Two Kingdom Myths: How the Critics Get VanDrunen (and Calvin) Wrong

[N]o area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual –
David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms

No doubt most of you are tired about reading about the two kingdoms doctrine. So much of the debate seems to be about rhetoric (at worst) or disagreements about application (at best), and it has increasingly become clear that virtually everyone in the Reformed tradition holds to some sort of two kingdoms doctrine (though some are in denial about this). If you look past the rhetoric, the real debate usually revolves around the meaning of the doctrine and its significance for today. And that is certainly progress.

David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms continues to be a flashpoint in the debate. On the one hand, numerous writers have legitimately pointed out gaps in VanDrunen’s narrative, points at which additional clarity is needed, or even areas in which VanDrunen’s formulations are sometimes misleading. On the other hand, most writers recognize that VanDrunen has made a significant contribution in recovering some fundamental concepts from the Reformed political theological tradition – concepts that promise to help shed light on the church’s social and political engagement in the 21st Century.

Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Emory University Studies in Law and Religion (Eerdmans))

Although much work yet remains to be done (VanDrunen views his own project as preliminary and suggestive, to be taken up and improved by other scholars), it is worth noting that not everything that is claimed about VanDrunen’s work is accurate. In particular, two myths have made their rounds, both of which distort VanDrunen’s scholarship and the relation of that scholarship to John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine.

The first myth is that VanDrunen misinterprets Calvin when he associates the two kingdoms, or twofold government, with the institutions of the church and the state (or to put it less anachronistically, the church and the civil magistracy). The irony here is that on this point VanDrunen is solidly in line with the consensus of Calvin scholars. There is no point in my quoting scholar after scholar – although I could do that. My own interpretation of Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine, in which I address this issue, will appear at Reformation 21 soon. For now suffice it to say that virtually every Calvin or Reformation scholar I have read (and I have read a lot in this area) rightly acknowledges that Calvin associated the spiritual kingdom with the visible church and the political kingdom with the civil magistrate, and there is no shortage of passages in Calvin’s Institutes and commentaries to prove the point. Pay close attention when the critics are propagating this myth. Do they actually offer evidence for their views? Do they make sense of the many places in which Calvin clearly identifies the spiritual kingdom with the visible church?

Second, and just as important, a number of scholars have claimed that VanDrunen presents the two kingdoms as two realms strictly separated, indeed two “hermetically sealed” realms. James K. A. Smith made the claim here, and now Cornel Venema has made it here (with seemingly warm affirmation in an otherwise helpful response to Venema by Brad Littlejohn here). Venema even goes so far as to (repeatedly) describe VanDrunen’s position as being that Calvin distinguished an “ecclesiastical kingdom” from a civil kingdom. Needless to say, VanDrunen never refers to the spiritual kingdom as the “ecclesiastical kingdom” and Venema’s slip here suggests he has gotten something profoundly wrong. Indeed, VanDrunen never identifies the spiritual kingdom with the church “simpliciter“, as Venema suggests.

Once again, readers should take the care to ask themselves, Does VanDrunen really argue what the critic claims he argues? Is the critic actually quoting VanDrunen, and does he make sense of the passages in VanDrunen’s work that seems to contradict his summary of it? Has he even read VanDrunen’s most recent work (yes, believe it or not, one author who made the above claim in an academic journal critique of VanDrunen’s two kingdoms doctrine admitted to me that he had not even read VanDrunen’s definitive work on the subject, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, which had already been published when he submitted his paper for publication.)

Here I want to offer one very clear quotation from VanDrunen’s chapter on Calvin in his Natural Law and Two Kingdoms to prove the point. Defending Calvin’s argument that the consistory of the church should have authority over wide ranging matters of civil life, VanDrunen writes,

[M]ost of the civil affairs which Calvin made answerable to the Consistory can be said to have a spiritual dimension. Certainly the issues of marriage and family that took up so much of the Consistory’s attention are matters that, while clearly civil, also implicate the spiritual condition of people and thus are of rightful concern to their pastors and elders. Broadly, one might say that since people can fall into sin in any area of life, no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual. (87)

That is a striking claim, and it does not fit the script offered by some of VanDrunen’s critics. It certainly doesn’t sound like a doctrine of two “hermetically sealed” realms. Yet VanDrunen makes similar claims throughout his work, particularly in his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, the fullest statement of his own version of the two kingdoms doctrine. For instance, he writes,

According to the New Testament, the redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace come to their fullest earthly expression in the church, and in the church alone. It is true, of course, that Christians are citizens of this kingdom and members of this covenant at all times. They should live obedient lives to Christ in every aspect of life and should manifest the power of Christ’s kingdom and covenant in all they do. But the church is the only institution and community in this world that can be identified with the redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace.” (102).

He goes on, “Though the church is not identical to the covenant of grace or the kingdom of heaven, it is precisely in the church that the covenant and kingdom are experienced until Christ returns.” (116)

VanDrunen also clearly affirms the lordship of Christ over all of life:

The Lord Jesus Christ rules all things… So how does Christ now rule the many institutions and communities of this world other than the church? The answer is that he rules them through the Noahic Covenant, for they are institutions and communities of the common kingdom. They operate according to the same basic principles and purposes as before Christ’s first coming. What is different [after that first coming] is that God now rules them through the incarnate Jesus, the last Adam who has entered into the glory of the world-to-come.” (118)

In the later part of the book VanDrunen reminds his readers that believers and unbelievers share the same moral standard for their lives: God’s moral, or natural law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments. But he points out various respects in which for believers “cultural activity should be uniquely Christian: even in their most ordinary and mundane tasks, Christians must act from faith, in accord with God’s law, and for God’s glory. (167)

There are certainly valid criticisms that can be made of VanDrunen’s work on the two kingdoms doctrine, and I myself have made some of them. But there is also a lot of misinformation and confusion flying around out there and none of this does much in the way of bringing us closer to the truth. Again I would urge you, check the evidence offered by the critics. Don’t believe everything you read.

About Matthew J. Tuininga

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

Posted on October 12, 2012, in Calvin, David VanDrunen, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Two Kingdom Myths: How the Critics Get VanDrunen (and Calvin) Wrong.

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