A short while ago I listened to David VanDrunen’s first lecture, on Christianity and culture, at the recent conference at Covenant OPC, in which he winsomely presents the main outlines of his own particular understanding of the two kingdoms, the “common” kingdom and the “redemptive” kingdom. There is much in it to which I can readily give assent. At the same time, he raises a few points along the way about which I have questions, and so I’m going to explore them here. The hermeneutical key for VanDrunen that unlocks the relationship between Christianity and culture is the Noahic covenant, and most of my questions have to do with it and its relation to Creation, Redemption, and the Abrahamic covenant.1
THE NOAHIC COVENANT: CUI BONO, AD QUEM FINEM?
VanDrunen states at one point in his talk that God’s covenant with Noah after the Flood “re-establishes the common kingdom” and “re-establishes God’s general, providential rule over the world.” He points out that of course the “common kingdom” was not absent before the Flood, but was disrupted thereby. We might say, instead, that the common kingdom was present in the Flood as well, but was receiving the judgment due for sin. Likewise, I’m not sure whether we want to say that God’s providential rule needed to be “re-established”; I think I understand what he means–that the Flood, perhaps, was an instance of “special” rather than “general” providence. Still, wouldn’t we want to say that the Flood is not a relaxation of God’s providence, but is rather his providentially revealed judgment against sin, to which he still has a right after the Flood, a right that he forebears to exercise (this latter fact, therefore, relating the Noahic covenant directly to Redemption2)? In any event, the basic thrust is clear: the covenant with Noah is a long-term re-establishment of God’s preservation of the world.
The theme of preservation is one on which VanDrunen spends a good deal of time. Preservation, indeed, seems to be the only reason for the Noahic covenant in VanDrunen’s view. He states that it has no connection to things such as forgiveness, salvation, redemption, and so on: “What God doesn’t promise in this covenant is salvation…”. It is true that VanDrunen states that the Noahic covenant and the Abrahamic covenant, or the promise of redemption, are not totally unrelated (they are “not separate” and “not independent”), for they are united in the plan of God, “in God’s grand plan for history.” The particularities of this concession, however, were unclear to me, for God plans all things in history, not just these two covenants, and in that respect all things that have ever happened or will happen are united “in God’s grand plan for history.” But this concession need not mean that the two covenants are related to each other instrumentally–it need not mean any more than that God simply plans them both, even if they are severed from one another in function. For instance, I might say, “I plan to go to work and to eat dinner”: these things are united insofar as I intend them both, but there is no intrinsic connection between the things themselves.3
But I wonder whether we might thicken the account of the relation of preservation (that is, preserved Creation) and Redemption. The Apostle Peter mentions Noah in each of his two letters, and in each there is a redemptive connection. First, in 1 Peter 3:18-22, he writes:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
God’s preservation of the world is related to his patience, and his patience is ordered to redemption. In the days before the Flood, Peter says, “God’s patience waited,” and through the Ark God saved Noah and his family–a picture, for Peter, of salvation in Christ. The Ark corresponds to salvation, and the Flood to judgment; but there is another Judgment coming. The time between the judgments is a time of God’s patience, and this is the reason for his preservation: not simply so that the world can go clicking along with its temporary and provisional institutions and so that the “common” can stay “common,” but so that sinners can be saved. Preservation, again, is intrinsically related to and ordered unto redemption. As Paul writes in Romans 2:4, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” Or, again, Peter in 2 Pet. 3:15: “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation…”.
We see something similar in Peter’s second use of Noah. In 2 Pet. 2:5, Noah, “a herald of righteousness,” is preserved through God’s judgment of the ungodly. Peter returns to the Flood in chapter 3, where it is clear that he sees the Flood as a type of the Final Judgment and that the world is being preserved in order to be purged by fire:
4 They [that is, scoffers] will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
But Peter says that these scoffers are wrong to think of the world simply continuing in a kind of static line indefinitely (or that it has always been so: the covenant with Noah is a reminder that once things did not continue as they had “from the beginning of creation”). God does preserve the world, but he does so with a redemptive purpose:
8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
It seems to me that it is good to remember here that Creation and Redemption do not proceed along through time in parallel, untouching lines related only in the mind of God. Grace and nature do not carry on on opposite sides of a broad, grassy median, like a stretch of the turnpike in northwest Ohio. Rather, grace is intimately involved with nature. It neither obliterates nor perfects nature, but restores and eventually glorifies it.4 Creation was always intended for consummation and glorification, as Anselm points out in Cur Deus Homo, and God’s preservation of the world works toward that end.
It is of course true that the passages in 1 and 2 Peter that I quoted refer to the Flood rather than the post-Flood covenant. But the covenant with Noah cannot be so easily separated from its salvific context to allow us to treat one without reference to the other. That is, we cannot say that the Noahic covenant is only a promise of preservation; it is also a testimony to God’s mercy. Why? Because judgment for sin for those outside of Christ is deserved at every single moment from the ceasing of the Flood until now. The rainbow in the heavens is therefore a reminder of both judgment and mercy–not just common mercy, but God’s saving mercy to Noah, his family, and their descendants. It is thus difficult for me to see how this covenant is completely sundered from Redemption. One may even speak in a fashion of the sacramentality of nature after the Flood, but not in an airy-fairy late-modern-new-agey kind of way, nor in a Platonic sense. The regularity of earth’s patterns, and its symbolization in the rainbow, designate nature as sacramental supernaturally, if I may speak oxymoronically: that is, the regularity and preservation of nature is now, after the Flood, not just a good in itself, but is also a proximate good unto the end of something else, viz., the restoration and transformation of Creation.
We may also see this salvific connection in the original making of the covenant with Noah. VanDrunen emphasizes in his lecture the commonness of the Noahic covenant and the fact that it is made with everybody, including animals, in contrast to the particularity of the Abrahamic covenant. But it seems to me that the Noahic covenant is common only secondarily, for in the first instance it is made with Noah himself and his family–that is, those God had saved–and the animals who were with him after Noah’s sacrifice. It must be so, because there was no one else. In Genesis 9 God emphasizes this aspect several times before he goes on to generalize the applicability of the covenant:
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
All of that to say, there seems to be a much closer connection between Creation and Redemption in the biblical text than VanDrunen’s account allows for.
And yet it is of course true that there is much that is provisional about our current circumstances as the world awaits its consummation and transformation, and this brings me to my last comment, somewhat unrelated to the foregoing. VanDrunen emphasizes this temporariness toward the end of his talk, where he points out the provisional nature of all “common” institutions–your family, your business, etc. But what he seems to ignore here is that this is true of the visible organization of the Church as well, as Charles Hodge points out in his Systematic Theology. Just as the current ordering of creation serves the end of restoration and redemption, so the “redemptive” sphere–for VanDrunen, the (visible?) church–at present partakes of aspects of the current ordering of Creation.
I enjoyed listening to Dr. VanDrunen’s lecture, and I think that I would share a great deal of common ground with him as to how to parse some of these matters.5 Perhaps getting a clearer sense of the relationship between Creation and Redemption could aid further in some of the currently vexed questions about the relationship of God’s “two kingdoms” or “regiments”: Are they divorced? Divorced but with rights to child-visitation on the weekends? Can the kingdoms of God’s right and left hands shake, or even fold in prayer? I wonder whether reflecting more on the connection between Creation and Redemption could help us to see more clearly why even a stalwart American Presbyterian like A.A. Hodge could see civil government as having an instrumental role in promoting redemption and could thus help us in appropriating (not parroting) the thinking of the magisterial Reformation on the civil sphere for our own circumstances, rather than dismissing it as the unfortunate relic of a bygone era, a holdover of the Middle Ages, a misguided policy of a benighted generation, a position inconsistent with the Protestant principles of those who hold it.
- I note that in what follows I will not make any reference to commentaries vel sim. on the texts at issue. This is perhaps a shortcoming on my part and I may try to rectify it in the future. I should note, as well, that I am only working from and discussing this particular lecture, not what Dr. VanDrunen has written elsewhere.
- I shall return to this point below.
- I realize that this may be fleshed out in more detail elsewhere; I am working only off of this particular talk that was meant, as I understand it, to serve as an overview: if it is an overview, it should contain a clear statement of first principles, and so my purpose here is to clarify what, precisely, those first principles are.
- Cf. the comment of F. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 2, Locus XVII, Quaestio 3.14 (p. 771): gratia est gloriae inchoatio, ut gloria est gratiae consummatio (“grace is the beginning of glory, just as glory is the consummation of grace”).
- I am of course an outsider to these debates and so my opinions here are those of an interested layman, with no expertise in theology or biblical studies.