During a recent trip to Wheaton College for a conference on evangelicals and the early church I talked to several faculty about president-elect, Phil Ryken. Everyone was favorably unanimous about his initial remarks to the faculty regarding his plans for leading the institution. Some still wondered, though, whether Ryken will escalate the Reformed influences at the school. For Wesleyans, that would not be a welcome development. Who knows where the Episcopalians at Wheaton are on Wesleyan-Reformed spectrum (they have enough trouble walking the tight-rope of via media as it is)?
I responded to many on the basis of what I have observed about Ryken. He will likely distinguish his own Reformed convictions from the centrist-evangelical identity of Wheaton. After all, he grew up in that environment, has studied Protestantism enough to recognize differences between the seventeenth century and today, and is capable of working along side Protestants from a different theological tradition (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, for example). In other words, Ryken will bracket his Reformed convictions (whether on soteriology, ecclesiology, or worship) and work within the boundaries established by Wheatonâ€™s statement of faith and other normative guidelines.
While this seems like a reasonable way to proceed â€“ not to expect Wheaton to be the PCA â€“ I wonder if the critics of two-kingdom thought would see such a distinction between the kingdom of Wheaton and the kingdom of a Presbyterian communion as either possible or laudable. After all, isnâ€™t this bracketing of oneâ€™s ecclesial identity precisely what two-kingdom proponents advocate for the public square? We donâ€™t expect public life to be the Orthodox Presbyterian Church but bracket the churchâ€™s norms when engaging social and political matters.
The point is that the sort of bracketing I imagine Phil Ryken will do at Wheaton is no different from the distinguishing of kingdoms performed by two-kingdom believers.
A couple of side issues do arise with this analogy. One complication is that Reformed believers who do work in environments like Wheatonâ€™s may come to think that the interdenominational fellowship Christians enjoy at the college should really be the case in the church as well. In which case, the sort of boundaries the church draws to keep out non-Reformed teaching and practice will over time become an incumbrance or embarrassment for a Reformed Protestant. This is what happened to the New School Presbyterians.
Another complication is that critics of 2k will be tempted to think nothing wrong with the two-kingdom position imagined here. These critics might think that if only the United States were as religiously and morally plural as Wheaton College â€“ meaning, only inhabited by evangelical Protestants â€“ then two-kingdom theology would be acceptable. But if thatâ€™s the case, then why are two-kingdom critics willing to tolerate so much unbelief, idolatry, and immorality? Why donâ€™t they all move to DuPage County where Republicans outnumber Democrats roughly 5.5 to 4.5?
Whatever one makes of these complicating considerations, the point stands: the sort of distinction between churchly and political identities involved in two-kingdom theology is already the experience of millions of Protestants in their vocational responsibilities here in the greatest nation on Godâ€™s green earth. Itâ€™s not radical. It is ordinary.