The Two Kingdoms Doctrine

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.



9 thoughts on “The Two Kingdoms Doctrine

  1. Steve,

    I like the way you have framed the “two kingdoms” issue. I think you’ve identified many of the salient concerns for contemporary evangelicals. Eschatologically, I am of the Progressive Dispensational stripe and see some reality to the “already/not yet” approach to Kingdom reality. In light of your reflections, how would you envision an “already” aspect of Kingdom truth that does not simply default to evangelism or “populating heaven”? Along these lines, how would you approach the parables of Matt 13 that speak of a steady advance of the Kingdom during this present “in-between” age? Stated differently, what kinds of “transformations” might we expect to reflect “advance” of the Kingdom, without invoking the need for a “pre-parousia redemption of culture”?

    • Hey Jim,

      Good to hear from you.

      These are ideal questions for sparking fruitful discussion here. I think it’s critical to avoid both an overly realized eschatology and an overly spiritualized, escapist view of the kingdom’s present influence. To use Calvin’s distinction, the “spiritual kingdom” in the present doesn’t swallow up the “civil kingdom,” but this doesn’t necessarily truncate the influence of the spiritual kingdom. The spiritual kingdom’s current influence includes evangelism, reconciliation of God and human persons, the practical embodiment of kingdom values in the church, the reconciliation of human persons in the church, and so on. In other words, I don’t think we need the “Christ the transformer of culture” paradigm to do justice to the present power of the spiritual kingdom. Looking at the book of Acts would give some insight into how the sway of the spiritual kingdom over and through the church can take shape without issuing in political transformation.

      Regarding the relevant parables of Matthew 13, I appreciate what Blomberg says in his Matthew commentary: “Neither parable depicts the culmination of the kingdom so impressively as to justify grandiose dreams of Christianizing the earth, but each does caution against a defeatism or siege mentality when Christian witness seems temporary ineffective” (p. 221). It seems to me that the parables emphasize the steady influence of the kingdom of God but don’t specify precisely how this unfolds. At this point, I think we have to examine other texts for their contributions and, obviously, my reading of other texts prompts me to parse the Matthew 13 parables in terms of what I said above about the present influence of the spiritual kingdom.


      • Steve,

        Considering the varied and sundry differences I’ve had with so much of the commentary on TF since I began following it, I’m left kind of speechless in response to your reply. The items you chose to underscore in your sentence “The spiritual kingdom’s present influence includes . . .” are precisely the top candidates I have been considering in my own thinking. It may be that the “vertical” and “horizontal” aspects of reconciliation you mentioned are the ideal categories under which to think about kingdom advance in the present age. And I would heartily agree with your comment on Matt 13.

        Along these lines, may I add the challenge to our readers that if, as you so aptly stated, 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, then that very people will comprise an organism best described as ambassadors of reconciliation whether they find themselves relating to others “in” the church or “out” in the culture (2 Cor 5:18-20).

  2. Steve, thanks for the post.

    Do you have any thoughts on Van Drunen’s book?

    Many of my Kuyperian friends have been giving it a lot of flack for claiming that Kuyper developed a two-kingdoms doctrine.

    • Andrew,

      I appreciate the main thrust of VanDrunen’s book, but I have to confess that my knowledge of Kuyper is not such that I could give VanDrunen’s summary of Kuyper a proper evaluation. I can say that VanDrunen’s telling of the history seems fair-minded to me. For example, when he critiques Dooyeweerd he acknowledges that Kuyper sought “to make the spheres and activities of culture ‘Christian.'” But he says that Kuyper still grounded that activity in creation and common grace rather than redemption (p. 384).

      I’m excited about what VanDrunen in this book and Horton in Where in the World Is the Church? and People and Place do with the two kingdoms doctrine.


  3. To try to explain why so much might have been promised by Jesus in the way of a “kingdom,” and miracles – and yet himself Jesus was killed, and no real kingdom appeared? To try to explain that, Augustine suggested the two kingdoms thesis: that we have a “City of God” in spirituality, and a flawed “City of Man,” in worldly secular (and wordly Church) life. Later Luther himself- not merely Lutheranism – basically reaffirmed Augustine.

    So there seems to many, to be a fairly strong theological pedigree for the two kingdoms thesis: Augustine and Luther, no less. Still, 1) the Bible ITSELF seems HIGHLY undecided and equivocal on this matter.

    And indeed, 2) observing history, observing the apparent failure of Christianity to set up a perfect kingdom in either sphere – spirit or world – is a major reason many intelligent people today, simply decide Christianity is false.

    Still to be sure, 3) even after 2,000 years, many still hope that one Apocalyptic “day,” the inadequate system(s) that we have will break down, or be defeated; the old “heaven and” earth will be destroyed; and something “new” and better, a “new heaven” and a “new earth” (/kingdom?) will finally appear.

    Personally I, like many others, like to read the Apocalyptic destruction of heaven and earth, and the appearance of the “new” kingdom, as a metaphor. As a metaphor in part, for the day that many of us suddenly see flaws in our “child”hood idea of the Religion of material miracles AND spirits; and move on to a higher and better way of seeing God. Moving on to a real, contemporary Theology.

    And what is contemporary Theology saying? It suggests that oldfashioned Religion – including the two kingdoms thesis – did not fully work; so that now it seems that if there is to be an ideal kingdom of Good, it should be on earth; and Man himself must help build it.

    All this gives Man a much more central role in Theology. And a much more central role in fulfilling the ideal kingdom, God’s Plan, than many spiritualists and promisers of miracles thought. While it does not really accept the dual kingdoms, and the world/spirit dualism much of tradition implies.

    To be sure, if some people HAVE to accept “two kingdoms,” probably the model outlined above by Steven Duby, might be a rough but useful model, among others.

    Ultimately though, I (like many contemporary theologians) feel it would be better to simply face the “Apcocalyptic” destruction of many accepted religious ideas, including the dualist idea of two kingdoms. And move on to a new idea of a single, real kingdom on earth, after all. One constructed with much help, from mere mortals.

  4. Brett,

    First of all, your response is freighted with language that sounds both condescending and vacuous. You have apparently called belief in miracles and the spiritual realm the stuff of childish naivete and advocated a “higher” and “better” way of looking at things. Without understanding Christian eschatology, you have attempted to dismiss “old-fashioned religion” by merely claiming that it doesn’t work. You have called (your preferred strands of) contemporary theology “real” theology and asserted that it envisions a “real” kingdom. You have insinuated that, if we who are stuck in a traditional theological framework “have” to adopt the two kingdoms approach, then we uneducated ones can continue to do so while the enlightened and the mature go about the business of the “real” kingdom. Furthermore, though I commented on the compatibility of the two kingdoms forged by natural law, you have caricatured the two kingdoms doctrine by labeling it “dualistic.”

    I would ask that out of respect for the task of theological reflection and discussion you avoid the condescending language. As your use of words like “higher” and “real” possesses virtually nothing in the way of argumentative force, such a posture is all the more out of place. If you insist on responding, please try to write something that is concise, fair-minded, and appropriately modest.

    What you said above about the failure of Christianity to erect a “perfect” kingdom is precisely one of the points of this post. Christians are not expected to “build” God’s kingdom but to submit to its gospel and ethical teachings and to wait patiently for its eschatological coming in fullness, which is a work of divine agency. To cease waiting for this and, as you advocate, to begin “constructing” a “single, real kingdom” is seriously to underestimate the magnitude and influence of sin in the present age as well as the decisiveness of the second coming of Christ.


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