By Simon Kennedy and Ben Saunders
The church in the West is facing a significant cultural crisis. Aggressive secularisation and rapidly declining religious influence combine to bring a sense of despair in the Christian’s relationship with society. In the United States, where the great liberal experiment is seemingly crumbling under its own internal contradictions, Christians hailed as a mighty deliverance from God the entrustment of the presidency to Donald Trump. Typically marked out as “values” voters, it is striking that this new President did not share their moral convictions, and most would not want to leave their daughters alone with him. The lauding of Trump is surely one indicator of a collapse of moral and theological imagination on the part of American Christianity.1
This cultural crisis, of which this collapse is but one symptom, calls for a theological response. How to navigate the challenges of church and state, Christ and culture, and how to be a “faithful presence” in a hostile world, are close to the most pressing questions now facing Christians. They prompt the search for foundational principles, both descriptive and normative, to help Christians navigate these challenges. It is the task of political theology to provide some of those principles. There is no shortage of attempts to do this: political theology is a flourishing enterprise in the Christian academy and publishing industry, with a growing body of literature proposing schemas which will solve all the problems with contemporary Christian engagement with culture.
Not withstanding the many valid insights contained in this literature, we argue that there is a significant problem with many expressions of political theology today. We think that many of the options on the contemporary Reformed menu, in particular, are found somewhat wanting, a bit like mid-strength beer or English cuisine.2 They are not especially satisfactory.
Taking Two Kingdoms theology as our exemplar, we argue that the fundamental problem is the tendency to propose neat schemas. That is, while the various approaches are based on correct insights, those insights are absolutized and erected into a normative filter through which scripture is interpreted. Presenting tidy, pre-packaged solutions to today’s problems is an attractive prospect to Christians in search of answers. But it is precisely this quality wherein the approaches fall short.
We will take for our main case study the two variants of the two kingdoms idea that have recently been propounded, as they provide a good opportunity to illustrate some broader issues in Reformed political theology. Indeed, what we diagnose as a problem is also exemplified in other positions, such as Kuyperian political theology, Reformed branches of “Radical Orthodoxy”, and the functional Anabaptists within the Reformed camp. Thus, what we diagnose here is not merely “another critique of 2K”, but a critique of prevalent trends in political theology as exemplified by recent articulations of the two kingdoms paradigm.
Reformed Two Kingdoms View
The faculty of Westminster Seminary, California, and especially David VanDrunen, are well known for promoting the Reformed two kingdoms (R2K) view. The key insight of this view is that it is to the church, and not any other institution, that Christ committed the ministry of the Word and sacraments. There is thus a close relationship between the institutional church and the kingdom of Christ; indeed, proponents of R2K are fond of speaking of the church as the institutional manifestation of Christ’s kingdom.3 As the primary site of Christ’s saving work, the church is foundational for believers. The church is not a place to “refuel” in order to face the challenges of life, but rather the principal focus of their spiritual life.
Another key commitment of the R2K view is to resist a transformative model of Christian cultural engagement. Drawing a distinction between the “common kingdom” and “redemptive kingdom”, we should not expect the gospel to transform cultural activities, and it is not the role of Christians to transform society. Rather, transformation, or redemption, is something that takes place in the redemptive kingdom, worked in the lives of believers who are connected to the heavenly kingdom through the institutional church.
Although enormous controversy has attended the propagation the R2K view, it is difficult to deny the validity of its core insight. After all, Christ himself expressly indicated a close relationship between the kingdom and the church:
“I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt 16:18–19).
There is thus a connection, an association, a bond, between the kingdom and the church which cannot be postulated of any other earthly entity: wherever the kingdom exists, there the church will be also. While governments, chess clubs and Kuyperian research institutes will come and go, the church as an institution will never cease to exist. Describing the church as the institutional manifestation of the kingdom may be nothing more than the standard Reformed insistence on the necessity and importance of the church, an emphasis readily seen in Calvin and others.4
There is, then, much value in the R2K approach. But it is subject to some key weaknesses. In our view, the primary problem is that it absolutizes its core insight, namely that the church alone is the institutional manifestation of the kingdom, and erects this principle into a normative filter through which scripture is evaluated. This has the result of creating too strict a separation between the kingdoms – namely, a “spiritual kingdom” regulated by scripture and a “temporal kingdom” regulated by natural law.
R2K’s tendency to provide ready-made answers to the problems of political theology is well known. How do we determine the legitimate scope of scriptural teaching? We assign it purely to the “spiritual kingdom”, dealing with matters of salvation and morality. Thus, the political, social and economic impact of scripture is blunted – even precluded – by an a priori filter which denies its applicability in the temporal realm, or at least is very unwilling for scripture to have concrete application in that realm. There is no necessity for a two kingdoms approach to do this, and the best of R2K avoids doing so.5 Nevertheless, this is the definite trend among R2K advocates, and some explicitly draw this conclusion.6
Another tendency is to identify the spiritual and temporal kingdoms with the church and the state, thus mapping the two kingdoms onto their institutional manifestations. On this approach, the two kingdoms are understood in sociological terms, and, to quote James K. A. Smith, they are “spatialized,” and conceived of in terms of territory and jurisdiction.7 This unhelpfully lends itself to a strict demarcation of the activities of the church, which goes beyond what is actually mandated by scripture.
Consider this illustration. According to the R2K schema, the legitimate activities of the “spiritual kingdom” are exclusively spiritual activities, namely corporate worship and ministry; anything else pertains to the common kingdom. Accordingly, for the church to be involved in soup kitchens and anti-abortion activism would be an illegitimate intrusion of the church into the affairs of the common kingdom. Implicit in this stance is the understanding that the only legitimate form of ministry is that which takes place within the four walls of the institutional church.8
This is a “spatialized” understanding of the church’s mission—as one critic aptly asked, to which kingdom does the seminary belong?9 And what about the family? It is true, of course, that corporate worship and disciple-making are the primary tasks of the institutional church. But under R2K a valid truth has been hardened into a prescriptive rule which would be difficult to sustain scripturally and logically.
There are further issues which defy neat categorisation under the R2K approach. To take a mundane example, when a minister is engaged by a church, he would do so for human purposes as an employee, subject to an employment contract. The terms and conditions of that employment would incorporate many standard features of typical employment contracts. These are common kingdom, natural law matters. Christ governs his church, to be sure. But the tentacles of the State reach (legitimately) into many aspects of its government.
It is therefore difficult to apply the neat-and-tidy schema of R2K consistently.10 R2K has some true insights, but when used a normative filter through which the scriptures are interpreted and human actions are assessed, it becomes a liability.
Hooker’s Two Kingdoms View
Brad Littlejohn has recently proposed a competing interpretation of the two kingdoms based on the work of Richard Hooker.11 If Puritanism is the nagging suspicion that someone, somewhere is having fun, Hookerianism is the nagging concern that someone, somewhere, is relying on the Bible to ground a prescriptive principle of church government or worship.
Littlejohn argues that Protestant political theology should be built on the edifice of Hooker’s approach to the two kingdoms, which was forged in the crucible controversy with the 16th century precisianists. Hooker was deeply concerned to defend the Church of England against charges of being unscriptural in its worship and polity.
Hooker and Littlejohn posit two kingdoms. But those kingdoms are very different from those of the R2K proponents. For Hooker, the spiritual kingdom is the internal forum, the union of the believer to Christ through justification, and the forum of conscience over which Christ himself exclusively rules. The external forum is everything else, whether civil law, the institutional church – and even theological seminaries – which Christ also rules but through mediators such as government bureaucrats and church officers.
The key insight here is that there is no earthly intermediary between the believer and God. As something to which Christ himself has exclusive and direct claim to, no human authority can presume to mediate any aspect of the believer’s relationship with Christ. This – which is essentially Martin Luther’s key insight in his 1520 tract The Freedom of a Christian – is a foundational aspect of Reformation theology.
The upshot of this articulation of the two kingdoms is that everything aside from the Christian’s relationship with Christ is in the realm of “law”, and is fair game for priest, pope, presbyter or magistrate. While this seems to preserve a remarkably narrow freedom from human interference, Littlejohn argues in The Peril and Promise (and has defended again on this website) that this is not a problem. Why? Because the believer’s inner freedom willingly expresses itself in outward bondage, including willing compliance with laws imposed by human authorities, given that those laws cannot touch the believer’s status before Christ.
As with the core insight of its main R2K rival, the validity of this core insight is difficult to deny. And the problem is similar to the problem with its main R2K rival: namely, it absolutizes a correct insight. It may readily be admitted that no human can mediate God’s rule over the conscience. But there are many other key principles relevant to a coherent political theology – why should this insight be the cardinal doctrine?
Further, if this becomes the key insight off which all others hang it leads to undesirable results. For instance, under the Hookerian schema the church and the state are both in the realm of externals and have more in common than that which distinguishes them. This, we think, is totally unsatisfactory. On whatever view of the two kingdoms you take, the church and the state have very different purposes and goals, different methods and weapons, different offices and officers. They have different “jurisdiction” and are “regulated” in different ways. Assigning both church and state to the external kingdom obscures these differences. Perhaps more significantly, articulating these distinctions, which are flattened in the Hookerian view, would seem to be just as foundational to the task of political theology as the internal/external distinction. It is not thus clear why a distinction between internal and external ought to be one of the architectonic principles of political theology.
A final, and perhaps more significant, result of the schematising approach is that it aids little in relation to the real challenges facing Christian life in a hostile world. The contrast between the “inner” and the “outer”, at best, solves some intra-ecclesiastical squabbles. The unbiblical biblicist prescriptions of a Mark Driscoll or the “Christian courtship” movement can be easily ignored. The magistrate’s blade, however, is not so easily deflected.12
Is the material threat to Christian liberty today whether I should kiss dating goodbye? Whether we should have contemporary or old-fashioned music in worship? We doubt it. Hooker’s two kingdoms are useful for steering a course through such issues, to be sure. But it is predicated on a shared understanding of a Christian society where all agree on the basic moral principles but disagree on adiaphora. This situation does not hold today, in the post-Christian west.
We would diagnose the real threats to liberty today rather differently: namely, the dominance of an illiberal tolerance in our public discourse and the suppression of unwelcome views. Questions of adiaphora pale into insignificance compared to the threat of an aggressive secular liberalism which no longer recognises a sphere for private conscience and does not allow for public expression of religious belief. Just because something does not pertain to salvation does not mean that the conscience is not being tyrannised.
The problem with the Hookerian approach is one both of diagnosis and prescription. And it is this schema that causes both problems.
The upshot of this is that we would do better to abandon our squabbles about which of our pet doctrines is the “key” or “foundational” principle for political theology. Oftentimes these doctrines seem arbitrarily pulled from the theologian’s armoury and given a pride of place which is not necessarily warranted. Why build an entire political theological edifice on a distinction between “internal” and “external”? Or on “common kingdom” and “spiritual kingdom”?
This is not to suggest that we should just paper over the areas of disagreement. But erecting our favoured doctrines into absolutized edifices which leave no room for the valid insights contributed by other approaches seems about as baffling a modern-day recapitulation of 1 Corinthians 1:12 as can be imagined.
Can we affirm both that there is a connection between the kingdom and the church which cannot be postulated of any other earthly entity, and that there is no earthly intermediary between the believer and God? Of course, we can. Could we also affirm with the Neocalvinist that conversion transforms our worldview and beliefs, a radical change which permeates every facet of our lives? There is no sensible reason why a coherent political theology could not hold on to all of these truths simultaneously, other than the fact that they emanate from another bunker, and therefore it becomes our Reformed duty to mutilate them as much as possible.13 But if our loyalty to our political-theological doctrines gets in the way of our ability to clearly accept clearly taught biblical truth, there is a problem with those doctrines. (Or with us).
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind that the abstractions of political theology can rarely, if ever, deliver concrete guidance for action. Whichever bunker we belong to, the specifics of concrete action need to be worked out in the trenches of real problems, and often, proponents of warring camps, given half a chance, will come to the same conclusion about a particular issue. These political theologies are best seen as a starting point rather than the conclusion. To quote Jamie Smith again, they cultivate a “posture” rather than a policy position. When it comes to application and to policy, those in the Reformed wing are likely to have a great deal more in common than we may at first admit.
Enjoy the article? Pay the writer.
Benjamin B. Saunders is a Senior Lecturer at Deakin Law School, Deakin University. Simon P. Kennedy is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. Both are members of North Geelong Presbyterian Church, Victoria, Australia. Their review essay on recent books on two kingdoms theology is to be published in the April 2018 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal.
- An interesting discussion is found at http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/a-calvinist-take-on-why-evangelicals-support-donald-trump-jonathan-cole.
- The latter has been aptly described as consisting of “hygienically processed and synthetically flavoured food-stuffs”: Elizabeth David, An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (London, 2009), 134.
- Eg David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010), 102–3.
- E.g. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.1–4.1.4.
- See, eg, Matthew J. Tuininga, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church: Christ’s Two Kingdoms (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
- Darryl Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (Ivan R Dee, 2006).
- James K. A. Smith, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Baker Academic, 2017), 19.
- See, eg, https://heidelblog.net/2013/06/ministers-all/.
- Ryan McIlhenny, ‘A Third-way Reformed Approach to Christ and Culture: Appropriating Kuyperian Neo-Calvinism and the Two Kingdoms Perspective,’ Mid-America Theological Journal, vol. 20, 2009, 87. Cf. Steven Wedgeworth, ‘To Which Kingdom Does Westminster Seminary Belong?,’ https://calvinistinternational.com/2012/04/09/to-which-kingdom-does-westminster-seminary-belong/
- See Douglas Wilson, ‘Amending the Constitution to Mention Noah,’ https://dougwils.com/s7-engaging-the-culture/amending-the-constitution-to-mention-noah.html.
- The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans, 2017).
- The only examples cited by Littlejohn in The Peril and Promise.
- To paraphrase the incomparable prose of Alfred Deakin: ‘And Be One People’: Alfred Deakin’s Federal Story (Melbourne University Press, 1995), 41.