Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World by David VanDrunen

Richard M. Gamble

Politics after Christendom: Political Theology in a Fractured World, by David VanDrunen. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020, 400 pages, $29.99, paper.

Among the books I will never get around to writing is a history of the apolitical church in America from the colonial era to the present. It would be a boring book. Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for books that purport to show how some event “changed America forever.” Prize-winning bestsellers also need to have happy endings, and I doubt the story of the apolitical church will have a happy ending, at least not in the immediate future, although a glorious future awaits the church at the consummation of the ages, and its work in the meantime could not be weightier or more precious.

Such a book would tell about pastors who did not preach that America was God’s New Israel, or that George Washington was a new Moses or Joshua; who did not make abstinence from alcohol a test of sanctification, let alone a standard for church membership, fellowship with other believers, or qualification for church office; who did not speak of their nations in terms of altars and martyrs, apostles and prophets. It would be the history of the ordinary (but extraordinary) ministry of Word and sacrament in the midst of the upheavals of 1776, 1812, 1861–65, 1914–1918, and 1939–1945. Above all, it would be the history of pastors who maintained the distinction between church and state (not a myth concocted by the secular left), the nation and the kingdom of God, the temporal and eternal. A story of pastors who never presumed to treat secular history as prophecy, or progress as providence, or attempted to read events as if they were “God’s alphabet,” who did not feel a warm glow when politicians sanctioned a generic religion or spirituality as if getting right with America was the same as getting right with God.

The only drama in this story would be the heroic resistance of pastors and congregations who refused to mobilize their churches for domestic and international crusades for righteousness. These small stories of integrity and fidelity have rarely been the stuff of headlines in American history, and too often what makes it into the press has been what makes it into the history books. The media follows the extravagant militants, millennialists, and radical pacifists, quoting the most quotable things said by extremists, and historians are only too happy to follow their lead.

After more than thirty years of teaching and writing, it is my conviction that the apolitical church ought to be as much a part of a Christian’s historical self-understanding as any abuse of the things of God and the things of Caesar.

These thoughts came to me repeatedly as I read David VanDrunen’s excellent new book. His book is not directly about any of these things. Nevertheless, it has deep significance for not only how we think about Christianity and politics “after Christendom” and in the midst of our current confusion, but also for the way we think about the relationship between church and society throughout American history and back beyond it. Bad political theology is nothing new. As a diagnostic tool, VanDrunen’s book is invaluable. Much would be gained by applying his insights to history, not as some prefabricated architecture imposed on the past, but as a way to ask fresh questions about church and states, or more broadly, religion and nation, in America. Every denomination at one time or another has been set in turmoil by sincere, earnest, and misguided calls for cultural transformation. Churches that stood by what Walter Rauschenbusch impatiently dismissed as the “pure gospel” have been condemned as indifferent at best and complicit in evil at worst.

VanDrunen has produced a timely and important addition to his body of work on two-kingdoms theology and its practical application with Politics After Christendom. It is a welcome companion to his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, Divine Covenants and Moral Order,[1] and others. It is a sane book, and his call for modesty is urgently needed.

By “Christendom,” VanDrunen has in mind “the vision of Christian civilization that emerged in the very early medieval period and stretched well into the modern era, primarily in the West” (15). That vision presupposed a common Christian culture and saw a large political role for the faith even while keeping institutions and callings distinct. The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay referred to church and state as “two twins” ordained by God to care for his people. From New England to the mid-Atlantic colonies, to Virginia, leaders presupposed, as had Bucer, Calvin, Luther, and the Catholic Church before them, that the magistrate was to enforce both tables of the Law. They continued to live under the assumptions of a unified Christendom in place since at least Constantine legalized Christianity, and his heirs made it the only legal religion. Christendom was challenged by Enlightenment notions of individual liberty and America’s confrontation with the reality of religious pluralism. The question of how to live with neighbors not baptized into my church became a question of practical politics, and the solution was contested and anything but obvious.

VanDrunen argues that the Bible affirms that earthly government is legitimate, provisional (a temporary means to limited ends), common to believers and unbelievers, and accountable to God. He seeks to reacquaint Christians with the natural law tradition that the Reformers embraced, the doctrine of the two cities as articulated by Augustine and others, the two kingdoms of common and redemptive rule, and the biblical covenants that underlie each. VanDrunen presents his incorporation of covenants into longstanding treatments of political theology in the West as his distinct contribution to the debate. To that end, he turns to the Noahic covenant (Gen. 8:21–9:17) as key to understanding God’s relationship to the civil order. God made that covenant with all mankind after the Flood, charging them to be fruitful, creative, and provide for justice, particularly in the protection of life. Even when they do so unwittingly, earthly governments carry out this divine mandate, however imperfectly. These kingdoms are not holy communities, thus not redemptive. That task and honor belongs to the church alone. In a sense, VanDrunen argues for a Christian exceptionalism—the church is distinct, superior to the ambitions of earthly powers, endowed with a mission belonging only to itself, and judged not by the degree to which it transforms the world but by its fidelity in proclamation, worship, and equipping the saints in the present age as the bride awaits the Bridegroom.

At a time when the social gospel makes even greater inroads into American evangelicalism in matters of racial politics and social justice, when Pope Francis breaks down further the distinction between the church and the world in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti (Oct. 3, 2020), and when a bizarre mix of the prosperity gospel and Donald Trump gathers on the Mall in Washington, DC, for what Michael Horton recently denounced as “Trumpianity,” the need for a sane defense of two-kingdom theology could not be more obvious. Both the left and right in American politics have to one degree or another mobilized the church for action. Believers who resist the itch to intervene and defend the apolitical calling of the church can expect little sympathy and much misunderstanding and no thanks for their efforts. But how many believers have the biblical framework, especially a theology of the proper relationship between ancient Israel and the church, to see what is going on in these calls for relevance and know how to mount a defense?

We are in VanDrunens’s debt for doing the painstaking work of scholarship and biblical exegesis to reground the church in her high calling in the midst of “a fractured world.” We have Jesus’s promise that we will have tribulation in the world and also the promise that he has overcome the world. And he has done so and is doing so in a way that no Christian should exchange for any substitute, no matter how alluring.


[1] David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), and Two Kingdoms, Divine Covenants and Moral Order (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

Richard M. Gamble is a professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, where he holds the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of History and Politics. He serves as a ruling elder at Hillsdale OPC. Ordained Servant Online, March 2021.

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Ordained Servant: March 2021


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7 Big Questions Your Life Depends On by William J. Edgar

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