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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"

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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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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies 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. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  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. []