Two Kingdoms in the Old Testament

(Continuing at last with my review of Living in God’s Two Kingdoms

One of the greatest weakness of the theological paradigm that VanDrunen advances as a basis for his Reformed two kingdoms theology, is that it leaves him ill-equipped to make sense of the Biblical narrative.  The dogmatic theology, as discussed in the previous post, is problematic enough, but at least there VanDrunen can tie it all together into a coherent, though perhaps not persuasive, package.  But when it comes to the Biblical theology, he is essentially forced to openly excise large portions of Scripture as having little or no meaning for us today, renouncing any aspiration to a unified Biblical narrative.  

Although the New Testament certainly provides plenty of narrative, and offers, I think, glimpses of a prospective narrative, whereby we may understand the Church age and the eschaton, the lion’s share of Biblical narrative of course falls in the Old Testament, and it is here that VanDrunen’s most obvious problems appear.  After all, 90% of the Old Testament narrative tells the story of Israel, a covenanted people who receive laws from God to regulate every area of their religious, social, economic, and civil life, who exist as a holy nation, a priestly kingdom, under their King Yahweh and those whom he appoints.  This is hardly a promising place to look for a two-kingdoms paradigm, in which divine law addresses only otherworldly matters, and affairs of this life are part of the “common kingdom,” ruled by natural law.  And so, VanDrunen sheepishly admits, this whole section of the story (90% of it) is just an interlude–a side-show–not something we should rest too much weight on.

 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s look back at how VanDrunen sets up the Old Testament narrative in terms of his two-kingdoms theology.  After his somewhat idiosyncratic account of Adam’s commission (covered in the previous post), he begins with the Noahic covenant, which, he tells us, establishes the “common kingdom”:

“Several important features characterise this common kingdom established by the Noahic covenant: it concerns ordinary cultural activities (rather than special acts of worship or religious devotion), it embraces the human race in common (rather than a holy people that are distinguished from the rest of the human race), it ensures the preservation of the natural and social order (rather than the redemption of this order), and it is established temporarily (rather than permanently)” (79).  

With this, he contrasts the redemptive Abrahamic covenant:

“it concerns religious faith and worship (rather than ordinary cultural activities), it embraces a holy people that is distinguished from the rest of the human race (rather than the human race in common), it bestows the benefits of salvation upon this holy people (rather than preserving the natural and social order), and it is established forever and ever” (82-3) 

Now this kind of distinction is nothing terribly novel, and thus far, I’m more or less fine with it.  But two covenants do not equal two kingdoms, in VanDrunen’s sense; rather, I would suggest that the Biblical picture is one in which the Abrahamic covenant is the means to the realisation of the Noahic covenant.  The Noahic covenant is, after all, a reaffirmation of the Adamic covenant–that much is clear (it begins with “Be fruitful and multiply”).  After Adam’s failure to carry out his God-ordained task, the world was plunged into the chaos of sin and required devastating divine judgment.  After this judgment, God confronts Noah as the new Adam, reaffirming his task, and pledging that this time, the world will not have to be destroyed again.  Now, why not?  How is the fallen earth and the fallen race to be prevented from requiring judgment again?  Already within two chapters, things seem to be going to pot again.  The Abrahamic covenant is the answer.  God covenants with Israel as the representative of the human race, called upon to be the bearers of his promises and the witnesses to him in a fallen world, so that through them, the earth might be preserved and the race redeemed.  In other words, redemption and preservation are not so separate as VanDrunen suggests, but are interdependent.  

Now, as VanDrunen continues, his categories begin to look increasingly strained: “Here [in the Abrahamic covenant] God sets apart a people who, because of their faith and obedience toward him, are radically distinguished from their neighbours and given a different eternal destiny (life with Christ in the world-to-come).  Genesis teaches these things about the Abrahamic covenant” (83)  What?  Genesis teaches that Abraham is going to be given life with Christ in the world-to-come?  Hardly.  Dogmatic theology might teach that on the basis of the whole Scriptural revelation, but Genesis says no such thing.  VanDrunen’s insistence on supplanting biblical theology with systematic theology (on the next page, VanDrunen says “Unlike the Noahic covenant, this covenant is not about preserving this present world but about opening up the gates of the world-to-come” and then goes on to read the imputation of Christ’s righteousness into the passage!) blinds him to the incongruities in the categories he is applying to the text.  The promise to Abraham is first and foremost for a people, and for a land–for this-worldly benefits.  Now, we might want to jump forward to the New Testament and spiritualize all this, but the very this-worldly nature of these promises means that, in the Old Testament at least, this “spiritual kingdom” seems to transgress a lot on the territory assigned to the “civil kingdom.”  

But there’s a more serious incongruity.  What does God say to Abraham about the purpose of the covenant? “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  As VanDrunen has described it, the purpose of the covenant is to separate out a people for a different eternal destiny, to bracket them off from their neighbours and save them out of the world, giving them blessings in the world to come.  But as God describes it, the purpose is to commission a people to bless the whole rest of the world.  Needless to say, this difference has huge ramifications, since, as N.T. Wright never tires of pointing out, this is Paul’s whole point in Romans–Israel has failed to be the blessing to the world, and so God has fulfilled Israel’s task himself through the faithful Israel Christ, in whom we all are called to be the new Israel, bringing God’s blessing to the world.  

VanDrunen goes on to explain how Abraham, while covenanted to dwell in the spiritual kingdom by faith, simultaneously lived in the common kingdom: “As he sojourned in the land, Abraham did not set up his own cultural ghetto but freely participated in his neighbours’ cultural activities” (86).  There is a little problem with this picture, though–this land is the very thing that Abraham is going to acquire according to the terms of the redemptive covenant–this is the inheritance of his “spiritual kingdom”!  His “sojourning” in it is a temporary matter, as he patiently waits on God for the day when he and his descendants can take it over, at which time these “neighbours” will be killed, expelled, or converted.  This is hardly the kind of two-kingdoms mentality VanDrunen wants to recommend–one in which we inhabit the common kingdom only as long as we have to, waiting until we can take it over and make it into the spiritual kingdom–indeed, it sounds more like the theonomic mindset VanDrunen is keen to oppose.  

 

So how does VanDrunen get around this?  Apparently, by deftly inverting the narrative of the Old Testament so that the inheritance of the Promised Land is, ironically, not the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, but a weird, 800-year-long hiatus in the Biblical narrative: “For present purposes it is also crucial to note that Israel’s experience under the law of Moses in the Promised Land of Canaan was not meant to exemplify life under the two kingdoms.  The cultural commonality among believers and unbelievers ordained in the Noahic covenant was suspended for Israel within the borders of the Promised Land” (90).  After describing the many ways in which the Mosaic law violates the two-kingdoms paradigm, he concludes, “Under the Mosaic covenant God evidently suspended the provisions of the Noahic covenant that ordained that ordinary cultural activities should be a common enterprise among believers and unbelievers alike.”  So in the Mosaic covenant–the covenant that dominates the Old Testament, we have a covenant that doesn’t really fit with either of the two previous covenants that are supposed to provide a blueprint for the life of God’s people.  In another strange inversion, it is not until things go horribly wrong, and God’s people are completely unfaithful, that they are again given the opportunity to live according to the original blueprint: “In Israel’s long history between the giving of the law to Moses and the coming of Christ, they nevertheless had one corporate experience which did exemplify the life of the two kingdoms: the Babylonian exile” (91).  But before moving on to the end of the narrative, let’s pause and look at a couple other remarks about the period in the Promised Land.

While admitting that the two-kingdoms principle seems basically suspended during this time, VanDrunen argues that it did still apply “outside the borders of the Promised Land”–here, Israelites were still supposed to live as citizens of a common kingdom, free to “make alliances and trade in common with the world.”  This claim is problematic because, in fact, Israel is condemned by God for pretty much every alliance they make with another kingdom, and the Solomonic period, to which VanDrunen appeals for his proof-texts, is the time when Israel is shown to have be violating God’s commands not to be like other kingdoms–the multiplying wives, horses, chariots, etc.  The trading alliance with Hiram is not explicitly condemned, but in context, it is hardly warmly affirmed.  In any case, again, this paradigm would underwrite a kind of two-kingdoms relationship that VanDrunen eschews–one in which Christians hang out in their “spiritual kingdom” ghetto of the Church, living isolated lives and only venturing out to mingle with unbelievers when pragmatic necessity calls for it.  

 

Now what about the Babylonian captivity?  Sure.  Here we do have a “two-kingdoms” relationship, in which faithful Jews are supposed to serve God as he requires, while also serving Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon.  But without delving into the details of how VanDrunen explicates this phase, we must note, as VanDrunen himself is forced to, that this is a temporary anomaly.  The Israelites are waiting for Babylon’s destruction; they are longing to get back to the Promised Land.  And as soon as they can, they do.  

 

VanDrunen’s entire retelling of the Old Testament, then, inverts its own self-presentation.  The state of affairs it envisions as proper for God’s people, which all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are dedicated to laying the groundwork for, is one that he considers an anomaly, not to be followed, not to be used as an example.  But whenever things are not as they should be in the Old Testament, whenever they are out of whack, then, on VanDrunen’s reading, they are just as they should be–because they’re exhibiting a two-kingdoms paradigm.

Now of course, VanDrunen will retort that we are not living in a state of fulfilment, but we’re living in a time out of joint.  We have not received our Promised Land, and so the state of Abrahamic sojourn or of exile is the fitting image.  Unsurprisingly, he lays great stress on the New Testament language of “sojourners” and “exiles.”  However, obviously, this is not the only New Testament language.  The Church is the New Israel, the New Jerusalem.  We have already “come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God” (Heb. 13:22).  Redemption is already taking hold.  The New Testament church is in a state of already/not yet, of partial fulfilment, but also expectation, of being sojourners but also citizens.  This means that we must hold in balance both Old Testament paradigms as offering a valuable hermeneutic for our own situation.  We cannot simply choose the one and chuck the other.  Especially, we cannot choose the one that is minimised in the Old Testament and chuck the one that is at the centre of the Old Testament vision.  Otherwise, Marcionism is lurking at the door, as I’m afraid it is in VanDrunen’s wholesale dismissal of the Mosaic covenant.


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