The following will be a series of posts based on the MA thesis of David Nixon. David is a good friend and has graciously allowed us to publish his work in order to educate us about this important topic.
Two Kingdoms Theological Distinctives
Having considered the history and background of the Two Kingdom Theology, this section will critically analyse its distinct theological insights. This will reveal the theological tools its provides for engaging missionally with culture.
Two Kingdoms and Covenants: Common and Redemptive
At the heart of the Two Kingdoms theology is its distinction between the Common and Redemptive Kingdoms, understood as the two ways that the sovereign God governs this present age. VanDrunen summarises his understanding of the reformed tradition:
In affirming the two kingdoms doctrine, they portrayed God as ruling all human institutions and activities, but as ruling them in two fundamentally different ways ... 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.
Helpfully, Strange observes that it is “a model of discontinuity and dichotomy ... God is sovereign ... and yet God exercises his rule in two different ways, in two different realms, with two different norms and with two different expectations for each realm”. The Common Kingdom is under magisterial authority, directing the external life in civil society by natural law and the sword; while the Redemptive Kingdom is under ministerial authority, directing the spiritual life by the Word and Sacraments. Uniquely, VanDrunen emphasises natural law’s role in the former: “The character of the civil kingdom as a common realm calls for a moral standard that is common to all human beings, and this is what natural law is”. Although he anticipates concerns by clarifying that it is a “divinely established rather than an autonomous moral standard”.
This Common Kingdom was established through the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 8:20–9:17) with its universal implications for ongoing life and culture in fallen creation, while the Redemptive Kingdom was established through the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12 with its particular implications for the nation of Israel as God’s vehicle for redeeming creation in Christ. This draws upon Meredith Kline’s view that after the fall there was a separation between common and holy things, as expressed in the common Noahic Covenant, while they were reunited in the redemptive Abrahamic Covenant.
The Common Kingdom covenant preserves creation and culture in the present age, while the Redemptive Kingdom covenants progress towards the eschatological transformation of creation. In the Common Kingdom Christians share much in common alongside non-Christians as human beings; while in the Redemptive Kingdom the ultimate religious conflict occurs between Christians and non-Christians. As VanDrunen says “cultural commonality will exist alongside the spiritual antithesis,” using the example of cultural advancements coming through Cain’s godless line which were shared with Seth’s godly line. Horton argues this enables Christians to fulfill their calling to be “in the world” (their common callings) but “not of the world” (their calling to be agents of God’s redemptive purposes). He illustrates this tension quoting the opening lines of two old gospel songs: “This is my Father’s world” and “This world is not my home”.
As already seen, VanDrunen identifies the Redemptive Kingdom with the church, and the rest of cultural life is identified with the Common Kingdom. This means that the Christian’s cultural work alongside non-Christians in the Common Kingdom is not redemptive and does not directly contribute to the work of God’s Redemptive Kingdom, which will be established in the new creation. However, VanDrunen has been criticised for polarising the tension to such a degree that they become “two hermetically separated domains or realms” with their own independent purposes. Venema argues: “The rule of God in the civil realm is distinct from his rule in the ecclesiastical realm. But this is a distinction between two ways of governing, each of which in its own way serves God’s comprehensive kingdom purpose,” rather than a “thorough-going dualism”. In likemanner, Smith interprets VanDrunen as suggesting: “The kingdom of this world is not to be transformed but rather respected as its own autonomous sphere”. It can be said in VanDrunen’s defence that he writes that “no area of life can be completely slotted as civil and not at all as spiritual,” and that Christ rules over all things through the social institutions established in the Common Kingdom. Also he makes the concession: “Though the church is not identical to the covenant of grace and the kingdom of heaven, it is precisely in the church that the covenant and kingdom are experienced until Christ returns” (italics in original). This can be understood as an attempt to limit the potential of these criticisms. Nonetheless, there is a trajectory in VanDrunen’s work that the critics rightly highlight has the potential for dividing the world into two separate realms, where the church is unconcerned with societal and cultural affairs.
Practically speaking, McIlhenny notes that to distinguish between church and state functions is difficult because these Two Kingdoms are “intertwined in the undivided (one) human person”. Indeed, Kloosterman argues they are inextricably linked: “from this ‘inward’ life flows ‘outward’ conduct, so that in this way true humanity finds expression in public culture”.
In light of these criticisms, Tuininga (one of VanDrunen’s former students) suggests VanDrunen’s position could be improved: by further emphasising and clarifying its fundamental eschatological character, particularly in light of the fact that the two kingdoms are often confused with two spheres into which life is divided ... we confuse the two when we think of the two kingdoms as two spheres (because they denote two governments) but forget that they also denote two overlapping ages.
In this way the Two Kingdoms are not completely separate divisions of life in this world, but overlap within the Christian in this present age. This helps to avoid the danger of suggesting that only life within and the work of the church matters. While this emphasis on the two eschatological ages is not absent in VanDrunen’s work, he does distinguish these two ages from the Two Kingdoms through which Christ rules in this present age. Interestingly, Horton better reflects this eschatological understanding: “The kingdom of God is present in a semirealized way even now in and through the church, yet it is a more encompassing reality than the church and will be fully realized only when Christ returns”. Additionally, he explains: “For now, it is manifested as a kingdom of grace, bringing the forgiveness of sins, not yet as the kingdom of glory, bringing final justice, righteousness, and peace to the earth”. So the church represents this kingdom of grace and awaits receiving the future kingdom of glory.
Part 4 to follow.