Skip to main content

Special book offer for donors on Giving Tuesday. Learn More 👉

Political Modesty, for Better and Worse

June 16th, 2020 | 12 min read

By Lance Kinzer

Confessional Reformed Protestants are a tiny sliver of the broader Christian community. Still, when it comes to intellectual heft we like to think we punch above our weight. While this may not always be true, David VanDrunen’s decade-long effort to explicate a covenantally grounded, natural law-based public theology could be exhibit one in any effort to make that case.

Beginning in 2010 with Natural Law And The Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (NLTK), VanDrunen has meticulously laid out the evidence for a specifically Reformed understanding of natural law predicate to a two kingdoms framework for social engagement. This project is postured as one of recovery. VanDrunen sees a clearly articulated, but unevenly applied, doctrine of natural law and the two kingdoms in the mainstream of the first four hundred years of Reformed thinking.

While this history is contested, VanDrunen’s analysis in NLTK led him to a series of important questions that have directed his ongoing work. Does Christ fulfill different mediatorial roles in relation to creation and redemption? Can the two kingdoms doctrine operate in continuity with a Kuyperian understanding of common grace and the Noahic covenant? What biblical antecedents most closely parallel the current post-resurrection role of the state? Does the two kingdoms framework introduce a harmful dualism that undercuts living a holistically Christian life? Under this framework how does the Church navigate the line drawing problem of determining what matters are outside of its spiritual jurisdiction?

While it was historical theology that produced these questions, VanDrunen next turned to biblical theology in an effort to suggest some answers. His 2014 book Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural (DCMO) is in many ways his most compelling work. While Geerhardus Vos only receives one direct mention in DCMO his “deeper Protestant conception” suffuses the work. For Vos, the core of religion itself hinges on what it means for man to have been created as eschatologically oriented image bearers whose fellowship with God is part and parcel to our deepest creational identity, apart from any donum superadditum. VanDrunen develops this insight with a view toward understanding its implications for an explicitly Protestant natural theology, especially in relation to the themes of love and justice. Early in DCMO he states his conclusion on this point in this way, “… in the covenant of creation, according to the moral obligation inherent in the protological image of God, natural law prescribed a love that was bountiful and generous but not merciful and forgiving, precisely because this natural law also proscribed an exacting retributive justice.”

For VanDrunen this forms a kind of natural law in seed form, which we must now read as it is refracted through the cataclysmic effects of the fall. The interpretive key that allows this to occur, and that sets the context for all his theological reflection on the natural law moving forward, is the Noahic covenant. Established as a covenant with all of creation it is tethered to, but distinct from, God’s redemptive work in Christ though the covenant of grace. It lends modest but meaningful ethical substance to a common grace regime that serves to preserve the stage on which God carries out his great redemptive drama.

DCMO closes with VanDrunen asking, “What has the Noahic covenant done if not create a common social space in which God commissions the human race at large to procreate, eating, enforcing justice, and other responsibilities under the natural moral order? This covenant governs an age that is temporary and passing… It must be distinguished from the eschatological heavenly kingdom … inchoately manifest today in the church as a ‘holy nation’. This idea of a penultimate or finite secularity should be of great value to Christians.”

In his latest book, Politics After Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World (PAC), VanDrunen engages with a myriad of practical implications that flow from his historical and biblical theology. He sets out to demonstrate why and how Christians should value and exercise their common citizenship with non-Christians in various political communities (broadly construed) of penultimate finite secularity. PAC is divided into two parts, first covering political theology and then political ethics. Part I summarizes, and in many places sharpens, VanDrunen’s prior work by engaging very directly with how Christians are to understand the divinely ordained structure and limits of common social space.

Critical to VanDrunen’s perspective is the conviction that the two kingdoms in which Christians are citizens are grounded in two covenants. This distinctly Reformed articulation of the two kingdoms doctrine provides a sharper boundary than theories based on the variance between Christ’s direct rule over a “spiritual kingdom” and indirect rule over a “civil kingdom.” VanDrunen firmly holds that God rules both a “common kingdom” and a “redemptive kingdom”; and that as such both are legitimate and neither are morally neutral. But by stressing the divergent covenantal basis for these two kingdoms, he adds a stronger note of provisionality than various other Christian approaches to defining the theological import of political community.

For VanDrunen political institutions grounded in the Noahic Covenant are legitimate, provisional, common, and accountable. These four concepts are intended to frame Christian engagement with society in a way that retains theocentric depth, while remaining intelligible to the broader pluralistic community. A particular strength of this approach is that it allows VanDrunen to directly confront the common critique that the two kingdoms doctrine works logically, but not exegetically. His covenantally grounded social thought remains fully consonant with the “already” aspect of the “already not yet” element in the biblical narrative. But it does so without giving way to triumphalism.

I was first drawn to VanDrunen’s work a decade ago along these very lines. Serving as a state legislator at the time, I simply found the lenses he provided for reflecting on my work to be of greater practical use than various others I had tried on before. In the real day to day world of political engagement, VanDrunen’s vision bore a much greater correspondence to practical reality than the various neocalvinist-influenced approaches with which I was familiar.

In this regard VanDrunen’s two kingdoms perspective benefits from being consonant with certain invaluable Burkean insights. Like the fact that,

To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greatest part of mankind… Yet as all times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself in distinguishing that complaint which only characterizes the general infirmity of human nature, from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season.

Sensitivity to the role of practical wisdom in apprehending and applying the natural law to particular circumstances marks Part I of PAC with its strong emphasis on hubris as the greatest political sin. For VanDrunen growth in wisdom is communal, and “… maturing in wisdom is essentially the same thing as coming to know and practice the natural law.”

Because the natural law is not a discrete list of rules, VanDrunen encourages us to think about it as something like a version of the common law. While he does not reference the work of James Stoner, my sense is that VanDrunen has in view an approach consonant with Stoner’s understanding that:

The common law approach to politics involves the citizen or legislator conceiving his task as judge or advocate within a legal frame: viewing each controversy as a matter, not for free invention or for fresh deduction from first principles, but for judicious choice, with attention to precedent always in order but authoritative solutions always elusive.

The common law proceeds by reason, but by reason that collects and judges particulars – by a sort of Aristotelian practical reason – rather than by reason in the modern, Enlightenment, analytic sense – the reason that breaks apart and reassembles. It stresses continuity rather than novelty, though it demands some reason greater than custom alone, for by common law, unreasonable customs have no legal force.

Applying a common law methodology to the modest ethical precepts of the Noahic covenant provides VanDrunen with the framework through which he considers political ethics in Part II of PAC. He begins by disclaiming any desire to set forth the Christian view on public policy questions. Rather, he hopes to use the Noahic covenant as a baseline for Christian reflection on legal and political theory. For VanDrunen the close correspondence between the Noahic covenant and natural law explains “why Christians often find themselves able to collaborate and make alliances with non-Christians in the public square.”

Early on in Part II VanDrunen addresses the fraught question of the basis for a shared understanding of the common good in pluralistic political communities. Every society has the need for “some loadstar by which it orders its life together through customs and laws.” In principle, the Church is a radically pluralistic community (Col 3:11), whose differences are “subsumed in an eschatological unity.” Our shared life in Christ now, and the hoped for beatific vision, create a thick conception of the common good.

“The peaceful coexistence of a political community, in contrast, cannot anticipate this eschatological harmony.” Instead, for VanDrunen such communities must be satisfied with a substantively thin conception of the common good, focused on peaceful coexistence. Exactly how thin becomes clear as he works his way through topics like family, commerce, justice and rights. In a telling aside he notes, “To put it frankly, a robustly pluralistic society and a legislatively aggressive government are an uncomfortable, and perhaps even impossible, combination.” While I am deeply sympathetic to this perspective, it is also the point at which VanDrunen’s analysis is most open to critique.

This fundamentally libertarian instinct strikes me as permissible under, but not required by, VanDrunen’s own description of natural law and the Noahic covenant. It leads VanDrunen to contend that the Noahic mandate to fill the world is contrary to the localism of a Wendell Berry, and commensurate with the kind of “technological advance and economic growth” found in a robust international economy. It also leads him to persuasively defend the integrity of the family and especially the parental bond as largely inviolable.

But it offers little by way of any affirmative role for government to strengthen the “monogamous, heterosexual, and permanent” marriages he finds so important to a well-functioning social order. On VanDrunen’s reading the Noahic covenant establishes a strong basis for a negative right to be left alone, but no “coherent and useful” basis for positive rights.

VanDrunen reaches these conclusions through thoughtful argument and states them with significantly more nuance than space here allows. But each instance cited above, reflects a tendency to view a minimalistic reading of the Noahic ethic as a ceiling on legitimate government action. In part this may reflect his fundamentally optimist take on the condition of Noahic institutions. While acknowledging troubling counter examples, especially in the area of sexual ethics, VanDrunen is highly skeptical of declinist narratives. As noted at one point, he finds something, “perplexing about many Western Christians becoming so distraught about the state of Noahic institutions, when in many respects, they have never been in better shape.”

Not giving way to counsels of despair is sound advice, but in this case it may serve to mask the extent to which even coalescing around a minimalistic Noahic ethic may require a reorientation of core cultural institutions. Some who are more skeptical about the health of our institutions than VanDrunen might still agree with his deeply restricted role for the state on prudential grounds. But, others might reasonably conclude that more vigorous state action, at least at the pedagogic level, is a prerequisite to needed reform. My point is merely to suggest that the Noahic covenant itself may not provide the resources necessary to make such choices distinct from a careful consideration of particular circumstances.

In a chapter on customs and laws, VanDrunen points to some of these very resources. His polycentric view of the law has a strong resonance of Orestes Brownson’s “unwritten constitution”; those peculiar customs, dispositions, and talents that undergird any society. As VanDrunen puts it, “The Noahic covenant itself does not establish civil government but entrusts the formation of law and administration of justice to an experimental, collaborative, organic, and consensual process of developing institutions and authority structures.” This would seem, appropriately in my view, to leave significant leeway for societies to develop along rather divergent lines, tethered only to the need to preserve the basic Noahic ethic as a mark of legitimacy.

But VanDrunen is hesitant to grant that this is the case, at least when it comes to government action designed, “to make members of its community better people.” He deems such “perfectionist functions” an “uncomfortable fit” with the Noahic covenant. So much so that he questions whether laws that are regularly ignored and inconsistently enforced, like prohibitions on prostitution, gambling and narcotics can properly be considered law at all. While in no way suggesting the slightest approbation for such things (far from it), VanDrunen’s libertarian instincts lead him away from the view that these prohibitions themselves might represent an organic expression of a given society’s values, commensurate with the Noahic covenant’s ethic of preservation of a protological moral order.

In short, VanDrunen makes a strong historical, logical and exegetical case for the Noahic covenant as the basis for a common grace kingdom where we operate on equal footing with Christians and non-Christians alike. In this kingdom, we use the natural law, accessible to us all as image bearers and apprehended through the slow development of communal wisdom, as the basis for achieving the modest goals of the common grace kingdom, a tolerable social order. It is this basic vision that forms the core of VanDrunen’s work, and that makes him one of the most important and helpful contemporary thinkers on political theology.

Where VanDrunen is less persuasive is when he shifts from the Noahic covenant as the lens through which to view political theology generally. And instead uses a thin Noahic ethic as a limiting principle for state action. Of course, one great service Christians can offer in the common grace kingdom is to remind our fellow citizens of the limits of political power. In the regard the anti-utopianism of VanDrunen’s project is wholly salutary.

But there are many possible flavors of anti-utopian politics that can develop collaboratively, organically, and consensually to produce institutions and authority structures proper to the particularized needs of a given people, in a given place and time. While VanDrunen does not deny this, it is hard not to conclude that he has drawn too close a correspondence between the Noahic ethic and a libertarian political vision.

One key advantage to VanDruen’s approach is that it avoids the bravado that often marks more transformationalist brands of political theology, and that, somewhat ironically, often lead to disillusionment and despair. Anyone who has engaged in the grind of grassroots political work will be well acquainted with the enthusiastic activist convinced that electing a particular candidate or passing a certain bill is going to usher in a just and discernibly Christian society.

Over time, these well-intentioned folks tend to gravitate toward the political fringe, or to abandon politics altogether. There are of course resources within various transformationalist schools of thought to mitigate against this result. But VanDrunen’s two-kingdoms approach, offers a distinctly powerful and well-grounded basis for responsible political engagement over the long haul. For that all Christians who labor in the varied aspects of the common grace kingdom should be grateful to VanDrunen for his careful and thoughtful work.

Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.

Personal Info

Donation Total: $0