Witdrawal or Transformation?: Two Kingdoms and Christians

Posted on May 20, 2013 by


Lately it seems there have appeared more articles on the subject, known among Reformed folks as “The Radical Two Kingdoms Debate” or “R2K.”  As near as I can tell, this debate is a resurrection of one that has been going on for centuries.  It appears to be between those who accept the transformational model of cultural engagement–particularly in the political arena–as suggested in the classic H. Richard Niebuhr book, Christ and Culture and those who reject that model and opt for a type of withdrawal from culture, especially politics.  We have seen this before, namely for example, in the thought and practice of Anabaptism and the Mennonites as well as among Classical Dispensationalists of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century.  Recently, it has reared its head among evangelicals who have borrowed from Anabaptist thought.  Finally, one may see a version of it in the works of Martin Luther, though he was to be sure inconsistent on this. 

So how are Christians to relate to their culture and to politics?  That is what the R2K debate is about.  And it is not just an intramural Reformed debate. It is iteself the product of broader theological and cultural issues. After describing it in a bit more detail, I want to offer my own view.  R2Kers (as I will call them) have aligned themselves along to sides of a divide.  One side (the traditional view, a la Abraham Kuyper and others) argues that Christ is king over both spiritual and temporal realms and that this kingship entails both an invisible rule and a visible, temporal rule.  In short Christ’s kingship and kingdom are universal.  The R2Kers believe that Christ’s kingship and kingdom are effectively only over the invisible realm and that He does not rule the visible realm.  One peculiarity (and one which R2K proponents see in Luther, Calvin and others) is that the visible realm includes not only the civil aspect but also the visible elements of the church (clergy, discipline, church government). (Brad Littlejohn, “The Two Kingdoms,” internet source). The spiritual realm over which Christ rules is internal or invisible. Apparently, at least in more radical R2K variants, though I may be misreading here, this implies that Satan is left for now to rule the temporal realm.  In addition, since Christ’s reign does not extend to the visible, Christians are not called to transform that realm of existence. 

As I said, we have already seen this in Anabaptist-Mennonite circles and among Dispensationalists.  But it is curious to see it coming from the Reformed tradition, which historically has taken a much more transformational approach.  From all accounts, this “new” approach (among Reformed) seems to have arisen from places West, namely the West Coast, specifically, Westminster Seminary West and individuals in coastal churches.  I have not seen it yet on the East Coast to any extent. 

The current debate has the potential to cut many ways.  For example, both Theonomists and Kuyperian non-Theonomists might come down against the R2K side, making for interesting bedfellows.  As a rule Theonomists are outcasts among the majority of the Reformed.  On the other hand, individuals like Michael Horton, a staunch Reformed thinker, appears to support the R2K proponents, something I wouldn’t have expected.  I should also add that it is not clear whether the debate is along lines of eschatology.  I could envision that it might be, since postmillennialists tend to be more optimistic about transforming culture than premillennialists.

At this point it would be well if I stopped to clarify something.  I am not suggesting that R2K is a heresy, though within certain Reformed denominations it might not be consistent with their confessional statement, or, if it is, only because there is ambiguity in the statement itself.  However, I am surprised to see it in Reformed circles and wonder what it all means for the various Reformed denominations which have in the past taken strong intellectual positions on cultural-political issues.  In fact, to be honest, the Reformed have been at the forefront of intellectual engagement with culture, giving a  more respectable foundation for the activism of the Christian Right over the last few decades.  This leads to a question:  Is the evangelical church withdrawing from culture as a whole?  Or is this just a fad of sorts?  I certainly don’t know.  But more important, what is the appropriate role for the Christian in relation to culture and politics?

Abraham Kuyper, Francis Schaeffer, James Orr, Herman Dooyeweerd, some 19th century Covenanters in America, even John Calvin, all saw a role for Christians in the public sphere, as did Carl Henry.  Obviously, this fact does not however prove whether Christians ought to adopt the transformational model, although these respected figures should give us pause.  But let us go to Scripture to help.  As we do, bear in mind that the debate itself is partially determined by the approach to interpretation itself taken by each side.  That means that I will be biased in a particular direction simply because of my hermeneutics.  Let the reader be warned.

Let’s first address the lurking “meta-hermeneutical” issue–the relationship between the Old Testament and the New.  It would appear that the R2K advocates have created something of a radical discontinuity between the testaments, essentially relegating the Law, God’s specific commands, etc.  to the Jewish Commonwealth and religious practice without relevance or use in the “New Covenant” era.  If I am correct, this of course resembles Classical Dispensationalism.  Very few interpreters in the entire history of the church have made such a radical break, which, if carried very far, makes one a Marcionite.  In fact, I venture to say that since around 1525, only Anabaptists to an extent and Classical Dispensationalists have made such a radical discontinuity.  Most find some degree of both continuity and discontinuity, with Reformed historically finding a greater degree of continuity in covenant theology.  Regardless, it seems to go too far to argue for such discontinuity that the political aspects of the Old Testament become useless in effect.  Even if one were not Reformed, an argument could still be made that aspects of the Law or specific commands (for example, to wage war) reflect something of the nature of God Himself and are thus of value in informing political and legal dialogue today.  So radical discontinuity, if I understand the R2K advocates correctly that they do hold to that, must be ruled out.

Now to some details.  To what extent are Christians called to engagement and transformation of culture and the political arena?  To begin with, if Christians are at all to be engaged it must be clear that not all Christians are called to participate in intimate engagement as a vocation.  They must be called and equipped by God and objectively validated for their abilities, gifts and, crucially, their character.  But is then anybody at all called to be a transformationist?  Or are we to go back to the alleged situation of the very early pre-Constantinian church in which it is frequently argued one sees no real engagement with the culture beyond spiritual engagement (“saving souls” and establishing churches)?  In fact, this was not the historical case.  We do have records which indicate Christians serving in the army or in positions of authority.  But even so, what does Scripture say?  It certainly nowhere forbids such engagement.  Moreover, the Old Testament prophets “spoke truth to power,” risking their lives to tell rulers their unjust actions and that God was not pleased.  Is this not engagement?  The Law of Moses established particular statutes to govern public actions, the basis for our current criminal and civil law.  Should Christians now, whose ancestors proposed the enactment (in differing forms) of those laws into Western society centuries ago, recant their support of those laws and simply revert to some sort of natural or positive law notion?  Should they refrain from attempting to exert an influence when those laws are subverted or abandoned?

But are there any prescriptive texts that give Christians sanction to engage culture in a transformational way?  I suppose here I must admit I cannot think of any such explicit texts.  Perhaps this lack does give aid and comfort to the R2K advocates.  Admittedly it does make my case more difficult, at least arguably.  But here again, I can also take comfort in that there are no texts I can think of which prohibit active engagement. 

But I do have one text which may make a partial case for the transformationalists.  It is Genesis 1, the creation narrative.  More specifically, I am referring (predictably) to the “Dominion Mandate” in verses 26-31.  After creating man and woman God commands them to “have dominion over…all the earth,” “fill the earth and subdue it” and then again, to “have dominion” over all living things.  At first glance this text would seem to be confined to some kind of physical dominion regarding plants and animals, presumably in order to be able to grow food, eat and sustain life.  But this cannot be all the text implies.  If it were, then what would be the point of expressly stating that man was made “in our (God’s] image and likeness” immediately before the Creation Mandate.  Whatever it means to be made in God’s image (imago Dei) it means more than simply an ability to eat and cultivate.  Man (and woman) was placed on earth to do something for God beyond only the simple physical subsistence.  Even the Fall (Genesis 3) did not erase the image altogether, though it did severely deface it. 

The imago Dei must be tied to the Creation Mandate.  The image must mean at least the capacity to have a righteous relationship to God.  But it seems to be more besides.  It seems to imply that


God has given to man a broad dominion to make the world “better when he left it,” as someone has put it. Such a task would include the civil-political realm. And it would also imply a delegation from God to man, meaning that ultimately God is king over all aspects. It is easy then to extrapolate from God to Christ as King, even over civil elements of existence.

Moreover, if we look at the Mosaic Law, its civil-political aspects, even if we assumed that the specific case laws are not binding except principially, how can we escape the conclusion that if God gave such laws at all, He was exercising His will as to the substance of the political commonwealth? In the same way, Christ also is reigning as king over the political realm of existence. Therefore, when we as Christians function in that realm, we too must do so not indiscriminately or arbitrarily, or even “reasonably” (here implying a certain autonomy of reason), but as God’s and Christ’s vicegerents on earth. This fairly cries out for engagement, for an approach that does not simply leave the world for nonbelievers or under Satan’s kingdom.

It is true that Jesus made statements such as the one in Matthew 21 in which he distinguished between rendering to Caesar and rendering to God. This statement however is not about whether a Christian ought to avoid engagement in the political world, but rather a statement that some aspects of life are legitimate objects of governmental activity–but, I would argue, always still under God’s authority.

Brad Litteljohn points out , I believe correctly,that the Two Kingdoms idea played a crucial role in the development of thought about church-state relations. The idea itself was variously debated at times openly and at other times in a more muted way. More specifically it was an important influence in leading to the institutional separation of church and state, particularly in the United States Constitution. We would argue that thus far this is good. However the current issues takes us much farther: Should Christians even engage in their culture, particularly in the political realm, in order to bring about transformation of it in a distinctively Christian way? R2K theology would seem to lead many down the path of withdrawal from the political arena. In their minds, they, like the Puritans were, are forced to choose between two alternatives: (1) God’s detailed regulation of political life through the application of special revelation (Theonomy or a similar system) or (2) the notion that God really doesn’t care about the civil polity, that is, special revelation does not apply in the “new covenant” period and at the same time that natural law theory is a poor substitute. The direction of the R2K advocates is toward the latter. To be sure, natural law does play a role for some Protestants who find themselves in the dilemma above. But natural law theory has traditionally been the haven of Thomistic thinkers, most of whom are Roman Catholic. Moreover natural law theory has its own set of problems.

I have a very difficult time saying God does not really care about some particular aspect of life on earth. We are not gnostics (to borrow the use of the term here from Eric Voegelin). This world is part of the kingdom reign of God and His Christ. This is even stated in the text which has become famous as part of the Messiah: “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ.” Abraham Kuyper also wrote, to paraphrase, “There is not a single atom of the universe of which God has not said of it, ‘Mine.'” The only problem left then is exactly how do Christian go about transforming the world in general and politics in particular. The answer to that question must wait for another day. But the broad precondition must always be, only by the grace of God.

For further reading:
H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (1951), a classic work.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559).
Abraham Kuyper, The Stone Lectures at Princeton University (1898).
David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010.
Brad Littlejohn, “The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed,” in six parts online at http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/kingdoms-guide-perplexed, retrieved May 16, 2013.