2K Critique

Two Kingdoms critique

Written by Steven Wedgeworth    Monday, 21 June 2010 08:58

The past few years have seen a number of publications putting forth the thesis that the Protestant Reformation held to a belief in natural law and advocated a socio-political theory known as the “two kingdoms.”  This has been construed as a move away from a previous consensus that the Reformation and Calvinism in particular believed that their faith was for all of life and that Christ’s mission required a transformation of culture.  That concept, it is argued, should be understood as “neo-Calvinism” and is actually a step away from the Reformation tradition.  Complicating the discussion is the fact that this is not merely a historical debate, but indeed a competition between contemporary political programs.[1] In what follows I will argue that the Reformation did indeed advocate natural law and a distinction between two kingdoms, but this was not a precursor to modern political Liberalism.  In fact, the Reformers’ understanding of the two kingdoms served as a primary apologetic for the reform of the church by the civil magistrate.

My primary foil for this argument will be David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.[2] The discussion is broader than VanDrunen’s book, of course, and the modern two kingdoms position has been popularized more widely by Michael Horton and “the White Horse Inn” radio program.  VanDrunen, however, represents the most significant academic and historical defense, and his book makes clear some of the basic distinctives of this position.  I will not attempt a complete book review, nor will I offer a comprehensive critique.  There is much to be commended in VanDrunen’s book, and insofar as it merely seeks to defend the position that the Reformation stands in continuity with concepts of natural law, and that it taught the two kingdoms, he is certainly correct.  The book repeatedly makes two fundamental confusions, however, and since these are guiding assumptions throughout, the contemporary two kingdoms theory eventually finds itself at considerable distance from the basic social vision of earlier thinkers like Luther and Calvin.  These two confusions are 1) identifying the two kingdoms with the modern institutions of “Church” and “State” and 2) setting the contrast between the two kingdoms as one between “redemptive” rule on the one hand and “creational” rule on the other.  Both confusions seem to stem from equivocation, allowing for the possibility of closing the gap between “neo-Calvinist” views and modern two kingdom views with regard to the contrast of rule.  The first confusion is more serious though, effectively rendering VanDrunen’s larger project incompatible with the older Reformed doctrine.

The introductory chapter sets out the claims very succinctly.  On the first page VanDrunen states:

In affirming the two kingdoms doctrine, they portrayed God as ruling all human institutions and activities, but as ruling them in two fundamentally different ways.  According to this doctrine, God rules the church (the spiritual kingdom) as a redeemer in Jesus Christ and rules the state and all other institutions (the civil kingdom) as creator and sustainer, and thus these two kingdoms have significantly different ends, functions, and modes of operation.

He continues with a similar assertion, “Through these two doctrines, therefore, the older Reformed writers rooted political and cultural life in God’s work of creation and providence, not in his work of redemption and eschatological restoration through Jesus Christ.”[3] VanDrunen makes it clear throughout that the spiritual kingdom is to be identified “institutionally” with the visible church in both Luther and Calvin,[4] even if he does note recurring tensions with this presentation.[5]

VanDrunen asserts that John Calvin identified the kingdom of Christ exclusively with “the church.”[6] This claim is thought to be sufficient to debunk any notion that larger cultural expressions would hold significance for the kingdom of Christ in Calvin’s thought.  This larger cultural kingdom is one based on nature, good to be sure, but not of particular “redemptive” concern.  The church, it is said, should not be involved in political or cultural issues.  Though not extensively worked out in regards to the Reformers, this distinction is of fundamental importance for the later chapters which seek to align the Reformers’ views with the modern two kingdoms position, particularly their emphasis on the visible church as the primary kingdom sphere.  What VanDrunen never fully admits, however, is that when Calvin makes this identification of the kingdom of Christ with the church, he is always speaking of the invisible church.[7]

For Calvin, as well as Luther and the rest of the Reformation, the two kingdoms were not approximations of the visible institutions of Church and State, but rather that of heaven and earth or spirit and body.  The spiritual kingdom was eternal and immediate, whereas the civic kingdom was temporal and always mediated, by princes or by clergy and all other men in vocations.  William Wright, in his book on Martin Luther’s use of the two kingdoms, explains this as, “The two groups of people did not refer to the visible church versus nonbelievers.  Luther was distinguishing the invisible church from the world here.”[8] He adds that the “three hierarchies” of daily life, church, and state all exist in the temporal kingdom.[9] Paul Avis agrees with this view in his The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, particularly chapters nine and ten.  He argues that the role of the magistrates in the ordering of the church follows from the doctrines of the universal priesthood.[10] They were members of the church spiritually, even though their vocations were temporal.  Calvin most thoroughly explains his view of the spiritual kingdom in those chapters in the Institutes dealing with conscience,[11] all of which have to do with the immediacy of the soul’s relation to the Spirit.  The spiritual kingdom is, properly speaking, the invisible church, whereas the temporal kingdom encompassed the visible church, as well as the civic arena and the whole commonwealth, all governed and measured by law.

The very quotes which VanDrunen provide from Calvin support this reading, as they all include the qualifiers of “spiritual” and “internal” when speaking of the church as spiritual kingdom.  The visible church, of course, is not internal.  In 4.2.4 of the Institutes, Calvin does say that “the church is Christ’s Kingdom,” but a look at the immediate context shows that Calvin is contrasting this notion of a spiritual-kingdom church, not against a broader Christian vocation in society or Christian monarchs, but rather against the false Roman ministerium.  Calvin is appealing to the kingdom of Christ in order to say that the church only exists where Christ’s Word is present.

In 3.19.15 of the Institutes, Calvin uses the two kingdoms to explain the Christian’s freedom of conscience.  He explains the two kingdoms as “spiritual” and “temporal” jurisdictions, adding that “by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life.”  Calvin adds, “for the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior.”  In fact, Calvin says that he wishes to separate his discussions of the two kingdoms, saving the discussion of externals, or the temporal kingdom, for his fourth book.  He adds that both civil government and “church laws” will be postponed until then.  Both are being considered a part of the temporal kingdom, for they deal with externals and law.[12]

The two kingdoms theory was not even a “political” doctrine, but a comprehensive view of the entire world.  William Wright explains this in regards to Martin Luther:

Luther used the two-kingdoms concept in treating all kinds of theological and pastoral issues, including the creation, man as the image of God, Jesus as the Christ, the necessity of grace, the sacraments, and exegesis of the Old and New Testaments.  It was not a political concept invented to meet political, social, or economic circumstances as some have thought… Luther’s understanding of God’s two kingdoms represented his basic premise about the nature of reality.  In short, it was his Christian worldview.[13]

The individual Christian always finds himself living in both kingdoms at the same time. Furthermore, the visible church, insofar as it is an institution of order and external means, is an institution of the temporal kingdom.  Church polity, for example, is a form of law, whereas the mystical communion of the saints is pure charity and freedom.  VanDrunen reluctantly admits this of Luther, though he attempts to place it as a peculiarity of later practical necessity.[14] In fact, this conviction lay at the heart of Luther’s appeal to the German nobility to free their churches from the papacy.[15] This was the same tactic that Martin Bucer used in Strasbourg, and it was the theological support offered by Cranmer to Henry VIII and the royal supremacy.  Calvin also expressed his sympathy with this notion in the dedication of his Institutes, calling upon the king of France to reform the congregations in his lands, and the letters to Edward VI and Elizabeth I in England.

What VanDrunen sees as an inconsistency within the larger theory (and mere evidence that the Reformers were men of their time) turns out to actually be a foundational plank of the magisterial Reformation.  It was precisely because the visible church existed in the temporal kingdom that Christian magistrates had a duty to protect and reform them.  The princes were not to personally involve their office in crafting doctrine or worship, but they surely were involved in financing, defending, and promoting certain visible churches to the exclusion of others.  Since all Christian laypersons were priests, the Reformers saw no problem with allowing princes to function as Christians in their particular vocation and to make use of their superior ordering abilities in the visible church.  All of the Reformed confessions are in agreement on this point, as well, and so it seems impossible to remove this feature from the ecclesiology of the Reformation.

VanDrunen does admit that Geneva does not resemble a modern pluralistic society, and he believes that this can even be consistent with natural law theory, but he still sees it as standing in tension with the theology of the two kingdoms.  The confusion at this point though is neither in Geneva’s theory nor application, but rather VanDrunen’s false equation of the two kingdoms with the more modern notions of church and state.  Once we see that the spiritual kingdom referred to the invisible church and that the Reformers placed the visible church within the temporal kingdom, we see more consistency in their theory and their practice.  The same holds true for all of Protestant Europe.  Lutherans in Germany, Reformed in the Palatinate, and the Church of England all looked to their civil magistrates for support against the rule by clergy which they saw promoted by Rome.  As distasteful as it may be for moderns of all stripes, it remains true that apart from kings with religious convictions, there simply would not have been a Reformation.

The second point of critique has to do with VanDrunen’s contrast of the redemptive rule of Christ and the creational rule of God.  These adjectives are not used in this manner by Calvin, though he does make distinctions between the two kingdoms and their purposes.  Does Calvin therefore envision the civic and temporal kingdom as disinterested in the unfolding of the plan of redemption?  This would be impossible to take from Calvin’s writings.  Of the civil government’s purpose, Calvin lists first, “to cherish and protect the outward worship of God” and “to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church.”[16] Only after these purposes does Calvin go on to speak of the ordering of common society.  Calvin goes on to say that the princes are “vicars of God”[17] and that since all nations understand that religion holds the first place in the life of the commonwealth, “Christian princes and magistrates [should] be ashamed of their negligence if they do not apply themselves to this concern.”[18] Calvin has no problem speaking of “holy kings,” even drawing parallels between the anointed kings of Israel and the current kings of Europe.[19]

Calvin did ground civic rule in the original goodness of creation, and he did believe that this was taught by the law of nature and even the common law of the nations, however, this does not mean that it should be isolated from the Word of God.[20] There would certainly not be disagreement between the two kingdoms apart from sin.  This is because, again, the two kingdoms were not the kingdom of the church and the kingdom of the state, but rather the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of earth or the eternal kingdom and the temporal one.  They related to one another as the soul does to the body.

We also need to ask what language about a non-redemptive rule actually means.  If it is that the civic government is not a spiritual savior, that it does not remit people of their sins, and that it cannot provide new hearts, then very few Christians of any tradition would object.  VanDrunen’s chief opponents, however, do not mean any of these ideas when they speak of “redeeming” culture and the civic sphere.  The neo-Calvinist notion of redemption is precisely that of a restored creation.[21] We could say that their vision is that of the original nature.  They may err in denying natural abilities to the unregenerate, but this would still not be an erroneous application of “redemptive rule,” but rather a failure to acknowledge nature where it in fact exists.  It is not entirely clear why Van Drunen’s temporal kingdom, ruled by creation and providence, should be set in opposition to redemption.

Still further, the notion that most likely lies behind much of the contemporary rhetoric of bringing Christ’s mandate onto culture is simply that of charity.  It is the principle that you should love your neighbor as yourself.  While it may be true that some churches use the language of “social justice” for illegitimate political means, the basic meaning is that the church should have an active diaconate.  This is consistent with Calvin, as VanDrunen admits, “Calvin surely did not mean to suggest that the spiritual kingdom is concerned only about things that are immaterial, since he assigned to the church tasks such as diaconal relief of the poor and administration of sacraments.”[22] Is bringing diaconal relief to the poor in one’s city not a form of redemptive culture?  We can debate the appropriate application, but the principle seems sound.  The motives of charity result in some social activity.

Insofar as VanDrunen’s model corrects the various errors of Liberation Theology, certain false notions of “Theonomy,” Radical Orthodoxy, and even broad-Evangelical Americana, all of which seek to do violence towards nature, then it can be appreciated.  Turning questions of taste into questions of law is always offensive (and usually reflective of bad taste).  Attempts to infuse nature with grace, under the guise of “sacramentalizing” creation, miss the fact that it was already created good, bearing the image of God.  Nature was always already theonomous insofar as it was ruled by and reflective of God’s own nature.  Luther’s doctrine of vocation holds as true for our day as it did for his.

On the other hand, what seems impossible is the notion that a Christian could live as a divided self, holding one notion of “creation” ethics and another notion of “redemption” ethics.  It is unimaginable that he would be guided by his cultural spirit and imagination at certain moments of his life and by his religious spirit and imagination at others.[23] The neo-two kingdoms theory lacks a clear unifier in this respect, and such an absence has wide-ranging implications.  You see, natural law and the temporal kingdom of providence are never manifested without heart, and that is precisely what the spiritual kingdom of Christ is concerned with: the heart.  Kings, princes, presidents, mayors, and even community service groups are all made of temporal bodies which possess spiritual hearts.  A conversation between the two components of man will be had, one way or the other.[24]

I suspect it is true that many Reformed believers will have trouble accepting the thesis that the original Protestant Reformers advocated natural law and held to a definite distinction between the spiritual kingdom and the temporal kingdom.  However, they will not be helped in constructing an accurate historical picture by erroneous equivocations, nor will they be equipped to answer the tricky modern questions of religious diversity by fairly naïve assumptions that Christian distinctives are silent in the public sphere.  In order to assist our contemporary audience, we will need to present a more coherent picture.

If we were to ask who the most significant proponent of “cultural transformation” was in the 20th century Reformed and Presbyterian tradition in America, the only possible answer would be Francis Schaeffer.  Yet if we examine his works, we will find that he did not simply critique the culture of late modernity on the basis that it was insufficiently Christian or churchly. He actually claimed that it was insufficiently human.  His vision of a redeemed culture was a culture that existed as it was originally designed to exist.  It was a vision of truth that was true, of reality that was real.  We could say that it was a vision of natural culture.

And so there is at least a case to be made that once the older Reformed doctrines are properly understood, they will not be seen as irreconcilable with the best representatives of the Neo-Calvinist project.  To do this would require another article, but for now we can say that the older doctrines do stand in sharp contrast with the new two kingdoms proposal as well, and that should be telling.  The contemporary proposals are not representations of the older view, and the one thing that is certain is that the individuals and churches involved in the Reformation were not without significant accompanying political and cultural reactions.  We might then wish to examine how the Reformers’ doctrines actively supported their practices, noting that each of the Reformed centers boasted active diaconal ministries in the city, as well as academies and universities founded on the classics and the humanities.  Perhaps those modern Reformed communities already invested in these sorts of activities would be assisted by a clear articulation of the Reformers' principles.  They might even become the true heirs to them.

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References below:

[1] For a fuller introduction, see David Koyzis, “Two Kingdoms and Cultural Obedience,” Cardus (March 1, 2010): under “Comment Online,” http://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2020/ (accessed June 16, 2010).

[2] David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] p 2

[4] see p 60 for this assertion with regards to Martin Luther and p 70 with regards to John Calvin.

[5] VanDrunen confesses inconsistencies in this view on numerous occasions, but the most notable admissions of this are found on pg. 19, where he writes, “these doctrines were not always applied coherently, particularly with regard to the civil magistrate’s responsibilities in religious matters,” and on p 87 especially where he locates antinomy in the theory itself, “…the proper question is not so much whether Calvin’s theory and practice were in tension, but whether at the theoretical, theological level there was some inconsistency.  I suggest that Calvin can be vindicated of inconsistency at many points, though there are certain remaining issues that understandably continue to defy easy harmonization.”

[6] p 80

[7] Calvin’s doctrine of the Church is more nuanced than simply “visible” and “invisible” distinctions, but I will use them here for familiarity’s sake.  By “invisible church,” I mean Calvin’s notion that the Word is the chief mark of the Church, and all who receive it by faith are properly understood as “the Church” being directly united to Christ in the Spirit.  Calvin always places the institutional organization of this church in a different category, that of the visible church.

[8] William Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010) 135

[9] Wright, 117

[10] Paul Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers. (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002) 138-150, 154-163

[11] see especially Institutes 3.19.15-16 and 4.10.3-6

[12] Ironically, attempts to make the visible church equivalent with the spiritual kingdom compromise the Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith alone, for to do so would place laws within the spiritual kingdom.

[13] William Wright, Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010) 113-114.

[14] p 58-59

[15] From his discussion of the “first wall” of the Romanists Luther writes, “Since, then, the temporal power is baptized as we are, and has the same faith and Gospel, we must allow it to be priest and bishop, and account its office an office that is proper and useful to the Christian community.”  He adds, “It follows, then, that between laymen and priests, princes and bishops, or, as they call it, between spiritual and temporal persons, the only real difference is one of office and function, and not of estate,” “A cobbler, a smith, a peasant, every man, has the office and function of his calling, and yet all alike are consecrated priests and bishops, and every man should by his office or function be useful and beneficial to the rest, so that various kinds of work may all be united for the furtherance of body and soul, just as the members of the body all serve one another,” and “…inasmuch as the temporal power has become a member of the Christian body; although its work relates to the body, yet does it belong to the spiritual estate.”  see http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/luther-nobility.html

[16] Institutes 4.20.2

[17] Institutes 4.20.6

[18] Institutes 4.20.9

[19] Institutes 4.20.28-29

[20] Martin Luther explicitly stated that both kingdoms, temporal and spiritual, existed in the original state of creation.  William Wright quotes Luther to this effect saying, “Man was created for his physical life in such a way that he was nevertheless made according to the image and likeness of God—this is an indication of another and better life than the physical… Thus Adam had a two-fold life: a physical one and an immortal one” and “the two kingdoms were part of God’s creation ordinance” (Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms, 118-119).  Luther’s language about baptism consecrating one as a priest also allows for the possibility of laymen’s work being “consecrated” towards the benefit of the Body of Christ (see the discussion under “the First Wall” in Luther’s Address to Nobility of the German Nation.)

[21] see for instance Al Wolters’ Creation Regained or A A Van Ruler’s description of redemption as “creation made fire-proof.”

[22] VanDrunen, p 91.  We can again see VanDrunen’s difficulty with Calvin here, as he cannot imagine that the diaconate as an entity of the temporal kingdom.  Insofar as it is a ministry of bodily needs, however, that seems the more natural meaning in Calvin’s system.  For Calvin, the sacraments would be considered “immaterial” in that the material signs lead us away to the invisible things signified.

[23] for an example of something very much like this, see D. G. Hart’s discussion of “hyphenated piety” in his third lecture at the 2006 Auburn Avenue Pastor’s Conference.  He uses temporal categories when he says that the Christian piety expresses itself on Sundays, and he even says that Christians should live “double lives” in what certainly appears to mean a spatial-temporal duality.

[24] I have to credit this point to an unpublished paper by Peter Escalante on the same topic.  Much of my own thought was influenced by his work which will hopefully be available in the future.



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