Confusion in Two Kingdoms Debates: What are we actually arguing about?

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,

Either:

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.

Else,

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.]

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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 March 1, 2013, in Law, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Confusion in Two Kingdoms Debates: What are we actually arguing about?.

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