Archive Civic Polity Ecclesiastical Polity W. Bradford Littlejohn

Once More Into the Breach (Part 2): Clearing Up the Two Kingdoms Conversation

This post is a continuation of a prior post at The Sword and Ploughshare, but also of an ongoing conversation that has taken place in many venues, ultimately tracing its beginning to this site. Having previously offered a lengthy prolegomenon on manners and method to address issues raised by Mr. Tuininga’s most recent engagement with me, I will turn to respond specifically to a few of his claims in that post, before resuming the main line of earlier discussion by responding to his earlier “Friendly Chatter.

In “Two Kingdoms Myths,” Mr. Tuininga offers us two “myths” that the critics propagate about Calvin and VanDrunen, but he leaves us somewhat bewildered as to how to relate the two, or make sense of Tuininga’s attempts to defend against both. On the one hand, we are told that some critics contend that Calvin did not identify the visible church with the spiritual kingdom, a charge that Tuininga contemptuously dismisses: “Do they make sense of the many places in which Calvin clearly identifies the spiritual kingdom with the visible church?” But one paragraph later, we are told that critics blame VanDrunen because he does identify the visible church with the spiritual kingdom, a charge that Tuininga considers completely unfair: “VanDrunen never refers to the spiritual kingdom as the ‘ecclesiastical kingdom’ and Venema’s slip here suggests he has gotten something profoundly wrong. Indeed, VanDrunen never identifies the spiritual kingdom with the church ‘simpliciter,’ as Venema suggests.”

Judging from these responses, we would have to come to the conclusion that Mr. Tuininga thinks that Calvin does identify the visible church with the spiritual kingdom, and VanDrunen does not – but of course he thinks that VanDrunen is a faithful expositor of Calvin at this point, and wishes to defend both of them, so that cannot be right. How are we to read this riddle?

Mr. Tuininga appears here to be trapped in a circle of equivocation. What he intends to say, it seems, is that, for both Calvin and VanDrunen, the spiritual kingdom is closely associated with the visible church as its fullest earthly manifestation, but cannot be said to be simply identical with it, so that it is confined within the structures and ministry of the visible church. But he cannot spell things out this clearly, because he has to do justice on the one hand to VanDrunen’s rather ambiguous pronouncements on the subject, and on the other hand to his zeal to expose critics’ claims as groundless. On the latter score, then, we find him beginning, “The first myth is that VanDrunen misinterprets Calvin when he associates the two kingdoms, or twofold government, with the institutions of the church and the state (or to put it less anachronistically, the church and the civil magistracy).” And yet, to my knowledge, no critic has contested an association of the spiritual government with the church. On the contrary, the most forceful criticisms in this regard, those of Wedgeworth and Escalante, insist, “We have not said that there is no institutional form of the worshipping church, nor that it has no relationship to the spiritual kingdom” and go on to say, “Calvin can speak of the liturgical and expository-predicatory ministry as spiritual because it is the realm of the signification of the spiritual.” Their insistence is only that “Calvin’s use of ‘spiritual’ for ecclesiastical polity does not at all suggest a genuine fusion of the visible congregation as organized with the mystical body.” In other words, there is an association but not an identification, and certainly not an identification simpliciter. Of course, there is much more nuance to explore here, and we will return to it, below. But for now, more on Tuininga’s equivocation. He tells us, in debunking this myth, that virtually every scholar “rightly acknowledges that Calvin associated the spiritual kingdom with the visible church,” using again the vaguer term, but then concludes by referring to “the many places in which Calvin clearly identifies the spiritual kingdom with the visible church.”

David VanDrunen’s Two Kingdoms

The equivocation continues when he turns to Dr. VanDrunen, claiming that proper attention to Living in God’s Two Kingdoms will clear up all confusion:

According to the New Testament, the redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace come to their fullest earthly expression in the church, and in the church alone…. But the church is the only institution and community in this world that can be identified with the redemptive kingdom and the covenant of grace (102).

He goes on: “Though the church is not identical to the covenant of grace or the kingdom of heaven, it is precisely in the church that the covenant and kingdom are experienced until Christ returns” (116).

It is far from clear how we are to make sense of all these statements. “Come to their fullest earthly expression” might be fine, but then we are told that the church as institution can be “identified with the redemptive kingdom.” Mr. Tuininga, apparently wary here of the “identify” language, as he was not with Calvin, seems keen that we should take VanDrunen’s remarks on page 116, in which he denies such identity, as qualifications to the passage on page 102. Perhaps they are, but it is disingenuous to imply that they are presented as such, as Tuininga does when he says “he goes on”; fourteen pages later is not “he goes on.” Perhaps critics ought to have been more attentive to the passage on page 116, but they can hardly be blamed for reading the passage on page 102 in isolation; if the qualifications were so important, why wait fourteen pages for them, especially fourteen pages that contain frequent very strong statements about the visible church? Indeed, after making this qualification, VanDrunen seems subsequently to retract it (or at least to marginalize it) by again strongly identifying the church with the spiritual kingdom.[1]

Before moving on from this topic (which we will have cause to revisit), it is worth attending to one more quotation that Tuininga offers from VanDrunen to demonstrate as absurd any criticisms that he identifies the spiritual kingdom with the visible church and thus separates it from the rest of life:

[M]ost of the civil affairs which Calvin made answerable to the Consistory can be said to have a spiritual dimension. Certainly the issues of marriage and family that took up so much of the Consistory’s attention are matters that, while clearly civil, also implicate the spiritual condition of people and thus are of rightful concern to their pastors and elders. Broadly, one might say that since people can fall into sin in any area of life, no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual (NLTK, 87).

So important is this quotation for Mr. Tuininga’s case that he uses the last line to headline his post. Unfortunately, this quotation does not really do what he wants it to do. For one thing, these statements are offered by way of concession, not positive exposition, giving further traction to the critics’ contention that VanDrunen’s preferred form of expression is to offer a very sharp dualism here, and that any qualifications that might blunt the force of these expressions are offered only grudgingly, under pressure of evidence. This quote comes in the midst of a particularly problematic section in which VanDrunen attempts to account for extensive evidence in Calvin that would appear to contradict his thesis. Dr. VanDrunen is certainly to be lauded for taking the time to consider such evidence, rather than brushing it out of sight, and for introducing certain qualifications to attempt to account for it; but the grudging and ad hoc nature of the qualifications suggest that his core propositions do not in fact admit of easy reconciliation with the evidence. Immediately after these sentences, indeed, VanDrunen hedges his concessions: “Nevertheless, in my judgment, Calvin is not so easily acquitted of the charge of inconsistency on other related matters.” In particular, he demonstrates his serious historical confusion when he complains, “the fact that the Consistory, as an ecclesiastical body, was given jurisdiction over all residents of Geneva is difficult to reconcile with Calvin’s two kingdoms theology, for it gives the church jurisdiction over those outside of the spiritual kingdom … it is difficult to understand how the Genevan church could have jurisdiction over those outside of the church in Geneva.” But of course, in Calvin’s understanding, there were none “outside of the church in Geneva.” The Genevan citizenry was, in his view, coterminous with the visible church, defined as the community of professing Christians. As Harro Hopfl puts it,

both agencies [magistrates and ministers] were to use the distinctive resources committed to them by God for the disciplining of the same congregation or body of inhabitants … to obedience to the same body of laws which covered both piety and righteousness. The laws of the Christian commonwealth are here understood as directives concerning the external form which righteousness takes.[2]

This is not, as VanDrunen goes on to say, a consequence of an inconsistent holdover of medieval corpus Christianorum thinking, but of Calvin’s forthrightly Protestant insistence, against the Anabaptists, that the Church is a mixed multitude, in which the tares in any age are mixed inseparably with the wheat.

Second, and more seriously, inasmuch as these concessive remarks do constitute the view that VanDrunen wishes to put forth, they serve not to assuage but to confirm our deepest concerns: that the quietistic, separationist form of the two kingdoms offered by Escondido is merely the passive form of the imperialistic clericalism that the two-kingdoms model issued forth in the English Puritan and Scottish Covenanter tradition. It is no mere slip of the tongue, but in fact quite telling, that it is on the basis of the ubiquity of sin that Dr. VanDrunen is willing to concede the potential ubiquity of the spiritual kingdom. It is not in the renewing operations of grace in believers’ hearts, but in the operations of ecclesiastical discipline, which can theoretically extend into any and every area of human conduct, that VanDrunen sees Christ’s spiritual kingdom taking form in various areas of human society that are otherwise “civil matters.” This, we cannot emphasize enough, is precisely the basis of our intense concern about the current form of Reformed two-kingdoms theology. If the “spiritual kingdom” is identified with the visible church, and that visible church is understood largely in legal and institutional terms, as it is in VanDrunen’s jure divino Presbyterian tradition, then the spiritual kingdom functions in fact not as a kingdom of grace in contrast to the civil kingdom of law, but as an additional kingdom of law, one that will either compete with or enhance the severity of the magistracy.

We are increasingly convinced that it is not such a model that Mr. Tuininga himself is interested in defending, and moreover that he does not really see that this is exactly what, in our view, is at stake in the present controversy. This is made clear in the final paragraphs of his “Friendly Chatter” post, where he says,

But Littlejohn is still worried about what I mean when I say the church is the “institutional expression” of Christ’s kingdom…. This statement reflects the basic fear of Littlejohn and the other authors of the Calvinist International as I understand it. To summarize, they worry that if the kingdom of Christ finds any unique, concrete, tangible, outward expression in one place, then its authority and claims are separated from the rest of life. The result is that the rest of life is outside of the lordship of Christ.

This, to be sure, is the concern of Venema and the neo-Calvinists, and it is part of our concern, but it is not the main point. We fear, rather, that one or both of two things will happen. On the one hand, if the kingdom of Christ is to find concrete, tangible, outward expression in a visible community of believers, impossibly high and legalistic standards will be applied to ensure that this community lives up to its identity. On the other hand, if instead (or in addition) the concrete, tangible, and outward expression of the kingdom is identified in the ordained ministry and its government, these ministers will exercise a tyrannical authority over the consciences of believers. Tuininga, however, registers no awareness of either of these fears: responding instead to the fear of separating the lordship of Christ from all of life, he goes on to spell out how “the preaching of the word calls believers to a whole way of life shaped by God’s moral law and by the example of Jesus. The implications of this way of life extend to every single thing that human beings do. Even civil government has the obligation to kiss the Son and to recognize the limits on its own authority.” With this we are in full agreement, but we are not at all sure that VanDrunen is.

In his “Two Kingdoms Myths” post, Tuininga provides evidence from VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms of this much more expansive view of Christ’s kingship:

The Lord Jesus Christ rules all things…. So how does Christ now rule the many institutions and communities of this world other than the church? The answer is that he rules them through the Noahic Covenant, for they are institutions and communities of the common kingdom. They operate according to the same basic principles and purposes as before Christ’s first coming. What is different [after that first coming] is that God now rules them through the incarnate Jesus, the last Adam who has entered into the glory of the world-to-come. (118)

This is all well and good, except that VanDrunen has repeatedly asserted the express contrary of these propositions in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms:

The Son of God rules the temporal kingdom as an eternal member of the Divine Trinity but does not rule it in his capacity as the incarnate mediator/redeemer. (181)

To distinguish between the Son as creator and the Son as redeemer entails that the title of ‘Christ’ belongs only to the latter … in his special mission of becoming incarnate for the particular work of saving his people. The Son redeemed the world, but did not create the world, as the Messiah, the Christ. (313; see also page 75)

Tuininga goes on to quote VanDrunen in LGTK saying, “cultural activity should be uniquely Christian: even in their most ordinary and mundane tasks, Christians must act from faith, in accord with God’s law, and for God’s glory” (167).

And yet, in the earlier Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, we find VanDrunen reproaching even the redoubtable spirituality-of-the-church advocate Thornwell for “incoherence” in attempting to “find a religious aspect to civil concerns”; and on the specific question of the “Christianness” of cultural activity, the following passage:

Therefore, for Kuyper to make the traditional distinction between two mediatorships and then defend the idea of the ‘Christianization’ of the common grace realm because it is the work of ‘Christ,’ is to confuse categories and language precisely where categories and language are at issue. If the Son of God creates in a different capacity from his capacity as redeemer, then he does not create as ‘Christ,’ and the terrain of common grace, grounded in the creation order, is not ‘Christian,’ no matter how noble it becomes. (313)

In response to our pressing these objections,[3] Mr. Tuininga is now insisting that Dr. VanDrunen has abandoned these particularly problematic views, and that the statements in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms represent his settled opinion. Indeed, he insists that we understand that VanDrunen’s position is and always has been a work in progress, and that we judge him accordingly, and that we are to consider Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, not Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, his “definitive work on the subject.” To this, we have four rejoinders.

First, if VanDrunen did in fact change his view on a matter so fundamental to the argument of NLTK as his understanding of Christ’s two mediatorships,[4] he had a duty to the theological community to make this change of mind clearly known, and to own up to the fact that it required a fairly significant emendation of the argument he had advanced in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. If instead he chooses simply to quietly begin articulating matters in a slightly different way, he (and his followers) can hardly complain if critics continue to take him to task for the unretracted statements.

Second, while any fallible human scholar ought of course to consider his work provisional and subject to change, Tuininga’s request that we charitably treat VanDrunen’s work as an indefinitely revisable work-in-progress does not square with his call for us to read and judge his work carefully. On the contrary, it would seem that he would ask us to suspend judgment entirely, and wait for ever-new evolutions of his doctrine, in the apparent hope that, in the end, there would be nothing left to critique.

Third, inasmuch as Mr. Tuininga is, despite these ongoing revisions, asking us to treat Living in God’s Two Kingdoms as definitive, we believe there have been and continue to be sound reasons for our critical focus upon Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, which is a hefty scholarly work, replete with footnotes and careful distinctions, and whose theses VanDrunen has neither renounced nor even significantly qualified. NLTK attempts to offer a thoroughgoing, 500-year account of “The Development of Reformed Social Thought,” meant for critiquing most contemporary forms of public theology, Reformed and otherwise; whereas Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, published shortly afterwards, functions more as a layman’s popularization of some of these very same ideas. And though Tuininga somewhat dismissively (surprising, given his own interest in historical studies) describes the former as “historical,” whereas the latter is “normative,” it is our view that bad historical judgments lie at the root of many, if not most, bad normative judgments, and that one should not underestimate the harm that can be done by a seriously flawed historical exposition, as (we fear) NLTK is.

Fourth, related to this, it is worth emphasizing that our quarrel is not with VanDrunen the man – he is a fine man, by all accounts, and we wish him well – but with the claims he has published and the principles he has espoused, particularly in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. If it be the case that he no longer holds these flawed views (though we think Mr. Tuininga somewhat over-charitable in his judgment here), then that is wonderful news, but it hardly changes our obligation to publicly contest these publicly-offered errors. If Dr. VanDrunen had formally retracted these errors and offered to withdraw Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms from circulation, then perhaps we would be foolish to continue carping; but as long as that is not the case, the erroneous claims, which are still very much in the public eye of the academic community (to an extent that LGTK is not), need to be challenged.

Matthew Tuininga’s Exposition

At this point, we may finally move on to consideration of Mr. Tuininga’s earlier “Friendly Chatter” post, although given the length of this response already, and our desire to focus attention on what we take to be the chief points at issue, we shall make no attempt to repeat every quibble or celebrate every point of agreement with what he says in that post. Instead, we will highlight and attempt to clarify what seem to be the key sources of tension and misunderstanding. To resolve these, we will not continue the tug-of-war about which utterances of which Reformers can be used to support which side,[5] but will try to elucidate once more the underlying principles at stake. It is our hope that, although we have felt it necessary to be forceful in these preliminary censures and rebuttals, we will not have destroyed altogether the possibility of such a friendly and constructive dialogue as Mr. Tuininga has invited us to. For we wish to reiterate our suspicion that Mr. Tuininga’s own view of the two kingdoms, both historically and normatively, is considerably closer to our own view than to that offered by Dr. VanDrunen – indeed, the VanDrunen of LGTK as well as that of NLTK. Two quotations from Mr. Tuininga’s “Friendly Chatter” post may be used to highlight why we deem this to be the case:

That does not mean that the church is removed from the secular age nor does it mean that it is removed from being under the authority of civil government in secular matters or that it can ignore the significance of other created institutions in its midst (i.e., relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, etc.). Sociologically it can be said that the church is an institution (or sphere) of the secular kingdom.

I do believe that insofar as Cartwright distinguished between Christ’s rule over the political kingdom as God but not as man he moved the two kingdoms doctrine in a direction that was unfaithful to Scripture. It is as the ascended Christ that Jesus is raised above all authority (both in this age and in the age to come) (Eph 1:21).

In the first of these quotes we have Tuininga, it appears, granting the essence of what we have been contending all along – namely, the inescapably temporal and this-worldly character of the church – and denying the thesis that we have repeatedly charged to VanDrunen (and of which Tuininga has not really succeeded in clearing him) – that the church qua institution may be identified with the spiritual kingdom of Christ. We will return to this point at some length in just a moment.

In the second of these quotations we find Tuininga, after having this past spring identified Thomas Cartwright’s permutation of the two kingdoms doctrine as the true and faithful form of the Reformed doctrine, distancing himself from what was one of the chief distinctives of the Cartwrightean two-kingdoms doctrine. Not only that, but (as mentioned above) this bifurcation of the creational rule of God the Son and the redemptive rule of Christ the man was a key pillar of VanDrunen’s rendition of the doctrine in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, and one of our chief reasons for identifying VanDrunen as neo-Cartwrightean, not Calvinian. If Tuininga insists that the ascended Christ Jesus exercises all authority both over all worldly kingdoms and over the ministry of his word in the Church, then he is no longer defending the doctrine whose development VanDrunen traced in NLTK and which the Escondido theologians have repeatedly emphasised in their project. It may well be, as Mr. Tuininga maintains, that VanDrunen has formally abandoned the doctrine in some of his more recent statements, but if so we would contend that he has not drawn the full implications of that abandonment: that the kings of the earth are bound in their dealings to honor the authority of Jesus Christ the crucified and resurrected King, and to rule in congruity with his work, rather than merely as agents of the Creator.[6]

The Visible Church and the Spiritual Kingdom

But let us now give our full attention to the problem of the identity of the visible church, the vexed problem on which so much of our controversy with Mr. Tuininga and others has turned.

Mr. Tuininga particularly raises this issue in connection with Calvin’s work, insisting that for Calvin the visible church could and should be identified as the spiritual kingdom. Again, it is no part of my intention here to get into a detailed examination of Calvin’s writings to resolve the historical question on textual grounds; the Rev. Mr. Wedgeworth and Mr. Escalante have already done so at some length, and to do so with satisfactory thoroughness would probably take a book or two (a book or two, I should add, that I do not regard myself as qualified to write). Moreover, the fact remains that a great many of the Reformed resisted this identification, as Mr. Tuininga has himself admitted, and we believe this resistance was on very sound Protestant grounds. It is imperative that we understand what they (and we) mean when denying this identification, and why we consider it so important. Unless we clearly understand the principles at stake, we can continue to pile up unclear quotations ad infinitum, without any reliable rule by which to interpret them.

In my previous engagement with Mr. Tuininga I offered the following proposal, to see if it was a formulation he could accept:

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).

Mr. Tuininga accepted the first distinction, but complained,

I find the second and third distinctions so qualified by what is in the parentheses as to be unhelpful. After all, Calvin describes the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments as “outward” elements and instruments through which Christ governs his spiritual kingdom, and he argues that the work of the Spirit should not be separated from these outward means, exercised by human mediators.

He went on,

I fear Littlejohn’s formulation here simply confuses the fact that for Calvin Christ’s spiritual government of his kingdom occurs through the visible means of the ministry of the church, and that this point is absolutely fundamental to Calvin’s account of the two kingdoms doctrine.

Now if this had been the first that Mr. Tuininga had heard of these distinctions, we would certainly understand the reticence on this point. At first glance, the parenthetical qualifications appear like mere scholastic quibbling, when it would be easier not to try to draw the dichotomy in the first place. Indeed, Mr. Tuininga’s confusion about the value of such a distinction appears to echo quite closely that of Thomas Cartwright in his Second Replie to John Whitgift, when Whitgift had offered this same distinction between the spiritual and the external.

It rendeth asunder things which cannot be separated, and that two waies: one in separating the government of the church by pastors, doctors, etc. from the spiritual. For when the ecclesiastical ministry hath respect to the soul and conscience; when it is called the ministry of the spirit, spiritual; when they which exercise it are called ministers in the kingdom of heaven, when the outward preaching, excommunication, and other discipline which they use be spiritual, this separation of the outward government of the church from the spiritual, and making of them opposite members, doth not distinguish but destroy the government of Christ. The other is that where our Saviour Christ governeth his church spiritually both with his spirit and word, he [Whitgift] placeth his spiritual government “only in that he toucheth the hearts of his elect, by his spirit.” And where our Saviour Christ useth the external ministry of men, not only in distribution of his word, but also of his spirit, the Doctor [Whitgift] maketh the external ministry to serve only for the dispensation of the word, and not of the spirit, whereas he ought to have considered that as Christ himself sitting in heaven now teacheth by the mouths of the ministry, so he giveth also his spirit by the same ministry in which respect it is called the ministry of the spirit. Seeing therefore the external government of Christ in his church is spiritual, and even that inward touch of the spirit of God is not ordinarily but by the subordinate ministries which God hath appointed in his church, it is manifest that that distinction, “that Christ hath no subordinate pastors underneath him in the spiritual government,” is false. (pp. 409–410)

This statement, if we understand Mr. Tuininga rightly, is one that captures quite nicely the whole thrust of his objection. In answering this objection, then, we cannot do better than to supply again, as I did in my first post in response to Tuininga, the very careful articulation of Richard Hooker, responding to precisely this passage:

To make things therefore so plain that henceforth a child’s capacity may serve rightly to conceive our meaning: we make the spiritual regiment of Christ to be generally that whereby his Church is ruled and governed in things spiritual. Of this general we make two distinct kinds; the one invisibly exercised by Christ himself in his own person, the other outwardly administered by them whom Christ doth allow to be the Rulers and guides of his Church. Touching the former of these two kinds, we teach that Christ in regard thereof is particularly termed the Head of the Church of God; neither can any other creature in that sense and meaning be termed head besides him, because it importeth the conduct and government of our souls, by the hand of that blessed Spirit wherewith we are sealed and marked, as being peculiarly his. Him only therefore we do acknowledge to be that Lord, which dwelleth, liveth, and reigneth in our hearts; him only to be that Head, which giveth life and salvation unto his body; him only to be that fountain, from whence the influence of heavenly grace distilleth, and is derived into all parts, whether the word, or sacraments, or discipline, or whatsoever be the mean whereby it floweth.

As for the power of administering those things in the Church of Christ, which power we call the power of order, it is indeed both Spiritual and His; Spiritual, because such duties properly concern the Spirit, His, because by Him it was instituted. Howbeit neither spiritual, as that which is inwardly and invisibly exercised; nor his, as that which he himself in person doth exercise.

Again, that power of dominion which is indeed the point of this controversy, and doth also belong to the second kind of spiritual regiment, namely unto that regiment which is external and visible; this likewise being spiritual in regard of the matter about which it dealeth, and being his, inasmuch as he approveth whatsoever is done by it, must notwithstanding be distinguished also from that power whereby he himself in person administreth the former kind of his own spiritual regiment, because he himself in person doth not administer this.

We do not, therefore, vainly imagine, but truly and rightly discern a power external and visible in the Church, exercised by men, and severed in nature from that spiritual power of Christ’s own regiment, which power is termed spiritual, because it worketh secretly, inwardly, and invisibly; his, because none doth or can it personally exercise either besides or together with him.[7]

Now, it may appear like mere wanton indulgence of our love for the judicious Hooker to repost such a lengthy passage verbatim when we have already used it in critique of Mr. Tuininga. However, in the interaction last May, Mr. Tuininga made no response whatever to this quotation or the distinctions we sought to draw from it, choosing instead to concentrate all his attention on my paragraph about Calvin. We thus invite him again to attend carefully to it, as it really does, we believe, offer an excellent explanation about how the outward means and agents of grace may be described, by extension, as part of Christ’s “spiritual government,” but remain irreducibly distinct from the inward and efficacious grace to which they testify, which resides in Christ’s own person alone. Mr. Wedgeworth and Mr. Escalante’s response to Mr. Tuininga back in May also carefully spells out the distinction between the outward media and mediators, and if Mr. Tuininga is confused by my condensed formulation with its apparent scholastic quibbling, we would direct him there for fuller explanation. Perhaps Mr. Tuininga has already studied these articulations very carefully and found them wanting, but as he has not yet interacted either with them or with the passage from Hooker, we are not sure where precisely the confusion lies.

From the standpoint of Protestant theology, it is essential to maintain that the outward elements, and the human agents, hold no more than a testimonial relationship to the inward grace which Christ works through their work. For instance, as Wedgeworth and Escalante seek to spell out by reference to excommunication, the external act of discipline does not constitute a sinner’s ejection from the spiritual kingdom, but only testifies to it. The minister speaks the Word of God to the circumstance as he understands it, but it is the Word only that judges; the minister can only judge outwardly, and hence can only offer a very educated guess as to the status of the sinner. His action of judging is efficacious in the external forum, separating the sinner from the fellowship of the visible church, but even if he judges rightly so that his judgment corresponds to Christ’s judgment in the internal forum, only the latter is in fact efficacious. Likewise, in preaching, the minister’s words are the vehicle by which the Word penetrates hearts, but the two are not identical.

Another way of putting it is to insist that we maintain the right order of logical priority. Yes, it is true, as Mr. Tuininga says, that the spiritual government “is by definition the mark of the visible church,” but there are two ways by which this might be understood. On the one hand, we might describe the “spiritual government” as a dynamic operation around which the visible church takes form; where the Word is, there is the visible Church. Or, we might describe the visible church as the prerequisite institution through which the spiritual government is exercised; where the visible Church is, there the Word is. The latter is ultimately sub-Protestant, even if some Protestants began to fall back into such ways of thought after the Reformation. By their unwholesome emphasis on the structural prerequisites for the exercise of Christ’s spiritual government – only by first dotting all their institutional “I”s and crossing all their institutional “T”s could they be sure that Christ was at work among them – Cartwright and his allies, we contend, shifted the ecclesiological accent back in a decidedly Romish direction.

I think that attending more closely to Tuininga and VanDrunen’s own preferred language of “two ages” makes clear why we need to make careful qualifications here. VanDrunen in particular insists repeatedly that at the heart of his two-kingdoms distinction is the idea that the institutions and cultural products of the civil kingdom are this-worldly: they do not carry over into the world to come, whereas the institution of the church and its work is the present manifestation of the age to come, and thus, presumably, continues over (in some sense) into the age to come. Indeed, it is on this basis that Dr. VanDrunen insists that the church cannot in any way be identified with the civil kingdom (or “common kingdom,” as he here calls it):

[I]t is entirely inappropriate to identify the church with any institution or community of the common kingdom. The church does not owe its existence to any of them and its fate is not linked to any of their fates. All of those institutions and communities, by God’s appointment, have an earthly origin and will perish on the day of Christ’s return. In contrast, the church has a heavenly origin and will be brought to glorious consummation on the day of Christ like a bride adorned for her husband. Following biblical instruction, the church respects and acknowledges these common institutions and communities, but it must never allow itself to be identified with them. (148)


Though it resembles other earthly institutions in some outward ways, it is not just one earthly institution out of many…. All other institutions serve good and honorable purposes at present, but they await termination at the day of Christ’s return. The church, in contrast, awaits Christ’s return as a day of consummation. (131)

The visible church, insists VanDrunen, is unlike all other earthly institutions: its relation to the age to come is one of continuity, rather than discontinuity. And to be sure, in the ministry of word and sacrament we participate in the life of the age to come, hearing the voice of the Lord and sharing in his resurrected life. Yet even in these central means of grace, we find that we are straddling both ages. In the age to come, we will hear and joyfully respond to the word of the Lord, but there will be no need for preachers; while the inner Word that pierces our hearts through the persuasion of the Spirit is indeed of the age to come, the outward preaching is rooted firmly in the present age. In the sacraments, too, the life and fellowship that we now enjoy through them is the same communion that we will enjoy much more richly in the age to come, but then we shall have no need of bread and wine as signs and seals; the inward feeding on the flesh of Christ, through the power of the Spirit, is indeed of the age to come, but the outward feeding is rooted firmly in the present age. These illustrations alone ought to make clear enough that it will not do to describe the visible church as the manifestation of the coming kingdom. Rather, it straddles both ages, both realms. Properly speaking, indeed, inasmuch as it is visible, it is of the present age, the temporal kingdom, though we have no wish to demean or despiritualize the church – it is the true and sure sign of the presence of Christ’s spiritual kingdom.

When we move beyond the central marks of word and sacrament, the temporality and this-worldliness of the church becomes more and more obvious. VanDrunen, in attempting to describe the spirituality of the church, says,

The church is a visible community that engages in public worship, proclaims the gospel in known languages, baptizes with water, eats bread and drinks wine in remembrance of Christ, follows disciplinary procedures, takes offerings, shows hospitality, and gives material assistance to its poor – and looks forward to the resurrection of the body and the new heaven and new earth. What the spirituality of the church does mean is that the church is a community specially created by Christ and his Holy Spirit, a community that is not defined by or identified with any existing institution or community of the common kingdom. As such, the church does not usurp any of the ‘civil’ functions of the common kingdom but devotes itself to exercising its distinctive ‘spiritual’ functions as directed by the Lord Jesus in Scripture…. The spirituality of the church rests upon the fact that the church is a community specially and supernaturally created by Christ and his Holy Spirit…. Families, governments, schools, and businesses are natural institutions, since their origins are in creation or in the Noahic covenant … the church is anything but natural (146–47).

This, we would suggest, is a very confused manner of speaking, mixing together the aspects of the church’s constitution that are indeed supernatural and spiritual with a great deal that is clearly not. Indeed, let’s take the first: “engages in public worship.” Does Dr. VanDrunen really mean to imply, in line with doctrinaire secularism, that the natural state of man is irreligious? On the contrary, the gathering together of communities of men for public worship is perhaps the most natural practice that there is, and is rooted in creation and in the Noahic covenant, and is in fact is one of the classic Noahic mandates in the traditional rabbinic enumeration. Or what is it we are supposed to make of those sacrifices Noah was offering? What we have in the worship of the Christian church is a natural practice, in fact the very essence of what it is to be human, shared with the rest of the “common kingdom,” that has been redirected by revelation to its proper end.

The proclamation of the gospel and the sacraments we have already mentioned; what of following disciplinary procedures, taking offerings, showing hospitality, and giving material assistance to the poor? It ought to be obvious that each of these practices is a “common kingdom” practice; any number of human societies and institutions discipline and if necessary expel disorderly members, take up collections to fund their work, show hospitality, and care for the needy. Not only that, but by the “two ages” criterion it ought to be obvious that each of these are functions that will not carry over into the age to come – discipline is the only one which has ever been claimed as part of the spiritual government, with ramifications for the age to come, but as we discussed above, this is not strictly accurate.

Indeed, Dr. VanDrunen struggles to coherently articulate in what sense these activities can be said to be spiritual and other-worldly. Witness this passage, for instance, on financial giving:

Worldly economics therefore explores the hard choices that people (and businesses and governments) have to make about how to use their inevitably limited resources. Individuals and institutions of the common kingdom may be full of good intentions, but they are constrained by an ethic of scarcity. In contrast, the New Testament reveals that an ethic of scarcity does not constrain the church. From a certain perspective it is true that churches set budgets based on expected giving and cannot cut checks to missionaries or the poor beyond the balance in their bank accounts. But as illuminating as worldly economics is for the commerce of the common kingdom, it can make little sense of the church’s giving and receiving as described in Scripture (143).

The grudging concession is a dead giveaway. For it is not merely true “from a certain perspective” that a church cannot cut a check beyond its bank balance: it just is true, plain and simple. Church deacons who routinely ignored the principle of scarcity in handling church finances would very soon find themselves deprived of office. Until deacons can reliably multiply loaves and fishes, they are constrained by worldly scarcity. The fact that God calls us to give generously and sacrificially, and blesses that giving sometimes in miraculous ways, in no way changes the fact that in soliciting giving, making budgets, deciding on expenditures, managing accounts, paying debts, honoring contracts, etc., the church’s officers must act with the same prudence and the same grasp of the principles of economics that any manager of a household, organization, or small business must use. There is of course a sense in which Christians should not be tied to the mindset of scarcity, trusting instead that the Lord has provided and will provide enough for genuine needs, but this attitude should equally characterize Christians in their “common kingdom” dealings. On VanDrunen’s account it almost sounds as if, in business, government, etc., Christians should be hard-nosed, cutthroat competitors unwilling to let slip any opportunity for profit, but should suddenly become carefree, heedless, and profligate once it comes to handling church monies.

Divine-Right Polity

Given the inextricably this-worldly character of so much of the church’s work, Dr. VanDrunen can rescue his concept of the “spirituality of the church” only by laying all his stress on the concept of de jure divino. Yes, perhaps it is true that the church worships like other natural institutions, gathers and disburses funds like other natural institutions, proselytizes like other natural institutions, sets rules for membership and disciplines its members like other natural institutions, and has structures of hierarchy and authority like other natural institutions, but it is different, because the church follows special, God-given rules in all these activities. Of course, this may seem arbitrary, since there seems to be no reason why the church could not make use of natural reason in ordering many of its external affairs as well as any other natural institution, but these rules are a sign of God’s unique favor and love toward the church. So VanDrunen will say,

Because the church is not a natural institution grounded in creation or the Noahic covenant, however, its authority structures could not emerge organically from natural relationships. Neither could the nature of its officers’ authority be logically derived from natural necessities. The church was specially and supernaturally established by Christ. Only Christ, therefore, by his own words and the words of his inspired apostles, could establish the authority structures in the church and the scope of church officers’ authority. Christ has in fact done exactly this by appointing the offices of pastor, elder and deacon and defining the qualifications and responsibilities for holding these offices. The offices come from Christ as made known in the New Testament and thus their authority comes from Christ as made known in the New Testament (154).

Dr. VanDrunen follows this passage with an articulation of the concepts of the ministerial authority of the church and the regulative principle of worship, establishing that nothing may be taught or publicly practiced in the Church without the express rule of Scripture. Such principles, which seem obviously destructive of Christian liberty, are ironically set forth by VanDrunen as safeguards to Christian liberty, because they attempt to prevent the conscience-binding authority of ministers from extending any further than Scripture itself. But this is a step rendered necessary only by his attribution of such divine authority to human ministers in the first place; the magisterial Reformers were clear, on the contrary, that church ministers could establish practices and orders in the church beyond the express warrant of Scripture, because it understood that in doing so, they were acting as human agents, in temporal kingdom activities, not as spiritual rulers.

In short, Dr. VanDrunen’s ecclesiology, with its idea of church institution founded upon and hedged in by laws, and ruled over legally by ministerial vicars of Christ, constitutes to our mind a distinct regression from Protestant principles, along the same legalistic path as Thomas Cartwright and the Elizabethan Puritans, and is intrinsically inimical to Dr. VanDrunen’s own professed values of natural law and Christian liberty. (For further elucidation of these points, in consideration of Cartwright’s theology, we would encourage you to read the post “A Word of God for all Things We Have to Do.”)

We again ask Mr. Tuininga whether, in defending what he takes to be Calvin’s understanding of the church as the spiritual kingdom, he really means to defend this neo-Cartwrightean understanding of the two kingdoms.

A number of his own statements suggest not. His own description of the church’s participation in the age to come is more balanced than what we have seen from VanDrunen:

As it holds fast to Christ it participates in the blessings of the age to come and witnesses to those blessings in this age, so constituting a city on a hill and a light to this world. Calvin liked to refer to the ministry of the church in particular as an embassy of Christ’s kingdom.

He also concedes,

It is also fully possible to recognize that until the actual resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the cosmos certain created institutional structures that will never be part of the kingdom of Christ will remain, and that the institutional expression of the kingdom in the church is always qualified by the ongoing existence of these structures (see Ephesians 5–6).

And of course we have seen above his statement that “Sociologically it can be said that the church is an institution (or sphere) of the secular kingdom.”

At this point, having gone at at very great length already, we want only to ask what this admission, to us, seems to entail. If it is true that in its outward, institutional form – with offices, hierarchy, buildings, funds, codes of uniform practice (indeed, even liturgies) – the Church subsists in the secular kingdom, taking form according to the structures of this present age, and to that extent, bound to this present age, then it would seem that it would be subject to the same conditions to which all the other structures of worldly life are subject. That is, it would be governed by the principles of natural law – clarified, to be sure, and often grasped by means of the Scriptures – and constrained by the natural authority of the other two chief institutions (or, as Luther called them, “estates”) of earthly life: the family and the civil magistracy. We will leave aside for now the ways in which the natural institution of the family relates to and qualifies the authority of the church, though it is an important matter on which Protestant theologians and jurists have offered a great deal of valuable reflection.

The Civil Magistrate

So what of the civil magistracy? Very briefly, we would contend, following Hooker and the magisterial Reformers, that the civil magistrate has an authority over the visible church on two counts. The first is his purely natural cura religionis, which belongs to all magistrates, Christian or unbelieving – as the chief guardian of the common good, and the representative of his people, the magistrate cannot but have an interest in the orderly provision of something so essential to their well-being and that of the commonwealth – for religion nourishes social bonds and encourages morality, obedience, peace, and charity. The Reformers, accordingly, in describing the role of the magistrate in caring for religion, frequently drew upon the teachings of Aristotle, Cicero, and other secular writers, considering this care to be a principle of natural law. The second basis of a Christian magistrate’s authority over the church is that he is a highly-placed layman within it, one uniquely positioned to exercise beneficial oversight of its affairs and preserve it in peace, order, and purity. Luther’s principle of the priesthood of all believers ensured that his lay status need not debar the magistrate from such an important role: on the contrary, in principle, although the clergy remained uniquely tasked to administer word and sacrament, there was no reason why a layman might not have equal or greater authority over other ecclesiastical matters. Accordingly, we find most of the magisterial Reformers arguing for such an exalted lay ministry of the magistrate in the Church, often drawing particular attention Paul’s designation of them as diakonoi in Romans 13:4.[8] Given the danger that such individual authority could become arbitrary and tyrannical, Richard Hooker would later elaborate the constitutional nature of this office, as a representative function exercised in conjunction with the whole body of the clergy and laity in the church.[9]

It is for this reason that we do not believe that the concept of the royal supremacy, especially when articulated within the carefully-defined constitutional parameters that Hooker provides, is inimical to a Reformed doctrine of the two-kingdoms, even Calvin’s – contrary to Mr. Tuininga’s repeated statements to this effect in his “Friendly Chatter” post.[10] This does not mean, of course, as we have repeatedly spelled out, that we would wish to offer such a state-church model as the best model – only as one that is coherent with Protestant principles and that was generally better than the alternatives available at the time. The subsequent differentiation of the sphere of civil society as a realm only indirectly under the oversight of the magistrate, and the inclusion of visible churches within this sphere, was, to our mind, a salutary development of Protestant jurisprudence.

Now, this concept of magistratical oversight of the church, we have said, follows coherently from the fact that the church is “sociologically an institution of the secular kingdom”; it would be more precise to say that it would coherently follow if divine positive law did not decree otherwise. This might happen in two ways, which tend to go together. First, it might be that, although possessing the various trappings of a natural institution, God had specifically decreed that the church should have its own unique rules governing its hierarchy, its structure, its worship, etc. – that is to say, that these various externals of ecclesiastical polity were not, as most magisterial Reformers maintained, adiaphora. Historically speaking, many Protestants, the Elizabethan Puritans chief among them, began to draw the conclusion that they were not adiaphora, but had been laid down by divine positive law. The reasons for this are complex, and are the subject of a great deal of my Ph.D research; in part, of course, it was an understandable development, given that most Protestants held that some matters of ecclesiastical polity, at least, had been authoritatively prescribed in Scripture. On the whole, however, the insistence that most matters of polity are adiaphora, and hence in principle subject to the oversight of human law, was central to magisterial Protestantism. Obviously, however, if they are not adiaphora, then they cannot fall within the discretionary oversight of the civil magistrate. Second, it might be that divine positive law had specifically laid down that only ordained ministers, not laymen, were to exercise authority within the church, acting as Christ’s agents in all their doings. If this were so, then clearly magistrates, as laymen, could have no authority within this sphere.

As we have seen above, Dr. VanDrunen makes precisely these two moves, in this following Cartwright and, to our judgment, departing from the fundamental principles of the magisterial Reformation.


We hope that the foregoing exposition clarifies why we consider it so important to deny or at least to strongly qualify the identification of the liturgical assembly or the ministerial institution with the kingdom of Christ, the spiritual government, the life of the age to come, etc. We also hope it will clarify why we consider the magistratical oversight of churches in the Reformation not, as VanDrunen would have it, an unexorcised holdover from the Middle Ages, but part and parcel of classical Protestant teaching. Accordingly, we hope it will clarify why we have thought it good to lay chief stress on Calvin’s continuity with Luther and other magisterial Reformers in these fundamental principles, rather than highlighting dimensions which might seem proto-Cartwrightean and identifying these trajectories as the true essence of the Reformed faith.

With this ponderous essay, we propose to conclude our public engagement with Mr. Tuininga, though of course we welcome further private dialogue and look forward to profiting from much of his fine work in Reformed ethics and political theology. And of course, he is welcome to respond further publicly if he wishes; we ask only that he take the time to grasp the whole of our argument, and the principles at stake, rather than latching on, as he has sometimes done in the past, to one or two statements considered in isolation and preoccupying himself with attempts at their refutation.

[1] We could without difficulty multiply at length the number of passages in which VanDrunen makes this identification without qualification, even if we confine ourselves, as Mr. Tuininga is now insisting, to Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. Here is a sampling:

“The church is the only earthly institution that can identify itself with the redemptive kingdom. To have fellowship with the church is to have fellowship with the kingdom of heaven” (133).

“None of them [these other earthly institutions] is the kingdom of heaven on earth. The church ought to be central to the Christian life because the church is the only earthly community that manifests the redemptive kingdom and grants us the fellowship of our true home, the world-to-come” (134).

“The church is the redemptive kingdom here on earth” (141).

“This chapter has already made some important claims about the church as the redemptive kingdom …” (146).

“This chapter has covered a lot of ground in considering the church as the redemptive kingdom …” (159).

“Thus we have explored the Christian life in the redemptive kingdom” (160).

[2] The Christian Polity of John Calvin, 193. See my post “Will the Real Geneva Please Stand Up?” for further consideration of this matter.

[3] See the later comments on “Two Kingdoms Myths.”

[4] See for instance the programmatic statement on page 1 of NLTK: “According to this doctrine, God rules the church (the spiritual kingdom) as redeemer in Jesus Christ and rules the state and all other social institutions (the civil kingdom) as creator and sustainer, and thus these two kingdoms have significantly different ends, functions, and modes of operation.” (Needless to say, this statement also provides further justification for our critique of VanDrunen’s identification of the church with the spiritual kingdom.)

[5] We stand by our earlier statements in this regard, tracing a general consensus on the basic principles, despite considerably different emphases and sets of terminology from Luther and Melanchthon on the one hand and the Zurich Reformers on the other hand through to the English Reformed, and reading Calvin in continuity with this consensus.

[6] For a discussion of VanDrunen and Cartwright’s doctrine, in contrast to that of Richard Hooker (and ourselves), and its implications for political theology, see my post “The Reign of the Son of Man.”

[7] Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity VIII.4.10.

[8] For good examples of the Reformers’ understanding of the “godly prince” and this double responsibility to care for religion, see Calvin, Institutes IV.20.3–4, 9; Bullinger, Decades, vol. 2, sermon 7; Vermigli, “Of the Magistrate” (in Kingdon, ed., Political Thought of Peter Martyr Vermigli); Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity VIII.1, VIII.2.4. A useful exposition can be found in P.D.L. Avis, The Church in the Theology of the Reformers, ch. 9.

[9] See Bk. VIII of Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, esp. ch. 2.3 and chs. 6–8.

[10] Mr. Tuininga says, “I think that Cartwright was right to reject the idea that the civil magistrate is in any sense the head of Christ’s church,” and “I believe opposition to the royal supremacy was a necessary conclusion to be drawn from Calvin’s version of the two kingdoms doctrine (though obviously not from all versions of it, as Hooker’s arguments testify). I believe defenders of the royal supremacy were championing a version of the two kingdoms doctrine that broke in fundamental ways with that of Calvin.” While such a conviction is understandable and quite common, we would point out that in fact even Cartwright himself defended the concept of the royal supremacy – the difference was that he insisted that in exercising her supremacy, Elizabeth must always follow the directives of the clergy. In reality, although most today seem to think that the concept must imply the despotic caesaropapism that sometimes characterized the reign of Henry VIII, there were in fact several different concepts of the royal supremacy, and the Elizabethan theologians were quite careful to delineate the limited and strictly temporal nature of the prince’s authority over the church. Although there is no space to go into it here, it is our belief that if Mr. Tuininga attended more carefully to these teachings and distinctions, he might modify his judgment that the royal supremacy stood in contradiction to Reformed and Calvinistic teaching. See Avis’s discussion in ch. 10 of The Church in the Theology of the Reformers for helpful clarification; for a more full-fledged investigation of the doctrine in the English Reformation particularly, see Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, Theology of Law and Authority in the English Reformation, and Claire Cross, The Royal Supremacy in the Elizabethan Church.

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.