Alan D. Strange
David VanDrunen’s book is a capstone to his natural law/two kingdom project: a political theology developed out of his understanding of the Noahic covenant. In typical fashion, VanDrunen’s latest, Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World, is clear and thorough. He leaves no significant areas having to do with his topic untouched, and he seeks fairly to represent both those with whom he differs and the criticism that they level against his writings.
The book is divided into two basic parts: “Political Theology” and “Political Ethics.” The first part, in six chapters, treats VanDrunen’s view of the state of things, particularly in our post-Christendom culture, which he rightly refers to as a “fractured world.” The second part, in another six chapters, sets forth how the principles of the first part apply in our world.
VanDrunen sets forth in “Political Theology” that all civil society, which includes its government but is not limited to it, bears two pairs of characteristics that define it: legitimate, but provisional; common, but accountable. This means that civil society, in its economic, legal, and other public dimensions, is something that is legitimate. Government, of whatever sort, is necessary, and thus legitimate, something given by God for the proper ordering of society, over against anarchy of varying sorts. However, in contrast to theories of government in absolutized forms on the right or left, civil society is provisional, not ultimate, and will give way in the coming consummation of all things to the eternal kingdom that shall never perish.
Further, civil society as established among mankind is common, which is to say that it encompasses all here below, not simply the godly or those members of the visible church. All in any given region, the righteous and the wicked, are subject to the same systems, including the same government. At the same time, this common life is one for which all are accountable and for which everyone will be judged.
The lives of all together, then, saved and lost, are part of a system that is legitimate and common. A day is coming, however, when the sheep and goats will be separated, so this legitimate and common life that they now experience is not eternal but provisional and will come to an end. That such a life is now common does not mean, though, that it is neutral and unaccountable. On that great day just referenced, everyone will give an account of their lives in terms that make clear personal moral responsibility and accountability.
VanDrunen sees these pairs (legitimate but provisional, common but accountable) as emerging from the Noahic covenant, which is a covenant verifying a common realm in which common grace is at play. He sees this as true not only in the Old Testament but in the New: the redemption promised in the covenant of grace (since Gen. 3:15) does not change the nature of this relationship between a common kingdom that emerges from the Noahic covenant and the spiritual kingdom of grace, manifesting in the visible church, that is part of the gracious, saving covenant that God has with the elect. VanDrunen, then, reads Romans 13 and its allied New Testament passages through the lens formed by the common kingdom concerns and approach of the Noahic covenant. One of the strengths of this work is that the breathless, highly politicized atmosphere in which we all live in the West, including the United States, while recognized by VanDrunen, does not infect this work, which enjoys a thoughtful and becalmed approach.
In the second half of the book, “Political Ethics,” VanDrunen spells out the implications and consequences of his common kingdom approach. First, he addresses pluralism and religious liberty: as a consequence of the common kingdom being just that—common—he argues that this implies that civil society, certainly the state as part of that, does not properly enjoin religious conformity of any sort, but its citizens should enjoy religious liberty and the freedom to embrace various philosophies and viewpoints as long as that is done within the bounds of law. In the next chapter, he argues that all families and commerce are part of this common kingdom and that they carry on their lives at least in light of the Noahic covenant and natural law. I could go into detail under each of the sections that follow (“Justice and Rights,” “Customs and Laws,” “Authority and Resistance”), but space prohibits. I do find this second part of the book to be especially useful.
One of the most frequent criticisms of VanDrunen’s approach is that it accounts for proper distinctions that need to be made between the provisional and the eternal (or other ways of putting the necessary distinctions between this world and the coming one) but tends to separate the two. This leads, some say, to diversity but not unity, many-ness but not oneness (37–44). VanDrunen acknowledges this criticism and seeks to address it in a measure (77–78). Whether he successfully does so is debatable. For example, chapter 8 on the “Family and Commerce” treats Christians and non-Christians similarly. While non-Christians, together with Christians, certainly participate in the creation ordinances of family and labor (Sabbath rest as the third creation ordinance produces its own conundrum that I do not think this approach ever surmounts), non-Christians do not experience these realities as substantively as do Christians.
VanDrunen’s approach in its theory seems to suffer from a lack of points of integration in which the kingdoms overlap. I say “in its theory” because in its outworking, as the second part of his book manifests, I do find points of integration, though perhaps not in all areas—for example, as mentioned above, in marriage and family. I am encouraged, however, because I find VanDrunen open to bettering his theory and practice, having done so over the course of addressing his subject matter, which remains, after all, one of the most controverted areas among Christians of similar confessional commitments.
The author is an OP minister and professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary.
Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World, by David VanDrunen. Zondervan Academic, 2020. Paperback, 400 pages, $20.00.
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