Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010) represents his latest in a string of works on this issue, including Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010) and Bioethics and the Christian Life: A Guide to Making Difficult Decisions (Crossway, 2009).  In this volume he ventures an exposition of the two-kingdoms doctrine that aims to clarify its biblical and theological roots and to unfold some of its practical implications in relation to knotty issues like mission, education, and politics.

In the introduction VanDrunen recognizes the helpful emphases of much of the recent literature on the Christianity-and-culture question: God as the Creator and Ruler of all things (including material things), the universality of human accountability to God, the viability of Christians’ involvement in cultural pursuits, the wide-ranging effects of sin, and the hope of resurrection and new creation.  However, he also registers his hesitation about talk of ‘redeeming’ or ‘transforming’ culture in a gradual process that will, with little discontinuity, culminate in the establishment of the new creation wherein ‘our cultural products will adorn the eternal city’ (p. 13).  VanDrunen then states his intention to propound the two-kingdoms alternative, in which ‘God is not redeeming the cultural activities and institutions of this world, but is preserving them through the covenant he made with all creatures through Noah in Genesis 8:20-9:17’ (p. 15).  To illumine the features of the two-kingdoms approach, VanDrunen outlines the transformational approach as instantiated in the concerns of neo-Calvinism, N. T. Wright, and Brian McLaren.  From here, he pledges to develop a two-kingdoms doctrine that respects the goodness of creation but resists ‘dualism-phobia’ and instead makes the distinction between a redemptive kingdom and a common kingdom (p. 26).  Before commencing with the body of the book, he also clarifies that he’s not using the term ‘culture’ in a technical manner:

culture refers to all the various human activities and their products, as well as the way in which we interpret them and the language we use to describe them….The popular expression, ‘Christianity and culture’, which appears in the subtitle of this book, simply refers to the variety of questions that emerge when we consider how Christians and the church are to relate to these broad activities of human culture and how Christian faith affects our interpretation of them (p. 32).

Part one (chapters two and three) presents a broad covenantal reading of the biblical narrative in terms of Paul’s two-Adams schema (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:20-28, 42-49).  The first Adam was given the charge to obey God in righteously exercising dominion over the earth but plunged into sin and thereby forsook the opportunity thus to obtain eternal life in the new creation.  On VanDrunen’s reading, Adam’s obedience would have meant the bestowal of eternal life and dominion in, not merely the first creation, but the world to come.  This he gathers from, among other textual loci, Hebrews 2:5-8 and 4:1-10 where the author spins out a new covenant modulation of the Old Testament hope of everlasting dominion and rest.  Christ as the second Adam takes up the first Adam’s vocation and renders perfect obedience to the Father, securing the ‘rights, privileges, and responsibilities of the world-to-come’ for all those united to him by faith (p. 56).  By implication, then,

Christians should view their cultural activities in a radically different way from the way that the first Adam viewed his.  We pursue cultural activities in response to the fact that the new creation has already been achieved, not in order to contribute to its achievement (p. 57).

VanDrunen also infers here that those who advocate a reclamation by believers of the original Adamic task unwittingly undermine the sufficiency of Christ’s work.  For Adam’s cultural mandate was bound up with the opportunity to obtain eternal life under the covenant of works.  Therefore, those who hold to the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone ought not to insist on setting about the work initially given to Adam.  ‘Christ does not restore us to Adam’s original task but takes us to where Adam was supposed to arrive’ (p. 59).  We are still meant to involve ourselves in a variety of noble cultural endeavors in grateful response to Christ’s saving work, but this forward progress in redemptive history, which includes our present foretaste of the powers of the age to come, precludes laboring to attain to or to build the new creation.  For VanDrunen, caution about cultural transformation is funded further by the ramifications of the parousia.  Without insinuating any problem with the material realm or any exclusion of material reality from the new creation, the Scriptures envision an end of the present natural order (Rom. 8:18-25; Heb. 12:25-29; 2 Pet. 3:10-13; Rev. 6:12-14).  This dissolution encompasses the products of human culture as well (Isa. 65:17-25; Matt. 24:37-39; 1 Cor. 7:29-31; 2 Cor. 4:18; 1 Tim. 6:7; 2 Pet. 3:10; Rev. 18).

Part two (chapters four and five) rehearses the biblical narrative once more but this time traces the theme of ‘sojourning’.  VanDrunen discerns in Genesis 8:20-9:17 the formal launch of a common kingdom under the Noahic covenant which 1) governs cultural activity and commands justice in human societies, 2) concerns the human race as a whole, 3) signals the preservation but not the redemption of the world, and 4) promises a temporary protection of the world (i.e., it cannot be destroyed by another flood but may be destroyed in some other way).  God himself establishes the common kingdom and, contrary to some caricatures of the two-kingdoms doctrine, it is not a sphere of moral neutrality or human autonomy.  Genesis 15 and 17 then depict the formal launch of the redemptive kingdom under the covenant with Abraham, the outworking of which is summarized by the concept of the covenant of grace.  The four functions of this kingdom are 1) to govern religious faith and worship, 2) to distinguish a holy people from among the nations, 3) to bestow the benefits of salvation, and 4) to guarantee an enduring inheritance for the people of the redemptive kingdom.  Abraham and exilic Israel exemplify the life of sojourning and operating in both kingdoms, while pre-exilic and post-exilic Israel embody two temporary suspensions of the sojourning style of God’s people.  In the New Testament, says VanDrunen, the redemptive kingdom receives a fuller expression in the church (‘the visible community of believers and their children’):

The church is the kingdom of heaven here on earth.  Though the church is not identical to the covenant of grace or the kingdom of heaven, it is precisely in the church that the covenant and the kingdom are experienced until Christ returns (p. 116).

Believers in the New Testament era continue to live under the common kingdom as well, for only at the second coming is the kingdom of this world overwhelmed by the kingdom of God (Rev. 11:15).  The institutions of family and state carry on and are not morphed into distinctly Christian entities.  The New Testament regards creation as good but, according to VanDrunen, has a somewhat subdued perspective on our engagement in cultural activities.  It urges 1) service to neighbors over against taking over or taking back culture, 2) critical reflection on cultural ideas and activities, and 3) a sense of detachment in anticipation of the new creation.

Part three (chapters six and seven) unpacks some implications for the life and mission of the church and the lives of believers.  Against the sentiment that the sphere of cultural engagement is ‘where Christianity is really lived’, VanDrunen extols the church: ‘The life and ministry of the church are not means to an end….The church’s worship and fellowship are ends in themselves’ (pp. 132-3).  Believers glorify God in every sphere of life, but the ecclesial practices of preaching, administering and receiving the sacraments, prayer, and song are ‘more properly deemed “worship”’ and should consume our schedules on the Lord’s day (p. 135).  The redemptive kingdom is not to be identified with any common institution and likewise the church is not to be identified with or located under the common kingdom or any agenda thereof.  The properly spiritual character of the local church can be tested and refined by asking whether its beliefs and practices would alienate a potential attendee on the basis of, say, race or political persuasion and by asking whether it has begun to usurp any function of the common kingdom (administering civil justice, dealing in commerce, and the like).  In VanDrunen’s mind, the ministerial (as opposed to magisterial) authority of the church also must be upheld.  This means that the church is not at liberty to decide to incorporate extrabiblical practices (such as dance or dramatic skits) into its worship services or to extend its diaconal ministry beyond the congregation itself.

Turning from the church as such to the lives of believers, VanDrunen avers that we ought to participate in cultural activities under the cultural mandate as it is reinterpreted in the Noahic covenant.  There is a promise of preservation but not of redemption: ‘Contrary to what some people suggest, we are to spend time on things that do not last’ (p. 166).  In the affairs of the common kingdom, Christians operate out of faith in Christ and for the glory of God.  Christian engagement in the common arena is thus subjectively ‘Christian’ but objectively common.  The impetus and motives may be ‘Christian’ but the acts and undertakings themselves are not.  The common kingdom is furnished with sturdy standards for morality and excellence and need not be overrun by a distinctly Christian set of guidelines.  To round out the book, VanDrunen closes with some comments on education, vocation, and politics.  On education, he suggests that theology as the interpretation of special revelation should be primarily under the jurisdiction of the church, that the subject matter and teaching of other disciplines abide in the common realm, and that Christian schools ought not to assume the peculiar responsibilities of local churches.  On vocation, VanDrunen writes that Christians, not common vocations, are objects of redemption.  All lawful labor is honorable before God, but, again, the work of the common kingdom is not distinctly ‘Christian’.  Finally, on politics, VanDrunen urges that ecclesiastical teaching may address politically significant issues under their moral aspect but has no right to treat them as political issues.  Abortion, for example, runs contrary to biblical teaching, but specific decisions about voting and public policy must be left to the conscience of the believer.  In light of this, he chides the right and the left for overstepping a proper Christian modesty vis-à-vis politics and for employing the rhetoric of cultural transformation.

This a bit of a whirlwind summary, but what do you make of VanDrunen’s approach?


3 thoughts on “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

  1. Pingback: Rototilling | Pressing On

  2. Pingback: Theopolitical » Items of note (12/7/10)

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