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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Book Review: Living in God's Two Kingdoms

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The transformationalist approach to Christianity and culture casts a captivating vision. Transformationalists argue that because God will create a new heaven and earth in the end, and because his kingdom has broken into this present age, we must work to redeem every aspect of culture here and now. Critiquing what they perceive to be a pattern of quietist evangelical retreat, transformationalists urge us to do justice, seek the welfare of the city, bring the Lordship of Christ to bear on all of life, and comprehensively care for others’ needs. And they are right to exhort us to take up these biblical imperatives.

Yet it can sometimes sound as if the only way to give these specific biblical imperatives their proper place is to embrace the whole eschatological vision. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the transformationalists; it may simply be that, in the current evangelical conversation about Christianity and culture, very few people have presented a positive alternative.

Enter David VanDrunen’s new book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture (Crossway, 2010).

A BIBLICAL CASE FOR TWO KINGDOM THEOLOGY

In this book VanDrunen, professor of systematic theology and ethics at Westminster Seminary California, makes a biblical case for a “two kingdoms” approach to Christianity and culture. What sets VanDrunen apart from transformationalists is that his approach to Christianity and culture is grounded in creation and in what Christians hold in common with non-believers, rather than seeing our involvement in culture as somehow deriving from and contributing to God’s eschatological work of redemption.

In the introduction, VanDrunen surveys the current evangelical conversation about Christianity and culture and notes similarities in the transformationalist views of neo-Calvinists, emergent church leaders, and N.T. Wright. From there, the book proceeds in three parts.

Part One: “First Things and Last Things”

Part one, “First Things and Last Things,” is an exposition of the Bible’s teaching on Adam’s role in God’s plan and Jesus’ fulfillment of that role as the last Adam. The upshot of VanDrunen’s discussion is that redemption is not “creation regained” but “re-creation gained” (26), which means that believers do not now take up Adam’s task and do it right, but rather celebrate the fact that Christ has accomplished humankind’s “cultural mandate.” As VanDrunen explains, this by no means leaves Christians without any motivation for cultural labors, but it does put those labors on a different footing from most treatments of the cultural mandate.

Part Two: “Living in Babylon”

Part two, “Living in Babylon,” examines the people of God’s status as sojourners in the Old and New Testaments. In these two chapters VanDrunen argues that now, as in the patriarchal age and during the exile, God’s people live as sojourners and exiles on earth, and that we live in two realms, or kingdoms: the “common kingdom” established through the Noahic covenant, which consists in the God-ordained society and institutions which are common to all humanity, and the “redemptive kingdom” established through the Abrahamic covenant, which consists of God’s saving rule over his distinct people.

Part Three: “Christian Life in Two Kingdoms”

In part three, “Christian Life in Two Kingdoms,” VanDrunen explores the practical application of the theological vision he set out in parts one and two. Chapter 6 is an extensive discussion of the role of the church in the Christian life, including its corporate worship, distinctive ethic, and ministerial authority, and chapter 7 puts the two kingdoms vision to work in the areas of education, vocation, and politics.

MANY WELCOME CONTRIBUTIONS

In many ways, this book is the most helpful, balanced contribution to the evangelical conversation about Christianity and culture that I’ve yet read. Here are a few of its many welcome contributions to that discussion.

A Corrective That’s Not an Over-Correction

First, this book is a corrective that avoids being an over-correction. The tone is gracious and gentle, and VanDrunen repeatedly affirms all that he agrees with in the transformationalist vision, in terms of both theology and practice.

A Positive Alternative to Transformationalism

Second, VanDrunen presents a positive framework for interpreting and engaging culture that is not based on the transformationalist vision which contemporary neo-Calvinists and others such as N.T. Wright advocate. Thus, VanDrunen shows that loading cultural activities with an eschatological burden (to borrow a phrase from his other recent book) is not the only way to ascribe value and dignity to them and to accord them an appropriate place in the Christian life.[1] Further, much to his credit, VanDrunen’s work is far from being narrowly critical. While part of his aim is to de-program a theology which he regards as a faulty basis for cultural engagement, he very deliberately articulates a positive vision for Christian cultural engagement from within his two kingdoms stance.[2] This is especially important because the two kingdoms view he espouses is regularly caricatured as quietist, dualistic, and so on.[3]

A Careful Critique of the Idea that, Because God Will “Transform” The World, So Should We

Third, the book carefully and thoroughly critiques the main tenet of transformationalism: that because God will one day “transform” all of creation, we should seek to transform all of human culture here and now.[4] It seems to me that this is quickly becoming an unquestioned, basic axiom in evangelical thinking about culture, which renders VanDrunen’s careful critique all the more necessary.

This transformational tenet casts a captivating vision and fuels stirring rhetoric, but few people are critically probing the theological and exegetical assumptions which undergird it. Thus VanDrunen is doing us all a service by helping us carefully think through an entire worldview which is increasingly being taken for granted.[5]

Filled with Careful Biblical-Theological Reflection

Fourth, the book is filled with Bible. VanDrunen carefully traces out a number of important biblical-theological themes in chapters 2 through 5, some of which are strangely neglected in this conversation.

For instance, VanDrunen carefully examines the relationship between God’s people and their cultural environment in the patriarchal age, in theocratic Israel, during the exile, and in the New Covenant era, carefully delineating continuities and discontinuities between Christians’ relationship to our culture and the cultural situation of God’s people in various preceding eras. In so doing, VanDrunen puts New Testament believers in precisely the right place on the Bible’s eschatological timeline, which is crucial for building a biblical view of Christianity and culture.

Further, VanDrunen frequently returns to the New Testament’s teaching on the passing nature of this present world, Christians’ status in this world as sojourners and exiles, and the need for Christians to firmly set their hope on the world to come—all of which are important biblical themes that do not figure as prominently in evangelical discussion of Christianity and culture as they should.

The Kingdom and the Church

Fifth, in chapter five VanDrunen has a thoughtful and suggestive discussion of the relationship between the kingdom of God and the church. In sum, VanDrunen argues that the church is the (only) present institutional manifestation of the kingdom of God (101). Too often, evangelical discussion of the relationship between the kingdom and the church stops shortly after the commonplace observation that the church and the kingdom are not identical.[6] The net effect of this is to inject a considerable conceptual gap between the church and the kingdom, as if they have little to do with each other, which hardly does justice to the ways in which the New Testament ties them very closely together.[7] VanDrunen’s work in this area is an important contribution because it paves the way for an ecclesiology which recognizes the distinct role that the local church as an institution plays in God’s redemptive kingdom.  

Full and Helpful Discussion of the Distinct Role of the Local Church

Closely related to this is another issue which deserves far more attention than it has received up to this point in evangelical discussion of Christianity and culture, namely, the local, institutional church’s distinct role and responsibilities. Here too VanDrunen’s discussion is, for the most part, extraordinarily helpful.

VanDrunen begins chapter 6 by hammering home the primacy of the local church in the Christian life. He continues with a provocative discussion that includes the church’s distinctness from “common kingdom” institutions and its “ministerial authority.” While few readers will be persuaded of all of VanDrunen’s positions—Baptist and other believers’ church readers will want to adjust his ecclesiology at several points—this is the fullest, most practical discussion of the institutional distinctness of the local church that I’ve yet read.

Further, VanDrunen’s discussion of the church’s “ministerial authority”—that is, that the church has authority to command only what the Word of God teaches, and nothing more (151 ff.)—would serve any pastor well as he thinks through how to address a whole host of political, cultural, and behavioral matters, not to mention what the church should do in its corporate worship services. And VanDrunen’s discussion of all of these issues will encourage church leaders to carefully consider how the unique responsibilities of the local church affect practical matters such as the church budget.

The practical upshot of both of these points is that VanDrunen wants to draw a very clear line around those things which the church as an institution should do and those things which are the responsibilities of individual Christians. While many will doubtless want to draw the line in a different place, VanDrunen at least provides a theological framework for engaging this important and extremely practical issue.

NOT QUITE READY TO BUY IN HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER

Apart from some predictable disagreements over ecclesiology, I don’t have any substantive critiques to offer. Yet I do have one caveat for the reader who’s persevered to the end of this review. VanDrunen’s argument frequently turns on a very theologically loaded reading of a number of key biblical texts. For example, his interpretation of the cultural mandate and its fulfillment in Christ, while familiar to those who are influenced by Meredith Kline, may leave other readers with a few unanswered questions. And since this is not a technical, scholarly monograph, but an accessible, popular-level book, VanDrunen doesn’t show all his work.

To be sure, he handles biblical texts carefully, but his arguments often involve some pretty complex moves that invite more careful hermeneutical justification than he has space to give them in this context. Thus, something in me says, “Consider this a bit more carefully before buying in to this hook, line, and sinker.”

A FRESH VISION

And my hope, actually, is that people would do just that—carefully consider VanDrunen’s arguments. VanDrunen has winsomely advanced a whole series of arguments in favor of a vision of Christianity and culture that decisively differs from the view that is increasingly prevailing in many quarters of evangelicalism.

This book deserves wide and careful reading, and my hope is that those who differ with VanDrunen’s conclusions will serve us all by articulating thoughtful responses which engage the substance of what he’s written. May VanDrunen’s work spur us all on to live more faithfully as citizens of God’s kingdom—or kingdoms, as the case may well be.

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks.

[1] David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010). See Jonathan Leeman’s review of this book in the present 9Marks Journal.

[2] See especially chapter 7.

[3] Here a couple recent examples should suffice. First, in his foreword to Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner’s new book City of Man, Tim Keller writes concerning German Christians in the 1930’s, “Ironically, the Lutherans followed a two-kingdoms approach to Christ and culture, in which Christians are not to bring their faith into politics” (Timothy Keller, “Foreword,” in Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, City of Man [Moody, 2010], 11). Whatever impact some variety of two kingdoms theology may have had on German Lutherans in the 1930’s, the statement that in two kingdoms theology, “Christians are not to bring their faith into politics” would hardly be a fair critique of the robust vision for cultural and political engagement VanDrunen outlines in the present volume. Second, in a recent interview with the Gospel Coalition, Greg Thornbury summarily dismissed two kingdoms theology as “quietist” and “Lutheran.” Most contemporary evangelicals seem to regard two kingdom theology as an exclusively Lutheran doctrine, a view VanDrunen labors at length to correct in his recent book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Eerdmans, 2010). See Jonathan Leeman’s review for more on this volume.

[4] This theme recurs throughout the book, though see especially pages 62 through 70.

[5] One caveat I would offer is that VanDrunen’s arguments against the view that our cultural labors somehow get taken up and transformed in the new creation do not seem to me to be conclusive.

[6] Although far from perfect, George Ladd’s five theses on the relationship between the kingdom of God and the church are a useful starting point. See George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Rev. Ed.; Eerdmans, 1993), 109-117.

[7] VanDrunen’s treatment of the church and the kingdom, especially his handling of Matthew 16:18-19, is in many respects complementary to Jonathan Leeman’s proposal in chapter four of The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love (Crossway, 2010). Interestingly, both discussions draw on Jonathan Pennington’s work on the kingdom of heaven in Matthew. See Jonathan Pennington, Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Baker, 2009) and “The Kingdom of Heaven in the Gospel of Matthew,” in Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, vol. 12 (Spring 2008): 44-51.  

November/December2010
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