I’m pleased to publish this guest review by the Rev. Kyle Dillon.
American churches today have become divided over the question of what it means to live as Christians in an increasingly post-Christian society. Should our approach toward secular culture be one of confrontation? Adaptation? Withdrawal?
One proposed strategy that has received more attention in recent years is the doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” which turns out to mean quite different things to different people. While this doctrine had its roots in the early Protestant Reformation, its most popular version today is associated with Reformed theologians like Michael Horton and David VanDrunen, who teach at Westminster Seminary California. For this reason, it is commonly known as “Reformed Two Kingdoms” (R2K).
According to R2K, Christians should see themselves as citizens of two kingdoms: the spiritual kingdom and the temporal kingdom. Christ rules over both of these kingdoms, but in different ways. The spiritual kingdom corresponds to the institutional church, which is governed only by what is expressly commanded in Scripture. On the other hand, the temporal kingdom corresponds to the rest of life (politics, economics, etc.), which is governed not by Scripture but by natural law, to which believers and unbelievers alike have shared access through reason and conscience.
Proponents of R2K see themselves as guarding the church from overzealous and triumphalistic efforts to “transform” or “redeem” culture, such as we find among left-leaning social gospellers, ultra-conservative theonomists, the old Religious Right, and also Kuyperian neo-Calvinists. Against all of these, R2K seeks to recover the centrality of the ordinary means of grace in the church, sober expectations about social change, and humility in our earthly vocations.
And yet for all its perceived advantages, R2K has had plenty of critics. It has been called Gnostic, Platonist, quietist, retreatist, otherworldly—some labels being closer to the mark than others. This is where Bradford Littlejohn enters the scene with his recent book The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed (Davenant Institute, 2017), which argues that both R2K and its critics have essentially missed the mark.
His goal is to recover an earlier version of the two-kingdoms doctrine—one defined not by a distinction between the two institutions of church and state, but rather by a distinction between the “vertical” realm of conscience and the “horizontal” realm of conduct. As the soul is to the body, these realms (or better, dimensions) are distinct but not separate. According to Littlejohn, this version—which can perhaps be called “classical” or “magisterial Protestant” two kingdoms—goes back to Martin Luther, but can also be found in the writings of John Calvin, Richard Hooker, and others.
Littlejohn describes a number of characteristics that set classical 2K apart from R2K: while the invisible church is still tied to the spiritual kingdom, the visible or institutional church belongs mostly to the temporal kingdom, along with all other realms of human activity. This move has the effect of “de-sacralizing” church authorities—they are no longer seen as governors of the spiritual kingdom—and expanding the realm of adiaphora or “things indifferent to salvation” in the church. Littlejohn sees this as liberating the church from an oppressive precisianism that demands explicit biblical warrant for every church practice.
There are a number of strengths in Littlejohn’s proposal. He helpfully traces the history of early Protestant thinking about the relationship of church and society, highlighting legitimate concerns over the abuses in worship and government that were widespread in the medieval era. I also found myself in agreement with many of his insights in the latter part of the book, regarding the application of two-kingdoms thinking to contemporary issues like ecumenism and economics. Nevertheless, his proposal rests on a number of concepts that I believe need further clarification.
For one, his treatment of adiaphora almost turns the standard view of Christian liberty on its head. The term adiaphora is ordinarily defined as matters in which believers are free to act according to their consciences, when such matters 1) do not relate to salvation and 2) are not explicitly stated in Scripture. This means that any undue restrictions imposed on the believer’s conduct would be tantamount to “binding the conscience.” And yet Littlejohn’s definition of adiaphora seems to exaggerate the divide between conscience and conduct, while considerably restricting the scope of the former. This has the counter-intuitive result of licensing rather than limiting temporal authorities (which includes ecclesial authorities, on his view) in imposing conduct on any matter not related to salvation.
Thus, in his effort to safeguard the church from “the tyranny of Scripture conceived as an exhaustive law-book” (46), Littlejohn opens the door for a tyranny of temporal authorities acting in the name of prudence and natural law. What do we gain by adopting this more limited definition of Christian liberty? And how exactly are we to determine the line between conscience and conduct? Littlejohn speaks of a “creative tension” between the magistrate’s authority to command in adiaphora and the individual conscience’s authority to determine when the boundary of adiaphora has been transgressed (18). But why should we see this as a creative tension and not as an inherent ambiguity or even an irreconcilable contradiction? Littlejohn’s proposal would be enhanced by giving greater attention the limits (and overall purpose) of temporal authority, particularly in Christian life and worship.
Another area of ambiguity is over the role of natural law in political discourse. Littlejohn argues that since the task of civil government is merely the maintenance of the creation order and not the redemption of society, then Scripture may be useful in guiding our political thinking, but it is not strictly necessary, since natural law is in principle sufficient (81-82). But this claim stands in tension with his recognition of the continuity of creation and redemption (83-84). While it is true that civil government serves only the penultimate ends of order and justice rather than the ultimate end of salvation, is it really possible to have rightly ordered penultimate ends when one’s ultimate ends are disordered?
Likewise, what value do natural-law arguments have in a society that rejects any notion of nature (consider current debates over gender, for example)? Without a shared understanding of creation’s telos, natural law reasoning has little more persuasive force amongst many than does appeal to Scripture.
Further, who gets to decide the actual content of natural law, and how? Cultural prejudices and other cognitive biases can often masquerade in the guise of natural law arguments, running the risk of binding believers’ consciences on matters that are not always so clear cut. Now this is not to say that every public policy needs a Bible verse to back it up, or that Christians always make better governors than do pagans. But it is hard to escape the conclusion that, all things being equal, regeneration makes a difference in one’s understanding of a just society, and prudence cannot be rightly exercised apart from a foundation in divinely revealed norms.
Here it may be helpful to consider an alternative proposal, one based on the thought of Dutch neo-Calvinist theologians Abraham Kuyper and Klaas Schilder. I would prefer to speak of the Christian life not in terms of two kingdoms, but in terms of two cities (borrowing terminology from St. Augustine’s City of God). Rather than drawing the line of demarcation between two dimensions or spheres of Christ’s rule, the line is instead drawn between Christ’s cosmic rule and Satan’s cosmic rebellion—between the city of God and the city of Man. As C.S. Lewis once wrote: “There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.”1 This is just a snapshot of a much fuller paradigm, many aspects of which would need to be worked out in further detail.
Now I am not denying the distinctions that Littlejohn makes between creation and redemption, or between the temporal and the spiritual. But I do question whether the best way to speak of such distinctions is in terms of “kingdoms.” Instead, I believe we should affirm that Christ is King over all creation, and that his redemptive work extends “far as the curse is found.” When we are reborn in Christ, it transforms how we see and act in every area of life. We are enabled to rightly look backward—to God’s original design for humanity as rooted in creation—and forward—to the redemption of all things at the coming of Christ’s kingdom in its fullness. Or as theologian Oliver O’Donovan puts it:
Creation and redemption each has its ontological and its epistemological aspect. There is the created order and there is natural knowledge; there is the new creation and there is revelation in Christ. This has encouraged a confusion of the ontological and epistemological in much modern theology, so that we are constantly presented with the unacceptable polarized choice between an ethic that is revealed and has no ontological grounding and an ethic that is based on creation and so is naturally known. This polarization deprives redemption and revelation of their proper theological meaning as the divine reaffirmation of created order. If, on the other hand, it is the gospel of the resurrection that assures us of the stability and permanence of the world which God has made, then neither of the polarized options is right. In the sphere of revelation, we will conclude, and only there, can we see the natural order as it really is and overcome the epistemological barriers to an ethic that conforms to nature. This nature involves all men, and indeed … does not exclude a certain “natural knowledge” which is also part of man’s created endowment. And yet only in Christ do we apprehend that order in which we stand and that knowledge of it with which we have been endowed.2
I believe that this way of stating things may alleviate some of Littlejohn’s concerns about “transformationalism” (53). Our goal is not to “redeem culture” or “build the kingdom;” however, we should seek to ground our notions of liberty, prudence, and nature in what God has revealed to us through his Word.
I am grateful for the work that Littlejohn has done in seeking to apply historic Christian wisdom to modern concerns. There are indeed many important questions that his book raises, and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future. As we strive to navigate the difficult landscape of a post-Christian culture, we will benefit greatly by mining the depths of our rich Protestant heritage. In this respect, Littlejohn’s work is certainly a step in the right direction, and I am confident that continued dialogue will bring about greater clarity and mutual understanding on these issues.
Rev. Kyle A. Dillon is assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA), a theology teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee, and editor-in-chief of Allkirk Network (allkirk.net). He possesses a Master of Divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis (2013), Bachelors of Arts degrees in History and French from Seattle Pacific University (2003), and Associates of Arts degree in Modern Standard Arabic from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California (2006). His interests include Christian apologetics, science/faith, and linguistics.
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- Lewis, Christian Reflections (Eerdmans, 2014), 41. For a fuller treatment of “two cities” as an alternative to “two kingdoms,” see Robert Crouse, Two Kingdoms & Two Cities: Mapping Theological Traditions of Church, Culture, and Civil Order (Fortress, 2017); Branson Parler, “Two Cities or Two Kingdoms: The Importance of the Ultimate in Reformed Social Thought,” in Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective, ed. Ryan McIlhenny (P&R, 2012); and James K.A. Smith, “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?” in Calvin Theological Journal 47 (2012): 122-137.
- Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 1994), 19-20.