The Shelf Life of 2k — Part Three

This is the third in the four-part interview David Strain did with mmmmmeeeeeEEEEE. We finally get to 2k:

1. Would you briefly state the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (2K) for us?

I should have a handier definition than I do. I guess I would describe it this way.The church is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ (WCF 25.2) outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Communicant and non-communicant church members are part of that kingdom, the kingdom of grace (which is different from the kingdom of Satan and which is playing a part in hastening the kingdom of glory – the Shorter Catechism speaks of these three kingdoms, Satan’s, grace, and glory in explaining the second petition of the Lord’s prayer.

The kingdom of the civil realm has its own rules and sovereignty, and has criteria for membership that vary in places and across time.

The kingdom of grace operates according to the doctrine of forgiveness. The church is to minister the message of forgiveness of sins that comes through trusting in Christ and repentance from sin. The state operates according to standards of justice and is supposed, no matter how imperfectly, to punish wrongdoing.

Confusing forgiveness and justice is a huge example of category confusion. Granted, the forgiveness the church administers is premised on the justice that Christ underwent in suffering for the penalty of sin. And granted the magistrate’s ideals of justice are a type of the eschatological justice that will be administered on the Last Day.

In other words, you can’t understand the church or the state apart from God’s righteous standards, that is, his law.

But the church is involved in the work of reconciling God and man through Christ. The state has no direct role in that project of reconciliation. It may create and sustain an environment in which the church can minister. But the aim of the state is fundamentally different from that of the church. I recommend J. Gresham Machen’s essay, “The Responsibility of the Church in the New Age,” as a brilliant elaboration of this argument. It can be found either in his Selected Shorter Writings or as the appendix of Hart and Muether, Fighting the Good Fight: A Brief History of the OPC.

2. If you were to summarize the central points of debate between Kuyperians and Two Kingdoms advocates what would you say were the major areas of contention?

One major source if misunderstanding is the Lordship of Christ. 2k people want to distinguish Christ’s redemptive kingship (the church) from his creational and providential lordship (the state and the family). Kuyperians often hear 2kers as denying Christ’s lordship over “every square inch.” We don’t deny this at all. Christ is lord over all things. But we do distinguish, as Calvin and Ursinus do, for instance, between different aspects of Christ’s lordship. Confessing Christ as savior and lord (which happens in the church) is a different proposition from submitting to Christ’s rule through the work of magistrates and parents. You don’t need to confess Christ to submit to your dad. You should submit to a parent whether you are a Christian or not. And non-Christians do submit no matter how imperfectly. Plus, it’s not as if Christians are better submitters to parents and the state than non-Christians are.

A second point of tension concerns the creation mandate. Most Kuyperians appeal to Gen. 1 and argue that it is still in effect and guides the cultural endeavors of believers. 2kers tend to look at the creation mandate through the lens of the fall, and see that mandate as now being seriously altered because of sin. This means that cult (faith) and culture (secular endeavors) are now in a paradoxical relationship. In other words, you cannot chart the coming of Christ’s kingdom by looking for “progress” in cultural life. (Actually, Christians will likely disagree on what counts as progress. Does is mean a Republican in the White House, does it mean universal health care, does it mean literacy, does it mean lots of family farms and healthy local economies?) Connecting the effects of “good” culture to signs of the kingdom is a sure recipe, from a 2k perspective, for a social gospel and liberal Christianity. Kuyperians seem to be a lot less worried about this recipe because they are less willing to admit a paradoxical relationship between cult and culture.<

3. In 2K thought, Christians are citizens of both kingdoms simultaneously, right? We belong to both the kingdom of creation and the kingdom of redemption. What are the duties incumbent upon Christian citizens of the Kingdom of creation?

It depends. The early church did not have citizenship in the earthly kingdom. Paul was unusual in this regard. Christians in the United States, for instance, are members of both kingdoms. As citizens in the republic, Christians have various obligations and responsibilities, many of which will depend on their vocations. Some may actually run for and hold public office. Others might believe the state is so corrupt or has erred so far from its founding principles that they will have less to do with politics and legislation. I think one of the important contributions of the 2k perspective is to recognize Christian liberty in the realm of politics. This is a particularly attractive position at a time when the Religious Right has implied a one-size-fits-all approach to national politics, as if there is one Christian position on a host of public policy, economic, and cultural programs.

4. Whenever I’ve spoken about the Two Kingdoms I have generally been met with concern that I am advocating passivity among Christians when it comes to their involvement in civic society, or that I think the church should withdraw into some kind of religious ghetto and let the world rot. How would you respond?

First, I think it is important to acknowledge that the world is rotting and that various efforts to help humans flourish will not prevail over the rotting effects of sin. I mean, even Lazarus died after Christ raised him from the dead. I do wonder if the transformers actually see that eliminating poverty, hunger and war will not conquer the legacy of sin and its consequences which will be apparent to all people at the Last Day.

Second, human flourishing is a good thing. It is better to have lower crime rates than not. Christians working for lower crime rates is a good thing, and it depends on their vocation whether they will be actively engaged in crime prevention. After all, not everyone is called to be a cop, a district attorney, a judge, or a warden.

But the church as church, as the institution responsible for administering forgiveness through word and sacrament, is not called to reduce crime. The church actually has a much more important work to do, which is to worry about the criminals who will be facing the ultimate judge on the Judgment Day.

Inability to see the difference between eternal and temporal crimes is another case of missing what is important to the gospel and the church. If people want to the church to be engaged in civil society, I wonder if they have overestimated the importance of earthly affairs. I cannot understand how the work of the church needs to be made “relevant” by engaging in works of cultural renewal or crime prevention. If the church is ministering word and sacrament, she is doing the most important work one can imagine. If she doesn’t do it, who will? (Again, the Machen essay mentioned above is hugely effective in making this case.

5. I’ve never met a theonomist who was not also a postmillenialist (though such may exist out there someplace). Postmillenialism seems to be the only consistent eschatology for someone with a ‘transformationalist’ vision of the church’s mission. Would you say there was a similar connection between eschatology and 2K thinking? Is amillenialism a necessary implicate of 2K ideas?

Amillennialism is an acquired taste, though a form of it has been present in the church since Augustine’s arguments about the differences between the city of God and the city of man. But to recognize that God’s kingdom advances even when affairs in this world are going to hell in a handbasket (such as the fall of the Roman Empire) is crucial to understanding the work of the church and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Postscript (as of January 26, 2017): I have renounced the phrase “human flourishing.” What was I thinking?

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Where's Jesus?

Wouldn’t one of those answers that always work in response to any Sunday school question — the Bible, God, or Jesus — be the answer to the dilemma of God’s justice and divine mercy?

But when Pope Francis answers the question, he neglects Jesus and the cross, the ultimate confluence of justice and mercy:

“Sacred Scripture presents us with God as infinite mercy, but also as perfect justice. How are these two things reconciled? How can the reality of mercy be articulated with the need for justice?” the Pope said Feb. 3.

While these two characteristics can seem like opposites, “it’s precisely the mercy of God that brings the fulfillment of true justice,” Francis affirmed.

The Pope made his comments to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly general audience. He recently began a new series of catechesis on the topic of mercy as it is understood in Scripture, in honor of the Jubilee of Mercy.

He said that when we think of justice, what might come to mind is an administration office where victims of an injustice appeal to a judge in court, asking that justice be done.
This, Francis noted, “is retributive justice, imposing a punishment to the guilty, according to the principle that each must be given what is due him.” While certain wrongs can be made right in this way, he said that it “still doesn’t bring true justice.”

Instead, it’s “only in responding with good that evil can be truly defeated,” the Pope said, explaining that this is what we find in the Bible

By helping the guilty person to see the evil done and by appealing to conscience, he can change. Such persons are able “to see their wrong and be open to the forgiveness offered,” Francis said, noting that this is also how families forgive each other, spouses and children included.

Might this be a window into the the problem of Roman Catholic laity not knowing church dogma? And don’t forget how the social justice designs of the mainline Protestant churches eventually made doctrine a trifle.

Back by Popular Demand

Okay, one person requested a return to this golden oldie, “What We Owe Presbyterians (or, Presbyterian Justice)” (Dec. 9, 2010):

Tim Keller’s new book, Generous Justice, has him giving answers to reporters and bloggers’ questions about his argument and reasons for writing. One of those interviews came out recently at Christianity Today, under the title, “What We Owe the Poor.” Part of his strategy, as he explains, is to move people who are not convinced by the Ron Siders and Tony Campola’s of the evangelical world about the institutional church’s call to engage in social and political affairs. As such, Keller hopes to show than experience of God’s grace will inevitably lead to actions on behalf of the poor.

What those actions should be in each person’s case could differ widely. Most Americans when hearing about the poor immediately think of soup kitchens, donations, what to do when greeting a homeless person, and possible charitable organizations that provide needed services. In other words, justice for the poor should involve selflessness, taking from what you have and giving to someone in need. For Keller, caring for the poor seems to be a matter of delegating to others. As he explained in his interview with Kevin DeYoung to a question about his own personal pursuit of generous justice:

we have an excellent diaconate that works with those in need within our community. In addition, years ago I helped a group of people establish “Hope For New York,” a separate but closely aligned organization, that helps our church members give of their time and money to the needs of the whole city. As I say in the book, many churches who work among the poor establish a 501(c)3 often a “community development corporation” to do much of the direct ministry to people in need.

I wish Keller had said what his answer implies, namely, that he does not do much beyond work with and encourage others who get their hands dirty. There is no reason for a pastor to be engaged with the poor directly since he is called to other work, holy work, and since God gives different gifts and callings to members of the body of Christ. But that kind of explanation might have given an out to every other Christian who reads Keller’s book, has a full-time job, but lacks a session or diaconate to whom he can delegate his compassion. Such a person might compare his pay stub with the budget of the federal government’s Health and Human Services and conclude that he is doing as much as his pastor for the poor.

Despite this anomaly, Keller does expound a useful definition of justice. Typically we think in terms of law and order, righteousness and wickedness, as in let’s rid Washington of injustice and institute a holy and godly society. But Keller hearkens back to a classical idea where justice is “giving people their due.” “On the one hand that means restraining and punishing wrongdoers. On the other hand it means giving people what we owe them as beings in the image of God.” In which case, justice involves everything from “law enforcement” to “giving to the poor.”

Law enforcement and giving to the poor seem fairly unimaginative ways of rendering justice in this fuller sense. Other examples might include how to treat a young boy with exceptional intellectual gifts who is deciding on schools, an older woman with years of experience in child rearing or professional service who is contemplating what to do with spare time, a Senator in his home-state office who has no time to meet with constituents on a given day, a professional baseball player during the off season in an encounter at the airport who appears to want anonymity over recognition, or an auto-mechanic (see I didn’t go with plumbing) on a hot afternoon who is flummoxed by GM’s engine computers and has yet to work on your car.

In other words, a fuller account of justice might actually lead Christians to think in terms of the Shorter Catechism’s explanation of the fifth commandment: justice is “preserving the honor and performing the duties belonging to everyone in the several places and relations as superiors, inferiors, and equals.” One reason Americans likely shy away from this part of the catechism as a guide to justice is that we don’t care for those bits about superiors and inferiors. Be that as it may, preserving the honor and performing the duties would seem to cover Keller’s fuller definition of justice and while allowing for specifics instances of civil law and care for poor persons.

But why does justice for Keller only seem to extend to matters of politics or society? What about an expansive view of justice for the church, as in Presbyterian justice? What would it mean for a Presbyterian pastor to preserve the honor and perform the duties belonging to him in relation to session, presbytery, elders, General Assembly, and deacons? What would it mean also for a Presbyterian church member to do justice to the laws of his communion regarding the teachings of the confession on worship, the Lord’s Day, and Christian liberty? Furthermore, what would it mean for a Presbyterian church planter to do justice to rich people who give for the sake of establishing churches that will adhere to Presbyterian teachings and practices? What would it mean for a Presbyterian elder to do justice to those communions with whom he is in fellowship by virtue of ecumenical relations? And what would it mean for a Presbyterian denominational executive to do justice to the work of Presbyterian ministers who labored in years past to create a certain pattern of church life and teaching ministry that followed biblical teaching?

Obviously, I have my own answers to those questions. But the bigger point is why a larger conception of justice, even a generous one, does not seem to extend across the board, all the way to the claims that bind officers and members of Reformed churches by the vows they have taken to be received into fellowship and to render certain services.