Early returns on James K. A. Smith’s critical response to 2k (largely David VanDrunen) are coming in and his remarks will likely keep alive debates about whether two-kingdom theology is alien (i.e., Lutheran) to the Reformed tradition. What needs to be said at the outset is that for all Smith’s criticism, it is measured and responsible as opposed to the hysterical misrepresentation in which John Frame, the Brothers B, Dr. K., and your average theonomist traffic. That may be an instance of being damned by faint praise. But anytime a 2k critic in Reformed circles actually treats a 2k proponent as if he is a Christian and a human being to boot these days, the critic deserves a compliment.
Also important to see is that Smith generally understands the difference between 2k and neo-Calvinism and expresses it accurately rather than resorting to caricature. For this reason, the contrast that Smith draws early in his essay is very useful for understanding the nature of the debate. According to Smith:
At its heart, the Kuyperian tradition has emphasized the Lordship of Christ over all things and hence affirmed creation and culture as realms of God’s redemptive in-breaking grace (Col. 1:15-20). Rejecting the functional Gnosticism of fundamentalism and otherworldly pietism, neo-Calvinists have emphasized a “transformative” project – or at least the importance of cultural labor that is restorative and redemptive – undertaken by a people fueled by grace and informed by revelation’s claims about how things ought to be. Redemption, then, is about bodies as much as souls and is about social bodies as much as individuals. In Christ, our creating and redeeming God effects a redemption that is nothing short of cosmic and nothing less than cultural. The wonderworking power released by the resurrection redeems us from punishment but also retools the arts to the glory of God; the ascended Christ grants his Spirit to empower us to overcome sin, but the same Spirit also equips us to probe into the nooks and crannies of cell biology, trying to undo the curse of disease. In short, the Great Commission is the announcement of the Good News that Christ has made it possible for us to take up once again humanity’s cultural mandate. God’s grace is as wide as his good creation, and he gathers us as a people to take up our creational task of forming and transforming creation for his glory.
You are a neo-Calvinist if you get goose bumps reading this.
In contrast, 2k stands for:
God’s grace is more circumscribed (than the Kuyperian vision). The gospel of grace is announced and enacted within the spiritual realm of the church, but in the temporal, civic realm of our cultural life – the work of building schools and families and libraries – we are governed by natural law. We meet Christ as Redeemer in the Word and sacraments, who births in us a longing for his coming kingdom; but in the rest of our mundane lives, we deal with God the Creator, giver of natural law. While Sundays give us a taste of the spiritual kingdom of heaven, the rest of the week we inhabit the earthly kingdom of the present. While in the church, we feast on the Word of God’s revelation, in our cultural lives in this temporal world we live by the “universally accessible” dictates of natural law.
Some of us might want to qualify how air tight these compartments of Word vs. natural law are in Smith’s description. For instance, the Bible does reveal general norms for family life which take place on the common days of the week. And believers should avail themselves, according to most 2kers, of the word and prayer during the days between Sabbaths. Even so, Smith draws a fair contrast between the two. And what is important to notice for the rest of his essay is how cultural the Kuyperian vision is and how ecclesial 2k convictions are. In fact, one could well ask Smith where is the church in his outline of the neo-Calvinist outlook? (One could wonder additionally if Reformed pastors during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were as silent about the church and so voluble about culture.)
Rather than arguing for the superiority of neo-Calvinism to 2k, Smith decides to criticize 2k – again, mainly VanDrunen – for misunderstanding Augustine. Smith believes that VanDrunen collapses Augustine’s two cities into Luther’s two kingdoms; the Calvin professor dodges entirely the 2k language in Calvin that makes the Geneva pastor sound a lot like Luther.
This is the heart of Smith’s article – to blame 2k for misunderstanding Augustine. It doesn’t address at all the merits of either neo-Calvinism or 2k and for that reason, according to this referee, Smith doesn’t lay a glove on VanDrunen. In fact, though I don’t have VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms with me in Turkey (can you believe it?), I am fairly certain that the Westminster California professor distinguishes clearly between Augustine’s two cities and Gelasius’ two swords, and that the real genesis of 2k is in the distinction between the temporal and spiritual powers that Augustine along with other early medieval authorities make.
Be that as it may, also notable about Smith’s essay is how his interpretation of Augustine puts the Bishop of Hippo far closer to modern 2k than to neo-Calvinism. In fact, Smith’s reading of Augustine and the way Christians interact with the earthly city, what he calls, “selective collaboration,” is almost exactly what 2kers are arguing for over against the hyped neo-Calvinist language of redeeming the culture or w-w.
While Augustine suggests the center of gravity for heavenly citizens’ political energy is ecclesial [when do neo-Calvinists ever say this?] and articulates a basic stance of suspicion and critique of the political as embodied in the earthly city, this does not translate into any kind of manichaean, absolutist rejection of participation in the politics of the earthly city [would Kuyper ever say this of the French Revolution?]. Rather, Augustine’s political phenomenology advocates selective collaboration based on four factors. (Bold text all about me and my thoughts)
First, the earthly city attests to “an ineradicable creational desire” such that the earthly city is a “sign” of the heavenly city.
Second, Augustine is attentive to the teleological nature of virtue in such a way that the earthly desire for virtue is to be preferred to vice. Meanwhile, the desire for earthly peace – “which is only a semblance of peace – is nonetheless preferred to its absence.”
Third, Augustine recognizes that some “cultural configurations are closer to being properly directed than others – [which] also permits an ad hoc recognition that there can be aspects of penultimate congruence even where this is ultimate, teleological divergence.”
Fourth, these affirmations of “even disordered communal love” do not translate into a program of deep affirmation or even Christianiization of the political configuration of the earthly city.” Smith adds, “Augustine is not Eusebius.”
The purpose of seeking some modicum of political peace in the earthly city is ecclesial: “that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life with all devotion and love.” This does not sound like a project for “transforming” the empire.
Neither does it sound like Kuyper and his followers. My own reading of Kuyper is that his practice was better than his rhetoric. In the demands of Dutch public life, he was willing to work within the limits of the nation’s political order for the sake of the church as institute and for the sake of God’s people. But to justify that work, he relied upon the antithesis in a way that drew a manicheaen contrast between the original Dutch republic and the French Revolution, and between a Christian w-w and the Enlightenment.
It seems to me that on the basis of Smith’s reading of Augustine the Calvin professor is a welcome contribution to the neo-Calvinist world. The reason is that he sees how ecclesial Augustine was. And one of the foremost concerns of contemporary 2kers is to restore to the church her unique calling. To do that requires jettisoning much of the transformational logic that leads to the “redemption of culture.” Redemption takes place in the church. Creation and providence take place in culture. Smith recognizes this in his description of Augustine, even when he uses the word “creation” instead of “redemption” to describe the ways of the earthly city.
Unwittingly, then, Smith has confirmed the 2k objection to neo-Calvinism. It appears that his real target is not the resurgence of 2k within Reformed circles but the overreach that regularly afflicts Dutch Calvinism when while reading Colossians 1 their knees go wobbly.