Review: Natural Law & the Two Kingdoms, Part 1

David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: 2010), 466 pages.

Amazon | Eerdmans

When most people hear “Two Kingdoms theology” they think of Lutherans. When most people hear “natural law theory” they think of Roman Catholics. David VanDrunen believes that this is a mistake on both counts. Both natural law and the two kingdoms have a significant place in the Reformed tradition.Natural Law & the Two Kingdoms

David VanDrunen’s book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, seeks to correct this common misunderstanding. As the title suggests, VanDrunen sets out to argue that it is only in recent history that Reformed theologians have abandoned their heritage of natural law and the two kingdoms. This work is a historical account primarily, though in the first and last chapters VanDrunen argues briefly for why a Reformed two kingdom model might be a better way of reconciling tensions in the Christ and culture debate than contemporary alternatives. Since VanDrunen has devoted an entire book to his constructive argument for a Reformed Two Kingdom paradigm (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity & Culture [Crossway, 2010]), I will focus my review on considering his historical narrative. Because I want to interact closely with the argument, I will be splitting this into review two parts: part one will be a synopsis of the book’s themes, and part two will be an evaluation of the argument.

A few words are necessary about the shape of VanDrunen’s historical retelling. The two concepts that structure this narrative are, of course, “two kingdoms” and “natural law.” For VanDrunen, it is the relationship of these two concepts that is illuminating. Particularly, it is the two kingdoms concept which gives light to the place of natural law. In a two kingdom theory, natural law has no place in the economy of redemption and in the spiritual kingdom of Christ (as is often noted in Luther’s tirades against Aristotle), but it does have the chief place in ordering the common, civil kingdom.  It is therefore the two kingdoms doctrine that clearly takes the foundational role or controlling concept, while natural law fits within the intellectual space opened up by a two kingdoms model of relating Christ and culture. The use of natural law by certain Reformed theologians, especially in political thought, is the concrete form that two kingdom thinking manifests, the evidence that some sort of two kingdom thinking is going on. For that reason, my review will focus primarily on VanDrunen’s narrative of the two kingdoms idea (which is more prominent in VanDrunen’s telling itself), with attention given to natural law as a test of the two kingdoms model.

Because these two concepts—two kingdoms and natural law—are so important for VanDrunen’s argument, it is worthwhile to set down definitions for both of them. The first page of chapter one gives broad definitions for VanDrunen’s use of these terms:

In affirming the two kingdoms doctrine, they portrayed God as ruling all human institutions and activities, but as ruling them in two fundamentally different ways. According to this doctrine, God rules the church (the spiritual kingdom) as redeemer in Jesus Christ and rules the state and all other social institutions (the civil kingdom) as creator and sustainer, and thus these two kingdoms have significantly different ends, functions, and modes of operation. (p. 1)

The essence of the two kingdom definition is that God has two different “ends, functions, and modes” of his rule, with the boundary of the church as the boundary between the two kingdoms. Even when certain Reformed writers do not use the language of “two kingdoms,” VanDrunen regards any semblance of this duality of creation and redemption as an instance of two kingdoms-type thinking. Natural law fits in this definition as the creational (non-redemptive) “mode” in which God rules the kingdom outside of the church. VanDrunen does not spend time on a precise theory of natural law; rather, he seems to use the term to mean any appeal to non-Christian sources (especially apart from special revelation in Scripture), anything that can be known intuitively or by reason in creation, or that which is “written on the heart” in human nature.


With these definitions in place, we turn to the beginning of VanDrunen’s narrative, “Precursors of the Reformed Tradition,” in which VanDrunen traces a pre-history of the place of the two kingdoms in Christian theology. The origin of the two kingdoms idea goes back to two different poles of thinking in the patristic period: “antithesis” and “commonality.” The Didache represents the “antithesis” model, with a strong contrast between Christian, churchly life and pagan social life and an emphasis on Scripture as the redeeming rule of life. The Letter to Diognetus represents the “commonality” model, with an emphasis on the similarity of Christians to their pagan neighbors in shared activities of daily life. These two poles came together in the great synthesis of Augustine of Hippo in his doctrine of the “Two Cities,” the first real forerunner to the two kingdoms doctrine. Augustine’s genius, according to VanDrunen, was his way of keeping both “antithesis” and “commonality” intact in one, unified model: absolute antithesis between the “loves” of Christians and non-Christians and great commonality on the “use” of created goods in the secular society. The only questions that VanDrunen puts to Augustine is the lingering ambiguity of the state as good or demonic and whether Augustine was consistent with this theory in his call to the state to persecute heresies and schismatics.

From Augustine’s eschatological “Two Cities” there was a shift to an institutional “Two Swords” doctrine in the era of the Christian Empire. Instead of two different bodies of people—Christians and non-Christians—Gelasius’ Two Swords pictured one body of people, Christians, who are ruled by two different authorities: a temporal sword (execution) and a spiritual sword (excommunication). With this change, the state began to take on a more creational role, rather than its ambiguous status in Augustine’s thought. Pope Boniface VIII’s change to the Two Swords doctrine was in assigning both swords originally to the church. The church then delegates the temporal sword to the state, while still retaining some measure of temporal authority. The church is therefore above the state, and the state only has legitimation inasmuch as it receives its commendation from the church.

Beginning with Ockham and culminating in the Reformation, there was a steady attack on Boniface’s claim that the church has and delegates temporal authority. Temporal, or political, authority derives from creation and is in a separate sphere from ecclesiastical authority. Luther revisited Augustine’s Two Cities but also went beyond it, staking out not only an eschatological duality but also a prominent ethical duality (sermon on the mount vs. worldly coercion). Luther also had a strong Law/Gospel dichotomy that mapped on to his “two kingdoms,” worldly and spiritual. VanDrunen also argues, in contrast to the common picture, that Luther had a positive view of natural law as long as it was consigned to the civil kingdom.

This brings us to Calvin’s distinctive shaping of Luther’s two kingdom doctrine. Even more than Luther, Calvin grounded the civil kingdom closely to creation. In contrast to Augustine, Calvin saw the “two” as coming both from God, not one from God and one from Satan. Also, while Luther identified the spiritual kingdom as existing only inwardly in the heart, Calvin identified the visible church as the spiritual kingdom. Luther had relegated church polity to temporal concerns, but Calvin included the structures of the church as part of the spiritual kingdom. VanDrunen also emphasizes the non-redemptive aspect of the civil kingdom in Calvin’s thought; the civil kingdom is not a part of Christ’s redemptive kingdom but a continuance of the created order. Like Luther, Calvin had a positive doctrine of natural law in the regulation of civil affairs, but he did not employ it in the spiritual kingdom.

Yet with all of this, Calvin was still too Medieval to work out this theory consistently. VanDrunen includes a long section of “inconsistencies” in which he argues that Calvin’s practice of a close church/state relationship did not match his two kingdoms theory.

Two important developments after Calvin further solidified the Reformed two kingdom doctrine, making the theory fuller and the practice more consistent. These two developments are the “dual mediatorship of Christ” and the “covenant of works,” which is identified with the civil kingdom. The covenant of works further grounded the civil kingdom in creation itself and in the administration of law. The “dual mediatorship of Christ” was a doctrine built on the extra calvinisticum that says the Son of God rules creation/civil kingdom as the eternal Logos (asarkos) and rules over the redemptive kingdom as Incarnate God-Man (ensarkos). These two different modes of rule are independent of each other. With these two additions, the heirs of Calvin (the Reformed Scholastics) more consistently applied the two kingdoms doctrine, though even they continued to align the church and state more closely than their theory allowed.

The most crucial breakthrough in the development of the Reformed two kingdom doctrine was in the disestablishment of the church from the state in the American settlement. Even here, VanDrunen sees much inconsistency (especially in the New England theocratic societies), but certain steps had been made to reflect the original two kingdom vision. These steps culminated for VanDrunen in one of the more consistent outworkings of the two kingdom vision in the “spirituality of the church” and “de jure divino” doctrines of 19th century Presbyterianism. These doctrines emphasized that the church held its power from Christ’s salvific work, not from creation, and it therefore only had power in matters of salvation. VanDrunen argues that both northern and southern Presbyterians, such as Charles Hodge and James Henley Thornwell, held to both doctrines. Thornwell more rigorously applied this separation of civil and ecclesiastical affairs,[1] though he himself continued to be plagued with inconsistencies of counseling the state on its piety.

At this point in the narrative, after several great triumphs, VanDrunen starts to see a slide downward. In a chapter entitled “The Ambiguous Transition,” Abraham Kuyper is seen as a transitional figure leading away from the Reformed two kingdoms heritage. This chapter is complex, for VanDrunen admits that Kuyper himself showed a significant degree of continuity with the two kingdom paradigm, but at times his rhetoric betrayed a blurring of the two kingdom boundaries. His call to “Christianize” culture and his positing a distinction between the organic church in society and the institutional church—with the priority on the former and the latter dependent on it—were clear breaks from the two kingdom model. These small shifts would later influence Kuyper’s heirs to make more critical alterations to the Reformed views on church and society.

VanDrunen sees these shifts gaining speed from Kuyper’s successor, Herman Dooyeweerd, and coming full force with Karl Barth in Europe and Cornelius Van Til in North America. Dooyeweerd furthered Kuyper’s concept of a Christian worldview and made Scripture applicable not only to matters of redemption but also to politics, art, and science. Karl Barth wholly rejected the doctrine of the dual mediatorship of Christ as well as the covenant of works; for Barth, it was Jesus Christ the Redeemer who rules over politics and culture. VanDrunen sees a curious similarity between Barth and Van Til, even though Van Til publically criticized Barth. Van Til also rejected the idea of natural knowledge of morality apart from Christ and the use of natural revelation in the ordering of society. Other Neo-Calvinists in North America, particularly those associated with Calvin College, continued Kuyper’s call for “Christianization” and rallied around the slogan to “redeem the culture.”

VanDrunen ends the narrative with only a few glimmers of hope for the Reformed two kingdom tradition. He notes how natural law thinking is making a comeback in some theological circles and that more scholars are recognizing the constructive role of natural law in Reformation figures like Luther and Calvin. VanDrunen also turns to Meredith Kline, a Presbyterian professor of Old Testament, to demonstrate a creative recovery of the two kingdom paradigm in contemporary biblical theology.

Concluding Summary

                 Before we turn to an evaluation of this argument in part two, it is important to revisit a few key points in VanDrunen’s argument. The doctrine of the two kingdoms finds its true genesis in Luther’s theology, but since VanDrunen is concerned primarily with the Reformed expression of the two kingdoms, he documents the variations in the transition from Lutheran to Reformed thinking. The most crucial is the identification of the spiritual kingdom with the visible church, and the identification of the civil kingdom with the state and civil society, both institutions.

VanDrunen’s portrays his narrative as a continuous, single tradition on the two kingdoms with increasing clarity in theory and increasing consistency in practice until the theology of Abraham Kuyper. For instance, he argues that Calvin articulated a sufficiently coherent two kingdoms theory but simply did not follow through with his own instincts in practice. In order to improve on the two kingdoms paradigm, his successors later clarified with doctrines such as the covenant of works, the dual mediatorship of Christ, divine right ecclesiology, and the spirituality of the church. VanDrunen sees all of these doctrines as the blossoming of what is already present in the original seed. They are not solutions to problems, but further clarifications and amplifications. The story VanDrunen tells is one of a theory getting more shaper and more clear-cut and a practice more harmoniously matching that theory until the “fall,” and Abraham Kuyper represents that transitional descent.

[1] VanDrunen makes a case that the “spirituality of the church,” which restricted the church to speak only on spiritual matters, was not a peculiarity by the South to sidestep the issue of slavery. He argues that the “spirituality of the church” doctrine was rooted in the two kingdom heritage of the Reformed tradition.

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7 Responses to Review: Natural Law & the Two Kingdoms, Part 1

  1. Looking forward to part two. I’ve always been very skeptical of VanDrunen’s approach but this solidified it for me. As I read your synopsis I just kept thinking, yeah but where is that in the Bible. Also anything that embraces dualisms AND at the same time seems to want to reduce the influence of Christ’s Kingdom seems kind like bad juju right on the face of it. Guess I’m just too much of a Kuyperian/VanTillian/Jordanite for this stuff.

  2. Robbie Crouse says:


    Thanks for the response, but just so you know, my part two will only be assessing the historical argument. VanDrunen doesn’t really make a biblical or theological constructive argument in this book; his aim is in setting the history right. His constructive biblical/theological argument is in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (linked above), so that would be the place to interact with the biblical material. I want to focus on what’s right historically for the moment.

    I do hope to do a review of Kingdoms Apart, a book from the neo-cal position, in the next few weeks, so stay tuned for that.

    • Oh right, you mentioned that at the beginning, I just forgot. Maybe one of these days I’ll read LiGTK… maybe. Anyway, enjoyed the review and looking forward to the further posts.

  3. Pingback: Review: Natural Law & the Two Kingdoms, Part 2 | For Christ and His Kingdom

  4. Pingback: A Review of Dr VanDrunen's "Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms" - The Calvinist International

  5. Pingback: Review: Kingdoms Apart, ed. by Ryan McIlhenny | For Christ and His Kingdom

  6. Pingback: Eerdmans All Over: July 26, 2013 | EerdWord

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