VanDrunen in the Hands of an Anxious Kloosterman: A Response to a Review of A Biblical Case for Natural Law

David VanDrunen

Authors are of course grateful when people read their books and consider their ideas worth discussing. Though it is disappointing that Professor Kloosterman has taken such a decidedly negative view of my little monograph, insofar as he is indirectly encouraging the Reformed community to think about natural law and the two kingdoms again after a century of neglect, I cannot be too displeased. In fact, far from his many critical remarks being a discouragement, the fact that a professor of ethics at a Reformed seminary can react so vehemently against A Biblical Case for Natural Law—and for the reasons that he indicates—offers additional evidence that a sustained effort to revive serious reflection on the Reformed natural law and two kingdoms doctrines is a worthwhile endeavor.

In his review article, Kloosterman does not exactly critique the argument found in my monograph. Instead, he critiques his own reconstruction of what he thinks my "programmatic answer" is to the question of Christianity and culture, termed "VanDrunen's NL2K." Kloosterman's reconstruction is a rather distorted and caricatured interpretation of what my own views and my larger research project are all about. At the beginning of his New Horizons review he made sure to inform readers that I received my Ph.D. from Loyola University Chicago and that my monograph was published by the Acton Institute, a "Catholic-Protestant think tank" (which, as far as I know, is not the way that Acton describes itself), obviously a not-so-subtle attempt to alert unwitting readers to my crypto-Roman Catholic propensities. In this Ordained Servant review article, Kloosterman adds the specter of the "post-Enlightenment" situation, against whose wiles Van Til's apologetics has not sufficiently inoculated me. What constitutes this pernicious blend of Roman Catholicism and post-Enlightenment philosophy that apparently poses such a threat to Reformed Christianity? Kloosterman seems convinced that it involves "deriving a true code of morality from creation" without the help of Scripture, while denying or at least grossly underestimating the effects of sin upon human knowledge and ethics. Furthermore, it entails committing some basic logical blunders, the sociological and naturalistic fallacies, that your middle school children should be capable of debunking. If this is indeed what I have set out to do, I for one can hardly blame Kloosterman for coming to the aid of the OPC to warn it against the naïve "programmatic answer" of one of its own ministers.

Reconsidering the Historic Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrines

Given the nature of Kloosterman's remarks in my own church's periodicals, I hope readers will indulge a few autobiographical comments in response. I think that they will be helpful in regard to the "conversation" that Kloosterman wishes to "continue."

My interest in issues related to law and theology, church and state, Christianity and culture, date back a number of years. It was sharpened during my studies at seminary and law school, as I wrestled with questions regarding a proper Reformed approach to various social matters. In my own upbringing and later training in both Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian churches and schools, I heard little if anything about natural law or the two kingdoms, and much that I did hear about a variety of other things predisposed me to react negatively to such ideas. But, as I did some reading in the earlier Reformed tradition, I began coming across references to these concepts, and in a positive rather than negative way. I looked in vain for any significant secondary literature that provided an analysis of what happened, such that these doctrines that formed an important part of Reformed social thought for several centuries could be viewed so negatively in contemporary Reformed circles. It seemed to me that this was a study that needed to be written, and thus approximately four years ago I decided to undertake this as my primary scholarly project.

I should say at this point that my chief long-term concern is not historical, but the constructive development of a biblically, theologically, and ethically sound approach to the Christian's life in the broader culture. But I was and remain convinced that, as a minister in a confessionally Reformed church and a professor at a historically Reformed seminary, I have an obligation to understand well my own tradition's reflections before offering anything like a "programmatic answer" to a nearly two-thousand-year ongoing debate among thoughtful Christian people. To Professor Kloosterman I would say that I certainly have not (yet?) provided such a "programmatic answer." The two of my writings that he cites, A Biblical Case for Natural Law and an article in Modern Reformation, are very short pieces, written in response to specific requests, and presented in a non-scholarly manner. This is not to make any excuses for them, since nothing that Kloosterman has written causes me to regret anything in them. But they were somewhat extraneous to my primary research project. My primary project has been historical, and I have been presenting the preliminary results of my research in a series of articles in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals. I do not know whether Kloosterman is familiar with these, but I will list them in a footnote so that readers may look at them if they wish.[1] I have incorporated the material in these articles, along with a great deal of other material, into a book manuscript that I have recently finished drafting and which I hope to complete editing soon. The publishing process can be very slow, so it will not appear in published form for a while yet. But it will constitute the first study that I am aware of that offers an explanation and interpretation of the development of the natural law and two kingdoms doctrines in the Reformed tradition from the Reformation to the present.

I sincerely hope that Kloosterman, in the interests of his wish to converse about these matters, will read this book carefully. He and all other readers will have every right to augment, modify, and critique my conclusions according to their own lights. Though my manuscript is rather lengthy, it is certainly not comprehensive. But if Kloosterman and others wish to argue that natural law and the two kingdoms are not historically Reformed doctrines, they will at least have to face a large body of evidence in need of explanation or refutation. Among the sixteenth- through nineteenth-century Reformed writers that I consider are John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Jerome Zanchi, John Knox, Theodore Beza, Johannes Althusius, Samuel Rutherford, George Gillespie, John Owen, Francis Turretin, John Cotton, Samuel Davies, Stuart Robinson, Charles Hodge, James Thornwell, and Abraham Kuyper. All of them defended versions of the natural law and/or two kingdoms doctrines. Even if I am as wrong as Kloosterman thinks me to be in desiring a reconsideration of natural law and the two kingdoms in contemporary Reformed doctrine and practice, there is at least some comfort in the company that I am trying to keep.

Admittedly, the twentieth century was quite barren ground for the Reformed natural law and two kingdoms traditions. I do not wish to give away too much of the story that my book will tell, but I believe that figures such as Karl Barth and Herman Dooyeweerd played a very important role in fostering the negative climate toward natural law and the two kingdoms in recent Reformed circles (I assume that Kloosterman feels little affinity for Barth; I do not know what he thinks of Dooyeweerd, though he does cite very favorably Henry Stob of Calvin College and Seminary, one of the most important popularizers of Dooyeweerd for an American audience). A respected figure for me and probably most others who read Ordained Servant, Cornelius Van Til, will also be considered toward the end of my book.

This book that I am completing is not meant to suggest that I agree with everything that Reformed theologians wrote about natural law and the two kingdoms before the twentieth century. Those who read the book can draw their own conclusions about what they find attractive and what not. I believe, to mention a few examples, that sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed theologians were wrong to defend civil enforcement of religious orthodoxy, that traditional Reformed natural law and two kingdoms doctrine could be much better integrated with and articulated in terms of classic Reformed covenant theology, and that Van Til's analysis of believing and unbelieving thought should have a place in our understanding of cultural life. Not immediately, but in the near future, if God gives the strength, desire, and opportunity, I plan to write a sequel designed to present a biblical and theological account of how the natural law and two kingdoms ideas might be revived for contemporary Reformed doctrine, piety, and social thought, along the lines of such considerations. A Biblical Case for Natural Law does provide a concise look at some things I have in mind to do in this future volume, though there is much more that I hope to consider as well.

Some Comments in Reply to Kloosterman

That is enough about my current research and future plans regarding natural law and the two kingdoms. I am basically content to let what I have already published, and will publish in the coming years, speak for itself in answer to Kloosterman's charges. But several brief, specific responses to his review article and then a general observation may be helpful before I conclude.

First, Kloosterman finds major fault with me for failing to remember that the unregenerate are "darkened by sin, perverted by rebellion against God, and incapable of apprehending divine truth about right and wrong." Readers should know that in A Biblical Case for Natural Law I write that "this beautiful picture of God's design of the world and human image-bearing has been devastated by the fall into sin described in Genesis 3. No investigation of the contemporary relevance of natural law can ignore this grim reality.... Contemporary use of natural law cannot ignore the grave consequences of sin upon human knowledge and the reception of natural law" (14-15). I cite in support not only verses such as Genesis 6:5, Jeremiah 17:9, and Ephesians 2:1, but also Romans 1:18-32, one of the two passages that Kloosterman tries to use against me. Whatever the differences between Kloosterman and me, the devastating effects of sin on unregenerate humanity is not one of them. Yet, if wickedness is the only category by which we analyze non-Christian behavior, we are sure to distort the full picture. Presumably when Kloosterman pulls out of his driveway on the way to work every day, his non-Christian neighbors do not lean out their windows and try to shoot him and then, after he has made his narrow escape, rush to his home to assault his family and loot his goods. Most non-Christians, most of the time, pursue law-abiding lives. In fact, many of my own non-Christian neighbors are often more kind, patient, and considerate than I am, and all of them are better than I am at one cultural activity or another. I suspect the same is true for Kloosterman and his neighbors. The same John Calvin who had such a stark view of the effects of sin expressed great amazement and appreciation for many of the cultural accomplishments of pagan humanity. Later Reformed thought developed the doctrine of common grace to help to explain such things. At one point in his review article Kloosterman seems to admit all of this, noting the "existence among unbelievers of a certain regard for righteousness, justice, and love." Yet, for some reason, Kloosterman suspects me of great mischief when I seek to work with such truths. I will return to this point in a moment after I try to clear the air of another accusation.

Second, then, in both his July 2007 letter to New Horizons and in this review article in Ordained Servant, Kloosterman plays what I call the Van Til card. He groups me in a "coalition of Roman Catholic and post-Enlightenment theorists" whose views on general and special revelation Van Til has shown to be mistaken. I cannot help but think that Kloosterman is playing to his audience: he knows that most OPC officers are Van Tillian, so if he can paint me as a non-Van Tillian he will raise additional suspicion against me. Well, I have stated publicly numerous times and have put into print at least once that I hold to a Van Tillian, presuppositional view of apologetics. I explained to my presbytery at my ordination exam that my apologetical view is Van Tillian. I am not a professor of apologetics, but if anyone has evidence that I have ever published or taught in the church or classroom a different apologetical position, then he should present it to me for my reconsideration. But, I will say again that I do not teach courses in apologetics, and A Biblical Case for Natural Law is not a book on apologetics. These are significant facts. Apologetics is important, but it is not everything. Van Til was an apologist and he wrote books on apologetics. Van Til was not a social theorist and he made only occasional and usually passing comments on broader issues of the Christian's responsibilities in daily cultural affairs. Van Til's task in, say, The Defense of the Faith and my task in A Biblical Case for Natural Law are two very different things. I see no reason why one cannot be Van Tillian in apologetics and think that natural law should have an important role to play in the Christian's daily cultural work. Van Til emphasized that we should never view nature as an autonomous or neutral realm; the Reformed natural law tradition, which always affirmed that the natural law is God's law, did not view nature as autonomous or neutral. But if one tries to apply Van Til's apologetical method to every aspect of the Christian's daily cultural work, there is trouble brewing, I fear, and I do oppose that sort of move (a move that Van Til himself made on occasion). A few more comments may explain what I mean here and in the previous paragraph.

Van Til's apologetics involves exposing the rotten foundations of non-Christian thought, showing how unbelievers must borrow truths that Christianity teaches in order to make whatever sense of the world that they have, driving those who reject the triune God to greater epistemological self-consciousness of what they are doing. This is a necessary endeavor for Christians in the world, especially for those like Van Til who are called to be professors of apologetics. But apologetic confrontation with unbelieving thought is not the only kind of interaction that Christians have with unbelievers. Christians are called not only to break down every pretension that sets itself up against Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) but also to live lives in common with unbelievers in a range of cultural activities. Christians may and even should make music, build bridges, do medical research, and play baseball with unbelievers. Believers are called to live in peace with all men as far as it lies with them (Rom. 12:18), to pray for the peace of the (mostly pagan) city in which they live (Jer. 29:7; 1 Tim. 2:1-2), and to interact in the world with people whom they would not admit to membership in the church (1 Cor. 5:9-11). There is a place for a believing musician to explain to an unbelieving musician that music is meaningless unless the triune God exists, but when they are rehearsing together in the community orchestra such a Van Tillian apologetic confrontation would be highly inappropriate—the task at that time is cooperation at a common cultural task. The same thing is true in regard to working on a construction site with non-Christians or grilling burgers with an unbelieving friend at a neighborhood cook-out or thousands of other ordinary endeavors. To try to put it briefly, we have different sorts of encounters with unbelievers at different times. Sometimes we have opportunity to engage in apologetic discussions, in which our modus operandi is confrontation and exposure of the futility of unbelief (though always in love). Other times (and probably most of the time for the ordinary Christian who is not a professional apologist) we have common tasks in which to engage alongside unbelievers, in which our modus operandi is trying to find agreement and consensus so that shared cultural tasks can be accomplished as well as possible in a sinful world.

It is this latter situation that I addressed in A Biblical Case for Natural Law and in the Modern Reformation article that Kloosterman attacks. This fact, among many other considerations, demonstrates the absurdity of Kloosterman's claim that I commit the sociological and naturalistic fallacies. Do I, according to his own definitions, argue "from majority opinion to moral evaluation (social consensus is the basis for judging infanticide to be immoral)" and "from what 'is' to what 'ought' to be (the natural process of fetal development is the basis for judging infanticide to be immoral)?" I invite readers to peruse my Modern Reformation article and judge for themselves, but I might point out this quotation: "Christians should generally be skeptical of arguments that rest upon simple appeal to what is or feels 'natural.' " Or this: "Natural law cannot be defined in terms of what most people feel is natural most of the time." I do not remember what my thought processes were as I wrote this article, but it sounds to me now as though I was warning readers against precisely the naturalistic and sociological fallacies.

What I was doing in this article was trying to help ordinary Christians think about how to interact with unbelievers in their common, daily, mundane tasks in which moral concerns are raised (not instructing people how to engage in Van Tillian apologetical confrontation). What if I am having a friendly conversation with my neighbor across the fence and she tells me that she is thinking about having an abortion, or that she wants to support a bill before the state legislature that would make abortions easier to secure? And what if (and is the case for most of us) my neighbor is not a Christian and does not accept Scripture as a moral authority? Do I tell her that if she does not submit to the Scriptures then she has no right to participate in the political process? That would be neither factually true nor biblically sound. Do I tell her that if she does not believe in Scripture then she might as well go and have an abortion because there is no other moral reason for her not to do so? I would first of all wish my neighbor to put faith in Christ and believe the Scriptures. But even if she does not, I still would rather she be pro-life in her voting and personal behavior, not because in doing so she understands the "inner essence of things" or "all truth, in every area and in every respect, especially in its essential interrelatedness" (to borrow Kloosterman's phrases), but for the sake of a relative social peace and justice. And thus in my Modern Reformation article I offered a few suggestions for how one might deal with such a neighbor. In capitalizing on the fact that she is probably opposed to infanticide I am hardly saying, as Kloosterman unbelievably claims about me, that if most people think infanticide is wrong then it is. I am simply recognizing that she has "a certain regard for righteousness, justice, and love" (again, to borrow Kloosterman's own description of unbelievers), and trying to use her regard for justice concerning infanticide to prick her conscience concerning abortion. I envisioned dealing with a particular person or people in a particular cultural setting and suggested a few ways of making moral appeals in a civil way even if they have resisted apologetical and evangelistic appeals.

In light of all of this, let me answer briefly a few of Kloosterman's questions and objections. Kloosterman asks, for example: "Is this, then, the best moral argument that natural law can supply to us Christians who must work and witness in the public square alongside unbelievers blinded by sin and rebellious in heart?" My answer: I don't know, probably not. I have never suggested that this argument was the best possible. I would welcome most gladly better natural law arguments against abortion. I invite Kloosterman to make a better one—unless he is content to send his neighbor to the abortion clinic if she will not heed his appeals to Scripture or his transcendental argument for God's existence. Kloosterman also asks: "By what objective, transcendent, trans-cultural, and trans-historical standard are the moral sentiments which VanDrunen affirms (respect for life, aversion to violence, and defense of the weak) judged to be proper by all, whether by the social consensus or by VanDrunen? In other words, how can we know which social consensus to accept as normative?" My article already provides an explicit answer to his question: "For Christians, it would seem most helpful to begin not with the feelings of sinful human beings, but with that which Scripture teaches is revealed in the natural law." Kloosterman also objects to what he thinks is my claim that "unregenerate sinners can derive a true code of morality from creation." My answer: I never said that. In fact, I expressed sentiments in just the opposite direction: "Natural law certainly does not reveal to the conscience a detailed public policy." Offering suggestions about how to prick the consciences of unbelievers concerning things that they already know to be right and wrong is not the same thing as claiming that unbelievers can construct infallible codes of morality from nature.

There are many more things that Kloosterman said that I might respond to, but I must address just one more before making some concluding remarks. Kloosterman says: "Illustrative of the problematic two-kingdom construction being advocated by VanDrunen is the question: To which of the two kingdoms, worldly or spiritual, must we assign marriage and the family?" He apparently thinks that he has me locked on the horns of a hopeless dilemma, but I reply unambiguously: to the "worldly" kingdom. Marriage and family are part of the original creation order, they have been sustained by common grace, and my unbelieving neighbors' marriage is just as valid in the sight of God and society as mine. Christ's redemptive work is not the origin of marriage. The church did not establish the bearing of children. Marriage and family are institutions common to believers and unbelievers alike. The church recognizes these institutions, commends them, and gives some general instructions about them, but it does not create them.


To conclude, I raise for readers' consideration not only that natural law and the two kingdoms are historic Reformed doctrines, but that they are part of the warp and woof of the Reformed system of doctrine. In classic Reformed theology, distinctive Reformed doctrines such as the Sabbath and the covenant of works were articulated with explicit reference to natural law. In classic Reformed theology, Reformed doctrines such as the regulative principle of worship and even justification were expressed with intimate relation to the doctrine of the two kingdoms. Perhaps that sounds preposterous, but it is true, as I hope to explain in some detail in the future. Is it any coincidence that the past century—precisely the time period in which natural law and the two kingdoms have largely fallen into disuse in Reformed circles—has witnessed serious erosion in commitment to the Sabbath, the regulative principle of worship, the covenant of works, and justification in Reformed churches? Or, to add another wrinkle, is it a coincidence that in the past couple of generations so many Reformed people have been tempted to embrace the theonomic movement and the majority that has resisted has offered for the most part only tepid and insipid alternatives? I do not think that it is in any sense a coincidence.

To put it one more way: Has the century of Reformed distaste for natural law and the two kingdoms been a golden age for confessional Reformed Christianity? I doubt many readers of Ordained Servant would think so. Our contemporary denominations that seem most serious about historic, confessional Reformed Christianity are small splinters off much larger bodies that have gone in different directions. Confessional Reformed Christianity has truly become sideline rather than mainline. Are our Christian primary and secondary schools and colleges, so many of which proclaim the neo-Calvinist vision of transformation and worldview cultivation and dismiss the two kingdoms idea as "dualistic," stronger theologically and academically now than they were some generations ago? My interaction with the kind of people who read Ordained Servant leads me to guess that a great many of you would answer no (which is why a great number of you homeschool your own children).

I realize that natural law and the two kingdoms seem like novel and suspicious doctrines to many Reformed people today. But turning against these ideas, I am convinced, has been to the detriment of Reformed doctrine, piety, and life in the world. Resist the attempt to revive these doctrines if you must, but a "conversation" about them will not be productive, nor even very conversational, if it puts these doctrines in a misleading and pejorative light and caricatures their defenders before the conversation has really begun.


[1] "Abraham Kuyper and the Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Traditions" (forthcoming, Calvin Theological Journal); "The Two Kingdoms Doctrine and the Relationship of Church and State in the Early Reformed Tradition" (forthcoming, Journal of Church and State); "The Importance of the Penultimate: Reformed Social Thought and the Contemporary Critiques of the Liberal Society," Journal of Markets and Morality 9, no. 2 (Fall 2006): 219-249; "Natural Law in Early Calvinist Resistance Theory," Journal of Law and Religion 21, no. 1 (2005-06): 143-67; "Medieval Natural Law and the Reformation: A Comparison of Aquinas and Calvin," American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 80, no. 1 (2006): 77-98; "The Two Kingdoms: A Reassessment of the Transformationist Calvin," Calvin Theological Journal 40 (2005): 248-266; "The Context of Natural Law: John Calvin's Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms" Journal of Church and State 46 (Summer 2004): 503-525. See also "The Role of Natural Law in the Westminster Confession and Early Reformed Orthodoxy," in The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century, vol. 3, ed. J. Ligon Duncan (forthcoming, Mentor); and "Natural Law and the Works Principle under Adam and Moses," in The Law is not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, ed. Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen (forthcoming, P&R).

David VanDrunen, an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, is Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant, December 2007.

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Ordained Servant: December 2007

Natural Law: Is it a Reformed Idea?

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A Biblical Case for Natural Law: A Response Essay

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My Review Article: A Clarification

Response to Mark Garcia's Review of Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry

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