One of the inexplicable aspects of contemporary Reformed Protestantism is the indifference if not ridicule that some Vossians show for two-kingdom theology. This is odd because if any of the current options for living in this world capture the Vossian eschatology than 2k — with a sharp rejection of any immanentization of the eschaton — I have yet to see it. Neo-Calvinists don’t (even if Geerhardus Vos himself leaned neo-Cal). Theonomists? Are you kidding me? Transformationalists of whatever stripe abuse Christianity all the time to add a holy and spiritual lift to any number of earthly and temporal activities.
Nevertheless, 2k continues to fall well short of Vossianism’s stringent standards. Hence, the recent review of David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and Two Kingdoms by William Dennison in the current issue of the Westminster Theological Journal (75: 349-70). I will leave readers to find the rhetoric that surely pushes the plausibility envelope. But Dennison’s conclusion is downright odd:
. . . a number of Reformed and evangelical Christians will champion VanDrunen’s thesis since they continue to loiter in a consciousness shaped by the Holy Roman Empire when the institutions of church and state defined the core of Western human existence as one of the most persistent problems. For them, such a paradigm provides justification for their daily captivation with politico-cultural issues without acknowledging how they may be jeopardizing or compromising their Christian identity. Sadly, in this condition they refuse to deal honestly with the full-orbed eschatological fabric of biblical revelation that has now reached the “fullness of time” . . . . Instead, these believers are paralyzed as they hold on to the “flesh” (in this case, a fixation upon the political nature of a State outside the doman of Christ as mediator of redemption) while trying to live out of the “Spirit.” In other words, VanDrunen’s NL2K model gives a rationale for having one foot solidly in place in the civil culture, and the ohter foot solidly in place in the kingdom of heaven. . . . (369)
Unless I am mistaken, the Augustinian construction of the heavenly and earthly cities is about the only option for Christians who want to avoid the Federal Vision error of imitating Eusebius’ man crush on Constantine, the Benedictine option of leaving civil society for the monastery, or the Anabaptist path of renouncing the magistrate, the sword, and self-defense even as worthy of Christians. As long as the Lord tarries, human beings (saved and unsaved) will live on planet earth and need the magistrate to supply a modicum of social order — that’s why Paul wrote about magistrates being ordained by God. If Dennison wants us to live in the full-orbed eschatology of Scripture, where exactly should we tell the movers to put our stuff or where should we cook our meals? Apparently, behind the pearly gates.
VanDrunen has essentially removed the weapons of spiritual warfare out of the hands of the church with a passion upon the temporal order of two governments and, thus, constructed for believers a provisional model as the dominant paradigm to transport them as a pilgrim people. After all, it is no small task to call the Reformed and broader Christian world to face up to the essential character of biblical eschatology, to ask that all ministers and person in the pew, surrender, think, and live in the christocentric eschatological nature of biblical revelation. So instead of living out the full-orbed conditions of biblical eschatology seated with Christ in the heavenly places, VanDrunen’s NL2K paradigm has surrendered the essential eternal character of the progressive post-fall revelation of God — the seed of the woman versus the seed of the serpent — to focus the believer’s attention upon living in the realm of “commonality” that exists in the civitas permixta. Following such a path, however will only mean that the obsessions with politics which has crippled much of the history of the church will never find resolution, and, even more impoprtant, that believers will ignore their true eschatological freedom from bondage in the present and eternal reign of Christ.
Reading this makes me think we need to talk less about Reformed Baptists and more about Reformed Anabaptists since Dennison sure sounds a lot like the peasants who interpreted the gospel freedom declared by Luther (via Paul) to mean they should be liberated from their social rank as serfs. Would Dennison tell a Christian civil magistrate he is being worldly to think about local laws or policy proposals, that he should as a follower of Christ leave his day job? Does he even suggest that Christian parents are guilty of fleshly concerns to think about sending their children to a Christian college? (The New Testament does seem to have some instruction about life in this world, but maybe I too force a 2k reading on Scripture.)
Still, when Dennison faults VanDrunen for constructing “believers a provisional model as the dominant paradigm to transport them as a pilgrim people” because it is “no small task” to call Christians to live in the light of biblical eschatology, can’t Dennison see that 2k does better than any other option — aside from Reformed Anabaptist — to encourage Christians to live as pilgrim people who know that the affairs of the state are inconsequential compared to those of the kingdom of Christ. My favorite example of this rearrangement of priorities is to try to convince Orthodox Presbyterians that the news in New Horizons is really way more important than what the New York Times’ reporters cover. Most people chuckle because the notion seems absurd. But it is true and that is one of the major points of 2k — the church matters more than politics. Dennison, however, refuses to give credit to 2kers. He only sees threat.
So to show the advantages of 2k and that 2kers themselves may be doing more along the lines of the eschatology that Dennison promotes, here is one example of the two-kingdom doctrine applied to St. Abe, that is, Abraham Lincoln, the president whom most U.S. Protestants regard as the embodiment of Christian and American ideals:
In 1967, sociologist Robert Bellah launched the modern career of “civil religion” as a concept, a way to examine how, on the one hand, the state adopts religious language, ritual, holidays, and symbolism to bind a nation together and how, on the other hand, it elevates its own values and ideas to the status of holy doctrine. Regarding the first type, University of Toronto political theorist Ronald Beiner recently defined civil religion as “the appropriation of religion by politics for its purposes.” Lincoln had been doing this to the Bible since at least 1838. He ended his Lyceum Address by applying Matthew 16:18 to American liberty: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” More famously, in 1858 he quoted Matthew 12:25 to characterize the precarious state of the Union: “A house divided against itself shall not stand.”
Such an appropriation of Christianity for politics dominates the Gettysburg Address, from its opening “four score” to its closing “shall not perish.” In the 1970s, literary scholar M.E. Bradford, in his essay, “The Rhetoric for Continuing Revolution,” identified the Gettysburg Address’s “biblical language” as the speech’s “most important formal property.” That is undoubtedly so. Lincoln drew from the King James Version’s archaic words and cadences, as he opened with the biblical-sounding “four score,” an echo of the Psalmist’s “three score and ten” years allotted to man on this earth. He continued with “brought forth,” the words in the Gospel of Luke that describe Mary’s delivery of Jesus—the first instance of what turns out to be a repeated image of conception, birth, life, death, and new birth, culminating in the promise of eternal life in the words “shall not perish”—a startling echo of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 (“whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life”).
Lincoln’s speech also engages the other side of civil religion—not the appropriation of the sacred for the purposes of the state but the elevation of the secular into a political religion. Early in his career, Lincoln had explicitly promoted this kind of civil religion. Again in his 1838 Lyceum address, he called for fidelity to “the blood of the Revolution” and the Declaration, the Constitution, and the laws to serve as America’s sustaining “political religion” now that the founding generation was passing away. In 1863, Lincoln filled the Gettysburg Address with the words “dedicated,” “consecrated,” and “hallow.” The cumulative effect of this sacred language was to set the American Founding, the suffering of the Civil War, and the national mission apart from the mundane world and transport the war dead and their task into a transcendent realm.