Mention of the two kingdoms schema of the Christ-culture relation often educes among evangelicals two judgments: 1) the two kingdoms doctrine is peculiarly the stuff of Lutheran theology and 2) it is seriously inadequate with respect to understanding the biblical concept of the kingdom of God and prodding Christians properly to discharge their duty to influence society. In other words, it lacks credentials vis-à-vis catholicity, biblical theology, and theological ethics. For example, in D. A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited, the section devoted to the two kingdoms doctrine is entitled “Luther and His Heirs” and expresses concern about the doctrine undermining “a unifying approach to knowledge” and either pushing Christians out of the public square or legitimizing a state church (pp. 210-12). N. T. Wright is more severe in his criticism, musing that traditional interpreters of Paul doubt Wright’s exegesis because Luther’s two kingdoms theology has suppressed the Pauline notion of ecclesial unity as a politically suggestive witness to the powers (Justification, pp. 173-74). Add to this mix the fact that a younger generation (my generation) of Christians has fiercely taken an interest in the concept and pursuit of “social justice” and we have a seemingly unstoppable impetus against the two kingdoms framework. “Christ the transformer of culture” is the more attractive option these days.
Regarding the historical theology dimension of the discussion, it is worth noting that Calvin advocates the two kingdoms doctrine in Institutes (see esp. 3.19 and 4.20). In other words, Luther is not alone. In fact, David VanDrunen’s book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought makes the case for a two kingdoms thread persistently running throughout the Reformed tradition.
Leaving aside for the moment the historical theology question, I would like to venture some comments pertaining to the two kingdoms take on the biblical narrative and cultural and political engagement with the aim of commending its explanatory power and practical import and with the hope of generating some conversation and feedback. Some of these thoughts will be more controversial than others, so let me know what you think.
1) We inhabit an in-between phase of redemptive history, being located in neither ancient Israel’s conspicuous union of faith and culture nor the new creation’s blessed conflation of the people of God and the life and activities of society at large. In light of this, it’s wise at present to make a clear distinction between the roles of church and society.
2) Jesus enters redemptive history as locus and herald of the kingdom of God but does not draw up a plan for systemic social change. His mission includes the themes of justice and social restoration, but he chooses not to enact these in all their fullness in the present time. Instead of choosing immediately or even gradually to transform the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God, he commissions a people who will embody internally the values of the kingdom and offer participation in its life to others who wish to partake. Despite popular parlance, the New Testament appears not to speak of the church “building” God’s kingdom. Our task is to preach the gospel of the kingdom and to wait patiently for the day when we inherit the kingdom. In short, the inbreaking of the kingdom in the ministry of Jesus seems not to entail an ecclesial mission to transform culture or society as such.
3) To those of us who believe that the book of Revelation invites some degree of futurist interpretation, the Apocalypse depicts, not so much a gradual and inexorable transformation of society into a Christ-honoring order, but a society and a government that continually resist God and the testimony of his people. The long-awaited transformation arrives with the second coming of Christ (e.g., Rev. 11:15-19). Such an eschatological angle need not compel a retreat from society but does caution against plans for a pre-parousia redemption of culture.
4) The church qua the church is the custodian of the gospel and is meant to proclaim the gospel to those outside the Christian faith and to practice the gospel in its fellowship. This does not preclude caring holistically for needs in the church body but cautions against calling upon the church as such to support certain political agendas or to design and implement programs for societal vitality and advancement.
5) Under the common grace of God, the task of promoting a just and orderly society is allocated to the state. In the in-between time, the state helps to facilitate humanity’s journey toward the eschaton (Calvin, Institutes, 4.20.2).
6) The state is not autonomous in its efforts to fulfill its responsibility but is accountable to the dicta of natural law. In other words, two kingdoms theology does not create an ugly ditch between the sacred and the secular but suggests that, while the former sphere is under the jurisdiction of the law of Christ, the latter is subject to a law less elaborate than but entirely consistent with the law of Christ.
7) Though the church as such has a peculiarly sacred mission, most individual Christians will be called to the service of the common good in society. With the sweeping normativity of natural law’s call to equity (ibid., 4.20.32), the Christian with a political voice can vie for the well-being of the oppressed and voiceless without foisting a distinctly Christian ethic upon society. The two kingdoms doctrine would stipulate that this activity is not redemptive in that in itself it does not enable men and women to become reconciled to God and to partake of the glory of new creation, but in valuing the common and present good the doctrine robustly retains a place for the pursuit of justice in society. The Christian called to serve in government or generally in the work of social improvement can wholeheartedly affirm the importance of the common good without having to construe their labor as in itself a conduit of salvation. Put differently, the cultural mandate remains intact and is not collapsed into the redemptive mandate.