Review: Kingdoms Apart, ed. by Ryan McIlhenny

Ryan C. McIlhenny, ed., Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2013), 284 pages.

I would like to thank P&R Publishing for providing a review copy.

Amazon | P&R

With recent intra-Reformed debates swirling around the role of Christianity in cultural life, this edited volume provides a response to criticisms from the “Two Kingdoms” perspective of Christ and culture. The Two Kingdoms approach to church and society is a growing movement among conservative Reformed theologians that has Kuyperian neo-Calvinism, and its transformationist view on faith and culture, as its chief adversary. Kingdoms Apart, as the title suggests, presents the neo-Calvinist view with the main argument that the Two Kingdom paradigm too sharply divides life into separate realms of existence—the sacred and the secular.

Though the book is divided into three main parts—“Kingdom Reign and Rule,” “Kingdom Citizenship,” and “Kingdom Living”—a more natural division is between those essays which deal with the history of the Reformed tradition and those that make more constructive theological arguments. In the forward, James Skillen gives the commendation that these essays further the Kuyperian legacy of integrating traditional dualisms, such as creation and redemption. Ryan McIlhenny writes the introduction with an overview of classic neo-Calvinist themes: the sovereignty of God in every area of life, a “grace restores nature” paradigm, the continuing relevance of the creation mandate, sphere sovereignty, antithesis of worldviews, and common grace.


On historical matters, two essays deal with John Calvin, one with Herman Bavinck, and one with Abraham Kuyper. In addition, two addresses by 20th century Dutch theologian, Simon Gerrit de Graaf, previously only in Dutch, have been translated by Nelson Klooserman and included in the volume. All of the historical essays interact primarily with the narrative set forth by David VanDrunen in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (reviewed here and here).

Cornelis Venema argues in the first essay that Calvin did have a two kingdom perspective, but it was not a division in the realms of church and state (contra VanDrunen). His two kingdoms were body and soul, and they are meant to be in harmony. VanDrunen also overplays Calvin’s doctrine of natural law, Venema says, because for Calvin natural law can only be rightly understood with the spectacles of Scripture. Venema also makes a case that for Calvin redemption is the restoration of creation, not the two independent of one another as in VanDrunen’s descriptions.

Gene Haas also examines Calvin’s doctrines of the two kingdoms and natural law with similar conclusions. The two kingdoms are not rival institutions but the inward and outward government in humanity. Inwardly, Christians are free from the condemnation of the law, even if they are not free outwardly from the order of the law. Haas also emphasizes the noetic effect of sin in recognizing the natural law in creation. For Calvin, the natural law is enshrined in the Decalogue, so knowing the Decalogue opens a clearer window to moral norms and a better aid by which to order the civil kingdom.

Nelson Kloosterman takes issue with VanDrunen’s interpretation of Bavinck on the two kingdoms. In particular, Kloosterman utilizes two little known Bavinck essays that were previously only available in Dutch. Bavinck uses the image of the state as “tutor” which can lead to Christ. He also relates social transformation of cultures to the personal sanctification of believers: just as Christ not only justifies believers but renews them in grace, so he does the same for groups of people in society.

The last historical essay is by John Halsey Wood. With almost no interaction with VanDrunen and other Two Kingdoms advocates, he puts Abraham Kuyper’s social and political thought in the context of his day. Though often championed by conservatives today, Kuyper was seen much more as a radical in his own time for his views on the disestablishment of the church. Wood also shows that Kuyper’s doctrine of common grace grew increasingly more prominent in his later years.

Two Kingdoms

Theology & Practice

Five essays deal with more constructive arguments about Christ, church, and culture. Timothy Scheuers notices that the language of “Two Kingdoms” is misleading, even if the proponents explain their views better in the details. “Kingdom” connotes an independent realm that has clearly defined boundaries. Such emphasis on the “two” could be problematic on either extreme. Either it presupposes the primacy of plurality when the primacy should be on unity—that there is only one king, Christ. Or it does not account for enough of the plurality of life in diverse areas such as marriage, family, work, leisure, politics, and the arts. He also wonders whether dual citizenship necessarily entails a dual ethic (especially a dual source of ethics). In other words, which is more basic: unity or plurality?

Branson Parler argues that VanDrunen has a problematic reading of Augustine and that a better reading of Augustine would make for a better public theology. VanDrunen uses an (older) R.A. Markus reading of Augustine to emphasize the commonality of the saeculum, a sphere that is devoid of religious commitments and characterized by penultimate ends. Parler contends that Augustine had a much more antithetical view toward the saeculum, and that it could not exist rightly apart from an eternal perspective (a reading from John Milbank). Parler concedes that Kuyper is much closer to VanDrunen than his own version of Reformed Augustinianism, where ultimate ends are required in order to direct penultimate ends. Kuyper and VanDrunen both make common grace an independent realm such that creation and redemption are effectively severed. Parler draws on Augustine, John Milbank, James K.A. Smith, and Klaas Schilder to make his case for the church as true polis.

In the only exegetical essay of the book, Scott Swanson explores the book of Revelation for ways to understand the kingship of Christ. In his reading, the only “two kingdoms” that the Bible portrays are the kingdom of Satan and the kingdom of Christ. Revelation sees these two kingdoms as fundamentally antagonistic and engaged in a war. The saints “witness” to the kingdom of the world and in this way Christ’s kingdom is made more visible. Swanson prefers “witness” to the call to “transform” culture. But he does argue that real politics is being talking about in Revelation and that Christians witness to Christ in the social/political realm. It is not just a witness to natural law and common grace. For Swanson, the identification of “two kingdoms” as civil and ecclesiastical is not a helpful way to describe the Bible’s passages on the kingdom. There is good reason for the biblical language of one, all-encompassing kingdom of God. A “two kingdoms” paradigm presupposes pluriformity.

Jason Lief, in his essay, criticizes both neo-Calvinism and the Two Kingdoms position for beginning with a static creation. Neo-Calvinism tries to make a return to this static creation, and the Two Kingdoms approach tries to move beyond this static creation to a wholly new creation. Lief argues that we should instead see creation as having a telos from the beginning that is found in Christ. Likewise, Lief argues for a natural law position that is not about static creation but the revelation of Christ. In this way, Lief tries to argue that a Two Kingdom view which makes a strong separation of creation and redemption is misguided.

Ryan McIlhenny concludes the essays with a reworked journal article focusing on the definition of culture and the relation of Christians to it. In these debates on Christ and culture, culture is often confused for “nature” when it is described as an object apart from meaning. For McIlhenny, culture is defined precisely by its meanings given by human persons, especially through language. Because Christians have a Christ-centered perspective, their culture-making is fundamentally different than non-believers. In this way, McIlhenny argues for a witness of “redeemed culture” in Christians’ service to society rather than “redeeming the culture” of non-Christians. This way of expressing it, McIlhenny hopes, will avoid the temptation of triumphalism that many neo-Calvinist fall into.

Final Thoughts Abraham Kuyper

One commonality among the essays is a willingness to critique their own neo-Calvinist tradition at points. Some of the essays do this more than others. For example, Lief’s and Parler’s proposals are the more radical critiques, since both criticize Kuyper himself for starting down a wrong direction and both bring in voices outside their tradition for their applications (for Lief, it is Moltmann, Barth, and Pannenberg; for Parler, it is Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy). Several of the authors expressed sympathy with the Two Kingdom worry of neo-Calvinist triumphalism. In response, a number of the essayists agreed that “witness” to a redeemed culture is a better category than “transforming” or “redeeming” culture.

Overall, these essays demonstrate that neo-Calvinism is still generating fresh thought and new directions. These neo-Calvinist theologians are seeking to incorporate the Two Kingdom critiques while also bringing out the best in their own tradition. The book could have been improved if there was a better consensus among the authors, or at least one essay that sought to bring together all the different streams in the book into contact with each other. The historical essays, for example, did a good job analyzing specific figures, but they never sought to evaluate the overarching narrative of the Two Kingdom advocates or offer a counter-narrative in its place. There was also a disappointing lack of exegesis and biblical interpretation (aside from Swanson’s essay) throughout the volume, and of course, some essays were stronger than others. Nevertheless, Kingdoms Apart is a good companion for those interested in continuing debates about Christ and culture.


About Robbie Crouse

I completed my PhD student at Wheaton College with Dr. Daniel Treier in 2016. My doctoral research was on ecclesiology, Christ and culture, and Christian political theology.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Ecclesiology, Political Theology, Systematic Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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