirit, His, because by Him it was instituted.  Howbeit neither spiritual, as that which is inwardly and invisibly exercised; nor his, as that which he himself in person doth exercise.

Again, that power of dominion which is indeed the point of this controversy, and doth also belong to the second kind of spiritual regiment, namely unto that regiment which is external and visible; this likewise being spiritual in regard of the matter about which it dealeth, and being his, inasmuch as he approveth whatsoever is done by it, must notwithstanding be distinguished also from that power whereby he himself in person administreth the former kind of his own spiritual regiment, because he himself in person doth not administer this.

We do not, therefore, vainly imagine, but truly and rightly discern a power external and visible in the Church, exercised by men, and severed in nature from that spiritual power of Christ’s own regiment, which power is termed spiritual, because it worketh secretly, inwardly, and invisibly; his, because none doth or can it personally exercise either besides or together with him.[10]

The foregoing is enough to suggest that Tuininga’s attempt at a historical resourcement of the Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine is dead in the water.  Cartwright and Melville he can claim as allies, but Whitgift and Hooker have little difficulty in showing that Cartwright’s terminology is simply incoherent by the standards of earlier Protestant theology, which in fact consistently deployed the two-kingdoms doctrine against the equation of ecclesiastical polity and the spiritual kingdom.  Tuininga traces his hasty narrative on into the seventeenth century as well, touching on figures such as Rutherford, Hobbes, and Locke, but though these later two-kingdoms debates are well worth their own discussion on a later occasion, they cannot resolve Tuininga’s fundamental confusion about the original function of the doctrine of the two kingdoms.

But where does this leave us?  Does this mean that we Reformed are without resources, in fact, for asserting the liberty of the Church, and the freedom of conscience from oppressive government intervention?  This, after all, is what Tuininga credits to the original two-kingdoms doctrine?  Must we all be Erastians if we want to be faithful to the Reformation?  Thankfully, I need not answer these questions here, since Peter Escalante has recently provided a wonderful essay addressing just these issues.  But the short answer is, “No.”  Protestant two-kingdoms teaching does provide resources for the development of a free church in a free state, but it does so by virtue of a much slower, more complex, more nuanced process of development than the utopian fantasies of Melville and Cartwright, which led to schisms and civil wars.

Which leads us to a final important point.  It is important to get the history right, because the historical doctrine we seek to build upon will determine the shape of our contemporary theological edifice.  Mr. Tuininga has insisted that we do not need to assume that two-kingdoms thinking entails the rejection of distinctively Christian action in the civil kingdom, of things like Christian education or Christian worldview thinking, as Hart and VanDrunen have suggested.  But without challenging the basic parameters of their dualism, it is hard to see how he will succeed.  Fundamentally, those attempting to re-establish this kind of two-kingdoms thinking will find that the Cartwrightian vision is an illiberal one, in which a clerocracy of human authorities within the Church may claim divine sanction for their teachings and their rulings about what constitutes the conditions for membership in Christ’s kingdom,[11] and what shape Christian life in the world must take, thus undermining both the freedom of the church and the state.  Much as the modern R2K theorists proclaim their Liberal credentials, they have not changed the fundamental schema, and it is thus no wonder that so many Reformed churches of this stripe suffer from an atmosphere of legalism, authoritarian dogmatism, and spiritual tyranny.

[1] This is a point made clearly enough by Tuininga’s own teacher, John Witte, in his Law and Protestantism: “In Luther’s view, God has ordained three basic forms and forums of authority for governance of the earthly life: the domestic, ecclesiastical, and political authorities, or, in modern terms, the family, the church, and the state. . . . All three of these authorities represented different dimensions of God’s presence and authority in the earthly kingdom” (7).  See also F. Edward Cranz, An Essay on the Development of Luther’s Thought on Justice, Law and Society, pp. 173-77 for a discussion of the three estates, and pp. 144-55 for the relation of the visible church to Luther’s concept of “polity,” designating the whole realm of human social life and institutions ruled by reason.  To be sure, Luther’s concept of the Church is complex, and cannot simply be subsumed into categories of “visible and invisible Church,” or straightforwardly classed on one side or other of the two-kingdoms distinction—though certainly as a governmental apparatus, it exists within the civil kingdom.  See chapter 1 of Paul Avis’s excellent The Church in the Theology of the Reformers for an excellent discussion.

[2] For one of the finest examples among many, see Peter Martyr Vermigli’s treatise De Magistratu, reprinted in Robert Kingdon, ed., The Political Thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli.

[3] Steven Wedgeworth has shown this well in his “Two Kingdoms Critique” here.

[4] “When he says that there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which individual distinctions [“External qualities”—ed.] are not regarded, or made any account of; for it has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind — on which account he declares that there is no difference, even between bond and free. In the meantime, however, he does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here, on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum — which is a part of ecclesiastical polity. Hence, as regards spiritual connection in the sight of God, and inwardly in the conscience, Christ is the head of the man and of the woman without any distinction, because, as to that, there is no regard paid to male or female; but as regards external arrangement and political decorum, the man follows Christ and the woman the man, so that they are not upon the same footing, but, on the contrary, this inequality exists” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians, trans. John Pringle,

[5] For a brief description of Melville and the Scottish version of the two kingdoms, see William Lyons Fisk, The Scottish High Church Tradition in America: An Essay in Scotch-Irish Ethnoreligious History (University Press of America, 1995) pp. 1-28.

[6] Kirby has treated extensively Hooker’s engagement with Cartwright’s version of the two kingdoms, and his attempt to re-assert the original Reformed doctrine, in a number of writings, but his most focused treatment of the issue is in Richard Hooker’s Doctrine of the Royal Supremacy.  For some of Kirby’s arguments as to the Reformed antecedents of Elizabethan political theology, see The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology.

[7] John Whitgift, Defence of the Answere, Parker Society edition, vol. 2, pp. 83-84.

[8] Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity VIII.4.10 (Keble edition vol. 3, p. 485)

[9] LEP VIII.4.10 (Keble edition 3:485-6).

[10] LEP VIII.4.11 (Keble edition 3:486-7).

[11] They also sometimes extended this claim to say that the temporal kingdom must itself meet the membership requirements of the spiritual kingdom; see George Gillespie, Wholsome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty Or, The true Resolution of a present Controversy concerning Liberty of Conscience (London: Christopher Meredith, 1644); Samuel Rutherford, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience. (London: R. I., 1649).

By W. Bradford Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013), is President of the Davenant Trust and an independent scholar, writer, and editor. He is researching the political theology of the Reformation, especially Richard Hooker (the subject of his dissertation), and other areas in Christian ethics, especially pertaining to economic questions.

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