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The Two Kingdoms: A Guide For the Perplexed—Pt. VI: Why Does it Matter?

We have spent now four posts tracing the historical development of Protestant two-kingdoms theology, and its influence on early modern political thought. This has all been an attempt to vindicate the claim, advanced in the first installment of this series, that the wider world of political theology has good reason to attend to the disputes over this doctrine that have heretofore been the province only of a characteristically combative subgroup of the American Reformed. Has it been vindicated?

This is the final installment in a six-part series.  Read the previous segments here, here, here, here, and here.

We have spent now four posts tracing the historical development of Protestant two-kingdoms theology, and its influence on early modern political thought.  This has all been an attempt to vindicate the claim, advanced in the first installment of this series, that the wider world of political theology has good reason to attend to the disputes over this doctrine that have heretofore been the province only of a characteristically combative subgroup of the American Reformed.  Has it been vindicated?


Contributions of Two-Kingdoms Thinking

That two-kingdoms thinking, of one sort or another, played a prominent role in all sorts of important developments in the early modern history of church-state relations and the nature and scope of civil authority, should be clearly manifest by this point.  A concept that shaped the thought of thinkers as diverse and important as Luther, Calvin, Hooker, Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke is clearly one worthy of thorough and systematic investigation.  VanDrunen has done early modern historians and political theologians a great favor in calling our attention to the centrality of this largely neglected concept.

However, the very diversity of thinkers influenced by two-kingdoms thinking (and we have omitted from our summary Scots such as Samuel Rutherford or the New England Puritans) might suggest that the concept is so amorphous and pliable as to lack positive content worthy of investigation or retrieval.  So I will attempt to summarize here some of the common threads and key contributions of Protestant two-kingdoms thinking:

1) It de-sacralized, or more properly, de-totalized, the State and the exercise of civil authority.  Political authority was still ordained by God, accountable to God, and indeed redeemed in Christ, to be sure, and to this extent, could be said to mediate his rule.  However, this rule of God’s “left hand” was radically distinct from His proper work of redemption and oversaw matters of temporary and limited significance; civil authorities were responsible to preserve the created order, not to bring in the new creation.  This teaching set a decisive limit to the scope of civil authority, or the sorts of demands it could make.  Of course, medieval papalism had certainly limited the state as well, but by seeking to make the civil authorities the policemen of the church, it had made rulers tangle with matters of conscience with politics, making heresy a civil crime.  Although haltingly and inconsistently, Luther’s heirs worked to disentangle these two.

2)  More foundationally, it deprived the church as such of juridical or coercive authority.  There could be no spiritual jurisdiction in the full and proper sense of both of these terms.  This was in stark contrast to the medieval system, in which the penitential system of the church was conceived in increasingly juridical terms, and the church accordingly tended to take on the characteristics of a civil polity.  Worst of all, in the Crusades and in Boniface’s claim to a plenitudo potestatis, it made the sword to be a possession of spiritual rulers, calling for holy violence on behalf of the Church against the Church’s enemies.  Luther’s reform, however, radically de-sacralized violence, associating it entirely with temporal rule and very limited temporal ends, and many of his heirs admirably carried forward this legacy.

3) Closely related to these two points, it stood as a bulwark against any attempt to immanentize the eschaton.  Since we walk by faith, not by sight, any attempt to attribute eschatological ultimacy to any visible institution or activity was misguided.  The two-kingdoms doctrine instilled in the Christian a sense of healthy detachment toward earthly loyalties, a healthy realism about what earthly institutions can accomplish, and offered consolation when they failed to achieve their lofty aims.  It discouraged any attempt to make the kingdom of God a complete outward reality here and now by force, whether by holy war or holy law.  Neither civil authorities nor church authorities could expect to create a perfectly virtuous people here in the midst of history.

4) Because of all these things, it treated freedom of conscience as sacrosanct.  Because faith was not dependent on any human works, nor could it depend on any human authority,  God alone remained master of the conscience, and his word alone, not the commands of either princes or bishops, could bind it.  Although of course the realm of this freedom was debated fiercely and at times constricted, the principle was clear, and however much Protestants might quarrel over the scope of “things indifferent,” the fact that civil authority was limited to the regulation of these set the stage for the progressive expansion of civil society and individual freedom.

5) It served as a bulwark against an overextension of the sola Scriptura principle, to which many Protestants were tempted, and safeguarded the continuing value of natural reason and prudence to guide political deliberation.  Good two-kingdoms thinkers resisted any idea of a Scripturally-mandated blueprint for politics or jurisprudence.  This was one respect in which two-kingdoms thinking, in many other respects hostile to late medieval theology, preserved some of the rich contributions of scholastic Aristotelianism. Richard Hooker is perhaps the most prominent example of this use of the two-kingdoms doctrine, recovering the full resources of Thomism in his account of law in the civil kingdom even while maintaining a staunch Protestantism when it came to the spiritual.

6) In all these ways, the two kingdoms doctrine clearly paves the way for the development of liberal institutions.  However, it provides what many Christian defenders of liberalism have lacked—a basis for secularity in the sense of non-ultimacy, but not in the sense of non-religiousness.  In Protestant two-kingdoms thinking, the civil kingdom, despite all of the above, remains both informed by and concerned with the exercise of true religion.  While natural law was retained and even championed by many of these thinkers, Scripture remained its authoritative interpreter, and the redemption wrought in Christ, although fully realized only in the eschaton, had implications for civil rule inasmuch as it disclosed the proper, restored order of fallen creation.  Since grace perfected nature, good religion conduced to civil peace, and hence a good ruler could not be entirely indifferent to the promotion of true religion, although he must never seek to compel belief.


Obviously all of the foregoing are somewhat contentious claims, particularly when stated in such condensed form.  Taken together, they might seem to constitute an attempt to turn the fashionable Radical Orthodox narrative of the rise of the heretic secular state on its head; where Cavanaugh sees the birth-pangs of an absolutist state determined to marginalize all religious loyalties, this narrative sees self-consciously Christian thinkers attempting to put their theological convictions into political form.  Of course, stated this simply, this would be an overly generalizing rose-tinted narrative, and there is certainly a darker side to some of these developments.  And of course, I do not mean to imply that any of the above conclusions could only be arrived at via the route of Protestant two-kingdoms doctrine; I mean only to argue that, theoretically speaking, it provides a particularly strong and coherent foundation for these conclusions, taken as a package, and historically speaking, it was uniquely instrumental in bringing them to prominence in Western political thought.


Some may still seem bewildered—how does Erastianism lead to religious freedom? How does the subjection of church to state lead to their separation?  Although I think the outlines of the answer should be discernible in the foregoing posts, I will put it in a nutshell here: by virtue of the doctrine of adiaphora.  Once Protestant political thinkers had determined that civil regulation of religious matters took place under the heading of “things indifferent,” rather than on the basis of divine law and subject to the commands of the clergy, this regulation was understood to be governed by considerations of charity and expedience.  Both considerations, during the 17th century, led these thinkers to the conclusion that greater toleration of diverse religious expressions was both better for the commonwealth and a better expression of Christian charity.  One may see this process traced by Eric Nelson in The Hebrew Republic with a number of figures, and with regard to John Locke by John Perry in Pretenses of Loyalty.


Better and Worse Forms of Two-Kingdoms Thinking

We are thus at last in a position to say why the contemporary debate between rival versions of “two kingdoms theology” is of significance, both historically and prescriptively.

Historically, we have suggested in the preceding narrative that VanDrunen’s description of the two-kingdoms distinction, as basically coterminous with the distinction between church and state as institutions, fails to accurately describe the doctrine as held by most of its 16th-century advocates.  Of course, we have acknowledged that one finds elements of this kind of doctrine in the teaching of Calvin, and it comes to full development among certain of his successors, particularly in the British Isles and their American Puritan successors.  Why not, then, simply state a preference for this version of the doctrine as a better resource for the development and sustaining of modern freedoms?  After all, a view which posits the freedom of the institutional church and its worship seems more robustly liberal than one which gives freedom only to the ethereal inner realm of conscience.


The problem is that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century advocates of this sort of two kingdoms thinking were not at all interested in freedom of worship and religious expression in the modern sense, in which the church is given freedom to allow believers to pursue diverse forms of devotion.  On the contrary, the church was to be left alone not in order to permit flexibility of liturgy and polity, but precisely in order to prevent it.  Many Puritans in particular were convinced that in Scripture, God had decreed in detail the only lawful order of the church and its worship, and while they did not want the magistrate to meddle with it, they did want him to make sure that no one sought to practice any other.  Puritan polities thus proved less, not more, capable of tolerating diversity of religious exercise in the 17th-century than did “Erastian” ones.

Moreover, far from opening up a large role for natural law and affirming the sanctity of the secular, as VanDrunen claims, this style of thinking was in fact doomed to either marginalize or overrun the civil kingdom.  Why?  Well, their jure divino polity proceeded from the convictions that God shows love to his people by providing them with legal guidance, and that the most perfect form of a law was the most specific—in the words of Thomas Cartwright, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as may be in the discretion of the judge.”  Since the precise divine law governing the church was the best form of law, one could only conclude one of two things: either God didn’t care very much about civil polity, and the flexible prudential reasoning of natural law that governed it was a poor and ignoble form of law that hardly merited the Christian’s attention; or that God must desire civil polity too to be governed by such perfect and precise regulations.  Puritan two-kingdoms theologians found themselves forced to one or other of these conclusions, or sometimes both at the same time.  Both a theonomic imposition of Biblical law on contemporary civil law and an apathetic shrug toward worldly affairs were coherent conclusions of this style of thinking.  It is noteworthy that VanDrunen and modern Reformed two-kingdoms advocates, while repudiating both these conclusions, share the basic principle of jure divino ecclesiology which helped generate them.

Finally, whereas many R2K advocates think that a renewed emphasis on only the visible church as the kingdom of Christ provides a solution to the common Christian problem of over-immanentizing the eschaton in political engagement, they succeed only in re-inscribing the same over-realized eschatology in another sphere.  The history of Puritanism is again instructive.  The Puritans concluded first that the reign of Christ could be made empirically and institutionally visible in a well-disciplined body of “visible saints”; then, once this body of visible saints had their own polity in New England, this immanentized kingdom of God was identified with the commonwealth, with triumphalist consequences that have left a deep mark on the American psyche.  Here too the older two-kingdoms doctrine, with its insistence that in this life, the kingdom of Christ is only ever glimpsed and experienced, not established and perceived, offers a much surer safeguard against the perennial temptation to identify the works of our own hands with the walls of Christ’s kingdom than does the neo-Puritan variant.

3 thoughts on “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide For the Perplexed—Pt. VI: Why Does it Matter?

  1. First of all, I want to thank everyone who has contributed to this series on Two Kingdoms theology. I have been looking for just such a resource to help orient me in my exploration of my own convictions and beliefs regarding the Church and politics. Understanding the historical progression and implications of 2K theology as articulated by the Reformers has really helped clarify the matter for me.

    With that being said, where could I go to find a comprehensive articulation of 2K theology as it is espoused in this series of articles? I have only ever heard of VanDrunen’s writings on the topic and have been unable to find an accessible resource that presents the fundamental precepts of 2K theology and explains with clarity what kind of government sound 2K theology lays the groundwork for. What do you mean when you say “a good ruler could not be entirely indifferent to the promotion of true religion, although he must never seek to compel belief”?

    1. Eric,

      Thanks for your interest, and your kind words. “A comprehensive articulation” of anything, not to mention such a complex topic as this, is a lot to ask, but a good place to start would be the articles here: https://calvinistinternational.com/category/two-kingdoms-2/page/7/. (Also my article here, which for some reason doesn’t appear under that category listing—https://calvinistinternational.com/2012/10/24/once_more_2/—and my series here: http://www.reformation21.org/blog/2015/04/two-kingdoms-politics.php.)

      Do email me at w.b.littlejohn@gmail.com if you want to discuss further.

      As for the last question, well, that is a very big topic indeed, and even I’m not quite sure what I mean, but for examples of this one could look at the practice of many European nations from the 19th century in some cases right up to the present: where complete freedom of religion is allowed, but there remains an officially recognized church which receives public support. Whether the particulars of these arrangements have been helpful for either church or state is certainly open to question—the church in the US is more vibrant without such official recognition and support than it is in Britain with it. But in principle, it is quite possible to combine a commitment to religious freedom with an eschewal of complete religious neutrality—so long, that is, as “religious freedom” is not taken in a completely unrestrained sense, as indeed it cannot be, given that all societies have to decide at some point when certain religious ideas are so destructive to their idea of the good that they cannot be tolerated (i.e., no one’s about to permit religious freedom to bring back human sacrifice; even animal sacrifice might not be permitted in most Western societies).


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