To what kingdom does New York City belong? Cutting through the redemptive historical hooey surrounding certain claims made on behalf of Manhattan Island, may we speak of New York City as a kingdom? Hardly. Even Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to restrict Big Gulps is not going to make him a divine right monarch. So, when thinking about two kingdom theology is it possible even to apply the word “kingdom” to civil polities that are not ruled by monarchs?
This may seem a tad precious, but it is a question that the recent posting of Twenty-Seven propositions about two-kingdom theology invites. Matt Tuininga has already reacted and not so favorably (which may show how fruitless it is to interact with folks who are more intent on finding contradictions or tensions than they seem to be in actually promoting the kingdom of God). Here are several of the assertions that caught my eye (bold is supposedly the 2k view):
22. The family is part of the common kingdom.
The institution of the family is formed by God and is to be directed to the glory of God. It is agreed that it is an institution shared by unbelievers, but unbelievers misdirect or suppress the direction the institution should take.
23. The Christian is a dual citizen, as a citizen of both the spiritual kingdom and a citizen of the common kingdom.
It is agreeable that we share and interact with unbelievers but the term “kingdom” could confuse if such activities are thought in spatial terms as some “realm” governed by some different king or different ethic.
24. The unbeliever is a citizen only of the common kingdom.
This is generally agreeable, but with same caveat as #23 on the definition of “kingdom.”
25. The Christian lives under a dual ethic, namely, the natural law-justice ethic governing life in the common kingdom and the grace-mercy ethic governing life in the spiritual kingdom.
The Reformed confessions and scripture testify we live under a unified Biblical Christian ethic, not a dual- antithetical ethic that depends on which “kingdom” we are operating in. Thus, for example, the Christian family is not guided solely by an ethic of lex talionis justice, but also an ethic of mercy and forgiveness.
26. The common kingdom pertains to temporal, earthly, provisional matters, not matters of ultimate and spiritual importance. It includes matters of politics, law, and cultural life more generally.
The Reformed confessions do not exclude the kingdom of God as being manifest in these earthly matters of law, politics, and cultural life more generally.
27. The spiritual kingdom pertains to things that are of ultimate and spiritual importance. Insofar as this spiritual kingdom has earthly existence, it is found in the church and not in the state or other temporal institutions.
See comment on #26.
One thing that is highly dubious about these propositions and responses is the language of “the Reformed confessions do or do not” assert this or that. In point of fact, the Reformed confessions say little about kingdoms. When they do they apply the language of kingdom almost exclusively to spiritual realities. The civil magistrate has nothing to do with actually promoting or extending these spiritual realities because the magistrate’s rule (obviously the Westminster Divines and Guido de Bres were hardly fans of monarchs) only extended to outward not to internal or spiritual realities.
For instance, the Belgic Confession uses the word kingdom only one and it does so in Art. 36 by invoking the “kingdom of Jesus Christ.” The magistrate may “promote” the kingdom of Christ but does not establish it, something only God can do, and something to which the word, sacraments, and prayer are means and the magistrate may not minister.
In the Westminster Standards, we see eight uses of the word kingdom (“heaven” 8.5, 23.3, 30.2; “Lord Jesus Christ” 25.2; “God” WLC 53; “Satan” WLC 191, WSC 102; “power” WLC 191; “kingdom” simply WLC 196, WSC 107; “grace” WSC 102; “glory” WSC 102). The only time the word occurs close to the work of the magistrate is in Chapter 23 where the confession says explicitly that the magistrate may not assume the use of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.
The attempt then by critics of 2k to assert that the kingdom of Christ, or of heaven, or of grace, or of glory may be identified with the kingdoms or boroughs of this world is to confound the kingdom theology that undergirds the Reformed churches in their understanding of the church and its ministry. It is also why the critics of 2k are at odds with John Calvin who wrote at the beginning of his discussion of civil governments the following:
. . . before entering on the subject itself, it is necessary to attend to the distinction which we formerly laid down (Book 3 Chap. 19 sec. 16, et supra, Chap. 10), lest, as often happens to many, we imprudently confound these two things, the nature of which is altogether different. For some, on hearing that liberty is promised in the gospel, a liberty which acknowledges no king and no magistrate among men, but looks to Christ alone, think that they can receive no benefit from their liberty so long as they see any power placed over them. Accordingly, they think that nothing will be safe until the whole world is changed into a new form, when there will be neither courts, nor laws, nor magistrates, nor anything of the kind to interfere, as they suppose, with their liberty. But he who knows to distinguish between the body and the soul, between the present fleeting life and that which is future and eternal, will have no difficulty in understanding that the spiritual kingdom of Christ and civil government are things very widely separated. Seeing, therefore, it is a Jewish vanity to seek and include the kingdom of Christ under the elements of this world, let us, considering, as Scripture clearly teaches, that the blessings which we derive from Christ are spiritual, remember to confine the liberty which is promised and offered to us in him within its proper limits. For why is it that the very same apostle who bids us “stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not again entangled with the yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1), in another passage forbids slaves to be solicitous about their state (1 Cor. 7:21), unless it be that spiritual liberty is perfectly compatible with civil servitude? In this sense the following passages are to be understood: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). Again, “There is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all and in all” (Col. 3:11). It is thus intimated, that it matters not what your condition is among men, nor under what laws you live, since in them the kingdom of Christ does not at all consist. (Institutes IV.20.1)
I understand that Calvin’s Geneva is not the United States of America and that the civil magistrates there enforced some laws congenial to critics of 2k. But those are the same magistrates that executed heretics and forbade Roman Catholics from worshiping within the city. I doubt they would have allowed Mormon congregations or Jewish synagogues either. Which is to say, for the zillionth time, the critics of 2k have no coherent understanding either of the theology that prompted an pastor employed by the state from identifying the kingdom of Christ with the urban polity of Geneva or the political arrangement for which they long. (Ironically, the Netherlands in the hey day of the Synod of Dort was a republic where folks like Descartes and Spinoza could hold their views freely and that also was a home to arguably the largest population of Anabaptists in Europe.) If they want the magistrate to enforce all of God’s law, they will receive a lot more than they bargain for.
Then again, if all they want is to criticize 2k, have at it. It’s a free country that allows grousing about the magistrate (instead of honoring the emperor as Paul and Peter teach). It’s even a free church where their views of the kingdom of grace, falling as they do outside the confessions’ precise discussion of the kingdoms, do not get them in trouble. We will continue to forebear with them even if they are not as charitable.