In his second essay on the imitation of Christ Herman Bavinck wrestles with a very old problem. He points out that the New Testament was written by and for Christians who came from the underside of society – the poor, the weak, and the oppressed. As a result, its emphasis falls on the virtues and practices that are appropriate for people in such circumstances, such as patience, forgiveness, and obedience. The question is, how are Christians to work out the imitation of Christ in contexts of power, authority, and influence? If the New Testament’s version of a Christian ethic is a classic example of an “ethics from below,” how are we to implement it when we need an “ethics from above”? Here Bavinck points to the fact that the New Testament itself contains the principles for such an ethic, and suggests that Christians must get to the hard work of using those principles to translate the way of Christ in to a way of life appropriate for our own circumstances.
I believe Bavinck is correct to the extent that the New Testament emphasizes an ethic that is easiest to apply in contexts where Christians are not in control. I also agree that Christians need to work to apply that ethic to contexts in which we have power and influence, while ensuring that we are following the New Testament’s basic principles.
I worry, however, that we are often all too willing to assume that the hard parts of the New Testament’s ethic – the parts about being willing to suffer, to share our possessions, and to serve – must necessarily be translated so as to be amenable to contexts in which we are comfortable resisting evil, growing our wealth, advancing our ambitions, and preserving our rights. I also think that Christians have consistently underestimated the moral and spiritual compromises entailed in using power just like the world does. There is much in the history of Christendom of which we should be critical. To give just one example, why were the early Reformed, including Calvin, so willing to defend the use of the sword to punish heretics? Did they not find it too easy to abandon the example of Jesus and the early church in favor of Israel, at least on this issue?
One of the strengths of the Heidelberg Catechism is that its emphasis is Christocentric from start to finish. From its wildly popular first answer – “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ” – to its sensible explanation of what it means to be a Christian – that “I am a member of Christ and so I share in his anointing” – to its pastoral teaching regarding “what is basic to our prayer – the childlike awe and trust that God through Christ has become our Father” – it maintains its powerful emphasis on the believer’s union with Jesus as the essence of the Gospel.
Nowhere is this emphasis on Christ more important or deserving of emulation than in the catechism’s explanation of why believers should do good and what it means when they do such good. Strikingly, it does not merely offer an abstract description of sanctification before turning to a systematic discussion of God’s law. On the contrary, the catechism establishes the believer’s conformity to Christ – which encompasses the dying of the old self and the coming to life of the new – as the paradigm for the Christian life. To be sure, the Ten Commandments provide the outline for the catechism’s teaching regarding the substance of God’s moral law. But the Decalogue is carefully interpreted through the lens of the law’s fulfillment in Christ. This is appropriate because while the law reveals God’s character on tablets of stone, Jesus is the express image of the invisible God, “God with us,” in flesh and blood.
To read the rest of this article, the first part of a paper I presented at Calvin Seminary this past spring as part of the interview process for the position in moral theology, continue at Reformation 21.
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?