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A Response to a Response to a Response

David VanDrunen

I thank Ryan McIlhenny for his response to my review of Kingdoms Apart. His response is indeed cordial, thought-provoking, and helpful for promoting constructive, Reformed conversation about these issues. I regret that my contribution here must be very abbreviated, due to space constraints.

Since McIlhenny’s response is not primarily focused upon the strengths and weaknesses of Kingdoms Apart but on a variety of issues related to Two Kingdoms/neo-Calvinism debates, it is appropriate (and agreeable) for me to address the latter rather than to rehash the former. But I do note that I was puzzled by McIlhenny’s statement that “central to VanDrunen’s criticism is that the book [Kingdoms Apart] treats him ‘as the chief proponent of the two kingdoms perspective.’ ” This is not the case, and I am not sure why McIlhenny has this impression. I noted that I was (implicitly) treated as the two kingdoms perspective’s chief proponent only to explain why my review speaks so much in the first-person singular and to alert readers that I am very much an interested party in these discussions. I was honored by the attention to my work. But I did fault Kingdoms Apart for its frequent misrepresentation of my views and arguments. In my judgment, the book lacked “collegiality” not because it disagreed with me but because of these misrepresentations. Having clarified this, I am now eager to engage the substantive matters McIlhenny raises.

Unity and Continuity

I wish first to address two topics that McIlhenny discusses separately, but which I think he’d agree are aspects of a larger issue. His questions to me regarding “sphere universality” and the interpretation of 2 Peter 3 seem to express concern that, though two kingdoms proponents have helpfully reminded the Reformed community about the need to make proper distinctions among institutions and activities and to distinguish this age from the age to come, they have not given proper due to the overarching unity of God’s work and the elements of continuity between this world and the next. A forthcoming book of mine discusses these issues in some detail,[1] but here are a few thoughts for the present.

I think it proper to say that the new creation is the consummation of this present creation. From the beginning, before the fall, God designed the present world not to remain in its initial form forever but to be consummated in an eschatological new creation. Scripture doesn’t teach exactly what this means in detail, but it means at least that the new creation was not to be another creation ex nihilo; the new creation was to be the consummation of this present world. That remains true after the fall. The story of salvation in Christ ends with the same eschatological new creation that was the first creation’s original destiny. The present creation, however, is surely not brought to consummation in its entirety, without loss. The destiny of damned angels and humans in hell proves that when Scripture speaks of all things being renewed or reconciled in Christ it does not mean that every individual thing that has participated in God’s original creation will be incorporated into the new creation. Such biblical statements point instead to the idea that the new creation is the consummation of the original creation as a whole, in general.

Some reviewers have read page 66 of my book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms as asserting that every material thing in this present creation except human bodies will be annihilated at Christ’s return.[2] That was not my intent, though I understand why they have this impression, and I now wish I had stated some things differently. What I wished to defend, over against certain popular neo-Calvinist writers (from whom McIlhenny also seems to dissociate himself), is that Scripture gives no reason to hope that any particular thing in this world—whether natural or the product of human culture—is going to adorn the new creation. To say that this beautiful mountain, this pristine river, this lovely sculpture, etc., will adorn the new creation is extra-biblical speculation. The only particular thing in this creation that Scripture teaches will keep its present identity through the coming fire of judgment is the resurrected human body. It is not that other particular things will be annihilated, but that I cannot expect to enjoy this mountain, this river, or this work of art in the new creation. This claim is consistent with Romans 8 and doesn’t depend upon how one resolves the textual question in 2 Peter 3:10.

How do these considerations bear upon common institutions such as family or state? How do common institutions relate to the church now and to the new creation to come? Common and special grace are aspects of a unified plan of God for human history, and this helps us to appreciate how God uses the family, for example, to bring covenant children into the church and how he uses the state to provide physical protection for the church (or how he uses economic life to provide financial means to support the church’s ministry, etc.). These common institutions do not exist only to serve the church; I agree with Abraham Kuyper that we also ought to acknowledge independent purposes of common grace. But God’s putting common institutions/activities to the use of his church seems to be one important way for us to recognize sphere universality.[3]

Yet, in the context of sphere universality, McIlhenny writes that all things remaining part of God’s good creation groan for redemption. Does he mean by this that all such things are redeemed? If so, I must strongly disagree. Take marriage as an example. God instituted marriage at creation and upholds it for the entire human race through his common grace. It remains part of his good creation. But marriage relationships end at death, and there will be no new marriage ceremonies in heaven. Marriage will not exist in the new creation—this is why Scripture never speaks of marriage as an institution of the redemptive kingdom of Christ. If this is the case, we should not speak about marriage being redeemed. Redemption is an improper category to apply to marriage. We hope that redeemed people will carry out their responsibilities as husbands and wives better than the unredeemed, but the institution of marriage itself is not being redeemed—only preserved. And similar things must be said about the state and other common institutions. I think this is one of the great benefits of the two kingdoms doctrine: it provides a way to say, with Scripture, that common institutions such as marriage are good and honorable, but also temporary—designed for this world.

Questions Regarding Natural Law

McIlhenny asks some questions about natural law and its relation to a Christ-centered perspective. To try to answer them briefly I believe it is crucial to make a basic distinction between, on the one hand, natural law itself as an aspect of God’s objective natural revelation and, on the other hand, the subjective response to natural law on the part of sinful human beings. As objective revelation, natural law is sufficient for the purposes for which God gives it. The same is true for all divine revelation: whether special or natural, God’s revelation is sufficient for the purposes for which he gave it and insufficient for other purposes. One purpose of natural law, I think we’d all agree, is to hold all people accountable before God’s judgment for their violations of his moral law. This is explicit in Romans 1 and implicit in many other biblical texts, such as Amos 1. This means that the substance of the moral law is revealed in natural law; otherwise, many people could stand before God’s judgment and legitimately claim excuse for their sins. Therefore, natural law must objectively reveal sufficient moral knowledge for a human being to live a blameless life in the present world. But immediately one must add that, subjectively speaking, no sinner could possibly respond to this revelation blamelessly. Natural law reveals God’s perfect law but does not convey the ability to respond without sin. Fallen sinners distort the truths that they know through natural revelation, as Romans 1 also teaches. So in response to McIlhenny’s questions regarding an advantage for Christians: Christians do not have, objectively, an information-advantage with respect to the moral law; Scripture reveals the same substance of the moral law that natural law reveals.[4] But Christians may be said to have a moral advantage in that Scripture clarifies many aspects of natural revelation for our dull minds and in that Christians’ sanctified hearts should be less prone to distort natural revelation.[5]

Two Kingdoms and Partial Neo-Calvinism

McIlhenny also raises a number of interesting issues concerning the identity of neo-Calvinism, its relationship to the two kingdoms, and the similarity of some of their characteristic ideas. With the very little space remaining I offer a few thoughts.

One question he asks is whether I am a “partial neo-Calvinist.” The suggestion has a certain logic to it: If Kuyper is regarded as a neo-Calvinist, and if I express considerable appreciation for Kuyper’s thought, then it seems I’m a partial neo-Calvinist. The more expansively a term is used, however, the less useful it becomes as an identity marker. If “neo-Calvinist” can describe nearly everybody in the broader Reformed community then it may not serve a helpful purpose. As I’m sure McIlhenny would agree, it’s ultimately not terms that matter, and it’s unfortunate when terminological confusion causes unnecessary disagreement. At the same time, it’s also difficult to proceed efficiently in academic discussion without having terms to identify views and schools of thought, and so it’s understandable that we speak of “neo-Calvinists” and “two kingdoms proponents” and hope these will be useful shorthand for capturing certain convictions.

What is most important to me is that the Reformed community reaffirm the basic distinction between God’s two kingdoms—his common providential rule and his special redemptive rule—whether or not one agrees with all the ways I personally apply this distinction in exploring the Christianity-and-culture issues. This distinction is biblical and has very deep roots in the Reformed tradition. I would deem it a great blessing from God were the Reformed community as a whole to re-embrace it, and I see my efforts to defend the distinction as something I can do to serve the Reformed churches I love. The thing is, I struggle to think of any contemporary figure I have read or spoken to who either calls himself a neo-Calvinist or is commonly identified by others as a neo-Calvinist who does not speak of God’s kingdom in the singular. Possibly my own experience is just quirky, but ever since I began thinking seriously about this I have understood a one-kingdom view to be of the essence of what “neo-Calvinism” is. Thus I do not consider myself a neo-Calvinist. To me, the thought of a “two kingdoms neo-Calvinist” is like the thought of a “libertarian socialist.” It’s paradoxical, even contradictory.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other features of neo-Calvinism that are consistent with maintaining a two kingdoms distinction, at least potentially. I can think of many (and have identified some in previous writing). McIlhenny suggests that the familiar neo-Calvinist idea of sphere sovereignty is similar to the two kingdoms idea. I appreciate his raising this issue, and I am sympathetic to his thoughts. The ideas of two kingdoms and sphere sovereignty are indeed both concerned with making proper distinctions among institutions and activities in this world. Yet I see the two kingdoms distinction as addressing a foundational biblical issue, while I see the idea of sphere sovereignty as working out a more detailed social theory (which requires intellectual labor beyond theology and biblical exegesis). A theory of sphere sovereignty is indeed very useful, I believe, as long as it is anchored in a two kingdoms doctrine.[6]

Conclusion

Again, I thank McIlhenny for his cordial and thoughtful response. I hope that this exchange will be of some small use to the Reformed community and be a positive stimulus for productive discussion in the future.

Endnotes

[1] David VanDrunen, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming 2014), especially chapters 1 and 9.

[2] E.g., Keith Mathison in his review of Living in God’s Two Kingdoms; see http://www.ligonier.org/blog/2k-or-not-2k-question-review-david-vandrunens-living-gods-two-kingdoms/.

[3] Some writers seem to assume that I do not see God’s common grace or common institutions as (at least in part) serving redemptive purposes, which in turn fuels accusations about the bogeyman “dualism” and about a failure among two kingdoms proponents to appreciate the holistic character of God’s work in this world. Cornelis Venema, for example, sees my appeal to the Noahic covenant, as the formal establishment of the common kingdom, as “an interesting illustration of the lack of integration in its conception of the relation between creation and redemption.” Though acknowledging with me that the Noahic covenant was “a covenant of preservation,” Venema seeks to counter me by claiming that “it is not a covenant that is wholly unrelated to the covenant of grace and God’s purposes in redemption,” for it “serves the purposes of redemption by maintaining the creation order, and also by sustaining the nucleus of the new humanity redeemed through Christ.” See “One Kingdom or Two? An Evaluation of the ‘two Kingdoms’ Doctrine as an Alternative to Neo-Calvinism,” Mid America Journal of Theology 23 (2012): 116–17. But where have I ever denied that? Of course the Noahic covenant serves the purposes of redemption in these ways. To say that the Noahic covenant is not a redemptive covenant (which I have said and continue to affirm) is not equivalent to saying that God does not use the Noahic covenant to serve redemptive purposes, in fulfillment of his larger plan for world history. God puts all sorts of common things to use as he builds his church through the covenant of grace.

[4] As Francis Turretin puts it, the natural law and moral law are the same as to “substance” and “principles” but differ in “mode of delivery.” See Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994), 6. These sorts of statements do of course require further nuances in order to be most helpful and accurate. For example, careful distinctions need to be made among different covenantal contexts within which the moral law is revealed and at times differently applied.

[5] In some other recent pieces evaluating my writing on the two kingdoms there is a lot of speculation, presented as fact, about what my constructive view of natural law is, particularly with regard to its relationship to special revelation, its function governing the common kingdom, and unbelievers’ response to it. I have actually published very little on these subjects; Living in God’s Two Kingdoms does not discuss natural law at all and Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms is a historical work and does not present my own constructive views in any detail. Yet Jeffrey Waddington and Cornelis Venema, for example, think they know a lot about my views and offer bold critical comments; see Waddington, “Duplex in Homine Regimen: A Response to David VanDrunen’s ‘The Reformed Two Kingdoms Doctrine: An Explanation and Defense,’ ” The Confessional Presbyterian 8 (2012): 192–93; and Venema, “One Kingdom or Two?” 106–11. I’ll mention just one issue among several they raise: the unbeliever’s ability to profit from natural law. Waddington (193) states: “Clearly Dr. VanDrunen’s understanding of the efficacy of natural law/natural revelation is significantly different from the clear and unambiguous statement made in the Canons of Dort [3/4.4].” Similarly, Venema (108-9) also implies that I am at variance with Canons of Dort 3/3.4 and writes: “in the two kingdoms paradigm, non-believers are almost as apt as believers to profit from their discernment of the natural law.” Neither of them cite a single example from my writings to prove these claims; nor could they, I am quite sure. I agree entirely with the statement in Canons of Dort 3/4.4 and have never argued against it. And I cannot think of where I have said anything along the lines of Venema’s charge.

[6] This is an issue on which I’m hoping to do a lot more research and writing in the years to come. I am eager to hear more constructive thoughts on this issue from McIlhenny and others with interest in the topic.

David VanDrunen, a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is the Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. Ordained Servant Online, June/July 2013.

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