Calvin’s Two-fold Government


Luther’s two kingdoms refer to the inward man and the outward man. They are not identified with the “church” and the “state”. Instead, both church and state, as institutions, are part of the outward kingdom.

Luther’s To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate was an appeal to the civil government to reform the church. Far from rejecting Rome’s sacralism (Christendom), Luther thoroughly embraced it. Luther’s invisible kingdom was an inward kingdom of the conscience. His temporal kingdom included both church and state. William J. Wright, in his recent monograph Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms (Baker Academic, 2010), has succinctly explained Luther’s thought in this way:

Luther would explain that God ruled the invisible kingdom with His Word through faith and that God’s realm was not comprehensible through human reason. Moreover, in the worldly kingdom, Luther later distinguished three orders of rule comprised of human institutions: the orders of daily life (home and livlihood), the state, and the church.
p. 117

His disagreement with Rome was about which institution was superior in the temporal kingdom.

Since then the temporal power is baptized as we are, and has the same faith and gospel, we must allow it to be priest and bishop, and account its office an office that is proper and useful to the Christian community. . . .

It follows then, that between layman and priests, princes and bishops, or as they call it, between spiritual and temporal persons, the only real difference is one of office and function…

forasmuch as the temporal power has been ordained by God for the punishment of the bad, and the protection of the good, therefore we must let it do its duty throughout the whole Christian body, without respect of persons: whether it strike popes, bishops, priests, monks, or nuns…

the temporal power has become a member of the Christian body, and although its work relates to the body, yet does it belong to the spiritual estate. Therefore it must do its duty without let or hindrance upon all members of the whole body, to punish or urge, as guilt may deserve…

Luther, in no uncertain terms, retained the medieval concept of Christendom, he simply quibbled over authority within Christendom.


Contrary to some accounts, Calvin followed Luther in his explanation of the two-fold government of man because it was a medieval concept they both shared (see Calvin’s “the common distinction held by all schools”). Calvin’s two kingdoms were not the church and the state, but the conscience and the outward.

This distinction is laid out in 3.19.15 of the the Institutes “Of Christian Liberty”.

let us observe that in man government is twofold: the one spiritual, by which the conscience is trained to piety and divine worship; the other civil, by which the individual is instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are bold to performs (see Book 4, chap. 10, sec. 3-6). To these two forms are commonly given the not inappropriate names of spiritual and temporal jurisdiction, intimating that the former species has reference to the life of the soul, while the latter relates to matters of the present life, not only to food and clothing, but to the enacting of laws which require a man to live among his fellows purely honorably, and modestly. The former has its seat within the soul, the latter only regulates the external conduct. We may call the one the spiritual, the other the civil kingdom…

Again because even in those constitutions which seem to relate to the spiritual kingdom, there may be some delusion, it is necessary to distinguish between those which are to be held legitimate as being agreeable to the Word of God, and those, on the other hand, which ought to have no place among the pious. We shall elsewhere have an opportunity of speaking of civil government (see Book 4, chap. 20). For the present, also, I defer speaking of ecclesiastical laws, because that subject will be more fully discussed in the Fourth Book when we come to treat of the Power of the Church. We would thus conclude the present discussion. The question, as I have said, though not very obscure, or perplexing in itself, occasions difficulty to many, because they do not distinguish with sufficient accuracy between what is called the external forum, and the forum of conscience.

Note Calvin’s reference to 4.10 “The Power of the Church in Making Laws” under the category of civil. He also references 4.20 “Of Civil Government”. From these three chapters we are able to develop the following table:


Spiritual Civil
conscience trained to piety and divine worship individual instructed in those duties which, as men and citizens, we are bold to perform
spiritual jurisdiction temporal jurisdiction
the life of the soul matters of the present life:
-food & clothing
-enacting laws which require a man to live among his fellows
within the soul only regulates external conduct
spiritual kingdom civil kingdom
forum of conscience external forum (a “common distinction held by all the schools” not unique to Calvin)
conscience human and civil jurisdictions (all human judgments)
conscience bears reference to God only works have respect to men
divine worship civil order (within the church: “useful constitutions of the Church, which tend to preserve discipline, or decency, or peace”)
things pertaining to the soul, necessary to eternal life [things indifferent]
judgment seat of God terrestrial justice of men
true and necessary worship of God ecclesiastical constitutions
a rule of life requisite for duly arranging the polity of the Church
legitimate observances of the Church (that human society may be maintained in order by certain bonds of moderation and humanity – public decency, common use; 1 Cor 14:40)
fixed form for rites in the Church
“First, then, let us understand that if in every human society some kind of government is necessary to insure the common peace and maintain concord, if in transacting business some form must always be observed, which public decency, and hence humanity itself, require us not to disregard, this ought especially to be observed in churches, which are best sustained by a constitution in all respects well ordered, and without which concord can have no existence” 4.10.27
general precepts for the Church “But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages), in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency.” 4.20.30 [cf WCF 1.6 “there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and the government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.”]
“these are not fixed and perpetual obligations to which we are astricted, but external rudiments for human infirmity, which, though we do not all need, we, however, all use, because we are bound to cherish mutual charity towards each other”



From this, it is clear that Calvin, like Luther, places the institutional Church within the civil government because it involves the human jurisdiction, rather than the judgment seat of God. Calvin differs from Luther in that where Luther elevated the state above the Church in order to combat Rome, Calvin attempted to coordinate them as much as possible in an attempt to prevent the state from interfering in the Church’s discipline, granting them each their distinct areas of operation, yet he placed them both within the “external forum”.


In addition, in response to Rome, Calvin limited the institutional Church’s authority to proclaiming what God had already declared in the inward kingdom, as well as to particular “external ceremonies and discipline” that Scripture prescribed in general.

Consider Calvin’s commentary on 1 Cor 11:3

There is somewhat more of difficulty in what follows. Here the man is placed in an intermediate position between Christ and the woman, so that Christ is not the head of the woman. Yet the same Apostle teaches us elsewhere, (Galatians 3:28,) that in Christ there is neither male nor female. Why then does he make a distinction here, which in that passage he does away with? I answer, that the solution of this depends on the connection in which the passages occur. 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 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.

To see this worked out and argued in detail, I recommend the following:

Calvin’s two-kingdoms doctrine is at one with Luther’s. He distinguishes, as we have shown, between the inner and the outer, and like Luther, he places polity and administration of the visible church in the temporal kingdom.  As we have shown, not only are civic and ecclesiastical polity regarded as parallel and analogous, they are even continuous: ecclesiastical polity is part of “outward decorum” and its forms are developed by prudence, within certain basic principles of order which apply as much to broader civic life as to the more specialized concerns of the Christian temple within the Christian commonwealth. Dr. Kirby is right.

In Calvin’s  writings, he never gives a systematic doctrine of the commonwealth. He does however teach that magistrates and ministers both are representative at once of God’s order and of the people. He nowhere says that the people represented by the ministers are somehow a different people than the ones represented by the Christian magistrate, and he does say that these Christian people have had their Adamic dominion relatively restored in Christ.  This doctrine, in conjunction with the representative character of the magistrate, shows very clearly that Calvin is a “magisterial Reformer”


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