Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Sacred Doctrine The Two Kingdoms

John Calvin on the Universal Sovereignty of Christ

The opening chapters of Colossians and Ephesians are two places in which one can see Paul making a claim for universal, cosmic sovereignty belonging to Christ, rather than ascribing it to “God” in general terms, and rather, on the other hand, than limiting Christ’s sovereignty to the “church” (which I will leave undefined for the time being).

Colossians 1: “In Him All Things Hold Together”

Commenting on Col. 1:17, Calvin notes that not only angels, but all creatures are placed in subjection to Christ, the Son of God (the two terms are used interchangeably here, so one would assume that by “Son of God” Calvin means the incarnate Christ. The Son of God of course existed before the Incarnation; but since the Incarnation, there is no Son of God other than the incarnate God-Man Jesus Christ):

17. All things were created by him, and for him. He places angels in subjection to Christ, that they may not obscure his glory, for four reasons: In the first place, because they were created by him; secondly, because their creation ought to be viewed as having a relation to him, as their legitimate end; thirdly, because he himself existed always, prior to their creation;fourthly, because he sustains them by his power, and upholds them in their condition. At the same time, he does not affirm this merely as to angels, but also as to the whole world. Thus he places the Son of God in the Highest seat of honor, that he may have the pre-eminence over angels as well as men, and may bring under control all creatures in heaven and in earth.

In Colossians, Paul goes on to say in 1:18 that Christ “is the head of the body, the church.” Calvin notes that he moves here from the general (sovereign over all) to the particular (head of the Church). Christ is the principle of unity in and the only head of the Church, which he urges against Romanists (in a passage omitted below; Calvin makes a similar point in his comments on Ephesians 1, and that will be cited in due course).

18. The head of the body. Having discoursed in a general way of Christ’s excellence, and of his sovereign dominion over all creatures, he again returns to those things which relate peculiarly to the Church. Under the term head some consider many things to be included. And, unquestionably, he makes use afterwards, as we shall find, of the same metaphor in this sense — that as in the human body it serves as a root, from which vital energy is diffused through all the members, so the life of the Church flows out from Christ, etc. (Colossians 2:19.) Here, however, in my opinion, he speaks chiefly of government. He shews, therefore, that it is Christ that alone has authority to govern the Church, that it is he to whom alone believers ought to have an eye, and on whom alone the unity of the body depends.

But Christ is not only the head, he is also the beginning, and indicates by his resurrection the new creation, both of human beings and of “all things,” given over to corruption because of man’s sin. The renewal of men, their becoming “new creatures,” is anticipatory of the renewal of the rest of creation, as is clear also in Romans 8. Thus Calvin goes on to say:

…for in the resurrection there is a restoration of all things, and in this manner the commencement of the second and new creation, for the former had fallen to pieces in the ruin of the first man. As, then, Christ in rising again had made a commencement of the kingdom of God, he is on good grounds called the beginning; for then do we truly begin to have a being in the sight of God, when we are renewed, so as to be new creatures.


That he may in all things. From this he concludes, that supremacy belongs to him in all things. For if he is the Author and Restorer of all things, it is manifest that this honor is justly due to him. At the same time the phrase in omnibus (in all things) may be taken in two ways — either over all creatures, or, in everything. This, however, is of no great importance, for the simple meaning is, that all things are subjected to his sway.

Ephesians 1: “And He Put All Things under His Feet”

Similar themes are present in his comments on Ephesians 1. On verse 10 (“…as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth”), Calvin describes Christ as the principle of order for believers and for the world:

The meaning appears to me to be, that out of Christ all things were disordered, and that through him they have been restored to order. And truly, out of Christ, what can we perceive in the world but mere ruins? We are alienated from God by sin, and how can we but present a broken and shattered aspect? The proper condition of creatures is to keep close to God. Such a gathering together (ἀνακεφαλαίωσις) as might bring us back to regular order, the apostle tells us, has been made in Christ. Formed into one body, we are united to God, and closely connected with each other. Without Christ, on the other hand, the whole world is a shapeless chaos and frightful confusion. We are brought into actual unity by Christ alone.

In what follows, Calvin comments on verse 20, “…when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” What does the expression mean? And where is this “right hand”? Calvin writes that the expression refers not to a particular place but to a position of power and administration,1 whence Christ governs heaven and earth. Calvin does not deny that Christ’s human nature has a particular spatial location, while he also asserts that Christ’s kingdom and power are universally present. (That is, Calvin–mirabile dictu–does not deny the “extra calvinisticum” (sic), mentioned briefly here in a post on a similar theme.) In Calvin’s view, the God-Man Christ exercises all dominion and power on earth and in heaven at the present time:

And set him at his own right hand. This passage shews plainly, if any one does, what is meant by the right hand of God. It does not mean any particular place, but the power which the Father has bestowed on Christ, that he may administer in his name the government of heaven and earth. It is idle, therefore, to inquire why Stephen saw him standing, (Acts 7:55,) while Paul describes him as sitting at God’s right hand. The expression does not refer to any bodily posture, but denotes the highest royal power with which Christ has been invested. This is intimated by what immediately follows, far above all principality and power: for the whole of this description is added for the purpose of explaining what is meant by the right hand.

God the Father is said to have raised Christ to “his right hand,” because he has made him to share in his government, because by him he exerts all his power; the metaphor being borrowed from earthly princes, who confer the honor of sitting along with themselves on those whom they have clothed with the highest authority. As the right hand of God fills heaven and earth, it follows that the kingdom and power of Christ are equally extensive. It is in vain, therefore, to attempt to prove that, because Christ sitteth at the right hand of God, he dwells in heaven alone. His human nature, it is true, resides in heaven, and not in earth; but that argument is foreign to the purpose. The expression which follows, in heavenly places, does not at all imply that the right hand of God is confined to heaven, but directs us to contemplate the heavenly glory amidst which our Lord Jesus dwells, the blessed immortality which he enjoys, and the dominion over angels to which he has been exalted.2

The church, then, is the special object of the attention of Christ’s headship, a headship that is in and of itself universal. In other words, his headship over the Church is one aspect of his general sovereignty. Thus Calvin comments on the title “head” in Eph. 1:22 (“And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church”):


And gave him to be the head. He was made the head of the Church, on the condition that he should have the administration of all things. The apostle shews that it was not a mere honorary title, but was accompanied by the entire command and government of the universe. The metaphor of a head denotes the highest authority. I am unwilling to dispute about a name, but we are driven to it by the base conduct of those who flatter the Romish idol. Since Christ alone is called “the head,” all others, whether angels or men, must rank as members; so that he who holds the highest place among his fellows is still one of the members of the same body. And yet they are not ashamed to make an open avowal that the Church will be ἀκέφαλον, without a head, if it has not another head on earth besides Christ. So small is the respect which they pay to Christ, that, if he obtain undivided that honor which his Father has bestowed upon him, the Church is supposed to be disfigured. This is the basest sacrilege. But let us listen to the Apostle, who declares that the Church is His body, and, consequently, that those who refuse to submit to Him are unworthy of its communion; for on Him alone the unity of the Church depends.

Because of this remark in 1:22 about the Church as Christ’s body, which he himself, and no human intermediary, governs spiritually, Calvin takes the “all” in verse 23 (“the fullness of him who fills all in all”) as referring particularly to the Church, while acknowledging that it is possible that it refers to “all things”–his universal government–writ large:

That filleth all in all. This is added to guard against the supposition that any real defect would exist in Christ, if he were separated from us. His wish to be filled, and, in some respects, made perfect in us, arises from no want or necessity; for all that is good in ourselves, or in any of the creatures, is the gift of his hand; and his goodness appears the more remarkably in raising us out of nothing, that he, in like manner, may dwell and live in us. There is no impropriety in limiting the word all to its application to this passage; for, though all things are regulated by the will and power of Christ, yet the subject of which Paul particularly speaks is the spiritual government of the Church. There is nothing, indeed, to hinder us from viewing it as referring to the universal government of the world; but to limit it to the case in hand is the more probable interpretation.


In conclusion, it is clear from Calvin’s exegesis of these passages that he regarded the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ, the God-Man, as king over all things. It is the crucified and now exalted Christ, not the unincarnate Logos, who holds royal sway, not just in the Church, but in all things to the Church–the people of God, the members Christ’s body who are united to him, their only head, by faith.

  1. I recently noted a similar discussion in Augustine’s De Fide et Symbolo.
  2. Compare also Calvin’s comment on Colossians 3:1: “As to the right hand of God, it is not confined to heaven, but fills the whole world. Paul has made mention of it here to intimate that Christ encompasses us by his power, that we may not think that distance of place is a cause of separation between us and him, and that at the same time his majesty may excite us wholly to reverence him.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.