Book Review: Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, by David VanDrunen
C. S. Lewis once used the illustration of how difficult it is to join a debate at 10 p.m. which had begun at 7 p.m. All the terms would have been set, and the key ideas defined. It would take a while to get caught up.
But what if someone could provide you with a transcript of the first three hours?
David VanDrunen’s fascinating Natural Law and Two Kingdoms does just this. It provides the transcript for 2000 years of conversation about natural law and the doctrine of the two kingdoms, or at least one historian’s very compelling rendition of that conversation.
Actually, it does something even more interesting. It argues that many of the people involved in the debate at 10 p.m.—to go back to the analogy—have lost track of what the 7 p.m. interlocutors were saying, since these earlier participants have all left the table. That’s kind of like jumping in at 10, and saying, “You guys have lost the thread. Let me explain.” (VanDrunen puts it more graciously than this!)
DEFINING NATURAL LAW AND TWO KINDGOMS
The natural law and two kingdoms conversations are important because they get at questions like, “What is the church’s mission?” and “What’s the basis and extent of any separation between church and state?” and “What do non-Christians know of God’s law?” Here’s VanDrunen’s explanation of the doctrine of the two kingdoms:
In affirming the two kingdoms doctrine, [the Reformed thinkers] portrayed God as ruling all human institutions and activities, but as ruling them in two fundamentally different ways…God rules the church (the spiritual kingdom) as redeemer in Jesus Christ and rules the state and all other social institutions (the civil kingdom) as creator and sustainer, and thus these two kingdoms have significantly different ends, functions, and modes of operation. (1)
The Christian belongs to both kingdoms: one kingdom in which senators, factory managers, magazine editors, mothers and fathers, and Hollywood stars call the shots, and they do so because God has given them their position; and another kingdom in which the Bible through the church exercises authority, again, because God has granted (a different kind of) authority to each. Non-Christians, on the other hand only belong to one kingdom, the civil kingdom.
At this point, the question quickly becomes, on what basis should Christians cooperate with non-Christians in the civil kingdom? After all, non-Christians neither know nor care about the Bible. Answer: the natural law. VanDrunen defines the natural law, which most people ground in Romans 2:14-15, this way:
In affirming natural law [Reformed thinkers] professed belief that God had inscribed his moral law on the heart of every person, such that through the testimony of consciences all human beings have knowledge of the basic moral obligations and, in particular, have a universally accessible standard for the development of civil law. (1)
It’s important to realize, and many don’t, that the Lutheran and/or Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms is different from Augustine’s well-known “Two Cities.” Both conceive of life in the context of a fallen world, yes, but the later two kingdoms doctrine makes a distinction between the spiritual and political domain, while Augustine’s earlier two cities draws the more explicitly biblical line between the city of God (kingdom of God) where people love God and the city of man (kingdom of Satan) where people love themselves. Augustine’s is not a spiritual/political divide, but a spiritual divide between love of God and love of self.
THE REFORMED TRADITION
Unlike VanDrunen’s other 2010 book, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, which deliberately advocates for a two kingdoms worldview, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms is a work of history which seeks principally to get the historical transcript right. This is an important historical task for at least two reasons. First, there’s a growing trend within Reformed circles to adopt a neo-Calvinist or transformationalist position, the position which sets itself against the two kingdoms position. Advocates of the transformationalist position affirm one kingdom of God, not two.
This kingdom, encompassing all human activities and institutions, was originally created by God in perfect righteousness (with potentialities that were to be actuated in history), was corrupted through the fall into sin, and is now being redeemed from corruption and advanced toward its eschatological goal. Christians are not to dismiss any area of life as outside of God’s redemptive concern, and thus are to seek to transform all activities and institutions in ways that reflect the kingdom of God and its final destiny. (4)
VanDrunen credits the popularity of these views partially to neo-Calvinist writers such as Henry Stob, Cornelius Pantinga, Albert Wolters, and Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, who have worked on Reformed college campuses such as Calvin College. Also significant have been writers with broader influence such as Stanley Hauerwas, N. T. Wright, John Milbank, or Emergent writers like Brian McLaren, all of whom either critique natural law or have strong conceptions of Christ’s redemptive work as extending into every domain of life, the cultural fruits of which are ultimately taken up into the eschaton.
What’s important to realize here is that the transformationalist position has become popular well beyond those who read such writers and has moved into mainstream evangelicalism. It’s like we’re sitting at the table at 10 p.m. and almost everyone is a transformationalist. VanDrunen’s historical enterprise, then, is his way of saying, “You know, there were a number of people sitting at this table at 7, 8, and 9 p.m. who had a different view, and it might be worth considering what they said.”
Second, it’s important to get the historical transcript right because the doctrine of natural law is often treated as a purely Roman Catholic conception coming from writers such as Aquinas, while the two kingdoms position is dismissed as belonging only to the Lutherans. VanDrunen points, for instance, to a scholar no less eminent than Mark Noll as referring to the “Lutheran ideas of two kingdoms” (215). (This is like someone at 10 p.m. saying that someone at 7 was one thing when really he was another.) But it doesn’t take long to look at Calvin himself and see that this cannot be quite right. Turning to book 3, chapter 19, section 15 of Calvin’s Institutes, for instance, one learns that Calvin believes,
There is a twofold government in man: one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby the man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘temporal’ jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom…There are, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority.
In my mind, it’s difficult to conceive of a more explicit “two kingdoms” statement than that. VanDrunen sure looks right. Now, this leaves him having to explain away certain inconsistencies in Calvin’s practice, such as how he allowed for a measure of overlap between the Genevan state and church. Perhaps the neo-Calvinist would say that Calvin really was a transformationalist, and that his political practices were consistent, and that statements like these reveal where the real inconsistencies in Calvin lie. The problem here, of course, is that it leaves one wondering what exactly Calvin would have to say in order to convince us that he really did perceive two kingdoms. Could he be more explicit than he was here?
Of course the historical record does not start or stop with Calvin. VanDrunen begins his narrative back with the Didache and the Epistle to Diognetus; moves through Augustine and then into the Middle Ages; examines both Luther and Calvin; traces it through subsequent Reformed writers like John Knox, Theodore Beza, John Owen, Samuel Rutherford, and George Gillespie; and follows it across the pond to America and writers as varied as New England’s John Cotton and spirituality-of-the-church Presbyterians like Stuart Robinson and James Thornwell. These post-Calvin writers differ widely, and most of them are riddled with inconsistencies. Yet VanDrunen demonstrates that all of them hold to some version of natural law and the two-kingdoms.
A striking turning point comes with Abraham Kuyper who ambiguously straddled the two kingdoms and a transformationalist position. Those following him, like Herman Dooyeweerd and perhaps Cornelius Van Til, generally moved in a transformationalist direction, though Van Til, like Kuyper, was a little more ambiguous, demonstrated by the fact that he spawned both an exteme transformationalist like theonomist Greg Bahnsen as well as Meredith Kline, whose thought lines up with a two kingdoms view even though he didn’t use the traditional terminology.
Any substantial weaknesses in VanDrunen’s transcript will have to be ferreted out by a historian with more knowledge of these early writers than me. For my part, his narrative is exceedingly compelling, and his breadth of reading is astonishing. That makes it a long and detailed read, but I’m basically inclined to say that anyone who wants to discuss these various positions responsibly needs to work through this book. After writing a first draft of this review, I discovered that Paul Helm says the same thing: “The book cannot safely be ignored by anyone who wishes to make a contribution to this area in the future” (click here and here for Helm’s more in-depth two-part review). It truly illumines the conversation which has transpired not just from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., but from the early second century to today.
My only complaint is that VanDrunen waits until the third page from the end of the book to fully concede that the language of “spiritual/political” or “inner/outer” which one reads in Calvin is problematic (he does briefly raise the question earlier in the book). Though he’s writing as a historian, most of us will read it as theologians, who continually ask the question, “Can this be right?”
For much of Natural Law and Two Kingdoms, then, I found myself sympathetic with various aspects of a two kingdoms doctrine but unable to accept the spiritual/political division. After all, our political actions are deeply spiritual—from abortion law to economic policy. And a Christian’s work in the civil sphere is guided not just by the eternal Son but by Christ the Redeemer. On the other hand, abandoning some formulation of a two kingdoms view, I believe, leaves us with a number of problems, such as the lack of a solid theological foundation for the separation of church and state. A renewed Constantinianism or Bahnsen-like theonomy strikes me as logically inevitable. If Christ the Redeemer means to take over every square inch of this world at this point in redemption history—in the “already”—wouldn’t that mean Christians should take over Congress and legislate the faith, as in Islam, a true one-kingdom religion? As soon as you pull back and say that we shouldn’t, you effectively concede that there exists a line between the kingdom of Christ which is “not of this world” and some other realm, a line that can only be crossed through conversion. And it’s another kingdom not simply in the Augustinian “opposed to God” sense, it’s a zone where Christians must operate together with non-Christians sweeping floors, passing laws, painting pictures, and making friends.
Meredith Kline points toward the balance, I think, when he writes that Christians’ work in the common grace, cultural realm “is not ‘kingdom‘ (of God) activity. Though it is an expression of the reign of God in their lives, it is not a building of the kingdom of God as institution or realm” (in VanDrunen, 415).
How does VanDrunen put it all together? Well, David VanDrunen the historian doesn’t say. To find out you’ll have to read David VanDrunen the theologian. In the meantime, buy this book and read it.
 See Bobby Jamieson’s review of VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (Crossway, 2010), a theological articulation and practical application of his version of the two kingdoms doctrine.