Reformed Political Theology Today

Three Voices from the Past

Christian political thinking is marked by a struggle between two seemingly opposing principles. On the one hand, the rulers of the kingdoms of this world are required to submit to the authority of Jesus Christ, to “serve the Lord with fear and trembling,” and to “kiss the Son” (Ps. 2:10–12). On the other hand, Jesus said to Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

There is a challenge here for Christians, an ethical tension built into Christian political theology. The world, including the politics of this world, is a space where Jesus Christ rules. But the question is: what is the nature of that rule? How can Christ be both the King of Kings and simultaneously not have a rule that is political? How should Christians live in the world here and now in light of the reign of Jesus Christ?

This article will explore three important politico-theological ideas that flow from the Reformed tradition: two kingdoms theology, sphere sovereignty, and political realism. Each of these ideas offers us ways of answering those big ethical questions that flow from the reality of Christ’s reign and his otherworldly kingdom. So, too, these ideas inform how civil magistrates should govern and how we might evaluate our political leaders.

Two Kingdoms Theology

In 1520, the German reformer Martin Luther first outlined the doctrine of the two kingdoms. The basic idea, articulated in his 1520 tracts The Freedom of the Christian and the Letter to the German Nobility, as well as later works like Temporal Authority, was that the Christian lives in two kingdoms. One is the “spiritual kingdom,” the kingdom of the soul, which is ruled by God alone. This is the realm of the person’s spiritual standing before God. According to Luther, nothing can come between God and the individual soul, who stands naked before the Lord either justified or unjustified. The other, “temporal kingdom,” is the realm of external relations, and encapsulates all of life in the world.

Luther argued that, because of the Christian’s simultaneous placement in these two distinct realms, Christians were both entirely free from all earthly obligations and servants of all. Christians, he argued, are free from obligation to the law, both divine and civil, and yet are motivated by their justification to be all the more obedient to earthly authorities.

John Calvin (1509–1564), the great reformer of Geneva, picked up this motif of Luther’s and developed it as he considered the relationship between the conscience, political obligation, and a Reformed understanding of political institutions. Towards the end of Book III of his 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin addresses the distinction between the spiritual and temporal kingdoms and the way this distinction impacts Christian freedom. He says that the doctrine of Christian freedom is “a matter of primary necessity, one without the knowledge of which the conscience can scarcely attempt any thing without hesitation.” Calvin argued that the Christian life in the world cannot be attempted with any certainty unless we understand the meaning of the freedom Christians have in Christ.

This question ultimately pertains to the conscience, according to Calvin. Humans are liable to be bound to the dictates of man, dictates which they have no spiritual obligation to attend to, dictates that have no bearing on one’s standing with God. He says, “as works have respect to men, so conscience bears reference to God.” Outward works, the works of the temporal kingdom, are directed toward our fellow humans in an external sense. Our conscience is different, though, as it pertains to our standing before God. Calvin’s framing helps us understand what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 13:5, that we ought to obey the magistrate “for conscience’s sake.” According to Calvin, we obey because God requires it, for the sake of our conscience, not because the magistrate requires it, that is for the sake of pleasing people with our works.

At the end of Book IV of the Institutes, Calvin finally deals with politics. At the beginning of Chapter 20, the final chapter of the Institutes, he returns to the concept of Christian freedom and the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Calvin’s two kingdoms are not, as some have argued, the church and the state. They are the internal forum of the conscience, and the external forum of the world, of works, and of outward behavior. Does this mean that politics does not matter for the Christian? Does doing good in the external sphere of politics make any difference? If the person’s standing before God is completely separate from their external political life, why should the kings of the earth “kiss the Son”? Perhaps merely to gain salvation and go to heaven? Or does David’s second Psalm also assume that their political rule is to be submitted politically to the true kingship of the Son?

Our answer to these questions depends in part upon how we understand the nature of the institutional church and other external, political institutions. For Calvin, the institutional church and political institutions are all part of the temporal kingdom. The temporal kingdom is the realm where Christians work out their Christian freedom. At the same time, it is also a realm where the moral requirements of God’s law are to be enacted. And part of that law entails, for Calvin, the protection of true religion. Governments have a duty to protect the church and the purity of worship and doctrine. Civil magistrates are not preachers, nor ministers of the gospel. However, as Paul makes clear in Romans 13, they are “ministers” (διάκονός, or diakonos) of God. Further, Calvin says that the office of the civil magistrate is “in the sight of God, not only sacred and lawful, but the most sacred, and by far the most honourable, of all stations in mortal life.”

Does this mean those in political authority are required to submit their rule to Christ? Yes. The temporal kingdom is not a realm free from ethical obligation. On the contrary, it is because of our spiritual freedom and our conscience that all Christians have a duty to honor and obey the magistrate. Those who do not follow Christ are bound by their duties before God’s moral law, manifest in their consciences, to do the same. So, too, those in political authority are required to offer themselves to His service. The civil magistrate rules in the temporal kingdom with the ultimate goal of ordering the lives of their subjects to the highest good, which is worshipping and pleasing God. This means that political rule aims, among other things, at the spiritual liberty of the conscience.

Sphere Sovereignty

The form that this political rule takes, and the shape of the ensuing society, is generally an open question to any Reformed thinker. There have been Reformed social and political theorists, though, and one of the most brilliant was Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920). The Dutch polymath was the definition of the active life. He was a historian, pastor, theology professor, churchman, journalist, activist, politician, and prime minister. He lived out the kind of Christianity that he preached – one that was engaged with the world and in the issues of the world. Many of his ideas were original and insightful, and he offered a distinctively Reformed approach to politics and political thinking.

Kuyper’s most famous idea is also his least interesting from a political perspective – that all of life, every single part of reality, is under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Over all of this, Christ cries “Mine!”. The context for this utterance is a speech on education and the importance of distinctively Christian education institutions. Kuyper believed people of different confessions, including the different forms of Christianity, should be free to establish institutions that reflect their own convictions. In this way, Kuyper was a man of his and our times. He was a political liberal, meaning he did not assume that Christianity was the normative force that underlay political society. Despite his universalistic rhetoric, that all of creation is Christ’s, he assumed a neutral public square just as the contemporary liberal does today. This is why he could coherently argue for the right of all confessional and ideological groups to control their own institutions, a process of negotiation and compromise that he saw as overseen by the neutral state.

This understanding of politics is not especially Christian or Reformed. As I said above, it is more politically liberal than politically Reformed, even if one concedes that Reformed political theology does not preclude liberal pluralism per se. One idea of Kuyper’s that has profound implications and Reformed theological underpinnings is his doctrine of “sphere sovereignty.” Kuyper was living in an age where theorists were trying to explain and justify the existence of social, political, and religious diversity, and some developed theories of pluralism in response to this. Sphere sovereignty is a theory of “structural pluralism,” a theory of civil society institutions and political institutions that emphasizes their distinctness. Institutions are different in their purpose, their nature, and their structure. A school is different from a church. A church is different from a university. A university is different from a chess club. A chess club is different from a political party.

This pluralism sounds simple enough, but Kuyper made powerful use of it. Classical Protestant institutional theory, stemming from the early Reformation era, revolved around church, family, and civil government. These three institutions remain at the center of Kuyper’s theory of society, but he includes further institutions, most notably educational institutions, but also trade unions, businesses, and corporations. “Each sphere,” according to Kuyper, “obeys its own laws and each … stands under its own supreme authority.” This authority is not sui generis, and there is no Platonic ideal of a school under which all schools are subject. The real authority behind all institutions is God. Through his creation, God has designed, organized, and set in motion the operations of institutions of society in distinct ways.

Kuyper believed sphere sovereignty was consistent with historic Reformed thought, which tended to make more of the distinction between the authorities in the church, state, and family than the Lutherans and Roman Catholics. He argued that the separation of powers, as it were, in his theory of sphere sovereignty, could help people manage the multifaceted nature of modern society. However, did Kuyper properly understand the nature of modern man? Reading Kuyper one comes away with a strong sense of the power of normativity of the creation order. Yet, his account of the impact of sin on political life is less clear. Kuyper was well aware of the force of human sin in human affairs, and this is why he had a doctrine of common grace, which served to explain why sin does not overtake all capacity for human goodness and the possibility of social and civic order. However, to find an adequate Reformed account of the impact of sin on political life, we turn to the twentieth-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Reformed Realism

In the aftermath of the catastrophic decades of the early twentieth century, years that saw the brutality of the Great War and World War II, and the emergence of the twin totalitarian ideologies of National Socialism and Communism, an anthropological reckoning occurred. Christians everywhere were forced to reconsider their optimism about human nature and the possibility of human progress. Liberal Christianity was especially implicated in this trend.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), was a professor at Union Theological Seminary and a Neo-Orthodox and liberal Reformed thinker. His key influence was Augustine of Hippo, to whom he gave the label of “realist.” Humanity is selfish, and dominated by “self-love,” a conclusion that Niebuhr believed forced Augustine to face “the forces of recalcitrance which we must face on all levels of the human community.”  Because of this conception of the fallen human, and the insidious influence of sin, life is marked by tensions and conflicts, meaning that life in the world can be “described as constantly subject to an uneasy armistice between contending forces.”  This insight is missing from the optimistic anthropologies of “Liberal Christianity,” which tended to acquiesce to modern culture. According to Niebuhr, liberal Christianity missed the memo about humankind’s capacity for evil.

This, says Niebuhr, is the “real crux of the issue between essential Christianity and modern culture.”  Modern people of Niebuhr’s day tended to have a naïve view of human nature. According to Niebuhr, this anthropology cannot be sustained by “those who have looked too deeply into life and their own souls to place their trust in so broken a reed.”  Society cannot press toward Utopia because man is too evil, too twisted, and too broken. Righteous political order cannot be established by human virtue. Rather, “social peace and order are established by a dominant group within some level of community,” and “this group is not exempt from the corruption of self-interest.”

This Augustinian realism carries across into the ethics of war and killing, a matter that was of significant interest to Christians in Niebuhr’s day. According to Niebuhr, Christianity is not “primarily a ‘challenge’ to man to obey the law of Christ,” but is rather “a religion that deals realistically with the problem presented by the violation of this law.”  The problem of injustice cannot simply be set right by obedience to the law of God. Pacifists, those who believe that all killing is morally wrong and therefore requires non-participation in killing, have “absorbed the Renaissance faith in the goodness of man, have rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin … [they have reinterpreted the cross [to mean that] perfect love is guaranteed a simple victory over the world.”

The problem is that “there are no historical realities which remotely conform” to this vision of Christianity and human life more generally. Niebuhr’s Reformed realism requires something more than an absolute ethic of love. Yes, Jesus’ ethic as articulated in the Sermon on the Mount is an absolute and normative ethic. But ethics requires implementation in the fallen world. The pacifist, left to face reality, finds that “an ethic of pure non-resistance can have no immediate relevance to any political situation; for in every situation, it is necessary to achieve justice by resisting pride and power.” Niebuhr’s Reformed realism avoids the traps of modern optimistic anthropologies through a biblical vision of humankind’s sinfulness and the realities of seeking penultimate justice and order in this fallen world.

Reformed Thinking Today

What does all of this mean for Christians today? How can the Reformed tradition inform our political thinking in this late-modern and post-Christian, and post-liberal age? First, let us consider the way that Niebuhr’s realism can inform us. We have just lived through an age not dissimilar to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – an age of civilizational development and progress, and of remarkable geopolitical peace. There has been no large-scale conflict in the West since World War II. And the past 30 years have seen incredible economic and technological development. There is a temptation in times of plenty and opportunity to become optimistic about the human capacity for good. This is precisely the mistake many Christians made in the early twentieth century. Humans can be good and can do good. However, Niebuhr reminds us that our common life will invariably be marred by our capacity for selfishness and evil. The dysfunction manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic and the beginning of a new land war in Eastern Europe should check our optimism. They should also serve as reminders that all is not well in the human soul and that this will inevitably work itself out in human affairs.

Our political stance towards others, be they fellow countrymen, or our country’s geopolitical neighbors, should be one of charity. But our stance should also be marked by realism about the limits for progress and goodness in human affairs. Sin has a significant impact. Governments can do good, but we all know that governments often do not work to this end. Further, there are substantial limits to the good that can be done in politics. We can learn from Reformed realism that politics might simply amount to keeping good order in society, rather than pursuing virtuous political outcomes. Utopian forces are moving in our midst today, especially those pushing radical social ideologies, and these need to be resisted partly on the grounds of Reformed realism. Just like older utopian ideologies, these visions of moral perfection and social justice will not ultimately be realized because of human sin. Reformed realism shows us that we should work towards justice in society, but not so we can bring heaven to earth. Rather, the desire to work for justice points towards the need for order in this present age, whilst also pointing to an eschatological justice that will only be realized at the Second Coming of Christ.

This realist vision of the limits of earthly politics coheres with Calvin’s framing of the two kingdoms. Earthly politics must point to the human’s need for spiritual salvation, but cannot assume the role of savior. There is an unbridgeable gap between the spiritual and temporal kingdoms that places a necessary limit on the kind of good that can be achieved in this life. This is comforting in the face of hostility and persecution. In the Reformed framing of politics, we have a clear articulation of the priority of the Christian’s spiritual relationship to God. But the point of this doctrine is not simply evangelical faith. As Calvin explains, the point is also that Christians are free to act in the world for good, especially for political good. Calvin saw no tension between the faith of the Christian and the need for Christian public service.

At the same time, because the Christian is spiritually free, he is liberated to not serve the ideologies of the world. Slavery to human political ideologies ought to be an impossibility for the Reformed Christian because he knows that his service to earthly authority is an expression of his submission to his heavenly King. The Christian conscience is never bound in a political sense; it is always and only bound in a spiritual sense. Obedience, says the apostle Paul, “for conscience’s sake.” This means the Christian is free to serve and free not to serve, free to obey and free not to obey. Calvin emphasized obedience in his political ethics. But we are entering times where disobedience could be more necessary. The doctrine of the two kingdoms can provide a framework for thinking through these political tensions.

Service and obedience are big themes in Calvin’s political thinking. The question remains as to how to frame our service and obedience in this life. Kuyper’s theory of sphere sovereignty reminds us that obedience and service always occur in the context of institutions. These institutions have purposes and identities that are distinct from one another, and our political and social work should be carried out with these distinctions in mind. Further, sphere sovereignty offers Christians a theory for showing that not all of life is political. The political parts of our lives are, mercifully, limited. Much that makes life bearable and joyful occurs outside of the political realm, and sphere sovereignty provides a Reformed framework for explaining non-political life and also protecting it. As the world closes in on the Church in the West, and politics becomes a more hostile space for Christians, sphere sovereignty offers an explanation of how the Christian life can be carried on in a meaningful way beyond the public square. Christ’s rule, and our response to that rule, is not limited to earthly politics. Even when the kings of this world do not “kiss the Son,” as they so often don’t, Christ still reigns.

Note: This article is a revised version of a lecture given at the Faculty of Theology at the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary (Károli Gáspár Református Egyetem), while the author was a Visiting Fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium.

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Simon P. Kennedy

Simon P. Kennedy is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest.