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To Which Kingdom Does Westminster Seminary Belong?

In a 2009 edition of the Mid-America Journal of Theology, Ryan McIlhenny points to an interesting dilemma for the particular variant of two kingdoms theology expounded by David VanDrunen (MAJT 20 ((2009)): 75−94).  He asks if the Seminary would have to be considered “secular” and therefore a member of the temporal kingdom (87).  This is a very uncomfortable question for VanDrunen, because, in his doctrine of the church, a seminary really ought to be an organ of the visible church, under the authority of ministerial synod- thus, squarely in the “spiritual kingdom” as understood by VanDrunen. But in fact, Westminster is an institution independent of any particular synod or denomination- and thus exists in a twilight zone between Vandrunen’s two kingdoms.

In an earlier version of the same article (available online here), McIlhenny retells the actual account of the question being posed to VanDrunen.  McIlhenny introduces the scene saying, “At the recent Westminster Seminary California conference, ‘Christ, Kingdom, and Culture,’ a question was asked, ‘To which kingdom does an independent reformed seminary belong?’   Then he gives the reply.  “David VanDrunen offered a careful response:”

I would say that a place like Westminster, in and of itself, is part of the common kingdom in that it doesn’t have the promises of the eternal kingdom of God…that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church…but I would say that…in general it’s a common kingdom institution and has all the trappings of a business in a lot of ways…that the work of the church, the work of God’s spiritual kingdom goes on here because what I do, not necessarily when I’m sitting in a committee doing certain tasks like informing our plant facilities guy when we’re out of paper towels in the bathroom or something, but when I’m in the classroom and I’m exegeting the scriptures and I’m trying to explain the word of God to the students, I am doing the work that I’ve been called to do as a minister of the gospel, and God, through Paul, has told Timothy to entrust to other men these truths that they can in turn hand them on to others, so…that’s given to the church, and I think the ways many reformed churches today fulfill that task is by setting apart certain men like [the Westminster faculty] and instead of intrusting us with pastoral calls or foreign missionary duties, they have said we want you to focus your attention on training people for the gospel ministry. And so in a sense I would look at this institution as a common kingdom institution that houses and hosts this very important work the church does through certain ministers set apart for the task…it doesn’t mean that we can always put every single activity and every single plot of ground here in one kingdom bucket or another. Sometimes it’s more complex than that.

And so while VanDrunen attempts to soften things with a general admission of complexity and a denial that “every single plot of ground” can be put into one kingdom or the other, he does not admit the more obvious point: his specific expression of the two kingdoms cannot be coherently applied in the world.  This is because he is still attempting to distinguish the kingdoms along the lines of vocation.  Churchy callings and, specifically, Bible-teaching, are the business of the spiritual kingdom, whereas more ordinary jobs like committees, administration, and custodianship are the business of the worldly kingdom.

But what business does a common institution have training up the leaders of the spiritual kingdom?  Indeed, under the terms of de jure divino Presbyterianism, this would mean that the spiritual kingdom of Christ is in fact dependent upon the worldly kingdom for one of its essential marks.  Is VanDrunen now also among the Constantinians?

McIlhenny critiques this position from a philosophical and practical point of view.  He writes:

[E]ven the most sacred of duties can be abstractly construed as secular. Consider the role of a professional scholar teaching at a confessionally reformed seminary. Would we consider his job sacred or secular, concerned with temporal and/or eternal things? Since secular does not necessarily contradict the meaning of sacred, it is not simply plausible but appropriate to think about his job as both sacred and secular. He can read in the same way as an unbeliever; he has been trained in the same universities and thus given the same methodological tools of the trade as his unbelieving colleagues. The unbelieving scholar can read the same ancient text, understand the same structure of the Bible, and even know the content of traditional theology. To ask it another way, is the act of reading the words in the Bible, going so far as the original languages, inherently a sacred activity? (I am not here challenging the inerrancy of scripture, but focusing on the epistemological-function, the cognitive reception of the one reading the text.) The language used in the Bible is common to all and belongs to the temporal realm. The common elements used by the seminary professor—the methodological and conceptual tools, including language, inherited from his or her scholarly training—are indeed secular, but, as we know, such things are the means to communicate a higher sacred reality. The common, however, reveals the antithesis. For example, John Dominic Crossan and I can read the same New Testament gospel, but such shared ability will expose two diametrically opposed attitudes of the heart. Furthermore, such a manifestation of worldviews has little bearing on who can physically read better, yet it does relate to who has the better understanding (not necessarily ability), which can only come through the illumination of the Holy Spirit.

p 87

To this we will add the historical point- VanDrunen’s answer to the question shows that he is not articulating the historic understanding of the two kingdoms as taught by Luther and Calvin.  For them, the spiritual kingdom of Christ was the immediate reign of Christ in the hearts of believers.  It was precisely the invisible domain of faith.  The temporal kingdom, on the other hand, was all of creation, and Luther further explained that it was itself made up of “three hierarchies.”  William J. Wright, in his recent monograph Martin Luther’s Understanding of God’s Two Kingdoms (Baker Academic, 2010), has succinctly explained Luther’s thought in this way:

Luther would explain that God ruled the invisible kingdom with His Word through faith and that God’s realm was not comprehensible through human reason.  Moreover, in the worldly kingdom, Luther later distinguished three orders of rule comprised of human institutions: the orders of daily life (home and livlihood), the state, and the church.
p. 117

Wright continues to explain the three orders, noting that they are a part of the creational order:

Luther maintained that God had created three divinely ordered institutions in which people participated during their lives in this world.  The idea that people acted through these institutions to do God’s will in the world was integrally related to his premise of the two kingdoms.  Luther wrote about these orders to better explain his view, not because he was moving away from his two-kingdom teaching.  His treatment of this subject was most systematic in the commentary on Genesis.  Here, Luther described them as three “orders” or “hierarchies”: first, daily life including marriage, household, or domestic affairs and livelihood (oeconomia, domus or parentum); second, the worldly affairs and livelihood (politia or civitas); and third, the priesthood or church (sacerdotium or ecclesia).  With this “triple authority,” God protected the human race against the devil, the flesh, and the world.  “Indeed,” Luther wrote, “God instituted three orders, by which he gave the command, lest sins would carry you off to the devil.”
p 130-131

For Luther, the Seminary may have actually been a part of the second order, considering how he viewed the duty of princes.

Calvin held to the same view of the two kingdoms.  He believed that civil magistrates ought to protect the church and even fund seminaries.  In fact, the Academy at Geneva was not exclusively a seminary but a school for the Humanities.  Partly funded by the Genevan magistrates and partly funded by private benefactors, the tuition was free.  Bruce Gordon, in his recent biography of Calvin (Calvin, Yale University Press 2009), describes the school like this:

The Academy, a term rarely used at the time, consisted of two parts: the schola privata (Latin school) and the schola publica (upper school).  The schola privata was in many ways more important for the native Genevans, who wanted a school for their children.  Historians however, have tended to focus on the schola publica, with its preparation of the ministers…
In addition to educating the youth and future ministers of Geneva, the Academy was also a deeply confessional institution that served the needs of the church.  Students were required to subscribe to the teaching of the Genevan church as expressed in the catechism…
p 300

The Genevan clergy were themselves funded by the city, and Calvin had little trouble with a confessional magistracy.  This was not a contradiction or inconsistency, however, for Calvin also drew the distinction of the two kingdoms between body and soul, and not between church and state.  This can be easily seen in his commentary on 1 Cor. 11:1-116.  In it, Calvin writes:

When he says that there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which individual distinctions [“External qualities” -ed.] are not regarded, or made any account of; for it has nothing to do with the body, and has nothing to do with the outward relationships of mankind, but has to do solely with the mind — on which account he declares that there is no difference, even between bond and free. In the meantime, however, he does not disturb civil order or honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life.

A Seminary, as well as a congregation of the visible church, cannot be described as lacking “individual distinctions” or “external qualities.”  Nor can it conduct its business apart from the body and the “outward relationships of mankind.”  It does seek to educate the mind, of course, but it must go through the created media of books, eyes, and ears.  And so whether we classify the Seminary as a part of the commonwealth or the visible church, it is clearly a part of the temporal kingdom and not merely the spiritual kingdom.

Expressing the two kingdoms correctly is important because the Reformers did indeed have such a distinction.  It is just that instead of separating church and state, the distinction allowed them to better unify the Corpus Christianum (oftentimes by calling Christendom to defend the Church from malicious clergy, ie. Rome).   It was a truly ecumenical doctrine of the Reformation, being advocated by both Lutherans and the early Reformed (including Anglicans). The distinction is also important for us today, because it protects all against anyone attempting to rule over the soul. It was, and is still, the foundation of the modern order of personal freedom for all, believing or unbelieving, which we presently enjoy. This last point is something we aim to show in much more detail in future essays.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

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