Archive Civic Polity W. Bradford Littlejohn

Two Kingdoms Redivivus: Is there still a fuss?

This past spring, I wrote a piece for this site engaging Matthew Tuininga’s essay, “The Two Kingdoms and the Reformed Tradition,” which had been published in several online venues. Mr. Tuininga is a former student of David VanDrunen, and it was my contention that despite certain helpful qualifications, Tuininga’s version of the Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine suffered from some of the same anachronistic mischaracterizations of the 16th-century doctrine as those which vitiated VanDrunen’s account in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. My critique elicited a string of responses from Mr. Tuininga,[1] in which, while largely conceding that many leading Reformers, including the Lutherans, the Zurich Reformed, and the English Reformed, shared the kind of two kingdoms doctrine that we have here outlined and advocated, he insisted this could not be said of Calvin or those that followed him. A subsequent in-depth investigation of the relevant issues in Calvin’s theology and practice by Mr. Escalante and Mr. Wedgeworth here at TCI (Part 1, Part 2) was not well-received by Mr. Tuininga, and although Mr. Tuininga posted further on the subject (as did I), he did not directly respond to that post, and the disagreements seemed to remain intractable.[2] Continued private correspondence, however, has suggested that our differences on this issue may not be so incommensurable as they have at times seemed, and this has been happily confirmed by Mr. Tuininga’s most recent discussion of the issue, an article at entitled “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine: What’s the Fuss All About?” Indeed, it makes us want to ask the very same question.

In this, the first part of a projected three-part series (part 2 will examine Calvin and part 3 the Biblical foundation of the doctrine), Mr. Tuininga has done us the excellent favor of clarifying the relation of his own thinking to that of Dr. VanDrunen and also of Darryl Hart, the most vocal and polemical public defender of this variety of Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine. There is a great deal to appreciate in this latest foray, and we hope that it may afford renewed opportunity for irenic dialogue and clarification of this extremely important set of historical, theological, and ethical issues. Accordingly, I shall outline the areas of our agreement with Mr. Tuininga’s exposition, and pose questions or raise concerns at a few points where potential differences remain.

Mr. Tuininga begins by setting the basic Biblical background for the two-kingdoms doctrine, describing Jesus’s refusal to set his kingdom “in inherent conflict with the institutions of this world – whether government or the family.” Of course, the key word here is inherent, as the Gospels are quite clear that loyalty to Christ surpasses and relativizes all earthly loyalties, and may contingently find itself in direct conflict with them.  But with this, no doubt, Mr. Tuininga would have no difficulty agreeing, and thus far we find ourselves in agreement with him, and indeed, with Dr. Hart and Dr. VanDrunen: despite the incarnation, death, and resurrection, of Christ, “the order of this world continues … Christ is king but the order of creation, fallen as it may be, continues.”

The fundamental difference, Mr. Tuininga continues, is eschatological, and it was this difference that grounded Luther and Calvin’s two-kingdoms doctrine:

The reformers argued that Christ governs and expands his kingdom through the ministry of the word by the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet, the reasoned, he does so in such a way as not to nullify the order of creation or the institutions that God has created to govern that order, most importantly those of civil government and the family.

Again, this is well-stated. We might identify here three main criteria distinguishing the two kingdoms:

  1. whether of the age to come or of the present age (though this does not deny overlap, as if Christ’s government did not make itself known or felt in the present);
  2. whether by the word or by outward elements or instruments (though this does not deny that Christ’s government comes to us wrapped up in outward elements and instruments, from which it remains nonetheless distinct); and
  3. whether through the power of the Spirit or through the work of human mediators (though this does not deny that human beings become media through whom the Spirit accomplishes His gracious work).

We would invite Mr. Tuininga to say whether he is comfortable with this amplification of his brief remarks here. It is noteworthy, and perhaps salutary, that he does not here lay stress on that duality which has been a favorite of Dr. VanDrunen’s: that of creation and redemption. While certainly this can be a sound way of articulating the difference between the two kingdoms, it is our view that Dr. VanDrunen has posited such a rift between creation and redemption, forgetting that the latter is a recovery, restoration, and perfection of the former, that this distinction has become, in his hands, an unsound and potentially harmful framework for describing the two kingdoms.

At this point, Tuininga turns to a brief historical sketch, covering Luther, Calvin, and the later Reformed. This is largely sound, though it raises a few questions. One of these concerns the original purpose of the two-kingdoms doctrine. Its chief purpose for Luther, Mr. Tuininga rightly notes, was “to refute the longstanding claims of the papacy to hold all power, both spiritual and temporal, by virtue of the pope’s office as the vicar of Christ.” However, Tuininga goes on to say that in attacking the Catholic two-swords doctrine, Luther was also attacking “magistrates [who] were wrongly claiming the right to interfere with the gospel by virtue of their possession of the sword in service to the pope.” This is, I take it, a qualified and attenuated version of the claim that I critiqued in Mr. Tuininga’s essay this spring, in which he implied that the purpose of Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine was fundamentally to attack magisterial control over the church, rather than papal authority. This much more balanced claim is more satisfactory, for it is certainly true that some Catholic princes, acting on behalf of the Pope, claimed the authority to stamp out the evangelical preaching, transgressing the barrier of the two kingdoms. However, it does not appear to us as though Luther saw the two-kingdoms doctrine as intrinsically hostile to magistratical responsibility over the Church. Indeed, it often appears to be the case that the doctrine was used in justification of it.

Mr. Tuininga goes on to identify in Luther three distinct strands of “two-ness”: the two cities (of God and of the devil), the two governments/regiments (word and sword), and the two realms (outward and inward). These distinctions are sound, though we would like to see more attention to how the three are woven together (Cargill Thompson’s essay[3] remains perhaps the finest concise attempt to synthesize these three themes), but that may have taken Mr. Tuininga longer than this brief essay afforded space for. He concludes that Luther’s two-kingdoms doctrine never meant that “Christians could live and act as if they were not Christians in the affairs of this world,” but rather that “believers are to live in love to their neighbors as servants of Christ, though in a manner compatible with their earthly vocations.” This is very sound, agreeing with our own prior contention that the distinction of the two kingdoms in terms of inward and outward, rather than between two outward spheres, requires that the outward reflect the inward, and thus allows no room for an intrinsically unsanctified civil kingdom. This is of course a key departure from certain recent expressions of the Reformed two-kingdoms position, such as that of Darryl Hart, as Mr. Tuininga will acknowledge further on.

In turning to consider Calvin, Tuininga suggests that he developed the two-kingdoms doctrine in some crucially distinctive ways, for he:

… gradually articulated an understanding of the spiritual government of the church in distinction from the political government of this world. For Calvin, in contrast to both Luther and the Zwinglian branch of the Reformation, the church was to have its own pastors and elders who practiced church discipline ministerially and organized the basic elements of worship according to the word of Christ. In addition to the pastors and elders, Calvin argued for deacons who, in a spiritual manner distinct from that of civil government, cared for the needs of the poor.

In other words, Calvin tends somewhat to undermine the inward/outward distinction, by elaborating the structures of outward offices that play a necessary role in the spiritual government of the church, and thus tends also to undermine the distinction between the two ages, by suggesting that Christ’s spiritual reign could be clearly identified visibly here and now.

Although certainly introducing tensions, this need not prove fatal to the two-kingdoms doctrine, and indeed it is our view that Calvin did introduce certain tensions into the doctrine in this way (which is not to say that his elaboration of a Reformed church polity was not salutary in many respects), while remaining faithful to its main principles. Given that it is on the ground of Calvin’s two-kingdoms theology that the earlier engagements with Mr. Tuininga were largely fought out, and that Mr. Tuininga has promised a second installment on Calvin shortly, it is not worth pausing overlong here.

However, one point does call for further query: Tuininga’s statement regarding deacons. We would like more clarification on what this “spiritual manner” is in which deacons care for the poor. If they preach to the poor, then this is spiritual work indeed, quite distinct from the work of civil government, but it does not seem like diaconal work, distinct from ministerial work.  If they feed and house the poor, caring for their physical needs, then it is not clear how this is done in a “spiritual manner” unless by this we mean “animated by the spiritual love of Christ” or some such; but if this is what it means, how does it differ fundamentally from the work of the Christian magistrate, God’s diakonos? Mr. Tuininga has read quite thoroughly in Calvin on such questions, so we have no doubt that he can produce some passages that would elucidate these questions.  It should be noted that it is on this question that some of Dr. Hart and Dr. VanDrunen’s more troubling expressions of the dichotomy between church and state have appeared, as the diaconate is seen as a welfare program alongside that of civil government, one with a unique commission to care for Christians alone (and meaning, incidentally, that care for the poor among unbelievers is not something that Christians should do qua Christians).[4]

To return to the historical narrative: Mr. Tuininga says,

Over time Calvin’s two kingdoms doctrine came to characterize the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian traditions, particularly after Thomas Cartwright used it to defend the autonomy of the church from the royal supremacy of the English Queen Elizabeth I. Although Reformed Christians never arrived at unanimity on the political implications of the doctrine, it became absolutely foundational to their distinctive theology of the church.

By this, Mr. Tuininga apparently means to tell us that it was Calvin’s distinctive, more clerocratic contributions to the two-kingdoms doctrine that came to characterize the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions. It is certainly true that the trajectory that Calvin set, which we would argue was decisively radicalized in followers such as Beza, would come to set the tone for much 17th-century Reformed theology (though not all, to be sure).  But several questions must be asked of Mr. Tuininga here:

  1. Was Cartwright’s version of the two-kingdoms doctrine a faithful republication or development of Calvin’s?
  2. Was opposition to the royal supremacy a necessary conclusion to be drawn from the two kingdoms doctrine? Or even from the Calvinist form of it? Or were defenders of the royal supremacy legitimate in their claim to be champions of the two-kingdoms doctrine?
  3. If it is true that Reformed Christians “never arrived at unanimity on the political implications of the doctrine” – by which we take him to be acknowledging that some saw it as precluding royal supremacy and others did not, some saw it as the basis for a theocratic state and others for a somewhat secular state – then does this not suggest that modern two-kingdoms advocates are wrong to insist that the doctrine requires a particular political-theological stance vis-à-vis the relationship of church and state?

Mr. Tuininga further highlights, intentionally or not, the unreliability of this strand of two-kingdoms theology as a political-theologial paradigm when he notes that “a version of it persisted as the Presbyterian doctrine of the spirituality of the church, and another version endured in the hearts of the Scottish Covenanters.” We concur with this assessment of the kinship between the two versions, but we are curious how VanDrunen, Hart, et al. would justify their insistence that political detachment and secularity is the correct conclusion of two-kingdoms theology, when the Covenanters were theonomic in their vision of a godly politics. In his next line, Mr. Tuininga raises eyebrows again by suggesting, much as VanDrunen does throughout his work, that the chief function of the two-kingdoms doctrine was to assert the autonomy of the visible church, for he says that the doctrine was increasingly forgotten in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as “the challenge of the state against the church’s autonomy and authority had evaporated.” We would hazard the suggestion, on the contrary, that the doctrine was indeed largely forgotten as the chief threat that it was meant to address retreated, but that that threat was, as mentioned above with Luther, the claim of papal supremacy. We would suggest that Mr. Tuininga, in this brief narrative at least, has not satisfactorily explained how a doctrine that in its inception was intended primarily to bolster lay power against the pretensions of clerical power became a doctrine that was intended primarily to bolster clerical power against the pretensions of lay power. That such a mutation did happen among some, we acknowledge; but that it could happen without fundamentally altering the theological structure of the doctrine, we deny.

In any case, whether the two-kingdoms doctrine was aimed mainly against papal supremacy or royal supremacy, why is it suddenly important and relevant again today, given that neither appears to be particularly pressing threats for the church today? The new threat, Tuininga suggests, is the social gospel, which identifies the kingdom of God and its work with earthly institutions like the state, confusing things temporal with things eternal, the inner work of the Spirit with the outward work of men and women. In this, he concurs with the diagnosis of Hart and VanDrunen, and he also endorses Hart’s convention that “the evangelical attitude toward the church and politics is often nothing better than a conservative version of the social gospel.” With this, we would largely concur, though Hart at least appears to see any attempt to apply the claims of Christ in public as a version of the social gospel (a mistake in which Mr. Tuininga, thankfully, does not follow him). We are less comfortable with Hart’s claim, which Mr. Tuininga appears to endorse, that “the institutional expression of the kingdom in this age is the church, not the state, the family, or any other created institution”: while this claim may admit of an acceptable interpretation, we would wish to emphasize that qua institution, the Church shares in the nature of other created institutions, and qua institution, it cannot rightly be identified as the kingdom of Christ.

We suggest that it is his error at this point that leads Hart to “press the distinction between the two kingdoms to the point of separation … as if it amounted to a distinction between two airtight spheres, one the sphere of faith and religion, and the other the sphere of everyday life,” as Mr. Tuininga is bold enough to chastise him for here. While we understand what Tuininga means when he says that “by speaking of them in terms of separate spheres he [Hart] ends up downplaying the overlap between the two ages,” it might also be fair to say that Hart has overstated the overlap between the two ages, by imagining that the age to come is already present in institutional form, as a visible exercise of Christ’s rule, in the operations of “spiritual rulers” (a favorite phrase of Hart’s) in the institutional church. Naturally, by finding the rule of Christ so thoroughly expressed here, he sees no need to find it refracted throughout the rest of earthly life, present in hiddenness.

We appreciate, however, Mr. Tuininga’s willingness at last to forthrightly distance himself from some of Hart’s errors. Mr. Tuininga goes on to note that “Hart sometimes speaks as if faith and Scripture have little to say about life in this world,” although he pleads, in Hart’s defense, that “Hart defends his very concept of secularity on the basis of orthodox Christian eschatology.” These criticisms are probably much too gentle, given that Hart has, when given every opportunity to qualify his words, insisted that “I don’t see that the gospel is about changing lives, or that the Bible is chock-full of moral imperatives. I see that everywhere else – sports, talk radio, New York Times, Fox News – plenty of stuff about how to live good lives. What the Bible offers is forgiveness”[5] and that Hart’s glaring inconsistency, far from making his project more palatable, damns it still further. However, we understand Mr. Tuininga’s desire to be careful and charitable in voicing such criticisms for the first time. Tuininga goes on to note that part of the problem for Hart is a radically underdeveloped doctrine of natural law, which leaves the impression “that Hart thinks there is no determinative moral standard for Christian political or cultural engagement.” This too is a criticism that we have voiced over the past few years.[6] That said, Mr. Tuininga is right to say that “Hart’s historical critique of American evangelicalism is far more valid than many of his critics would like to believe,” and that “his willingness to challenge the way in which Protestants simplistically conflate their own political preferences with the teachings of Scripture makes him an unpopular but needed correction to the hubris of Christian activists on both the right and the left.” We would only add that the fact that such a deeply flawed corrective is “needed” testifies urgently to the need for authentic two-kingdoms thinking to challenge the idolatries of modern Christianity without depriving Christ of one of his kingdoms.

Mr. Tuininga continues by examining the contributions of David VanDrunen, whom he finds much more helpful than Dr. Hart, though still perhaps not without his flaws – a significant new admission on Mr. Tuininga’s part. In his two paragraphs that summarize respectively Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms and Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, there is relatively little to object to directly, although it is our view that Mr. Tuininga has, intentionally or not, glossed over some of the more troubling and novel claims that VanDrunen makes in these two books, particularly the first, making them appear far more innocuous than they are. There is no need to dwell on these here, however, given how extensively I have written about them elsewhere.

It is worth, however, querying Tuininga’s brief summary of the covenant theology that underlies Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, which seems to actually undermine the very creation/redemption schema that VanDrunen elsewhere relies on. The civil kingdom, VanDrunen tells us, is the realm of creation, bound by creational norms. He tells us in LGTK, however, that it is not in fact Adam’s creational mandate that the civil kingdom is to fulfill, but the post-lapsarian Noahic covenant, for Christ has fulfilled the Adamic covenant in our place.  This means that VanDrunen finds himself rejecting not merely the Kuyperian claim that redemption involves the transformation of the fallen world into that which is to come, but also the orthodox Reformed claim that redemption involves the restoration (though always incomplete) of the fallen world to its original integrity. It is no wonder, then, that we often find VanDrunen, like Hart, implying that the inward redemption of believers produces no outward effect on their lives and the public institutions in which they take part. Tuininga downplays this tendency, saying that VanDrunen “tends to be clearer than Hart that life in this age cannot neatly be divided into two spheres, one of which is religious and the other of which is not. He affirms that the antithesis runs through the temporal kingdom and that believers are to follow the teachings of Scripture in all that they do in their secular vocations, including politics.” It is our view that it would be fairer to say that VanDrunen “tends to be less clear than Hart that life in this age can neatly be divided into two spheres…” – that is to say, that Hart really seems to imply that it can, and that VanDrunen equivocates, but does not clearly avoid this error.

Likewise, we think Tuininga is too charitable to say that “unlike Hart, VanDrunen articulates (and is continuing to articulate) a rigorous doctrine of natural law that demonstrates the moral character of all of life under Christ’s lordship.” While VanDrunen has certainly fervently asserted a doctrine of natural law, we have not found it to be clear, well-developed, or “rigorous.” He may well wish to show “the moral character of all of life under Christ’s lordship,” but it is not clear to us that his writings have yet succeeded in doing so with any great cogency or consistency.

We come now to Mr. Tuininga’s closing remarks, in which we again find much to applaud, though with a couple misgivings. He endorses VanDrunen and Hart’s common emphasis on “the importance of the church as the institutional expression of the kingdom of Christ in this age.” This is language with which we have repeatedly expressed our discomfort, and we would like to know just what Mr. Tuininga means by “institutional expression.”

However, we can largely endorse the following sentences which elaborate, “The kingdom is otherworldly in the sense that it is future and its full consummation awaits Christ’s return. The way in which we access that kingdom, they argue, is through the regular means of grace, specifically preaching and the administration of the sacraments” (although it might be better to say that we access the kingdom through faith, which can be kindled and nourished by the regular means of grace).

Mr. Tuininga’s final paragraph is one to which we wholeheartedly assent, and indeed it actually sums up what we have been saying about the problems of the modern Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine and its departure from that of the Reformation. We quote it here in full:

One of the ways in which modern advocates could strengthen the two kingdoms doctrine is by further emphasizing and clarifying its fundamentally eschatological character, particularly in light of the fact that the two kingdoms are often confused with two spheres into which life is to be divided. It may be that part of the problem is a conflation of the two kingdoms doctrine with Abraham Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty. But Kuyper’s spheres denote different areas into which human life under Christ’s lordship are to be divided; they do not designate the eschatological distinction between this age and the age to come. As such, the concept of sphere sovereignty is a sociological concept that is consistent with but different from the two kingdoms doctrine. We confuse the two when we think of the two kingdoms as two spheres (because they denote two governments) but forget that they also denote two overlapping ages. As 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5-6 make clear, because Christians live between two ages, they cannot turn everything they do into the kingdom of God, but they are to do everything that they do in obedience to Christ’s lordship.

We would merely close by asking whether it is possible to continue to use language of the visible church as the “institutional expression of the kingdom of Christ” without falling into the trap of thinking of the spiritual kingdom as a “sphere” of human life in this way. The fundamentally eschatological nature of the two kingdoms doctrine ought to stand as a perpetual warning against an over-immanentizing of the spiritual kingdom, whether that be in a social gospel that identifies it with political action, or in a reactionary confessionalism that identifies it with the activities of spiritual rulers.

[1] His initial barrage of posts (see also the interaction in the Comments threads, although a number of comments were subsequently deleted) were: “Would Calvin have supported magisterial control over the Church?”, “Did Calvin think that the visible church is part of the political kingdom?”, “Blowing a myth that goes back to Credenda Agenda”, and “Sloppy scholarly claims about Calvin force me to beat a dead horse.”

[2] From Mr. Tuininga, see “Calvin on the Church as Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom”, “The Visible Church as Christ’s Spiritual Kingdom”, and “If even Calvin says he views the church as Christ’s kingdom in this age, should we believe him?” Related, though not directly engaging these, are my “When a Mark Isn’t a Mark” and “Will the Real Geneva Please Stand Up?”

[3] W.D.J. Cargill Thompson, “The ‘Two Kingdoms’ and the ‘Two Regiments’: Some Problems of Luther’s Zwei-Reiche-Lehre,” Journal of Theological Studies XX (1969)”; reprinted in Thompson, Studies in the Reformation and The Political Thought of Martin Luther.

[4] A Secular Faith (Ivan R. Dee, 2006) 231-232

[5] In the comments thread on this post

[6] See here

By W. Bradford Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D, University of Edinburgh, 2013), is President of the Davenant Trust and an independent scholar, writer, and editor. He is researching the political theology of the Reformation, especially Richard Hooker (the subject of his dissertation), and other areas in Christian ethics, especially pertaining to economic questions.

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