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The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed, Pt. 1: Introducing the Antagonists

For the past few years, the narrow world of conservative North American Reformed theology has been torn by one of its regular bouts of internecine strife.  The wider world of theology rarely has occasion to take notice of these often unedifying spectacles, and few indeed have merited much attention from political theologians.  The recent debate over “Reformed two kingdoms theology,” however, is one that political theology, particularly among its Protestant practitioners, ignores to its loss.  The movement, wrestling with age-old questions about the relation of church and state, of creation and redemption, of natural law and Scripture, has catapulted the conservative Reformed, normally known for burying their heads in the proverbial sand, into the midst of contemporary debates about the role of Christian faith in the liberal public square.

Thankfully, it has not gone altogether unremarked since the publication of David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, which appeared in John Witte’s Emory University Studies in Law and Religion series in 2010.  Aside from the usual polite notices in the major journals, some naively impressed with the book’s magisterial appearance, others judiciously critical, it has received substantial critical engagement by James K.A. Smith in the Calvin Theological Journal, and more recently by Jennifer Herdt at a Princeton symposium on natural law.  The former proposed the Augustinian alternative of the “two cities” to VanDrunen’s “two kingdoms,” and the latter engaged critically with his account of natural law.  Detailed scrutiny of the historical claims about the Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine which lie at the heart of VanDrunen’s proposal, however, has remained largely hidden from the public eye, and it is to that debate that I hope to introduce you in this five-part series (I: The Lay of the Land; II: Luther to Calvin; III: Calvin to Hooker; IV: Hooker to Locke; V: Why it Matters).

So, what is this proposal, this movement?  Its chief exponents, among whom are also theologian Michael S. Horton and historian Darryl G. Hart, are mostly associated with Westminster Seminary in Escondido, CA, a connection that has led to it being labelled by some “The Escondido Theology.”  Like most movements in theology, though, it can be best understood by first understanding what it is reacting against.  The R2K theorists have their sights set on a trio of boogeymen within the conservative Reformed and evangelical world: theonomy, neo-Calvinism, and evangelicalism (although VanDrunen has widened the attack to include such diverse foes as radical orthodoxy, the emergent church, and N.T. Wright as well).  Of these, theonomy (also known as Reconstructionism) is probably the most obscure to general audiences.  A movement that enjoyed considerable vogue among the arch-Reformed in the ‘80s and ‘90s but has recently faded, theonomy proposed a full-blown recovery of the civil laws of the Old Testament as a Christian blueprint for modern society.  Any political theology short of this, theonomists claimed, was compromise with unbelief, privileging man’s word above God’s.

Neo-Calvinism enjoys a much more mainstream recognition, including (in its broadest construal) such well-known political theologians as James K.A. Smith, John Witte, Jr., and Nicholas Wolterstorff, and serving as a dominant force particularly among the Dutch Reformed.  Its card-carrying, doctrinaire membership, however, with whom the R2K theorists are particularly concerned, occupies a somewhat self-enclosed circle among conservative denominations and insitutions.  They are distinguished by their commitment to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper, mediated through 20th-century Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd and North American followers such as Henry Stob, Al Wolters and Cornelius Van Til (though this latter offered his own distinctive twists which proved congenial to theonomists).  In a nutshell, this tradition’s slogan is “Take every thought captive to the lordship of Christ,” a determination to “transform” the various “spheres” and institutions of society by grounding them upon the fundamental ideas of a “Christian worldview.”  Unlike theonomy, neo-Calvinism is concerned more with philosophical “ground-motives” than legalistic prescriptions, with the spirit rather than the letter, but it can be similarly triumphalist in aspirations.

“Evangelicalism” is of course the most inchoate of the three foes, but the one that has been the target of the lion’s share of the more popular level R2K writings, such as those by Horton and Hart.  American evangelicals are blamed for a low ecclesiology that devalues the institutional church, its ministries and sacraments, for a naive biblicism that thinks there’s a Bible verse for every problem, and for a belligerent political activism.  Taken together, these lead to a confusion of the kingdom of Christ with worldly politics, as evangelicals insist on imposing particular understandings of what Scripture demands on voters and politicians.  Of course, stated this way, such criticisms of evangelicalism are nothing new, and would be shared by many beyond the Escondido theologians.  The more philosophically sophisticated, but still often triumphalistic (and philosophically reductionist) neo-Calvinism would likewise be met with a healthy suspicion by many political theologians, and as for theonomy, few outside the most hard-core Reformed circles would even think it needed refutation.  The Reformed two-kingdoms movement’s chief concerns, then—a desire to re-emphasize the centrality of the Church in the Christian life, a suspicion of over-reaching claims for biblical authority and applicability, a healthy cynicism about the ability to realize gospel norms in temporal and political structures, a stress on the wide area of commonality between believers and unbelievers in our mundane lives—all seem like salutary ones, shared by most sober and theologically thoughtful commentators.


“Where’s the beef?” then, we might ask.  Well, like most movements whose rationale is essentially reactionary, the Reformed two-kingdoms movement has had a temptation of going too far in its resistance to these biblicist and triumphalist agendas.  In order to gain clarity amidst these unseemly blurrings of Christian faith and politics, the R2K movement has argued for an extensive set of neatly-correlated dualisms: spiritual kingdom vs. civil (or “temporal” or “common”) kingdom, church vs. state, redemption vs. creation, eternal vs. temporal, Jesus Christ vs. Creator God, Scripture vs. natural law.  The institutional church is Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which alone the work of redemption is being carried out for eternal salvation, under the headship of Jesus Christ, who rules this kingdom by Scripture alone.  The rest of life, on the other hand (and preeminently the state) is an expression of God’s civil kingdom, in which there is no distinction between believer and unbeliever; this sphere serves merely for the temporary preservation of the creation order, under the government of God as Creator, and normed by the prescriptions of natural law, rather than Scripture.

Stated this way, it is clear that this is a paradigm that would raise red flags for a great many theologians.  Among the concerns that such a schema would invite, particularly among Protestants, are: the overrealized eschatology in the conception of the visible church, and the underrealized or non-existent eschatology elsewhere, the bifurcation of creation and redemption, rather than viewing the latter as the integral fulfillment of the former, the suggestion that the Christian’s salvation and re-oriented life does not manifest itself in all his vocations, the questionable Christology and Trinitarian theology in the dualism between Christ the Redeemer and God the Creator, the absence of a theology of the ascension, and the curious view of natural law and Scripture as mutually exclusive, rather than mutually interpreting.

Needless to say, there is variation among the exponents of R2K theory as to how far these dualisms are pressed, and how closely they are correlated.  Some of the most extreme have come from Darryl Hart, who has seemed frequently to suggest that a Christian’s redeemed identity has no relevance outside the four walls of the Church, and faith-based principles have no place in the public square,[1] although VanDrunen’s most systematic treatment, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (P&R Publishing, 2010), appears considerably more moderate.  The most moderate form, clearly maintaining on the need for a Biblically-informed Christian witness in culture and politics, and softening the various R2K dualisms to some extent, has been advocated by Matthew Tuininga, who is pursuing a Ph.D under John Witte, Jr. on Calvin’s two-kingdoms theology.[2]

Given that the R2K theorists are all rather staunch confessionalists (that is, they insist on holding strictly to the formulations of the Reformed confessions), this project necessarily has an important historical dimension—demonstrating that this two-kingdoms schema is the standard teaching of the Reformed right back to the Reformation.  Whereas “two-kingdoms” thought has traditionally been associated with Luther and Lutheranism, VanDrunen claims that Calvin adopts the doctrine from Luther, and indeed develops it more satisfactorily, and Calvin’s heirs consistently appropriate it as a means both of resisting Erastian attempts for the state to dictate to the church, and also (less consistently, VanDrunen admits) theocratic attempts for the church to dictate to the state.  As this “less consistently” concession suggests, this is not a project of ressourcement that appears too promising at first glance.  After all, all of the early Reformed, Calvin included, emphasized strongly the need for a Christian magistrate who would support the Church and enforce both tables of the Decalogue.  Some, particularly in England and Scotland, went much further, resembling recent theonomists in their claims for the continued binding authority of biblical law on the civil polity.  Inconveniently for VanDrunen, these latter were in fact those whose two-kingdoms doctrine was most explicitly developed, and which otherwise most resembles his own (e.g., in the unqualified identification of the institutional church with the “spiritual kingdom” and the dichotomy between the kingship of the Redeemer and that of the Creator).  In fact, even by his own admission, it is not really until the mid 19th-century Southern Presbyterians that VanDrunen finds a Reformed two-kingdoms paradigm he is basically satisfied with.


So much for the proposal, what about the debate?  Given that the theonomist movement is largely defunct, except in the imaginations of its Reformed enemies, little response to the R2K movement has emerged from that quarter.  Evangelicalism, on the other hand, is too diffuse and too large to be overly troubled by this latest round of critiques.  The most fierce and sustained opposition, on blogs, in journals, and recently in a couple of book length critiques (The Escondido Theology and Kingdoms Apart) has come from neo-Calvinists of one stripe or another.  These are particularly eager to critique the dichotomy of creation and redemption, preferring to speak of redemption as a “restoration” or “transformation” of creation, and to downplay the accessibility or value of natural for fallen humanity.  Many of these critics have been more or less happy to cede to VanDrunen the historical account, and simply to critique the Reformers for their overly dualistic two-kingdoms concept (although more recently there has been some pushback on the historical front).[3]  Their concern, in a nutshell, is that the two-kingdoms theology offers an under-realized eschatology, in which the present extent of the kingdom of Christ is understated.

More interesting, in my view, has been the opposite line of criticism—that in fact the two-kingdoms theology gives us an over-realized eschatology, by identifying, in a fundamentally un-Protestant way, the spiritual government of Christ with the institutional structures of the visible church.  This critique, which we might call the “classical two-kingdoms” perspective, has, unlike the neo-Calvinists, majored on the historical problems in VanDrunen’s account, charging him with a fundamental distortion of the early Protestant doctrine, which understood the two kingdoms, following Luther, in terms of two governments, inward and outward, spiritual and temporal, visible and invisible, rather than two different visible spheres of authority or institutions.  It was because the Reformers understood both the institutional form of the church and the civil magistracy as part of the temporal kingdom that they could use the doctrine to undergird fairly Erastian relations between church and state, a stubborn historical fact that remains inexplicable on VanDrunen’s account.  VanDrunen’s construal of the two-kingdoms, on this reading, derives much more from such radical figures as the Scottish Covenanters and Elizabethan Puritans than from the magisterial Reformers.[4] These earlier advocates of the doctrine, by identifying the ordained ministry as vicars of Christ, tended toward a neo-papalist intrusion of clerical authority into the political sphere, seemingly the opposite of the strict separationism that contemporary R2K advocates seek.  The classical two-kingdoms critics argue that VanDrunen and Co. are largely right to argue for a connection between Protestant theology and the emergence of political liberalism, but contend that the Escondido project, by virtue of its confusion about the nature of the two kingdoms, is trapped in the hopeless contradiction of trying to build a liberal political arrangement on a fundamentally illiberal doctrinal basis.  A classical Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine, on the other hand, such as one finds in nuce in Luther, adopted with certain ambiguities in Calvin, and developed extensively in Richard Hooker, offers much better resources for a theologically-informed ordered pluralism, that offers the benefits of modern liberties without withdrawing normative Christian claims from the public square.[5]

As the sympathetic description in the last paragraph suggests, I am among this latter, “classical two kingdoms” group of critics, and believe that our account has a great deal to offer both in extending our historical understanding of Reformation theology and early modern political thought, and in providing a constructive account for contemporary political ethics.  In the following three posts (which shall appear over the next couple weeks), therefore, I shall tell the story of the developing forms of two-kingdoms theology in the 16th and 17th centuries from this perspective, though I hope without undue bias, and with an attempt to note the divergent interpretations of VanDrunen and Tuininga where relevant.  In the final post, I shall say a bit more about what seems to be theologically and politically at stake in these divergent accounts.

[1] Hart’s own views remain sometimes elusive, given that they are usually stated obliquely in the course of historical expositions, such as The Lost Soul of American Protestantism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), A Secular Faith (Ivan R. Dee, 2006), and From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin (Eerdmans, 2011).  To get a full idea of Hart’s real views, uncensored and in the raw, see his many posts on subjects relating to the two kingdoms at his blog, Oldlife.org.

[2] Matt Tuininga has offered numerous discussions of two-kingdoms theology over the past year, of which some of the most significant may be found here, here, here, and here.  My own engagements with his historical and constructive claims can be found here, here, here, and finally and most extensively, here.

[3] See especially the essays by Cornel Venema and Gene Haas in Kingdoms Apart, the first of which is available in an online sample here.  My response to Venema’s essay may be found here.

[4] This line of criticism was first publicly aired in the online journal Credenda/Agenda by Steven Wedgeworth, which he defended against criticism from Darryl Hart here.  Subsequently, Wedgeworth and his colleague Peter Escalante have elaborated the critique in a number of online essays, of which their massive two-part essay (here and here), “John Calvin and the Two Kingdoms.”  See also my recent “Once More Into the Breach, Pt. 2: Clearing up the Two Kingdoms Conversation.”

[5] On these points, see Escalante’s response to Darryl Hart, “The Consistent and the Confused: Two Kinds of Two Kingdoms,” and my forthcoming essay, “Sola Scriptura and the Public Square: Richard Hooker and a Protestant Paradigm for Political Engagement,” in Messer and Paddison, eds., The Bible: Culture, Community, and Society (T & T Clark, 2013).

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