It has become commonplace to read about “Two Kingdoms theology” in the Reformed churches of today. This is a phrase that is neither entirely new or entirely undesirable. Augustine’s City of God is certainly a massive attempt to explain the distinction between the city of God and the city of man. The idea of two kingdoms runs through the Scriptures, from Gen. 3:15 to the end of the book of Revelation. The Kingdom of God is constantly set in contrast with Babylon, namely, the Kingdom of Satan. Everyone belongs in one of these two kingdoms. The apostle Paul explains that God has transferred usÂ from the kingdom of Satan to the Kingdom of the Son of His love.
In the 19th Century the “spirituality doctrine of the church,” was commonplace, on account of the political situations that threatened the rights of states. The Southern Presbyterians championed this doctrine as they credited Andrew Melville, the protege of the great John Knox, as being the progenitor of it. The “spirituality doctrine,” as it came to be known, was a helpful way to distinguish between the work and sovereignty of the Church as over against the work of the State. In the days of Knox, it was developed as a theological stance concerning the influence the church was to have on the State, and not the other way around. In the days of the 19th century Southern Presbyterians it was used quite a bit differently.
As Southern Presbyterian ministers were being called to submit to the Federal government with regard to slavery, a position they believed threatened the right of the state and the freedom of the church, they began to write volumes defining and defending the substance of “the spirituality doctrine.” The way in which the “spirituality doctrine” was employed in 16th Century Scotland and 19th Century America was really quite different. Melville’s form of the “spirituality doctrine of the church,” which was not employed to defend a system of slavery, was more biblically consistent.Â Two Kingdom theology seems to fall under the same rubric. There is a biblical and an unbiblical approach to this subject.
In contrast to the “spirituality doctrine” and “Two Kingdoms theology,” there is the Theonomic movement of the 1970’s. Theonomy was an attempt, albeit inaccurate, to apply Van Tillianism to the political sphere. Cornelius Van Til, the great Reformed apologist from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, boldly asserted that there was no such thing as “natural law,” rather there is only God’s law. He even went so far as to say “you are either autonomous or theonomist.” He did not mean what the movement says he meant. Van Til was simply asserting that God’s word is authoritative for every sphere of life. What the theonomists miss in Van Til’s theology is the role of common grace in regard to the moral law and politics. Van Til constantly pointed out the fact that the law of God, the Ten Commandments, were written on the heart of all men by nature. While men hate the fact that they are the Imago Dei, they can never escape the implications of the fact that they descended from Adam and had a conscience that bore witness to the law of God (Romans 2:15). How could ungodly governements enacted righteous laws throughout the centuries? This is where Van Til’s empahsis on common grace comes in. Paul could say of Nero that he was God’s minister to punish evil and reward good–not because he was reading the Bible and implementing the Old Covenant civil law, but because he was made int he image of God and by common grace acknowledged to some extent right and wrong in God’s world. What Van Til had in mind when he said there was no such thing as natural law was the theology ofÂ “natural law” developed by the Roman Catholic church. The Church of Rome has for centuries asserted that there is authoritative natural law that men can ascertain by their reason. This, in fact, denies the noetic effects of sin, and gives man an element of autonomy that the Bible emphatically denies.
Men like Rousas John Rushdooney, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, Gary Demar etc., on account of their commitment to Van Tillian theology and a strong postmillennial expectation, spearheaded the theonomic movement, also known as “Christian Reconstructionism.” The postmillennialism actually drove the theonomic movement as much or more than their commitment to Van Til. Implementing the civil law, given to Israel as a body politic in redemptive history, is a non-reality in pagan governments, therefore, theonomy as a movement is a non-reality unless the governments are first Christianized. There came to be an affinity, on the part of theonomists, for the “Christian America/God and Country” men like Pat Robertson. Theonomy flourished for a time in America, for obvious reasons. As an aside, Van Til was amillennial in his eschatology. This, it seems to me, had an enormous impact of his silence with regard to the political sphere.
The important thing to remember, as you seek to wade through these waters, is that the Two Kingdoms theology being promoted today is largely a response to the Theonomic movement/Christian Reconstructionism and the Christian America/God and Country influence. It is an overreaction to deviant theological movements. But, it is a reaction that is findamentally good and necessary. Theonomy is an aberrant theology that is not upheld by Scripture, a healthy biblical theology, or the Westminster Confession of Faith. The civil laws of the Old Testament were given to Israel in redemptive history. The Westminster Divines emphatically say that the civil laws were “abrogated” with the state of that people. In the Old Covenant Dispensation the Church was also the State. While theonomists will vehemently assert that there was a distinction between church and state, in Old Covenant Israel, due to the fact that there were separate ecclesiastical and civil offices, they cannot answer the question, “To whom was the Bible written?” The Bible was written to the church. This means that the civil laws of the Old Covenant were written to the church. Which in turn means that there was not as strong a distinction between church and state in the Old Covenant, as there is in the New. In the New Covenant, the church is said to be a spiritual nation (Matthew 21:43). It is here that proponents of Two Kingdom theology are correct with regard to their redemptive-historical emphasis. So where does “Two Kingdoms theology” fall short? The answer is found back in Van Til’s theology.
While proponents of Theonomy misrepresent Van Til in regard to the role of civil law for modern governments, they are correct to follow Van Til in regard to the Bible being authoritative for all of life. Since rulers are the Imago Dei, they are bound to enact righteous laws. The only way they can accurately discern those laws is by means of God’s special revelation–His written word. In his article “Nature and Scripture,” found in The Infallible Word–a symposium by the faculty of Westminister Theological Seminary–, Van Til persuasively argues that natural and supernatural revelation were meant to be together from the beginning. Adam was to interpret the world around him–a world that revealed the God who made him–by means of the word of God–the God who spoke to him. It was Satan who sought to lead Adam to separate natural and supernatural revelation. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil was part of God’s natural revelation, but it was also the object of supernatural revelation. Satan told Adam that he could interpret the Tree apart from God’s word. In the sphere of redemption natural and supernatural revelation are brought back together again (Here it is interesting to note that Jesus created a body for Himself and brought natural and supernatural revelation back together. Man is natural revelation as the Imago Dei. The living Word of God became man to reconcile all things to Himself and to one day consummate His saving work in a New Heavens and New Earth wherein righteousness dwells.)
Someone may ask the question, “How does this come to bear on my life as a Christian?” While hundreds of applications could be set forth, the most fundamental applications have to do with ethics in the civil realm and the responsibility of the Christian as a citizen of a particular country. In America Christians have enormous privileges and responsibilities. We do not think that we will usher in the Kingdom of God through politics, but as the apostle Paul wrote, “as we have oppotunity, let us do good to all men, especially to the household of faith.” Voting for the most righteous political leader is a privilege and a responsibility. We have the privilege of voting for a President, voting for representatives from our particular states, influencing legislation, that will impact the lives of our neighbors and especially brethren in the church. Some proponents of a “Two Kingdoms theology” assert that it really doesn’t matter who you vote for, that the Bible does not speak to politicians as politicians, and that homosexual marriage in the civil realm is completely legitimate and should be embraced by Christians. To be fair, those who promote the later stance would say that homosexuality should be opposed in the church, but supported in the world.
This topic is too large to adequately tackle in a blog post, so I want to direct your attention to a series of articles by Nelson D. Kloosterman, published in Christian Renewal, titled “The Bible, the Church and the World: A Third Way.” Dr. Kloosterman is Professor of New Testament and Ethics at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyre, IN. The articles are written by a theologian with an ecclesiastical emphasis. They are clear, persuasive, carefully documented and scholarly. You can find them here.