I recently read David VanDrunen’s A Biblical Case for Natural Law and Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. VanDrunen’s is the most scholarly, articulate, measured, and irenic defense of Two-Kingdom (2K) doctrine I’ve encountered. However, I have some questions about its application and a possible objection to it in principle.
VanDrunen argues that Christians live as citizens of two distinct “kingdoms”, both of which are instituted and governed by God. The “common” (or “civil”) kingdom was instituted in creation and formally established in the Noahic covenant. It is inhabited by all humans regardless of their spiritual state, it is governed by natural law alone, and it will not continue into the eschaton. Post-fall, the common kingdom is the realm of common grace. In contrast, the “spiritual” (or “redemptive”) kingdom is the exclusive realm of special grace, corresponding to the covenant of grace in its various historical administrations. It is inhabited only by believers and their covenant children, it is governed primarily by special revelation (i.e., Scripture), and it will endure for eternity.
I want to focus particular attention on what VanDrunen asserts about the role of Scripture in the two kingdoms. Although VanDrunen argues (correctly, in my view) that Scripture affirms the existence of natural law, understood as a divine moral standard revealed in the conscience and binding on all humans, he goes on to insist that the moral teachings of Scripture are intended only for those in the spiritual kingdom. Here are some representative statements from A Biblical Case for Natural Law:
Scripture is not the appropriate moral standard for the civil kingdom. (p. 38)
The Old Testament Scriptures were not given to the world at large but to the people of Israel. . . . Neither were the New Testament Scriptures given to the world at large but to the church, the new covenant people. Thus, there is a covenant reality — a redemptive reality — that grounds the moral instruction of Scripture. Biblical moral instructions are given to those who are redeemed and are given as a consequence of their redemption. The Ten Commandments, for example, provide not an abstract set of principles but define the life of God’s redeemed covenant people. (p. 39)
The point is that the moral instruction given in Scripture cannot be taken simply as the moral standard for the world at large. The purpose of Scripture’s moral instruction is to regulate and define the lifestyle of God’s redeemed covenant people. To lift the imperatives in Scripture from the context of the indicatives that ground them is to misuse Scripture and force it to serve purposes for which God did not give it. (p. 39)
Scripture is the sacred text given to God’s covenant people whom he has redeemed from sin. . . . Given its character, therefore, Scripture is not given as a common moral standard that provides ethical imperatives to all people regardless of their religious standing. (p. 53)
VanDrunen’s position couldn’t be clearer: Scripture serves as a moral standard only for the spiritual kingdom and not for the common kingdom.
Let’s consider then a point of application. Over the last decade or so, there has been heated public debate in the US over whether or not the Ten Commandments should — or even may — be posted on the walls of courthouses. I heard recently that Dr. Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Theological Seminary, once publicly protested against the removal of the Ten Commandments from one particular courthouse — and he did so as a citizen rather than as a pastor (which he was at the time). It seems to me that VanDrunen’s position on this issue must be diametrically opposed to Lillback’s. Given what VanDrunen says about the proper place of Scripture, surely the Ten Commandments should be removed from courthouse walls. (Note particularly what he says about the Ten Commandments in the second quotation above.) A consistent 2K-er shouldn’t be merely indifferent to the issue. No, he should positively oppose the display of the Decalogue on courthouse walls, because that would constitute a clear confusion of the two kingdoms. The Decalogue as such is not applicable in the common kingdom.
So my first question is simply this: Am I right about this application of 2K doctrine?
I imagine many Christians today wouldn’t find that stance unreasonable. After all, they might say, America can no longer be considered a Christian nation, if indeed it ever was. It’s a pluralistic society allowing freedom of religion and freedom of irreligion. Christians and Jews may well recognize the Ten Commandments as divinely revealed moral laws, but Hindus and Buddhists do not. Why then should those particular religious laws be exhibited in a public courtroom? If justice is supposed to be blind, shouldn’t that include blindness toward religious affiliation?
But consider instead a society in which all are professing Christians. This isn’t purely hypothetical; there have been numerous such societies over the course of Christian history. (I’m not suggesting that everyone in those societies was a regenerate believer, of course; only that everyone was a professing believer and a baptized member of the church.) In such a society, everyone would acknowledge the Decalogue as divinely given and authoritative. It’s entirely plausible that no citizens would object to the Ten Commandments being displayed in the courthouse as a testament to the divine moral law that undergirds public justice. Yet according to VanDrunen’s position it would still be wrong to do so. Not merely unwise or impractical, but morally wrong. This strikes me as quite odd.
Yet there is an even greater oddity here. VanDrunen’s 2K doctrine not only implies that he should oppose the display of the the Decalogue on a courthouse wall; it also implies that he could not oppose it as a point of public policy. Why? Simply because his 2K doctrine is based on the teachings of Scripture and not on natural law. (At any rate, VanDrunen makes his case for 2K doctrine from Scripture — it leans heavily on covenant theology — and it’s hard to see how one could make such a case apart from Scripture.) Since “politics is a matter of the common kingdom” (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, p. 194) and the common kingdom is ruled by natural law alone, any point of public policy based on 2K doctrine cannot be defended in the civil sphere as a point of public policy. This strikes me as very odd.
These considerations suggest a more general objection to 2K theories — one that doesn’t depend on the specific policy issue considered above. It’s important to see that 2K theories aren’t merely descriptive; they make substantial normative claims. Specifically, they make ethical claims about how Christians should conduct themselves as citizens of the two kingdoms. Christians ought to recognize and rightly apply the distinction between the two kingdoms. Consequently, Christians ought not to appeal to Scripture in their moral dealings with unbelievers, because Scripture is intended only for God’s covenant people and thus it is “not the appropriate moral standard for the civil kingdom” (A Biblical Case for Natural Law, p. 38, my emphasis).
But this observation invites a question: According to which moral standard do these ethical directives apply? As I see it, there are three possible answers here: (1) according to natural law, the moral standard of the common kingdom; (2) according to Scripture, the moral standard of the spiritual kingdom; or (3) according to some higher law that transcends and encompasses both kingdoms.
The problem with (1) is that, as I’ve noted, it appears one cannot justify 2K doctrine on the basis of natural law alone; a fortiori, one cannot justify the ethical directives of 2K doctrine on the basis of natural law alone. So that option doesn’t seem remotely viable.
The problem with (2) is that Scripture only applies to the spiritual kingdom and therefore only applies to Christians as citizens of the spiritual kingdom. But the ethical directives in question must apply to Christians as citizens of both kingdoms. After all, when Christians act as citizens of the common kingdom rather than as citizens of the spiritual kingdom (e.g., when voting in a presidential election) they still have to act according to the ethical directives of 2K doctrine; but if those directives come from Scripture, that would involve an inappropriate application of the spiritual kingdom’s moral standard to matters of the common kingdom.
Finally, the problem with (3) is that 2K theories simply have no place for a higher law that transcends and encompasses the kingdoms — a third moral standard distinct from the standards of the two kingdoms. In other words, accepting (3) would amount to either a modification of 2K doctrine that leaves it unrecognizable or a wholesale abandonment of it.
Call this general objection to 2K theories the meta objection: 2K theories involve ethical directives that are either applied inconsistently or else depend on a meta-standard that calls the whole scheme into question. One tempting response to this objection is to say that Christians are always bound to follow the moral teachings of Scripture, even though unbelievers are not so bound (being governed only by natural law). Thus, while unbelievers are not expected to observe the ethical directives of 2K doctrine, Christians are expected to do so — at all times and in all circumstances.
The problem with this response is that it simply isn’t a consistent 2K response. As expounded by VanDrunen, the central thesis of 2K doctrine is not that the world is divided into two groups — Christians and non-Christians — with a different moral standard for each group. Rather, it is that the world is divided into two kingdoms — the common and the spiritual — with a different moral standard for each kingdom. Moreover, Christians are dual citizens. Thus, when Christians act as citizens of the common kingdom (e.g., when engaged in politics) they should observe the standard of that kingdom, and when they act as citizens of the spiritual kingdom (e.g., when engaged in church discipline) they should observe the standard of that kingdom. The whole point of the 2K doctrine is that we need to honor the two kingdoms and their distinct standards. But it’s precisely that ethical dualism which gives rise to the meta objection.
If I’ve properly understood VanDrunen’s position and its implications, this would appear to present quite a serious problem for it (and for similar 2K theories). If I haven’t properly understood it, I’d certainly welcome any correction! At any rate, I hope these animadversions will provoke further reflection on both the theory and the practice of 2K doctrine.