When it comes to the two kingdoms doctrine and Christian liberal arts institutions like Covenant College (the college of the Presbyterian Church in America) in Lookout Mountain, Georgia there may not be that much conflict after all. That, at least, is the conclusion to which one might come in response to a panel discussion on the topic yesterday between Michael Horton, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, and several Covenant College faculty.
Horton began the panel discussion by reminding the audience that there is no such thing as an “Escondido theology” or Escondido two kingdoms doctrine. The faculty of Westminster Seminary California is not monolithic in its views of cultural engagement, the institution’s president Robert Godfrey himself being a staunch Kuyperian. Suggesting that it makes little sense to describe Kuyperian neo-Calvinism and the two kingdoms perspective as contrary positions, Horton pointed out (as did Godfrey in a presentation several years ago) that on most important points these perspectives are agreed. Among the commonalities he described:
1) Both clearly distinguish the form of cultural and political engagement obligatory on Christians from the model of Old Testament Israel.
2) Both maintain a sharp critique of the militancy and culture war mindset that marks much of the Christian Right, which has its own version of the social gospel.
3) Each perspective affirms basic neo-Calvinist concepts concerning common grace, the antithesis, and sphere sovereignty.
4) Both seek to distinguish the work proper to the institutional church (church as organization) and the way in which believers serve Christ and witness to his kingdom in every area of life (church as organism).
5) Both agree that Christians cannot bring the kingdom of God to earth through their cultural work.
6) Each perspective insists that Scripture has much to say about how Christians should be involved in culture through their vocations.
7) Both agree that the church must proclaim what the word of God says about God’s law to the state, while avoiding false claims to expertise in matters of economics or policy.
8) Both affirm that while the actual objective work of Christians often looks similar to that of unbelievers, in terms of motivation, worldview, and sometimes objective results such work is profoundly different.
9) Both affirm the value of Christian parachurch organizations like colleges and seminaries, while at the same time preserving the liberty of Christians to participate in non-Christian organizations as well.
In their responses to Horton the various Covenant faculty affirmed their basic agreement on these points, expressing in particular their appreciation for the emphasis the two kingdoms doctrine places on the importance of the institutional church.
Of course, they had questions too. Jeff Dryden, a professor of New Testament, affirmed David VanDrunen’s critique of certain over-optimistic versions of redemptive transformationalism, but he rightly noted that more moderate accounts of transformation are by no means incompatible with the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith. He worried that certain expressions of the two kingdoms doctrine misinterpret the New Testament call to believers to seek things that are above, where Christ is, rightly pointing out that the New Testament describes such seeking in terms of concrete, this-worldly virtues (as I argued here).
Bill Davis, a professor of philosophy, suggested that while the the rhetoric of two kingdoms advocates and moderate transformationalists often makes the two perspectives sound radically opposed to one another, in actual point of practice there is virtually no difference between the two positions. To be sure, Davis rightly questioned the notion that natural knowledge of God’s moral law is a sufficient standard or point of commonality for Christian cultural and political engagement. He also worried that passivity rather than militancy is the greater temptation of young Christians today, and he legitimately criticized the tendency of some two kingdoms advocates to speak as if there is no spiritual element to the ordinary vocational work that Christians do. But Davis again reminded the audience that while adherents to the two perspectives often describe their approaches to culture quite differently, in actual practice they are doing the same things.
Brian Fikkert, a professor of economics and author of the highly acclaimed book When Helping Hurts, likewise affirmed the two kingdoms emphasis on the work of the institutional church and on Christ as the one who alone brings his kingdom. He also lauded the humble approach to cultural engagement inherent to the two kingdoms perspective. But he worried about the idea that Christians bring little that is objectively different from unbelievers to their work, pointing out that while in principle Christians share the standard of natural law with unbelievers, in practice unbelievers constantly suppress that law. He gave excellent examples of instances in which the Christian faith helps Christians bring something to their work that does indeed look objectively different from the work of unbelievers.
Horton responded to these concerns by affirming many of them. He did suggest that in the New Testament redemption is always described as something that God does for us, not something that we do in our vocations or cultural activity. Why not choose a better word to describe what we are doing? We all agree, he pointed out, that we should seek to bring a Christian influence to our culture. But there are varying ways to talk about how we do that, some of which are more faithful to biblical language than are others.
Horton agreed that Scripture is necessary not just to the Christian doctrine of salvation but to the proper interpretation of natural law for the purposes of cultural and political engagement. He agreed that Christians need to be careful not to articulate theologies of culture that pander to passivity, highlighting the important legacy of the Reformation doctrine of vocation. He clarified that the two kingdoms doctrine does not amount to a distinction between material and immaterial things but between the present age and the age to come. For that reason he rejected versions of the doctrine of the spirituality of the church that have been used to argue that the church should not speak out against patent evils like the racial slavery of the Antebellum South.
Horton concluded in a spirit that seemed to be echoed by many of the faculty present (at least those with whom I spoke afterwards). He noted that while the two kingdoms perspective is often portrayed as a position in conflict with moderate neo-Calvinism, in reality the perspectives are less polar opposites than points on a common spectrum. Once one looks past prominent rhetorical and linguistic differences it can often be difficult to determine what in practice is actually being disputed. And indeed, when it came to the greatest dangers threatening Reformed believers in their cultural and political engagement the members of the panel were in significant agreement. That is a point worth thinking about as this conversation moves forward.
Matthew J. Tuininga is a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society at Emory University, holds an MDiv from Westminster Seminary California and is licensed to preach in the United Reformed Churches in North America. He blogs at Christian in America, where this article first appeared; it is used with permission.