Theonomy, Two Kingdoms, and a Middle Road

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 us  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.  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 of  “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.

19 Responses

  1. Good analysis. The effect of many pseudo-Vantilians is more Barthian than Christian, in my view. Idealism rather than Biblical. As Guy Waters puts it, it tends toward Ontological Agnosticism, for all I know is my own idea. If you disagree with me, you are afflicted by the noetic effects of sin in your reason and morals and your presuppositions are suspect because sin reigns in you. To be honest I cannot even speak the word with assurance, for what I know is simply my idea of the word, not the word itself. Ultimately, everyone is locked into his own mind.

    Christian reasoning is definitely not circular, if by that it is meant that everything takes place in my head. The Holy Spirit is real and external to my being; so is Christ; so is Scripture; so is the Father. Blessed is the man who knows that the Holy Spirit is not his own consciousness.

    The Witness of the Spirit is not self-affirmation, else Christians have nothing to talk about.

  2. For the record, Van Til does not deny every form of natural law. Jeff Waddington reminded me that “Nature and Scripture” is a discussion of “the WCF’s teaching on ‘natural law,’ and an evaluation of other forms that fail to measure up.” I do wonder whether Van Til would have taken issue with some of the Reformed Scholastics formulas of natural law. For instance, I assume he would have been a bit critical of Turretin’s section in Elenctic Theology. That being said, it seems to me that the only thing lacking in Turretin’s formulation is a doctrine of common grace. Any thoughts?

  3. Nicholas T. Batzig

    To be fair, you should also read this post by R. Scott Clark, and this one by D. G. Hart. I think the point Clark makes about formal Christian schooling is valid, however, I would suggest that Christian education per se (whether it be in the home or formal school setting) is not optional.

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  5. dgh

    Nick, believe it or not, the spiritual doctrine may be more a reaction against the Social Gospel than theonomy. Machen was clearly defending spirituality against the Social Gospel of the mainline churches. And many today, like myself, are reacting against the blithe transformationalism that comes out of NYC and Grand Rapids. Theonomy has not really been in the picture.

    On your point about special revelation interpreting general revelation, are you suggesting that a magistrate who does not use Scripture to interpret general revelation has less authority? I don’t suppose you are. But that is the rub. Whether it’s Saddam Hussein or Barack Obama, spirituality folks would say this is the guy whom God has ordained. His rule is based on some kind of natural law or creational order — a general sense of justice and order — and so he is fulfilling his calling whether using Scripture or not.

  6. Nicholas T. Batzig


    Thank you for the thoughts. I agree with Machen’s use of the “spirituality doctrine,” as do I agree with your concern about the cultural transformatists. I think there is a great deal of similarity between postmillennialism and neo-Kyperianism. The one sees the Christianization of the world through political activism in the “not yet” of their eschatology. The other sees the Christianization of the world through cultural and social activism in the “already” of their eschatology. I don’t know that all the “Two Kingdom” guys would dismiss theonomy from the picture as quickly as you would. Would you agree?

    As far as the special-natural revelation aspect. I am suggesting that magistrates are accountable to God to make and execute righteous laws based on the revelation of God’s will in Scripture. Their failure to do so, is the reality of the world in which we live and is, therefore, no less authoritative. But, if Hitler tells me I have to kill Jews and Christians his authority is null and void in regard to my obligations to obey the Lord. So, I am suggesting that on the one hand, magistrates are “the ministers of God who do not bear the sword in vain”–whether they are making consistently righteous laws, and on the other that they are still obligated before God to rule according to His word. It is God’s world, after all, in which we live. Again, I think that Van Til’s doctrine of Common Grace is the missing ingredient in many explanations of the civil magistrate and moral law. How is it that countries that are completely godless still know that murder is wrong? They have the law of God written on their hearts, and despite their sinful failure to seek to consistently make and execute upright laws (which they can only do by God’s grace as they search the Scriptures), they still get a good bit right by Common Grace. Do you agree?

  7. dgh

    Nick, Thanks for the response. I guess I’m having trouble seeing how a magistrate needs to minister according to God’s word and then he knows killing is wrong via common grace. (I’m not a fan of the concept of common grace; I prefer general revelation, or creation order, or providence.) I agree that most non-believers know that killing is wrong — by natural law, I’d say. I also think most magistrates can administer some form of justice without searching Scri;ptures. I’m not saying they shouldn’t search the Bible. But I do think they can function well even without special revelation. Think George Washington.

  8. Nic,

    I’m interested in your comments about Andrew Melville. What would you say distinguished his doctrine of the Two Kingdoms from that of his later Old School Southern, and more contemporary heirs? Clearly his views on religious establishments is inconsistent with the position of most American Christians of whatever stripe. Are there other ways you see a difference?

  9. Nicholas T. Batzig


    From what I can ascertain, the difference was in the way they approached church and state. Melville would have had no problem saying the church should influence the state. The Southern Presbyterians were probably a bit ore guarded in their emphasis on influence moving in that direction. They both would agree that the State does not have the right to directly influence the church, except in the role of protecting the freedom of the true church. But, I assume you know more about Melville and the Scotland scene than me. So, what do you have to say my friend?

  10. Nicholas T. Batzig


    From what I can ascertain, the difference was in the way they approached church and state. Melville would have had no problem saying the church should influence the state. The Southern Presbyterians were probably a bit more guarded in their emphasis on influence moving in that direction. They both would agree that the State does not have the right to directly influence the church, except in the role of protecting the freedom of the true church. But, I assume you know more about Melville and the Scotland scene than me. So, what do you have to say my friend?

  11. Nicholas T. Batzig


    The difference between what you and I are saying seems to be grounded in the difference between the way something is, and the way it should be. I can stand back and assess a situation on the basis of the way it works in Gods providence, and even in His economy, however, I can also seek to answer the question of what would most honor God according to His word. So, I think we agree (and I really do mean that) with regard to the way things are, and have functioned accordingly throughout the New Testament era. That being said, I find myself in more disagreement with the idea that the church should not have any influence on the state. But at the end of the day, I love the Gospel and know that only the Gospel will change the hearts of man, and I do not ever want to jeopardize that by focusing improperly on the fruit, or potential fruit, of the Gospel.

  12. dgh

    Nick, I actually think our difference also extends to ideals, such as when you say you disagree that the church should not have an influence on the state. That’s kind of vagues — influence can mean a lot of things. But the question for me is what is the function of the church and of the state. It sure looks to me like they have different missions — the former being forgiveness, the latter being justice. If the church wants to get in the justice business — which is where most mainline and some Roman Catholic churches are, then we’re in a boatload of trouble.

  13. Nicholas T. Batzig


    I will agree with you again on what you have asserted here. This is why I am not a theonomist or God-and-Country proponent. I am suggesting that the Bible gives the definition of justice as well as mercy. The government exists for justice. Therefore, governments should seek just standards from Scripture. However, I completely agree with you in regard to the nature and mission of the church. I think we constantly need to affirm this. Thank you for taking the time to interact with me on this issue.

  14. dgh

    Nick, do you really think the Bible teaches the just distribution of power? Does it teach constitutional monarchy, bicameralism, federalism, checks and balances? Don’t we learn about some of these affairs by observation? Is Aristotle chopped liver?

  15. Nicholas T. Batzig


    I think an argument could be made for federalism in the list of options you gave me–at least as a deduction from the principles outlines in Scripture–however, I do not think that is what James Madison would say. As far as a representative form of government is concerned, seems to me that federal theology has a great deal of influence over that particular structure. Why do you think Presbyterianism so influenced the American government? What were men like John Witherspoon out to achieve? Where did they get their principles? Again, I am not a God-and-Country proponent, but I think the Bible is a lot more authoritative and relevant in regard to a philosophy of government than Aristotle. I never asserted that America had a government that was fully built on Christian principles either. I am not seeking that as a pastor. All I am suggesting is that it is the responsibility of all men, whether Kings or senators, to make laws and govern nations according to God’s revealed will. Would you disagree?

  16. dgh

    Nick, on the Presbyterian influence on the American founding, I don’t think it was that significant. It’s much more John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. Yes, Witherspoon signed the Declaration. But his sermons on behalf of the revolution were questionable.

    As far as a magistrate’s duty to make laws according to God’s revealed will, I believe they do it when they write laws according to a sense of justice that all men have written on their hearts. Do I want the government to enforce the true religion? I don’t think so. Today’s Presbyterian turns into tomorrow’s Quaker. Then what happens?

    Do I want magistrates looking in the Bible to justify national health care? Health no!

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  18. I’m not saying they shouldn’t search the Bible. But I do think they can function well even without special revelation. Think George Washington.

    Huh? George Washington never read a Bible? Whether or not Washington searched Scripture to make every decision as president, it’s absurd to suggest he only relied on general revelation in everything he did as president and that he was not influenced by special revelation.

    You cannot honestly suggest that the U.S. Constitution was guided completely by general revelation when it was written in one of the most heavily Calvinistic cultures in history. Think George Washington – why not think Joseph Stalin? It seems the latter would be a more appropriate representation of reliance on general revelation apart from Scripture. Or how about the Aztecs?

    The truth is that the single most influential idea driving the political philosophy of the U.S. Constitution was the total depravity of man – something no culture will believe apart from Scripture. See Robbins’ “Freedom and Capitalism” for more on this historical point.

    Thanks Nick for this great post. I agree there is a middle road. One rhetorical suggestion I might have is not to allow modern proponents of natural law to monopolize the term “two kingdoms.” I think two kingdom theology is biblical, but WSC natural law 2K is not.

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