Speaking of Ecclesiastical Authority

Matt Tuininga has been engaged in a debate with Brad Littlejohn (and Steven Wedgeworth and, of course, Peter Escalante because wherever Steven goes, Peter does) about 2k. Matt is sitting on an essay that attempts to refute Littlejohn (et al) about the spiritual nature of the kingdom of Christ. Ever since Wedgeworth reviewed VanDrunen‘s Natural Law and Two Kingdoms, I have been dumbfounded by a reading of 2k which puts the church’s institutional arrangements in the temporal realm and locates Christ’s authority entirely in the realm of the Spirit’s rule in believer’s hearts. One example of why this may be stupefying comes from an essay by Littlejohn which concludes this way:

Mr. Tuininga has insisted that we do not need to assume that two-kingdoms thinking entails the rejection of distinctively Christian action in the civil kingdom, of things like Christian education or Christian worldview thinking, as Hart and VanDrunen have suggested. But without challenging the basic parameters of their dualism, it is hard to see how he will succeed. Fundamentally, those attempting to re-establish this kind of two-kingdoms thinking will find that the Cartwrightian vision is an illiberal one, in which a clerocracy of human authorities within the Church may claim divine sanction for their teachings and their rulings about what constitutes the conditions for membership in Christ’s kingdom,[11] and what shape Christian life in the world must take, thus undermining both the freedom of the church and the state. Much as the modern R2K theorists proclaim their Liberal credentials, they have not changed the fundamental schema, and it is thus no wonder that so many Reformed churches of this stripe suffer from an atmosphere of legalism, authoritarian dogmatism, and spiritual tyranny.

In other words, communions like the OPC and the PCA (and I guess Doug Wilsons’ CREC) are clerocracies where spiritual tyranny reigns. I would have thought this view of the institutional church close to an Anabaptist reading. But I suppose that Littlejohn is following Hooker. How the church as a temporal authority, ruled by an earthly monarch, is going to be any less tyrannical, even if its reach only goes to externals, is a mystery. Still, a view that divorces the spiritual character of the keys of the kingdom from the actual administration of the word through preaching and discipline (i.e., the means of grace) is a mystery possibly only resolved by content analysis of the drinking water in Moscow, Idaho.

Not to be missed, by the way, is that the 2k position advocated by the likes of VanDrunen and me, is designed to distinguish those areas where the church has real authority (the Word) from those where Christians have liberty (the rest of life) as their consciences determine. In which case, Littlejohn is wrong to see the modern revival of 2k as a return to ecclesiastical tyranny. It is, instead, an effort to recover Christian liberty from the pious intentions and historical circumstances of some in the Reformed world eager to assert the Lordship of Christ without sufficient qualification.

Tuininga is eager to correct Littlejohn, not so much on his reading of Hooker, but on Calvin.

Calvin is absolutely clear here that he is distinguishing the spiritual government of the church by the pastors and elders, through the means of the keys of the kingdom, from the political government of the magistrates. He clearly draws in the distinction between the two kingdoms in 3.19.15 when, referring to 1 Corinthians 12:28 and Romans 12:28, he declares that Paul is not discussing the magistrates, but “those who were joined with the pastors in the spiritual rule of the church.” Here again Calvin makes it evident that when he is talking about the “spiritual rule” of the church he is not talking about some immediate governance of the invisible church. He is talking about the concrete government exercised by pastors and elders on behalf of Christ. Christ himself governs through these men: “Christ has testified that in the preaching of the gospel the apostles have no part save that of ministry; that it was he himself who would speak and promise all things through their lips as his instruments.” Calvin maintains that Christ’s spiritual government is exercised through the ministry of the church, in its fourfold office. (4.11.1)

Calvin’s views here have to be understood in the context of the willingness among the Zwinglians and Lutherans to cede church discipline to the civil government on the basis of the type of two realms interpretation that Wedgeworth attributes to Calvin.

Some of this is simply a historical debate of whether Cartwright or Hooker was closer to Calvin. But the bigger issue is that of ecclesiastical authority: do ministers when they go into the pulpit and members of sessions and consistories when they deliberate with church members actually hold the keys of the kingdom or does Christ reserve them for himself and the Spirit? It sure would be hard to read the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity in a way the severed spiritual authority from real blooded ministers and elders. But, as odd as it sounds, some critics of 2k — some who even circulate among the getting-over-theonomy-ranks of James Jordan and Peter Leithart — believe the version of 2k on the rise in the OPC and elsewhere is authoritarian. Holy cow! If only Littlejohn and Wedgeworth (and Escalante) could spend a few days with the crazy Baylys or their fellow Gordon-Conwell alum, Tim Keller, that is, with those who expand church power over every square inch.


36 thoughts on “Speaking of Ecclesiastical Authority

  1. Isn’t it odd that so many two kingdoms critics within NAPARC are afraid that VanDrunen, Hart, et al are minimizing the authority of Scripture over all of live, while Littlejohn et al are trying to associate it with theonomy, legalism, and spiritual tyranny? Clearly someone somewhere is misunderstanding something.

    I wonder if Littlejohn’s association of the two kingdoms with theonomy and spiritual tyranny is behind his assumption that my essay represents an attempt to separate myself from Hart and VanDrunen (it was no such thing). As I’ve argued elsewhere, we can agree on the basic two kingdoms framework, and on its central insights about the spiritual authority of the church and Christian liberty, without agreeing on every jot and tittle of application or emphasis. The two kingdoms doctrine is not about particular individuals and their idiosyncracies, as many opponents want to suggest. It is a classic doctrine of Reformed Christianity.


  2. Matthew, that various Reformers had a doctrine of the two kingdoms doesn’t imply there is/was a single unambiguous “classic” doctrine of the two kingdoms. And as your and Littlejohn’s conversation makes clear, there was obviously more than one take among the English Reformers about what Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms was. In any case, it’s far from obvious that Horton’s, VanDrunen’s and Hart’s contemporary view is “the” classic Reformed view, let alone Calvin’s view.

    Escalante and Littlejohn may have a point about this contemporary view being more like Cartwright’s, if to a different purpose for ecclesial and civil order.
    [ Note to Darryl, check your tags. I’m pretty sure it’s Thomas Cartwright. 🙂 ]

    Darryl, I think the “legalism, authoritarian dogmatism, and spiritual tyranny” of which Littlejohn is wary is found in confessional Presbyerianism more than in any position on the two kingdoms. This isn’t obvious from what he’s said about the two kingdoms, but I gather as much from conversation with him about the regulative principle (and how, opposite to me, he finds Hooker superior to Thornwell). Littlejohn is clear that he’s Hookerean, and I think he’s let his opposition to confessional Presbyterianism bleed into his critique of the contemporary two kingdoms view. Don’t get too distracted by this “dogmatism/tyranny” accusation. I think it’s a red herring. I’m a neocalvinist, but I think he finds my confessional Presbyterianism just as (if not more) disturbing than yours.


  3. Baus,
    I did not say there was one classic two kingdoms doctrine. There were many. In addition to Calvin and Hooker, there is the Lutheran/Melanchthonian two kingdoms doctrine and the Anabaptist two kingdoms doctrine. However, where Littlejohn is wrong is to claim that Hooker represents the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine. That is simply false. Hooker tried to claim it, but he never persuaded the Reformed/Presbyterian tradition, which has continued to hold the basic Calvin/Cartwright position to this day. In that sense there is a classic Reformed two kingdoms doctrine.

    All of the seemingly variant positions (i.e., Calvin, Southern Presbyterians, Scottish Covenanters, VanDrunen) are expressions of one basic foundation. Basically, and see today’s article in the Aquila Report for more on this, all these figures affirm that Christ’s kingdom operates by the power of the Word and Spirit alone, and that in this way it is not to be confused with God’s providential control of the wicked, or with his institution of coercive civil government. All of these figures agree that the church is the institutional expression of the kingdom, and therefore that the church must limit its proclamations to what is found in the Word. This is a distinctive doctrine because it breaks with the Roman Catholic claims that the church holds both swords, it breaks with the Anglican claim that worship and discipline are not essential to the government by the Word, and it breaks with the erastian claim that the church and the commonwealth are one and the same such that magistrates represent Christ’s kingship while pastors represent his priesthood.

    The reason why these different versions appear to be different is because they apply this basic doctrine in significantly different ways. Yet the divergence here owes more to disagreements about how civil magistrates should submit to Christ and relate to the kingdom of God, as well as to whether or not Israel is a model for modern nations. But the underlying two kingdoms doctrine is very much the same. What VanDrunen et al are doing is to suggest that we have lost sight of this basic doctrine, and that it can help us to explain how Christ would have the church and Christians engage culture and politics. In doing this, VanDrunen has been very clear about where he is breaking with the past tradition’s application, and where he is consistent with it. But at its foundation, he is expounding the same doctrine.


  4. Baus, Thomas? Peter? It’s one of the apostles’ names (thanks).

    As for diversity of 2k thought, no doubt about it. But how about conceding the same about the Reformed faith so that Kuyperians aren’t the only ones holding the Reformed playbook. You know how it goes, with some Kuyperians, if you talk about 2k you are Lutheran.


  5. Darryl, every square inchism does not apply to church power. I can’t speak for the Baylys but here is a section from Keller’s Generous Justice p. 145 ff.

    The church, in this view, produces individuals who change society, but the local congregation should not itself engage in these enterprises. Kuyper distinguished between the institutional church–the congregation meeting under its leaders–and the “organic” church, which consists of all Christians, functioning in the world as individuals and through various agencies and voluntary organizations.

    I believe Kuyper is generally right. We have spoken of different “levels” of ministry to the poor–relief, development, and reform. As we have said, churches under their leaders should definitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighborhoods and cities, as the natural and crucial way to show the world God’s character, and to love the people that they are evangelizing and discipling. But if we apply Kuyper’s view, then when we get to the more ambitious work of social reform and the addressing of social structure, believers should work through associations and organizations rather than through the local church. While the institutional church should do relief inside and around its community, the “organic” church should be doing development and social reform.

    I may want to draw the boundaries slightly differently (i.e. put neighborhood and city under the auspices of the “organic” church), but the basic idea is here. Keller is demonstrating sphere sovereignty and, it seems to me, this should please the 2K folks to some degree, i.e. it is consistent with the spirituality of the church and with the limitation of ecclesiastical authority and the recognition of Christian liberty on these broader social justice issues.

    I would encourage 2K critics to be more careful about this, i.e. to distinguish when a neo-Cal is speaking as a churchman vs. as a member of the “organic” church.


  6. Darryl, one of the shocks of my life as a Reformed person was in picking up John Leith’s The Reformed Tradition. Even having grown up in the UPCUSA/PCUSA I did not consider myself Reformed. As I drifted toward more conservative and confessional Reformed expressions in the RPCNA, CRCNA, OPC, and PCA I only associated the word “Reformed” with the conservatives. Leith barely mentioned the conservative group as you might expect. To him Reformed meant anyone who came out of the Calvinist branch of the Reformation (contra Lutheran, Anabaptist, perhaps Baptist, and of course, other non-Reformational branches: Catholic, Orthodox). I guess it was a historical term rather than a confessional term. I’m guessing you’re aiming for a narrower definition of Reformed. It’s likely we’ll have adopt the Fundamentalist-Dispensational-Premilleniel-Pre-tribulational-Congregational-Baptist Church strategy of putting our full confession on our moniker. (My home town in Indiana actually had a church will all of that on its sign.) So we can have neo-Cal Reformed, 2K Reformed, Theonomic Reformed. Can we have Reformed Baptists? I suppose after a while we’ll have to decide whether or not those categories of Reformed are “worthy” of separate denominations.


  7. Terry, I’ve been to Redeemer’s websites. I’m not sure they are practicing what Keller is preaching. But then, when Keller explains it this way — “churches under their leaders should definitely carry out ministries of relief and some development among their own members and in their neighborhoods and cities, as the natural and crucial way to show the world God’s character, and to love the people that they are evangelizing and discipling” — you have a lot of room for churches to do more than word, sacrament, and discipline.


  8. Terry, Reformed means churches that hold the Reformed confessions. The prefixes and qualifications come in when a group adds to those confessions and makes non-confessional teachings confessional. I put the Kuyperians in that camp. W-w is not in the confessions. Neither is Christian schooling. Neither is philosophy. I’m more than willing to share our confessional heritage with people who are content with it. It’s when they start adding and then disqualifying those who don’t share the additions that I get disagreeable.

    BTW, the OPC’s confession says that the visible church is the kingdom of Christ. It does not include science, Hollywood, or plumbing. But Dutch Calvinist hegemony has led some OPers and most of the PCA and every square inch of the CRC to think that limiting the kingdom of Christ to the visible church is fundamentalist.


  9. Terry, call me the proverbial stick in the mud, but why do I get the feeling that statements like these are ways of sneaking cultural transformationalism in under the cover of the “organic church”? But maybe it’s just a function of a 2ker who favors cultural preservation over the more naive notion of cultural transformation? Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the recognition of the limits of ecclesial powers, but I sure do wish some of that were applied to the powers of the church member, you know, the one always more sinful than not and making only the slightest beginning of obedience in this life. How such a one does more transforming than maintaining I’ll never know.


  10. Adam Borneman, Church, Sacrament, and American Democracy, p121—“For Nevin, the church is fundamentally and ontologically above the state….The internal life of the state is only properly understood when considered through the lens of the church, the end for which the state was created.”

    The “sacramental theonomists” (read “federal visionists”) don’t think they are playing the role of ruling in society unless they are upsetting non-Christian citizens. Of course the church is not the state but the state is to be Christian, and the church says what’s Christian. Goodbye, Roger Williams….


  11. Part of the problem over accusations of clerocracy may arise because the two kingdoms doctrine was carved out as part of the articulation and defence of freedom of conscience assuming magisterial reformation views of the church and state. But it is only contingently connected with those views, even though Martin and Jean did not realize it at the time. So it needs to be pointed out that, for example, English Dissent since the 1680’s provides an alternative paradigm, without any transformational intrusions until the ascendency of theological liberalism.


  12. Darryl, with your citation of the WCF I wonder if you’re not the one trying to push me off the confessional cliff. Perhaps we can come to a common reading by saying that the members of the kingdom are the members of the visible church. Indeed, we’ve been made a kingdom of priests! How we nuance the realm of the kingdom becomes more complicated, I suppose. Is it wherever Christ is King? Is it all creation? Is it all the earth where the church is? Is it only when the church is gathered for worship or for session/GA meetings?


  13. Zrim, there’s no sneaking about it. That’s exactly what’s going on. My point (and Keller’s) is that it’s not the church qua church doing these things, but believers doing good works in the world around them in all areas of life – 24/7


  14. Darryl, Dutch hegemony? I wonder how that came to be. I’m not Dutch (well 1/8, I guess, according to my family tree–I denied it the whole time I was in Grand Rapids) but was raised a good old American mutt. No windmills or Christian schools in sight. I came to my neo-Cal views in college through RPCNA and OPC pastors and reading Francis Sheaffer long before I encountered Kuyper. I suppose they came to it through C. Van Til who seems to be a fringe Presbyterian confessionalist by this blog’s standards.

    Have you ever consider the possibility that it’s not Dutch hegemony but rather a correction/addition to classical Reformed theology that is based on scripture?


  15. I get your point, Terry, and I’ve nothing against doing good works in all of life (the Christian life is, in a word, obedience). But I just always wonder what transformationalists do with the realities of being human east of Eden 24/7. Preservationists see limitations in both the institutional and organic church and wonder if the transformers think that just because they admit limits in the former they can throw restraint to the wind when it comes to the latter.


  16. Zrim, here.’s what transformationalists say:

    Our hope for a new creation is not tied to what humans can do, for we believe that one day every challenge to God’s rule will be crushed. His kingdom will fully come, and the Lord will rule. Come, Lord Jesus, come. Article 55 of The Contemporary Testimony: Our World Belongs to God

    I’d say we do the same thing we do in our sanctification. Strive to obey the Lord by the power of the Spirit, Confess our sins. Rest in the work of Christ for our right standing with God.


  17. Terry, you may already be off the cliff if you can’t stand the Confession. I didn’t make it up. That it is a surprise to those under the influence of Dutch thinking is not my fault.


  18. Terry, I cut my childhood Reformed teeth on Schaeffer. I’ve considered the neo-Cal view. Have you not read here at Old Life that it is often the critics of Westminster CA who are surprised to learn that a history and tradition of Reformed reflection was in place before 1886?

    BTW, the Reformed confessional tradition was amended to remove those claims about the duties of the magistrate that give neo-Cals (politicians as minister of God) and theonomists (the state enforces god’s law) goosebumps.


  19. Darryl, I don’t think so. As I said I agree that the church is the kingdom in terms of members. I think it’s a reasonable argument that that’s all the confession is talking about. I don’t see any reason that confessionally it excludes neo-Calvinism (although the question is anachronistic and somewhat clouded by that fact). In my history of the CRC class I clearly present Kuyperianism as a late 19th century phenomenon, although I’m not convinced the basic ideas aren’t present in the classical Reformed heritage. SC Q&A 1, for example

    We’re the same vintage, Darryl, although you’ve got a couple of years on me. Perhaps I’ll come around by the time I’m your age.


  20. Terry, you may quote the CT for the neo cause, but I’ll raise the stakes by citing the catechism:

    Question 62. But why cannot our good works be the whole, or part of our righteousness before God?

    Answer: Because, that the righteousness, which can be approved of before the tribunal of God, must be absolutely perfect, and in all respects conformable to the divine law; and also, that our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.

    Question 114. But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?

    Answer: No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with a sincere resolution they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commandments of God.

    If all our works are defiled with sin, and if most of us (unless you are amonsgt the holiest) make even less than a small beginning of obedience, whence this fantasy of “changing society [and the] more ambitious work of social reform”? Does the reality of sin count for much in the transformationalist program, or does neo-Calvinism think we’ve moved beyond the Reformation and our humanity?


  21. David Scaer: “Other Protestant denominations see sanctification, the working of the Holy Spirit in Christian lives, in synergistic terms, another Greek derivative, which means that a thing has two or more causes. Believers are required to play a part in developing their personal holiness by living lives disciplined by the Law and by special ethical regulations set down by the church. Christians can and must cooperate with God’s grace to increase the level of personal sanctification. Cooperation, a Latin derivative, is a synonym of synergism, and also means two or more things or persons working together.

    Scaer: “These confessions think that God alone justifies, but that sanctification is a combined divine-human activity, which even though God begins, each believer is obligated to complete. In this system, the Gospel, which alone creates faith, is replaced by the Law which instructs in moral
    requirements and warns against immorality. Justification by grace is seen as a past event and the present focus is on man cooperating with God to reach a complete sanctification.

    Scaer: “Lutherans recognize that Christians as sinners are never immune to the Law’s moral demands and its threats against sin, but in the strictest sense these warnings do not belong to Christian sanctification, the life believers live in Christ and in which Christ lives in them. In
    other confessions the Gospel is replaced by the Law which sets down directives for Christian life and threatens the Christian as Christian….Our Augsburg Confession recognizes those things which
    keep society and government together as good works, but strictly speaking, they do not belong to a Christian’s personal holiness and have no necessary relationship to justification. Unbelievers can do
    these works as can Christians. The works of sanctification are, strictly speaking, only those which Christians can do.”



  22. Zrim, same answer. We pursue righteous (obedience to God) in every aspect of our lives, knowing that it is only a beginning in this life and that only in the end will God bring it to full measure. I think you might be imagining some post-millennial triumphalism that’s not essential to the neo-Cal story.


  23. Terry, then what do you do with the keys of THE KINGDOM? It’s not transformation or sanctification that builds the kingdom, it’s preaching and discipline and that’s in all the creeds and catechisms. You’re sounding like you identify the kingdom broadly with church as organism. See where that got the GKN.


  24. Terry, what I’m getting at is how the obedience of the church-organism translates into the sort of social transformation of the larger world neos imagine. Here at ground zero for all things neo and transformative, the polis which teems with an obedient organism doesn’t seem really any better or worse than any other place that isn’t so teeming. Which makes me wonder what in thee heck you and Keller are talking about. Every day and in every way it just sounds like pious platitudes.


  25. Darryl, last I read the keys of the kingdom have to do with membership. I don’t see the problem. Anyone who doesn’t have a good confession and a godly life is excluded. HC 81-85.


  26. Terry, the keys of the kingdom refer to preaching and discipline. It is what officers do. You suffer from every member ministry disorder.


  27. Darryl, what are you talking about? That’s what I’m saying. The officers exercise the keys with respect to the members, who’s in and who’s out. We don’t disagree at all there.


  28. “Every day, in every way, neo-Calvinist-transformationalists are getting worse.”

    Terry: but how do the officers decide to discipline/exercise the keys? That’s the point here. Do they have authority to discipline on a broad spectrum of “infractions” or works, or a narrow?


  29. Terry, what I’m talking about is when I say keys you think members (organism) and I think officers (institute). To a Muslim, it may look like a distinction without a difference. But it could also identify the line between neo- and paleo-Calvinists.


  30. Terry, no need be pouty about it. The question has to do with how abiding sin factors into the project of social reform on the part of the organic church. Though we do put the accent on grace, Calvinists are also supposed to be the total depravity folk who take sin seriously. Can you see how some of us preservationists with a robust doctrine of sin might be skeptical about what is admitted to be “the more ambitious work of social reform”?


  31. Darryl, good to see you know what I think. You’re reading something that’s not there. The keys are in the hands of the officers and courts of the church, just as you say. I haven’t been saying anything different.


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