This continues a book review of David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought that began here. In part one, I gave a synopsis of the book’s main argument, and in this post I give a critique.
The measure of a good book is not necessarily that you agree with all that it says, but that it gets you to think. The fact that I am writing a two-part review on David VanDrunen’s Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought should demonstrate that it has stimulated my thinking. The book is ambitious in its objective: to cover 500 years of Reformed thought on church, culture, and politics, as well as narrate 1500 years of background context. Even though I am critical of the historical narrative that is laid out, I am glad the book was written. It has filled a major gap in scholarship; it asks important questions that need to be asked; and it provides a good introduction to the major figures that are significant for the history of Reformed social thought.
The book’s main strength lies in its unearthing of a Reformed history that is often forgotten. VanDrunen is surely right that some contemporary Neo-Calvinists call Calvin to be their ally in areas where he would surely disagree. Moreover, VanDrunen is right to call our attention to at least a tradition of two kingdoms thinking that has existed in the Reformed tradition.
Yet the major weakness of this monograph is not its overview of the major works in Reformed social thought or its detailed quotations cited from such figures. Like any historical argument, the question is the interpretation of the data for a coherent narrative, and it is in this that VanDrunen at the fails to prove his point that the two kingdom view he outlines is the Reformed doctrine on social thought.
The rub for VanDrunen is in tracing a story of development. As a story of development, it can be either a positive or negative development, a development that is either furthering an original vision or deviating from it. Although for VanDrunen it is clearly the latter (I mentioned in the last post that his thesis is something of a “fall” narrative), he at least wants to make argument that Reformed social thought underwent a significant change beginning with Abraham Kuyper. Now, VanDrunen acknowledges that there was also development in Reformed social thought before Kuyper, so he must argue that these developments pre-Kuyper were in the trajectory of what went before, while Kuyper introduced something completely new and foreign to the tradition. To substantiate this claim, VanDrunen will need to show a good deal of continuity up to Kuyper and discontinuity between this previous time and Kuyper and his successors. His thesis can be challenged if it can be established that there was substantial discontinuity before Kuyper. This will be an exercise in historical comparison.
Yet the difficulty with any historical narrative such as this is appointing a norm by which to judge the faithfulness of the tradition. No tradition stands completely still; in the very handing over of what went before changes are made. So how does one determine what is a faithful development or what is not? In other words, what constitutes “the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms?”
The difficulty that VanDrunen runs into is his desire to make the standard of the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms the theology articulated by the Southern Presbyterian advocates of the “spirituality of the church,” such as James Henley Thornwell and Stuart Robinson. This leads to the question of the status of Reformed tradition before this time. After all, VanDrunen does not want to concede that Calvin and all others failed to meet this standard. Thus, VanDrunen’s move is to argue that Calvin articulated a sufficiently coherent theory of the two kingdoms but it needed a more coherent expression, resulting from a consistent practice and theory. Consequently, there are two questions to push back on: the question of faithful development from Calvin to the spirituality of the church and the question of practice and theory in the Reformed tradition.
A Faithful Development?
When VanDrunen defines the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine, he expresses it primarily in terms of the “dual mediatorship of Christ:” that as eternal Logos the Son of God rules over creation (government) and as incarnate Messiah over redemption (the church). Yet, VanDrunen acknowledges that the “dual mediatorship of Christ” was a doctrine later developed by a handful of theologians in post-Reformation Reformed Orthodoxy, and it is not explicitly present in Calvin. VanDrunen appeals to the extra calvinisticum in Calvin as laying the groundwork for this later doctrine, but it should be noted that VanDrunen has nowhere proven that Calvin utilized the categories for the extra in places dealing with church and society. Without citation, for example, VanDrunen summarizes Calvin’s theological argument in these terms: “God rules the spiritual kingdom as its redeemer and the civil kingdom as its creator and sustainer but not as its redeemer” (74). Even though he makes subtle concessions that Calvin does not teach the “dual mediatorship of Christ,” yet still VanDrunen summarizes Calvin’s thought in such later terms and has imposed arguments onto Calvin that he does not make. But is VanDrunen right that at least Calvin set the trajectory for later theologians? It is suspiciously close to a Whig interpretation of history to say Calvin anticipated theologies that his successors would make. At best, we can say that this doctrine is nowhere present in Calvin, and possibly worse, that Calvin makes other statements that would contradict VanDrunen’s interpretation.
A second key element in VanDrunen’s definition of the Reformed two kingdoms view is the doctrine of the covenant of works as being associated with natural law and civil government at creation. Much ink has been spilled over whether there is an “implicit” covenant of works in Calvin, but all agree that Calvin nowhere specified it as such. VanDrunen does not seek to make an argument for the principle of the covenant of works in Calvin, yet he also describes the development of the covenant of works as an element of continuity with Calvin. So according to VanDrunen, the new development of the covenant of works is not a deviation from what Calvin thought. My only point here is to indicate that this is assumed by VanDrunen rather than proven.
A third and crucial element in VanDrunen’s definition of the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine is the identification of the spiritual kingdom with the visible church. He argues that this is the main difference from a Lutheran two kingdom conception and the Reformed two kingdom conception. VanDrunen is surely right to note that the Lutherans ceded external church government to the temporal realm, and conceived of the two kingdoms with a strict outer/inner and body/soul duality. Luther was also less sanguine about the role of the gospel in the administration of a civil polity. VanDrunen is also right that the Reformed generally invested more significance in external church governance. But his identification of the spiritual kingdom with the visible, institutional church in Calvin is a decisive misstep in the historical narrative.
What is odd about this misunderstanding is that VanDrunen seems to catch it at other times in his description. He notes that Calvin, like Luther, distinguishes the two kingdoms as body/outward/visible and soul/inward/invisible, and in his Conclusion, VanDrunen even laments the use of this terminology in the tradition (432). So how can VanDrunen quote Calvin on the distinction of the two kingdoms as body and soul and then go on to say that Calvin identified the spiritual kingdom as the visible church? VanDrunen’s citations of Calvin identifying the spiritual kingdom with the church do not mean what VanDrunen thinks they mean; they do not specify the church in its institutional form, for the context is the invisible church. Like Luther, Calvin identified the spiritual kingdom with the invisible church, which is the inward connection to Christ in each believer by the Holy Spirit.
On all three accounts—dual mediatorship of Christ, covenant of works, and the spiritual kingdom as the institutional church—Calvin did not explicitly teach what VanDrunen defines as the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms. My point here is not to repeat an old “Calvin vs. Calvinists” theme. That paradigm argued for stark and blatant discontinuity between Calvin and his successors, and Richard Muller and others have done right by correcting that narrative. But the reverse is not the case either. There was development from Calvin through 17th century, and it is not wrong to question whether some of those developments can be considered a faithful “trajectory” from Calvin. VanDrunen desires to have his cake and eat it, too, by identifying a doctrine later than Calvin as the Reformed standard on social thought while also including Calvin within that category.
Once VanDrunen lays out these other sub-doctrines for the Reformed two kingdom doctrine he judges later Reformed theologians by those sub-doctrines. A rejection of the dual mediatorship of Christ is considered a rejection of the Reformed two kingdom doctrine. VanDrunen does not seem to consider that a rejection of later Reformed developments might actually be a return to something older in the tradition (Calvin, for example, who had a two kingdoms doctrine without those distinctive sub-doctrines).
Theory and Practice
VanDrunen has a sharp distinction between practice and theory in each of the Reformed figures he investigates. Each had a coherent theory of the two kingdoms, he argues, though the theory becomes even more coherent through such developments as the dual mediatorship of Christ, the covenant of works, de jure divino Presbyterianism, and the spirituality of the church. Yet VanDrunen criticizes each figure for not being consistent in practice with the coherent theory. In VanDrunen’s story, it seems like no Reformed theologian consistently practices the two kingdom theory until the American disestablishment of church and state and the Southern refusal to address the issue of slavery as an ecclesiastical matter. Not once does VanDrunen seem to consider whether what he calls “inconsistencies” are actually consistent practices with a theory that he has not interpreted correctly. As a matter of historical scholarship, as well as charitable reading, I think it should be suspicious that VanDrunen does not think the practice of the Reformed churches to have much connection to the theory they espoused.
Examples on this abound, but I will begin with Calvin and the question of his identification of the spiritual kingdom that I discussed above. Because VanDrunen describes Calvin’s doctrine as associating the spiritual kingdom with the visible church and the civil kingdom with the state, he writes off the mutual support of the church and civil authority in Geneva as Calvin being inconsistent with his own doctrine. His explanation is that Calvin was still a man of his times. Though that may be, a better historical explanation is that Calvin did not distinguish the two kingdoms as two rival institutions (church and state) but with the soul and body in each Christian citizen. Just as body and soul are to work together, so Calvin believed that spiritual kingdom was to assist the civil kingdom, and the civil kingdom was to assist the spiritual kingdom. For Calvin, the two kingdoms are not properly two realms that can be divided up on a two-dimensional map. Rather, they are two different dimensions that have complete overlay in the one world reality. Every action of a Christian is simultaneously an action of the spiritual (internal) and civil (external) kingdoms. This explains why Calvin is entirely consistent with his own theology—a different two kingdoms doctrine than the one articulated by VanDrunen—when he allowed such mingling of church and civil government.
The supreme irony in this is that the conception of the two kingdoms by most pre-18th century Protestants (both Lutheran and Reformed) was the basis for their belief in Christian confessional governments, not despite their two kingdom theory—as VanDrunen would have it. Another example will help illuminate this point. VanDrunen considers the deletion of the Reformed confessions on the religious duties of the Christian magistrate to be the height of the two kingdom conception. It is unexplained how a “deletion” can be part of this development of continuity from Calvin to James Henley Thornwell. At one point, VanDrunen strikingly says that the disestablishment of church and state in the United States is to be associated “with the original Reformation and Scottish Presbyterian view that church and state are separate institutions with different origins, standards, and purposes” (274–75). The exclusion of church authority from the civil realm “reflects the original vision of the Scottish Reformation … but which the Scottish reformers and other Reformed people had never been able to put into practice consistently as they continued to fuse the roles of church and state” (213). Is it the height of irony or brilliance to argue that an action that is in stark contrast with another earlier event (disestablishment vs. theocratic states) is actually that event’s fulfillment?
VanDrunen also fails to realize that by enshrining their beliefs about the religious duties of the Christian magistrates in church confessions the older Reformed generations were not guilty simply of inconsistent practice, but inconsistent theory (in VanDrunen’s estimation). Articles on magistrates “making laws and constitutions agreeable to God’s word, for the advancement of the kirk” (Second Book of Discipline 10.7) flow quite smoothly from earlier distinctions on the two kingdoms, or at least the original authors certainly thought so. VanDrunen needs to revise the descriptions of his narrative to reflect this reality: his is a “rise and fall” narrative, not simply a “fall” narrative. The theory and practice of an older Reformed heritage of social thought was revised in the 18th and 19th centuries. VanDrunen obviously considers this a good thing, which is fine, but he has not proven that it is the Reformed position.
VanDrunen mentions the “original vision of the Scottish Reformation” in the quotation above. Those who know much about the history of Scottish Covenanter political thought will spot another irony. The pre-19th century figures who most identify with VanDrunen’s categories of Reformed two kingdom thought—covenant of works, dual mediatorship of Christ, de jure divino Presbyterianism (sans “the spirituality of the church”)—were the Scottish Covenantors, the ones most rigorously theocratic in their advocacy of a confessional Christian state. They used the categories that VanDrunen sets out but in drastically different ways; instead of a peaceful separation of church and state, they had a hierarchical separation of church and state with the church prescribing the order of the state.
Instead of narrating the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms, VanDrunen has laid a doctrine of the two kingdoms, one especially associated with Southern Presbyterianism at the time of the American Civil War. His narrative has shown us that a Reformed two kingdoms doctrine was present in Calvin and through the period of Reformed Orthodoxy. This two kingdoms doctrine, however, was markedly different from the one developed by the Southern Presbyterians. The dogmatic relationship between creation and redemption, which VanDrunen does not explore, may be the main theological difference between the various conceptions of the two kingdoms. In my view, the disestablishment of the church from the state in the American experiment and especially the deletion of the Reformed confessions on the Christian magistrate, not the transformationist theology of Abraham Kuyper, mark a significant modification of the older Reformed heritage. Ironically, the place where VanDrunen argues that Kuyper is most aligned with the older Reformed view—his effort to disestablish the church and delete articles relating to the Christian magistrate—is probably where Kuyper is least aligned to the older Reformed views. In other ways, Kuyper represents something of a retrieval of other Reformation categories, such as the applicability of Scripture to the public realm.
VanDrunen has directed the argument of his book against the idea that contemporary Kuyperians represent the Reformed view on social thought. In his view, Kuyper and his successors broke sharply from the tradition which had gradually and continuously developed up until his time. In my own view, Kuyper and his successors have broken from older forms of Reformed thought in some ways and in some ways have tried to return to Reformational patterns. The real problem is in trying to identify a single doctrine—the Reformed doctrine on social thought—that has remained through the centuries. Calvin is closer to Luther in some ways (at least more than most narratives allow), while post-Reformation orthodoxy developed several doctrines that do not seem to have an original trajectory with Calvin. A better narrative than the rise and fall of the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine is that the Reformed tradition has maintained several different strands of social thought throughout its history. One is a more ‘Lutheran’ doctrine of the two kingdoms that is associated Calvin and many of the early Reformed thinkers (Zwingli, Bucer, Oecolampadius, and Musculus)—often labeled as “Erastian” (Hooker)—and another that is associated either with the de jure divino Presbyterians and Independents (Cartwright, Turretin, Rutherford, Gillespie, and the Covenanters). It is also clear that there is a good deal of mingling between the different strands (John Cotton, Charles Hodge). On this reading, Kuyper is closer to Calvin than VanDrunen grants, though even he exemplifies discontinuity with some Reformation thought.
Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms lays out a historical narrative. My review has been to evaluate that historical argument, especially the definition of the two kingdoms that VanDrunen begins with and which he argues continues up until the 20th century. My conclusion is that this is not the Reformed doctrine of the two kingdoms, but one strand in the Reformed tradition of social thought. Nothing, however, precludes one from arguing that VanDrunen’s view should be the predominant view of contemporary Reformed theology. Constructive debates like this should go on, but appeals to history in this debate—“Ours is the real Reformed position!”—should be much more nuanced.
1. It should be noted that VanDrunen uses the definite article throughout the book to speak of one Reformed two kingdoms doctrine, not simply the tradition itself.↩
2. VanDrunen says that the spirituality of the church tradition “brought the Reformed natural law and two kingdoms tradition to its most coherent expression yet achieved” (p. 275, emphasis mine). It is notable that it is onlyin the American context that VanDrunen sees the best of the two kingdom tradition: “Thus, the Reformed natural law and two kingdoms traditions continued on into the early American experiment and even attained greater degrees of clarity” (275, emphasis mine).↩
3. A “Whig interpretation of history” sees the past as progressive anticipations toward some later goal. The past is seen not primarily in its own context, but as the inevitable route to the present. A popular way of describing Whig interpretations is to say that historian in a later time can understand what past figures meant better than they could themselves.↩
4. Though later some Reformed thinkers did connect the kingdom of God directly with the visible, institutional church (WCF 25.2), Calvin never did this.↩
5. VanDrunen includes a passage pointing out that Reformed theologians should not consider Calvin the standard of the Reformed tradition. I take that point in stride, but I wonder why 19th century Southern Presbyterianism should be considered the standard of Reformed social thought? It might be better to take the view that there is no single Reformed standard on social thought, or at least to take an Alisdair MacIntyre type view on tradition—that it is the continued argument about the goods of the tradition itself that makes up the tradition.↩