This is part 2 of Keith Mathison's review of Living in Two Kingdoms by David VanDrunen. Read Part 1.
What is the Nature of the Noahic Covenant?
In chapter 4, VanDrunen turns to a survey of the Old Testament in order to understand “the nature and purpose of human culture and believers’ relationship to it.” He writes, “We will see that God creates a deep and fundamental spiritual antithesis between believers and unbelievers and also that God ordains a broad cultural commonality that believers and unbelievers share” (p. 75). His section on spiritual antithesis and cultural commonality is quite helpful (pp. 76–8).
This is followed by an important discussion of the covenant God made with Noah. This text is significant for two kingdoms theology. As VanDrunen explains: “What I have called the ‘common kingdom’ is formally established in the covenant that God makes with Noah in Genesis 8:20–9:17” (p. 79). VanDrunen identifies several important features of this covenant: “it concerns ordinary cultural activities (rather than special acts of worship or religious devotion), it embraces the human race in common (rather than a holy people that are distinguished from the rest of the human race), it ensures the preservation of the natural and social order (rather than the redemption of this order), and it is established temporarily (rather than permanently)” (p. 79). VanDrunen goes on to elaborate on each of these four features in the following pages. A number of questions, however, arise in connection with the two kingdoms understanding of the Noahic covenant.
First, Van Drunen asserts that “it concerns ordinary cultural activities (rather than special acts of worship or religious devotion),” yet the covenant itself is made in the context of Noah’s act of sacrifice following the flood (Gen. 8:20–21). VanDrunen argues that this does not mean the Noahic covenant is redemptive rather than common. (p. 80–81, n. 2). But this raises a second question. How exactly is the Noahic covenant related to the covenant of grace in two kingdoms theology? As Louis Berkhof explains, “There is no objection to this terminology [“covenant of nature or common grace”], provided it does not convey the impression that this [Noahic] covenant is dissociated altogether from the covenant of grace.”[xvii] Given the fact that the covenant of grace is redemptive, it would be helpful to have a clearer idea of how VanDrunen understands the relation between these covenants. According to VanDrunen’s interpretation, we would have to conclude that Palmer Robertson is completely incorrect when he writes, “The covenant with Noah emphasizes the close interrelation of the creative and redemptive covenants.”[xviii] It would be helpful to have a clearer explanation of how VanDrunen understands the interrelation or lack thereof between these two. Second, in connection with this question, it is important to recall that the flood is a type of baptism according to 1 Peter 3:20–21.[xix] Can the Noahic covenant, then, be stripped of all redemptive aspects? More discussion of the Noahic covenant seems necessary.
What About the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants?
VanDrunen turns next to a discussion of the covenant with Abraham and the establishment of the redemptive kingdom. He writes, “Whereas God made a covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 and thereby formally established the common kingdom, God makes a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 and 17 and thereby formally establishes the redemptive kingdom. Scripture portrays Abraham as living a two-kingdoms way of life” (p. 82). The Abrahamic covenant has four features that are the opposite of the Noahic. “it concerns religious faith and worship (rather than ordinary cultural activities), it embraces a holy people that is distinguished from the rest of the human race (rather than the human race in common), it bestows the benefits of salvation upon this holy people (rather than preserving the natural and social order), and it is established forever and ever (rather than temporarily)” (pp. 82–3). Most of what VanDrunen says in this section of the book is very helpful.
He closes by showing how Abraham helps us to understand how to live in the two kingdoms: “Abraham and his descendants were “sojourners” and “strangers” (Gen. 12:10; 15:13; 20:1; 21:34; 23:4; Heb. 11:13), precisely what Christians today are called to be (1 Pet. 2:11). As participants in the Noahic covenant, they joined in cultural activities with their pagan neighbors in the common kingdom. As participants in the Abrahamic covenant, they were simultaneously citizens of the redemptive kingdom, remaining radically separate from their neighbors in their religious commitment as they trusted in the true God for justification (Gen. 15:6) and eternal life (Heb. 11:13–16)” (pp. 87–88). We begin to see here how the two kingdoms doctrine might apply to practical questions concerning the Christian life.
VanDrunen continues with an examination of how the Mosaic covenant is understood in two kingdoms theology. The main point to grasp is that “Israel’s experience under the law of Moses in the Promised Land of Canaan was not meant to exemplify life under the two kingdoms. The cultural commonality among believers and unbelievers ordained in the Noahic covenant was suspended for Israel within the borders of the Promised Land” (p. 89). They were not sojourners in this land; they were not to maintain a common cultural life with pagans in the Promised Land; and finally, many aspects of their general cultural life was legislated in great detail in the law (pp. 89–90). VanDrunen helpfully explains the basic point he is making: “Under the Mosaic covenant God evidently suspended the provisions of the Noahic covenant that ordained that ordinary cultural activities should be a common enterprise among believers and unbelievers alike. But it is fascinating to note that God suspended these provisions of the Noahic covenant only inside the borders of the Promised Land. Outside the borders cultural activities went on as before according to the Noahic provisions” (p. 90).
Do the Prophetic Oracles Against the Nations Have Any Relevance?
The final section of this chapter deals with the exile. VanDrunen explains its importance as follows: “In Israel’s long history between the giving of the law to Moses and the coming of Christ, they nevertheless had one corporate experience which did exemplify the life of the two kingdoms: the Babylonian exile” (p. 91). According to VanDrunen, the Israelites in exile were called to live as sojourners. Jeremiah 29 provides instruction for the life of exile. They were “to live peaceful lives and pursue ordinary cultural activities in this foreign land” (p. 92). However, although they shared a cultural commonality with the Babylonians during their exile, they were also to maintain a strict spiritual antithesis (p. 93). VanDrunen provides Daniel as a model example of how a believer was to live the life of the two kingdoms during the exile (pp. 94–6). Daniel, he writes, never tried “to turn Babylon into something other than Babylon” (p. 95). Furthermore, Daniel served God by serving Babylon (p. 96).
It is interesting to note that in this chapter on the Old Testament, VanDrunen addresses the prophets substantively only in this one section on Daniel. But here, the analysis is not completely accurate. VanDrunen writes, “It is interesting to note that when God judges kings Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, he condemns them not for failing to keep the Mosaic law or for failing to believe in the saving promises given to Abraham. Instead, God condemns them for their pride (Dan. 4:30–32, 34–35; 5:20–23)—they lacked a sense of the “fear of God” exhibited by Abimelech, a pagan king with a refined sense of justice (see Gen. 20:11)” (p. 95). While it is true that God condemned these kings for their pride, VanDrunen overlooks an important text within these judgment passages. In Daniel chapter 5, Daniel explicitly condemns the Babylonian ruler Belshazzar for lifting himself against the Lord of heaven, for idolatry, and for not honoring God (5:22–23).
There are two important points to note here. First, although Belshazzar was not condemned for failing to keep the Mosaic Law, he was condemned for failing to observe the moral law as revealed in nature, specifically religious law at that. Second, and perhaps more significantly in light of its implications for two kingdoms theology, is the fact that Daniel, the example of life in the two kingdoms, condemns a ruler of the common kingdom for his sin in failing to honor God. There is an important point here that VanDrunen does not specifically address in his book, namely the relevance of the Old Testament prophets’ addresses to rulers and nations in the common kingdom. Using the two kingdoms terminology, the Old Testament prophets were ministers within the redemptive kingdom, yet their writings contain numerous oracles to the nations of the common kingdom. Most of these oracles are oracles of judgment, condemning the nations of the common kingdom for their sins. On occasion, however, the nations are even called to repent (e.g., the case of Jonah and Nineveh).
This phenomenon is found in the pre-exilic as well as the exilic prophets, so Israel’s location within or without the Land does not seem to affect it. Among the pre-exilic prophets we find the following:
Jonah calls the pagan common kingdom city of Nineveh to repentance.
Amos contains oracles against Damascus, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab.
Isaiah contains oracles against Babylon, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Arabia, Tyre, and Assyria.
Nahum contains oracles against Nineveh/Assyria.
Zephaniah contains oracles against Philistia, Moab, Ammon, and Assyria.
Habakkuk contains oracles against Babylon.
Jeremiah contains oracles against Egypt, Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Edom, Damascus, Kedar, Hazor, Elam, and Babylon.
Among the exilic prophets, we find the same phenomena:
Obadiah (Date?) contains an oracle against Edom
Ezekiel contains oracles against Ammon, Moab, Seir, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt.
Daniel contains several references to the judgment of evil earthly kingdoms.
Finally, among the post-exilic prophets, we continue to see the same kind of oracles:
Zechariah contains oracles against Syria, Tyre, Sidon, and Philistia.
Malachi contains an oracle against Edom.[xx]
In these oracles of judgment spanning the entire prophetic corpus, the nations in the common kingdom are condemned by ministers in the redemptive kingdom for all manner of sins: persecution of God’s holy people, sins against natural law, idolatry, and more. VanDrunen should have addressed this phenomenon in his book because it has enormous implications for the discussion. It seems to clearly imply that ministers in the redemptive kingdom can and should, for example, condemn sins committed by nations in the common kingdom. It may not be the case that all advocates of two kingdoms theology object to ministers addressing the nations and rulers of the common kingdom in such a way as part of the ministry of the church, but there are those who do, so the subject deserves more attention and the relevance of these texts should be explored in more depth.
Is the Already and Not Yet Nature of Christ's Kingdom Understood Properly?
In chapter 5, VanDrunen turns to the New Testament to examine how the themes of sojourning and exile continue and how they were changed with the coming of Christ. According to VanDrunen, the experience of New Testament believers will be similar to that of Abraham and the Israelite exiles (p. 99). Spiritual antithesis and cultural commonality continue. In presenting his case, VanDrunen begins with an important claim, saying that “the church is the only institution or community in the present world that can be identified with the kingdom proclaimed by Christ” (p. 101). The church fulfills the promises of the Abrahamic covenant, which were the promises that established the redemptive kingdom (p. 103). “Christ and his kingdom bring the Old Testament redemptive kingdom and its law to fulfillment” (p. 108).
It is in VanDrunen’s discussion of the church and the kingdom where we find assertions that begin to raise some questions. Concerning the relationship of Christ’s kingdom to the common kingdom, VanDrunen writes, “Only at the second coming of Christ, at the sounding of the seventh trumpet, do the voices in heaven proclaim: “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ…” (Rev. 11:15)” (p. 118). At the present time, according to VanDrunen, Christ is still ruling the common kingdom under the provision of the Noahic covenant. It should be observed, however, that the introduction to Revelation contains a greeting to the seven churches of Asia, which refers to Jesus as “the ruler of kings on earth” (1:5). Jesus was given this rule at His ascension when he sat down at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:29–36; cf. Dan. 7:13–14). If this is the case, can it still be said, after Christ’s ascension, that the church alone can be identified with the kingdom? If he is the ruler of the kings on earth now, then those kings are also somehow a part of his kingdom.[xxi]
Are the Family and State Part of the Redemptive Kingdom?
In his section on the common kingdom and the communities of this world, VanDrunen makes another point that raises serious questions. Regarding the institution of the family, he argues that it is part of the common kingdom and thus temporary. Yet he also says, “Children of believers are even regarded as members of the church and heirs of the kingdom due to the covenant promises given to Abraham and still applying to Christians today” (p. 120). Is this consistent? If the promises of the redemptive covenant have always included believers and their children, then there is a much closer connection between families and the redemptive kingdom than VanDrunen seems to allow.
VanDrunen also argues that the state is also a common kingdom institution. Although it is not part of the redemptive kingdom, those in the redemptive kingdom still owe obedience to the civil magistrate (p. 121). VanDrunen adds: “Furthermore, the New Testament never indicates that civil authorities have any responsibility to make the social or political order conform to the redemptive kingdom of heaven. What Christians are to expect from the state is simply the enforcement of justice so that they may lead a ‘peaceful and quiet life’” (p. 121). The significant question here, however, is this: who has the authority and right to instruct the civil magistrate on the nature of true justice and call him to repentance when it is violated? Under the Old Covenant, it was the prophets, who were ministers in the redemptive kingdom, the Old Covenant church. Who has this calling under the New Covenant? Given that two kingdoms advocates have such a high view of the ministry of the Word, it seems odd that they would imply that this responsibility rests on individual Christians rather than the Church and her ministers.
The final section of chapter 5 provides some instruction on how Christians are to view the common kingdom and their activities in it. Overall, they should pursue cultural activities with joy and satisfaction (p. 123). However, more specifically, VanDrunen offers three basic observations: First, “Christians should pursue cultural activities not with a spirit of triumph and conquest over their neighbors but with a spirit of love and service toward them” (p. 124). Second, “the New Testament calls us to critical engagement with human culture” (p. 126). Third, “the New Testament calls us to engage in cultural activities with a deep sense of detachment from this world and of longing for our true home in the world-to-come” (p. 126). Generally speaking, all three of these principles could be incorporated into either a two kingdoms or a transformationist perspective. They are not necessarily distinctive two kingdoms observations.
Is the Church a Means to an End or an End in Itself?
The final two chapters in Part Three require far less comment. Chapter 6 focuses on the church. Here VanDrunen argues that the church is of primary importance for the Christian. His comments on this subject should be carefully read and considered by all because far too many Christians have made the church and worship a means to an end rather than an end in itself. VanDrunen also focuses on the church’s distinctive ethic, the spirituality of the church, and the ministerial authority of the church. All of these sections contain helpful observations and exhortations. Serious questions arise only in those cases where VanDrunen bases a conclusion on one of the questionable assumptions made in the earlier sections of the book – such as the assumption of complete discontinuity between the present creation and the new creation.
What Aspects of Education, Vocation, and Politics are Matters of Christian Liberty?
VanDrunen’s final chapter is likely to cause more consternation among most readers than anything he has said in the previous chapters. In this final chapter he draws some practical conclusions concerning education, vocation, and politics from two kingdoms theology. However, since many of his conclusions have more to do with Christian liberty than anything else, I am not convinced that all or even most of his conclusions are distinctive of two kingdoms doctrine. Many of his conclusions could be held by Reformed Christians at any place along the Christianity/Culture spectrum.
Regarding education, VanDrunen argues that parents have primary authority for educating their children in nontheological topics, but they have only secondary authority for educating them in Scripture and theology (p. 176). The church has primary educational authority on those topics. Only the church has the authority to minister God’s Word in the name of Christ (p. 177). On the question of where to school our children, VanDrunen argues that it is a decision that is a matter of Christian liberty and that there is no single required Christian option (p. 183).
Both vocation and politics are matters of the common kingdom according to VanDrunen. Christian political activity should not be seen as an instrument for transforming the world into Christ’s kingdom (p. 195). VanDrunen lists five truths regarding politics that are generally non-controversial among contemporary Reformed Christians: 1). The civil magistrate has been established by God; 2). The magistrate is primarily responsible for keeping order and enforcing justice; 3). Christians have many obligations toward magistrates, such as submission; 4). Christians may serve in political offices; and 5). The state’s authority is limited (p. 197). Elaborating on the fifth point, VanDrunen explains that the state does not have the authority to promote what is evil. Of course, this raises important questions: who has the authority to instruct the magistrate about what is evil if not the church? Who has the duty to tell the magistrate if it steps over the line into evil if not the church? In connection with the family, VanDrunen argues that the church, rather than parents, has the authority to minister God’s Word. Why would the same principle not hold when dealing with the magistrate? I raise this question because I have heard two kingdoms advocates say that the German church under the Nazi government, for example, did not have any mandate to condemn that government’s evil actions. Individual Christians could do so, but not the church. I don’t know if such a statement is typical of all two kingdoms advocates, but if it is, it indicates the presence of a deep-seated problem.
Two kingdoms theology as presented by David VanDrunen offers many helpful insights into the issue of the Christian’s relation to culture. It also raises many helpful questions that all believers should consider. VanDrunen’s presentation suffers, however, from a lack of clear biblical support for some of his most important claims and from confusion on some key theological issues. VanDrunen is right in his rejection of theonomy and in his rejection of the misguided practice of confusing Christianity with civil religion (American or otherwise). He is not always demonstrably right in the solutions he offers. I am thankful to VanDrunen for writing this highly challenging and provocative book. It has made me think, and although I cannot always agree with his conclusions, I believe that this is an important discussion among brothers in Christ. I pray that this review article is a constructive contribution in the discussion and that it is received in that way.
[xvii] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 294.
[xviii] O. Pamer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 110.
[xix] For more on the typological relationship between the flood and baptism, see J. V. Fesko, Word, Water and Spirit (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 204–6.
[xx] The same phenomenon continues in Revelation, the one New Testament book identified as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; 19:10; 22:7, 10, 18, 19). Revelation contains numerous oracles of judgment against Rome.
[xxi] There are some interesting parallels between David’s kingdom and the kingdom of Christ that may shed light on this already/not yet aspect of the kingdom. See my From Age to Age, p. 270, n. 124.