VanDrunen’s Response to Kingdoms Apart

At Ordained Servant David VanDrunen has written a helpful response to Ryan McIlhenny’s multi-authored Kingdoms Apart. You should definitely go and read the whole thing, but I want to draw your attention to a few points here.

First, like me (here and here), VanDrunen is disappointed with Venema’s chapter on Calvin and the two kingdoms, going so far as to call it “very polemical and tendentious.” This is in contrast to Gene Haas’s chapter on Calvin, which is much more measured and which largely agrees with VanDrunen’s work on Calvin. VanDrunen responds in particular to Venema’s charge (made by others as well) that he has turned the two kingdoms into two “hermetically separated domains or realms” and that he has identified the kingdom of God with the church “simpliciter.” He notes his own statement “that for Calvin ‘no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual’” and rightly denies that he identifies the church with Christ’s kingdom in this way, but he also reaffirms a crucial point affirmed by Haas and readily evident from much of the Genevan reformer’s work: Calvin does closely tie the two kingdoms to the institutional work of church and state.

Second, after mentioning that Kingdoms Apart focuses almost exclusively on Calvin and a few modern Dutch theologians, VanDrunen notes that McIlhenny and his co-authors (strategically? unintentionally?) sidestep the issue of the place of the two kingdoms doctrine in Reformed history.

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.

It seems so, but unfortunately the authors fail to make this point. VanDrunen may be justified if he feels that the authors avoided affirming the extent to which they actually agree with his work. If the purpose of Kingdoms Apart is to promote cordial conversation and theological consensus, why the reticence?

VanDrunen goes on,

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.

As I suggested in my review of Kingdoms Apart (at Mere Orthodoxy, here and here), this is a major weakness of the book, one that obscures the extent to which most of the authors are actually in agreement with VanDrunen’s arguments about the two kingdoms doctrine. In my view, this is a classic example of the extent to which polemics and controversy can obscure truth.

Third, VanDrunen observes that McIlhenny, who once sought a third way between the two kingdoms and neo-Calvinism, now characterizes his own perspective as more firmly entrenched in neo-Calvinism. Yet it’s unclear just how McIlhenny’s position has changed. Indeed, VanDrunen writes,

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.

After describing one of McIlhenny’s arguments VanDrunen then writes,

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.

As I argued in my review, the disagreements here are really not as substantive as they sometimes seem. We need to keep working hard to tone down the rhetoric.

Finally, VanDrunen legitimately complains that Kingdoms Apart makes little effort to engage his own constructive exegetical work relative to the two kingdoms. In particular, the authors almost entirely ignore the significance of VanDrunen’s arguments regarding the Noahic Covenant, a fact which contributes to the book’s incorrect suggestion that he rejects the cultural mandate. VanDrunen explains,

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…. 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.

This is a helpful point. Recognizing that God has given the cultural mandate to believers in common with unbelievers would go a long way in helping Christians to avoid the sense of entitlement and even arrogance that nonbelievers often detect in our political and cultural engagement.

I do think VanDrunen could say more about the significance of the fact that “all things” are now tied up with Christ, and therefore about the relation of the Noahic Covenant to the witness of Christians to Christ’s lordship in all of life. What much of this conversation revolves around is the relationship between four theological realities:

1) the definitive reconciliation of the world that has taken place in Christ’s death and resurrection (the neo-Calvinist emphasis)

2) the full transformation of the world that will take place at Christ’s return, but not before (the orthodox Christian belief, undermined by the social gospel and certain forms of theological liberalism)

3) the in-breaking of the kingdom in the ministry of the church and in the sanctification of believers (the key affirmation for the discovery of common ground?)

4) the “already-but-not-yet” tension of a Christian life of sanctification and witness in an untransformed world (the two kingdoms emphasis)

More work needs to be done clarifying the relation between these points. I hope VanDrunen’s response to Kingdoms Apart can help to move the discussion forward.

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About Matthew Tuininga

Matthew Tuininga is a doctoral candidate in Religion, Ethics and Society at Emory University. He is an adjunct professor at Oglethorpe University and a licentiate in the United Reformed Churches of North America.

Posted on March 6, 2013, in Abraham Kuyper, Calvin, David VanDrunen, Neo-Calvinism, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off.

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