2K or Not 2K? That is the Question: A Review of David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, Part 1
This is part 1 of Keith Mathison’s review of Living in Two Kingdoms by David VanDrunen. Read Part 2.
David VanDrunen’s book Living in Two Kingdoms is the first attempt of which I am aware to present at a non-academic level a book-length biblical and theological case for “two kingdoms theology.” VanDrunen, who serves as professor of systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California and as an ordained minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has dealt with this subject before. He has written several articles on the subject, and in 2006, he published A Biblical Case for Natural Law, which contains a discussion of two kingdoms doctrine. In early 2010, he published Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. That book is an extensive academic study of the historical development of Reformed social thought with a particular focus on the Reformed view of natural law and two kingdoms doctrine. After looking at precursors such as Augustine and Luther, VanDrunen proceeds to examine specifically Reformed thinking on these subjects from the sixteenth century to the present. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms does not cover the same ground. The earlier book sought to determine whether two kingdoms theology is a legitimate strand within the Reformed tradition. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms argues that two kingdoms theology is the biblical view.
At this point, some may be wondering: What exactly is two kingdoms theology? At the risk of oversimplifying things, proponents of two kingdoms theology assert that Christians live in two kingdoms. They live in a “common” kingdom consisting of the entire human race, which was established by God in His covenant with Noah. They also live in a “redemptive” kingdom consisting of God’s chosen people, a kingdom that was formally established by God in His covenant with Abraham. God rules both kingdoms, but in different ways. As subjects of the common kingdom, Christians can pursue many cultural activities together with unbelievers. As subjects of the redemptive kingdom, Christians distinguish themselves from unbelievers by gathering together in worshiping communities. By way of analogy, two kingdoms proponents say that the situation of the church today is comparable to that of Abraham or of the Israelite exiles in Babylon. It is not comparable to Israel in the Promised Land.
The implications of this may not be immediately obvious, but as VanDrunen explains in his introduction, this places two kingdoms theology at odds with some in the Reformed tradition who argue that Christians are carrying on the cultural mandate given to Adam and Eve and that by doing so faithfully, culture is to be “transformed” or “redeemed.” According to the two kingdoms view “God is not redeeming the cultural activities and institutions of this world, but is preserving them through the covenant he made with all living creatures through Noah in Genesis 8:20–9:17.” At the same time, “God is redeeming a people for himself, by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham and brought to glorious fulfillment in the work of the Lord Jesus Christ, who has completed Adam’s original task once and for all” (p. 15). As VanDrunen explains, “redemption is not ‘creation regained’ but ‘re-creation gained’” (p. 26).
The two chapters in Part One present the big picture using Paul’s depiction of the two Adams as a way of looking at human culture. The first chapter in Part One deals with the original Adam, and the second chapter deals with Jesus Christ, the second Adam. In Part Two, VanDrunen examines the experience of God’s people between the Fall and the Second Coming of Christ. Chapter four looks at the Old Testament, while chapter five looks at the New. Part Three turns to practical issues. Chapter six deals with the church as the present manifestation of the redemptive kingdom. In chapter 7, VanDrunen looks at three controversial aspects of common human culture: education, work, and politics.
I should begin this review by noting that I do not consider myself to necessarily be an “opponent” of two kingdoms theology. There is no substantive dispute over the fact that God’s reign over his chosen people differed in certain respects from his reign over the rest of the world. The main point of potential disagreement concerns how the ascension of Christ to the right hand of God affected his reign over the unbelieving nations in this present time between the first and second advents. Be that as it may, I found much in this book to which I could say a hearty “Amen!” VanDrunen’s book provides a healthy corrective to many troubling aspects of contemporary Christianity’s engagement with the world. There are far too many Christians who are confusing biblical Christianity with civil religion. The Patriot’s Bible is merely one of the more recent and disturbing (if not blasphemous) examples of this kind of confusion. I have been in church services where the American flag surrounded the pulpit, the Pledge of Allegiance rather than the Creed was recited, the National Anthem rather than a Psalm or hymn was sung, and a political platform rather than the Word of God was preached. I love my country, but this kind of thing is a serious problem. I appreciate the insistence of two kingdoms proponents that these things should not be confused.
Van Drunen’s emphasis on Christian liberty is also to be appreciated. Many transformationists, particularly of the theonomic stripe, have a tendency to bind Christians’ consciences on a whole host of matters that the Word of God does not clearly address. I remember to this day one of the first debates I heard in a student break room after transferring to Reformed Theological Seminary. Two students, one of whom was strongly influenced by theonomy, were having a lengthy and heated debate over infant feeding practices: demand feeding vs. schedule feeding. The theonomist participant insisted that schedule feeding was the biblical view and required of all Christians. But does the Bible really give us a clear answer to this question? No, but there are some who would love to bind our consciences with a Christian Mishnah.
Warnings against uninformed Christian involvement in politics should also be heeded. Christian citizens have as much right to speak their mind as anyone else, but the right to speak is not identical with the right to be heard. The right to be heard requires a basic understanding of the issues. I have a right to speak my mind about rocket science, but since I have not studied rocket science and know next to nothing about rockets, I have no business asking NASA officials to waste their time listening to me tell them the best way to launch communication satellites into orbit. Christian citizens should thoroughly inform themselves on every aspect of an issue before jumping into the fray. In fact, Christians should set an example by being the best-informed citizens on issues we speak publicly about. That is not always the case at present.
Most importantly, I appreciate the two kingdoms emphasis on the church and its worship. Too many transformationists treat the corporate worship of the church as a time to “regroup” or “re-fuel” in order to get back to the main cultural task at hand the remainder of the week, but VanDrunen is correct to remind us that the church’s worship is not a means to an end. The word and sacraments are central to our identity as Christians. Such a reminder is much needed today.
Although I do not consider myself an “opponent” of two kingdoms theology, per se, I do have questions about some of the exegetical arguments used to support it and about certain implications some have drawn from it. I ask these questions because I believe the issues involved are important. I ask them with the hope of furthering mature, prayerful discussion of the matter among brethren. In order to address these questions in a way that will be helpful to VanDrunen’s readers, I will follow his order of presentation as my guideline.
Two Kingdoms or Neo-Kuyperianism?
In his Introduction, VanDrunen contrasts two kingdoms theology with transformationist views of Christ and culture. To be clear, VanDrunen does believe that Christians should transform culture “in the sense that they seek to have beneficial influence on this world as they perform various cultural activities with excellence and interpret them rightly.” What he objects to is “the idea of transforming culture…insofar as it implies that Christians are to ‘redeem’ culture and that their godly cultural products will be incorporated into the new creation” (p. 13, n. 2). In short, two-kingdoms theology is not opposed to transformation; it simply has a different understanding of transformation. Van Drunen mentions the new creation here. His understanding of this concept plays an important role in his presentation of two kingdoms theology. We will have occasion to discuss the significance of this concept below.
Are Neo-Kuyperians Inconsistent Protestants?
In his section dealing with those who advocate the “redemptive transformation of culture,” VanDrunen addresses Neo-Calvinism, the New Perspective on Paul, and the Emerging Church. He argues that despite their differences “they share a common vision that the redemptive transformation of culture is central to the Christian life” (p. 17). While that may be the case, the differences are far more significant. I am not certain that this is a fair comparison since it almost seems to be an attempt to create guilt by association before any arguments in favor of two kingdoms theology are actually presented. Conservative Reformed Christians are the primary intended audience of this book, and most conservative Reformed Christians take serious issue with the New Perspective on Paul and with the Emerging Church. It poisons the well to lump Neo-Calvinism together with these other two views at the very beginning of the book.
In his discussion of contemporary Neo-Calvinism, VanDrunen writes, “Perhaps the most important thing to know initially about neo-Calvinism is that it presents the story of Scripture as the story of creation, fall, and redemption” (p. 17). While these are the chapter titles of one of the most important contemporary Neo-Calvinist textbooks (Albert Wolters’ Creation Regained), is this really distinctive of Neo-Calvinism? Creation, fall, and redemption is the basic outline of the story of Scripture, but it is hardly incompatible with the two-Adams emphasis of two kingdoms doctrine. In fact, the subtitles of chapters 2 and 3 of VanDrunen’s book indicate that VanDrunen himself would agree. Chapter 2 “The First Adam” is subtitled “Creation and Fall.” Chapter 3, titled “Jesus Christ the Last Adam” is subtitled “Redemption and Consummation.” The two ways of outlining the story of Scripture are complementary. Given that VanDrunen uses this way of outlining the Bible story, it is unclear why he identifies it with neo-Calvinism. VanDrunen’s real point of disagreement appears to be the idea found in Neo-Calvinist writers that “the salvation or redemption brought by Christ is essentially restoration or re-creation” (p. 18). As we will see below, VanDrunen believes there is complete discontinuity between the present creation and the new creation.
In his discussion of N.T. Wright’s view of Christianity and culture, VanDrunen makes a significant claim. He asserts: “Those who hold a traditional Protestant view of justification consistently should not find a redemptive transformationist perspective attractive. As some of the Reformers grasped, a two-kingdoms doctrine is a proper companion to a Protestant doctrine of justification” (p. 21). This seems to me to be over-reaching. It is not helpful, charitable, or correct to suggest that only those who adhere to two kingdoms theology can consistently hold the Protestant doctrine of justification. Van Drunen does attempt in later chapters to support this claim, but the attempt is not successful.
In the footnote connected to these sentences, VanDrunen directs readers to Calvin’s Institutes, 3.19, but this section of the Institutes does not lend any support to his assertion. This section of the Institutes deals with the subject of Christian freedom. This freedom is “an appendage of justification” (3.19.1), and it has three parts: first, the believer’s conscience is not bound to the law (3.19.2–3); second, Christians now have the freedom to observe the law willingly (3.19.4–6); and third, Christians possess freedom concerning things indifferent (3.19.7–9). In sections 14–16 of chapter 19, Calvin addresses Christian freedom in relation to traditions and civil government. It is in regard to the civil government that Calvin mentions “a twofold government in man” and its relevance to freedom. The first “government” or “kingdom” is spiritual and pertains to the conscience, the life of the soul. The second is temporal and has to do with the concerns of the present life. The “former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior.” Christian freedom belongs to the spiritual, rather than the temporal kingdom. Calvin is here addressing those who argue that Christianity frees them from all subjection to civil magistrates. It should also be noted that Calvin’s formulation is slightly different from the two kingdoms formulation found in VanDrunen’s book. According to VanDrunen’s explanation of two kingdoms theology, Christians exist within two kingdoms. Calvin’s explanation is that the two kingdoms exist within each Christian (3.19.15). Although the two are not necessarily incompatible, it is a subtle but significant difference.[i] Either way, this section of Calvin does not support VanDrunen’s claim that only those who adhere to two kingdoms theology can consistently hold to the Protestant doctrine of justification.[ii]
Had the First Adam Obeyed, Would the Original Creation Have Passed Away?
Part One lays some of the biblical foundations for the two kingdoms doctrine. In these chapters, VanDrunen gives us a big picture of the biblical story using the Pauline concept of the two Adams. According to VanDrunen, “there is no better way to summarize the story of Scripture” (p. 36). As long as this way of summarizing the story of Scripture is not placed in unnecessary opposition to the creation, fall, redemption way of summarizing the biblical story, there is no objection. Chapter 2 looks at the first Adam, and one of the most significant points that VanDrunen makes in this chapter concerns Adam’s original goal. According to VanDrunen, “As an image-bearer of God, the first Adam was not only to pursue cultural activity in this world but was also to enter the world-to-come” (p. 41). The full implication of what VanDrunen is saying here may not be clear from this quotation alone. A comment made in the Introduction may help clarify it. As VanDrunen explains there, had Adam been obedient, rather than, disobedient, “God would have brought him into a new creation (what the New Testament calls ‘the world to come’ or ‘the new heaven and new earth’) far surpassing the delightful and sinless world into which Adam was originally created” (p. 28). VanDrunen makes his point even clearer in the following chapter when he writes: “it is important to remember that this present world was never meant to exist forever. The first Adam was commissioned to finish his task in this world and then rule in the world-to-come” (p. 65).
The idea here is that had Adam obeyed, the existing creation would have been set aside altogether and Adam would have been placed in a completely new creation. As VanDrunen makes clear in later chapters, there would have been almost complete discontinuity between the existing creation and the new creation. Adam and Eve would have been the only part of the existing creation taken up into the new creation. They would have been the only point of continuity. I do not know whether this particular point is absolutely necessary to two kingdoms theology, but it is certainly important to VanDrunen’s presentation of it because it influences almost every other argument in his book. This idea is part of the reason, for example, that VanDrunen cannot see how neo-Calvinists can consistently hold their view and the Reformed doctrine of justification. It is also a major part of VanDrunen’s argument regarding the value of our cultural labors. It is crucial to his version of two kingdoms theology, and yet, as we will see, it rests on a very shaky exegetical foundation.
Given the nature of two kingdoms theology, it is important to ask how it would be determined when Adam would have been deemed to have completed his task faithfully. When would God have placed him in the new creation? VanDrunen addresses this question on pages 41–3. He explains that in Genesis 1:26–28, God gave Adam broad commands with the entire world in view. This command involved filling the earth and subduing it. In Genesis 2:15–17, God gives Adam more specific commands related to the Garden. It is the test in the Garden that will determine whether Adam is faithful or not. VanDrunen argues that Adam’s general obligations of Genesis 1 are put to a specific and focused test in Genesis 2 (p. 42). VanDrunen makes a good case for how the specific command to guard the Garden may have fulfilled the more general command to have dominion over all creatures. It is not as clear, however, how it would be determined that Adam had guarded the Garden enough (or not eaten the fruit enough). Would guarding the Garden from one attack by the serpent be sufficient? Two attacks? Ten attacks? Would resisting the temptation to eat the fruit for one day be enough? Two days? VanDrunen doesn’t clearly say although he makes this a major plank in his argument for two kingdoms theology. Furthermore, he does not make it clear how obeying any of the commands of Genesis 2 would have fulfilled the command to fill the earth. Had Adam refrained from eating the forbidden fruit and had he repeatedly guarded the Garden from the attacks of the serpent, he still would not have filled the world for some time.
After the Fall, it was no longer possible for Adam to achieve the goal set for him in the Garden. VanDrunen writes: “However much fallen human beings may strive to pick up the baton from Adam and pursue the tasks of culture with an eye to an eternal prize, the quest is futile” (p. 46). To the extent that VanDrunen is referring to unbelievers attempting to save themselves by their works, there is obviously no disagreement here. But is this the real question? It seems that the more pressing question concerns the cultural works of Christians in the present age. And are Neo-Calvinists really arguing that Christians do these cultural labors in order to earn their justification? VanDrunen concludes chapter 2 with the following words: “What the first Adam should have done—bring the human race to everlasting life in the world-to-come by perfectly obeying his cultural commission—the second and last Adam has accomplished. Christ has attained the original human destiny, and done so on behalf of those who trust in him” (p. 47). This comment leads directly to the content of chapter 3.
What did Christ the Second Adam Accomplish?
In chapter 3, VanDrunen turns to the last Adam, Jesus Christ. He states the basic point of this chapter in the following words: “Before the second Adam no one accomplished the task of the first Adam, and after the second Adam no one needs to accomplish it. The last Adam has completed it once and for all. Christians will attain the original destiny of life in the world-to-come but we do so not by picking up the task where Adam left off but by resting entirely on the work of Jesus Christ, the last Adam who accomplished the task perfectly” (p. 50). He continues: “Like the first Adam, the Lord Jesus was to enter God’s royal rest in the world-to-come upon finishing his work perfectly, and this is precisely what Christ did, entering into heaven itself, taking his seat at God’s right hand, ministering in the heavenly tabernacle, and securing our place in the world-to-come” (p. 50).
What is the relevance of this for issues of Christianity and culture according to VanDrunen? It is extremely relevant. “If Christ is the last Adam, then we are not new Adams. To understand our own cultural work as picking up and finishing Adam’s original task is, however unwittingly, to compromise the sufficiency of Christ’s work. Christ perfectly atoned for all our sins, and hence we have no sins left to atone personally. Likewise, Christ perfectly sustained a time of testing similar to Adam’s: he achieved the new creation through his flawless obedience in this world. He has left nothing yet to be accomplished” (p. 51). Finally, “Believers are not returned to the position of the first Adam, called to win the world-to-come by their faithful cultural activities. Instead, God first grants them all the rights of the world-to-come as an accomplished fact and then calls them to cultural labor in this world as a grateful response” (p. 51).
There are a couple of points of observation to be made here. When VanDrunen says “He has left nothing yet to be accomplished” in the context of a discussion of culture, the immediate question that comes to mind is how this relates to the already/not yet nature of Christ’s kingdom, which is intimately related to his kingly work. When it comes to the kingdom, it is not accurate to say without any qualification at all that Christ has left nothing yet to be accomplished. His kingdom was inaugurated at his first coming, but it has not yet been consummated, and between his first and second comings, he is putting all enemies under his feet. Satan has not yet been cast in the lake of fire. The final enemy, death, will not be completely destroyed until the resurrection on the last day (1 Cor. 15:26). VanDrunen seems to confuse the priestly work of sacrifice, which Christ did accomplish once and for all (Hebrews 10:12) with aspects of his kingly work that have not yet been completely accomplished. The cultural labors of Christians are not (or at least should not be) attempts to earn the salvation that has been already accomplished. Their cultural labors have to do more with the “not yet” aspects of Christ’s kingly office.
The slighting of the “not yet” aspect of Christ’s kingdom is repeated a number of times in the book. In his discussion of 1 Corinthians 15, for example, VanDrunen writes: “The first Adam was originally destined to rule the world-to-come (Heb. 2:5–8). He was to image God by completing his royal work on earth and then being enthroned with God in the glory of the seventh day. Paul proclaims that now Christ is enthroned in glory and hence is reigning as a king. Christ has attained Adam’s destiny, and one day the defeat of all his enemies will be made manifest” (p. 53). Because VanDrunen believes Adam’s mandate to have dominion over all the earth and fill all the earth would have been fulfilled by his obedience to the priestly commands in the Garden, he can argue that Christ’s once for all completion of his priestly sacrificial work entails the completion of his worldwide kingdom work. The defeat of all his enemies, which Paul sees as an element of his ongoing kingly work that is not yet completed (1 Cor. 15:25–26), VanDrunen sees as completely accomplished and needing only to be “manifested” some day in the future. There is a sense in which the devil and death were “destroyed” at the cross and resurrection of Christ (e.g. Heb. 2:14), but they are also enemies waiting to be finally destroyed in an ultimate sense (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:25–26; Rev. 20:10).
In his discussion of the benefits of Christ’s work for his people, VanDrunen makes some points with which no believing Reformed Christian would disagree. He asserts, for example, “Christians are not to pursue righteous obedience in this world and then, as a consequence, enter the world-to-come. Instead, Christians have been made citizens of the world-to-come by a free gift of grace and now, as a consequence, are to live righteous and obedient lives in this world” (pp. 56–7). Furthermore, “Because Christ has already perfectly completed the work that God requires of human beings in this world, people today need not add any of their own works to satisfy God—they need only rest in Christ who has done it all for them” (p. 57). The only problem is that VanDrunen seems to believe that conservative and orthodox Reformed transformationists or Neo-Calvinists think their cultural work completes Christ’s priestly atoning work (p. 57–8). I am not convinced that is the case. I think this misunderstanding is caused by VanDrunen’s own confusing of Christ’s already accomplished priestly work and aspects of Christ’s kingly work that are not yet fully completed.
What is the Relation Between the Present Creation and the New Creation?
The final section of chapter 3 concerns the second coming of Christ, the end of the world, and the revelation of the world-to come. VanDrunen has already rightly noted the biblical teaching that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:19–20). In this section, he adds that believers “long to be residents of the world-to-come and not simply citizens from afar” (p. 63). The main question VanDrunen addresses in this section, however, is what happens to the things of this world and to our cultural productions at the second coming of Christ? His answer: “The New Testament teaches that the natural order as it now exists will come to a radical end and that the products of human culture will perish along with the natural order” (p. 64). According to VanDrunen, then, the present heaven and earth will be completely destroyed, and there will be no continuity between it and the new heaven and earth. The only point of continuity, the only part of the present creation that will exist in the new heavens and earth, is our transformed resurrected bodies (p. 66).
VanDrunen bases his argument for complete discontinuity on 2 Peter 3:7, 10–12 and Hebrews 12:25–26. In particular, he focuses on those verses where Peter speaks of the present creation burning up and being dissolved. Because of the weight that VanDrunen places on these texts, it is necessary to see whether they actually support the idea of total discontinuity between the present creation and the new creation.
With regard to the passage in 2 Peter 3, it is important to note first that Peter has already used the language of destruction in the immediate context to speak about what occurred at the time of the flood, “the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished” (v. 6). This reminds us of God’s words to Noah in Genesis 6:13, “I will destroy them (i.e. all flesh) with the earth.” This destruction by means of a flood did not, however, involve a complete annihilation of the planet and the creation of an entirely new planet. Rivers that existed at the time of creation still exist after the flood (Gen. 2:14; cf. 15:18; Daniel 10:4) indicating some continuity. The future judgment by fire is compared to this previous judgment by water.
The second important thing to observe about this text is that the language Peter uses to describe the coming judgment is borrowed from Old Testament prophetic judgment oracles. Take Zephaniah 1:18, for example. This verse is part of a description of the judgment that is soon to fall upon Judah. Zephaniah describes it in the following language: “In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.” This judgment on Judah, prophesied by Zephaniah, already occurred in history, yet it did not involve the literal burning of the entire earth. The language is figurative. The author of Lamentations picks up on this figurative, apocalyptic language to describe the judgment of Judah (Lam. 1:13; 2:3, 4; 4:11). This kind of language is used throughout the Old Testament prophetic books to describe judgments that have already occurred without involving the literal destruction of the planet or rolling up of the skies (e.g. Isa. 13:10; 34:4–5; Ezek. 32:7; Amos 8:9). Historically, it has been a distinctive of dispensationalists to insist on a woodenly literal interpretation of such prophetic texts, a practice leading to all manner of confusion.[iii] Peter is simply using apocalyptic language, familiar to readers of the Old Testament, to describe the final judgment.
The language of Hebrews 12:25–26 also picks up on Old Testament judgment language. The author of Hebrews contrasts the literal shaking that occurred on Mount Sinai with the eschatological shaking of heaven and earth. Again, such language was used by the Old Testament prophets to describe judgments that were fulfilled long ago and which did not involve the literal end of the earth (e.g. Isa. 13:13; Joel 2:10). The point of the passage is Hebrews is that after the great eschatological judgment, an earthshaking event, only the kingdom of God will remain standing.
In addition to the fact that the two texts used by VanDrunen to support the discontinuity thesis do not really entail such a view, there is other evidence indicating that there is continuity as well as discontinuity. As an example, consider how Revelation 21:1 speaks of the coming of the new heavens and earth. John writes: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” Compare this to the language Paul uses to describe the Christian in 2 Corinthians 5:17. He writes: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” The similarities are striking. Both the heavens and earth as well as the believer are described as “new” using the same Greek adjective. And in both cases, the old is described as having “passed away” using the same Greek verb. The fact that this happens to the Christian without involving the complete annihilation of his or her original body and the creation of a completely new body indicates that the same may be said of the heavens and earth.
Furthermore, in the Old Testament, the land itself enjoys a Sabbath rest every seventh year and on the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25:1-12). As these Sabbaths are types and foreshadowings of future redemption, it is significant that human beings are not the only participants. Animals and even the land itself participate in this foretaste of redemption, of release from the curse. Paul describes the fulfillment of this shadowy type in Romans 8:18–23. This text adds weight to the idea that a parallel can be drawn between the redemption of our bodies and the “redemption” of creation. The groaning of creation for redemption is paralleled with the believer’s groaning for the redemption of their bodies. As Jesus promises, the meek “shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).
How does VanDrunen handle Romans 8:19–21? According to Paul, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption.” VanDrunen explains the text in this way: “To understand Paul’s point, it is important to remember that this present world was never meant to exist forever. The first Adam was commissioned to finish his task in this world and then to rule in the world-to-come (Heb. 2:5). Thus when creation groans (Rom. 8:22) for something better, for “the glory” that is coming (8:18), creation is not seeking an improvement of its present existence but the attainment of its original destiny. It longs to give way before the new heaven and new earth spoken of in 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21” (p. 65). In other words, according to VanDrunen, to be set free from bondage to corruption means to be destroyed. Here again we can see how radically the discontinuity thesis affects the interpretation of other passages of Scripture. The idea expressed by Paul in Romans 8 is not the idea of destruction, annihilation, and complete discontinuity. The creation was affected by the curse resulting from Adam’s sin. It longs to be finally free of this curse and its effects. It will be redeemed, transformed, and renewed, not destroyed.
According to Herman Bavinck, the idea that the present creation would be completely annihilated and replaced by a totally new world was taught by “Origen, the Lutherans, the Mennonites, the Socinians, Vorstius, the Remonstrants, and a number of Reformed theologians like Beza, Rivetus, Junius, Wollebius, and Prideaux.”[iv] Most Reformed theologians, however, have taught that the present creation will be renewed and transformed.
John Calvin, in his commentary on 2 Peter 3:10 appeals to Romans 8:21 to indicate this fact. He writes, “Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed, only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same, as it may be easily gathered from Rom. viii. 21, and from other passages.”[v]
Francis Turretin also argues that the present creation will be renewed rather than annihilated.[vi] In summing up his argument, he writes, “we maintain that there will be a change of the world and a change by which the creature will be delivered from the bondage of corruption and which assuredly will not be an annihilation, but rather a restoration (beltiosis) and a renewal (anakainismos)…”[vii]
Charles Hodge explains: “The destruction here foretold is not annihilation.”[viii] He adds, “The Apostle teaches that our vile bodies are to be fashioned like unto the glorious body of Christ, and that a similar change is to take place in the world we inhabit. There are to be new heavens and a new earth, just as we are to have new bodies. Our bodies are not to be annihilated, but changed.”[ix]
Herman Bavinck argues that the annihilation view finds no support in Scripture.[x] He writes, “God’s honor consists precisely in the fact that he redeems and renews the same humanity, the same world, the same heaven, and the same earth that have been corrupted and polluted by sin.”[xi]
Geerhardus Vos writes, “An annihilation of the substance of the present world is not taught (cf. the comparison of the future world-conflagration with the Deluge in II Pet. 3:6).”[xii]
Louis Berkhof adds: “The question is often raised, whether this will be an entirely new creation, or a renewal of the present creation. Lutheran theologians strongly favor the former position with an appeal to II Pet. 3:7–13; Rev. 20:11; and 21:1; while Reformed theologians prefer the latter idea, and find support for it in Ps. 102:26, 27; (Heb. 1:10–12); and Heb. 12:26–28.”[xiii]
Anthony Hoekema concurs, saying, “We must, however, reject the concept of total annihilation in favor of the concept of renewal…”[xiv]
Cornelis Venema agrees. After describing the two positions (annihilation and renewal), he writes, “The second of these views – that the new heavens and earth will be substantially similar to the present heavens and earth – seems more likely for several reasons.”[xv]
If two kingdoms theology was a prominent strand of Reformed thinking, as VanDrunen argues in his previous book, it was not necessarily held together with the discontinuity thesis.
VanDrunen claims that his view entails “destruction” of the natural order, not its “annihilation” (p. 66). He makes this assertion because he believes, rightly, that “our earthly bodies will be transformed into resurrected bodies.” He continues, “It is precisely this—the resurrection of believers’ bodies—that the created order is now longing for.” What does this mean? “Our earthly bodies are the only part of the present world that Scripture says will be transformed and taken up into the world-to-come” (p. 66). The entire paragraph in which these comments are found is somewhat confusing. Why? The argument between those who advocate annihilation of the present creation and those who advocate renewal is not about our resurrection bodies. It concerns the present creation that was affected by man’s sin. All orthodox Reformed Christians affirm that our present bodies will be transformed and that there is continuity between this present body and the resurrection body (e.g. Belgic Confession, Art. 37; WCF 32:2). Some of these Reformed Christians, however, affirm that the present heavens and earth will be annihilated and that the new heavens and earth are a completely new creation. This is what VanDrunen argues throughout this book, so for him to say that he believes the natural order will be “destroyed” but not “annihilated” only muddies the water because it misses the main point under consideration.
VanDrunen turns next to a discussion of the implications of this for our cultural labors. He writes, “The New Testament teaches that the entirety of present cultural activities and products will be brought to a radical end, along with the natural order, at the second coming of Christ” (p. 67). He returns to 2 Peter 3 to support this claim. The problem, as already observed, is that VanDrunen is placing far too much weight on a highly debatable literal interpretation of this apocalyptic text. To be fair, VanDrunen does cite other texts at this point in his argument, but these other texts are interpreted through the lens of his interpretation of 2 Peter 3. He quotes 1 Timothy 6:7, for example, which reads: “We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.” In the context, however, Paul is discussing those who are seeking to gain earthly riches, not the broader questions VanDrunen is addressing. More importantly, however, VanDrunen’s reading of this text through the lens of 2 Peter 3 proves way too much. If his interpretation is followed, it would mean that the memories of every believer would have to be wiped clean at the resurrection. Why? Because many cultural products would remain in their memories and be brought into the new heavens and earth – something that cannot happen according to VanDrunen. The hymn “Amazing Grace” is a cultural product. Will no believer remember that song in the new creation? Skills that we’ve learned, songs that we’ve sung, stories that we’ve told, all reside in our memories at the present time. Even if the books are burned up, these things will presumably remain with us.
VanDrunen concludes this section of his book by examining the book of Revelation. He argues that Revelation 18, with its description of the fall of Babylon, gives us a picture of the destiny of human culture. Babylon is described as a city humming with cultural activity, but Revelation describes its destruction by God (p. 68–9). The interpretation of the book of Revelation is not an easy matter, and there are many differences of opinion. Unless one is already persuaded of the idealist method of interpreting the book, he will not find an appeal to Revelation 18 in support of VanDrunen’s thesis to be persuasive.[xvi]
[i] For an overview of this section of the Institutes, see Anthony N. S. Lane, A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 121–3; J. Mark Beach, Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 221–7).
[ii] I am not yet convinced that the continuity between the views of the early Reformed theologians, for whom Christendom was an unquestioned assumption, and contemporary two-kingdoms theology has been satisfactorily clarified despite the efforts put forth by VanDrunen in his previous book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. There remain a number of important unanswered questions. A discussion of the thesis of that book, however, would require another review of comparable length.
[iii] See Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, rev. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 40, 80–95; Vern S. Poythress, Understanding Dispensationalists, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 78–96.
[iv] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003–8), 4:716.
[v] John Calvin, Comm. 2 Pet. 3:10.
[vi] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–97), 3:590–96.
[vii] Ibid, 3:596.
[viii] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 3:852.
[x] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4:716.
[xi] Ibid., 4:717.
[xii] Geerhardus Vos, “Eschatology of the New Testament,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 55.
[xiii] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 737.
[xiv] Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 280.
[xv] Cornelis P. Venema, The Promise of the Future (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2000), 460.
[xvi] For an argument in support of a different way of interpreting Revelation, see my From Age to Age (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009), 641–53.