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John Calvin’s Approach to Culture

This entry is part 6 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

John Calvin’s (1509–1564) position regarding the relationship of the church to the surrounding culture is one of intense debate. For example, VanDrunen argues that Calvin essentially agreed with Luther on the two-kingdoms and natural law1 contrary to the Neo-Calvinists who insist that their transformationalism comes from him. In fact, VanDrunen argues that H. Richard Niebuhr miscategorized Calvin in his influential taxonomy in Christ and Culture.2 Like Luther, Calvin saw a fundamental antithesis between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world while recognizing a commonality in terms of involvement in the institutions governing each realm.3 In particular, Calvin expresses God’s distinctive rule over both kingdoms in terms of the Son’s dual mediatorship, e.g., the fact that the Son is both creator and redeemer and that he rules the kingdom of God as redeemer but the kingdom of the world only as creator.4 The most significant point of disagreement with Luther is that Calvin believed that Christians were actually members of both kingdoms, not just the institutions associated with those kingdoms.

These similarities with Luther lead some like VanDrunen to insist that Calvin advocated the two-kingdom approach, while others in the Reformed tradition agree with Niebuhr’s categorization of Calvin as a transformationalist. For example, Jason Lief argues that Calvin’s two-kingdom motif differs more significantly than VanDrunen wants to acknowledge and actually affirms later transformationalist models rooted in an eschatological foundation.5

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children.



Endnotes:

  1. “Though John Calvin is not often associated with the two kingdoms doctrine, he affirmed it from the beginning to the end of his theological career and put it to work when addressing various topics, perhaps most notably Christian liberty and the respective authority of church and state” (VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 69). []
  2. VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 69ff. []
  3. “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 bound to perform. . . . 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, honourably, and modestly. The former has its seat within the soul, the latter only regulates the external conduct. We may call the only spiritual, the other the civil kingdom” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 3.19.15. []
  4. Ibid., 1.13.7; 2.12.6. []
  5. Jason Lief, “Is Neo-Calvinism Calvinst? A Neo-Calvinist Engagement of Calvin’s Two-Kingdom Doctrine”,” Pro Rege 27, no. 3 (March 2009): 1–12. []

2 Responses to John Calvin’s Approach to Culture

  1. Scott,

    Here is Calvin on his view of "two kingdoms" and not someone else saying what Calvin said (a little long but clearly stated):

    We must, therefore, know that the happiness which is promised to us in Christ does not consist in external advantages—such as leading a joyful and tranquil life, abounding in wealth, being secure against all injury, and having an affluence of delights, such as the flesh is wont to long for—but properly belongs to the heavenly life. As in the world the prosperous and desirable condition of a people consists partly in the abundance of temporal good and domestic peace, and partly in the strong protection which gives security against external violence; so Christ also enriches his people with all things necessary to the eternal salvation of their souls and fortifies them with courage to stand unassailable by all the attacks of spiritual foes. Whence we infer, that he reigns more for us than for himself, and that both within us and without us; that being replenished, in so far as God knows to be expedient, with the gifts of the Spirit, of which we are naturally destitute, we may feel from their first fruits, that we are truly united to God for perfect blessedness; and then trusting to the power of the same Spirit, may not doubt that we shall always be victorious against the devil, the world, and every thing that can do us harm. To this effect was our Saviour’s reply to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is within you.” “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation,” (Luke 17:21, 22). It is probable that on his declaring himself to be that King under whom the highest blessing of God was to be expected, they had in derision asked him to produce his insignia. But to prevent those who were already more than enough inclined to the earth from dwelling on its pomp, he bids them enter into their consciences, for “the kingdom of God” is “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost,” (Rom. 14:17). These words briefly teach what the kingdom of Christ bestows upon us. Not being earthly or carnal, and so subject to corruption, but spiritual, it raises us even to eternal life, so that we can patiently live at present under toil, hunger, cold, contempt, disgrace, and other annoyances; contented with this, that our King will never abandon us, but will supply our necessities until our warfare is ended, and we are called to triumph: such being the nature of his kingdom, that he communicates to us whatever he received of his Father. Since then he arms and equips us by his power, adorns us with splendour and magnificence, enriches us with wealth, we here find most abundant cause of glorying, and also are inspired with boldness, so that we can contend intrepidly with the devil, sin, and death. In fine, clothed with his righteousness, we can bravely surmount all the insults of the world: and as he replenishes us liberally with his gifts, so we can in our turn bring forth fruit unto his glory. (Institutes, 2.15.4)

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