Clarifying the relation of the two kingdoms doctrine to neo-Calvinism

A person who recently listened to my lecture on the two kingdoms doctrine communicated the concern to me that in the question and answer session I was insufficiently clear that not all neo-Calvinists find the two kingdoms doctrine problematic. If you have listened to the lecture, a member of the audience asked me why some people find the two kingdoms doctrine so worrisome. I responded (in part) by suggesting that some neo-Calvinists, particularly the more radical types, are influenced by liberal Protestant and even Hegelian notions of the way in which all of life is transformed into the kingdom of God, to the point that they abandon the Christian notion of secularity, or of the distinction between the present age and the age to come.

To be sure, I should have been more clear. There are many people who consider themselves neo-Calvinists who do not share the radical critique of the two kingdoms doctrine, and who themselves are committed to it in its basic points. In fact, depending on how you define the term, many two kingdoms advocates are themselves neo-Calvinists, in the sense that they share Abraham Kuyper’s emphasis on Christ’s lordship over all of life, they embrace his understanding of common grace, and they wholeheartedly appreciate his understanding of sphere sovereignty. I would include myself in this group.

From my perspective the two kingdoms doctrine offers a clarification to the best of neo-Calvinism (or of Kuyper) rather than a rejection. This clarification is necessary precisely to avoid some of the missteps made by various neo-Calvinists over the years, particularly those I referred to in my lecture as the more radical types. It helps to remind people that although Christians are to serve Christ as their king in every area of life, that does not make every area of that life “kingdom activity,” nor does it make every area of life equally eternal. There are some things that do pass away (Luke 20; 1 Corinthians 7) even though Christians are to do everything that they do as unto the Lord (Ephesians 5-6) because all things exist and are reconciled in Christ (Colossians 1). Many neo-Calvinists get this, and in that sense they themselves hold to the basic two kingdoms doctrine.

Unfortunately, however, much of this debate is really a matter of arguing over application of shared doctrine at best (a form of argument that is necessary but that often obscures a more basic unity regarding foundational issues among the disputants), and posturing at worst. But it is important to be clear. And so for my part I want to clarify that the two kingdoms doctrine is not at odds with the best versions of neo-Calvinism; indeed, as David VanDrunen demonstrated in his Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, in fundamental respects Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck themselves endorsed the essential features of the doctrine.

Hopefully clarity on this question will help many people to get past their fears of the two kingdoms doctrine as something radically new and innovative, while helping them to see at the same time that the neo-Calvinist legacy has not been unmitigated good. We must testify to the lordship of Christ over all of life while at the same time distinguishing between the secular affairs of this age and the kingdom of God itself. Surely we can all agree on that, right?

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on July 24, 2012, in Neo-Calvinism, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Clarifying the relation of the two kingdoms doctrine to neo-Calvinism.

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