The Two-Kingdoms Theology and Christians Today

The Two-Kingdoms Theology and Christians Today

Written by William B. Evans |
Monday, May 15, 2023

First, the kingdom of God and the institutional church are wrongly equated by 2K advocates.  There is a rough consensus among New Testament scholars that the kingdom of God is a much more comprehensive reality than the institutional church, and this misidentification of the church and the kingdom has all sorts of unfortunate results, such as confusion over the nature of “kingdom work” and the silencing of Christians from speaking to societal issues.

These are perplexing times for evangelical Christians who seek to be faithful to Christ in the midst of a contrary culture. The conventional view in American evangelical circles has been what we may term “transformational,” in that it was shaped by the Puritan goal of society as a Christian covenanted community, the Awakening impulse that spawned many efforts to redeem the broader culture, and the neo-Calvinist perspective of Abraham Kuyper (and successors such as Cornelius Van Til and Francis Schaeffer) emphasizing a Christian world-and-life view as foundational to the transformation of culture.  While these influences were not overtly theocratic, they did see a positive role for Christians as Christians in society.

More recently, an outspoken group has rejected all of this, contending that Christians should view themselves as citizens of two distinct kingdoms (the church and the world), and that efforts to transform society on the basis of Christian principles are wrongheaded.  This perspective has been labeled “2K” (Two Kingdoms) “R2K” (“Reformed” or “Radical Two Kingdoms”), “NL2K” (Natural Law Two Kingdoms) theology, and the “common-kingdom model,” and it is particularly associated with present and former faculty members at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California—ethicist David VanDrunen, theologian Michael Horton, historian Darryl Hart, and their students.[1]  Not surprisingly, it has recently been dubbed by theologian John Frame the “Escondido Theology.”[2]  While the major participants are affiliated with conservative Reformed denominations, their influence goes well beyond those confessional groups, and so this is a phenomenon well worth exploring in more detail.

That something like 2K theology would be attractive in the current context should not surprise.  American culture is increasingly secular.  Hostility to biblical Christianity increases, and the end of “Constantinianism” (the synthesis of Western culture and Christianity that began with the Roman emperor Constantine) is widely announced.  Efforts by the Religious Right to transform America are seen as a failure, and the Christian Reconstructionist or Theonomist movement has faded.  In addition, some are convinced that transformational efforts have distracted the church from its spiritual calling of preparing souls for heaven through the ministry of Word and sacrament.  Thus, 2K theology seems tailor-made for a post-Constantinian context where many are concerned for the integrity of the church and its ministry, and it also seems to provide a theological fig leaf for culture-war fatigue.

What are the basics of 2K theology?  First, there are two realms or kingdoms—the world, which is governed by creational wisdom or natural law accessible to all, and the church, which is shaped and governed by the Gospel. Christians are citizens of both realms and are answerable to the claims of both.  Second, because the world is normed by natural law, there is no distinctively “Christian” worldview that can be applied to all of life. There is no Christian-world-and-life perspective on politics, or economics, or psychology, etc.  Finally, Christian efforts to transform or redeem society are wrongheaded and involve a confusion of the two kingdoms.  Thus, the ministry of the church is exclusively spiritual in nature.

According to 2K advocates, such thinking is firmly rooted in the Christian tradition, and four key sources are often cited.  St. Augustine of Hippo’s magnum opus, The City of God, was written in the wake of the fall of Rome in AD 410 to the barbarians.  In it, Augustine assures Christians that their hopes rest not in earthly society or empire but in heaven, and he schematizes human history in terms of two cities—the city of the world shaped by love of self and made up of those who “live by human standards” and are predestined to hell, and the city of God shaped by love for God and made up of those “who live according to God’s will” and are predestined for heaven.  Thus Christians are simultaneously citizens of heaven and pilgrims on earth.[3]  Here Augustine sought to express the biblical distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the devil.  But Augustine was no Manichaean dualist—he recognized that the inhabitants of the earthly city can accomplish relative goods, and he also believed that the efforts of Christians to better society can achieve real, if limited, results.  Moreover, Augustine encouraged a public role for distinctively Christian virtues, even arguing that temporal rulers should suppress idolatry.[4]  Thus, Augustine’s two cities are not the same thing as the recent Two Kingdoms.

More promising for recent 2K advocates is the distinction between two kingdoms found in the writings of Martin Luther.   Luther modified the Augustinian framework by means of programmatic distinctions between Law and Gospel, the spiritual and the temporal, the inner and outer man, and so on.  Thus there is a twofold rule of God—the kingdom of the world is governed by God through Law, while the church is governed by the Gospel.  The implications of this move are profound.  With Luther, the kingdom of the world achieves what Bernhard Lohse has termed a new “independence” over against Christianity, and a more positive view of the kingdom of the world emerges (in this sense, I would even argue that the Lutheran Two-Kingdoms doctrine was a factor in the emergence of the modern notion of the secular).  In addition, the state, as an expression of the kingdom of the world, has its own integrity apart from Christianity, and Christians as citizens of both kingdoms must submit to the state.  Thus there is in Luther little room for rebellion against civil government.  Finally, the church has an exclusively spiritual role and is not to try to improve society.[5]

Reformed Two-Kingdoms advocates have spent a good deal of time trying to portray Calvin as a keen disciple on Luther on this issue.  But while Calvin deployed two-kingdoms language, he generally did so with somewhat different aims and his practical stance was more activistic.  He sought to protect the church from the encroachments of the state, and to emphasize that Christians have a spiritual obligation to the state, but the temporal realm does not have the independence that it has in Luther.[6]  Despite similarities in language, this difference helps to account for the profound contrast between the passivity of the Lutheran tradition toward the state and the historic pattern of social and political activism evident among Reformed Christians.  Calvin’s role in Geneva underscores his conviction that distinctively Christian concerns have an important role in the public square, and that magistrates are obligated to further Christian virtues.

These differing conceptions of the Two Kingdoms are rooted to some degree in different understandings of Law and Gospel.  For Lutherans, the law always condemns, while the gospel is understood primarily as freedom from condemnation.  The Reformed understanding of both differs.  Here the notion of Law is conditioned by the doctrine of the covenant, and the Gospel is understood as both freedom from condemnation of sin and the power of sin.  Thus, in the Westminster Confession of Faith the condemning aspects of the law are assigned to the covenant of works, while the law as a “rule of life” does “sweetly comply” with the “grace of the Gospel” (WCF 19.6-7).  For these reasons, Lutherans are able to “distinguish Law and Gospel” in ways that the Reformed generally do not, and simply citing formal similarities in Lutheran and Reformed language on the Two Kingdoms and Law/Gospel will not do.  One must dig deeper to discern what is really meant and what is entailed.

Given that the Reformed tradition has historically been decidedly more activistic and transformational than Lutheranism with its two-kingdoms focus, where are contemporary Reformed 2K advocates to find antecedents for their position?  The answer lies in Southern Presbyterianism and its doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” that emerged with vigor in the post-Civil War period. As historian Jack Maddex argued in a seminal 1976 article, southern Presbyterians shifted from an activistic and even theocratic stance to a rigid separation of the sacred and the secular: “Smarting under northern accusations that they had formed a ‘political alliance’ with slavery, Southern Presbyterians assumed an apolitical stance.  Turning from social and political concerns, they concentrated on personal piety and church organization.”[7]

Enough has been said to demonstrate that 2K claims are revisionist, particularly their Lutheranized version of the Reformed tradition.  But are there theological and pastoral problems here?  I think there are.  First, the kingdom of God and the institutional church are wrongly equated by 2K advocates.  There is a rough consensus among New Testament scholars that the kingdom of God is a much more comprehensive reality than the institutional church, and this misidentification of the church and the kingdom has all sorts of unfortunate results, such as confusion over the nature of “kingdom work” and the silencing of Christians from speaking to societal issues.[8]

Second, this 2K theology evinces a radical creation-redemption dualism that distorts the Scriptural witness at certain key points.  It denies the continuity of the old creation with the new,[9] and this brings with it a suspicion of real transformation (whether personal or social) in this life.  In other words, according to 2K our efforts to apply creational wisdom or natural law are not bad things, but our experience of salvation today is entirely a spiritual matter, and efforts to change this world have no lasting or eternal significance for the world to come.  Moreover, this present world will be destroyed and replaced by a new creation.  But while there are passages in Scripture that speak of the relationship between the old and new in terms of discontinuity (e.g., 2 Peter 3:11-13), others depict restoration rather than annihilation.  Perhaps most telling is Paul’s argument in Romans 8:18-25, in which the Apostle speaks of creation as currently “subject to futility” that “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glory of the children of God” (ESV).  At very least, this suggests that 2K advocates have missed the careful dialectic of eschatological continuity and discontinuity in Scripture.

We will cheerfully admit that 2K advocates have some legitimate concerns, particularly that the mission and witness of the church not be hijacked by political and cultural agendas.  But in this instance the cure is worse than the disease.  While 2K theology may well scratch the itch of Christians who need a theological excuse to remain silent in current cultural conflicts, it is both less than biblical and less than faithful to the decided weight of the Reformed tradition.

William B. ‘Bill’ Evans is the Younts Professor of Bible and Religion and Department Chair at Erskine College.  He holds degrees from Taylor University (BA) Westminster Seminary (MAR, ThM), and Vanderbilt (PhD). This article first appeared on his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist and is used with permission.

[1] See, e.g., David VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (2010); Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (2010); D. G. Hart, A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State (2006).

[2] See John Frame, The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology (2011); Other critiques include Ryan C. McIlhenny, ed.,Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective (2012); William D. Dennison, “Review of VanDrunen’s Natural Law,” Westminster Theological Journal 75 (2013): 349-370; and  Dan Strange, “Not Ashamed! The Sufficiency of Scripture for Public Theology,” Themelios 36/2 (2011).

[3] Augustine, City of God (Bettenson trans., 1984), 593-596 (XIV.28—XV.1).

[4] For a subtle analysis of this, see Eugene TeSelle, Augustine the Theologian (1970), 268-278.

[5] On these issues, see Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther: An Introduction to His Life and Work (1986), 186-193.  See also Paul Althaus, The Ethics of Martin Luther (1972), 43-82; Heinrich Bornkamm, Luther’s Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms in the Context of His Theology, trans. James W. Leitsch (1963).

[6] See Calvin, Institutes, IIII.19.15; IV.20.1-32.

[7] Jack P. Maddex, “From Theocracy to Spirituality: The Southern Presbyterian Reversal on Church and State,” Journal of Presbyterian History54/4 (1976): 448.  Maddex points to Stuart Robinson as the crucial figure in this development, and Robinson’s ideas have recently been championed by VanDrunen.

[8] See, e.g., Herman Ridderbos, The Coming of the Kingdom (1962), 354; G. E. Ladd, Theology of the New Testament (1974), 111-119.

[9] See, e.g., VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 66-67.

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