Living in God’s Two Kingdoms?

Alongside Schneider last week, I was reading another book, David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, a sort of theological and practical companion volume to the largely historical Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms.  Now, you may have thought, given my response to Schneider, and my even more vitriolic response to VanDrunen’s earlier work, that this would be a recipe for madness.  On the contrary, this VanDrunen volume has actually proven a welcome counterpoint to Schneider’s book, by turns amusing, bemusing, and confusing, but rarely maddening.  Curiously, whereas Schneider’s book seems to start from theological assumptions that I more or less agree with, and which I described as more or less synonymous with N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, and then works toward appalling practical conclusions, VanDrunen’s starts from appalling theological assumptions, which one could describe as essentially the polar opposite of Surprised by Hope, and then works toward practical conclusions that it would be difficult to disagree with.

 

Agree with?  Me?  Well, it’s really quite curious.  The theological section reads almost like a reductio ad absurdum.  When in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, I constantly found myself saying, “How can you say that?  If you say that, you’d have to believe X, Y, and Z, but how could you?”, VanDrunen comes right out in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and says X, Y, and Z.  At times, so different were his basic theological assumptions that it felt like we were practitioners of two different religions, and certainly not both conservatives in the Reformed tradition.  The old classifications seem less and less helpful today for defining theological trajectories; reading the first chapters, I felt at times as if I had more in common with a liberal Roman Catholic than with VanDrunen.

However, the final chapter, where he cashes out what it all means for “Education, Vocation, and Politics,” all this gets turned upside down.  Reading the theological section, I constantly found myself saying, “How could you say that?  That would entail X, Y, and Z in terms of practical application.” And then when I got to the application, VanDrunen comes right out and says A, B, and C.  Or to cease dealing in abstractions, whereas VanDrunen’s theological paradigm seems calculated to prevent Christians from speaking and acting as Christians outside the four walls of the Church, to driving as sharp a wedge as possible between the life of the “spiritual kingdom” and the “common kingdom,” his conclusions seem rather commonsensical–indeed, downright Hookerian.  The gist of his counsel about education, vocation, and politics (with the occasional jarringly discordant statement mixed in) boils down to this: by all means bring Scripture to bear on every area of life, and seek to pursue Christian morality and Christian presuppositions in politics, education, etc., but recognize that because the Bible does not offer detailed guidance on the particulars of these complex and ever-changing fields, we must rely largely on discretion, and may come to differing conclusions about how best to live out our faith in these areas of life, so we must avoid being judgmental toward other Christians on such subjects.  

Really?  That’s it?  That’s all you were trying to say?  Well then why didn’t you just go tell everyone to read Hooker?  Part of my confusion may be due to a failure to accurately gauge VanDrunen’s main target in the work; in the final chapter, he seems to have in mind a lot of the careless, oversimplistic, and imperialistic rhetoric that characterizes that way many “transformationalists” in their application of Scripture to cultural and political issues, and so perhaps his project need not be read as an attack on more responsible approaches to Christianizing the public sphere.  However, if so, the confusion is VanDrunen’s own fault, since in the Introduction, as in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, he began by lumping together theonomists, Kuyperian neo-Calvinists, the emergent church, and N.T. Wright as all instantiations of the same problem, the one he is going to solve.  If your target is so lacking in coherent definition, then no wonder your alternative should be as well.  

However, even if much of VanDrunen’s two-kingdoms project could be read more charitably as a rebuttal to certain careless forms of American neo-Calvinist imperialism toward cultural, academic, and political life, the fact remains that his theological paradigm seems ill-fashioned to yield such a modest result.  I would suggest that, more consistently applied, VanDrunen’s theology cannot yield the relatively commonsensical practical conclusion that he wants to provide at the end, which is in fact fraught with irresolvable contradictions.  Further, I would suggest that a more authentically Protestant two-kingdoms paradigm–say, Hooker’s–would actually be able to much more consistently and coherently yield the desired result, a forthright but modest and provisional application of Scripture to public life.  Moreover, it would avoid some of the more disturbing undercurrents of VanDrunen’s paradigm. 

 

For let us not suppose that since most of the intended applications of this two-kingdoms paradigm in politics are relatively benign, the paradigm as a whole is.  By setting up the visible Church and the rest of Christian life in sharp dichotomy, and then arguing that the rest of Christian life is characterized by provisional application of our faith in changing circumstances, by a diversity of legitimate solutions, by an ambiguity of Scripture when it comes to legislating the details, and thus by an exercise of Christian liberty, VanDrunen implies that the visible Church is characterized by none of these things.  Within the four walls of the Church, Scripture does legislate for us all the details, the solutions are final, not provisional, there is only one legitimate approach, there is no Christian liberty.  And I think VanDrunen and many of his colleagues really do, more or less, think that (although he masks it by constantly equivocating on what he means by Christian liberty–a crucial ambiguity that lies at the heart of his project, as I identified in Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms).  Equally seriously, while VanDrunen at times asserts a general application of Scriptural morality to public life, at other times he can’t help claiming a complete disconnect, suggesting, for instance, that only Christians are called upon to turn the other cheek, and (it would seem) even they are only supposed to do so in the spiritual kingdom, whatever on earth that means (only if another Christian hits them?). 

Throughout, VanDrunen’s method depends upon this same bewildering mixture of the obvious and the bizarre.  His general strategy is to draw attention to a very obvious truth of Christian existence (such as the fact that we live in an antithetical relation to unbelievers, even while sharing many aspects of our lives in common with them) or of Scriptural witness (such as the fact that Christ is the full and complete author of our redemption, which does not depend on our efforts), and then draws from them by implication an utterly idiosyncratic theological proposal, which he passes off as the obvious and only implication.  For instance : Christ is the new Adam, therefore we are in no sense to be new Adams.  Christ has fulfilled Adam’s God-given task, therefore, we are not called to do it as well.  This little syllogism, which is in fact the theological hinge upon which the whole book turns, cannot but lead to a crippling bifurcation between Christ and his people, which consistently applied, would seem to leave no basis for any Christian imitation of Christ, even within the so-called spiritual kingdom.  

 

All of these points I hope to develop at more length in further posts working my way through the book; however, as I am in the midst of a longish trip encompassing two conferences, it may turn out to be awhile.  But fear not, I’m confident this blog has not seen the last of VanDrunen. 


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