I hope Jason Stellman does not consider this piling on. He is a friend and I mean to be respectful of his decision even if I lament his loss of Protestant convictions. At the same time, since some have invoked the two-kingdoms theology as a plausible factor in Stellman’s resignation, a response is in order. And Jason’s reasons for leaving the PCA provide yet another occasion to clarify the 2k position with which he once identified.
First, on the matter of sola scriptura, 2k theology does not pit ecclesiology against the word of God but in fact limits the ministry of the church precisely to what Scripture teaches. At the risk of beating a dead Machen, the hero of conservative Presbyterians put the matter this way in his defense of his refusal to comply with the PCUSA’s Mandate of 1934 (which deemed illegal the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions):
The Bible forbids a man to substitute any human authority for the Word of God. . . . In demanding that I shall shift my message to suit the shifting votes of an Assembly that is elected anew every year, the General Assembly is attacking Christian liberty; but what should never be forgotten is that to attack Christian liberty is to attack the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
I desire to say very plainly to the Presbytery of New Brunswick that as a minister I have placed myself under the orders of Jesus Christ as his will is made known to me through the Scriptures. That is at the heart and core of Protestantism. It is also at the heart and core of the teaching of the Word of God. It cannot give it up.
If I read the Bible aright, a man who obtains his message from the pronouncements of presbyteries or General Assemblies instead of from the Bible is not truly a minister of Jesus Christ. He may wear the garb of a minister, but he is not a minister in the sight of God.
By the issuance of this command, the General Assembly has attacked the authority of the Bible in very much the same way in which it is attacked by the Roman Catholic church. The Roman Catholic church does not deny the authority of the Bible. Indeed, it defends the truth of the Bible, and noble service is being rendered in that defense, in our times, by Roman Catholic scholars. But we are opposed to the Roman Catholic position for one great central reason – because it holds that there is a living human authority that has a right to give an authoritative interpretation of the Bible. We are opposed to it because it holds that the seat of authority in religion is not just the Bible but the Bible interpreted authoritatively by the church. That, we hold, is a deadly error indeed: it puts fallible men in a place of authority that belongs only to the Word of God.
The point here is not to claim that Machen settles the dilemmas with which Stellman wrestled or that Machen’s clear assertion of biblical authority addresses adequately the squishiness of interpreting and applying an infallible word from God. Instead Machen shows that the spirituality of the church (a variety of 2K), affirmed sola scriptura, Christian liberty, and the Lordship of Christ as part and parcel of Presbyterianism. To the extent the church has authority, Christ delegates it and limits ecclesiastical authority to the Word of God. As practically every Reformed church affirms:
All church power is only ministerial and declarative, for the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may presume to bind the conscience by making laws on the basis of its own authority; all its decisions should be founded upon the Word of God. “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship” (Confession of Faith, Chapter XX, Section 2). (OPC, BCO, III.3)
In other words, 2K’s understanding of church authority is bound up with and limited by sola scriptura. 2K is not the window through which to fly to Rome.
Stellman’s second reason for leaving the PCA concerns his change of mind on sola fide. He no longer believes that justification by faith alone and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is basic to New Testament teaching. Instead he believes that the Bible teaches that justification comes through faith working by love. (This is, by the way, a Protestant form of argument – what the Bible teaches as opposed to what tradition or the church instructs.) I myself disagree with Jason’s reading of the New Testament, not to mention that experientially I have no hope apart from Christ’s righteousness, (though purgatory may provide a way out of this problem). As Bill Smith said:
It seems that Mr. Stellman’s evolving view is that our acceptance with God depends not on an imputed righteousness alone but on an imparted, transformational righteousness. I can only say I hope he is wrong, because there is no way I am going to heaven if my going depends on anything at all other than the righteousness of Christ.
But the point here is not with justification per se but its relationship to 2K. Again, the two-kingdom theology is bound up with the material principle of the Reformation. In his inaugural lecture, David VanDrunen argued for the priority of justification to sanctification in the application of redemption and drew implications for 2K:
The civil kingdom is a realm in which judgment is always future, in which strict justice is administered based upon the talionic principle. The spiritual kingdom, on the other hand, is a realm in which judgment is passed/past, in which the talionic principle of strict, retaliatory justice is foresworn for the peaceful practice of turning the other cheek. The non-Christian moral life is characterized by the specter of judgment-to-come, by the obligation to obey so that, somehow, acceptance before God might be earned. The Christian moral life, on the other hand, is characterized by the profound, radical, and decisive act of justification already accomplished, such that one lives no longer in order to sustain the judgment but in response to that blessed judgment already rendered.
. . . these considerations have far-reaching implications for the church’s position in relation to the world, and to the state in particular. To put it simply, the church finds the state’s business foreign. As an institution that forsakes the lex talionis and refuses to take up the sword in judgment or even self-defense, it can have in some sense no cognizance at all of what the sword-bearing state does. The church acknowledges the state’s existence, thanks God for its work, and blesses her saints as they submit to its authority and join in its work, but how can the church itself dare to participate in or contribute to the state’s work? What a strange thing for an institution defined by its peacefulness and mercy to tell the state how to do its work of coercion. What a bizarre scenario when the office-bearers of the church, chosen and ordained in recognition of their knowledge and practice of the things that are above, make declamations on public policy as if they were experts on things that are here below. And certainly similar things could be said about the church’s forays into economic development and whatever other cultural work might promote an agenda of social transformation. How wise were our Reformed forebears who spoke of the spirituality of the church and the solely ministerial character of ecclesiastical authority. The church is the community of the justified; may her shepherds feed the sheep with the bread of heaven and leave uninfringed their liberty in regard to the affairs of earth.
Again, VanDrunen’s comments are not meant to end all debates. Some will undoubtedly take issue with both his views on union with Christ and on church and state. Still, the idea that 2K is some boutique doctrine that its advocates trot out to provoke, create a following, or use as a hobby horse is wrong. For most of the 2k advocates I know, the doctrine is bound up with teachings that are crucial to the Reformation and at the heart of Reformed Protestantism. Those who oppose 2k are not necessarily outside the Reformed camp. But if they affirm the material and formal principles of the Reformation, they are on the road to two-kingdom theology. If they deny 2k, they ride on a rocky road.