Addressing Issues: A Cordial Response to VanDrunen

Ryan McIlhenny

Ordained Servant: June–July 2013

A Pastor's Grief

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A Pastor’s Grief, and How to Cope with It

A Response to a Response to a Response

The Church

God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment


Toward the end of his rather personal response to Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective in a recent issue of Ordained Servant, David VanDrunen called for a “cordial engagement” between neo-Calvinists and Two Kingdoms proponents.[1]

In my eager attempt at the outset to avoid a descent into a series of puerile ripostes, I will—instead of addressing specific points in his paper—accept VanDrunen’s invitation. After a few preliminary remarks regarding his description of the book, I will offer points on which neo-Calvinism and the current Two Kingdoms perspective do indeed—at least prima facie—diverge, concluding with a note on how to cultivate irenic discussions in the future.

The Chasm between Language and Intent

My goal as editor and contributor of Kingdoms Apart was to engage an important discussion within the Reformed community, not to attack any one particular person. Central to VanDrunen’s criticism is that the book treats him “as the chief proponent of the two kingdoms perspective.” Admittedly, I may have missed something having read the manuscript multiple times, but I do not recall even an intimation identifying him as the leader of the pack. Yet is VanDrunen a proponent? Well, yes, and the authors treat him as such. If VanDrunen and readers of Kingdoms Apart feel or have explicit evidence that we engaged in a personal attack, then I, as the book’s editor, offer my sincere apologies. Language and intent often fail to converge.

Having said that, however, VanDrunen’s language, it seems to me, is a bit overblown—calling at least one author’s argument “tendentious,” agreeing with “98%” or “in essence” (meaning?) with another, using a term like “polemical” or “theoretical” to describe the essays, or attempting to ascertain my own “deep down” thoughts on a particular question I raised about Christian scholarly practice. Kingdoms Apart contributors may respond separately as they see fit, but—without sounding pedantic—I humbly challenge VanDrunen’s claim that the book lacked “collegiality,” a word that denotes a debate among equals—in this case, academics interacting with a school of thought who are also brothers in Christ within the Reformed community. Collegiality does not mean agreement. There would be no discussion if we all agreed. To say that an academic has not acted in a collegial way may be to misunderstand the meaning of the term.

Addressing VanDrunen’s main concern (the issues), let me highlight what I believe are a few discrepancies with the current Two Kingdoms position. Readers should keep in mind that much of these observations are far from—or seek to be far from—tendentious, misleading, or polemical, words used by VanDrunen to describe portions of Kingdoms Apart.

In Company with Compromisers

In Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen places neo-Calvinists in company with those who have compromised aspects of confessional Reformed theology—the doctrine of justification, in particular. (I have addressed this in Kingdoms Apart so I need not spend time repeating myself; readers can consider what I have written.) To be clear, however, VanDrunen does not say that neo-Calvinism necessarily—in a strictly deductive sense—leads to a rejection of the doctrine of justification by faith alone; nonetheless, neo-Calvinism is in the camp of those who do. I remain unconvinced that it endangers justification.

This is not a matter of taking one orthodox belief and turning it into heresy, but of two different beliefs with no a priori causal relationship. I hold strongly to Dooyeweerd’s concept of the heart, for instance, as the “concentration and consummation of being.” In what sense does that lead to a denial of another belief? Admittedly, there are individuals in the Reformed community who, while appropriating elements of neo-Calvinism (viz., a problematic “transformationalist” perspective), hold to a weak (at best) view of justification by faith alone; and there are also those both within and outside of the Reformed tradition who have (at worst) fully compromised the doctrine itself. VanDrunen writes, “All of us who share a commitment to the Reformed doctrine of justification should appreciate the attractiveness of my suggested paradigm.” I, for one, need more convincing, to which I am open. And not to be petty, but one could make a similar argument in light of a recent “conversion.” At least one Two Kingdoms representative, Jason Stellman, has turned to Rome, egregiously compromising a central tenet of Reformed theology in doing so. Yet it would be absurd to say that anyone committed to justification should not find Two Kingdoms attractive.

Related to the alleged undermining of justification is the charge that neo-Calvinists are linked to the moralistic (not Christian) political agenda of the evangelical right. This is an association made by staunch Two Kingdoms advocate Darryl Hart, who, unlike VanDrunen and Michael Horton, seems to be intransigently opposed to even a tincture of neo-Calvinism. In Secular Faith, Hart makes a subtle—but again, like VanDrunen, unnecessary—connection between evangelical right-wing political activism and the theology of neo-Calvinism, failing to take into consideration the many neo-Calvinists in North America who distanced themselves from the culture wars.[2] Just because the popularity of neo-Calvinism coincided with the emergence of the modern culture wars or even supported it, does not mean the two cannot be separated. Yet even Hart is right when he calls out neo-Calvinists to reevaluate their social commitments in light of changing historical circumstances. “I am waiting to see,” Hart writes, “the neo-Calvinist critique of culture war militancy.”[3] I would echo such a challenge, and encourage neo-Calvinists to reevaluate their commitments beyond the culture wars.

But along with the evangelical political right, neo-Calvinism, for Hart, spills over into Rushdoony-Bahnsen theonomy. Hart makes the very bold claim that “the neo-Calvinist insistence on biblical politics,” referring specifically to the work of James Skillen, “paves the way for theonomy.”[4] Again, necessarily? I would say no (so would Skillen, by the way). Neo-Calvinist discussions of a “biblical” state or “Christian anything” outside the sphere of the church does not lead to theonomy. For Kuyper, the adjective “Christian” means the “betokening” influence of Christianity, not a theonomic state. Even VanDrunen refuses to make this connection: “Kuyper ... avoided perennial tensions ... by removing enforcement of true religion from the hands of the magistrate.”[5]

Sphere Sovereignty and Two Kingdoms: Compatibility or Redundancy?

VanDrunen admits that Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty places “him broadly within the Reformed two kingdoms tradition.”[6] Indeed, the revival of the Two Kingdoms in its new context is a welcome corrective to those, including those pesky fundamentalist culture warriors, who have confused spheres. If I am closer to the Two Kingdoms position as VanDrunen suggests, it is because I am a proponent of Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty. What is the difference, indeed, besides the later formulations, as VanDrunen argues, after Dooyeweerd? When placed together, Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty and VanDrunen’s Two Kingdoms seem similar. Is this compatibility or redundancy?[7] If VanDrunen agrees (at least with Kuyper), then he is a partial neo-Calvinist. Even Hart seems to be a more consistent neo-Calvinist when he criticizes, for instance, “denominational colleges” for their failure “to meet neo-Calvinist criteria of sphere sovereignty.” At the Reformed college that I attended as an undergraduate, chapel attendance was required, meaning students would be punished for not going. Sounds like an unwarranted binding of the conscience and a clear example of a confusion of spheres, particularly for an academic institution.

A problem arises, however, when there is neglect not only of the overlap and interaction of spheres, but, at a higher level, of their coherence. This leads to a false tension between the church and spheres outside the church. While VanDrunen (and Hart) are perhaps better at maintaining the boundaries between spheres than some neo-Calvinists, they say very little about “sphere universality.”[8] In his discussion of Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty, VanDrunen acknowledges the “richness and diversity of human life,” what Dooyeweerd, following Kuyper, would refer to as the irreducibility of the various spheres in human experience.[9] “Human society is complex,” VanDrunen continues, but “not uniform.” Yet along with important delineations, there is a fundamental coherence among spheres—hence, universality. Kalsbeek defines sphere universality as “the principle that all the modalities are intimately connected with each other in an unbreakable coherence. Just as sphere sovereignty stresses the unique distinctiveness and irreducibility of the modal [ways of being] aspects, so sphere universality emphasizes that every one depends for its meaning on all the others.”[10] The coherence of spheres, at root, rests on God as creator and Christ as redeemer. I am not saying this because VanDrunen rejects universality, but to ask him and other Two Kingdoms advocates to clarify the distinction between “sphere sovereignty” and “sphere universality”—functional distinctions yet coherence in and through Christ. In Christ, all things—things that remain part of his good creation, which does not include pornography, war, or any one of Green Day’s songs (which will most definitely be part of the cultural immolation)—are made, upheld, and groan for his redemption. My point here is that an understanding of universality may help us to avoid the tendency of seeing spheres as completely separate from one another.

Morality and Practical Reason

Another issue that needs further exploration on the Two Kingdoms end is whether a biblical and Christ-centered perspective has an advantage in understanding human morality and reason (generally speaking). Is a reliance on natural law to delineate morality and knowledge sufficient without Scripture? In the area of morality, I continue to grapple with the issue, so allow me to distance myself a bit on whether we can develop a view of morality that sufficiently rests on a purely natural and universal moral law inscribed on the hearts of all men. There are neo-Calvinists, however, who argue that unbelievers cannot know God’s natural law solely from the natural kingdom. This is the thrust of Gene Haas’s chapter in Kingdoms Apart:

Apart from Christ, sinners do not have a full knowledge of the law in general ... but they become forgetful when it applies to their own actions ... In drawing the distinction in Calvin between the spiritual and civil kingdoms, VanDrunen rightly notes that in the former “Scripture [is] the sole standard for the doctrine and government of the church.” But in his attempt to distinguish the civil kingdom from the spiritual one, VanDrunen goes too far in portraying Calvin as viewing natural law as the primary, and thus adequate, “standard for life in the civil kingdom.” A close reading of Calvin’s comments on natural law will simply not support this position ... natural law is much less likely [apart from the Golden Rule] to give a clear apprehension of right and wrong, good and evil, when it is applied to the specific decisions of human life.[11]

Strangely, Haas’s “interpretation of Calvin,” VanDrunen writes, “is practically identical” with his own. Yet in Haas’s reading of Calvin, knowledge of morality along with the practice of it is insufficient or incomplete without Christ. Natural law is not satisfactory for common or universal morality. Thus, if Haas is correct, Christians should think about ways to employ a biblical Christ-centered perspective on morality.

Reason likewise is deficient apart from Christ, according to fellow Kingdoms Apart contributor Jason Lief:

Calvin affirms the role of reason and conscience in the temporal realm, while at the same time he expresses doubt concerning the ability of reason to know truth with any certainty ... [Calvin] refers to the “sluggishness of mind,” ... and says the natural gifts [of reason] have been corrupted as the mind is “plunged into deep darkness.” Even when he affirms the remnants of “human understanding” that exist after the fall, he goes on to say, “Yet this longing for truth, such as it is, languishes before it enters upon its race because it soon falls into vanity. Indeed, man’s mind, because of its dullness, cannot hold to the right path, but wanders through various errors and stumbles repeatedly, as if it were groping in darkness, until it strays away and finally disappears. Thus it betrays how incapable it is of seeking and finding truth.[12]

Does this suggest that redemption is necessary for a higher or better understanding of the created order? Neo-Calvinists would agree that Christians and non-Christians share truths equally, but on a surface or common (creational, natural law) level only. Anyone digging deeper into a particular area of study will be confronted with anomalies, irony, or just plain mystery that can never be critically and creatively worked out apart from a theoretical interpretive grid rooted in one’s religious ground motive.[13] It is the religious heart that reveals the competing understandings of the common. As I mentioned in the book, the neo-Calvinist distinction between structure and direction is helpful on this point. Thus, in both morality and reason, an explicitly biblical approach is better or more advanced, again in theory, than one that rejects or simply ignores the importance of Christ.

Of course, we need to be careful on this point. Although a Christian perspective places a learner on a more advantageous level, he or she may not take the advantage. Developing a Christian perspective vis-à-vis a specific subject or scholarly endeavor is not easy; it is not something pre-packaged and hastily attached to what is studied. An integral Christian perspective requires conformity to biblical wisdom; it must incorporate key attributes of wisdom: humility, patience, and submission to authority (to God, first and foremost). Even if there is no empirical difference in appearance (which is questionable, as I argue in Kingdoms Apart), there is no reason to reject the integrally biblical motivation behind teaching.

Cultural Mandate, Cultural Contingencies

A clear difference between neo-Calvinists and Two Kingdoms supporters centers on an understanding of the cultural mandate. VanDrunen expressed disappointment that the cultural mandate was mentioned “only twice” in Kingdoms Apart. I am also disappointed and, as editor, greatly chagrined. The reason for this has to do with the contingencies of an edited work, which rarely if ever ends up the way an editor/author originally wants it to be. I am willing to accept as “incomplete” my representation of his view on the cultural mandate—I have more questions on his position than anything else—but to say that I am “misleading” readers goes too far, since “misleading” can connote an attempt on my part to deceive. At any rate, I had scheduled a well-recognized author to write a chapter specifically on the issue, but the author was unable to complete the work because of his own commitments. He pulled out of the project after the contract with the publisher was formalized, leaving me in a difficult position. I tried to find someone else; I was unable. Even so, Kingdoms Apart was not a comprehensive examination of Two Kingdoms or neo-Calvinism. The conversation is still young and still important.

VanDrunen presents a nuanced view that, for me at this point, lacks cogency. Nonetheless, his position needs consideration. The cultural mandate is part of the created common or natural order not only as it is “refracted through the covenant with Noah,” as VanDrunen writes, but also as it was given to man before the Fall. As it relates to the shared realm, humanity has a higher obligation before God to rule over and subdue all of creation, doing so, it seems to me, in a way that conforms to how God designed the world. And while I agree that Christ has completed the work of redemption as the better Adam and reject the eschatological burden that often accompanies cultural engagement, Christians are nonetheless tasked by Scripture to bring “every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5) to Christ, to bring word and sacraments through the institutional church, and, for laymen and women, to walk in a Godly manner within the common realm in order to “win our neighbors for Christ” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 32, Q&A 86). Such directives are the ultimate form of ruling and subduing. We can do all this without reviving a tragically anachronistic theonomic state, compromising justification, becoming part of the emergent church movement, or being swept up in the “status anxiety” that undergirds the wayward “mission” of the evangelical right.

There is one last issue related to cultural renewal that needs clarification—namely, reconciling competing readings of 2 Peter 3. For VanDrunen, the present world, including current cultural products, will be “burned up and dissolved.” But, as Wolters writes in Creation Regained “all but one of the oldest and most reliable Greek manuscripts do not have the final words ‘will be burned up’ but instead ‘will be found,’” which does not mean “annihilation or complete destruction.”[14] Wolters connects the conflagration imagery in this passage to that of the flood in Genesis 6–8; the earth was both destroyed and preserved. When it comes to the common realm vis-à-vis God’s kingship, VanDrunen separates creation from redemption; God’s sovereignty over “every square inch” is that of creator, not redeemer. This challenges the neo-Calvinist insistence on the inextricable relationship between creation and redemption. If VanDrunen’s reading of 2 Peter 3 is correct, then creation will not be redeemed—end of discussion. But if, on the other hand, God’s good creation continues, especially in light of Romans 8:19–23, then there must be a connection to redemption.

Saying that our cultural works will not be annihilated, however, does not mean we know exactly what our earthly items will look like in the new heavens and new earth. This is a point on which, as I have tried to make clear, a handful of neo-Calvinists and other evangelical writers overextend themselves.[15]

A Caveat to Bandwagoners

In writing this I want readers to understand that I am not attacking VanDrunen. I have been supremely edified by his work, and I trust he will continue to challenge me—and the Reformed community—to always engage culture from a biblically robust perspective. Let me also state that I am weary of the factions that so often emerge as a result of these debates. I will steer clear of labeling VanDrunen the chief proponent of the Two Kingdoms position. Concurrently, I refuse to lump him in the camp of those strongly opposed to neo-Calvinism. VanDrunen rejects certain strands of post-Kuyperian formulations of Calvinism (e.g., Dooyeweerd and his followers, especially). In this way, then, he is a neo-Calvinist partialist (I am still working on the Latin), but that would describe the overwhelming majority of neo-Calvinists, including those critical of Kuyper (e.g., Klaas Schilder). What neo-Calvinist accepts everything Kuyper or Dooyeweerd have taught (the latter’s position on natural law is not the only problematic issue in his theological repertoire)?[16] And taking into consideration my own disagreements with certain applications of neo-Calvinism, which are laid out in the book, I too am a neo-Calvinist partialist. The current Two Kingdoms position does well challenging the sloppiness of neo-Calvinism, but this does not require a full-scale assault against it.

When Christians disagree or merely question a position, partisanship often follows. (My articulation of the discursiveness of culture in Kingdoms Apart is proving itself to be true.) This is not directed toward the handful of contemporary Two Kingdom or neo-Calvinist proponents who have worked hard to lay out their position, but to the bandwagoners out there. I have interacted with a number of individuals who have no clue how to define neo-Calvinism or Two Kingdoms, but those who associate with a particular side seem dogmatically convinced that when it comes to Christ and his kingdom it is strictly one or the other. Choosing sides in ignorance is irresponsible; partisanship stifles debate. I concur with VanDrunen that a “cordial engagement” is needed—especially, let me add, for brethren and citizens of Christ’s kingdom who are also witnesses of that kingdom to a fallen world.


[1] David VanDrunen, “What Exactly is the Issue: A Response to Kingdoms Apart,” Ordained Servant (March 2013): http://www.opc.org/os.html?article_id=354&cur_iss=Y. Ryan C. McIlhenny, ed., Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012).

[2] Darryl Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Chicago: Ivan Dee, 2006), 227–29.

[3] http://oldlife.org/2012/10/not-so-fast/ D.G. Hart’s commentary on Mike Horton’s effort to highlight agreements between the Two Kingdoms and neo-Calvinism at Covenant College.

[4] Ibid.

[5] David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2010), 307.

[6] Ibid., 290.

[7] While agreeing in essence with Kuyper, VanDrunen makes the case that Dooyeweerd and his followers stray from the Reformed tradition of natural law and the Two Kingdoms. See VanDrunen Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 362.

[8] VanDrunen mentions “sphere universality” in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 356.

[9] Herman Dooyeweerd, Encyclopedia of the Science of Law, vol. 1,trans., Robert Knudsen and ed., Alan M. Cameron (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 2002), 123.

[10] L. Kalsbeek, Contours of a Christian Philosophy: An Introduction to Herman Dooyeweerd’s Thought (Toronto: Wedge Publishing, 1975), 314.

[11] Haas’s quote in Kingdoms Apart, 45, 47, emphasis added.

[12] Lief’s quote in Kingdoms Apart, 233–34.

[13] Many Two Kingdoms advocates claim that Christian schools are “good.” But what makes them good? Does the Two Kingdom position offer a defense for Christian education? Two Kingdom supporters do not see the need for the Christian modifier when it comes to knowledge. Why “Christian” education then? If a liberal arts education, for instance, is reduced to the now-hackneyed plumber paradigm, which it regularly is, then there is no need for Christian schools of any kind. This is an issue that needs further discussion.

[14] Wolters’s quote in Kingdoms Apart, xxiv.

[15] See Mouw’s quote in Kingdoms Apart, xxvi.

[16] I must admit that among the sixty plus neo-Calvinists on the website “All of Life Redeemed, ”VanDrunen deals with a small handful in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms; he’s even more sweeping in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms.

Ryan McIlhenny is associate professor of history and humanities at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, CA. Ordained Servant Online, June/July 2013.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2013

A Pastor's Grief

Also in this issue

A Pastor’s Grief, and How to Cope with It

A Response to a Response to a Response

The Church

God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment


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