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Mathias Liebing

Interview with David VanDrunen on Two-Kingdoms Theology

David VanDrunen graciously agreed to answer a few questions on a topic of great importance and of which he has much wisdom: Two-Kingdoms Theology. Dr. VanDrunen (JD, Northwestern University; PhD, Loyola University Chicago) is Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California and is an ordained minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He has written several important books, including Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010), Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010), and A Biblical Case for Natural Law (Acton Institute, 2006).

Could you briefly define Two-Kingdoms Theology and explain how it differs from a transformationist approach to Christ and culture?

I like to describe the two kingdoms doctrine briefly as the conviction that God through his Son rules the whole world, but rules it in two distinct ways. As creator and sustainer, God rules the natural order and the ordinary institutions and structures of human society, and does so through his common grace, for purposes of preserving the ongoing life of this world. As redeemer, God also rules an eschatological kingdom that is already manifest in the life and ministry of the church, and he rules this kingdom through saving grace as he calls a special people to himself through the proclamation of the Scriptures. As Christians, we participate in both kingdoms but should not confuse the purposes of one with those of the other. As a Reformed theologian devoted to a rich covenant theology, I think it helpful to see these two kingdoms in the light of the biblical covenants. In the covenant with Noah after the flood, God promised to preserve the natural order and human society (not to redeem them!), and this included all human beings and all living creatures. But God also established special, redemptive covenant relationships with Abraham, with Israel through Moses, and now with the church under the new covenant. We Christians participate in both the Noahic and new covenants (remember that the covenant with Noah was put in place for as long as the earth endures), and through them in this twofold rule of God—or, God’s two kingdoms.

The “transformationist” approach to Christ and culture is embraced by so many people and used in so many different ways that I often wonder how useful a category it is. If by “transformation” we simply mean that we, as Christians, should strive for excellence in all areas of life and try to make a healthy impact on our workplace, neighborhood, etc., I am a transformationist. But what people often mean by “transformationist” is that the structures and institutions of human society are being redeemed here and now, that is, that we should work to transform them according to the pattern of the redemptive kingdom of Christ. I believe the two kingdoms doctrine offers an approach that is clearly different from this. Following the two kingdoms doctrine, a Christian politician, for example, would reject working for the redemption of the state (whatever that means) but recognize that God preserves the state for good purposes and strive to help the state operate the best it can for those temporary and provisional purposes.

Some argue that the mission of Christ is identical to the mission of the Church. Do defining and equating the missions of Christ and the Church in this way weaken the uniqueness of Christ’s person and work?  How does Two-Kingdoms Theology differentiate between the mission of Christ and the mission of the Church?

I think the two kingdoms doctrine does provide help in thinking through these issues. Let me just comment on this from one angle. The New Testament (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 in particular) describes Christ as the Last Adam: as Adam represented the whole human race and failed to achieve God’s original purpose for the human race—i.e., ruling the age-to-come (Hebrews 2:5-10 is also very helpful on this point)—so Christ as the Last Adam represented his redeemed people and has achieved for them this great destiny, through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. For what purpose, then, did Christ establish his church? Not to take up Adam’s original creation mandate; no, for Christ is the Last Adam and has already taken possession of Adam’s original goal, the new creation.

Instead, Christ established his church in order to proclaim the way of salvation and to gather together a redeemed community united in worship and fellowship, who in Christ too are already citizens of that new creation. This doesn’t make involvement in economic development, environmental protection, or politics irrelevant or meaningless, but the two kingdoms doctrine helps us to see that God has concern for these things in his common rule over the world, through the covenant with Noah. On the last day, Christ himself will bring the world to consummation, and put an end to all evil once and for all. But that is his work alone.

Can a biblical distinction be made between the individual Christian’s role in society and the Church’s role in society?

Yes, I think so. In Matthew 16 Christ says that he will build his church and that he gives to her the keys of the kingdom of heaven. We see a very important principle here: the church does not have any self-created power or authority, but only that which Christ gives to her. If Christ established her, she only possesses what he grants. According to the New Testament, I believe, we see that Christ has given her the ministry of the word of God, the administration of the sacraments, (non-coercive) procedures of discipline, and diaconal ministry toward fellow Christians in need. Never does Christ in the New Testament give to his church a commission to exercise a ministry of politics, of economic development, of art—or whatever. And yet we also see that the New Testament expects Christians to work in the broader world, to honor civil magistrates (and in some cases be civil servants), etc. I am always a member of the church, but that doesn’t mean the church itself is doing everything that I do. When I play a round of golf or pick weeds in my backyard, that is not the church at work. I would say the same thing about when I vote and give money to support an orphanage.

Some argue that Two-Kingdoms Theology stifles the Church’s social witness and leads Christians to ignore the needs of society.  How does Two-Kingdoms Theology actually protect the unique witness of the Church?  Does Two-Kingdoms Theology lead Christians to ignore the needs of their surrounding world?

Among the commonest objections to the two kingdoms doctrine does seem to be that it promotes indifference to the broader life of society or treats the world outside the church as somehow autonomous or morally neutral. I can only say emphatically that that is a false charge and misrepresentation. That is simply not what two kingdoms theology meant historically and certainly not what I mean by it. The common kingdom is God’s kingdom: he rules it, his law governs it, and the whole world is accountable to him. Christians are to participate in it, and should recognize that their various vocations in it are avenues for love and service to their neighbor. As Luther wonderfully explained, God is ultimately the one who feeds, houses, and clothes people, but he ordinarily does so through farmers, carpenters, and weavers. So I believe the two kingdoms doctrine provides a warm and biblical ground for explaining why Christians can pursue all lawful human vocations and both glorify God and love their neighbor through them.

And it does so, as you say, through protecting the church’s unique witness. When the farmer does his work well he is God’s instrument for feeding human beings made in the image of God. But that is a different task from the church’s work of ministering the word of God and thus proclaiming the work of Christ for everlasting life in the new creation. When the church tries to do everything (even those tasks which God has entrusted to other institutions), it inevitably seems to get distracted from doing what Christ actually commanded the church to do.

What are the dangers of rejecting Two-Kingdoms Theology?

Let me put this positively. The two kingdoms doctrine provides an excellent antidote to the two great temptations that have afflicted Christians through the centuries with respect to the Christianity and culture issue: I’ll call them Retreat and Takeover. Many Christians have been tempted to retreat from the world and to avoid participation in the common vocations of human society—perhaps because they’re so infected with sin or because, in comparison with the proclamation of the gospel, such things seem like a waste of time. Many other Christians have been tempted to see their duty as taking over all areas of human life so as to form some kind of fully integrated Christian society. Both understandings are very understandable—but both also very dangerous, I believe. The two kingdoms doctrine is a bulwark against not one, but both, of these temptations.

On the one hand, it guards against the danger of despising ordinary human society and common vocations, because it teaches that these are blessed by God through his common grace and serve his good purposes in preserving this world. On the other hand, it guards against the danger of a triumphalist spirit and utopian crusades, because it teaches that God’s redemptive kingdom is now being established through the humble ministry of the church and that Christians are sojourners and exiles in this world until Christ cataclysmically ushers in his new creation at the second coming. You see, I think Christians who recognize only one kingdom of God run into a dilemma. Either you see the broader human society as part of that one kingdom (in which case the triumphalist temptation will be strong) or you see the broader human society as not part of that one kingdom, and thus not under God’s rule in any sense (in which case the temptation to retreat will be strong). The two kingdoms doctrine avoids this dilemma.

How do you think American evangelicalism has suffered specifically as a result of ignoring Two-Kingdoms Theology?

In many ways I think American evangelicalism illustrates the dilemma I mentioned in my last answer. Much of evangelicalism has been afflicted by a negative view of ordinary human vocations: one’s daily work, for example, is pursued only because one has to make money to survive or because it gives opportunities for evangelism. This is an example of the retreat temptation. But yet we’ve also seen in recent decades how enthusiastically the “religious Right” has jumped into politics and tended to identify the Christian faith with a particular political party and political agenda and talked about taking back America for Christ, and such things. Here I believe we see the takeover temptation at work. There seems to be this uneasy oscillation between harmful tendencies. The two kingdoms doctrine could provide a very stabilizing influence. Yes, we should work and vote—and we can do so without either feeling polluted by participating in them or feeling as though we need to redeem them.

Two-Kingdoms Theology has recently come under attack as being an innovative theology. Is Two-Kingdoms Theology an historic theology?

Yes, it most certainly is. I don’t think anybody would deny that it has been a very common category in historic Lutheran theology, but it was also a standard category in Reformed theology for many centuries. In my book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms I offer evidence from a great many Reformed theologians. I can’t repeat that evidence here. As far as I’m aware, even critics of my work, who either do not like the two kingdoms doctrine or do not agree with my analysis of earlier theologians’ views of it, have not tried to refute my argument that these earlier theologians did actually have a two kingdoms theology. The doctrine is there in historic Reformation thought—though we do have to remember that social context of earlier centuries was very different from ours today, and some of the application of the two kingdoms doctrine may have to be rethought. The question of what we think of the two kingdoms categories, and how we might want to revise or reject them today in light of Scripture and our current social context, is an open question. But I don’t think there can be any serious question whether the two kingdoms doctrine is part of the heritage of Reformation Christianity.

Finally, in an election year such as this one, what role or responsibility, if any, does the Church have and what role or responsibility do individuals have?  

 I don’t think the church has any different responsibilities in an election year from what it has at any other time. The church should proclaim the whole counsel of God in Scripture (which includes, of course, teaching about the state, the value of human life, marriage, treatment of the poor, etc.). But Scripture does not set forth a political policy agenda or embrace a particular political party, and so the church ought to be silent here where it has no authorization from Christ to speak. When it comes to supporting a particular party, or candidate, or platform, or strategy—individual believers have the liberty to utilize the wisdom God gives them to make decisions they believe will be of most good to society at large. Politics constantly demands compromise, choosing between the lesser of evils, and refusing to let the better be the enemy of the good. Christians will make different judgments about these things, and the church shouldn’t try to step in and bind believers’ consciences on matters of prudence. It might be helpful to think of it this way: during times when Christians are bombarded with political advertisements, slogans, and billboards, how refreshing it should be, on the Lord’s Day, to step out of that obsession with politics and gather with God’s redeemed people to celebrate their heavenly citizenship and their bond in Christ that transcends all national, ethnic, and political divisions.

*Interview by Chris Cooper 

David VanDrunen

Dr. David VanDrunen (PhD, Loyola University Chicago) is Robert B. Strimple Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California, where he has served since 2001. He is a minister of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the author or editor of many books including Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions, Living in God’s Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, Divine Covenants and Moral Order: A Biblical Theology of Natural Law, and God’s Glory Alone: The Majestic Heart of Christian Faith and Life.

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