Ordained Servant Online

Education, Natural Law, and the Two Kingdoms

Gregory E. Reynolds

Several readers of OSO have expressed strong disagreement with David Noe’s article in the April issue: “Is There Such a Thing as Christian Education?” While it is never my intention to stir up controversy, I do like to stimulate discussion on important issues. Natural law and the two kingdom doctrines are, to my mind, just such issues. Why is it that these ideas raise red flags? I think it is at least partly because these ideas are being re-introduced into Reformed circles, but are new to many of us, at least here in America, because for over a century Neo-Calvinism and more recently various forms of worldview transformationism have ruled the day.

As Benjamin Miller, in his exchange with David Noe, points out, the thinking reflected in Noe’s original article is outside the mainstream of OPC thinking on the subject of Christ and culture generally and education in particular. This does not, of course, mean that these doctrines are necessarily unorthodox, just not the received wisdom on these topics within our circles over the past century or so. Because of this, I can understand how Noe’s article could be both upsetting and misunderstood. This is why Noe’s clarification in response to Miller’s critique is important.

As the editor of OSO my intention in publishing David Noe’s article was to provide a case in point based on David VanDrunen’s general, more programmatic article on natural law and his latest book, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture.[1] This does not mean I necessarily agree with every point in either article or the book. It does mean that I believe that this is an area where we need to rethink some conventional wisdom. Personally, I have found natural law and the two kingdoms, in its essential formulations in the post-Reformation and VanDrunen’s restatement, liberating in a number of ways. First, it has helped me to appreciate God’s common grace gifts to unbelievers. Second, it has therefore motivated me to engage more modestly with them in arenas of common concern, interest, and enjoyment. Third, and consequently, it has given me more opportunity for evangelism. Fourth, it has enabled me to more fully explore and appreciate God’s common grace cultural gifts. This has in no way dulled my sense of the antithesis or my zeal to spread the gospel.

Perhaps past abuses, among the American Reformed, of the idea that “all truth is God’s truth,” make some of us gun-shy about exploring and assessing a Reformed articulation of natural law and the two kingdoms. This is not to say that there is a uniform position on these doctrines in Reformed historical theology, nor is it to say that VanDrunen’s articulation of these doctrines is entirely without some innovations. The latter would have to be the case, since we live in a very different context from past generations of theological reflection on these doctrines. The range of Reformed thinking on Christ and culture issues in general and education in particular should alert us to the fact that lengthy comprehensive discussion and even principled disagreement is warranted.

While in general I believe there is a Christian perspective on everything, in particular I believe that each area of activity or discipline in human life, outside of special revelation and the church, has its own natural God-given laws perceived through general revelation, which are no less under God’s sovereign control, just not so through special revelation and the church. Not only so, but as David VanDrunen shows in his section on education in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms,

Each field of learning explores some aspect of the created order, and thus the very first thing taught in Scripture, that God has created all things, pertains generally to all academic inquiry. God’s upholding the natural order (Genesis 8:21–22) underlies mathematics and the natural sciences, his upholding the social order (Genesis 9:1–7) underlies the social sciences, and the twin facts of human sinfulness and image-bearing (Genesis 1:26–27; 3:16–19; 9:6) underlie the humanities.

These considerations suggest the conclusion that Scripture says crucial things about the big picture of all the academic disciplines, while it is silent about nearly all the narrower, technical details of these disciplines (except theology). (I recognize that this can only be a general rule and that it will not always be clear where to draw the line between the big picture and the technical details.) Scripture teaches that God upholds the order of nature, but it does not explain trigonometry or how to play the oboe. Only examination and experimentation with the natural order itself can yield such knowledge.[2]

So, everything is under God’s sovereign control and the Christian views everything through the lens of Scripture, recognizing God’s common grace, based on the Noahic covenant, and the ways in which sinful human beings exercise their God-given talents for good or ill.

Belief in common grace, natural law, and the common kingdom does not, as I asserted above, in any way dull the antithesis, which Cornelius Van Til so robustly articulated. The antithesis is always in force for the Christian by virtue of his being in covenant with God. We are called to be loyal to King Jesus as his ambassadors in this world, which is his world, and will one day be reclaimed in its fullness in the new heaven and the new earth. Meanwhile we are pilgrim witnesses of the gospel. “We desire to make the common kingdom better when we can, but we should not try to ‘transform’ it into something other than the common kingdom.”[3]

With that in mind we must beware of failing to engage fully in the study of a given discipline in terms of its own God-given, common grace, integrity. I must understand Kant before I can critique him. As a believer I am called to be faithful in every area of life. The two kingdom and natural law doctrines, as far as I understand them, do not compromise this. Nor do they compromise my commitment to the antithesis as it informs the difference between the interpretive worldviews of believers and unbelievers.

As I have alluded to above, there is a danger in Christian worldview thinking that we not appreciate the contributions that unbelievers make to common culture. We can easily fall into a kind of worldview separatism, which along with impoverishing us culturally, closes doors for evangelism. As VanDrunen asserts, “Understanding how to interact with and learn from unbelievers is an important part of living in this world.”[4]

Calvin had some sagacious things to say on the topic of our need to appreciate the gifts of unbelievers in common culture,

Hence, with good reason we are compelled to confess that its beginning is inborn in human nature. Therefore this evidence clearly testifies to a universal apprehension of reason and understanding by nature implanted in men. Yet so universal is this good that every man ought to recognize for himself in it the peculiar grace of God. The Creator of nature himself abundantly arouses this gratitude in us when he creates imbeciles. Through them he shows the endowments that the human soul would enjoy unpervaded by his light, a light so natural to all that it is certainly a free gift of his beneficence to each! Now the discovery or systematic transmission of the arts, or the inner and more excellent knowledge of them, which is characteristic of few, is not a sufficient proof of common discernment. Yet because it is bestowed indiscriminately upon pious and impious, it is rightly counted among natural gifts.

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts. Those men whom Scripture [I Cor. 2:14] calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.[5]

When it comes to our use of “Christian” as a modifier of nouns, I believe that Christian education in its narrowest definition is precisely what the visible church is called to do: teach the whole counsel of God. But I also believe that there is value in Christian primary, secondary, and higher education, although the fact that it is provided by Christians guarantees neither its academic excellence, nor its faithfulness to Scripture. But I do not believe that disciplines, apart from theology, are specifically “Christian” in any meaningful way that differentiates them from those disciplines taught in secular schools. As VanDrunen observes regarding claims of the uniqueness of “Christian scholarship”: “Most of their [Christian college professors Tim Morris and Don Petcher, authors of Science and Grace: God’s Reign in the Natural Sciences] applications are neither uniquely Christian nor even unique to the natural sciences.”[6] Similarly, VanDrunen observes that George Marsden’s four illustrations of “how faith bears on scholarship focus on big picture issues or motivation, and none on the actual technical practice of the disciplines themselves.”[7]

A further danger in using “Christian” to modify every area of life is the tendency of assuming that our view of what makes a given area Christian is the only way for Christians to properly understand it. So in education, other than in special revelation, it is easy to disregard the many means of educating, as well as many ways of understanding a particular discipline, that Christians may hold.

This is not to say that there is no value in a Christian teacher bringing the truth of special revelation to bear on the particulars of a discipline. This will, of course, vary from subject to subject. The Bible does not address mathematics in the detail that it addresses what constitutes a human being. Thus, studying Plato will offer more opportunities for discussing biblical anthropology. This in turn, however, does not obviate the necessity of thoroughly understanding Plato.

As I said two months ago in my introduction to the articles by David VanDrunen “Natural Law in Reformed Theology: Historical Reflections and Biblical Suggestions,” and David Noe, “Is There Such a Thing as Christian Education?” I believe Noe is simply applying what VanDrunen has been teaching about natural law and the two kingdoms.

While it is always important in our ecclesiastical debates to be concerned about the unity and peace of the church as well as its doctrinal and ethical purity, debates are an important aspect of the church militant’s life and witness here on earth. Recent topics of intense discussion, such as justification, union with Christ, the nature of the covenants, and natural law and the two kingdoms, have forced us to open our Bibles, confessional standards, and theologies as we seek understanding and consensus within our confessional boundaries. Debate also forces us to consult the ancient church fathers and the Reformers. But most illuminating to me in recent years has been our renewed interest in post-Reformation theologians. The continuity between the magisterial Reformers and these post-Reformation theologians has, until recently, been vastly underestimated. This, in turn, has lead to the rediscovery of a number of important doctrines, especially natural law and the two kingdoms.

It is important that we each take the time to prayerfully and humbly read what those we think we differ with have written. May our great God bless our conversation on these important topics.


[1] David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010), 166–72.

[2] Ibid., 175.

[3] Ibid., 170.

[4] Ibid., 186.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 2.2.14–15, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:272–74.

[6] VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 182.

[7] Ibid.

Ordained Servant Online, June-July 2012.

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