MLK and 2K

Matt Tuininga observes how convenient 2k is for someone who wants to distance their politics from their faith:

Recent evidence indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Christian Right pastor Robert Jeffress, support Donald Trump and the Republican Party. As David R. Brockman warns in the Texas Observer, Jeffress “has deployed Two Kingdoms thinking repeatedly since the presidential election” to justify his support for Donald Trump. If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Democratic party, that should be deeply concerning.

But wait. Recent evidence also indicates that two kingdoms theology explains why some Christians, such as Andrew White, candidate for governor of Texas, are Democrats. As Larry Ball warns in the Aquila Report, White’s approach “is deduced from what is called two-kingdom theology.” If you believe Christianity requires that Christians support the Republican party, that should be deeply concerning.

These articles advance arguments I have repeatedly heard from the lips of Reformed theologians and pastors. One highly esteemed Reformed scholar told me he is convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Republican party despite its unChristian tendencies on poverty and race. Two kingdoms advocates, he believes, are crypto-Republicans. At the same time, numerous pastors have told me they are convinced that two kingdoms theology is on the rise because it gives Christians an excuse to support the Democratic party despite its unChristian positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. Two kingdoms advocates, it turns out, are crypto-Democrats.

Tuininga’s solution is to let the church be the church:

It’s time for the church to be the church. If you are sick and tired of the politicization of the church – if you are eager to see the church faithfully witness to the kingdom and its righteousness as it applies to every area of life, without compromise to any political party – then two kingdoms theology is for you.

Wouldn’t the same point apply to Martin Luther King, Jr.? Why can’t King simply be a pastor who preached the gospel or a political activist who worked with political officials to overturn unconstitutional arrangements? Why turn him into the model of Christian activism? Is Tuininga willing to take on the recent depictions of King that blur 2K?

According to Gary Dorien:

Any reading that minimizes King’s upbringing or graduate education misconstrues him, which is what happens when scholars fail to credit the black social gospel tradition he embraced. King was nurtured in the piety and idioms of an urban, middle-class, black Baptist family and congregation. He absorbed the evangelical piety and social concerns preached by his father. He got a more intellectual version of both things when he studied at Morehouse College, where Mays influenced him, and then at Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, where the prominent Baptist preacher and writer J. Pius Barbour was his pastor. At Crozer and Boston University, King adopted a socialist version of social gospel theology and a personalist version of post-Kantian idealistic philosophy, and he acquired a conflicted attraction to Gandhian nonviolence. Throughout his movement career King was committed to democratic socialism, personalist theological liberalism, and Gandhian nonviolence. He fashioned these perspectives into the most compelling public theology of the twentieth century, mobilizing religious and political communities that had almost no history of working together.

Imagine pointing out Jerry Falwell’s (senior) theological pedigree and not objecting to the sectarian or illiberal nature of his political activism.

Or consider Michael Sean Winter’s benediction of King:

King was a great civil rights leader because he was both a great American and a genuine Christian prophet, not the other way round. A prophet does not simply point to some future of his or her own imagining. A prophet calls a people to return to their truest selves in order that they may return to a righteous path.

King did not tell the American people to stop being American. He told them to be true to the ideals that they claimed had shaped our national founding. His message was subversive of the ways those ideals had been betrayed, not of the ideals themselves. King evidenced none of the hatred of America that has marred the politics of the left since his death.

When Robert Jeffress makes such claims about Donald Trump most people object, but is it because Jeffress confuses the kingdoms or because he backed an immoral public figure?

Tuininga actually knows that King’s theology violated 2k:

My concern, however, is to encourage evangelicals to wrestle with King’s determination to allow the Gospel to shape Christians’ civic and political engagement. To be sure, we must take care not to conflate the two. King himself did often conflate the kingdom of Christ and temporal politics in his rhetoric, I believe, as did the broader trajectory of mainline clerical activism that took its inspiration from him in following decades. We cannot use political means to establish the kingdom of God, nor should we confuse the liberation that comes through Christ with the justice that can be accomplished through politics.

That means that baptizing King’s politics as manifestations of the kingdom of God is just as flawed as baptizing Donald Trump’s person or policies.

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Spheres are Sovereign but Kingdoms Can't be Distinct?

I have for some time wanted to offer a little response to Matthew Tuininga’s first (and good) piece on two-kingdom theology for the confessing evangelical allies. The essay is not all about me — shucks — but he does interact with several of my arguments. The reason for responding now is that Matt observed a tendency in my writing that has also recently spawned criticism of Dave VanDrunen (by none other than Cornel Venema in the book that has anti-2kers breathless in anticipation of its imminent release). The criticism that Venema and Tuininga (note all of the Dutch Reformed genes at play here) register is 2k theology’s fault of bifurcating the religious and political realms. Here’s how Matt describes a tendency in my work:

Part of the reason that Hart’s version of the two kingdoms doctrine is somewhat controversial is that at times Hart has pressed the distinction between the two kingdoms to the point of separation. Indeed, if the classic two kingdoms doctrine denoted the difference between two ages and two governments, Hart has often written about it as if it amounted to a distinction between two airtight spheres, one the sphere of faith and religion, and the other the sphere of everyday life. While it is clear that Hart views these two spheres as expressions of the two ages, by speaking of them in terms of separate spheres he ends up downplaying the overlap between the two ages. This tendency becomes all the more marked in Hart’s more polemical moments.

Venema detects a similar weakness (or is it error?) in VanDrunen (via the international Calvinists):

For Calvin, the spiritual and the civil government of God do not stand independently alongside each other. The civil government or jurisdiction, although it is not to usurp the distinct spiritual government that Christ exercises through his Spirit and Word, has the task within God’s design to secure the kind of public order and tranquility that is indispensable to the prosecution of the church’s calling. In this way, the civil jurisdiction serves the redemptive purposes of God by protecting the church and ensuring its freedom to pursue its unique calling under Christ. Furthermore, as servants of God, civil magistrates have the task of ensuring that both tables of the law – the first table dealing with the service and worship of God, the second table addressing the mutual service of all human beings to each other – are honored and obeyed. Although the civil magistrate is not authorized to usurp the distinctive prerogatives of the spiritual kingdom, namely, the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word in renewing human life in free obedience to God’s law, it does serve to advance the redemptive purpose of the spiritual kingdom by requiring an outward conformity to the requirements of God’s moral law.

In case I am missing something, both objections apparently stem from the neo-Calvinist aversion to dualism. As one recent graduate of a neo-Calvinist college summarized the problem of dualism:

“Dualism” is an incredibly dirty word. Why? For two reasons: A) Dooyeweerd’s non-dualist and non-monistic, non-reductionistic philosophy of modal spheres, B) Kuyper’s insistence that all things be reclaimed under the Lordship of Christ, which means there is no such thing as a dualism between “sacred” and “secular.” All spheres of life should be reclaimed under the dominion of Jesus Christ.

I for one continue to be stupefied by the reflexive dismissal of dualism since distinctions between the physical and spiritual, secular and sacred, temporal and eternal appear everywhere in the Christian religion, not to mention the history of the West. Jesus himself seemed to justify some kind of differentiation between sacred and secular matters when he spoke about what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar. He did not immediately qualify himself by saying “of course, everything belongs to God,” but let his assertion dangle. Neo-Calvinists, of course, won’t, suggesting an apparent discomfort with the very words of Christ.

Then there is the apostle Paul and that two-age construction which distinguishes between the eternal and the temporal (secular) so much so that he could say “to die is gain.” Paul also wrote: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:17-18 ESV) If Paul affirms dualism, it’s okay but if 2kers do then it’s bad? Or maybe neo-Calvinists don’t read Paul outside those cosmic “all things” passages.

And then there is the classic distinction between the earthly and the spiritual in the Belgic Confession:

Now those who are born again have two lives in them. The one is physical and temporal– they have it from the moment of their first birth, and it is common to all. The other is spiritual and heavenly, and is given them in their second birth; it comes through the Word of the gospel in the communion of the body of Christ; and this life is common to God’s elect only.

Thus, to support the physical and earthly life God has prescribed for us an appropriate earthly and material bread, which is as common to all as life itself also is. But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life that belongs to believers he has sent a living bread that came down from heaven: namely Jesus Christ, who nourishes and maintains the spiritual life of believers when eaten– that is, when appropriated and received spiritually by faith.

To represent to us this spiritual and heavenly bread Christ has instituted an earthly and visible bread as the sacrament of his body and wine as the sacrament of his blood. He did this to testify to us that just as truly as we take and hold the sacraments in our hands and eat and drink it in our mouths, by which our life is then sustained, so truly we receive into our souls, for our spiritual life, the true body and true blood of Christ, our only Savior. We receive these by faith, which is the hand and mouth of our souls. (Art. 35)

The distinction between things secular and sacred is everywhere in the history of the West, even if its usage does not always match. Augustine had his two cities, Gelasius his two swords, and Christendom its pope and emperor. Some kind of dualism is writ large in the Christian tradition. Neo-Calvinists may not like it but that’s too bad.

But what makes this suspicion of 2k all the more annoying is that the language employed to describe the neo-Calvinist idea of sphere sovereignty places church and state and family in separate realms with their own — get this — sovereignty. The two kingdoms can’t be distinct but need to bleed into each other lest dualism surface. But the spheres can be as distinct as Holland, Michigan and Pella, Iowa.

In the introduction to Kingdoms Apart, the book that will be the kinder, gentler version of John Frame’s Kuyper warrior-children manifesto, describes sphere sovereignty this way: “God has created distinct social, economic, cultural, and political spheres that have their own unique functions. . . (xxvi)” Then follows a quote that describes sphere sovereignty as “each sphere possess[ing] its own authority within itself.” Shazam! That’s a lot of distinct authority. The introduction goes on, “state, church, business, family, and academic institutions . . . ‘have the liberty to function on their own according to the divine ordinances God has established for each one.” (xxvi-xxvii) Because neo-Calvinists say that these sovereign, liberated, and autonomous spheres receive authority from God, I guess the distinctions are somehow permissible. But when have 2kers ever said that the temporal kingdom is independent from God? Straw man comes to mind. But divine sovereignty notwithstanding (never thought I’d write that) it is remarkable that sphere sovereigntists can divide the world up into such tidy spheres but won’t give 2kers the same freedom. And, by the way, the 2kers claims go much deeper than late nineteenth-century Netherlands.

What makes 2k superior to sphere sovereignty is that 2kers are really willing to live with distinctions. For sphere sovereigntists the distinctions are only skin deep. The spheres exists, but they are all under God, so religion needs to inform all the spheres thus raising important questions about which members of which spheres are introducing religion into a sphere since religion won’t do it by itself. Do I bring religion to bear on politics as an elder, husband, historian or citizen? In other words, does my functional identity change when I go from one sphere into another? It may, especially Scripture’s claims on me as citizen are thin compared to its teaching about overseeing the flock. But I don’t hear neo-Calvinists talking about these bugs in their system. Maybe it’s because they are too busy looking at the bugs in the paleo-Calvinist’s eye.

To illustrate how complicated religion’s relationship is to the various spheres, I appeal to a review I wrote for Ordained Servant:

Life in modern society is tough. In any given week, an average American may have to decide which is the best and prettiest paint for the exterior of his house, what are the best and most affordable tires to put on his car, whether to replace a deep filling with another filling or with a crown, whether to diversify the investments in his retirement portfolio, and which candidate from the Republican Party is the best to run against a Democratic incumbent in the upcoming presidential election. No single American has sufficient knowledge to make all of these decisions simply on the basis of his own learning and reading. In addition to confronting these dilemmas, this person likely has a full-time job that occupies much of his time, and a wife and children that take up most of his spare time—not to mention incredibly difficult choices about bad influences on his son at school, whether his daughter should play field hockey, and consulting with his wife about his mother-in-law’s declining health and the best arrangements for her well being. If he is a Christian with responsibilities at church, he may need to wade through files of applications for a pulpit search committee, or consult with architects and engineers about plans to expand the church’s parking lot.

Complicating further this average American’s decisions are the accompanying choices to be made over which advice to follow. For in addition to life’s complicated questions are a bevy of advisors, available on the radio and television, folks such as Oprah, Rush Limbaugh, and Dave Ramsey—people who seem to have a lot of insight into life’s difficulties. But which of these advisors to heed raises an additional layer of decisions.

Throw the Lordship of Christ and biblical interpretation into these various decisions and related evaluations and you have the potential for nervous breakdown (maybe that’s what happened to Abraham Kuyper). For negotiating the regular world — the temporal kingdom, that is — I’ll take 2k any day. Neo-Calvinism leaves me with sphere schizophrenia.

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.