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What Exactly Is the Issue? A Response to Kingdoms Apart

David VanDrunen

Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective, edited by Ryan C. McIlhenny. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012, xl + 284 pages, $24.99, paper.

Kingdoms Apart is a collection of eleven essays from ten contributors. The book’s subtitle indicates that it will engage the “two kingdoms perspective” and the introductory essay by editor Ryan McIlhenny promises that it will do so “collegially” as it seeks “to defend ... the continued relevance of neo-Calvinism” (xvii). I should note up front that this review has an unusual first-person character. Kingdoms Apart treats me as the chief proponent of the two kingdoms perspective, citing me in every chapter and, in many chapters, interacting with my work at length. It references a few other authors as representatives of the two kingdoms, but only occasionally. So my review is more of a response.

Following an Introduction by the editor, Kingdoms Apart consists of three parts. Part 1, “Kingdom Reign and Rule,” includes two essays on John Calvin, by Cornel Venema and Gene Haas, and an essay on Herman Bavinck by Nelson Kloosterman. In Part 2, “Kingdom Citizenship,” readers first find two addresses by the late Dutch theologian S. G. de Graaf (introduced and translated by Kloosterman) and then essays on various topics by Timothy Scheuers, John Halsey Wood Jr., and Branson Parler. The book concludes with Part 3, “Kingdom Living,” consisting of chapters by Scott Swanson, Jason Lief, and McIlhenny. I believe it will be most helpful to consider first the chapters that are primarily historical in focus and then those that are primarily theoretical or constructive.

The Historical Essays

The first two history-focused chapters in Kingdoms Apart concern John Calvin, though they differ in tone and substance. Venema’s piece, unlike Haas’s, is very polemical and tendentious. Venema’s chief purpose is to argue that my interpretation of natural law and the two kingdoms in Calvin does not provide a satisfactory account of Calvin’s “public theology.” Meanwhile, Haas’s interpretation of Calvin on these same subjects agrees with my own interpretation about 98%, I estimate, though Haas himself does not say this and offers a few points of criticism of my work.

After providing an initial “sketch” of my interpretation of Calvin, Venema devotes the rest of his essay to critiquing it at three main points. First, he argues that “Calvin’s Two Kingdoms conception focuses primarily on the legitimacy of the Christian believer’s continued subjection to the civil magistrate” and concludes that I have erred by interpreting it “as a means to divide all of human life and conduct into two hermetically separated domains or realms” and by identifying “the spiritual kingdom of Christ simpliciter with the institutional church” and consigning “the remainder of human conduct and culture to the natural kingdom” (17). Second, Venema faults me for assigning Calvin too optimistic a view of natural law, for not recognizing the indispensable role for special revelation in all areas of human life for Calvin, and for making a distinction between the roles of natural law and biblical revelation that is inconsistent with Calvin’s doctrine of sanctification. Finally, Venema asserts that my interpretation of Calvin on the relationship of creation and redemption is “explicitly dualistic.”

It would take another essay to respond to all of Venema’s charges, but I offer a few remarks here. For one thing, Venema misdescribes my views on a number of issues, and oddly imputes a number of things to my interpretation of Calvin that simply aren’t there.[1] With respect to his first point, I am open to hearing criticism that on specific occasions I have overdrawn the line of distinction between the two kingdoms in Calvin (though in the next chapter Haas himself says that Calvin drew a “sharp distinction between the jurisdictions of the Two Kingdoms” (58). But Venema’s claim that, in my interpretation, all of human life and conduct are divided into “two hermetically separated domains or realms” (17), resulting in a “neat bifurcation” (18), is certainly not how I put it and hardly seems consistent with my explicit statement, for example, that for Calvin “no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual.”[2] Venema is also concerned here that I identify Calvin’s spiritual kingdom “simpliciter” with the institutional church. I do not make this claim,[3] but I do stand by my conclusions about how closely Calvin ties the two kingdoms to the institutional work of church and state, over against Venema’s minimizing of this connection. Haas (see 53, 58, 60) appreciates this point and seems to agree with my interpretation rather than Venema’s.

In his second point of critique, Venema makes a vague accusation that I assign to Calvin too optimistic a view of natural law, but he never offers a single citation from my work to provide concrete evidence. I agree with most of what Venema says about the relationship of natural and special revelation in Calvin. With his third point Venema discusses some issues related to the relationship between creation and redemption that indeed I do not consider in my book. It is helpful to note these themes, though Venema’s labeling my interpretation as “dualistic” is again vague and serves more like an epithet than a specified charge of error.

Haas’s chapter provides a clear, straightforward, and helpful summary of Calvin’s views on natural law, the state, and the two kingdoms. Haas’s interpretation of Calvin is practically identical to mine, though he never indicates this. Instead, he offers mild critique of my work at several points, but this seems to be a hunt for differences that really don’t exist.

Kloosterman’s chapter on Bavinck republishes a journal article that was originally a response to a conference lecture of mine.[4] Kloosterman states his desire to reflect on the life and labors of Bavinck and to respond “in particular, to the Two Kingdoms claim that there exists a fundamental inconsistency in Bavinck’s thought when it comes to natural law and the kingdom of God” (65). Most of the essay consists of Kloosterman’s interpretation of Bavinck on natural law and the two kingdoms, and he concludes with two brief appendices polemicizing against me. Though this essay is purportedly a response to me, it has almost nothing to do with my article on Bavinck. Readers gain no information about my article’s claims, and Kloosterman never indicates where my substantive arguments are correct or incorrect. Besides a general citation providing bibliographical information, Kloosterman ends up citing my article only twice, once to a single sentence and a footnote, the other time to another footnote. His “response” to my article seems to rest on his strong disagreement

with respect to the thesis that forms a thread, if not the backbone, of VanDrunen’s understanding of Bavinck. He is suggesting that the alleged existence of ‘two Bavincks’ has left us with a theology that is inconsistent and incoherent. (66)

This is bizarre. My article’s thesis has nothing to do with the existence of “two Bavincks” or his (their?) inconsistency or incoherence. In fact, part of my thesis is that natural law and the two kingdoms are integral aspects of Bavinck’s broader theology. The only time I mention the “two Bavincks” thesis discussed by many prominent Bavinck scholars is in a footnote. I did state my judgment that Bavinck has not left us “with an entirely coherent portrait of Christians’ basic relationship to this world,”[5] but that is much different from saying that it is simply “incoherent.” And Kloosterman himself admits that “one can identify various ‘tensions’ in the thought of Herman Bavinck” (80).

Kloosterman also introduces the two addresses by S. G. de Graaf—with more sharp polemics against me. At one point he quotes me, labels my words “destructive,” and remarks:

Separating ‘x’ as a moral issue from ‘x’ as a concrete political policy issue constitutes precisely the kind of surreal religious secularizing dualism that permitted numerous German and Dutch citizens to cooperate with German National Socialism” [i.e., the Nazis]. (93)

Presumably this was not what the editor had in mind when he spoke of Kingdoms Apart’s “cordial” engagement with the “two kingdoms perspective.”[6]

The final historically-focused essay is Wood’s discussion of church and state in Abraham Kuyper’s thought. Wood presents Kuyper explicitly as a two kingdoms theologian with respect to the distinction between common and particular grace, the light of nature, and twofold kingship of the Son. Wood’s interpretation of Kuyper on these issues is nearly indistinguishable from my own, though Wood never indicates this. Wood helpfully describes the opposition to Kuyper’s views on church and state by his compatriot Philip Hoedemaker, who “wanted to preserve the Dutch as a unified nation under a single Reformed church” (169). Perhaps Wood is correct, but I am not sure that Kuyper saw social structures as religiously neutral, as Wood claims (171); in any case, Wood rightly denies that such structures can be neutral (168, 171). A significant part of Wood’s claim concerns the innovative character of Kuyper on church-state relations. In his Dutch context this is probably true, though Kuyper’s basic ideas on the two kingdoms and the twofold kingship of Christ were standard doctrinal fare in earlier Reformed orthodoxy. Furthermore, American Presbyterians had embraced the idea of non-state churches for over a century before Kuyper advocated them.

I conclude this section with two broader reflections on the historical essays. First, these essays’ scope is very narrow. Two essays deal with Calvin and the others deal with early twentieth-century Dutch theologians. There is nothing wrong with the figures selected, though the fact that Kingdoms Apart considers such a narrow slice of Reformed history obscures the extent to which the two kingdoms doctrine was a crucial aspect of Presbyterian faith and life,[7] not to mention so much of the continental Reformed tradition of earlier years.[8]

Second, Kingdoms Apart does not resolve a question that would seem to be absolutely crucial to its purposes: is the two kingdoms doctrine part of our Reformed heritage? Since Kingdoms Apart aims to engage the “two kingdoms perspective” critically, one might think that the book would answer no. One of the endorsers (Charles Dunahoo) indeed states that Kingdoms Apart “compares and contrasts the one-kingdom view and the Two Kingdoms view.” But who actually holds a “one-kingdom view?” Venema and Haas clearly affirm that Calvin taught a two kingdoms doctrine, Wood explicitly presents Kuyper as a two kingdoms theologian (confirmed by Parler in a later chapter), and even Kloosterman admits that Bavinck “recognized the twofold kingship of Christ” and “the so-called two kingdoms” (72). For all of the negative comments against me in these chapters (Wood’s excluded), it seems as though all of these contributors to Kingdoms Apart agree with my basic thesis that the earlier Reformed tradition—including Kuyper and Bavinck—affirmed the two kingdoms.[9] But what then of neo-Calvinism? My historical claim is that contemporary neo-Calvinism (post Kuyper and Bavinck) is different from the earlier Reformed tradition in ignoring and even denying the two kingdoms doctrine in favor of a one-kingdom perspective. If the contributors to Kingdoms Apart believe this is wrong (yet agree that Calvin, Kuyper and Bavinck affirmed two kingdoms categories), then presumably they believe that neo-Calvinism itself adheres to a two kingdoms doctrine. This would be quite a remarkable claim. But even McIlhenny’s Introduction (which seeks to define neo-Calvinism) doesn’t make this claim or clarify the issue.

The Theoretical Essays

I now describe and evaluate several of the remaining essays in Kingdoms Apart. They are quite diverse and no clear common theme holds them together.

Parler’s chapter is perhaps the most interesting essay in the book to me, for it gets at some really important issues that I believe any future “engagement” among interested parties should take seriously. Like Wood, Parler interprets Kuyper as a two kingdoms theologian, and he often associates “Kuyper and VanDrunen” together, over against Augustine and twentieth-century Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder—an intriguing tag team match-up. Parler portrays Kuyper and me as understanding the civil kingdom (or common kingdom, or arena of common grace) as having certain independent and penultimate ends that can be attained to some degree among believers and unbelievers together, in distinction from the ultimate ends of the redemptive kingdom. On the other hand, relying especially on English theologian John Milbank’s interpretation of Augustine, Parler portrays Augustine’s Two Cities idea as incompatible with the Kuyper-VanDrunen two kingdoms idea: the character of all human societies is determined by their allegiance to ultimate ends, and thus cannot be assessed simply on the basis of penultimate ends.

There are a number of points at which Parler’s description of my view is not quite accurate. The most important is the most general. My claim is that Augustine’s Two Cities and the Reformed Two Kingdoms ideas are compatible, not that they are identical. They are harmonious, but get at different aspects of the truth: Augustine’s Two Cities describe two eschatological peoples, one marked by love of the Creator above all and one marked by love of the creation above all; in this world the Two Cities mingle, but they can’t be identified with any particular earthly society or institution; there is stark antithesis between these Two Cities, and each person is a member of one city and one city only. The Reformed Two Kingdoms, on the other hand, pertain to the twofold way in which God rules this present world, primarily (for early Reformed theologians) through church and state. This means that Christians are actually citizens of both kingdoms. Christians, in other words, are citizens of two kingdoms, but of one city. As citizens of the city of God they stand in eschatological conflict with unbelievers; as participants in the common kingdom, they are called to co-exist in peace with unbelievers as far as possible.

To return to Parler: much of his critique of me (185–88) wrongly assumes that I claim that the Two Cities and Two Kingdoms are the same category. Now, Parler’s dependence upon Milbank’s interpretation of Augustine does make it more difficult to appreciate the claim I do make. But Milbank’s appropriation of Augustine is hardly uncontroversial, and I doubt that most of the other contributors to Kingdoms Apart would want to embrace that appropriation, in light of Milbank’s Radical Orthodox theological program that underlies it.[10] In any case, I am glad to be placed on Kuyper’s team on this issue, for I think his defense of the independent purposes of common grace was helpful and necessary. Of course all human societies can and should be evaluated from an ultimate perspective, and found drastically wanting. But since God has ordained through his common grace to preserve human societies for the purpose of allowing a number of important penultimate ends to be fulfilled to some degree, it is crucial that we be able to evaluate these societies not only on the basis of their failure to achieve what is ultimately important, but also on their relative success in achieving what is penultimately important. That was my earlier claim,[11] and I hope to develop these ideas at some length in the future. May Kuyper smile over my shoulder.

Lief expresses theological difficulties with both the “two kingdoms perspective” and neo-Calvinism, proposing something of a third way. He seeks to rescue neo-Calvinism by reading certain neo-Calvinist figures (such as Herman Dooyeweerd) in a way shaped by contemporary theologians Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jürgen Moltmann, and Ted Peters, as well as contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor. Lief is especially concerned to promote a dynamic “eschatological interpretation of creation” in which creation’s original destiny was the resurrection of Christ; this is over against the ideas, present even in much of neo-Calvinism, that the created order is a “given” and human identity is “static.” In brief, I do not think that the likes of Pannenberg and Moltmann offer a helpful way forward in our present Reformed debates, and most other contributors to Kingdoms Apart would probably agree. I do, however, agree with Lief that how we interpret the opening chapters of Genesis is extremely important for our approach to issues such as the two kingdoms (228). I have actually provided an eschatological interpretation of creation in a recent work,[12] but I approach this through the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works (an idea Lief never mentions, nor would it seem to fit well into his proposal).

Kingdoms Apart closes with an essay by editor McIlhenny. In the first part he seeks to define the slippery term “culture,” in interaction with contemporary cultural studies. Then he makes a case not for Christians “redeeming culture” (a common neo-Calvinist way of putting things of which McIlhenny is skeptical) but for “redeemed culture”: everything Christians do communicates a redeemed identity to the world, and hence, in the words that end the book, “Christians are redeemed culture” (275). This chapter is something of a mystery to me. It is a revision of an earlier article in which he purported to set out a “Third-Way” alongside neo-Calvinism and the two kingdoms, but he claims now to “have further entrenched” himself in “the neo-Calvinist position” (251 n.1). It’s not clear what this entails, especially since he expresses the desire to “bridge the aisle” (253) shortly thereafter. Although he refers to his definition of “culture” as favorable to neo-Calvinism (253), I find his discussion here helpful, especially in its emphasis upon culture not simply as a thing that humans create but as at root language, which involves community practices and interpretations. And though he makes some critical comments directed toward advocates of the two kingdoms in the second part of the chapter, it is still not clear whether his broad proposal is really so at odds with the two kingdoms idea, at least how I understand it.

One of McIlhenny’s burdens in this part of the chapter seems to be defending the distinctive “Christian” character of Christian schools and scholarly work. A key point is that he as a historian has common ground with unbelievers when interacting with the raw material of history, but because of his “own conceptual framework ... cannot fully accept the idea that history is nothing more than the jumbled processes of the mode of production,” as held by materialist historians (269–70). At this point he states: “Interestingly, VanDrunen seems to agree with this” (270). Indeed, but why does he find this surprising? Does McIlhenny believe, deep down, that no two kingdoms proponent really thinks that no aspect of life is religiously/morally neutral or that the antithesis rears its head in all human activity, no matter how often some of us affirm such things? At the end of the day, McIlhenny’s interest in a redeemed cultural ethos seems to approach the subject at a different angle from me, but I hold out hope that our approaches may not be ultimately incompatible.

I offer two final thoughts on these theoretical essays. First, these chapters have very little biblical exegesis. With the exception of Swanson’s contribution (which is largely removed from direct discussions of neo-Calvinism and the “two kingdoms perspective”), there is practically no detailed exegesis at all. In itself this is no reason to fault the book, but it leads to a second observation. Kingdoms Apart purports to be a defense of neo-Calvinism through engagement with the “two kingdoms perspective” of which I am apparently chief representative, and I have offered four chapters of a biblical-theological defense of a two kingdoms paradigm in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (LGTK), noting specifically where I think differences exist with representative neo-Calvinist paradigms. Thus it would seem that a defense of neo-Calvinism over against my own work would have considerable interest in addressing my biblical claims, since we all affirm Scripture as our ultimate standard. A key aspect of my biblical-theological case for the two kingdoms is my interpretation of the continuing applicability of the cultural mandate in light of Paul’s Two Adams paradigm and the Noahic covenant. Though Kingdoms Apart frequently cites LGTK, I believe it mentions my claims about the cultural mandate and the Two Adams only twice (ii; 129 n.9)—both times incompletely and thus misleadingly—and notes once, in passing, my view of the Noahic covenant (178–79).

My basic case in chapters 2–5 of LGTK is this: God gave the original cultural mandate to Adam as representative of the human race in an unfallen world, demanding perfect obedience and promising the attainment of an eschatological new creation as a reward for obedience. Adam failed and plunged the human race into a state of curse rather than eschatological blessing. But God sent his Son as the Last Adam, to fulfill God’s task for humanity perfectly and thereby to attain the new creation for himself and his people. Popular recent neo-Calvinist works speak of redeemed Christians being called to take up again Adam’s original cultural task (not to go back to Eden, but to fulfill Adam’s responsibility to fill the earth, have dominion, etc.). In response, I have argued that this cannot be the correct biblical paradigm for the Christian’s present responsibilities in this world. If Christ is the Last Adam, then none of us are called to be new Adams. It is not as if Christians have no cultural mandate (as Kingdoms Apart suggests I claim), but that the cultural mandate comes to the human race only as refracted through the covenant with Noah after the flood. It comes thereby to the human race as a whole (not to Christians uniquely) and is geared for life in a fallen world and holds out no eschatological hope of reward. Thus in order to understand our calling to participate in the life of politics or commerce, for example, we should understand these responsibilities as rooted in the Noahic covenant and as work to pursue in collaboration with unbelievers, as far as possible (without forgetting the different attitude, motivation, goals, etc. with which Christians take up these tasks). I also suggested that all of us who share a commitment to the Reformed doctrine of justification should appreciate the attractiveness of my suggested paradigm, built as it is upon traditional understandings of the covenant of works, the Two Adams, and the sufficiency of the obedience of Christ. This is an invitation to soteriologically orthodox neo-Calvinists to embrace a view of Christianity-and-culture that is more consistent with doctrines at the core of the gospel they love.

Conclusion

I have expressed a number of disappointments with the attempt of Kingdoms Apart to offer cordial engagement with the “two kingdoms perspective.” Yet for the well-being of our confessional Reformed churches, I hope there will be cordial engagement in the future among us who may disagree. And in many small ways I see evidence of this already, though not always evident in print or (especially) on the Internet. In light of the questions that two kingdoms proponents have raised in recent years, it would be interesting to see a robust response in defense of neo-Calvinism. To be productive, I think such a response would have to address specifically the questions I’ve raised above about history and Scripture.

It might also be interesting for a valiant defender of neo-Calvinism to address the following observation: most ordinary Reformed believers already live what might be called a two kingdoms way of life. When they follow the regulative principle of worship, uphold the church’s jurisdiction over its own discipline, and respect the Christian liberty of fellow believers in matters of faith and worship that are “beside” God’s Word (see Westminster Confession of Faith 20.2), they embrace aspects of Reformed practice historically inseparable from the two kingdoms doctrine. And when they live peaceably with their unbelieving neighbors—working, buying, selling, driving, flying, playing, and voting alongside them—are they not giving implicit witness to the reality of God’s distinctive common grace government over the world through the covenant with Noah? And if this is the case, then I suggest that the two kingdoms idea serves a clarifying function: it helps Reformed Christians understand in a more theologically clear way the Christian faith and life they are in so many respects already practicing.

Endnotes

[1] To mention several things from just the first few pages (see 4–6) of his chapter that do not correspond to my treatment of Calvin in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, Venema says that I grant special importance to Calvin in the development of Reformed public theology (in fact, I discuss Calvin in less than one full chapter out of ten in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms and warn against an over-emphasis on Calvin’s importance), he repeatedly speaks of my handling of Calvin’s “public theology” (a term I never use), states that I see the two kingdoms and natural law as “two comprehensive ... principles in Calvin’s theology” (I am quite sure I never made such a sweepingly odd claim), describes me as speaking of the “natural kingdom” and “ecclesiastical kingdom” in Calvin’s thought (I do not use either of these adjectives to modify “kingdom”), and claims that I describe Calvin as advocating a “secular” approach to life in the “natural kingdom” (I never use the term secular to describe Calvin’s view of anything).

[2] David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 87; see also p. 82 and elsewhere.

[3] See e.g., Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, 77–78.

[4] David VanDrunen, “ ‘The Kingship of Christ is Twofold’: Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms in the Thought of Herman Bavinck,” Calvin Theological Journal 45 (April 2010): 147–64.

[5] Ibid., 162.

[6] Someday Kloosterman might consider writing an essay on the many Dutch neo-Calvinists that winked at Hitler and the many South African neo-Calvinists that provided the intellectual foundations for apartheid. My cautions about the church embracing specific political agendas might not seem so “destructive” in comparison.

[7] See e.g., George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming (London, 1646; reprinted Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1985), 90–96; Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (reprinted Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 599–609; Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (reprinted Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 550–51; and Stuart Robinson, The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel (reprinted Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2009), 65–66 (Part III, Section 5).

[8] See e.g., Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 3 vols., trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992–97), 2.486-90; 3.3.278–81; and Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 1, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (originally published in Dutch in 1700; Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 1999), 561–66.

[9] I explain and defend this thesis in detail in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.

[10] See especially John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

[11] See “The Importance of the Penultimate: Reformed Social Thought and the Contemporary Critiques of the Liberal Society, Journal of Markets and Morality 9 (Fall 2006): 219–49. It would have been helpful, incidentally, if Parler had defined the sense in which I speak favorably of “liberalism” on page 178 of his essay, since I am not remotely a theological or political liberal in the ways “liberal” is typically used today.

[12] Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), chap. 2. I expand this discussion considerably in a forthcoming book, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law, chap. 1.

David VanDrunen is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as the Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. Ordained Servant Online, March 2013.

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