Coming in for a Landing (VanDrunen Review X-end)

At long last, I am ready to bring this marathon review of VanDrunen towards its conclusion.  On the whole, these final sections left a rather more favorable impression than I would’ve expected them to, and a more favorable impression than I’d had for most of the previous chapters.  

Chapter 10 was devoted to a discussion of Van Til and his followers, and I had expected the crescendo of criticism against neo-Calvinism to reach its climax here.  However, VanDrunen was surprisingly reserved, having expended his critical energies in chapter 9’s sketch of the antithesis between the Dutch neo-Calvinists and Calvin.  Van Til himself, concedes VanDrunen, was essentially an apologist, not a social theorist, and so we must not attribute to him views things he did not actually say about the way believers and unbelievers live together in society.  Yes, his view of common grace is problematic, and reacts unnecessarily against an exclusively Catholic conception of natural law, but his ideas are not necessarily at odds with a kind of two kingdoms theory.  

We can see the diverse possibilities of Van Tillianism for social theory, says VanDrunen, by looking at the different routes taken by two of his disciples, Greg Bahnsen and Meredith Kline.  At the mention of Bahnsen, I thought that perhaps VanDrunen was showing his last cards–perhaps the whole book had been building toward a refutation of the hated theonomist, so adamntly opposed by the Westminster Seminary crowd.  After all, it was rather remarkable that in a book ostensibly aimed at a wide audience of ethicists and political theologians, such an obscure and peripheral figure as Bahnsen should receive focused attention.  But VanDrunen didn’t do this–the discussion was brief and the criticism measured.  Perhaps VanDrunen felt (understandably) that Bahnsen’s position was sufficiently marginal that forceful criticism was unnecessary.  And frankly, it is certainly true that, once you do much study at all in ethics and political theology, Bahnsen-esque theonomy seems like a pretty untenable position.  

I am not so sure what I think of the inclusion of Meredith Kline under the Van Tillian heading.  Merely because he was taught by Van Til, and perhaps claimed Van Til as a mentor does not make him genuinely a disciple of Van Til.  VanDrunen does very little to demonstrate any real continuity between the two, but simply asserts the connection.  Most modern Van Tillians, at least, have about as much respect for Kline as they do for Charles Darwin.  But by including Kline as a Van Tillian, VanDrunen is able to to give some respect to Van Tillianism as a standpoint capable of generating valuable social thought, so I guess I won’t complain.   

It is worth pausing to take note of just one of Kline’s comments, since I think it illustrates as well as anything the incoherence into which strong spirituality of the Church/two kingdoms doctrines seem to lead.  VanDrunen summarizes Kline, “Even as Christians follow this model and engage in common cultural activities, however, the church itself is to limit its work to the holy ministry entrusted to it in Scripture and not take up these common cultural activities as part of its own task,” and to this sentence, has a footnote attached: “E.g., see Kline’s opposition to providing medical care on the foriegn mission field for those outside of the church as an ecclesiastical ministry, as articulated in a minority report of his denomination’s Committee on Foreign Missions.” (416)

Are you serious?  In doing missionary work, the Church is only supposed to teach the gospel, not administer actual medical aid or other physical assistance?  But what is the Gospel?  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)  Or how about, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.”  Imagine if we were to tell Christ that as part of his redemptive, spiritual ministry he must only preace the gospel and not heal those who were outside of the Church–we’d have to excise half the Gospels!  If someone’s political theology is leading them to this kind of reductio ad absurdum (as, I think, VanDrunen’s does lead), then I submit that something is wrong with that political theology.  

Having thus dealt quite briefly with chapter 10, let me turn to consider VanDrunen’s Conclusion: “The Survival and Revival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine.”  As I mentioned above, there were actually some good signs in this conclusion—VanDrunen finally shows that he is able to critically evaluate the position he has been advancing, and to identify its possible weak points, that will need to be defended if it is to stand.  I was surprised to see him being so candid and perceptive about these; my only objection is that I think these weaknesses are far more fatal to the position than VanDrunen seems to think.  Before turning to these, though, I can’t help but poke a bit of fun at the section just before this, where VanDrunen describes “The Survival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine.”

He begins this by noting how remarkable it is that the year 2006 alone “saw the publication of three books by Reformed authors designed to retrieve their tradition’s natural law and/or two kingdom’s doctrines”–those by Stephen Grabill, by Darryl Hart, and by VanDrunen himself.  Now, given that this amounts to a “me and my buddies” trio, it is hardly an impressive coincidence and hardly suggests that some wide and deep revival of these doctrines is underway.  The rest of the “survival” sketch is not particularly impressive, consisting of a handful of monographs (most of them article length) by historians or theologians in the past century who were retrieving or employing some kind of Reformed natural law and/or two kingdoms paradigms, some of whom (e.g., J. Gresham Machen) do not bear quite as much resemblance to VanDrunen’s understanding of these paradigms as he thinks. 

Having said this, let us turn to look at what VanDrunen has to say about “The Revival of Reformed Natural Law and Two Kingdoms Doctrine,” which is rather more interesting.  He first describes two attractions that this doctrine offers.  First, it helps us draw the kind of clear dichotomy between the violence of the state and the peacefulness of the Church that many contemporary theologians and ethicists, preeminent among them Stanley Hauerwas, have tried to point out.  This seems, I confess, a rather disingenous point to make, because VanDrunen’s doctrine achieves this feat by destroying what for Hauerwas and most contemporary ethicists is the whole point–namely, that the Church’s peacefulness stands as a challenge, condemnation, and call to repentance toward the state’s violence, not as a ratification of it.  However, inasmuch as this is simply a critique of the tendency in neo-Calvinism and theonomy to baptize the violence of the state and co-opt it to the Church’s purposes, I am at sympathy with VanDrunen.  

The other attraction, he says, is that it “also gives theological rationale for affirming the genuine, God-ordained legitimacy of the state and other cultural institutions”; it provides a way for Christians to function comfortably within the state and to work for justice through it.  For many, of course, this hardly comprises an “attraction,” especially as, for VanDrunen, such positive Christian involvement in the state is bought only at the price of having Christians leave their Christianity entirely out of such involvement. 

Now VanDrunen moves to list the challenges facing the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine.  The first concerns the doctrine of the two mediatorships of Christ: “Can future proponents of the two kingdoms doctrine make a compelling defense of this older Reformed doctrine?”  The answer, I would suggest, is no; or rather, certainly they cannot defend it in the form that VanDrunen wants to advance it, not without abandoning Trinitarian orthodoxy.  Second, it must offer a coherent account of common grace as an organizing category for social thought, something that has thus far remained vague.  Ok, very well.  Third, “assertion of the two kingdoms doctrine raises the question as to what, if anything, has changed about the state and its authority and legitimacy with the death and resurrection of Christ.”  At this point, he says, Reformed two kingdoms doctrine parts ways with a Oliver O’Donovan, who VanDrunen incredibly describes as “one important contemporary moral theologian whose thought is in many ways very congenial to a two kingdoms perspective.”  Um, excuse me?  As VanDrunen goes on to sketch the divergence, it is hard to see where exactly this congeniality lies.  Needless to say, I am on the side of O’Donovan on this issue–the resurrection of Christ does make a difference, and it is hard for me to see how it couldn’t.  

Fourth, says VanDrunen, “the two kingdoms doctrine raises some very difficult questions regarding the holistic character of the Chrisitan life.  For example, what exactly does it mean for Christians to live non-violent lives as citizens of the kingdom of Christ and simultaneously participate in the activities of the state that rest upon the threat of coercion.  How can Christians live both of these very different ways of life with integrity and without slipping into a de facto confinement of their Christianity to certain narrow aspects of their lives?”  I’m glad to see that VanDrunen admits these to be “very difficult questions”–indeed, in my view, they are insurmountable from the standpoint of the paradigm VanDrunen has advanced in this book.  

Finally, the Reformed two kingdoms doctrine needs to resolve the point of unclarity about how exactly we are to distinguish between “spiritual” and “temporal” things, and whether this distinction is the same as “internal” and “external,” which VanDrunen isn’t sure that it is.  Of course, I happen to think that this is no minor problem; rather, until R2K doctrine can offer some coherent account of what it intends by this distinction, it has no claim to be taken seriously as ecclesiology or political theology.  

Nevertheless, I do appreciate VanDrunen’s honesty in acknowledging and justly summarizing these potential objections.  It would have been better if he had not merely relegated them to an epilogue, but late is better than never.

2 thoughts on “Coming in for a Landing (VanDrunen Review X-end)

  1. Brad Littlejohn

    Hey Matt,Yes, I did (and you are about the sixth person to refer me to it). It’s very helpful, and managed to put a very sharp point on the problem with VanDrunen’s work, instead of rambling around from one problem to another as I have done in these reviews (of course, I don’t do that in my formal review that is forthcoming in the SBET). Wedgeworth is certainly right to call attention to the disparity between Calvin’s understanding of the visible and invisible Church and VanDrunen’s understanding. However, Wedgeworth is on the whole comfortable with Calvin’s understanding (and indeed, so far as I can tell, more or less comfortable with the whole Reformation understanding of Church and State), while I am definitely not. Wedgeworth thinks that VanDrunen gets the Reformers wrong, but if he got them right, all would be well; I think that even if he got them right, there’s a lot of improvements we’d want to suggest. This being the case, there is a degree to which I’m on VanDrunen’s side over against Wedgeworth (though this aspect of Wedgeworth’s opinion didn’t really come through in his review): VanDrunen wants to reassert the centrality of the visible Church as a separate institution, not one that depends on the State for its visibility. Wedgeworth is not so sympathetic to this, but I am. My objection, indeed, is that other aspects of VanD’s paradigm make him completely unable to do this, and he ends with a completely bodiless Church.Hope that helps a bit. By the way, for those who don’t know, the review Matt is referring to can be found here.

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