One of the most important theological and pastoral issues today—and throughout Church history—is the so-called “Christ and Culture” debate, or how do Christians and the Christian Church relate to the unbelieving World and institutions that are not the church. A dominate stream among Reformed and Evangelical Protestantism today is “transformationalism” or Niebuhr’s “Christ the transformer of Culture,” the view that Christians are called to transform unbelieving culture into a Christian culture of some sort. Over against this trend, there has been a resurgence of Two-Kingdoms or “Christ and culture in paradox.” Meredith Kline and Westminster Seminary California have been particularly associated with a Reformed two kingdoms theory. In his book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms,1 David VanDrunen of Westminster California presents a relatively up-to-date defence of this position (published 2010). VanDrunen offers a careful and clear presentation of the doctrine, so the volume is a helpful contribution for the student, pastor, or scholar seeking to understand the main argument for and implications of the Reformed Two Kingdoms doctrine (R2K). Even for the reader who does not sympathize with this position, there are insights to be gleaned; VanDrunen’s analysis of the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount as an inversion of the lex talionis, instead of giving proportionate retribution it is rendering proportional kindness and mercy in response to injustice, is profound: “When the citizens of heaven refuse to retaliate against an evildoer, but instead endure the second evil themselves, they are a living exhibit of the gospel” (111). However, as for the proposal itself, VanDrunen fails to convince on several grounds. After summarizing the book and VanDrunen’s argument, I will then offer an evaluation of VanDrunen’s R2K proposal.
In the first chapter, after discussing the Christ and culture debate, he defines culture as he will use employ it: “In a book such as this, I do not use the term ‘culture’ in an overly precise or technical way. I use it primarily to refer to the broad range of activities—scientific, artistic, economic, etc.—in which human beings engage” (32). The following six chapters are divided across three parts. The first part, chapters two and three, sketches the biblical-theological context for the Two Kingdoms doctrine, focusing on the contrast between the first Adam and Jesus Christ, the second Adam. These two chapters have a significant role in his case for the R2K doctrine. His argument here is against the continuing cultural mandate, a transformationist teaching. He argues that Adam’s task was probationary, to keep and guard the garden as a test to see if he will inherit the “world-to-come.” Because Jesus Christ fully succeeds in Adam’s task, securing the world-to-come for Believers who are found in Him, there is no task left to accomplish. The rest in the world-to-come that was Adam’s ultimate destiny—which he failed to attain—is attained by us in Christ. Therefore, the mandate is no longer valid. For this reason, there is no specific, redemptive task involving general “cultural” duties. This is primarily a negative argument: if the cultural mandate is not in place, transformationism is false.
The second part, chapters four and five, go through the Old and New Testament, showing how the two kingdoms play out across the Testaments. He argues that there is a spiritual antithesis in play, an essential Reformed doctrine, but contends that this antithesis does not override the cultural commonality ordained in God’s common kingdom. The common kingdom is grounded in God’s covenant with Noah. This covenant concerns cultural activity, not religious activity, which is associated with God’s redemptive covenant. This latter covenant is instituted with Abraham and concerns salvation, “opening up the gates of the world-to-come” (84). The common kingdom is governed by God through nature (e.g. 153-154, 168),2 the redemptive kingdom is ruled by God through His verbal revelation. In the Old Testament, we see the two kingdoms doctrine working out in Abraham’s life, Israel’s life outside the land, and Israel’s exile in Babylon. Within the land, there is only the redemptive kingdom. In the New Testament, the exilic or sojourner theme in 1 Peter, Hebrews, and elsewhere demonstrates the continuity between these experiences.
The third part, chapters six and seven, zooms in to consider the concrete application of the two kingdoms for the Christian life. VanDrunen argues that Christians should do not have distinctly “Christian” vocations and do not engage in “redemptive” work. Common kingdom work is blessed by God but has no enduring significance, so we live within this kingdom in a “detached” manner. Education is another instance of a common kingdom endeavour. VanDrunen argues that politics is a common kingdom matter; Christian can participate in government, military, or law enforcement. VanDrunen argues that the Bible gives five general principles concerning government by which Christians ought to conduct their common kingdom lives. VanDrunen’s main focus in this chapter, however, is the Church. He argues that the primary referent of the Church in the New Testament is the local Church gathered (116, 132-135): “I distinguish between the work and life of the Church and the work and life of individual believers (or groups of believers) as they make their way in this World. Believers and groups of believers do not constitute ‘the church’ in everything they do.” (117) “Participation in the life of the church, not participation in the cultural activities of the broader world, is central for the Christian life” (133).3 He argues for the ministerial authority of the Church and the regulatory principle of worship.
I love the emphasis on the local Church in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. I too am convinced that this is the primary focus of Scripture and the locus of God’s work in the World. However, in VanDrunen’s discussion here, the same ambiguities and lack of clear Biblical warrant that mark the rest of the book become evident. After observing some general tensions and difficulties in the overall proposal of the book, I want to then address the weakness of its biblical-theological foundation in the first 11 chapters of Genesis.
General Weaknesses in the Two Kingdoms Proposal
The first general weakness in the proposal is its failure to give a reason or hope to common kingdom endeavours. That is, in the Old Testament, civil life was a faithful service to God to see His rule established on earth. In the New Testament, I would contend, there is an emphasis on the role that “common life” has in upholding the Church’s mission.4 Transformationists find value in everyday activities by connecting common life directly with God’s kingdom unfolding on earth. VanDrunen rejects this view but can only say that God has blessed this labour, so it is worthwhile. He writes, “Hard work, with God’s blessing, is truly its own reward” (189). I don’t think this is the biblical teaching; I am thankful it is not, for this is hardly an encouragement to those who are currently struggling to work hard, to find pleasure in hard work. For those to whom work has not yet proved to be “its own reward,” what hope can a pastor, friend, or mentor offer? This doctrine gives no more hope than the World does.
Second, his discussion of the “church” is inadequate. The New Testament indeed focuses on the local Church, but what is not clear is that in the New Testament it is the local Church gathered that is the focus. Indeed, most of the instructions to the churches in the New Testament is for the Church dispersed, concerning how Christians live their day-to-day life. Indeed, I don’t think there is a clear teaching of the “church” in VanDrunen’s proposal. On the one hand, if I am right in understanding locus of the redemptive kingdom and its ethic in Vandrunen’s proposal to be the local Church gathered, how do we make sense of the fact that the Sermon on the Mount and most of the ethical instructions of the New Testament address with how Christians interact with one another and the outside World throughout the week? On the other hand, if I am reading him wrong and the Church is not just the Church gathered, how does this compute with the Two Kingdom’s Doctrine? How can Christians have a political theory (a common kingdom theory) based in Scripture? If Scripture speaks to the non-redemptive sphere, how can one maintain that they are so distinct after all? VanDrunen clarifies elsewhere that Scripture illumines natural law;5 however, in this regard, it is not clear from the Biblical teaching concerning the so-called common kingdom that these teachings are grounded in or able to be derived from a “natural law.”
Third, he doesn’t deal adequately with the challenges Neo-Calvinists have raised with natural law. He affirms that there is no “neutral ground,” the foundational tenant of the spiritual antithesis. But if this is the case, then what foundation is there for the common kingdom? That is, if Christians acknowledge certain common domains from Scripture, how can someone argue the same things from the common perspective? It is hard to distinguish family and state, state and education, etc. on the basis of common reason alone. Furthermore, there has been a great number of works in the last century that have shown that there is no coherent foundation of ethical reasoning—or reasoning at all—apart from the existence of God and His spoken word.6. How can we live in the common kingdom when we do not share a system of rationality or ethics with those with whom we are we are supposed to share this kingdom? We may distinguish and share with the World a view that certain institutions are not strictly religious, “Family,” “State,” etc. Yet, our understanding of each institution will lose its similarity the moment we dig deeper; the commonality is on the surface alone.
There is, of course, common grace, yet this is only an explanation for why we experience agreement between believers and unbelievers; common grace is not a sufficient ground for a common reason or coherent natural law.7 I don’t think Romans 1-2 is a sufficient foundation for natural law, for here the revelation is of God Himself and those who receive it quickly distort this revelation and interpret the creation in the categories of the Creation. This is an incoherent starting point that hardly allows for shared rational discourse. The point is this: if God has established a common kingdom, it’s nature and institutions and basic moral boundaries are not clearly discernable and the ability to rationally maintain a belief in and knowledge of these structures is not clear. It is not clear that we have the ability to live consistently in that World apart from verbal revelation. This need not pose a problem for Christians, for VanDrunen fails to give a sufficient exegetical foundation for believing God has established a common kingdom.
Exegetical Foundations for Two Kingdoms
VanDrunen’s single argument against the continuing creation mandate is that this mandate as its end the world-to-come which Jesus perfectly attains. Therefore, because Jesus has perfectly attained it, there is no continuing mandate. The first problem with this argument is that there is no exegetical reason anywhere in the first three chapters of the Bible, or the Old Testament, to believe that the creation mandate has as its goal “the world-to-come.” The one passage VanDrunen turns to is Hebrews 2.8 Here the author writes, “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come” (2:5). The author of Hebrews quotes after this from Psalm 8, a psalm about creation. However, the author of Hebrews point is that Jesus is the one who truly reigns, in fulfilment of the God’s initial instructions to humanity through Adam, and that this reign will be consummated in “the world to come.” This “world to come” is itself ambiguous, for it is already inaugurated through Christ yet not fully arrived.9 The author does not argue that this is clear from Genesis nor from Psalm 8. The fact that we now see that the “world to come” is the locus of this consummated reign does not mean that we can read this back into Genesis: to do so is to reject the gradual unfolding of revelation across the canon and the history it records. A much clearer reading of Genesis is that God commissioned Adam to spread His kingdom on earth as His representative king. However, Adam failed in this mission and God’s kingdom would now spread in a world enthralled in rebellion. Only in the New Testament do we learn that this kingdom will be fully inaugurated at Christ’s return—something about which the apostles showed great confusion (e.g. Acts 1:6). For these reasons, VanDrunen’s rejection of the cultural mandate simply does not follow.
Furthermore, when we trace the creation mandate (or better, the kingdom mandate) throughout Scripture, we see that continues but in a transformed form.10 Noah is again instructed to rule and multiply, yet like Adam he sins. With Abraham, we see the echoing of ruling and multiplying (Genesis 12), yet God says that He will now accomplish this Kingdom purpose. In the Torah, we see the provisions for this earthly kingdom of God mandated (e.g. Deuteronomy 17), yet when the king does arrive, the kingdom is pushed off into the future (2 Samuel 7). The kingdom mandate appears in the New Testament, but in a transformed form: in Matthew 28, we are told the Christ now has dominion, yet His people are commissioned with spreading this rule through throughout the world—with being fruitful and multiplying. The mandate has been accomplished by Christ, but it needs to be worked out in history by His people. However, the mandate at this point looks nothing like the original mandate—a point on which I agree with VanDrunen over against the transformationists. If the cultural mandate has been transformed in this regard, then there is clearly no clear division between “cultural” and NT “kingdom” actions. We also see in addition to this kingdom mandate an unfolding tension throughout Scripture between the Serpent’s appropriation of the kingdom mandate, embodied in the historical Babel and symbolic Babylon, and the righteous fulfilment of the mandate through God’s covenants.
In line with this, when we get to Genesis 9, the “be fruitful and multiply” language is not simply an affirmation of common kingdom institutions but a reaffirmation of God’s kingdom mandate to Noah. Gentry and Wellum argue that the language of the Noahic covenant is explicitly that of a recommission of Adam’s original covenant, so we cannot find a unique covenant institution here.11 Indeed, if the “creation mandate” is a “kingdom mandate,” then there is no firm distinction between the Adamic, Noachin, and Abrahamic covenants. They form a continuity of God’s single purpose in history, to realize His rule on earth through a Davidic Son in the full unveiling of His glory. Indeed, there is no clear indication of the common institutions to be found in Genesis 9. The “be fruitful and multiply” command is hardly an institution of a structured family unit, and the lex talionis is an instruction for interpersonal retribution, not state-imposed justice. The later developments of these ideas cannot be read into this chapter in an exegetically responsible manner. VanDrunen confesses this when he writes that the authority structures defining common cultural institutions are not found in Genesis 9 but are worked out by the inner logic of these relations. The trouble emerges when we ask, what normative foundation do we have for this inner logic? That a child is dependent on a parent does not clearly indicate, apart from verbal revelation, that the former is subordinate to the later or for how long such subordination should endure. And apart from the verbal lex talionis, it is hard to justify the formers indebtedness to the later to be reciprocated in form of care rendered later in life. This may be why in many modern societies, children abandon this responsibility, for there is no coherent natural logic for this relationship. It is a logic that comes through the revelation of God.
In short, despite the genuinely helpful insights found here or there, VanDrunens case is neither Biblically compelling nor sufficiently robust to deal with the complexities of the Christian life in the contemporary World. This raises a problem, though. I think VanDrunen is right to reject the transformationist project. However, if my suggestions above are on track, then there are serious problems with the R2K project as well—as many transformationists have shown (cf. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life). Indeed, VanDrunen does not address several key texts for formulating a doctrine of Christian life in the World. For example, Daniel and Revolution both portray this World as a place of cosmic warfare between God’s kingdom and the demonic kingdoms that set themselves in opposition to His purpose. From this perspective, Christians endure amid this conflict until Christ brings it to an end. Also, in 2 Corinthians 6, Paul uses the Levitical doctrine of physical separation to illustrate Christian spiritual separation from unbelievers; if this is rightly applied to marriage (as VanDrunen’s one reference to this text affirms), then it surely applies to business, political, and other common kingdom relationships that bring Christians into a unity of purpose with unbelievers and with Satan’s kingdom expressed through them. Anabaptists attempt to capture this latter idea with a doctrine of physical separation, but Reformed theologians of various persuasions are agreed in their rejections of this position. What this is suggests is that each of the major positions articulated by Reformed Christians and the broader Evangelical world have good things to say but are incorrect in their overarching claim. God willing, I hope to articulate a vision of cultural engagement in a forthcoming book that takes the insights of each of these positions—and others—seriously within a Biblical theological framework of God’s kingdom unfolding through the Church in history with its consummation at Christ’s return.
- I read the Logos edition, which was of good quality except for several paragraphs of text where the footnote was transposed into the body, near the end of the book.
- Cf. VanDrunen, A Biblical Case for Natural Law, 37-39.
- Cf. “Bearing the Sword in the State,” Themelios 34:3, pg. 329-331.
- E.g. in Ephesians 4, the former thief is called to work with his hands in order that he might have something “to give.”
- see this blog post.
- e.g. see my The Gift of Knowing
- In this regard, common grace is God’s act to restrain unbelievers from rejecting the truth entirely; otherwise, they would have no truth at all. This implies that what rationality possessed by the unbelieving world is inconsistent rationality. It is rationality that holds onto God’s truth while explicitly rejecting the one who makes it true. Though this is often considered an act of common grace, the only Biblical text I can find in support is Romans 1, which suggests that unbelieving humans have some truth not because God restrains them but because they go so far as to attribute what is true about God to His creation. It is their idolatry that allows them to enjoy some sort of rational life. However, God restraining judgment is definitely an act of common grace.
- He does argue the parallel with God’s rest on day seven, but that could be interpreted dozens of different ways.
- As argued by F.F. Bruce and R.T. France.
- see my essay, Appendix 2 – Christ and Culture.
- Kingdom Through Covenant, Crossway Books 2012.