Calvin, the possibility of good actions, and the doctrine of the two kingdoms

My good friends, Travis and Shane, are currently embroiled in a heated debate over a long-standing point of contention between the three of us over the possibility of “good actions” by people outside the church, meaning those who are not existentially oriented to God by faith. Shane’s original post sparked a response post by Travis, and now I am throwing my two-cents in to the discussion, though I will have to be brief. In this debate, I mostly side with Travis, who affirms the standard Protestant position that our relation to God is primary and essential for anything to be truly “good” (theologically defined, of course). Shane thinks that any theology which refuses to identify as “good” what he believes are self-evidently “good” actions (e.g., loving your wife, helping another person, etc.) is simply “morally repugnant.”

I am sympathetic with Shane’s position for a number of reasons (see below). However, it is my opinion that Shane fails to understand the role played by Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms (operative as well in Luther). This doctrine, according to David VanDrunen, is central for understanding the whole of Calvin’s theology. He makes the following statement regarding Calvin’s position which is germane to our current debate:
In the civil kingdom, where issues of salvation are not concerned, natural law plays its positive role, enabling even non-Christians to achieve various impressive accomplishments in fields such as law, science, and the liberal arts. In the spiritual kingdom of Christ, on the other hand, where issues of salvation are indeed at issue, the cultural accomplishments enabled by natural law are judged worthless for attaining eternal life. The very same action of the unbeliever performed according to the light of natural law, therefore, at one and the same time, may be admired and provoke thanksgiving from the perspective of the civil kingdom and may be judged of no value whatsoever for advancement in the spiritual kingdom of Christ.¹
Now I have serious misgivings about the dualism that is operative in Calvin’s theology of the two kingdoms (as with Luther), but I think the overall point is well stated by VanDrunen and is worth keeping in mind when discussing Reformation theology. The distinction between civil and spiritual, between earthly and heavenly, is at the heart of this debate. An action like loving one’s spouse is, in terms of the earthly realm, entirely “good”; but that same action, performed by the unbeliever, has no eternal value in the sense that it contributes nothing to her salvation, it remains earthly and temporal. Calvin and Luther restrict truly “good” actions to Christians, because they are now freed for obedience to God—and it is obedience to God within the realm of Christian liberty that makes for “good deeds.” The actions of non-Christians are “good” only in the limited, civil sense; they are “good” within the strict parameters of the earthly sphere. Whether we agree with this theological dualism or not, it is nevertheless the case that any attempt to explicate the Reformers on this point must take the two kingdoms doctrine into account.

I think the distinction between civil and spiritual is helpful for us in that we must distinguish between actions that are good in a general sense and good in a theological sense. People who have not yet encountered the grace of Christ are still capable of performing good actions, but the “goodness” of these actions is strictly circumscribed by their finite origin and end. What makes an action truly “good” is when an action’s origin and end are oriented by and toward God. That is, a “good” action is one which has its proper place within the kingdom of Christ.

So do Christians “have a monopoly on moral goodness” (Shane)? No, God does. Is God pleased with the actions of an unbeliever? I would argue, yes and no. Yes, in that all created reality is “good,” in that it has its own integrity. But no, in that this integrity alone is not the teleological end of creation. Creation may have integrity, but it lacks its proper identity as the “new creation.” I find Eberhard Jüngel’s three theses from God as the Mystery of the World to be quite helpful in affirming both the goodness of creation and the true goodness of the “new creation”:
  1. Man and his world are interesting for their own sake.
  2. Even more so, God is interesting for his own sake.
  3. God makes man, who is interesting for his own sake, interesting in a new way.²
The distinction Jüngel makes is between a creation that is interesting (good, valuable) for its own sake and the new creation which is given a new level of interest (goodness, value) by God. There is goodness in the former, but “true goodness” is found in the latter. We can say the same about humanity. We find humanity in the former but “true humanity” in the latter. We find creation in the former but “new creation” in the latter. This distinction is one that I think holds together Shane’s good points within the theological framework of the Reformers. We need not place a wedge between Christians and non-Christians. The wedge belongs between a “good creation” and a “new creation.”

¹ David VanDrunen, “The Two Kingdoms: A Reassessment of the Transformationist Calvin,”
Calvin Theological Journal 40:2 (2005).

² Eberhard Jüngel,
God as the Mystery of the World, trans. Darrell Guder (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1983), 34.


WTM said…

Thanks for jumping into the breach! It’s always nice to get all three of our cylinders pumping. But, I’m afraid that I have to pick a few nits, as is my habit. :-)

Far be it from me to arrogantly disregard a piece of undoubtedly fine piece of recent scholarship on Calvin, but it will take a lot of convincing to get me to admit that a 2-Kingdoms doctrine in the Lutheran vein plays a decisive role in Calvin’s thought. The 2-Kingdoms doctrine usually divides experience into two spheres: civil and ecclesial, which is a cipher for physical and spiritual (of course, there are variations). Calvin is a bit unique in these regards, and I will offer one example: Calvin, contrary to many Lutherans (not 100% sure about Luther, but I heavily expect that I am right), will not make allowances for people attending mass as required by many civil governments when they are convinced of Reformation doctrine. For Calvin, it is better to honor God with one’s body than to go through outward motions that dishonor God. This means that, for Calvin, the spiritual overflows into the physical.

This is not to deny, of course, that Calvin had a high view of civil authority (founded on God) and thought that civil authority should assist the church by providing a conducive environment for the church’s proclamation of the Gospel. But, Calvin’s ecclesiology in no way requires a sympathetic government. This is unlike Lutheranism, which existed only under the patronage of princes while Reformed congregations flourished in hostile environments (this also to the credit of reformed church discipline).

You do get things right when you say: “I think the distinction between civil and spiritual is helpful for us in that we must distinguish between actions that are good in a general sense and good in a theological sense.” But, I would argue that a discussion of Calvin’s understanding of the Law is far more profitable for getting at this than is 2-Kingdoms doctrine.

Now, on to Jüngel. :-)

You wrote: “The distinction Jüngel makes is between a creation that is interesting (good, valuable) for its own sake and the new creation which is given a new level of interest (goodness, value) by God. There is goodness in the former, but “true goodness” is found in the latter. We can say the same about humanity.”

I can see why that is attractive, but ultimately I think it is unhelpful. Anything that is valuable and interesting in creation is not to be separated ‘new creation’ because creation must be understood eschatologically / with reference to its telos in ‘new creation’. If we are going to talk about goodness in creation, it can only be proto-goodness, which is summarily eradicated by sin. Even this isn’t quite strong enough for my liking.

But of course, on these last points, I am giving my own opinion, not an interpretation of Calvin, who would likely find your text a bit more palatable.
D.W. Congdon said…

I think I find VanDrunen more persuasive than you do. He shows that Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine comes up explicitly in both books III and IV, and partially in book II as well. Moreover, as I articulate in my forthcoming paper on Calvin, it has its origin in book I (in Calvin's anthropology), so it really spans his whole Institutes. So I am not really sure what you are trying to argue regarding his two kingdoms doctrine. Could you explain what you mean some more? As you explained it, I do not see how Calvin's doctrine of the two kingdoms is not still very important in understanding his thought. Moreover, is it proper and even possible to place a wedge between his two kingdoms doctrine and his tripartite view of the law?

I still think Jüngel is helpful, contrary to your comments. I am trying to mediate between your position and Shane's by distinguishing between the relative, finite goodness that is proper to the world in itself, and the true goodness that is granted as divine gift in the coming of God in Jesus Christ. While I agree that creation finds its telos in the new creation, I see no reason why I should deny that the world in itself does not have its own goodness. This is not to deny the radicality of sin (I am most definitely a Barthian!), but merely to distinguish between "good" and "good" via a modified form of the two kingdoms doctrine. Even if you wish to downplay the importance of this doctrine, the truth behind it remains operative: when Luther and Calvin speak of an action as "good" or "not good," they are thinking from within a perspective that sharply distinguishes between earthly and heavenly, between coram mundo and coram Deo.
WTM said…
With reference to Calvin: he sounds much more Lutheran in the 1536, and while most of that stuff doesn't get cut, it recedes in importance.
Adam said…
I've just read Travis' post and seem to concur that Calvin wasn't quite the Augustinian that VanDrunen's made him out to be. Clearly his work is salted with reference to the two kingdoms, but not witht that kind of force. The Calvin I find in the Institutes is more a child of his own time; I find a Calvin who is enthralled with a sort of wonderment of the created order. Mind you, his enchantment rests in the context of contemplating God's covenant fidelity to a world of sickness and sorrow. In his covenant stuardship with creation, even after the fall God remains in relation to the world; he still finds it "good." (Cf. Noahic covenant).

For that reason, I'd argue that if anyone wants to quibble over Calvin's notion of "the good" attend to his doctrine of common grace. Therein, Calvin always only insists that even though "the human mind ... [is] fallen and perverted from its original integrity, [it] is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from the Creator."
Surely Calvin didn't think that an action was "good" only if it was performed by one of the elect. (If Calvin did think this, how would this comport with his doctrine of double pre-destination? On whom does the responsibility, then, for all non-good actions ultimately lie?") He couldn't have. As a good humanist scholar, he spent too much time reading the great minds of the Western canon to suppose that "pagans" couldn't identify "the good."

Also, if this is the standard Protestant doctrine, I cannot accept it.
kim fabricius said…
I'm with Shane.

Very briefly:

A Muslim says, "I love my wife." A Christian says, "I love my wife." There's a difference? Only if you take consciousness as the primary realm of experience and, further, take it - or intending, willing, or even believing - as a realm separate from action, such that we can judge the latter by the former. I thought Wittgenstein had exorcised us of that particular bewitchment. And Bonhoeffer sternly warned Christians about peering into someone's soul in order to determine whether or not an action of his is good (something about needing to go down into the cellar in order to enjoy a beautiful sitting room).

Simone Weil:
"If I light an electric torch at night out of doors I don't judge its power by looking at the bulb, but by seeing how many objects it lights up.
The brightness of a source of light is appreciated by the illumination it projects upon non-luminous objects.
The value of a religious or, more generally, a spiritual way of life is appreciated by the amount of illumination thrown upon the things of the world.
Earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things."

An illustration: the Good Samaritan. Do we have to check out his faith - of course he isn't a Christian, or even a good Jew - to determine whether or not his action is good? He just does what he does - isn't that precisely what is so laudable about him, not his decision-making or belief-system? And isn't that precisely the point of the parable? If the orthodox priest or levite had stopped, would that have made a compassionate action any better, let alone more pleasing to God, than the action of the heretical Samaritan? "Earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things."

Another interesting text is the story of the Rich Man (Mark 10:17-22). His question is about eternal life, and Jesus, in his answer refers - to what? He totally ignores the first table of the law - about one's relation with God - and directs the fellow to the second table of the law - about one's relation with one's fellows. "Earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things."

Put theologically: Augustine and Calvin notwithstanding, the distinction between coram mundo and coram Deo is, in these instances, a false dichotomy. Is grace operative ("regenerative"), does the Spirit move, only when there is conscious belief in Christ as Lord? Were Ghandi's actions "better", more pleasing to God than Martin Luther King's? This seems to me not only so counter-intuitive but so counter-scriptural - and you guys are younger and smarter than I - that I feel must be missing something. Ulrich Luz, in his TheTheology of the Gospel of Matthew (1993) writes: "Before the Judge, all lances are of equal length. The sole advantage granted to the readers of Matthew's Gospel is that the evangelist tells them exactly that."

Admittedly I've read all your posts in haste. Forgive me if I'm off beam.
Shane said…
*slaps himself in the forehead for not thinking of the good samaritan earlier.

thanks Kim.

D.W. Congdon said…
I think maybe I didn't make myself clear enough. My post was an attempt to get around the dichotomy between non-Christian evil and Christian good which Shane and I both abhor. The point of my post was that I think the debate thus far has missed the fact that Luther and Calvin are defining "good" in accordance with the kingdom of Christ, the realm of Christian freedom. But that does not mean the civil/secular sphere does not have its own rightful goodness.

Now, the two kingdoms doctrine is not essential here. All we need to say is that there is a qualitative distinction between the church and not-church. As far as I am concerned, that is just self-evident.
WTM said…
@ Kim,

The good samaratin argument is fallacious for this reason: samaratins were deviant Jews, something the equivalent of a Christian heretic. Thus, they worshiped the true God. I would argue that the point of this story is breaking down barriers that divide the peopel of God.

With reference to Mark 10, I would argue that the first table of the Law is skipped because of Jesus takes at face value his interlocutor's claim about fulfilling the commandments. Jesus undermines that claim by radicalizing the second table, which of course is the only earthly measure to us of a person's standing with regard to the first table.

Of course no one judges the other person's interiority, but I'm also not willing to say that this interiority doesn't matter. What passes between the individual human's consciousness and God is not my problem; I can, however, make a theological claim about certain things that are indispensible in that inercourse, such as the mediation of Christ.

We can argue about how a universalism in the Barthian style might change matters, but that kind of move does change matters significantly, and the conversation has not yet gone in that direction.

@ Adam,

It all depends on what "good" means; and Calvin was quite adept at finding various usages of one term in Scripture (cf. the visible / invisible church distinction in ICR 4.1). Also, your tendencies toward covenant theology worry me. As I noted in a discussion with Macht on my blog (in the comments of the post on 1 Peter 2 that started this), there are multiple ways to read Calvin, and he tends to be somewhere in the middle.
kim fabricius said…
Hi David. Happy New Year!

I quite agree with you about "the distinction between church and not-church" - or church and world (I'm Barth-cum-Yoder on this one too). But I also believe that there are tares in the church and holy folk in the world - and holy not just coram mundo but coram Deo. And not because I am some kind kind of religious pluralist - indeed "religion" doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it (as far as I'm concerned, the example of the Muslim who loves his wife might just as well be the atheist who loves his wife) - but because (I think) I'm so darned Christocentric: the holy are defined by their Christ-likeness - and not confined to the Christ-confessing. I would also appeal to a generous pneumatology to support my point.

And Hi WTM.

Just one question about your comment on the Good Samaritan: do you think it inconceivable that Jesus could have used the example of a Good Assyrian? Or if his interlocutor had continued the conversation, "Okay, Jesus, I can just about handle a Samaritan, heretics though they are, but what about an Egyptian?", can you imagine our Lord replying, "Well, you got me there: I draw the line at polytheists"?

And your point about Mark 12 - that the second table of the law "is the only earthly measure to us of a person's standing with regard to the first table" - precisely! - Weil's "Earthly things are the criterion of spiritual things." We don't have to go behind worldly goodness to see if it is really of God (which strikes me as analogous to going behind the biblical Christ to discover the real [historical] Jesus - it's a chimera).

On interiority, here is Rowan Williams: "Motive and intention cannot be elevated above practice or treated as sources of authority or legitimation. . . External achievement does not secure status, but neither does intensity, sincerity, or good will. The inner sphere belongs to God's judgement and is not available. What is available is action: judged not according to how it serves to secure a position before God and others, but according to its fidelity to the character of God, its 'epiphanic depth'." (You can see that Wittgenstein is a major influence on Williams.)

I like your point about Barth and universalism - that would certainly be one edifying direction in which this conversation could go. And I'm sure David could take us there!
adameitel said…

Your view seems clearer now. Thanks.


Your point about the meaning of 'good' is duly noted. But this doesn't say much about whether I'm right or wrong.

I don't want to hi-jack the post, so I'll have to wait until some other time for you to explain to me your concerns about covenant theology.

I'm privy to a few different interpretations of Calvin. But I don't think that I've suggested he was a proto-Federalist of any sort.
Shane said…
Regarding the ground of morality, I want to point the readers here to an article by Norm Kretzmann entitled "Abraham, Isaac and Euthyphro: God and the Basis of Morality", which explains how I would link God and morality together. I think Kretzmann's approach is compatible with the position I have put forward, but I'm not sure it is compatible with the positions WTM and David have put forward.
D.W. Congdon said…

In my 10 theses on forgiveness, we had a brief exchange that is directed related to the subject of this post. I think it bears repeating.


Shane said...

Re: # 2 "Forgiveness is a gift from God; it is not natural to fallen humanity."

Are you saying that no non-christians ever truly forgive anyone? Or that their forgiveness is always conditioned anonymously by God's?

June 30, 2006 7:38 AM
D.W. Congdon said...

Shane, I would say it is analogous to the fact that non-Christians can perform good works that accomplish good things. But their identity is not marked or shaped by an orientation toward the Good. To put it another way, forgiveness for them is external to their identity, whereas for the Christian, forgiveness is written in to their new personhood. I would actually employ the Lutheran distinction between inner and outer person. Forgiveness for the Christian moves from being a purely "outer" interaction with others to becoming an "inner" part of one's God-given identity.
D.W. Congdon said…
You can find a link to that post on my sidebar under favorite posts, or click here.
D.W. Congdon said…
Here are my remaining concerns, ones that honestly vex me:

1. For those who accept that all self-evidently "good" actions are "good," regardless of who performs that action, on what basis is the adjective "good" applied to that particular action? Is it on the basis of some natural law, or on the basis of revelation? Is there not a natural theology of some sort operative in this? Which leads to my second question ...

2. If we accept the goodness of some act on natural-creational grounds (that is, as created beings we can do good and ought to do good), what prevents us from affirming the possibility of thinking and speaking about God apart from redemption on purely natural-creational grounds? Or are we bound to affirm the latter if we affirm the former? Does the acceptance of natural morality entail the acceptance of natural theology?

3. Does all of this simply boil down to a natural-supernatural debate -- on both sides nonetheless? In addition to the distinctions found in the theologies of Augustine and Calvin, even those who accept the goodness of an atheist loving her spouse are perpetuating some kind of natural-supernatural distinction through the affirmation of natural laws which correspond with the divine law. All this being the case, I cannot help but feel that such a natural-supernatural dichotomy is rather questionable. I can think of some ways to get around this, but I pose this question now to hear people's thoughts in response.
Shane said…
hmm, very good questions. If I think of any very good answers I'll come back with them.