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Two Kingdoms: A New or Old Idea? A Review Article

Darryl G. Hart

David VanDrunen. Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010, 476 pages, $35.00, paper.

For some contemporary conservative Presbyterians, two-kingdom theology is a threat that allegedly breaks with Reformed teaching about the proper relationship between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Two-kingdom teaching (hereafter 2k) maintains that the church and the state have different jurisdictions (spiritual vs. temporal) and execute their responsibilities through different means (Scripture vs. the sword). The problem with this view, for some, is that it apparently denies that Christ is lord over all realms of life, admits a secular sphere that is distinct from the sacred, and removes biblical norms from public life. At a time when abortion and gay marriage alarm many American Christians and threaten the maintenance of a good society, 2k appears at best to be a waste of time, and at worst a capitulation to the forces of selfishness and lawlessness.

Surprising to some may be the reality that 2k is part of the teaching of American Presbyterian communions like the OPC. J. Gresham Machen appealed to the doctrinal equivalent of 2k—the spirituality of the church—against the Social Gospel impulses and policies of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., especially to defend his own objection to the church's annual motions in support of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act (i.e. Prohibition). And, until the OPC's report on abortion in 1970, the OPC consistently refused to take stands on political matters; in fact, one of the reasons the OPC would not join Carl McIntire's American Council of Christian Churches owed to fears of politicizing the church and so confusing the responsibilities of church and state. This understanding of the church and its duties in relationship to those of the state are consistent with the 1788 American revisions of the Westminster Confession. All Presbyterian denominations in the United States—including the mainline PCUSA, and also the sideline OPC and PCA—use the American version of the Westminster Confession that rejects the original construction of the magistrate's power to suppress heresy and blasphemy in the civil realm, to call synods and preside over them, and to insure that church assemblies conform to the mind of God.

Despite the presence of 2k in American Presbyterian and OPC history, it is a foreign idea to many and for this reason David VanDrunen's new book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, is a welcome contribution to contemporary debates and discussions. It is a work of historical theology that traces the development of natural law and 2k in western Christianity (after an initial chapter on the ancient and medieval church, the book proceeds to exponents of Reformed theology, from John Calvin to Cornelius Van Til). VanDrunen is explicit that this book is not a form of advocacy. His plan is to offer another book which will be a biblical and theological defense of natural law and 2k. But before undertaking that ambitious project, he decided to survey the way that a variety of Reformed worthies either employed, modified, or rejected this constellation of doctrines. For this reason, readers who hope to find grist for their polemical mills against 2k may be disappointed. VanDrunen not only limits his scope to historical description, but also points out tensions and inconsistencies among those who held natural law and 2k. Some may wish that the author were more critical than he is, but the book does not ignore problems.

Aside from showing historically how extensive the use of natural law and 2k is within the Reformed tradition, VanDrunen also clarifies why these two ideas are bound up with each other, so that 2k without natural law lacks coherence and vice versa. An example from Calvin's own thought might be useful. On the one hand, the French Reformer held that human beings were utterly depraved and could do nothing to save themselves. On the other hand, he highly esteemed the contributions to science, politics, ethics, and art from pagan writers and artists. The only way to reconcile such seemingly contradictory notions is through the amalgam of natural law and 2k. VanDrunen explains:

One of the reasons that Calvin could affirm both a doctrine of the bondage of the will to sin and a positive use of natural law on the part of those under this bondage is that he viewed such issues under the rubric of the two kingdoms. For Calvin, any action performed apart from the saving grace of Christ, arising out of the judgment of reason alone, is sinful and displeasing in God's sight. No such action can earn any merit before God. This conviction, however, pertained to matters of salvation and thus to the spiritual kingdom of Christ. The same action, having no value for one's standing in the spiritual kingdom of Christ, may be of great value form the perspective of the civil kingdom. The ancient lawgivers of whom Calvin wrote accomplished astonishingly great things for life in the civil kingdom, though their achievements were worthless for attaining life in the kingdom of Christ. Calvin, therefore, could attribute both a wholly negative role and a remarkably positive role to natural law not because of internal inconsistency, but because the former was true for the kingdom of Christ and the latter for the civil kingdom. (113-114)

As already mentioned, VanDrunen does not hesitate to highlight tensions and inconsistencies in the application of natural law and 2k. One instance comes in a section on the Reformers' handling of the civil magistrate's duty to enforce both tables of the Decalogue, a teaching that found repeated iteration in the creeds of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed churches. So, for instance, when teaching on the magistrate's duties to promote the true religion, Althusius, Rutherford, and Turretin couched their arguments in the categories of 2k. According to VanDrunen, these theologians distinguished between "caring for religious affairs civilly or spiritually, externally or internally, with respect to the body or the soul" (199). Like most Christian teachers, Reformed theologians granted magistrates care over religious affairs in "a civil, external, bodily way, never in a spiritual, internal, or soulish way" (199). These theologians avoided saying "that the spiritual kingdom of Christ had nothing to do with external, bodily things" because they also "talked at length about the church's government, its ministry of the word, and its administration of the sacraments" (206). In other words, the distinction between the civil and spiritual kingdoms along the lines of man's body and soul fails to do justice to the external aspects of the spiritual kingdom of the church—namely, her marks which are visibly evident in word, sacrament, and discipline.

But if VanDrunen is willing to concede tensions within the development of Reformed 2k, he also hints at the teaching's dogmatic underpinnings (though, again, this book is simply a warm-up for a full-blown theological and biblical account of 2k). One consequential doctrine for 2k was Reformed Christology and the distinction between Christ's rule as creator and his reign as mediator. VanDrunen explains that after the fall and even after the incarnation, for instance, "Christ does not exist and operate in the world solely through his human nature in his capacity as redeemer" (75-76). In contrast to the Lutheran view of Christ's ubiquity (i.e., after the incarnation, Christ's humanity is present everywhere), "Calvin teaches that Christ's divine nature is present etiam extra carnem ('even outside the flesh')" (75-76). This allows Calvin and subsequent Reformed theologians to affirm that Christ rules one kingdom in a redemptive manner and the other kingdom in a non-redemptive way. This distinction between "the two mediatorships of the Son of God, over creation and redemption respectively," became the basis for distinguishing Reformed 2k from both Roman Catholic and Lutheran versions (75-76).

This point is important for the last third of the book in which VanDrunen, having covered Reformed developments from Calvin to New England Puritans and American Presbyterians, turns to modern Reformed writers who have balked at 2k theology, particularly the Dutch Reformed tradition from Abraham Kuyper to Herman Dooyeweerd and Cornelius Van Til. Indeed, one reason this book is generating significant debate owes to the low regard that many conservative Presbyterians have for natural law and 2k thanks to Van Til's critiques of natural law (at least in a Thomistic form) and the more general Dutch Calvinist rejection of dualism. Although VanDrunen still detects traces of natural law and 2k among Dutch Calvinist thinkers, he also observes a failure to distinguish between the spiritual and temporal kingdoms. The reason has much to do with an aversion to dualism and consequently to the distinction between Christ's rule as creator and as redeemer. Though less true for Kuyper whose doctrine of common grace depended on a distinction between creation and redemption, Kuyper's followers relied less and less on this distinction and some rejected it. As VanDrunen concludes in his chapter on Herman Dooyeweerd, the Dutch philosopher's successors "reject, modify, or simply pass over traditional Reformed articulation of ideas such as the two mediatorships of the Son of God and the covenant of works and, in so doing, come to ground the cultural task in both the creating and redeeming work of God" (384). This leads to "an eschatological burdening of cultural work" in which activity in the common realms of human existence become specifically Christian, "pursued through a comprehensive Christian world-and-life view and with the goal of bringing the kingdom of God to eschatological fulfillment" (384). Indeed, because the older Reformed theologians had distinguished Christ's rule over creation from that over redemption, they were able to avoid the danger of immanentizing the eschaton.

The greatest value of VanDrunen's book is unearthing of a tradition of 2k that had been lost thanks largely to the influence of Dutch Calvinism in North America. In fact, from the perspective of Reformed history, VanDrunen's most impressive contribution is to show that an older Reformed 2k tradition, used by Puritans and Old School Presbyterians, declined as Dutch neo-Calvinism rose and replaced it. At the same time, the book offers guidance on Christian involvement in politics and culture from a 2k perspective. In so doing, VanDrunen recognizes the difficulty of sorting out the competing claims that confront believers who live between the times—that is, between the theocratic arrangements of Israel and the ultimate theocracy of the New Heavens and New Earth. To be sure, to Reformed Protestants used to hearing that dualism or a division of personal loyalties is a concession to modern secular society, the distinctions that VanDrunen traces and explains will sound strange and perhaps wrong. But for Presbyterians who seek a better country because Christ's kingdom awaits a fuller and ultimate establishment upon his return, 2k may provide the comfort and resources needed to negotiate an existence that is in but not of this world.

Darryl G. Hart is a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving at Calvary OPC, Glenside, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, November 2010.

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