Archive Civic Polity W. Bradford Littlejohn

Cornelis Venema and the Two Kingdoms

A long-awaited volume of essays contesting the recent Reformed two-kingdoms doctrine is at last on its way to the press: Kingdoms Apart, edited by Ryan McIlhenny (forthcoming from P&R Publishing, Oct. 25, 2012). McIlhenny, an erstwhile ally of David VanDrunen in some respects, turned critic when the full scope of his project was made clear in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.[1] As a great deal of my own work over the past couple years, and our work here at The Calvinist International, has been dedicated to trying to contest what we find to be the harmful implications and the obfuscations of historical realities in VanDrunen’s narrative, it is a great encouragement to find others stepping up to the battlements as well. To be sure, the perspective of McIlhenny’s book is unapologetically that of neo-Calvinism, VanDrunen’s chief target in his work, and a standpoint with which we too have considerable differences, and which we would not necessarily want to defend against all of VanDrunen’s criticisms. McIlhenny’s cohort, then, are perhaps more properly co-belligerents than they are allies in the debate against Westminster West’s version of the two-kingdoms doctrine. Nonetheless, on one of the crucial issues of historical interpretation – namely, that of John Calvin’s doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms – we find ourselves in hearty agreement with the contribution by Cornelis Venema, the volume’s first essay, entitled “The Restoration of All Things to Proper Order: An Assessment of the Two Kingdoms/Natural Law Interpretation of John Calvin’s Public Theology.”[2]

In a spirit of camaraderie, then (as well as, perhaps, a spirit of “See, I told you so!”), we wish to highlight some of the points at which Venema’s critique of VanDrunen corresponds to our own, as well as to flag a few points where we might wish to emphasize things somewhat differently.

In his essay, Venema argues that VanDrunen has misrepresented the teaching of Calvin at three main junctures:

  1. Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms is not really a doctrine of two institutions, church and state (or church and everything-but-church, as VanDrunen at times suggests), but of two governments, external and internal, by which Christ rules believers in all areas of their lives;
  2. Calvin’s doctrine of natural law does not envision natural law operating in isolation from Scripture, but mediated through the “spectacles” of Scripture;
  3. While Calvin certainly distinguishes between creation and redemption, he does not view them as two separate and virtually unrelated works of God – one the work of the Father, and the other the work of the Son, as VanDrunen at times implies – but rather, in Biblical fashion, sees redemption as a restoration of fallen creation, through the agency of the same Son through whom the world was at first created and is still upheld.

Each of these lines of critique mirrors objections that we have raised to VanDrunen’s work over the past couple years.[3]

Let’s take them each in turn. (Note: We will not pause here, as Venema does, to first summarize in full the outlines of VanDrunen’s argument regarding Calvin, since Venema’s summary is so clear and judicious that we would merely point all those unfamiliar with Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms to Venema’s précis in Kingdoms Apart, 5–10.)

On the first point, Venema makes no attempt (initially, at least) to deny the prominence of the theme of the two kingdoms in Calvin’s thought. But he says, “It remains to be seen whether Calvin views them primarily in terms of two separate realms, and whether he makes the clear identification of the spiritual kingdom with the institutional church and the natural kingdom with the remainder of human life and culture, as VanDrunen maintains. Does Calvin use this distinction to restrict distinctively ‘Christian’ conduct to the life and ministry of the church, in distinction from all other aspects of human conduct?” Venema notes too the important role that the doctrine of Christian liberty plays for Calvin, as for VanDrunen, in introducing the two-kingdoms paradigm, but he importantly emphasizes,

All three parts of Christian freedom, Calvin observes, are “spiritual” in nature. The believer’s conscience is not constrained to obedience by a fearful prospect of judgment or condemnation. Rather, believers, who are freely and graciously accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s work on their behalf, joyfully and gladly obey God’s commandments from a good conscience and are enabled by the Spirit to live a life that is pleasing to him. (12)

Although Venema does not develop this point, this stress upon the spiritual, inward character of all three aspects of Christian liberty provides an imprint riposte to VanDrunen, who seems to repeatedly lose sight of this fact and externalizes the doctrine by using it to carve out a large area of ecclesiastical matters in which the Christian must be free even from any merely external constraint.[4] (The end result of such a doctrine, the Puritan regulative principle of worship, is actually to transfer inward liberty to outward things, just as Calvin warns against, binding consciences to supposed declarations of Scripture where they ought not to be bound.[5]) Although Venema’s critique is necessarily selective, this is one key point where he might have fruitfully added to it.

Venema goes on, however, after quoting at length the crucial passage from Institutes III.19.15 on the two kingdoms, to make the following incisive points:

First, the principal emphasis in this passage, with its distinction between the “spiritual” and the “political” kingdoms of God, is on the manner in which God governs the conduct of believers. In the spiritual government of God, believers are freely and inwardly subject to the requirements of God’s law, not as a means to obtain God’s favor but as an expression of grateful devotion. In the civil or political government of God, all members of the civil community are obliged to obey outwardly the laws of the political kingdom, which serve to maintain public order and peace … Second, consistent with his emphasis on two kinds of jurisdiction or government, Calvin’s “Two Kingdoms” language does not so much refer to two separate realms or worlds as to a twofold government of God over the conduct of believers who are being renewed after his image and are subject to his rule. Although Calvin undoubtedly aims to distinguish by means of his conception of God’s twofold government between the institutions of the church and the state, it is not immediately evident that this twofold jurisdiction can be neatly divided, as VanDrunen maintains, between two comprehensive realms, the institutional church on the one hand, and all other institutions and aspects of human life and culture, especially the state, on the other. Whereas VanDrunen interprets Calvin’s language of “Two Kingdoms” in spatial terms, as though they were primarily two separate realms of human life and conduct, Calvin’s emphasis is on the twofold way in which God governs the conduct of believers in whom these two jurisdictions coexist (13–14).

This, we believe, is spot-on, and it is indeed heartening that Venema expounds the matter in this way (although, given the text of the Institutes here, it is hard to see how else one could coherently expound it), given how many Calvin scholars either ignore Calvin’s concept of the two governments altogether or hastily assimilate it to his understanding of church and magistrate. To be sure, as Venema says, and as our interlocutor Matthew Tuininga has assertively maintained, Calvin tends to identify these two governments to a considerable extent with the institutional forms of church and magistracy respectively. But these institutional forms remain decidedly secondary, given that the inward spiritual government of God remains irreducibly transcendent over the external means which God appropriates to it. In any case, as Venema goes on to point out, it makes quite a difference to VanDrunen’s project that the concept is one of two governments rather than two institutions, for the former concept implies, as the latter does not necessarily, two distinct means employed coordinately to the same end.[6] Venema is thus able to make far more sense than VanDrunen is, of Calvin’s heavy emphasis on the civil magistrate’s responsibility to to assist in the propagation of the gospel by externally facilitating and overseeing the church’s work:

For Calvin, the spiritual and the civil government of God do not stand independently alongside each other. The civil government or jurisdiction, although it is not to usurp the distinct spiritual government that Christ exercises through his Spirit and Word, has the task within God’s design to secure the kind of public order and tranquility that is indispensable to the prosecution of the church’s calling. In this way, the civil jurisdiction serves the redemptive purposes of God by protecting the church and ensuring its freedom to pursue its unique calling under Christ. Furthermore, as servants of God, civil magistrates have the task of ensuring that both tables of the law – the first table dealing with the service and worship of God, the second table addressing the mutual service of all human beings to each other – are honored and obeyed. Although the civil magistrate is not authorized to usurp the distinctive prerogatives of the spiritual kingdom, namely, the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word in renewing human life in free obedience to God’s law, it does serve to advance the redemptive purpose of the spiritual kingdom by requiring an outward conformity to the requirements of God’s moral law (16–17).

There is, however, one weakness in Venema’s account at this point, which we surreptitiously flagged above where we said, “Venema makes no attempt (initially, at least) to deny the prominence of the theme of the two kingdoms in Calvin’s thought.” For, amidst his otherwise fine exposition of the importance and logic of the theme in Calvin’s thought, Venema seems to intrude the suggestion that it was in fact not central to the structure of his theology, but a mere device, as it were, for guarding against the particular error of Anabaptism – conceived here in typically narrow terms as a “denial of the Christian’s obligation to obey the laws of the civil government” (12). On this view, Calvin is not really too interested in the concept of the two kingdoms except within the particular argumentative context of proving our obligation to obey civil laws, and it is essentially only to this end that Calvin articulates the doctrine. So we find Venema saying, “In order to rebut the seditious implications of the denial of the legitimate claim of the civil magistrate on Christian obedience, Calvin offers a distinction between two kinds of jurisdiction or government, the spiritual and the civil” (12–13); and “the particular interest of Calvin in drawing this distinction between the spiritual and political jurisdictions is to emphasize the legitimate obligation of believers to obey the laws of the civil magistrate” (14). Toward the end of his discussion, Venema goes so far as to say, “it should be apparent that Calvin’s Two Kingdoms conception focuses primarily on the legitimacy of the Christian believer’s continued subjection to the civil magistrate. Christian freedom, which includes freedom from the condemnation of the law and for grateful, Spirit-authored obedience to the law as a rule of gratitude, does not exempt believers from an obligation to obey the civil magistrate.”

Of course, while we wholeheartedly concur that a right understanding of Christian freedom (as not inimical to civil obligation) and an opposition to Anabaptism is at the heart of Calvin’s two-kingdoms doctrine, we would suggest that the implications of these concerns are considerably wider than Venema appears to consider. For instance, the doctrine has crucial implications for the way in which human authorities in the church understand their authority, sharply differentiating (as VanDrunen fails to do) between matters of doctrine and matters of polity, between spiritual subjection to the Word and political subjection to ecclesiastical constitutions. Only by observing these implications of the doctrine can some of the most pernicious features of VanDrunen’s misinterpretation be combatted. More fundamentally, Venema seems to fall into the trap of many scholars in thinking of this doctrine as a reactive, rather than primary, doctrine on the part of Calvin and the other Reformers. That is, rather than seeing the two kingdoms as an integral building block of Calvin’s theology, an expression of core commitments like the doctrine of justification, Venema sees it as an attempt to forestall certain concerns about dangerous political implications of the Reformation, to reassure readers that no diminution of civil authority is intended. This perpetuates a common misunderstanding among the scholarship that questions of political theology are ancillary to the concerns of the Reformers, little more than an afterthought. On the contrary, we would argue that the two-kingdoms doctrine, presented as it is within the context of unpacking the meaning of justification by faith – even called an “appendix” of the same doctrine[7] – cannot be divorced from the Reformers’ fundamental soteriological and ecclesiological concerns.

Venema’s second line of critique may be dealt with more briefly, as we have little to disagree with in it, and it appears almost irrefutable as an interpretation of the text of the Institutes. Venema complains that VanDrunen, in his treatment of Calvin’s doctrine of natural law, tends to gloss over the extent to which sin impairs not merely our grasp of spiritual things, but even of the earthly dimensions of the natural law:

Although Calvin affirms the reality and benefit of natural law to disclose God’s will for human conduct in society and culture, and although Calvin acknowledges the relative excellence and value of human endeavors in what he terms “earthly” and “natural” things, he emphasizes far more than his medieval predecessors, including Thomas Aquinas, the destructive effects of human sin and disobedience in these dimensions of human life as well as in dimensions of human life that are more obviously spiritual in nature … Although Calvin affirms the reality of natural law and a corresponding universal apprehension of the distinction between vice and virtue on the part of unbelievers and believers alike, he also emphasizes the insufficiency under the conditions of sin of natural law to obtaining a full apprehension of God’s will for human conduct, not only in the spiritual but also in the natural kingdom (21–22).

This being the case, Calvin is far clearer about the need for special revelation to illuminate the natural law for us sinners, and about the superiority of special revelation as a source of guidance even in many civil matters, than is VanDrunen. Says Venema, “Calvin’s conception of the relation between natural and special revelation grants a priority to special revelation as a more clear and full disclosure of God’s will as Creator and Redeemer for human conduct in every area of life” (18–19). Indeed,

Special revelation is more rich in its scope, more full and complete in terms of what it reveals of God’s moral will, and far more clear and distinct than the revelation of God in the natural law. Calvin’s metaphor for the Scriptures as “spectacles” through which the revelation of God as Creator is clearly discerned, for example, represents an especially important feature of his doctrine of revelation that VanDrunen’s Two Kingdoms/natural law interpretation tends to diminish. When believers seek to fulfill their distinctive vocations in every area of human society and culture, whether in marriage and family, social relations, economic endeavors, or the arts and sciences, Calvin does not shy away from appealing directly to Scripture as a more clear and comprehensive disclosure of God’s will for the conduct of those whom he is restoring after the image of Christ through the sanctifying, regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. (19)

All of this runs contrary to VanDrunen’s rather artificial and schematic division between matters of “creation” or “the civil kingdom” in which natural law is our proper and primary guide, and matters of “redemption” or “the spiritual kingdom” in which Scripture is our proper and primary guide.  It is telling that in his order of exposition in the Institutes, Calvin does not speak simply of natural revelation in the context of knowing God as Creator, and then move on to speak of special revelation in the context of knowing God as Redeemer, but introduces special revelation already as part (indeed, the chief part) of knowing God as Creator. “Scripture,” summarizes Venema, “communicates a knowledge of God as Creator that cannot be derived from natural revelation alone because of the effects of sin” (23).

Perhaps less obviously in this context, Venema also invokes the relevance of Calvin’s doctrine of sanctification as another consideration that tells against VanDrunen’s reading. In sanctification, Christ brings the believer into submission to the Word of God in all areas of his life. By this means, the spiritual government of the Word is externalized, not as for VanDrunen in the declarations of ministers in church courts, but in the illumination of the individual conscience, which applies the Word in each believer’s own vocation:

Calvin’s doctrine of sanctification emphasizes that believers are subject to the life-embracing requirements of the moral law of God revealed in Scripture. Furthermore, since Calvin’s doctrine of sanctification amounts to an extended description of the spiritual government of Christ in the lives of believers who are being restored to new obedience through the work of his Spirit, the spiritual kingdom of Christ is as broad and life-embracing as the claims of the moral law of God are on the believer’s conduct in relation to God and to all human beings who bear his image … [Sanctification] is not narrowly confined to the ministry of the institutional church. Christian believers under the lordship of Jesus Christ are called to obey God, instructed and enlightened by the light of his special revelation, to pursue their vocation, order their marriage and family, conduct their social and economic enterprises, educate themselves and their children, obey the civil magistrate, and pursue the arts and sciences (24, 25–26).

With all this, we are in warm agreement. We would only express some reserve as to whether Venema, in his zeal to emphasise the need for special revelation to illuminate our moral lives in our post-lapsarian blindness, tends to play down a bit too much the ongoing role for the natural law in favor of a comprehensive divine law. When he speaks of the sanctified conscience dynamically applying the spiritual law of God written on the heart, this is excellent.  Eyebrows may be raised at times, however, when he seems to suggest that the written law of Scripture will serve as the clearest and fullest guide to God’s will in our vocations. (For instance, p. 25, “Whether in the natural or the spiritual government of Christ, the determination of God’s will for the conduct of believers is never based merely on the rudimentary revelation of the natural law. Rather, believers discern the will of God for their proper obedience to Christ by attending to the more clear and full disclosure of his will in Scripture, acknowledging that Scripture clarifies and supplements the knowledge of God as Creator and provides a rich disclosure of God’s moral law in its life-encompassing claim on human conduct in every legitimate vocation or task.”) We have contended that VanDrunen is to some extent right in his suspicion of neo-Calvinist approaches to politics and culture that always feel the need to bring to bear a biblical directive to guide the Christian’s public conduct. In fact there are often times when such direction is not clearly at hand, or functions on such a general level that it simply coincides with the urgings of the natural law, which continues to serve as a sound guide for political prudence, particularly in the redeemed. In such cases, insisting that we must have recourse to Scripture because it is “clearer” and “fuller” may merely present an unnecessary stumbling-block for the conscience. It should be emphasized that Venema may be innocent of this over-extension of special revelation; it is simply not entirely clear from his exposition, and deserves to be flagged.

Finally, Venema draws attention to the relationship of creation and redemption, a theme which, though not highlighted overmuch by VanDrunen in his discussion of Calvin, plays a prominent role in his exposition at several points. Not only does VanDrunen tend to connect natural law with a knowledge of creation and Scripture with a knowledge of redemption, which is problematic for reasons Venema has already shown, but he seeks also to correlate the two kingdoms with these two orders. The spiritual kingdom is concerned with redemption, the civil kingdom with creation. There is something to this, to be sure, but it runs into problems when VanDrunen portrays these two orders as having no integral relation to one another, but instead each having its own completely separate telos. As Venema describes VanDrunen’s schema,

Although Christ as Mediator of creation continues to preserve and order human life in the natural kingdom, Christ as Mediator of redemption only renews and reorders the life and culture of the church… In this interpretation of Calvin’s public theology, redemption is viewed as a kind of second-story overlay on the order of creation. God’s redemptive purpose in relation to the created order is not integrally related to God’s original design and purpose for creation. (26)

When he argues that the Son rules one kingdom in his capacity as creator God, and then the other in his capacity as incarnate Redeemer, he risks falling into a Nestorian bifurcation of the person of the Word, denying the continuity between these two works. Venema does not, as it turns out, give particular attention to this Nestorianizing danger, perhaps because it is more muted in VanDrunen’s chapter on Calvin than it becomes later in NLTK, but he does insist on the continuity between God’s works of creation and redemption, and their unity within the work of the incarnate Son:

One of the principal motifs of Calvin’s theology is his insistence that Christ’s work of redemption involves the comprehensive reordering and renewing of the entire created order. Although Calvin distinguishes between the knowledge of God as Creator and as Redeemer, he does so in order to underscore the way God’s purpose of redemption entails no less than the restoration of the whole creation to a state of glorified perfection. According to Calvin, the knowledge of God as Redeemer can be understood only within the framework of the doctrine of creation. The eternal Son through whom all things were made is the One through whom all things are being redeemed. Redemption, accordingly, amounts to nothing less than the restoration of all things to proper order through the mediation of Christ and the work of his Spirit. (27)

This language of “restoration” is particularly encouraging to see from Venema, given that his neo-Calvinist tradition tends to favor too often the paradigm of “transformation,” a term that VanDrunen despises, and about which we have considerable reservations as well (implying as it does that redemption changes the creation order into something other than itself). Although Venema does in a couple places use the language of “transformation,” any cause for concern is removed by his fuller statements at other points. He speaks of the work of Christ as “the renovation of the whole creation, a reversal of the consequence of human sin and disobedience” (28), a work that “reorders and renews the creation, which has been disordered and broken through human sin and the judgment of God” (29). Redemption restores the original created integrity, makes creation new, rather than substituting a brand new creation or transforming the created order into something fundamentally other. Venema elaborates, approvingly describing Calvin’s doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh and its wider implications:

The corruption and weakness of the flesh is an adventitious or accidental quality that does not belong intrinsically to the body as God first created it. Therefore, Calvin, utilizing an Aristotelian distinction between “substance” and “accidents,” maintains that “as to substance” believers “shall be raised again in the same flesh we now bear, but … the quality will be different.” Christ’s redemptive work in the lives of believers will ultimately restore the fullness of human life in the body as God originally created it, although in a state of greater glory in union with Christ. Redemption restores what sin has corrupted and deformed; but it does not displace what God created good … Calvin employs similar language to describe the way Christ’s redemptive office will renovate the entire created order. The present and future consummation of Christ’s work of redemption will not annihilate or discard the substance of the created order. Rather, it will remove all the “accidental” features of disorder and corruption that are a result of the introduction of human sin and God’s curse on the whole creation. Just as the accidental features of sin that adversely affect human life in the body will be removed through Christ’s work of redemption, so the accidental features of sin that adversely affect the creation will be removed when the creation itself is restored while its “substance” remains (28–29).

While remaining far from complete before the consummation, this renewal, redirection and purification of the created order takes place now through the invisible power of the Spirit transforming hearts (the spiritual kingdom) and enabling us to better (though still poorly) approximate the original created integrity of human nature. This is a crucial aspect of the relation of the two kingdoms in Calvinistic and Protestant thought, one that seems quite lost in VanDrunen’s dualistic exposition. Of course, it remains critically important to distinguish this proleptic renewal (which remains largely hidden here on earth even at the best of times) from the eschatological renewal, and Venema is perhaps not careful enough to make qualifications here; certainly, neo-Calvinism in general has a tendency to immanentize the eschaton and blur the boundaries between present renewal and future renewal. Against this tendency, we readily acknowledge that VanDrunen’s protest is salutary, but clearly in his eagerness to maintain the boundaries between temporality and eternity, he has overreacted, leading in fact (although Venema does not highlight this) to his own form of immanentizing the eschaton: within the narrow bounds of the visible church. Calvin’s own doctrine, while certainly containing seeds of some of VanDrunen’s emphases, is on the whole, as Venema has shown, rich, balanced, and soundly biblical in its treatment of the relation between the two kingdoms, between natural and special revelation, and between creation and redemption.

[1] For a prior interaction with McIlhenny, see here.

[2] P&R has generously made available this first chapter as a sample online here.

[4] For more on this, see the interaction with Dr. Kirby’s reading of Calvin here.

[5] This theology creates an endless dialect of legalism and antinomianism. For more on this, see here.

[6] For a discussion of the close conjunction between ecclesiastical and civil polity in Calvin’s Geneva, see here. Of course, this language of “the same end” is tricky, and we would actually like to emphasize, more than Venema does though not to the extent that VanDrunen does, the existence and integrity of a distinct finite end of the “outward government,” ensuring the purely temporal flourishing of creaturely existence as a good in itself, rather than dedicating itself solely to the task of the outward support of the eschatological work of redemption. Venema’s temptation here, as a neo-Calvinist, is to instrumentalize the created order as having value only in redemption; whereas VanDrunen’s temptation, in reaction against this, is to imply that the goods of sustaining the created order and of the goods of redemption are separate and unrelated. See more on this below.

[7] Institutes 3.19.1

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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