In his article, “Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages,” Jonathan Leeman proposes a doctrine of two ages as a helpful paradigm for understanding the relationship between the church and the world. Building on the political theology of Oliver O’Donovan and recent developments in New Testament studies, Leeman offers this as a helpful corrective to various “doctrines of the two” at play in church history, including that of the two kingdoms, which Leeman identifies with Martin Luther.
In fact, there’s good precedent for Leeman’s proposal, and it comes from none other than the 16th-century reformer John Calvin. Ironically, though, Calvin presented his theology in precisely the terms that Leeman opposes: two kingdoms. As I show in my forthcoming book, Calvin’s Political Theology and the Public Engagement of the Church, Calvin’s two kingdoms theology was nothing if not a two ages eschatology. It was his attempt to explain how the future kingdom of Christ (the age to come) breaks into the present age even while the present age continues. The two ages overlap, and Christians inhabit both at the same time. As a result, Christians are subject to a “twofold government,” to two different kinds of authorities, which Calvin called two kingdoms (Institutes 3.19.15).
Calvin often described these two kingdoms by distinguishing between what’s earthly and what’s heavenly in human beings, or between what’s inward and what’s outward. But Calvin didn’t use these terms to denote a dualistic view of humans any more than the apostle Paul when speaking of the contrast between flesh and Spirit.
Rather, Calvin used “inward” and “heavenly” to refer to the age to come, which breaks into this age through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers—even as from an outward and earthly perspective things seem to go on as they always have, under the shadow of death and decay.
Read the rest of this article at The Gospel Coalition.
In a thoughtful blog post at the Gospel Coalition (HT: Darryl Hart) Justin Taylor describes the appropriate Christian attitude towards culture and politics in terms of the two kingdoms doctrine:
We are dual citizens, responsible and active members of both God’s spiritual kingdom and earthly kingdom. And if we seek to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and strength—and to love our neighbor as ourselves—then we should care to some degree about politics and elections and the role of government in our land.
Taylor reminds his readers of the way in which the two kingdoms tension runs throughout the Scriptural record.
The apostle Paul once warned that “no soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits” (2 Tim. 2:4), and he insisted that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). This sounds like a single citizenship with only a heavenly zip code.
However, the same apostle Paul also declared that he was “a citizen of no obscure city” (that is, Tarsus) and avoided torture by appealing to his Roman citizenship, which gave him certain rights and prevented certain actions from the Roman authorities (Acts 21:39; 22:25-29). Paul knew that his fundamental identity was “hidden with God in Christ” and that he was to set his mind on “things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-3), but he also knew that he had earthly obligations and rights and that they were not insignificant.
Or, we can ask: Which city should we care about?
And so the paradox goes.
Taylor helpfully points out that ultimately evangelism is more important than politics, the spiritual kingdom more important than the earthly. But he notes that most Christians do and should care about both. In fact, Darryl Hart’s fair quibbles about priorities aside, I find that Taylor may overemphasize the call on Christians to evangelize. Taylor writes, “If you have to choose between evangelism and politics, choose evangelism. Saving an eternal soul is more important than fixing a temporal need.” I think it would be better for Taylor to put the Christian call to evangelism in the context of vocation. For some Christians politics is a calling of God, and they ought to do their best to remain faithful in that vocation, mindful that their politics should be an occasion for others to ask them for a reason for the hope that is within them.
I think Taylor gets the formulation quite right in his closing paragraph. If only in the sense that his very concept of the secular is shaped by his understanding of the gospel and of the word of God, even Darryl should agree with this statement:
There are more important things in life than politics. It’s easy to become an idolatry. But it’s also easy to be too apathetic. As the Lord leads, let us commit to letting our politics be shaped by the gospel and informed by the word of God as we prayerfully work to become informed and to fulfill our roles, seeking the good of the city even as we wait for the city to come.
In a a very thoughtful post at the Reformation 21 blog Carl Trueman warns us against allowing the culture wars to skew our priorities when it comes to faithful theology and practice. Simply put, he asks why some conservative Christians assume that barring church offices to women is more important than insisting on a faithful practice of the sacrament of baptism or of the Lord’s Supper.
To be sure, Trueman is aware that many conservatives regard the issue of women’s ordination as a test case for whether or not someone accepts the authority of Scripture. In fact, he admits that in many cases this judgment is appropriate. However, he warns us that not all those who advocate opening the offices of the church to women do so because they reject the authority of Scripture. As Trueman puts it,
I have indeed come across those who argue for women’s ordination on the grounds that Paul was simply wrong; but I have also met those who think we have simply moved on from Paul’s time, that he was right then but that his teaching cannot be applied directly to the twenty-first century context. Further, I have met those who profess to hold to inerrancy and who think that the relevant texts are authoritative but that the complementarian understanding of them is wrong. The latter two classes of people seem to me to be raising primarily hermeneutical issues; and the last group in particular does not seem, on the face of it, to be advocating a necessarily low view of scripture in the typical sense of the phrase. Indeed, I see no reason why one could not be an egalitarian and an inerrantist. And if it is a hermeneutical difference, how does one decide that this particular difference among inerrantists is more egregious than, say, those between Baptists and Paedobaptists or Dispensationalists and Amillennialists?
To be sure, Trueman is not advocating women’s ordination. He notes that he is part of a denomination (the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) that opposes women’s ordination and affirms infant baptism. But he notes that far too often Evangelicals are winning to downplay fundamental disagreements about baptism or the Lord’s Supper, while allowing no compromise on the issue of women’s ordination. At best, he suggests, this indicates that their priorities are somewhat skewed.
It is interesting to consider Trueman’s point in light of what John Calvin said about when Christians may leave a church. For Calvin a Christian could only separate from a church if that church was failing to preach the gospel or improperly administering the sacraments. On all other questions – whether of discipline, church order, or worship – Christians were to endure differences while maintaining unity. His main concern was quite evident. Calvin believed the unity of the church is grounded in the gospel and in nothing else. The sacraments were non-negotiable because they related directly to the proclamation of the gospel.
It is true that modernity has given rise to issues that Calvin could not have anticipated, and that the church needs to take very seriously the modernist challenge to the authority of the creation order, natural law, and Scriptural teachings regarding the vocations of men and women. But as I think Trueman implies, we need to distinguish between the radical rejection of creation and Scriptural authority represented by some egalitarians, and genuine disagreements about the implications of gender differences for church order and practice. In short, we should not pretend that these latter disagreements are more important than the gospel itself.
In an age when the church is increasingly politicized and in which the culture wars between liberals and conservatives are coming more and more to dominate everything that Christians do or think, Trueman’s reminders are worth considering.
In a very thoughtful post at the Gospel Coalition Kevin DeYoung, a pastor in the Reformed Church of America (RCA), points out the difficulty that Evangelicals have convincing the broader culture of the immorality of actions that do not seem to have a victim. The problem is with our society generally, DeYoung suggests. We tend to think that an action is only immoral if it has an immediate victim.
To be sure, Americans are not always consistent on this point. “Think of spanking or speed limits or prohibiting harmful substances. Some victimless crimes are still crimes, and sometimes insisting on the right thing produces ‘victims.’” But in general, and especially when matters of sexual immorality are in view, Americans default to their ordinary tendency. If you are not hurting someone, we won’t stop you from doing what you want to do.
DeYoung notes two basic points in response to this pervasive approach to morality. First, he points out that Christians need to do a far better job exploring the effects that sinful actions have on others.
[W]e must do more to show the long term consequences of seemingly innocent behavior. This is not a call to play the victim card but to do our homework. The sexual revolution of the 1960s seemed like a good idea at the time. But now we know that communities were made weaker, women have not been made happier, and children have been put at greater risk. Just because everyone seems happy with the sin right now doesn’t mean people won’t suffer in the long term. Just look at no-fault divorce.
Second, he notes that not all crimes have victims per say.
While oppression is always sin, sin cannot be defined solely as oppression. Sin is lawlessness (I John 3:4). An action is morally praiseworthy or blameworthy based on God’s standard. This definition will not be accepted by many, for God has largely been removed from our culture’s definition of evil. But try we must. The culture war is not the point except to the degree that God is the point. And our God rests too inconsequentially upon our country and our churches. The world needs to see the true nature of sin as God-defiant. Only then will it know the true nature of our sin-defiant Savior.
I entirely agree with DeYoung on both points but I have to admit that a little clarification would be helpful in terms of whether we are talking about civil law or about basic morality. DeYoung’s discussion is about morality in general but many of his examples come from the realm of civil law or from political controversies. The fact is that when it comes to civil law it is important for us to show that actions have an unjust effect on other people if we want the government to condemn those actions. The whole purpose of government is to enable us to live together in peace and basic justice. Government should not and is not capable of making us moral before God or worthy of the kingdom. On the other hand, we should never pretend that the civil law is exhaustive of morality. To paraphrase with a twist one character from O Brother Where Art Thou, you may be right with the state of Mississippi, but God is a little more hard-nosed (the actual line in the movie pertains to the gospel, not the law: “Even if that did put you square with the Lord [Delmar’s baptism], the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”).
The way that Reformed theology classically dealt with this point was to distinguish between the first and third uses of the law on the one hand, and the second use of the law on the other (note, here I am using John Calvin’s numbering; others put the uses in a different order). The first use of the law places the sinful human being before God’s absolute standard and demonstrates to that person how unworthy he or she is to attain to the blessing of the kingdom. The third use of the law teaches the regenerate human being how to conform to that same standard having been made worthy of the kingdom. Both of these uses emphasize the relation of a person before God, both in terms of outward actions and in terms of the heart. This is what DeYoung is getting at in his second point above.
But the civil law is different. It does not judge a person according to the standard of the eternal kingdom of God, but according to the needs of human society in the passing present evil age. It does not consider the heart; it is merely interested in outward actions. If such actions cannot be demonstrated to bring concrete harm to others, government has no interest in prohibiting them. Government prohibits things like murder, theft, and adultery, not sins like lust, covetousness, or hypocrisy.
Am I splitting hairs here? I don’t think so. I agree with virtually every point DeYoung makes in his post but it is still unclear at the end of that post whether his concern is about what government does or whether it is about the Christian witness to the moral law of God for the sake of the gospel. Given that DeYoung’s basic question is about how concerned we should be to determine whether or not immorality always has a victim, and given the fundamental role that question plays in the distinction between the civil use of the law and the other uses of the law, I would think keeping the difference between politics and morality straight is important. In our ridiculously politicized society, Christians could afford some clarity on this point.