James K. A. Smith’s Failure to Engage VanDrunen on the Two Kingdoms Doctrine

Based on voices emerging from some corners of the Reformed tradition, you would think the future of Calvinism is Lutheran. At just the moment that neo-Calvinism has begun to be absorbed by wider evangelicalism and has become the de facto paradigm for Christian higher education in North America, scholars such as D. G. Hart, Michael Horton, and David VanDrunen argue that neo-Calvinists are not really Calvinists. Curiously, the basis for this claim is the neo-Calvinist rejection of the Lutheran model of two kingdoms that they see in Calvin and ‘the earlier Reformed tradition.’

So writes James K. A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, in the first paragraph of an essay in the Calvin Theological Journal designed to show that VanDrunen’s Lutheran two kingdoms is incompatible with the theology of Augustine. In contrast to this Lutheran two kingdoms doctrine, Smith favors neo-Calvinism, which affirms that Christ’s redemption of creation undoes the curse upon our sin and returns the world to its eschatological assignment of forming and transforming creation for Gdd’s glory. In other words, according to neo-Calvinism our cultural work actually brings about God’s kingdom.

At the heart of Smith’s critique of VanDrunen are two assumptions. First, Smith assumes that VanDrunen’s two kingdoms doctrine is fundamentally that of Luther. Second, Smith claims that Luther’s two kingdom doctrine (and therefore VanDrunen’s as well) is essentially a doctrine of two realms. Based on these assumptions, Smith argues that for two kingdoms theorists,

The gospel of grace is announced and enacted within the spiritual realm of the church, but in the temporal, civic realm of our cultural life – the work of building schools and families and libraries – we are governed by natural law. We meet Christ as Redeemer in the Word and sacraments, who births in us a longing for his coming kingdom; but, in the rest of our mundane lives, we deal with God the Creator, giver of natural law. While Sundays give us a taste of the spiritual kingdom of heaven, the rest of the week we inhabit the earthly kingdom of the present. While in the church, we feast on the Word of God’s revelation, in our cultural lives in this temporal world we live by the ‘universally accessible’ dictates of natural law.

Now before turning to Smith’s argument as he develops it two things need to be noted up front. First, VanDrunen has never presented his two kingdoms doctrine primarily as that of Luther. On the contrary, his work has focused on the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine which is grounded in the theology of John Calvin. While VanDrunen traces the two kingdoms doctrine back to Luther (as any responsible historian must), his discussion of Luther is in his chapter entitled “Precursors of the Reformed Tradition.” Smith does not engage Calvin’s version of the two kingdoms doctrine at all in this essay, nor does he engage VanDrunen’s interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine.

To be sure, Smith makes clear in a footnote that he does not think one has to be enslaved to Calvin’s thought in order to be a Calvinist. But if his basic charge against VanDrunen is that he is moving Calvinism in a Lutheran direction, you would think an essential part of defending that charge would be actually to discuss Calvin. Smith way be willing to yield Calvin to the two kingdoms advocates, but then let’s be clear who are the Calvinists and who are the neo-Calvinists. Let’s not try to portray the Calvinists as Lutherans.

The second important thing to note – and this is the most important thing – is that Smith entirely ignores VanDrunen’s book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, in which VanDrunen lays out his own interpretation of the two kingdoms doctrine. This is unfortunate, because the view Smith engages in his essay is not the view VanDrunen outlines in that book. Indeed, VanDrunen is very clear in that book that Christ’s lordship is over all of life, that Christians should always engage in cultural activities in conformity with Christ’s lordship, and that they do so in the context of a spiritual antithesis that runs right through the common kingdom.

VanDrunen’s account of the two kingdoms in that book is not so much an account of two realms as it is of two ages and two governments. The basic thesis of the book is that while Christians still live in this age and must therefore participate in cultural activities in common with unbelievers in accord with norms of creation, they do so as those whose allegiance is to the kingdom of the age to come. That kingdom breaks into this world in a way that touches every area of life, but that does not destroy or replace the order and institutions of creation, grounded in the creation mandate as interpreted through the lens of the Noahic Covenant. The basic distinction VanDrunen makes is not between two realms into which life can be neatly divided, but between an institution that communicates to us the powers of the age to come (the church) and institutions that we share in common with unbelievers (civil government, the family, etc.).

Now I want to state and clarify up front that I endorse virtually every word of Smith’s account of Augustine’s theology in his essay. Smith’s account of Augustine is excellent and it is a helpful contribution to the debate in an area that is Smith’s strength.

But does VanDrunen’s argument break with Augustine, as Smith claims? In his City of God Augustine described two cities, one of the elect who love God and attain to the age to come, the other of the reprobate who love themselves and the things of this age. Augustine did not identify those two cities with the church and the state, as VanDrunen points out in his book, but he did argue that the two cities live and work together in the common affairs of this age. Augustine believed that unbelievers always abuse the things of this world because of their own self-love, and thus he refused to grant them the right to consider their affairs as just in any ultimate sense of the term. Only believers, who use things in love for God because of their participation in the city of God, can claim the virtue of justice. And of course this matches up nicely with VanDrunen’s insistence that the common affairs of this age never transcend a penultimate form of justice. Believers lay claim to ultimate justice by their participation in the city of God through the church, and they can reflect that reality in every area of life, but they can never turn the world’s activities into anything resembling true justice.

But what does Smith say about VanDrunen and other two kingdom theorists?

two-kingdom theorists misread Augustine because they anachronistically impose on him the realm-speak of Luther’s two kingdoms. That is, they end up construing the two cities as two different spheres. On this reading, we either shuttle back and forth between the two realms, or we straddle them – with our souls in one and our bodies in the other. Conversely, using a slightly different metaphor, these two spheres are two different levels: the earthly, temporal level is the realm of politics and culture; the spiritual, eternal level is the realm of the church. As citizens of the city of God who inhabit the earthly city, we spend our weekdays, so to speak, on the lower level, and make visits to the upper level in worship. The temporal realm, VanDrunen would say, is only penultimate, not ultimate. (129)

Now while some of the things Smith says here are accurate, other claims he makes in this paragraph make it quite clear that he has not read VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. VanDrunen does not think we shuttle back and forth between two realms in any way shape or form. We constantly live in the common realm because it is the present age. Even what the church does, in that sense, takes place in the common realm, which is why the church worships in buildings, maintains gender roles, and baptizes the children of believers. Again, VanDrunen’s emphasis is on two ages, this age and the age to come. The church is the sole institutional manifestation of the age to come because it is through the church that we lay hold of Christ. But the lived manifestation of that age takes place in all of life, in a manner consistent with the created orders of this age.

There is a clue here as to why Smith misunderstands VanDrunen, and it may be a clue to the breakdown in communication between neo-Calvinists and two kingdoms advocates in general. As a Kuyperian, Smith thinks in terms of sphere sovereignty, and so he interprets VanDrunen’s two kingdoms in terms of two spheres. And indeed, if the two kingdoms doctrine is simply a doctrine of two spheres, then it makes sense to think of it as a doctrine of two realms, and it makes sense to say we should abandon it, because Kuyper has clarified the whole picture by pointing out that there are more than two spheres. But in fact, the two kingdoms doctrine is not about the division of life into spheres. It arose out of the Augustinian tradition Smith is claiming, not the Kuyperian tradition he is defending.

What Smith fails to take seriously is why a two kingdoms doctrine was necessary to clarify medieval abuses of Augustine’s two cities theology. The medieval Roman church claimed that since all things should be directed to the love and obedience of God, all power should be exercised subject to the lordship of the papacy. Both swords – the spiritual sword and the temporal sword – belong to the pope, who then delegates one such sword to the magistrate on the condition that the magistrate exercises it obediently to the pope. Luther grasped that on this basis magistrates were wrongly claiming the right to interfere with the gospel by virtue of their possession of the sword, and bishops were wrongly claiming the right to use the sword against the Protestant churches by virtue their own secular power. Only the two kingdoms doctrine, he insisted, could distinguish the secular purpose of the sword from the spiritual means by which the gospel is to go forth into the world.

To be sure, Luther tended to talk about the two kingdoms doctrine in three different ways. First, building on Augustine’s two cities doctrine, he distinguished between those who serve God and those who serve the devil. Second, he spoke of two governments appointed by God to govern the world in which these two groups of people mix: coercive government by the sword and spiritual government by the Word and Spirit. Third, Luther often spoke of two realms, by which he meant the outward realm of the body and life in this world, and the inward realm of the eternal soul. Smith places all his emphasis on this third part of Luther’s doctrine, and he interprets it abstracted from the first two parts. In fact, I am sympathetic to Smith’s critique here because I think Luther did sometimes rely on a simplistic internal/external two realms distinction when applying his two kingdoms doctrine. The fact is, however, even Luther recognized that Christians were to serve Christ in every single area of life. It was Luther who described the obligations of a Christian prince in such rigorous terms that he concluded famously that a Christian prince is a rare bird in heaven. This is not the Luther that Smith takes seriously.

In any case, the important point is that Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine did a lot to clarify the problem of the two realms. While it is true that Calvin regularly used the language of two realms, or of an inward/outward distinction, closer analysis demonstrates that this was his means of speaking about eschatological realities, not about the dividing of life into spheres. He used the language of the body, the earth, politics, and civil life to refer to the things of this age that will pass away, and he used the language of the soul, heaven, and the Spirit to refer to the things of the age to come. He described Christ’s government of this age as extending to the outward man because political authorities cannot change the heart, relying as they do on the sword, while he described Christ’s government of the kingdom of the age to come as extending to the inward man because Christ regenerates the heart through the Word and Spirit.

VanDrunen’s basic concern about the neo-Calvinists is that they routinely talk as if Christians are actually bringing about the kingdom of God by means of our cultural work. Calvin never spoke that way (nor did Augustine), and the reason for this was his two kingdoms distinction. Calvin was clear, and here VanDrunen follows him, that Christ governs and expands his kingdom by the Word and Spirit alone. Smith’s discussion of Augustine is a helpful antidote to versions of the two kingdoms doctrine that compromise the authority of Christ over all of life, and that therefore downplay the antithesis. But Smith’s essay is profoundly misleading insofar as it pretends actually to engage VanDrunen’s substantive two kingdoms proposal.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 21, 2012, in Calvin, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on James K. A. Smith’s Failure to Engage VanDrunen on the Two Kingdoms Doctrine.

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