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Ryan Mcllhenny’s Kingdoms Apart (Part 1): Stirring the Waters

December 11th, 2012 | 7 min read

By Guest Writer

I am really pleased to welcome (again) Matthew Tuininga to Mere-O.  A Ph.D. candidate at Emory University, Matthew is one of the sharpest young Christian voices working at the intersection of religion and politics.  I commend his blog to you highly.  – MLA

The dust jacket of Ryan McIlhenny’s new book Kingdoms Apart declares that the book “focuses on the two competing positions rooted in the Reformed tradition: neo-Calvinism, a nineteenth-century school of thought associated with the Calvinist polymath Abraham Kuyper, and the Two Kingdoms perspective.” I’m not sure who wrote this description but in many ways it is misleading, if for no other reason than that one of the main things I take away from the book is that there are not “two competing positions” rooted in the Reformed tradition. Not only do the perspectives of the authors range from a moderate Kuyperianism to a more radical form of neo-Calvinism, and not only does the book clearly argue that John Calvin’s two kingdoms perspective should be distinguished from the proponents of “the” Two Kingdoms perspective being disputed in the book, but many of the book’s authors either acknowledge or implicitly demonstrate their own reliance on a version of the two kingdoms paradigm. In that sense the book’s subtitle on the front, “Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective,” is more accurate than the description on the back.

(Note: Throughout this essay I capitalize Two Kingdoms when referring to the particular perspective the authors are engaging, which they associate with David VanDrunen, Darryl Hart, Michael Horton, and Jason Stellman. When referring to broader two kingdoms thought such as that of John Calvin, I leave the term uncapitalized.)

The book begins with a forward by James Skillen and an introduction by Ryan McIlhenny, both of which defend a neo-Calvinist account of creation redeemed in response to the Two Kingdoms perspective. But McIlhenny’s defense is of a chastened and moderated neo-Calvinism, informed by McIlhenny’s own sympathies with two kingdoms logic. In the last chapter of the book, which he also writes, he defends not so much a model of Christian engagement transforming culture as he does a model of Christian witness as redeemed culture. I’ll return to McIlhenny’s argument below because I think it is probably the most helpful contribution of this book.

The second and third chapters of Kingdoms Apart are parallel accounts of the degree to which the most prominent Two Kingdoms advocate, David VanDrunen, accurately describes the two kingdoms doctrine of John Calvin. I am particularly interested in these chapters because John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine is the subject of my dissertation at Emory University. The first, by Cornel Venema, is the more polemical and critical of the two. Venema helpfully illuminates some of the different emphases between Calvin’s theology and that of VanDrunen, but his description of VanDrunen’s project appears in language VanDrunen never uses (i.e., an “ecclesiastical kingdom”; “two hermetically-sealed realms”) and that obscures the ambiguity and depth of VanDrunen’s project. Venema’s own reading of Calvin is somewhat thin at points (he portrays Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as largely an explanation in lieu of the Anabaptists of why Christians should submit to civil government) and perhaps a little too colored by Venema’s neo-Calvinist commitments, although Venema does make the helpful point that “Calvin suffered no illusions regarding the renovation of human life and the restoration of all things to proper order prior to the consummation of all things at Christ’s second advent” (31).

Gene Haas is also critical of VanDrunen’s account of Calvin on natural law and the two kingdoms, but Haas’s criticism is more about VanDrunen’s emphasis (i.e., he exaggerates the distinction between the two kingdoms as well as Calvin’s optimism about human knowledge of the natural law in civil matters) than it is about the substance of his argument. Haas’s own account of Calvin’s two kingdoms perspective is excellent, highlighting the close connections Calvin drew between the two kingdoms and the doctrine of the church, especially pertaining to the unique character of church discipline. Haas rightly portrays Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as an eschatological distinction between Christ’s spiritual kingdom, which appears fully only at Christ’s return, and the concerns of the present life (the political or civil kingdom); even as the institutional structures of this age (such as the civil jurisdiction) are to submit to Christ and his word, they should nevertheless not be confused with Christ’s spiritual kingdom. “Believers have the tension of living both for the eschatological realities of Christ’s return and for the social realities of a sinful world” (55).

I describe these chapters on Calvin at length because in some ways the greatest weakness of the book is that the authors largely avoid clarifying the relation of their theologies of creation and redemption to the broader two kingdoms theology articulated by figures like Calvin. This obscures the degree to which many of them maintain the reformer’s basic two kingdoms commitments, despite their criticism of the contemporary Two Kingdoms perspective.

There is no need for me to summarize every chapter of the book but I do want to highlight some significant arguments in a few chapters. Scott A. Swanson provides an illuminating discussion of the significance of the kingdom in the book of Revelation. Swanson stresses the “already but not yet” character of the kingdom’s coming and the Lord’s reign in Revelation, distancing himself from theologies that suggest that the church or Christians bring the kingdom, while at the same time emphasizing that the call on Christians is to testify to the reign of Christ in every area of life. “Revelation’s message should also warn us against any triumphalistic overconfidence in Christian cultural transformation in this world. Nor does it encourage us to see our cultural engagements as in themselves advancing Christ’s kingdom. They can and must aim to be expressions of our faithful witness to that kingdom… This must have its outworking in our cultural lives” (225). Revelation is clear that the new heavens and the new earth will only appear with Christ’s second coming. “It is thus significant that Revelation begins and ends not with calls to transform culture, but with warnings to heed the message of the book by being overcomers,” which Christians do through “faithful testimony and keeping God’s commandments” (226).

Nelson Kloosterman likewise stresses his sympathies with certain two kingdoms concerns, though he calls for a version of the doctrine that integrates creation and redemption in Christ. Kloosterman criticizes the triumphalism of some neo-Calvinists, thinking in particular of “rhetoric about Christians’ ‘extending’ the lordship of Jesus Christ; about Christians’ ‘redeeming’ or ‘renewing’ culture; about Christians’ ‘transforming’ culture for Christ; and the like,” rhetoric that “forms the substance of vision statements and advertising slogans for a number of Reformed, Presbyterian, and evangelical colleges in North America” (66). He offers Herman Bavinck and S. G. de Graaf as examples of the sort of integration for which he is looking. His translation of two lectures by de Graaf are particularly interesting, particularly in light of the context of the church’s resistance to Dutch Nazism as described by Kloosterman. But while de Graaf’s defense of Christ’s lordship over the nations and the authority of Scripture (properly understood) over politics is persuasive, his suggestion that Christ’s temporal kingdom includes both the state and the church’s ministry of word and Spirit, alongside his insistence that the eternal kingdom is manifested in the state as well as the church, hardly seems to be an improvement upon Calvin’s clearer two kingdoms distinction as articulated by Gene Haas.

If readers are expecting a monolithic defense of a simple neo-Calvinism the contributions of Branson Parler and Jason Lief should dispel this assumption. Parler appeals to Augustine’s two cities model and the Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder to offer a critique of the Two Kingdoms perspective that he identifies with David VanDrunen and Abraham Kuyper! His main critique of the latter is that they not only distinguish special and common grace, ultimate and penultimate ends, but that they separate them entirely, as if common grace and the penultimate could attain to their God-intended ends without reference to the ultimate. Parler helpfully defends an Augustinian account of creation and culture as oriented to the service of God, rightly pointing out that for Augustine using penultimate things without reference to the ultimate is the definition of idolatry. Yet he seems to exaggerate the extent to which the Two Kingdoms perspective is inherently incompatible with Augustine’s two cities framework. VanDrunen himself stresses that the antithesis runs through the common kingdom and that when not properly related towards God human beings cannot please him, even in their common kingdom activities.

The most radical version of neo-Calvinism advocated in the book is that of Jason Lief. Indeed, Lief’s account of the relation between creation, natural law, redemption, and eschatology hardly seems compatible with the positions taken by most of the other authors in the book. Grounding his argument in the work of Herman Dooyeweerd as well as Abraham Kuyper, Lief argues that while natural law and the moral order of creation does play a role in the Christian life, Christians should not understand these moral authorities in static terms. In sharp contrast to Calvin’s view (and that of the Reformed confessions) of the natural and moral law as timeless, Lief suggests that they need to be interpreted developmentally in terms of theirtelos and direction in Christ. Christians should not seek to live according to the order of a creation past (creation restored), but according to the destiny of that creation in the future (eschatological transformation).

Like Parler, Lief turns his sights on mainstream neo-Calvinism itself, complaining not only that the two kingdoms tension is built into standard neo-Calvinism, but that the two kingdoms insistence on the enduring authority of the created natural order plays a “conservative role” in Christian theology, functioning as a “a tool for maintaining a specific interpretation of anthropology and the social and cultural norms that humanity should fulfill” (244). Lief maintains, “As long as neo-Calvinism continues to insist on a doctrine of creation separate from Christology, the tension between common grace and antithesis, and thus the Two Kingdoms dilemma, remains” (239). Instead Christians should “seek to make moral sense of our lives by engaging the narratives and practices that inform our identity” (245). Through practical reasoning we seek not moral absolutes but to determine the relative superiority of one action over another, articulating our conception of the good through our understanding of “becoming,” “authenticity,” and “identity” in “the context of the lived world” (246).

There is no question that Lief’s version of neo-Calvinism is precisely the kind that most two kingdoms advocates (and indeed, many neo-Calvinists, as Lief admits) fear most. If classic Christian ethics appealed to nature and God’s moral law to condemn postlapsarian institutions of oppression like racial slavery, the eschatological ethics Lief describes are frequently used to seek transcendence over even created norms like gender and marriage. If there was ever a case for the two kingdoms distinction between creation and redemption as being vital to fidelity to Scripture Lief’s chapter is that case.

The first and last chapters of the book, however, by Ryan McIlhenny, articulate a much better model of Christian cultural engagement, a model in substantive continuity with a basic two kingdoms paradigm if perhaps not with that of “the Two Kingdoms perspective” engaged in this book. While I do not agree with McIlhenny on every point, I do find his overall perspective to be a helpful step forward.

To Be Continued Tomorrow