Under Attack in the United Reformed Churches: Two Kingdoms Theology and its Critics

In the February 27 issue of Christian Renewal Doug Barnes, a pastor in the denomination of which I am a member, writes a column addressing readers’ concerns about two kingdoms theology. Barnes declares that the two kingdoms doctrine “currently making waves” is sometimes called the “Radical Two Kingdoms” doctrine because it is so “sweeping” and “vast” in its implications. Clearly this is pretty serious stuff.

Barnes goes on to describe the two kingdoms view as one that divides the world into two spheres, the redemptive kingdom containing the church, and the common kingdom containing “the state and all other social institutions” (there is no eschatological nuance recognized here). In this kingdom, he says, “God reveals his will not by Scripture, but by ‘natural law'” (emphasis added). To drive the “vast” implications home to his readers, he then affirms that two kingdoms theologians believe Scripture is intended for the church but not for “the life of the common kingdom.”

The church has neither the right nor the calling to preach about politics or other matters distinct to life in the common kingdom, according to Two Kingdoms proponents.

Yikes. If what Barnes is saying is true, these two kingdoms people are arguing that God does not reveal his will about anything in the common kingdom in Scripture, and that pastors should therefore never say anything about marriage, the raising of children, relations between masters and slaves, or civil government, the sorts of matters discussed regularly in the New Testament. If what Barnes is saying is true, in other words, the theologians he has in view must be denying the authority of Scripture at best; they are outright heretical at worst. How many of Barnes’s readers come to just this conclusion? Labeling the doctrine “radical” doesn’t exactly set the stage for objective consideration.

Who does Barnes identify as the leaders of this wave, this movement that is so sweeping in its implications? He mentions three names, Michael Horton, R. Scott Clark, and David VanDrunen. VanDrunen is the chief theorist, of course, but Barnes points his readers to the book Kingdoms Apart, which he assures them, has ably addressed VanDrunen’s troubling views (for evidence that this is not remotely the case, see my review of Kingdoms Apart here and here, and VanDrunen’s review here). The most redeeming thing about Barnes’s column is that he points his readers to VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (although he immediately reminds his readers that they should quickly follow up this book by reading Cornel Venema’s critique of it).

Yes, please do go and read VanDrunen’s book. If you do, I hope you note that this is a book that claims to present what Scripture teaches about both of God’s two kingdoms. On its very face, therefore, the book challenges Barnes’s characterization of two kingdoms theology as a view that claims God does not reveal his will about the common kingdom in Scripture. Then, after reading the first five chapters of the book, which lay out biblical theological foundations for the two kingdoms view, note that VanDrunen concludes the book with two chapters, one of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on the church, the other of which discusses Scripture’s teaching on education, vocation, and politics. The latter chapter, by the way, is longer than the former.

In fact, on pages 194-203 VanDrunen goes on to outline what he believes Scripture teaches about politics, and how the church should proclaim these truths while avoiding usurping God’s authority by going beyond them. VanDrunen even concludes the section by declaring that there may be times when pastors need to specifically address particular political controversies or public policies. “Each preacher must wrestle conscientiously with the particular text he is expounding and determine what obligations it undoubtedly places upon his hearers” (203).

It is time for serious Reformed people to step up and demand that whatever concerns people may have about two kingdoms theology, they raise them in a responsible way. If you want to criticize someone, I was always taught, you have to earn the right by showing that you actually understand their views, summarizing those views in terms they themselves would recognize. This has not been happening much lately in certain circles. To be sure, there are important questions worth asking and yes, there are legitimate criticisms of certain versions of two kingdoms theology that need to be made. But this is not the way to do it.

Note that Barnes and others are raising the stakes quite high here. Barnes admits that the “first generation” of two kingdoms proponents are “firmly committed to the confessions” and suggests “that keeps them from working their doctrine out to its logical ends.” Later generations, however, can be expected to follow the doctrine to its obvious conclusions. What then? “If that happens with the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine, I suspect our broader assemblies eventually will need to evaluate how compatible the Radical Two Kingdoms doctrine is with our confessions.”

In fact, some confessional watchmen are already doing just that. Interestingly enough, in a ten page essay comparing two kingdoms theology to Belgic Confession Article 36, Mark VanDerMolen, an elder in the same denomination, focuses almost entirely on blog posts and does not even mention the name VanDrunen. He embraces a view of Belgic 36 that takes the footnote found in the 1976 Psalter Hymnal as confessionally binding, a view that would not be widely shared within the denomination. He ends up concluding that Belgic 36 includes three vital claims:

  1. the Magistrate is subject to both tables of God’s law
  2. the Magistrate is subject to the authority of God’s Word
  3. the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ

I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who would dispute the first two points. While it is true that all two kingdoms theologians agree that government should not enforce everything commanded in both tables of God’s law, I’m not aware of any two kingdoms theologian who argues that they magistrates may with impunity disobey them. No two kingdoms theologian thinks, for instance, that magistrates are justified in worshiping false gods or idols, blaspheming God’s name, or teaching false doctrine.

On the third point, VanDerMolen’s phrasing is sloppy. Belgic 36 does not declare that the Magistrate is ordained to advance the kingdom of Christ. What it says is the following:

Their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may thus be promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by everyone, as He commands in His Word.

As Nelson Kloosterman clarifies on his own blog (where, however, he hosts and seems wholeheartedly to affirm VanDerMolen’s essay),

BC 36 does not require civil rulers to agree with the gospel preached or to engage in divine worship, but to remove every obstacle that could impede these. Nor does BC 36 require civil rulers to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ or to resist every anti-christian power—but to fulfill their calling of obstacle-removal for these purposes to be achieved, presumably by Christians.

Exactly. Civil government is indeed ordained by God to fulfill certain purposes that contribute to the advancement of the kingdom of God, but such advancement is indirect, not direct (Calvin in his commentary on John 18 says it is accidental). And while Kloosterman does not admit it here, this insight comes directly from the two kingdoms theology of which he is so critical. Every Reformed two kingdoms theologian since Calvin has emphasized that civil government may not engage in the ministry of the gospel or the administration of the sacraments because Christ’s spiritual and political kingdoms are distinct and not to be confused. Article 36 of the Belgic Confession of Faith does not contest two kingdoms theology. It assumes it.

In his own essay VanDerMolen writes,

Undoubtedly, the manner of the magistrate accomplishing its God-ordained and God-honoring purposes in a pluralistic age lead[s] us into difficult thorny questions. But difficulty in application does not abrogate the principles we confess.

Thank you. That is precisely the premise of the scholars, like VanDrunen and myself, who have actually devoted significant scholarly attention to this problem. We are not questioning the principles we confess. We are trying to work through the “difficult thorny questions” that arise when these principles, as well as the teaching of Scripture in general, are applied to our pluralistic age. Can we get on with that task now?

[Note: For a brief, general introduction to two kingdoms theology, see these essays at Reformation 21:

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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 June 5, 2013, in Calvin, Confessions, David VanDrunen, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off.

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