Two Kingdoms and Cultural Obedience

Creation is much more than a probationary order with no enduring significance.

Appears in Spring 2010 Issue: The story
March 1st, 2010

In recent decades, many Christians have been drawn to the Reformed understanding of the faith due to its holistic approach to the life in Christ—an emphasis found especially in the neocalvinist revival in the nineteenth-century Netherlands, led by Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck and others. Transplanted to North America in the twentieth century, neocalvinism has led to the establishment of a number of confessionally-based organizations, including a network of Christian day schools, universities, labour unions, think tanks, political movements and farmers' associations. The Kuyperian influence has expanded over the last three decades due to the efforts of, among others, the Center for Public Justice, the Coalition for Christian Outreach, Redeemer University College, the Christian Labour Association of Canada and, of course, Cardus. It is now more common to hear ordinary evangelical Christians speak in terms of all of life belonging to Christ and of grace restoring nature, though they may differ in the practical implications they draw from this basic confession.

However, not all evangelical Christians are necessarily on side of this neocalvinist revival. Ray Pennings explored the relationship between neocalvinists and neopuritans in Comment's December 2008 issue, and in his September 28, 2009 online article, he added two more categories to his analysis: "Old Calvinists" and "two-kingdoms" Calvinists, the latter of whom go out of their way to oppose the neocalvinist vision.

Two-Kingdoms Calvinists

Two-kingdoms Calvinists are associated primarily with Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California (WSC). WSC opened in 1980 as a branch campus of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, in response to the felt need for a Reformed seminary on the west coast of the United States. Becoming independent two years later, WSC has come to occupy a particular place in the network of Reformed Christian educational institutions in this continent. Its website claims that it carries on the legacy of Calvin's Genevan Academy, as well as that of pre-1929 Princeton Seminary, with the latter's devotion "to the inerrancy of the Bible, outstanding scholarship, fine academic education and service to the church in its preaching and missionary work." Accordingly, it binds itself to the doctrinal standards of both Presbyterian and continental Reformed traditions. Above all, then, WSC is a confessional institution.

WSC is also distinguished by its strong emphasis on ecclesiology—on the place of the institutional church and the ordinary means of grace attached to it. In this, it sets itself apart from the various non-ecclesial evangelicalisms that dominate the American religious landscape. The latter tend to see the church as a voluntary association composed of like-minded individual believers, freely gathering to worship God according to their respective convictions and predilections. WSC views the church as a divinely-established authoritative institution holding the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19), as found especially in the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. Where then do two kingdoms come into the picture?

Two-kingdoms Calvinists believe that the neocalvinist focus on the cultural mandate (Genesis 1:28) is excessive and threatens to divert attention from the all-important mission of the institutional church, that of bringing the message of salvation to the nations and nurturing the people of God in the faith. They are thus at pains to distinguish sharply between the kingdom of Christ, which awaits its final consummation with his return, and the civil kingdom, with its ordinary day-to-day concerns lying outside the proper scope of Christ's kingdom. In this they share much ground with the heirs of Martin Luther, through whose lenses they tend to read Calvin. It is instructive here to look at two representatives of this position: Darryl G. Hart and David Van Drunen, both of whom have taught at WSC.

Darryl G. Hart: High-Church Calvinist

Currently Director of Academic Programs at the late Russell Kirk's Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Hart is at his best when writing on worship. His 2003 book, Recovering Mother Kirk, collects in one volume several of his essays published elsewhere, covering such topics as high-church Presbyterianism, contemporary worship, the Lutheran contribution, psalm-singing and an insightful essay, "Whatever Happened to Office?"

Hart also wrote a biography of John Williamson Nevin, one of the leading figures of the 19th-century Mercersburg Movement in the German Reformed Church in the United States, which testifies to his own "high-church" commitments, including the crucial role of sacraments as "visible forms of the Word," "the real presence of Christ in the [Lord's] Supper," weekly celebration of the Supper (a rarity in most Reformed congregations), a structured liturgy using prescribed forms and prayers, and, of course, the weekly exposition of the Word in the sermon. For Hart, "worship should not be novel or creative. Rather, it should be routine, ordinary, and habitual." Worship is not simply an expression flowing from the hearts of believers. It must be biblically regulated and it properly belongs to the church as an institution. Thus, how we worship is not simply an indifferent matter of a diversity of styles to suit every congregational taste. There are definite norms governing liturgy: God commands us to worship him in accordance with his revealed Word, and he gives that command specifically to the church, with its divinely-established authoritative offices, confessions and liturgies.

What of life outside the boundaries of the institutional church? Though Hart does not say that it is a matter of complete indifference, he does believe that, because Scripture and the confessions do not address it as such, we are at liberty to order the civil kingdom according to our own prudential judgements informed by a common human reason. The norms for the arts and sciences, for instance, belong not to the jurisdiction of the institutional church, but to the university faculty. There is nothing distinctively Christian about the way believers engage in "rhetoric, logic, grammar, music . . . quantum physics or critical theory."

David Van Drunen: Ultimately Reformed, Penultimately Liberal

Van Drunen is a younger scholar who, while writing on natural law and bioethics, has also focused on combating the influence of Kuyper and his followers. He is critical of those who, borrowing H. Richard Niebuhr's categories, would see Calvin as a "transformationist"—that is, as one aiming "to bring the effects of God's redemptive work in Christ to bear upon the various spheres of culture," as he writes in an article published in 2005 in Calvin Theological Journal entitled "The Two Kingdoms: A Reassessment of the Transformationist Calvin." By contrast, he believes that Calvin distinguished "between the church and the rest of life," identifying "the kingdom of Christ and the promise of redemption only with the former." Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine is thus similar to that of Luther, Niebuhr's analysis to the contrary notwithstanding. Moreover, Calvin's primary concern is with the future heavenly kingdom, whose sole manifestation in this life is the institutional church. Consequently, those Christians investing this life and the present world with redemptive significance are not true to Calvin.

Elaborating on his two-kingdoms approach, Van Drunen distinguishes between ultimate and penultimate concerns in life. Ultimately, Christians belong to Jesus Christ, who commands their highest allegiance. Yet Christians need to be cautious in drawing broadly cultural or political implications from this allegiance. Van Drunen takes on Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, John Milbank, Oliver O'Donovan and Kuyper's current heirs for mounting what he sees as theologically-based critiques of liberalism, which reflect a shared categorical confusion of ultimate and penultimate. Penultimate matters (those falling outside the sphere of the church) must be properly judged by the penultimate standard of prudence. Thus, any critique of liberalism must recognize that the kingdom of God cannot be implemented in this life. One cannot measure a political or economic system by how well it conforms to norms meant for the future kingdom of God. One must instead judge it by "the standards of the natural moral order."

In the case of liberalism, then, we must ask how well it responds to "the penultimate ends of the civil kingdom, such as maintaining law and order, promoting the general advancement of art and science, and supplying the physical needs of all people." In short, pragmatic criteria govern our activities in the civil kingdom. Measured accordingly, liberalism has a quite good record, compared especially to the alternatives. For Van Drunen, liberalism is not a political vision, much less an illusion. It is simply a social order characterized by guaranteed personal liberties, participatory political institutions, the rule of law and a market-based economy. The liberal society is a collection of structural arrangements falling well short of the coming kingdom but worth defending for their undoubted achievements here and now.

Two Kingdoms: Church and Liturgy

The obvious strong point of the two-kingdoms Calvinists is their proper stress on the importance of the institutional church, which is occasionally lost on neocalvinists. I recall visiting, decades ago, some people influenced by neocalvinism who openly expressed their view that because all of life belongs to God, they need not attend or seek membership in a church community. This is not an insignificant error. The life in Christ is not possible without the nourishment of the body of believers meeting to hear the Word and receive the sacraments. The public reading of the Word, the singing of psalms and hymns, the proclamation of the gospel and the administration of baptism and Eucharist are more than nice options for believers. They are their very lifeblood.

It is worth noting that at least one neocalvinist, philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd, similarly affirms the uniqueness of the institutional church. While the other institutional communities—marriage, family and state—continue to function even in the absence of a Christian confession, the same cannot be said of the church, whose very existence is dependent on the confession that Jesus Christ is Lord. There can be no such thing as a nonchristian church. By its institutional character, Dooyeweerd means that it cannot be reduced to a voluntary association; in A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, he writes, "As soon as the temporal Church-community is based on the personal qualities of converted individuals, it ceases to be a Church." The church, rather, is rooted in the divine Covenant and is built on God's Word and Spirit. Reading Dooyeweerd many years ago persuaded me that my understanding of the church had been deficient up to that point and that I needed to take my own church membership more seriously.

A second area of strength of the two-kingdoms Calvinists is their ecclesial understanding of worship. Worship belongs to the church as a community, not merely to the participating individuals. The liturgical life of many churches is marred by the so-called worship wars, where disputes tend to revolve around style rather than substance. To keep the peace, some churches have adopted separate traditional and contemporary worship services to appeal to different members of the congregation, yet they avoid the more meaty issues of frequency of celebration of the Lord's Supper, the singing of psalms, the proper patterns of reading and preaching through Scripture, and whether our liturgy accords with what we claim to believe. Hart has been especially incisive in his analysis of what is at stake in our worship of the triune God.

The Meaning and Critique of Liberalism

It is perhaps not surprising that, given their belief that life outside the context of the institutional church is a matter of prudential judgements of no ultimate significance, two-kingdoms Calvinists come to differing conclusions on the nature of liberalism in the wider society. As noted above, Van Drunen is largely positive in his assessment of liberalism and what might be called the structural components of modernity. Hart is more ambivalent.

In his essay, "Office, Gender, and Egalitarianism," he decries the trends in recent centuries, such as "the expansion of market economies, technological development, and the consolidation of nation-states," which he believes to have taken a huge toll on both family and church. "The modern political economy weakens the family by giving to large impersonal institutions such as schools, hospitals, businesses, and governments the tasks formerly performed by the family." Nevertheless, Hart has affirmed elsewhere that he in some fashion accepts the "liberal order."

Yet what if liberalism is more than just the institutions of a modern democratic polity and the market? Furthermore, what if it turns out that the life of obedience extolled in Scripture is more encompassing than our two-kingdoms Calvinists can bring themselves to admit? If the latter is true, then it necessarily alters our approach to the former. From my readings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Rawls and many other professed liberals, I have come to conclude that liberalism must be understood in terms of its longstanding quest to reduce the complexity of human communities to mere voluntary associations. This is the significance of the social contract, which is nothing less than a redefining of the proper task of the state. Rather than possessing a divine mandate to do justice (Psalm 82; Proverbs 29:4,14), political authority is now defined in terms of the collective wills of the individuals who ostensibly brought it into existence. Hart is perceptive enough to note the negative impact of this voluntarism on the institutional church, but seemingly not on the political and other communities.

The validity of any school of thought can be judged by how well it accounts for reality as we experience it. The two-kingdoms Calvinists believe that reason can be exercised independently of one's religious convictions, and that the exercise of prudence is unrelated to one's ultimate allegiance. Yet what do we do with the continual efforts of professed liberals to flatten out the legitimate diversity of God's good creation as manifested in a complex human society? How shall we respond to ongoing attempts to legally redefine such central institutions as marriage and family? How should we assess the reduction of the variety of human relationships to marketable commodities? How do we address a court that presumes to define Catholic doctrine, as occurred a few years ago in Ontario? These are matters not simply of prudential judgement governed by pragmatic considerations, but of making an idol of something in God's creation, usually the will of the individual and often under the guise of human rights or personal liberation. Sad to say, following idols of our own making is a malignant tendency that refuses to remain within the confines of "religious" concerns, but affects the whole of life—something well understood by the author of Psalm 115. Twokingdoms Calvinists are in danger of ignoring this reality, a neglect that comes with serious negative consequences.

Assessing Two-Kingdoms Defects

There are, finally, good reasons why we cannot join the cause of the two-kingdoms Calvinists. Most basically, creation is much more than a provisional, probationary order with no enduring significance, as they appear to believe. It is rather God's good handiwork (Genesis 1), which has fallen into sin through man's disobedience, but that God has promised not to abandon but to restore and redeem through Jesus Christ in the new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65, Revelation 21). An implication of this creation is that God has shaped human beings to shape culture. With every breath we take and with everything we do, we cannot avoid fashioning culture, as Andy Crouch has perceptively recognized in his recent book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Far from being extinguished at the Second Advent, the works of culture will eventually be redeemed and brought into the service of God (Isaiah 60).

Of course, this creation has been marred by the fall into sin of our first parents (Genesis 3), which inevitably affects the exercise even of human reason in the nonecclesiastical spheres. It is naïve to assume that we are capable of reasoning in the various social and cultural fields free from the destructive impact of the fall. If the effects of the fall are complete, then in principle the whole of life, including the cultural pursuits for which we were created, are included in redemption as well. As Paul puts it, the whole creation groans in anticipation of what is to come, but it will one day "be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21-22). In the meantime, however, this groaning is accompanied by an awareness that the kingdom is, in some measure, a present reality, even if its final consummation lies ahead. Thus, as agents of this kingdom, we must continually test the spirits in every field of endeavour. How much simpler it would be if vigilance were required only in matters of church and liturgy and we could safely ignore everything else! But God has hard words for those who think that proper cultic observance alone will substitute for a lack of obedience in the rest of life (Isaiah 1:11-17, 10:1-4; Amos 5:21-4).

This whole-hearted devotion to God in Christ—the holistic observance of his Word—can be pursued only in the context of the church, understood as corpus Christi, the body of Christ. The corpus Christi certainly manifests itself in the institutional church, but also in marriages, families, schools, universities, labour unions and businesses, in so far as they are directed towards the glory of God and service of neighbour. In this respect, the body of Christ is not undertaking to bring heaven to earth, but is merely seeking to fulfill the central command to love God and neighbour in all of life's activities. This is a vision worth giving up one's life for—as numerous martyrs have done through the ages—but in the meantime, it is definitely worth living for as well. May God prosper the work of our hands and use it for his glory (Psalm 90:17).


David T. Koyzis is Professor of Political Science at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, where he has taught since 1987. He holds the Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (InterVarsity Press, 2003) and, most recently, of We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (Pickwick Publications, 2014).


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