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 Insufficiencies for Mission
Notwithstanding these important contributions to the church’s mission in society and culture, on its own the Two Kingdoms model also has a number of weaknesses which prevent it from being recommended as the sole answer to the debate on mission.
The Problem of Cultural Passivity
The first problem confronting the Two Kingdoms theology as the sole model for the church’s mission is its potential for discouraging active Christian cultural engagement and social concern. Keller asserts it leads to “social quietism,” because “nothing we do in the Common Kingdom, therefore, is of lasting importance. In the end we should not expect too much out of this life”. Often cited in this regard is the record of churches which embraced the Two Kingdoms and their passivity towards social evils like slavery in America and Nazism in Germany. Even if this is a “perverted” and “spurious interpretation” of the Two Kingdoms it has actually happened and so remains a possibility.
Also Carson warns against its tendency to result in “minimalist expectations,” and instead argues:
“it is possible so to focus on the rescue and regeneration of individuals that we fail to see the temporally good things we can do improve and even transform some social structures ... Yet in these and countless other ways cultural change is possible. More importantly, doing good to the city, doing good to all people (even if we have special responsibility for the household of faith), is part of our responsibility as God’s redeemed people in this time of tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’.”
As Strange comments, the gospel has implications and “hope not just for individuals but for families and communities and nations”. If the church’s message is the gospel, then in its mission it needs to embody and proclaim the gospel in all its fullness.
VanDrunen counters that the value of the Two Kingdoms theology and its consequent development of the spirituality and ministerial authority principles was not to promote such cultural quietism. Rather its purpose was “wrenching the church away from civilpolitics and the state away from spiritual affairs, but they [the 19th century southern Presbyterians in the USA] also did so without any suggestion that Christians should withdraw from life in the cultural realm”. Furthermore, Horton argues that the Great Commission should protect against such quietism in its provisions for “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 20:20, emphasis added), which includes what the scriptures says about environmental stewardship, the inherent dignity of human beings, and social evils. However, it does in practice mean that the church’s primary social responsibility in directly addressing poverty is within the church community rather than wider society.
While Two Kingdoms theology affirms the inherent value of vocational work and cultural activity in the Common Kingdom, it emphasises such activity is temporal rather than eternal in nature. Additionally, VanDrunen emphasises the discontinuity between this present age and the new creation: “the cultural activities and products of this world will come to a sudden end ... this present world was not meant to last forever”. He argues the only continuity is in the resurrection of the body and considers other aspects of cultural continuity as “speculation beyond Scripture”. So whatever Christians accomplish in culture and society now will be lost. In contrast, the Transformationalists have a greater motivation to pursue cultural renewal and social transformation believing this will be incorporated into the new creation. Venema argues that this interpretation grows out of the Two Kingdoms’ dualistic worldview, which underplays the integral relationship of creation and redemption. Subsequently, he argues for continuity between this present age and the age to come, both in the believer’s resurrection body and the transformation of cultural products:
“the comprehensive reordering and renewing of the entire created order... The restoration of the creation will involve a work of redemptive ‘purification,’ but it will not involve the complete destruction of what belongs properly and substantially to God’s creation in its original integrity or its renewed glory at the final consummation [italics in original].”
While the independent value of such temporal good works is maintained by the Two Kingdoms advocates, there is the constant danger in practice of this balance being lost and work in the Common Kingdom becoming discouraged in favour of more spiritual ministry that focuses on eternal personal salvation.
This suggests that the Two Kingdoms model alone is not sufficient to guide the church’s mission, since it threatens to discourage its cultural and social engagement.
The Problem of the Sacred/Secular Divide
A second problem for the Two Kingdoms model is in its tension between creation and redemption. Cultural activity belongs in the realm of creation, not redemption. It is “legitimate but not holy,” indeed VanDrunen argues its temporal character makes it “secular”. This is a difficult tension to maintain without giving way to the impression that it is unimportant.
While VanDrunen argues that the Two Kingdoms does not result in an autonomous secular (or godless) realm, many critics argue that it “implies or teaches it is possible for human life to be conducted on a religiously neutral basis”. For example, Frame argues that the common life between believers and non-believers in this age cannot be a religiously neutral Common Kingdom:
There is no neutrality, as Cornelius Van Til constantly emphasized. Everything we do is either for the glory of God or it is not (1 Cor. 10:31). It either comes from the wisdom of God or the wisdom of the world, and these are antagonistic to one another (1 Cor. 1:20-21). Unbelieving culture exists, and it exists by God’s decree and permission, but not by his precept. He does not approve it.
In response, Horton, Myers, and Scott Clark all argue that to suppose a Common Kingdom does not necessarily result in it becoming neutral or autonomous from God or something that God is indifferent to at best. Nonetheless, Walsh and Middleton contend that there is an inherent danger in any dualistic model where “the kingdom of God (or the sacred) comes to be identified primarily with the church, while the rest of life is seen as secular ... it cripples our social action because such involvement is always subservient to the ‘higher’ calling of evangelism”. VanDrunen’s equating the Redemptive Kingdom with the church could result in disconnecting Christian thinking from living out in the realm of culture.
This potential danger becomes an actual problem in Hart’s work, which advocates a strict separation of church and state based on the secular/sacred divide. He argues Christians should separate their spiritual identity from their responsibilities in public society: “because of the inherently private and personal nature of Christian devotion”. Yet Lucas argues this is “impossible,” because it is one thing to separate church and state, but another to separate faith and politics: “the Christian faith conveys an identity– beliefs, practices, and stories – that changes the way we engage all of our lives all of the time”. It should be noted that VanDrunen and Horton do not follow Hart’s view.
In more recent work, Horton now argues that Christians should “pursue their vocation in a ‘distinctively Christian’ way”. However, many Two Kingdoms advocates do not believe it is possible to create a “distinctively Christian culture” in their vocations. For example, Trueman comments that no one is calling for Christian plumbing or redeeming toilet cleaning. VanDrunen has argued that Christians and non-Christians with their vastly different ultimate allegiances can work together in harmony in many common and penultimate endeavours in this present age. However, Smith disagrees and draws on Augustine’s distinction between the Two Cities. The City of Man is defined by its “false worship,” since “The earthly city shapes nothing less than our ultimate desires”. Therefore, there is no common realm with its own independent ends in which Christians work alongside non-Christians under God’s approval, since all work in the City of Man involves questions of its ultimate worship and allegiance. Indeed, Parler argues that “only with reference to the ultimate does the penultimate gain its proper place, whether in Reformed social thought or in the life of humanity”.
All this is different to the approach taken by Neo-Calvinists who promote the development of a distinctive Christian culture by living out the implications of a Christian worldview in their vocations. Strange argues this difference can be traced back to the Two Kingdoms disconnection between: “culture and cult, between the shape of a society and the religious presuppositions underlying that society”. On the contrary, he would argue that while Christians and non-Christians at work externally appear similar, their internal motivations and mind-sets are vastly different, so their work is not in common in essential nature.
The importance of this issue of the sacred/secular divide for mission is demonstrated in the report Imagine How We Can Reach The UK, published by the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity and Evangelical Alliance in 2003. It concluded:
“The reason the UK church is not effective in mission is because we are not making disciples who can live well for Christ in today’s culture and engage compellingly with the people they meet.” It attributed blame to the sacred/secular divide: “the pervasive belief that some things are important to God – such as church, prayer meetings, social action, Alpha – but that other human activities are at best neutral”. If this is true and versions of the Two Kingdoms theology contribute to such a problem, then it will only aggravate the problem facing the church in an increasingly secular society if it is taken alone as the sole model for mission.
The Problem of the Undermining of Scripture
A final problem for the Two Kingdoms theology as the sole answer to the mission of the church lies in its understanding of natural law and scripture. Much of VanDrunen’s work has argued that God has provided sufficient guidance in natural law for the cultural development of the Common Kingdom, based on Romans 1:18-32 and 2:14- 15. He emphasises the positive function of natural law in the Common Kingdom, although not in the Redemptive Kingdom pertaining to salvation. He argues that many activities and characteristics of Christians as they participate in the Common Kingdom are not unique. Rather they are common to all mankind because all people “continue to know the basic moral law of God through natural revelation even if they have never read Scripture”. This means that VanDrunen does not see the same need for scripture in directing life in the Common Kingdom as he does in the Redemptive Kingdom. However, as critics point out, sin has made humanity’s use of natural law unstable, since they suppress or distort (Romans 1:18, 21-23) this revelation making it singularly inadequate to guide the common life.
There is a concern that this leads in practice to spiritual matters being governed by the scriptures, while the rest of life in society is governed by natural law. Frame asserts that this introduces an unacceptable duality in God’s ethical norms. He counters that “there is no inconsistency between what God commands through this natural knowledge and what he commands us in Scripture. God’s moral standards are one, even though they come through two media”. Without this it is very difficult to see how the Bible can speak prophetically to society about God’s standards and expectations. This can remove incentive for the church to challenge and communicate to social institutions God’s wishes for human life, as it assumes much of life can be conducted without explicit biblical reasoning.
Also it is in danger of undermining the sufficiency of scripture, which asserts that the Bible “contains the divine words necessary for all faith and life”. In response, Horton warns of the danger to “trivialize the Scriptures,” by approaching them looking for practical applications to life in fields to which they were never intended or inspired to speak guidance - for example, to a Christian quantum physicist. He instead defends against this claim of undermining scripture: “the Bible is sufficient for everything necessary for salvation and godliness. It is, in other words, sufficient for everything pertaining to the scope of its purpose ... they were never intended to be sufficient for everything else”. Likewise, Myers argues that the Bible was never intended to give a “blue print” for all of life; rather he suggests that while what scripture does say needs to be applied wisely into all of life, that scripture itself was never intended as the only source of information for life in this world.
Conversely, Strange argues scripture is the necessary foundation for natural law – it only is known to have any normative effect because the Bible has explicitly revealed that truth. So he argues for a “distinctive Christian confession and thinking in every area of life ... we need an explicitly biblical engagement,” not meaning quoting bible verses out of context, but rather “arguing Christianly ... shaped by Scripture”. He claims this will better advance the church’s mission by leading to more evangelism and social transformation at the same time. The reality of this missiological contribution is logical in this post-Christendom era, when such scriptural engagement will stand out distinctively as truth that makes sense in the midst of confusion.
Tuininga has sought to mediate between the two sides saying it is equally mistaken to “seek explicit Scriptural justification for every little thing,” or to “overreact to that mistake by pretending that Scripture has nothing to say about Christians’ vocations, social life, or political engagement”. Yet, arguably, these mistakes are best prevented by seeking to incorporate the contributions from the other models, rather than relying solely on the Two Kingdoms model to guide the church’s mission in society.
Summary of the Two Kingdoms
In summary, this chapter has critically examined the theological contributions of the Two Kingdoms model as it pertains to the church’s mission in society and culture. It has surveyed the numerous developmental steps of the model in history and isolated the stream favoured by Horton and VanDrunen.
This particular formulation of Two Kingdom theology has been shown to have numerous positive implications for guiding the church’s mission. Namely, it seeks to maintain the clarity of the gospel message and prevent the church from becoming distracted or over-stretched in its primary task entrusted by Christ in the Great Commission until he returns. It also maintains an important emphasis on the church institution itself in discharging its ministry (the marks of the church) to the gathered congregation in order to nourish and equip Christians to be sent into their various callings and missional opportunities in the world.
Nevertheless, at each stage the criticisms and questions about the Two Kingdoms theology have been engaged with, and there remain a number of issues which prevent it being suggested as the sole answer to debate over the scope of the church’s mission. Indeed, the most serious concern is that it could result in the church losing its vision for cultural engagement and social activism in this present age.
Therefore, this thesis will now progress to critically consider the Transformationalist model, before considering if there is a way for these two models to learn from and mutually enrich one another for the sake of the church’s mission in society and culture.