Category Archives: Abraham Kuyper
Christians have sometimes claimed that the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” forbids government from ever mandating the redistribution of wealth for the sake of the poor. According to this interpretation, the status quo is the result of God’s providence and must be respected. It is up to individuals, not society collectively, to assist the poor through charity.
Does the Heidelberg Catechism’s exposition of the eighth commandment in Lord’s Day 42 support this interpretation?
The catechism describes three levels of theft that are forbidden by God. First are “outright theft and robbery, punishable by law.” Second are “all scheming and swindling in order to get our neighbor’s goods for ourselves, whether by force or means that appear legitimate, such as inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume; fraudulent merchandising; counterfeit money; excessive interest; or any other means forbidden by God.” This category includes actions that are illegal, but it also includes practices that may be legal.
Third is “greed” and the “pointless squandering of [God’s] gifts,” as well as the failure to do “whatever I can for my neighbor’s good” and to “work faithfully so that I may share with those in need.”
Taken seriously, as Abraham Kuyper points out in his commentary on Lord’s Day 42, this thorough description of the various forms of theft is anything but a sanction of the distribution of wealth according to the status quo. On the contrary, it speaks sharply to the human conscience, convicting human beings of the myriad of ways in which we steal from our fellow image-bearers.
If property owners “try to deduce from the eighth commandment that all they have is their lawful property and that God has given them the freedom to do with it as they please,” Kuyper writes, “Christian ethics has the duty and call to break down all such false notions.” Indeed, when our responsibility to the poor is taken seriously, “it is immediately clear that the eighth commandment’s transgressors are largely found precisely among the owners, and that their number is greater outside of the prison walls than inside of them.”
The socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s famous claim that all property is theft was an exaggeration, Kuyper admits, but its basic insight was anticipated in this sixteenth century Reformed catechism. “On closer examination … it is true that a very large part of the belongings in this world are stolen property – yet it was not Proudhon who discovered this, for as early as 1563 this awareness could already be found in the catechism.”
In fact, the Christian conviction that excess wealth belongs to the poor far predates the Heidelberg Catechism. Most theologians from the early church to the Reformation maintained that God has given the earth to human beings in common and that property ownership is but a secondary right, one qualified by the obligations of stewardship and justice and subject to the regulation of government. It is inherently unjust when the poor do not have what they need.
Thus the church father Ambrose famously insisted that the wealth of the church belongs to the poor. Thomas Aquinas maintained that for a person in dire need to take what he or she needs from a person who has excess is not theft at all. John Calvin insisted that those who can share with the poor must share with the poor, not as a matter of charity but as a matter of justice and right. He argued that it is the spiritual responsibility of the church to care for the poor through the diaconate and the political responsibility of the community to care for the poor through civil government. In Geneva the diaconate worked closely with the city government to provide sustenance, health care, education, and even job training for the poor.
The catechism clearly supports this classic Christian perspective. Theft consists not merely in outright theft or even in cheating or swindling; it includes “all greed and pointless squandering of his gifts.” It requires the constant and continual redistribution of wealth.
Does the catechism tell us that government has a role in enforcing this requirement of justice? Given the consistent practice of Christian societies through the centuries (including the sixteenth century), it would have been shocking if the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism assumed anything else. The insistence of some Christians that government has no business caring for the poor is a modern phenomenon, alien to the Christian tradition.
Our confessions wisely leave the practical questions of political economy to the collective wisdom of human beings in their various times and places. But they should not leave us in doubt as to the basic principle: It is a responsibility of all people, Christians and non-Christians, as individuals and collectively, in the church and through the state, to secure economic justice for the poor.
This article was originally posted at Do Justice, the blog of the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue and the Office of Social Justice.
At First Things Richard Mouw joins in on the criticism of Jerry Falwell, Jr., who praised Donald Trump as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time” who “lives a life of helping others . . . as Jesus taught in the New Testament.” Mouw agrees with Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore that Falwell’s comments about Trump politicize the gospel. As Moore tweeted, “Politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around is the third temptation of Christ. He overcame it. Will we?”
What is interesting about Mouw’s piece is that he admits that in the past Calvinists have sometimes failed to overcome that third temptation of Christ. Even more interesting is that he points to Abraham Kuyper as a helpful corrective to this tendency. For those who are used to placing Kuyper in stark opposition to Reformed two kingdoms theology, Mouw’s brief description might begin to free them of that misguided tendency. Kuyper believed all of life falls under the lordship of Christ, of course, as did the classic Reformed two kingdoms tradition, but he also argued that Christ’s lordship calls for the sort of politics that embrace a democratic religious pluralism, as have some more recent Reformed two kingdoms advocates.
Mr. Trump promised his Liberty audience that if elected he will “protect Christianity.” People who love the Christian faith certainly could do with some protection these days. But the religious freedom we long for has to come as part of a larger movement for justice that generates a more comprehensive vision for a pluralistic society. It is in the service of that broader vision that we can avoid, as Russell Moore nicely put it, a pattern of “politics driving the gospel rather than the other way around.” If Jerry Falwell, Jr. wants some theological help in understanding that vision, I have a 19th century Calvinist whom I can recommend on the subject.
Falwell is not the only conservative Mouw might have criticized for politicizing the faith. Senator Ted Cruz apparently declared to his followers, “If we awaken and energize the body of Christ – if Christians and people of faith come out and vote their values – we will win and we will turn the country around.” “I want to tell everyone to get ready, strap on the full armor of God, get ready for the attacks that are coming.”
Christians should be very wary of candidates who identify their campaigns so closely with the purposes of God and the gospel faith, just as they should be wary of candidates who needlessly alienate Muslims and those who practice other faiths. Mouw is correct. Justice is nothing if not comprehensive in its vision for a pluralistic society.
You can read the rest of Mouw’s piece here.
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.
My lone quibble with Matt is the sign of lingering neo-Calvinism (which I attribute to his Covenant College education, in part, and which he denies). For instance, he still believes that Christians will look or be different and noticeable when they apply the Bible to their daily lives …
But I also know and I am sure Matt knows, plenty of non-Christians who believe government officials should serve the public, that businessmen should not ruthlessly pursue profits, that husbands should be considerate and loving toward their wives, and that those with resources will share them with those in need. In other words, I see nothing inherently distinctive or biblical in the Christian pursuit of these social and cultural goods. Do different motives exist for Christian businessmen compared to their unbelieving peers? Sure. Can I see those motives? No. And that is the point. The best stuff that Christians produce in public or cultural life is hardly distinct from non-Christian products. Where you do literally see Christianity at work is on Sunday.
Darryl describes my project as an “effort to find a middle way between 2k and neo-Calvinism. This is not how I perceive my own work. Although I do not view myself as a neo-Calvinist any more than I view myself as a representative of some sort of “two kingdoms movement” (I don’t find such flag-waving helpful), I, like David VanDrunen, wholeheartedly affirm neo-Calvinism’s teaching concerning the sovereignty of God over all of life, along with its emphasis on the cultural mandate, the antithesis, sphere sovereignty, and common grace (you will recall that in Natural Law and Two Kingdoms VanDrunen, with qualifications, claims Kuyper and Bavinck for the two kingdoms tradition, distinguishing it from neo-Calvinism’s subsequent evolution). Rightly understood, as David VanDrunen argues in his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, every one of these principles is fundamentally compatible with, and to a significant extent even presupposes, a two kingdoms perspective.
To be sure, a prominent strand of neo-Calvinism has evolved in a highly problematic, radical direction, in part due to its abandonment of biblical two kingdoms distinctions, and it therefore easily devolves into the worst forms of the social gospel and liberation theology. In between Kuyper, Bavinck, and this radical form of neo-Calvinism there are a plethora of variants and distinctions among self-conscious and unconscious neo-Calvinists, all of which suggest that we should not dismiss the movement as if it is some sort of monolithic beast.
But let me get to the precise quibble about which Darryl is concerned. Yes, I believe that Christians should look different from the world when they work out Christ’s lordship in their daily lives. At the same time, yes, I believe that the same moral law that binds Christians is written on the hearts of nonbelievers as natural law. As Calvin clarified time and again, outwardly nonbelievers often keep the moral law just as well as, if not better, than those who profess the Christian faith. (Once we get into the realm of the “products” of “public and cultural life,” by which I assume Darryl means things like civil laws, party platforms, scientific discoveries, works of art, or manufactured products like homes, clothing, or tools, there is no question that for the most part, the best that Christians do is hardly different from the best work of nonbelievers. But let me focus on the moral question in this essay.)
There are various reasons for this. On the one hand, many who profess the Christian faith are insincere or hypocritical. None attain to the moral standards that they themselves profess. On the other hand, many nonbelievers readily perceive the advantages of maintaining the natural moral order, whether as a result of their own religious convictions or of the influence of the very Christianity which they reject. But as C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, the relevant question is not whether every Christian is morally superior to every non-Christian. The relevant question is whether a Christian is more sanctified than he or she would be apart from the work of Christ. That’s why when professing Christians act like the worst unbelievers, the church excommunicates them.
But of course, that sanctification may be outwardly imperceptible in some cases, as Darryl rightly insists. This is particularly true when Christians are compared to those nonbelievers or practitioners of other religions who outwardly live moral lives worthy of the highest human praise, for whatever reason. In fact, there are myriad instances in which even the most sanctified Christians have much to learn – even morally – from individuals who deny the Christian faith. We need humility. Here again Darryl and I are agreed.
But Darryl overemphasizes the degree to which either Christians or nonbelievers actually live according to the best moral standards. I would suggest that the main reason why Christians often look no better morally than the world is that Christians are plagued by so much vice rather than that nonbelievers are marked by so much virtue. If Christians actually followed the teaching of Christ they would look profoundly different from the world, just as would nonbelievers if they actually obeyed the natural law. I understand Darryl’s desire to reject the “They will know we are Christians by our t-shirts” variety of Christianity, but that does not mean our Lord was wrong when he told us that they will know we are his disciples by our love for one another.
The fact remains that even in the works that Christians do that look just like the best works of the most morally admirable nonbelievers, the context for the former distinguishes them from the latter. The Apostle Peter gets at this when he calls Christians to act in ways that the world will respect and admire (which would be impossible if the world did not share the same moral awareness to some extent), but then insists that they always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in them. Taken as isolated, individual actions, therefore, what Christians do often looks identical to what is done by nonbelievers, but viewed in the context of a life of Christian witness (expressed most directly in worship, as Darryl emphasizes, but also present in the readiness of Christians to testify to the gospel), the same actions look different. As Ryan McIlhenny helpfully explains in Kingdoms Apart,
The good works done by Christians, although common in the abstract, nonetheless can effectively win over people to the kingdom, as Lord’s Day #32 … of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us (265)
In the particulars, Christian activity is similar to that of unbelievers and therefore part of the common, secular realm, but the picture changes when the pieces form a whole (269).
Christianity makes a difference in the life of anyone who is regenerate. When Christians rightly apply the Bible to their lives, following Christ, their actions will look different than they would have if they had not become Christians, a reality the New Testament explicitly associates with the calling of Christian witness. Does Darryl really disagree with this, understood rightly (rather than facilely)? I doubt it.
Note: Part 1 of this review can be found here.
The first and last chapters of the book, however, by Ryan McIlhenny, articulate a much better model of Christian cultural engagement, a model in substantive continuity with a basic two kingdoms paradigm if perhaps not with that of “the Two Kingdoms perspective” engaged in this book. While I do not agree with McIlhenny on every point, I do find his overall perspective to be a helpful step forward.
In the opening chapter McIlhenny, who is quite sympathetic with criticisms of certain versions of neo-Calvinism, explains why he nevertheless believes it should not be abandoned. But what is the neo-Calvinism that he is defending? The core assertion, he notes, is that Christ’s sovereignty extends to every square inch of the cosmos. He then develops this assertion in terms of four basic tenets: the cultural mandate, sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace. What is striking about this core assertion and its four tenets is that they are equally affirmed, if with some qualifications, by the leading Two Kingdoms advocate David VanDrunen. Is it possible that VanDrunen’s own project presupposes a basic neo-Calvinist theological framework?
The main difference to McIlhenny, it seems, is that while VanDrunen emphasizes the commonness of cultural activities by virtue of the Noahic Covenant, neo-Calvinists affirm that creation always had a Christological telos and that those who are redeemed in Christ are to witness to that telos in everything that they do. “Thus, for the neo-Calvinist, understanding the continued relevance of the cultural mandate, a changed life through the gracious work of Christ, opens one’s eyes to attend to the wounds of a broken world, spreading the gospel and demonstrating the love of Christ to the whole earth. Christians necessarily act on their transformed lives. Whatever Christians do, even the most quotidian of things such as eating and drinking, they must do for the honor and glory of God” (xxi).
But does VanDrunen really disagree with this point? I cannot speak for him but I am certainly not aware of anything in a two kingdoms paradigm that would lead one to say anything differently. The real question, then, is what does McIlhenny think this acting on the basis of transformed lives look like? And for that we need to turn to the last chapter of the book.
In the last chapter of the book McIlhenny articulates his model of cultural engagement: Christian Witness As Redeemed Culture. Although the chapter is a revision of an essay in which McIlhenny tried to articulate a middle way between neo-Calvinism and the Two Kingdoms perspective, even here McIlhenny is clearly seeking a position that embraces the best insights of both perspectives. Indeed, invoking H. Richard Niebuhr’s five models of Christ and culture he reminds his readers that the models “are not isolated categories to choose from. Each one overlaps, and they are better understood as corresponding moods that every Christian feels when engaging culture” (252). Stating his desire to “bridge the aisle by highlighting a feature of Christian cultural activity that both Two Kingdoms and neo-Calvinist thinkers can agree on” he stresses the character of Christian cultural engagement as a matter of witness and service in expression of Christ’s kingdom, a “setting apart” of Christian activity as “redeemed culture” in place of the transformational activism that seeks to be “externally sacralizing” by “redeeming culture, as if it were a thing to which redemption needs to come” (253). In short, McIlhenny favors transformed witness over transforming conquest.
Key to McIlhenny’s argument is his careful and scholarly definition of culture. He distinguishes between a view of culture as a thing or object that is given to us without meaning, a view he suggests VanDrunen implicitly espouses in his Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, and culture as a language of meaning, or to take the phrase of Clifford Geertz, which McIlhenny appropriates, a “transmitted pattern of meetings” (260). “Failing to recognize culture as language puts us in the habit of confusing culture with nature. It is crucial to understand this point. Presupposing culture as a thing, I believe, is a problem common to both neo-Calvinists and Two Kingdom proponents. Culture is born from human interaction with nature, as stated above, but is distinct from it” (261).
In other words, McIlhenny is suggesting that when VanDrunen emphasizes commonality between what believers and unbelievers do he is talking about nature itself, the objective stuff of life. And McIlhenny does not disagree that when it comes to this the activity of Christians is often no different from that of unbelievers. But he suggests that to properly understand what is going on in cultural engagement we need to recognize that human beings constantly and inevitably use the stuff of nature in ways that communicate meaning. In the context of the antithesis that both he and VanDrunen affirm, therefore, the ways in which Christians understand and communicate the meaning of what they do has to be fundamentally different from the way in which unbelievers do.
To be sure, the project of Christians should not be to seek to transform the culture of unbelievers – an impossible task. Rather, Christians witness by ensuring that their own culture, the meaning that they seek to communicate through their actions, is in service to Christ, or to put it as McIlhenny does, “redeemed.” McIlhenny rightly chastises VanDrunen, I believe, for being too stingy in his use of the adjective ‘Christian’, invoking Kuyper to argue that what the adjective denotes is Christianity’s influence on culture. He rightly invokes Luther and Calvin, “who understood that even the most mundane tasks such as washing dishes and tending a field were given new meaning because of the Christian’s worshipful attitude” (265).
The work that Christians do and the moral standard to which that work conforms is therefore common with that of unbelievers, as VanDrunen argues, but the way in which believers perform those works constitutes a witness to Christ. “The good works done by Christians, although common in the abstract, nonetheless can effectively win over people to the kingdom, as Lord’s Day #32 (Q&A 82) of the Heidelberg Catechism tells us” (265). The effect of this point is that it becomes impossible to make “facile” distinctions between the sacred and the secular. Affirming Darryl Hart’s definition of the secular in A Secular Faith as describing what is of this age, or what is passing, McIlhenny nevertheless points out that while Christians constantly interact with the secular, they always direct their use of secular things to the glory of God. Here he insists that “Two Kingdoms scholars ignore this neo-Calvinist distinction between structure and direction” (268). It seems to me that VanDrunen maintains this distinction in his own work, but I believe McIlhenny is correct that the distinction permits a broader use of the adjective Christian than VanDrunen or Hart acknowledge. As Ephesians 5-6 clearly indicates, Christians do all things “in Christ” even as they fulfill their very secular tasks and vocations. There can therefore be a Christian marriage or a Christian college insofar as through these institutions Christians communicate the meaning of the gospel. McIlhenny even sounds like VanDrunen (and he goes on to admit that substantively on this point “VanDrunen seems to agree with this”) when he writes, “In the particulars, Christian activity is similar to that of unbelievers and therefore part of the common, secular realm, but the picture changes when the pieces form a whole” (270, 269).
Neo-Calvinists have therefore struggled to explain what it means to redeem culture because they have focused on transforming things in themselves, “the ding an sich of material things.” Yet culture is about meaning, not material. And when it comes to meaning, “Everything we do as Christians should have a missionary and eschatological focus. Even our cultural involvement such as it is, should take place from the perspective of Christ’s coming kingdom” (271). Indeed, the preaching of the gospel, itself an inherently cultural activity according to McIlhenny’s definition, calls believers to live precisely this kind of life, presenting an identity to the world that leads unbelievers to ask for a reason for the hope that is in them. Through preaching and witness Christians therefore bring unbelievers into contact with the gospel of Jesus through which they are transformed by the power of God. Thus “It is through common or natural-law deeds – ‘our godly walk of life’ – that, as the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, ‘we may win our neighbors for Christ’ (Q 86)” (273). Christians’ good works “are the same works [as are the good deeds] of non-Christians, but only in mere common appearance…. Christians serve in culture exactly because they have been redeemed; their redemption now surrounds everything they do and consequently communicates that redeemed identity to the world” (274-275).
McIlhenny’s model of Christian cultural engagement as the witness of redeemed culture is very different from the triumphalist and external transformationalism so often associated with neo-Calvinism and criticized by so many of the authors of this book. It amounts to a defense of the fundamental Christian idea that Christians are to witness to their allegiance to Christ and his kingdom in every single thing that they do, in every area of life. No theology of culture, it seems to me, can be faithfully Christian and yet consistently deny this point. Insofar as Kingdoms Apart highlights and critiques elements of the Two Kingdoms perspective that are in tension with this basic point it performs an excellent service.
But despite some of its own claims, Kingdoms Apart should not be read as a critique of two kingdoms thinking generally any more than it should be read as a categorical endorsement of neo-Calvinism, both of which are far too diverse for such judgments of identity. On the contrary, (most of) the authors do much to show (perhaps unwittingly) that a biblical neo-Calvinism and a biblical two kingdoms perspective are not only compatible with one another, but actually need each other. I wish that McIlhenny had done more to tie the various arguments of the book together, relating his own thought to Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as well as to the more radical neo-Calvinism of authors like Jason Lief. Indeed, I suspect that, rhetoric aside, many of the book’s authors are closer in substance to VanDrunen than they are to Lief, one of the important points that the book’s problematic self-presentation on the dust jacket obscures. But there is no question that in bringing these essays together McIlhenny and his co-authors have helpfully illuminated some of the complex issues of culture and politics that need to be more clearly addressed by Reformed theologians. If it is interpreted through the lens of McIlhenny’s closing chapter, this book is a beneficial step forward.
The dust jacket of Ryan McIlhenny’s new book Kingdoms Apart declares that the book “focuses on the two competing positions rooted in the Reformed tradition: neo-Calvinism, a nineteenth-century school of thought associated with the Calvinist polymath Abraham Kuyper, and the Two Kingdoms perspective.” I’m not sure who wrote this description but in many ways it is misleading, if for no other reason than that one of the main things I take away from the book is that there are not “two competing positions” rooted in the Reformed tradition. Not only do the perspectives of the authors range from a moderate Kuyperianism to a more radical form of neo-Calvinism, and not only does the book clearly argue that John Calvin’s two kingdoms perspective should be distinguished from the proponents of “the” Two Kingdoms perspective being disputed in the book, but many of the book’s authors either acknowledge or implicitly demonstrate their own reliance on a version of the two kingdoms paradigm. In that sense the book’s subtitle on the front, “Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective,” is more accurate than the description on the back.
(Note: Throughout this essay I capitalize Two Kingdoms when referring to the particular perspective the authors are engaging, which they associate with David VanDrunen, Darryl Hart, Michael Horton, and Jason Stellman. When referring to broader two kingdoms thought such as that of John Calvin, I leave the term uncapitalized.)
The book begins with a forward by James Skillen and an introduction by Ryan McIlhenny, both of which defend a neo-Calvinist account of creation redeemed in response to the Two Kingdoms perspective. But McIlhenny’s defense is of a chastened and moderated neo-Calvinism, informed by McIlhenny’s own sympathies with two kingdoms logic. In the last chapter of the book, which he also writes, he defends not so much a model of Christian engagement transforming culture as he does a model of Christian witness as redeemed culture. I’ll return to McIlhenny’s argument below because I think it is probably the most helpful contribution of this book.
The second and third chapters of Kingdoms Apart are parallel accounts of the degree to which the most prominent Two Kingdoms advocate, David VanDrunen, accurately describes the two kingdoms doctrine of John Calvin. I am particularly interested in these chapters because John Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine is the subject of my dissertation at Emory University. The first, by Cornel Venema, is the more polemical and critical of the two. Venema helpfully illuminates some of the different emphases between Calvin’s theology and that of VanDrunen, but his description of VanDrunen’s project appears in language VanDrunen never uses (i.e., an “ecclesiastical kingdom”; “two hermetically-sealed realms”) and that obscures the ambiguity and depth of VanDrunen’s project. Venema’s own reading of Calvin is somewhat thin at points (he portrays Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as largely an explanation in lieu of the Anabaptists of why Christians should submit to civil government) and perhaps a little too colored by Venema’s neo-Calvinist commitments, although Venema does make the helpful point that “Calvin suffered no illusions regarding the renovation of human life and the restoration of all things to proper order prior to the consummation of all things at Christ’s second advent” (31).
Gene Haas is also critical of VanDrunen’s account of Calvin on natural law and the two kingdoms, but Haas’s criticism is more about VanDrunen’s emphasis (i.e., he exaggerates the distinction between the two kingdoms as well as Calvin’s optimism about human knowledge of the natural law in civil matters) than it is about the substance of his argument. Haas’s own account of Calvin’s two kingdoms perspective is excellent, highlighting the close connections Calvin drew between the two kingdoms and the doctrine of the church, especially pertaining to the unique character of church discipline. Haas rightly portrays Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine as an eschatological distinction between Christ’s spiritual kingdom, which appears fully only at Christ’s return, and the concerns of the present life (the political or civil kingdom); even as the institutional structures of this age (such as the civil jurisdiction) are to submit to Christ and his word, they should nevertheless not be confused with Christ’s spiritual kingdom. “Believers have the tension of living both for the eschatological realities of Christ’s return and for the social realities of a sinful world” (55).
I describe these chapters on Calvin at length because in some ways the greatest weakness of the book is that the authors largely avoid clarifying the relation of their theologies of creation and redemption to the broader two kingdoms theology articulated by figures like Calvin. This obscures the degree to which many of them maintain the reformer’s basic two kingdoms commitments, despite their criticism of the contemporary Two Kingdoms perspective.
There is no need for me to summarize every chapter of the book but I do want to highlight some significant arguments in a few chapters. Scott A. Swanson provides an illuminating discussion of the significance of the kingdom in the book of Revelation. Swanson stresses the “already but not yet” character of the kingdom’s coming and the Lord’s reign in Revelation, distancing himself from theologies that suggest that the church or Christians bring the kingdom, while at the same time emphasizing that the call on Christians is to testify to the reign of Christ in every area of life. “Revelation’s message should also warn us against any triumphalistic overconfidence in Christian cultural transformation in this world. Nor does it encourage us to see our cultural engagements as in themselves advancing Christ’s kingdom. They can and must aim to be expressions of our faithful witness to that kingdom… This must have its outworking in our cultural lives” (225). Revelation is clear that the new heavens and the new earth will only appear with Christ’s second coming. “It is thus significant that Revelation begins and ends not with calls to transform culture, but with warnings to heed the message of the book by being overcomers,” which Christians do through “faithful testimony and keeping God’s commandments” (226).
Nelson Kloosterman likewise stresses his sympathies with certain two kingdoms concerns, though he calls for a version of the doctrine that integrates creation and redemption in Christ. Kloosterman criticizes the triumphalism of some neo-Calvinists, thinking in particular of “rhetoric about Christians’ ‘extending’ the lordship of Jesus Christ; about Christians’ ‘redeeming’ or ‘renewing’ culture; about Christians’ ‘transforming’ culture for Christ; and the like,” rhetoric that “forms the substance of vision statements and advertising slogans for a number of Reformed, Presbyterian, and evangelical colleges in North America” (66). He offers Herman Bavinck and S. G. de Graaf as examples of the sort of integration for which he is looking. His translation of two lectures by de Graaf are particularly interesting, particularly in light of the context of the church’s resistance to Dutch Nazism as described by Kloosterman. But while de Graaf’s defense of Christ’s lordship over the nations and the authority of Scripture (properly understood) over politics is persuasive, his suggestion that Christ’s temporal kingdom includes both the state and the church’s ministry of word and Spirit, alongside his insistence that the eternal kingdom is manifested in the state as well as the church, hardly seems to be an improvement upon Calvin’s clearer two kingdoms distinction as articulated by Gene Haas.
If readers are expecting a monolithic defense of a simple neo-Calvinism the contributions of Branson Parler and Jason Lief should dispel this assumption. Parler appeals to Augustine’s two cities model and the Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder to offer a critique of the Two Kingdoms perspective that he identifies with David VanDrunen and Abraham Kuyper! His main critique of the latter is that they not only distinguish special and common grace, ultimate and penultimate ends, but that they separate them entirely, as if common grace and the penultimate could attain to their God-intended ends without reference to the ultimate. Parler helpfully defends an Augustinian account of creation and culture as oriented to the service of God, rightly pointing out that for Augustine using penultimate things without reference to the ultimate is the definition of idolatry. Yet he seems to exaggerate the extent to which the Two Kingdoms perspective is inherently incompatible with Augustine’s two cities framework. VanDrunen himself stresses that the antithesis runs through the common kingdom and that when not properly related towards God human beings cannot please him, even in their common kingdom activities.
The most radical version of neo-Calvinism advocated in the book is that of Jason Lief. Indeed, Lief’s account of the relation between creation, natural law, redemption, and eschatology hardly seems compatible with the positions taken by most of the other authors in the book. Grounding his argument in the work of Herman Dooyeweerd as well as Abraham Kuyper, Lief argues that while natural law and the moral order of creation does play a role in the Christian life, Christians should not understand these moral authorities in static terms. In sharp contrast to Calvin’s view (and that of the Reformed confessions) of the natural and moral law as timeless, Lief suggests that they need to be interpreted developmentally in terms of their telos and direction in Christ. Christians should not seek to live according to the order of a creation past (creation restored), but according to the destiny of that creation in the future (eschatological transformation).
Like Parler, Lief turns his sights on mainstream neo-Calvinism itself, complaining not only that the two kingdoms tension is built into standard neo-Calvinism, but that the two kingdoms insistence on the enduring authority of the created natural order plays a “conservative role” in Christian theology, functioning as a “a tool for maintaining a specific interpretation of anthropology and the social and cultural norms that humanity should fulfill” (244). Lief maintains, “As long as neo-Calvinism continues to insist on a doctrine of creation separate from Christology, the tension between common grace and antithesis, and thus the Two Kingdoms dilemma, remains” (239). Instead Christians should “seek to make moral sense of our lives by engaging the narratives and practices that inform our identity” (245). Through practical reasoning we seek not moral absolutes but to determine the relative superiority of one action over another, articulating our conception of the good through our understanding of “becoming,” “authenticity,” and “identity” in “the context of the lived world” (246).
There is no question that Lief’s version of neo-Calvinism is precisely the kind that most two kingdoms advocates (and indeed, many neo-Calvinists, as Lief admits) fear most. If classic Christian ethics appealed to nature and God’s moral law to condemn postlapsarian institutions of oppression like racial slavery, the eschatological ethics Lief describes are frequently used to seek transcendence over even created norms like gender and marriage. If there was ever a case for the two kingdoms distinction between creation and redemption as being vital to fidelity to Scripture Lief’s chapter is that case.
The first and last chapters of the book, however, by Ryan McIlhenny, articulate a much better model of Christian cultural engagement, a model in substantive continuity with a basic two kingdoms paradigm if perhaps not with that of “the Two Kingdoms perspective” engaged in this book. While I do not agree with McIlhenny on every point, I do find his overall perspective to be a helpful step forward.
To Be Continued Tomorrow
When it comes to the two kingdoms doctrine and Christian liberal arts institutions like Covenant College (the college of the Presbyterian Church in America) in Lookout Mountain, Georgia there may not be that much conflict after all. That, at least, is the conclusion to which one might come in response to a panel discussion on the topic yesterday between Michael Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, and several Covenant College faculty.
Horton began the panel discussion by reminding the audience that there is no such thing as an “Escondido theology” or Escondido two kingdoms doctrine. The faculty of Westminster Seminary California is not monolithic in its views of cultural engagement, the institution’s president Robert Godfrey himself being a staunch Kuyperian. Suggesting that it makes little sense to describe Kuyperian neo-Calvinism and the two kingdoms perspective as contrary positions, Horton pointed out (as did Godfrey in a presentation several years ago) that on most important points these perspectives are agreed. Among the commonalities he described:
1) Both clearly distinguish the form of cultural and political engagement obligatory on Christians from the model of Old Testament Israel.
2) Both maintain a sharp critique of the militancy and culture war mindset that marks much of the Christian Right, which has its own version of the social gospel.
3) Each perspective affirms basic neo-Calvinist concepts concerning common grace, the antithesis, and sphere sovereignty.
4) Both seek to distinguish the work proper to the institutional church (church as organization) and the way in which believers serve Christ and witness to his kingdom in every area of life (church as organism).
5) Both agree that Christians cannot bring the kingdom of God to earth through their cultural work.
6) Each perspective insists that Scripture has much to say about how Christians should be involved in culture through their vocations.
7) Both agree that the church must proclaim what the word of God says about God’s law to the state, while avoiding false claims to expertise in matters of economics or policy.
8) Both affirm that while the actual objective work of Christians often looks similar to that of unbelievers, in terms of motivation, worldview, and sometimes objective results such work is profoundly different.
9) Both affirm the value of Christian parachurch organizations like colleges and seminaries, while at the same time preserving the liberty of Christians to participate in non-Christian organizations as well.
In their responses to Horton the various Covenant faculty affirmed their basic agreement on these points, expressing in particular their appreciation for the emphasis the two kingdoms doctrine places on the importance of the institutional church.
Of course, they had questions too. Jeff Dryden, a professor of New Testament, affirmed David VanDrunen’s critique of certain over-optimistic versions of redemptive transformationalism, but he rightly noted that more moderate accounts of transformation are by no means incompatible with the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith. He worried that certain expressions of the two kingdoms doctrine misinterpret the New Testament call to believers to seek things that are above, where Christ is, rightly pointing out that the New Testament describes such seeking in terms of concrete, this-worldly virtues (as I argued here).
Bill Davis, a professor of philosophy, suggested that while the the rhetoric of two kingdoms advocates and moderate transformationalists often makes the two perspectives sound radically opposed to one another, in actual point of practice there is virtually no difference between the two positions. To be sure, Davis rightly questioned the notion that natural knowledge of God’s moral law is a sufficient standard or point of commonality for Christian cultural and political engagement. He also worried that passivity rather than militancy is the greater temptation of young Christians today, and he legitimately criticized the tendency of some two kingdoms advocates to speak as if there is no spiritual element to the ordinary vocational work that Christians do. But Davis again reminded the audience that while adherents to the two perspectives often describe their approaches to culture quite differently, in actual practice they are doing the same things.
Brian Fikkert, a professor of economics and author of the highly acclaimed book When Helping Hurts, likewise affirmed the two kingdoms emphasis on the work of the institutional church and on Christ as the one who alone brings his kingdom. He also lauded the humble approach to cultural engagement inherent to the two kingdoms perspective. But he worried about the idea that Christians bring little that is objectively different from unbelievers to their work, pointing out that while in principle Christians share the standard of natural law with unbelievers, in practice unbelievers constantly suppress that law. He gave excellent examples of instances in which the Christian faith helps Christians bring something to their work that does indeed look objectively different from the work of unbelievers.
Horton responded to these concerns by affirming many of them. He did suggest that in the New Testament redemption is always described as something that God does for us, not something that we do in our vocations or cultural activity. Why not choose a better word to describe what we are doing? We all agree, he pointed out, that we should seek to bring a Christian influence to our culture. But there are varying ways to talk about how we do that, some of which are more faithful to biblical language than are others.
Horton agreed that Scripture is necessary not just to the Christian doctrine of salvation but to the proper interpretation of natural law for the purposes of cultural and political engagement. He agreed that Christians need to be careful not to articulate theologies of culture that pander to passivity, highlighting the important legacy of the Reformation doctrine of vocation. He clarified that the two kingdoms doctrine does not amount to a distinction between material and immaterial things but between the present age and the age to come. For that reason he rejected versions of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church that have been used to argue that the church should not speak out against patent evils like the racial slavery of the Antebellum South.
Horton concluded in a spirit that seemed to be echoed by many of the faculty present (at least those with whom I spoke afterwards). He noted that while the two kingdoms perspective is often portrayed as a position in conflict with moderate neo-Calvinism, in reality the perspectives are less polar opposites than points on a common spectrum. Once one looks past prominent rhetorical and linguistic differences it can often be difficult to determine what in practice is actually being disputed. And indeed, when it came to the greatest dangers threatening Reformed believers in their cultural and political engagement the members of the panel were in significant agreement. That is a point worth thinking about as this conversation moves forward.
In a recent column in World Magazine Joel Belz wondered whether churches have become too cautious or fearful in engaging politics. Belz notes that churches rightly steer away from endorsing candidates or political parties, and he agrees that Christians need to make it clear that their “spiritual and heavenly allegiance” is much more important than their “worldly character.” But he suggests that given the “radical secularization of our culture” churches may need to step up the political instruction. As would be expected in this sort of argument, Belz invokes the legacy of the pastor turned Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, along with Kuyper’s ringing declaration of the lordship of Christ over every area of life.
What is Belz looking for in particular?
When the Bible says that “righteousness exalts a nation,” it seems minimally appropriate for churches and their ministers to help their people understand better in practical political terms what that righteousness looks like. What does “righteousness” mean when we think about tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues?
Belz doesn’t answer the question but he does direct his readers to a course offered by Summit Ministries.
I agree that the church should teach its members the basic principles of Christian political theology, many of which are helpfully summarized on the website of Summit Ministries. Christians should know what Scripture says about God’s ordination of the state in the context of the Noahic Covenant, about government’s responsibility to secure basic justice for the poor and the oppressed, about the obligation to pay taxes and give honor to the civil magistrate, and about the need for the church to obey God rather than human beings when necessary. And it would be very beneficial for pastors and teachers who have the expertise to hold a Sunday School series on some of the principles of Christian political theology as taught by the tradition running from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas to the reformers and beyond.
But Belz seems to be pressing further when he speaks of what righteousness looks like in “practical political terms,” applied in particular to “tax rates, immigration, education, foreign policy, healthcare—and a hundred different issues” (emphasis added). Does Scripture really teach what righteousness looks like in practical political terms in the 21st Century United States of America on a hundred different issues?
I know some pastors who argue that based on Christian principles the government should definitely tax the wealthy at higher rates than it currently does. I know others who argue that anything other than a flat tax rate is virtual theft. Some contemporary Christians think Jesus demands a crack-down on illegal immigration. Others argue that the principles of mercy and of hospitality to strangers should temper such a crack-down. And while many conservative Christians assume that Christianity calls for a limited government that leaves matters like education, health care, poor relief and the church outside of the supervision of the state, they might be surprised to find out that a theologian like Calvin found it quite sensible that the state should have oversight over all of these matters; indeed, in his commentaries he argues that it is within the obligation of the state to establish schools and hospitals, as well as to provide for the poor and pay the salaries of the ministers of the church.
Calvin may have been wrong, of course. But how sure can we be that Scripture provides the answers for which we are looking if Calvin (and all other Christian political theologians prior to the advent of modern liberalism) came to such different conclusions than we do? Belz wants the church to recover its prophetic edge. But if the church’s hearers are not convinced that it is truly the Lord speaking when the prophet says “Thus says the Lord” the effect will be the destruction of the church’s credibility, not the recovery of such a prophetic edge. Jim Wallis and Jerry Falwell saw themselves as prophets but outside of their small group of already convinced followers few shared the conviction.
In a thoughtful review of Kenneth J. Collins’s recent book on politics and evangelicalism, my friend and former teacher Jay Green, professor of history at Covenant College, suggests that Collins comes close to conflating thoughtful Christian engagement with libertarianism. Green writes,
although Collins encourages evangelicals to move “beyond ideology” as a solution to our current impasse, the cumulative effect of his own persistent grievances against the modern secular state amounts, in the end, to a book-length argument on behalf of an almost reflexive libertarianism. In other words, the central concern that seems to animate Collins’s book isn’t the divided soul of evangelicalism as much as the moral (il)legitimacy of the modern liberal state. I waited in vain for Collins to advance (or at least acknowledge) some semblance of a Christian case for the state as a God-ordained institution, established to do his bidding, even when its goals and methods are unholy and its thirst for expansive power unquenchable. (Consider the regime the apostle Paul was living under when he penned the 13th chapter of his letter to the Romans.) Treating the robust exercise of state power as little but oppressive, or denying that participation in “power politics” can result in anything but corruption, seems to undervalue or simply ignore the extent to which all such activity is done under a sovereign God as an extension of his good government.
I sincerely appreciate Collins’s admonitions against evangelicals shilling for or baptizing secular political ideologies, as well as his warnings against confusing political movements with God’s kingdom. I do not, however, believe that his persistent libertarian contempt toward government power provides a very helpful path forward. I think he meant to gesture toward a public code for evangelicals leavened by a Wesleyan ethic of love and self-denial, which is attractive in many ways. But his analysis reads more often like a treatise on behalf of what David Brody has called “Teavangelicalism”—an alliance between evangelicals and Tea Party conservatives. If we hope to support a robust Christian vision for public life, we must be properly wary of government propensities toward tyranny. But we must also ingest a healthy dose of realism that understands coercive power not as a unique invention of modernity, but as an intrinsic and complex feature of the human condition.
I share Green’s concern. Although I agree with Belz and many other Christians that the church should proclaim the whole counsel of God, including what that counsel says about political theology, I am not very confident in the ability of most pastors and teachers to engage in “practical political terms” on a hundred different issues while at the same time rising above their own political predilections and loyalties (whether to the left or to the right). If the church wants to maintain its prophetic edge it needs to focus on what Scripture actually teaches, encouraging Christians to work out these principles in citizenship and vocation and in a spirit of service to their neighbors (think Kuyper’s distinction between the church as institution and the church as organism). But that won’t happen unless the church steers well clear of practical political matters, on a hundred different issues.