Category Archives: Two Kingdoms
At the Heidelblog last week, and since republished on the Aquila Report, my friend Scott Clark writes a helpful response to dismissals of Calvin as the “tyrant of Geneva,” dismissals closely related to caricatures of Calvinism as a cold, authoritarian, and fatalist religion. Clark reminds us that it was not Calvin who sentenced the heretic Servetus to death, but the civil government of Geneva. More importantly, he points out that this took place during an age in which civil authorities throughout Europe, aligned with Rome, were killing thousands upon thousands of Protestants. Clark’s post is well worth reading in its entirety.
All of the leading magisterial reformers defended putting heretics, including Anabaptists, to death. Indeed, as Clark points out, Zwingli, Luther, Melanchthon, and Bullinger and other leading reformers were just as vocal in their defense of such policies as was Calvin. The reformer gets the extra press today because he is associated with a social movement that has had an impact far beyond its numbers. Luther, of course, gets bad press for his own blemishes and their supposed legacy in history.
Clark has no interest in defending the reformers’ complicity in the suppression of religious liberty. A strong two kingdoms advocate, he writes,
Was it a confusion of the civil and ecclesiastical spheres for Calvin to demand civil penalties [against one of his severe public critics] for being identified with the sufferings of Christ? Absolutely. From the perspective of a distinction between the ecclesiastical and common spheres, Calvin might have had a case before the Consistory but not before the Civil Authorities.
The true moral of this story, however, is of the danger of the Constantinian church-state alliance wherein civil authorities have the power to punish heresy. Nowhere in the New Testament or in the moral law is theological heresy a ground for civil punishment. The only sphere authorized by God to correct theological error is the visible church (see Matthew 18) and their means are purely spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline (e.g., rebuke, censure, excommunication).
With all of this I agree, and I appreciate Clark’s putting Calvin’s actions in historical context. That said, I do think more needs to be said than simply that Calvin was a product of his time, that nearly everyone in Europe agreed Servetus should be put to death for denying the fundamentals of Christianity (not simply of the Reformation), and that in any case, it was not Calvin who technically condemned and burned Servetus, but the government of Geneva.
The fact is, Calvin was a vocal and dogmatic apologist for the suppression of religious heresy. He was severely criticized for his complicity in the execution of Servetus, and the theological fighter that he was, he wrote repeatedly in defense of his actions and those of his government. He considered the arguments that Clark raises above and rejected them on theological grounds. Had Clark made these arguments in Calvin’s Geneva, Calvin would have said that he simply “desire[s] to be at liberty to make disturbances with impunity.” There is no need for me to recap all of that here, as I’ve written on it before. But here is a brief sampling of Calvin’s arguments, drawn from his commentary on the Law.
But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion; and there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law, not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of his kingdom should be aided by the sword.
Calvin is aware of these arguments, and he agrees both that the use of the sword is alien to the spiritual kingdom of Christ and that Christ does not need it for his kingdom’s success. However, he insists that God can nevertheless require that magistrates promote and defend the true religion merely because it is his will that such be part of their earthly vocation. In essence, he simply denies that capital punishment for false doctrine is a confusing of the kingdoms.
But when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed… He did not impose on himself an eternal law that he should never bring kings under his subjection, nor tame their violence, nor change them from being cruel persecutors into the patrons and guardians of his church.
He then denies that any contrary conclusions should be drawn from Jesus’ silence (and in general, that of the New Testament) on this magisterial responsibility. This is the weakest part of Calvin’s argument, it seems to me – his lack of any clear New Testament support for his position. He attempts to make up for it by appealing to three passages – the same three passages he invokes in at least half a dozen places in his writings where he discusses the issue – that he thinks prove that even in the Christian era magistrates are to enforce the true religion: Psalm 2, Isaiah 49;23; 1 Timothy 2:2. Again, I’ve addressed his appeal to such texts here.
Why does it matter? I’m sure some Reformed people will read this blog post and complain once again that we shouldn’t be criticizing our forebears on matters that aren’t even controversial anymore. Why beat a dead horse? It simply threatens the credibility of our theological tradition, doesn’t it?
I disagree. I care more about the Reformed tradition than about Calvin’s particular political opinions, and the credibility of the Reformed tradition depends far more on whether or not we take seriously the legacy and theology of the past than on whether we can manage to whitewash our history with hagiography. In this case, I firmly believe, many in the Reformed tradition, along with many Evangelicals in general, have not come to grips with why we disagree (or should disagree) with our forebears who opposed religious liberty.
We think they were simply products of their time. As if, were Calvin to appear in the 21st Century, he would suddenly agree with us. As if we were not products of our time as well. And as a result, we never come to grips with the theological mistakes the reformers made that led them to the positions we now oppose. Calvin supported the suppression of religious liberty in part because, influenced by Plato, Cicero and others, he held certain assumptions about the nature of the Mosaic Law and of Israel, and about their normativity for Christians. He believed that magistrates were called to enforce the law of God as revealed in Scripture, unto the glory of God. He failed to see why the first table of the law (i.e., worship and piety) should be excluded from that principle.
Read a smattering of Evangelical political arguments on a host of issues today – abortion, homosexuality, economics, health care, etc. – and you will find that many Evangelicals hold the same assumptions about the simple correlation between Scripture (and the example of Israel) and politics. The only difference was that Calvin was much more consistent than they are. He didn’t exclude idolatry, blasphemy, sabbath-breaking, or adultery from the political realm. That modern Evangelicals do so is usually not so much because they understand the theological problems with Calvin’s (and the other reformers’) views, but because they, even more than Calvin, are products of their time.
But is there a biblical theological foundation for a democratic society that values religious liberty? That, for me, is what is at stake here. That’s why we need to keep hashing through the counter-arguments of our theological forebears, arguments that were better and more theologically rigorous than we are usually willing to admit. We need biblical theological arguments for democratic pluralism and religious liberty that seriously come to grips with the Christian political theological tradition and come out on top. Calvin’s political theology may have been a product of its time. It’s up to us to work as hard as we can to ensure that ours is a product of Scripture.
[Note: All the Calvin quotations are from his Commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5]
I’m grateful to the folks at Patheos for publishing my essay, “Why Did German Protestants Support Hitler?” It’s a much fuller presentation of arguments I’ve made on this blog in the past, but it arises out of a course on the Holocaust for which I’ve been a Teaching Associate and lecturer at Emory University. In the fall I’ll be giving a paper at the American Academy of Religion on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a two kingdoms theologian, showing how Bonhoeffer took two kingdoms theology in a quite different direction than did many of his contemporaries.
Here an excerpt from my piece at Patheos.
Leading two kingdoms theologians like Paul Althaus argued that it was the church’s obligation to support the state in its attempt to protect the German volk from corruption or defilement. When Hitler came to power in 1933, it was therefore not a passive two kingdoms doctrine that kept otherwise skeptical Christians from opposing him. After all, the two kingdoms doctrine had not stopped them from standing up against the Weimar Republic, which they had regarded as godless. On the contrary, because of their strong convictions about the complementary roles of church and state, as well as about authority and basic Christian morality, they actively supported Hitler. They believed his rhetoric that he would restore Germany to its national glory and Christian foundations.
You can read the whole essay here.
I’ve noted before that Calvin used Plato and other philosophers to defend his claim that magistrates should suppress false religion. In addition to the last chapter of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the places in which Calvin makes this argument explicitly is in his commentary on the judicial supplements to the first commandment, ‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ It is here that he addresses the Torah’s numerous stipulations that false teachers, idolaters, and witches are to be put to death. This work was published in 1563, well after Calvin’s approval of the execution of Servetus (in 1553) had swelled to a major international and theological controversy. It is obvious that he writes with that controversy in mind.
Calvin was well aware that the Torah’s call for capital punishment for false teachers is an insufficient basis for a Christian nation in the 16th Century to do the same. He affirmed that Christians are not under the law except as a guide to charity; the Torah’s political laws only bind other nations insofar as they reflect general principles of equity or of natural law. He knew therefore that if he was to defend the suppression of false religion he had to produce an argument supported by natural law and by Scriptural teaching on the nature of the kingdom of Christ (not simply about Israel).
It is quite telling, however, that Calvin’s first and most basic argument is not derived from Scripture but from Plato’s Laws. It is as if he knows that his exegetical argument against religious liberty is remarkably thin, and that he must therefore clear the air by showing that he has the consensus of philosophers – even non-Christian philosophers – on his side. He writes,
For Plato also begins from hence, when he lays down the legitimate constitution of a republic and calls the fear of God the preface of all laws; nor has any profane author ever existed who has not confessed that this is the principal part of a well-constituted state, that all with one consent should reverence and worship God. In this respect, indeed, the wisdom of men was at fault, that they deemed that any religion which they might prefer was to be sanctioned by laws and punishments; yet the principle was a just one, that the whole system of law is perverted if the cultivation of piety is ignored by it.
From this statement it is clear that Calvin saw the defense of religious liberty (he would not have called it such, of course) as arising from Christian sources rather than from pagan ones. Yet he turns this important fact not into a basis for defending religious liberty, but into a reason for opposing it.
What is particularly striking about his argument is that as a rule Calvin had very little confidence in magistrates. He declares over and over in his writings that even those kings and princes who claim to be Christian are usually guided more by their own ambition than by a zeal for God’s righteousness. Virtually none in the history of the world have had the genuine interests of the church at heart. Yet Calvin’s solution for this problem is not to call for the state to remove itself from spiritual affairs, but to insist that it get religion right. One is reminded if the claim made in the late 20th Century by some Marxists, to the effect that the problem is not with Marxism, but simply with the fact that true Marxism has never been tried.
Of course, Calvin does offer the typical qualifications. Magistrates should only suppress false religion if the truth of God’s word as revealed in Scripture has been publicly acknowledged among the people. There can be no use of coercion on doubtful matters.
It must then be remembered that the crime of impiety would not otherwise merit punishment, unless the religion had not only been received by public consent and the suffrages of the people, but, being supported also by sure and indisputable proofs, should place its truth above the reach of doubt.
On this basis it would be difficult for Calvin to insist on the state’s suppression of religious liberty in 21st Century America (though this is small comfort for those who are concerned about the ultimate intentions of the Christian right).
Calvin also agrees with the later Enlightenment argument that the truth is strong enough to stand on its own feet and does not need the protection of the sword. But his appeal is not for the sake of the preservation of the truth, but to the will and glory of God.
God might indeed do without the assistance of the sword in defending religion, but such is not his will… Pardon shall never be extended to poisoners, by whom the body alone is injured, and shall it be sport to deliver souls to eternal destruction? Finally, the magistracy, if its own authority be assailed, shall take severe vengeance upon that contempt; and shall it suffer the profanation of God’s holy name to be unavenged?
Here Calvin returns to a comment he often makes in these sorts of contexts. Though our reason and sentiment may object to a particular command, God has pronounced his will and we must abide by it.
But what about the objection, derived from the two kingdoms doctrine, that in the spiritual kingdom of Christ the Torah’s stipulation about God’s will for the punishment of false teachers has no place? Calvin is well aware of this theological argument, the argument that most Christians (including myself) would use today to defend religious liberty. Yes, he was a product of his time; but that doesn’t mean he didn’t think through the issues clearly. He writes,
But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion. And there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law, not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of his kingdom should be aided by the sword. But, when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed. For although it was Christ’s will that his gospel should be proclaimed by his disciples in opposition to the power of the whole world … he did not impose on himself an eternal law that he should never bring kings under his subjection.
In short, Calvin views the obligation of magistrates to use the sword to suppress false religion not as a function of their role in the kingdom of Christ (whether Israel or the church) but as a function of their secular vocation. He now turns to the passages in Scripture that he thinks decisively establish his case, two from the Old Testament and (only one!) from the New. He invokes Psalm 2, which calls kings to “kiss the Son,” and Isaiah 49:23, which declares that at the coming of Christ kings will become “nursing fathers of the church.” Despite his oft-repeated reminder that such prophecies should be interpreted analogically, as describing the spiritual kingdom of Christ in language that would have made sense to people familiar with the temporal and earthly kingdom of Israel, in these cases he jettisons all such exegetical principles.
Yet his argument from the New Testament is the most tenuous of all. He cites Paul’s instruction to Timothy that Christians are to pray for all people, including kings and those in authority over them, in order that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Timothy 2:2). He insists that this passage calls magistrates to protect godliness by using the sword to suppress open ungodliness. In hindsight it is obvious that 1 Timothy 2:2 teaches no such thing. At best it might be said that Paul’s instructions imply that the magistrate should protect the religious liberty of Christians. The text says nothing at all about what the magistrate should do about other religious groups. Calvin was reading his own political convictions into the text. He surely acted sincerely, but his interpretation bears the mark of theological desperation rather than of the careful exegetical work for which Calvin was rightly so famous. He knew that the apparent teaching of the New Testament weighed heavily against his argument. He had to find something to show that his interpretation of the implications of natural law and of prophecy was affirmed in its pages.
Reformed folks sometimes want to defend Calvin for his views on religious liberty, pointing out that his position was no different from that of the other great theologians of Christendom. That is fair up to a point, particularly relative to those who want to judge Calvin as somehow uniquely tyrannical. He was a product of his time, as we are of ours. But in the interest of honesty and our Christian witness, it is necessary to affirm openly that Calvin was wrong, and that he was wrong not because he was not modern, but because he abandoned his own theological and exegetical principles. The biggest problem with the soft hagiography that defends Calvin is not the way it handles the execution of Servetus, but the way it ignores just how flawed was Calvin’s theological reasoning on religious liberty and politics. It is with this theological issue that we must come to grips if we are to clarify our own confession regarding religion and politics.
As I’ve said before on this blog, one of the oddities of contemporary discussions about the two kingdoms doctrine is the assumption that it entails the radical separation of church and state, with the latter rendered autonomous before God’s law. Even more odd is the sometimes stated claim that this radical two kingdoms doctrine is characteristic of Lutheranism and a supposed Lutheran political passivity (in contrast to an allegedly culturally transformative Calvinism).
In part this confusion goes back to early 20th Century works by prominent theologians like Ernst Troeltsch and H. Richard Niebuhr, whose caricatures of Lutheran and Calvinist social teachings have been authoritatively rehashed in a myriad of scholarly and popular works. In part it stems from confusion about why so many Lutherans supported Hitler’s regime in Nazi Germany. Calvinists like to ignore their own record of theologically justified complicity with racism and oppression in places like South Africa and the United States. They also seem oblivious to early Lutheran teachings about justified resistance to tyrants, teachings that helped spark the first great religious war after the Reformation and that by no means rendered Lutheranism politically passive during those early centuries.
In his Law and Protestantism John Witte describes at length how Lutheran jurists and theologians built on the two kingdoms theology of Martin Luther to lay the foundations for the Christian state. According to these Lutheran scholars, magistrates were to ensure material provision for the church, overseeing its care for the poor, education, teaching, discipline and ministry. Princes were to govern as Christian princes, and where they went against God’s law they were not to expect the cooperation or obedience of Christians. They were to govern society according to the Ten Commandments and the guidance of Scripture, under the careful influence of the clergy.
“For the Ten Commandments,” as Witte puts it, “were best interpreted by the Church and its theologians, not by the state and the Obrigkeit. The magistrate was thus obligated to draw on theologians and clergy in order to understand the moral and religious dimensions of the law.” As he summarizes his conclusions, “the jurists emphasized the need to establish an overtly Evangelical order of law, society, and politics in the earthly kingdom.”
Of course, many contemporary two kingdoms advocates, like their neo-Calvinist or neo-Anabaptist cousins, reject old assumptions about the obligation of civil governments to enforce true religion by punishing idolatry, false teaching, and blasphemy. As a result, they reformulate old doctrines, seeking to draw upon the wisdom of the past while avoiding its mistakes. Darryl Hart and David VanDrunen are no more interested in slavishly aping the reformers than were Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck (or is Stanley Hauerwas in imitating Menno Simons).
Some have taken to describing contemporary Reformed two kingdoms advocates according to the epithet “Radical Two Kingdoms (R2K).” Perhaps a better (and more respectful) descriptive term for such efforts would be “neo-two kingdoms.” Of course, the prefix ‘neo’ should by no means be seen as denigrating. All of us are trying to work out the implications of the Christian faith for our public life and witness, drawing on the theological insights of men who held very different assumptions and lived in very different times. We should be careful not to reduce the giants on whose shoulders we stand to mere proxies for our own cultural, political, and theological debates. We need to learn from them, not simply to use them; to build on their work in faithfulness to the demands of our own times, not nostalgically to yearn for some “golden age” of the past.
There is a distorted version of the two kingdoms doctrine out there that claims that if an issue is political, the church should not address it. The separation between the kingdom of God and earthly politics is absolute. God has given authority over the latter to the state, and the church should not question it.
Now I should say up front that I’m not aware of any major theologian who has actually advocated this version of the two kingdoms doctrine, except perhaps Emmanuel Hirsch. Luther clearly believed that a prince has the obligation to act justly and to protect the preaching of the gospel against fiendish opponents like the pope. He did not hesitate to preach the law or the gospel to earthly magistrates, nor did he hesitate to draw specific conclusions about the implications of the law and the gospel for the way in which those magistrates were to rule. And later Lutheran theologians and jurists if anything only tightened the relationship between state and church. The state was to rule according to God’s law, establishing and protecting the true church, guided by the instruction of pastors.
Many modern two kingdoms advocates, of course, challenge the old assumptions about the necessary ties between church and state, and about the responsibility of the state to enforce the first table of the law (i.e., prohibitions against idolatry, false teaching, blasphemy, etc.). But they do not challenge the idea that the church should preach the whole counsel of God – even when that counsel pertains to politics – so much as they challenge old assumptions about what Scripture actually says about politics. The central factor underlying this shift in emphasis is a clearer understanding of the differences between modern political states and Old Testament Israel. If the present form of Israel and the Davidic kingdom is the kingdom of Christ, manifest in the body of Christ (i.e., the church), then we should not be too hasty in drawing direct lines between the Old Testament civil law and modern politics.
That said, it is important to distinguish between two lines of argument, one legitimate, the other problematic. According to the first, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church has to distinguish between God’s moral law and its application in civil law. For instance, the church should proclaim that the state must protect innocent life, but the church has no right to advocate its own ideas about how to organize a police force, or about how to try and punish murderers. The church must call the state to govern consistent with God’s moral law (and in fulfillment of its obligation to protect the weak), but it may not dictate to the state the myriad of ways in which it might act consistent with that law. This distinction is absolutely necessary if the church is to avoid politicization and preserve its moral authority.
According to the second line of argument, the statement that the church should avoid speaking to matters that are political means that the church cannot speak on matters that are politically controversial. According to this mindset, the church might ordinarily have the right to proclaim that the state should protect the life of the unborn, or that it should prevent a person from violently destroying another person’s property, but in the context of national debates over abortion (i.e., the United States in 2013) or state authorized pogroms against Jews designed for the good of Volk and Fatherland (i.e., Nazi Germany in 1938), the church should remain silent. One would not want to alienate people from the gospel, or to give the wrong impression about one’s motives.
Now I’m sure that there are some readers who will think that I have just violated Godwin’s Law, the law which warns against bringing up the Nazis in an ethical, political, or theological debate. Some people chided me in recent weeks for my bringing up the Nazis and the Holocaust on this blog at all. And to be sure, we should be very, very careful about how we use such history, or the lessons we attempt to draw from it.
But this history is relevant here for a very important reason. The German church often attempted to justify its silence before Hitler precisely on the basis of its two kingdoms doctrine. Anyone arguing that the church should maintain the two kingdoms doctrine needs to explain why this happened and why it was wrong. As a scholar writing my dissertation on the two kingdoms doctrine and associate teaching a course on the Holocaust, I have particular reasons to address the issue. In the next few weeks, therefore, you should expect more articles from me wrestling with the use of the two kingdoms under Hitler. If you don’t like them, you are warned. You don’t have to read them.
For now I want simply to emphasize that the two kingdoms doctrine teaches not that the church should avoid matters of public or political controversy, but that the church should limit its proclamation to what the word of God actually teaches. The two kingdoms doctrine warns not against the church speaking about politics, but against the church moving beyond the word in the name of politics. And I want to emphasize that those who say the church should refrain from addressing any issue that has been deemed by others to be political are not freeing the church from politicization. On the contrary, they are subjecting it to the very politicization they claim to fear. For if the church’s proclamation of God’s word can be muzzled by a regime or a democratic constituency, the church can be manipulated by that constituency. The kingdom of Christ has been made subject to the political kingdom.
Calvin warns repeatedly against this mindset in his commentaries on the prophets. Here I simply want to quote from his commentary on Micah:
Since then the prophets were the organs of the Holy Spirit, whoever attempted to silence them usurped to himself an authority over God himself, and in a manner tried to make captive his Spirit. For what power can belong to the Spirit, except he be at liberty to reprove the vices of men, and condemn whatever is opposed to God’s justice? When this is taken away, there is no more any jurisdiction left to the Holy Spirit. (Commentary on Micah 2:7)
We now see that the word of God is not bound, but that it puts forth its power against the highest as well as the lowest; for it is the Spirit’s office to arraign the whole world, and not a part only. ‘When the Spirit shall come,’ says Christ, ‘it will convince the world.’ He speaks not there of the common people only, but of the whole world, of which princes and magistrates form a prominent part. Let us then know, that though we ought to show respect to judges (as the Lord has honored them with dignified titles, calling them his vicegerents and also gods), yet the mouths of prophets ought not to be closed; but they ought, without making any difference, to correct whatever is deserving of reproof, and not to spare even the chief men themselves. (Commentary on Micah 3:10)
If the two kingdoms are genuinely to be distinguished, the ministers of Christ must be free to proclaim his word.
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.
One of the most prominent German theologians who used the two kingdoms doctrine to justify the church’s support for Hitler was Paul Althaus. Althaus was a leading critic of the Barmen Declaration because he believed that it rejected the orthodox Christian teaching on general revelation. He publicly supported the Nazi regime at least through 1937, at which point he became silent. Though he never turned publicly against Hitler, in private comments during the war he condemned Germany’s genocide of the Jews. Later he admitted that Germany had fallen under the judgment of God.
As most scholars recognize, Althaus significantly revised Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine in order to justify the church’s support for Hitler. The orthodox two kingdoms doctrine had declared that the state is called to use its authority to preserve basic justice and to uphold the created order, including the institutions of family and church. When the volkisch movement (ethnic and cultural German nationalism) began to gain influence during the early 20th Century, a 1905 regional synod of Protestant pastors declared, on the basis of the two kingdoms doctrine, that the church may not place its authority behind such ideas.
The pastor … has to place himself above nationalities. He is not a politician but a pastor of souls. His task is neither Germanization or Polandization, but the faithful proclamation of the gospel, in which he must as far as possible do justice to each nationality. (Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 100)
This statement approximated the appropriate interpretation of a political movement from the perspective of the classic two kingdoms doctrine: healthy distance from a political trend, accompanied by a clear affirmation of the truth of the Word of God in relation to that political trend.
Based on his experience of the volkisch movement during World War I, which had a radical impact on him, Althaus began to challenge the statement of the 1905 synod in lectures during 1916. He argued that the church could no longer be indifferent to the volkisch question because such neutrality was damaging the relationship between German pastors and their communities. In 1919 Althaus called the church publicly to reject the Treaty of Versailles. In the following years he revised the two kingdoms doctrine so as to make it conducive of church support for the great political movement of the day.
Althaus revised the two kingdoms doctrine in two crucial ways. First he argued that the Volk (ethnic and national culture) is a law of God, part of the created order, revealed in history. Indeed, Althaus insisted that the Volk was the primary law of God for modern Germany, the loyalty that trumped all other earthly loyalties. As he put it in a lecture of 1937,
The belief that God has created me includes also my Volk. Whatever I am and have, God has given me out of the wellspring of my Volk: the inheritance of blood, the corporeality, the soul, the spirit. God has determined my life from its outermost to its innermost elements through my Volk, through its blood, through its spiritual style, which above all endows and stamps me in the language, and through its history… The special style of a Volk is his creation, and as such it is for us holy…. We are unconditionally bound to faithfulness, to responsibility, so that the life of the Volk as it has come down to us not be contaminated or weakened through our fault. (Ericksen, Theologians Under Hitler, 103)
Second, Althaus carefully revised Luther’s two kingdoms doctrine in order to justify a greater political role on the part of the church, in support of the Volk. As he argued in 1935,
As a Christian church we bestow no political report card. But in knowledge of the mandate of the state, we may express our thanks to God and our joyful preparedness when we see a state which after a time of depletion and paralysis has broken through to a new knowledge of sovereign authority, of service to the life of the Volk, of responsibility for the freedom, legitimacy, and justice of volkisch existence…. We Christians know ourselves bound by God’s will to the promotion of National Socialism. (Ericksen, 86)
Althaus feared that the classic Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine rendered the church too passive in the context of the political malaise of the Weimar years. That the Weimar government was so contrary to God’s will, and that the volkisch political movements were in accord with that will, was obvious to him. He therefore argued that while Paul and Luther may not have been aware of the volkisch principle, it was now the task of theologians to revise the relation of church and state in its light. A crucial part of the church’s responsibility was to provide the Volk with leadership, organization, education, and spiritual consciousness, in close cooperation with the state. In taking this position, Robert P. Ericksen argues, Althaus turned the classic Lutheran view of the state on its head.
Althaus insisted that a biblical antisemitism was compatible with this new Christian mission. True, in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither male nor female. Christians must therefore treat the Jewish Volk in accord with love. But the church has always recognized distinctions in terms of male and female, and therefore there is nothing inconsistent with the gospel about recognizing distinctions of race as well, while at the same time affirming equality in Christ.
Like many German Christians, Althaus came to see that Nazi antisemitism went far beyond the sort of “biblical antisemitism” he thought was appropriate. But by that point it was too late. The politicization of the church in its seduction by the volkisch movement, which entailed the rejection of the orthodox Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, rendered the church incapable of maintaining its prophetic perspective towards the state until it was too late.
It’s important to emphasize that it was by revising the two kingdoms doctrine so as to enable the church to take a position on the most important political movement of the day that Althaus and others made the church vulnerable to this politicization. Despite the fears of its critics, it is precisely because the two kingdoms doctrine distinguishes the nature and mission of the church from that of the state that the church can maintain a prophetic stance towards the state. This is why Barth’s Barmen Declaration remains a fundamentally two kingdoms document.
To be sure, two kingdoms advocates should not be smug, as some contemporary Christians appear genuinely to believe that the doctrine requires pastors to be silent on any matter that has been deemed by others to be political. It is urgent that we emphasize that the church must preach the Word of God in all faithfulness regardless of what its critics may say. But that was not Althaus’s mistake. Althaus’s mistake was to believe that the church had to get more involved in politics. And it was by getting more involved that the church surrendered its allegiance to Christ.
Arguments over the two kingdoms doctrine in the conservative Reformed world often feature an exchange that runs something like this:
2k critic: Since Christ is lord of all of life, government is obligated to rule according to Scripture.
2k defender: But Scripture says little to nothing about contemporary politics.
2k critic: Well, Scripture offers us principles, and in any case, government is still under God’s moral law, bound to govern accordingly.
2k defender: You cannot simply translate God’s moral law to politics.2k critic: Actually, It’s easier than you think. And we are pretty convinced that our political convictions are in fact closely based on Scriptural principles and on God’s moral law.2k defender: Well you might be wrong. People often say their politics reflect God’s moral will, but they are deceived.2k critic: Well, then the problem is that they are deceived. We are not deceived.
And the debate goes on, often running in circles. For instance, in the comment thread of my last blog post we see this exchange:
2k defender: It is sad how often in history that a magistrate’s alleged adherence to God’s law has been used in the service of oppressive tyranny.
2k critic: “alleged” being the operative word.
What’s going on here? To me it suggests that much of the arguing that is purportedly over the two kingdoms doctrine is actually about the clarity of biblical instruction regarding politics, and the relative ease with which that teaching can be applied to contemporary American politics. Most of the time, those who take what we might call the Scripturalist position aren’t guilty of confusing the kingdoms per se. They simply have strong convictions about the specific political implications of Scriptural teaching. Those who take what we might call the Natural Law position don’t disagree that government should rule consistent with God’s moral law. They are simply skeptical that this tells us as much as the Scripturalists think.The debate may be less theological than exegetical or practical. Because classic Reformed theology, which both sides claim to confess, makes clear distinctions between God’s moral law and the judicial/civil law found in Scripture, and between divine law and human law. Jesus himself pointed out that the Mosaic Law permitted Israelite men to divorce their wives in circumstances in which such divorce violated God’s moral law. And if the law of Israel, given by God, legally authorizes practices that are immoral, without thereby approving them as moral, how much more the law of the United States? We can talk all we want about government ruling in accord with God’s moral law, but the question remains, what does this actually mean?
The reason why two kingdoms theologians emphasize the need for the church to be humble when it comes to politics is not that they think politics is an autonomous realm, outside of God’s law, but because they distinguish between God’s moral law and the practical governance of politics, which involves both divine and human law. Joel McDurmon’s critique of Horton’s two kingdoms theology at American Vision actually clarifies this point, but McDurmon goes on seemingly to reject the basic distinctions that have long been part of Reformed theology. He writes,
1) The natural law of the secular “kingdom” is based upon God’s moral law, or
2) It is not.
If it is based upon God’s moral law, then,
1) The natural law of the secular kingdom must be the same as that revealed in Scripture, and
2) The church should have a prophetic role in calling the civil government to adhere to Scripture in regard to law and punishment.
1) God and “God’s law” are divided and He speaks and governs man according to differing standards in each of the two realms, and
2) Civil rulers can justify anything as “God’s law” in their realm based on reason, nature, common sense, popular vote, expedience, or whatever, even if it contradicts Scripture.
By affirming the former sense (like Horton above), 2K proponents must ultimately look to Scripture to judge whether civil laws are righteous or unrighteous in God’s eyes. But where does Scripture give such content for civil laws? Only in the Old Testament civil laws. Here, the brake lights come on with smoke and tire marks and the whole bit. We are told these laws do not apply today…. We respond with the accusation that these R2K believers are pushing the civil realm outside of God’s rule and thereby giving license to ungodly laws in society.
So McDurmon admits that Horton believes the church has a prophetic role relative to the state, and that the church must preach whatever Scripture says about politics. But when Horton and others remind us that this is less easy than we often think, McDurmon returns to the simple accusation that “R2k believers are pushing the civil realm outside of God’s rule.” In short, McDurmon simply refuses to recognize the distinction between between the moral law and the civil law, between divine law and human law, as a good faith argument, let alone as legitimate. And that, certainly, is a conversation stopper.
But perhaps we all need to calm down a little. What would happen in these debates if some two kingdoms critics acknowledged that they actually agree with the fundamental distinction between the two kingdoms (i.e., between the kingdom of God and political government), and that their real disagreement with “R2k” is with its refusal to identify God’s moral will with their particular political convictions? What would happen if more two kingdoms advocates admitted that they do believe government should rule consistent with God’s moral law, but that their real difficulty is with what some “allege” this to mean?
[Note: One of my well-wishing critics pointed out to me that in this original post I unfairly implied that all two kingdoms critics are critical of the doctrine because of its refusal to identify God's moral will with their political agenda. I've changed my language to clarify that this is not, in fact, the case. There are people who reject versions of the two kingdoms doctrine for better reasons, who actually affirm its refusal to identify the moral will of God with particular political agendas. Of course, I would argue that most of these critics actually hold to the two kingdoms doctrine in substance, but that is neither here nor there. I apologize for the unfair statement.]
It’s interesting that so many people seem to assume that the two kingdoms doctrine was responsible for the failure of the German Protestants to resist Hitler. The reality is that most German Protestants didn’t believe there was any need to oppose Hitler. By and large even the leaders of the Confessing Church supported Hitler.
Why? Not because of anything like a “Radical 2k” doctrine, pace this critique of Michael Horton by American Vision Director of Research Joel McDurmon. They supported Hitler for the same reason that so many Christians in the United States have committed themselves to conservative visions of a Christian America built on racist social segregation. They thought he would bring moral renewal to Germany and, consistent with the Nazi Party platform and with Hitler’s rhetoric, that he would recover the “positive Christianity” viewed as foundational to German society.
I could cite all sorts of evidence for this, and in the near future I do hope to come out with some essays working this out. For now, let me simply quote a statement quite representative of typical Protestant opinion, crafted by the head of the Bavarian church, Bishop Hans Meiser, to be read from all pulpits on Easter Sunday, 1933, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. Meiser later became a signer of the Barmen Declaration, a leader in the Confessing Church, and a consistent supporter of Hitler and the Third Reich.
A state which brings into being again government according to God’s Laws should, in doing so, be assured not only of the applause but also of the glad and active cooperation of the Church. With gratitude and joy the Church takes note that the new state bans blasphemy, assails immorality, and establishes discipline and order, with a strong hand, while at the same time calling upon man to fear God, espousing the sanctity of marriage and Christian training for the young, bringing into honor again the deeds of our fathers and kindling in thousands of hearts, in place of disparagement, an ardent love of Volk and Fatherland. (Quoted inMatthew D. Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past, 17)
Sound familiar? It’s certainly not Radical two kingdoms talk. Except for that reference to blasphemy, on which most American culture warriors would be somewhat more liberal, and to the Volk and Fatherland, which Christian Right activists might replace with references to the founding fathers and Christian America, this sentiment is one with which we should be quite familiar. American Vision‘s own mission statement calls it to “Restore America to its Biblical Foundation,” reestablishing it as a “city on a hill” that will draw all nations to Jesus. And McDurmon calls for a nice synthesis of his own political views and the church’s proclamation at the end of his critique of Horton:
When the government protects abortions, when the government demands Christian businesses fund abortifacients against Christian conscience, when the government maintains standing armies and unnecessary foreign invasions, oppressive levels of debt and taxation, 70,000 pages of unread new regulations every year, fiat money and monopoly control over it, massive entitlements built on debt secured by the labor of our children and grand children . . . the list could go on . . . . When the government does these things, it is the job of Christians and of the church to “maintain a prophetic stance” against the civil realm and declare those things as ungodly and tyrannical.
To avoid this task, or to condemn others for performing this task, is to be the practical equivalent of the German Evangelicals described above.
The lesson of Protestant support for Hitler is not to abandon the two kingdoms doctrine, which, like Karl Barth, calls the church to avoid synthesizing Christianity with political ideology and instead confess and proclaim the whole Word of God. The lesson, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge recognized, is to avoid just that synthesis of religion and politics to which so many American Christians are tempted:
That means that, when a different god is made out of Christ – a Hellenistic or Teutonic or Jerry Falwell-made American god – then the first commandment is being violated. (Quoted in Victoria Barnett, For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler, 131)
Proclaim the whole counsel of God and the lordship of Christ over all of life? Absolutely. Pastors shouldn’t avoid homosexuality, abortion, or racism simply because those topics are political. But I think – and both the German experience and McDurmon’s rhetoric reinforces my view – we might want to hold on to a doctrine that reminds us of the difference between the kingdom of Christ and our own political ideologies.