A few weeks ago, I finished David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. On the whole, I thought that VanDrunen built a very strong case for Two Kingdoms Theology, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book.
Like I mentioned in an earlier article, I feel that I have to play catch-up with intramural debates like these in the Presbyterian/Reformed world. But as I continue to process this, my initial reaction is to appreciate the middle ground approach to cultural pursuits that Two Kingdoms Theology offers, standing between Neo-Calvinism (which focuses heavily on the possibility of redeeming culture) and Dispensationalism (which largely avoids culture altogether).
The Biblical Case for Two Kingdoms Theology
The strength of VanDrunen’s argument is in his explanation of the Bible’s story. Although he examined many texts, I thought his explanation of three passages in particular were helpful: God’s covenant with Noah, God’s covenant with Abraham, and Jeremiah 29.
First, VanDrunen pointed to the Noahic covenant to explain his understanding of the common kingdom. The Noahic covenant is not a redemptive covenant whereby God promises to save his covenant people. Instead, VanDrunen explains, the Noahic covenant is God’s common covenant that orders his relationship with all creation:
By this covenant God ordains that there will be a stable natural order until the end of the world. All living creatures will live within this order, and the entire human race will engage in a variety of cultural activities.
Several important features characterize 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). (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 79)
It is through this covenant, then, that God promises to sustain (although not to redeem) all of creation until the end of time. The Noahic covenant (and not the Adamic covenant) establishes the cultural mandate of all people in this world. This means that a believer’s status under the Noahic covenant is indistinguishable from the status of an unbeliever.
But God also promises to redeem his people, albeit through another covenant–a covenant that he establishes with Abraham and his offspring. VanDrunen contrasts the Noahic covenant with the Abrahamic covenant this way:
The Abrahamic covenant bears the opposite features [from the Noahic 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 (rather than temporarily).
This covenant makes the spiritual antithesis obvious. Here God sets apart a people who, because of their faith and obedience toward him, are radically distinguished from their neighbors and given a different eternal destiny (life with Christ in the world-to-come). (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 82-83)
How Two Kingdoms Theology Views Cultural Activities
These two covenants establish Two Kingdoms–the Common Kingdom of all creation, and the Redemptive Kingdom that belongs solely to believers in Christ. We continue to participate in the normal, common cultural activities of everyone else in this world, but we do so knowing that this world is not our ultimate home. Instead of expecting our cultural activities to play a role in redeeming this current world, we wait for Christ to provide us a new heaven and a new earth.
So, Two Kingdoms Theology is different from the views of culture of both the Neo-Calvinist Cultural Redemptionists as well as the Dispensational Premillenialists. The former believe that we ought to pursue the good of culture because the good we do in culture will endure into the world to come. The latter believe that we ought to avoid culture altogether since everything is passing away.
Two Kingdoms Theology, on the other hand, affirms that cultural activities are good as a part of God’s Common Kingdom. But Two Kingdoms Theology limits the value of cultural activities by affirming that these cultural activities, as good as they are, will pass away when Jesus returns to destroy the Common Kingdom and to usher in the fullness of the Redemptive Kingdom.
The most helpful biblical example that VanDrunen gives to illustrate this balance of our life in the Common Kingdom and the Redemptive Kingdom is from Jeremiah 29. In Jeremiah 29, God commands his exiled people living in Babylon to seek to welfare of the city for the next 70 years until God provided for them to return to Jerusalem.
VanDrunen explains the significance of the passage this way:
The basic picture becomes clear. For a period of seventy years the Israelites were to live in exile in Babylon, pursuing in ordinary cultural activities and seeking the welfare of the very people who had destroyed the Promised Land. But they were to remain distinct from the Babylonians in their religious commitment to the true God and to maintain their hope of returning to Canaan. They were to build homes and plant gardens even though they could not keep these things. At the end of seventy years, they would leave their homes and gardens behind and be restored to the Promised Land.
Their time in Babylon was thus a time both of loving and serving their Babylonian hosts and of longing for the day of Babylonian destruction: they prayed for the peace and prosperity of Babylon while they simultaneously prayed: “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Ps. 137:8-9). (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 94, my emphasis)
I find this perspective fascinating, and it seems to make better sense of both common culture and the church than some of the other perspectives that I have evaluated in the past. Still, I have a few more thoughts, concerns, and questions that I will be posting next week.
Without qualification, though, I would strongly recommend David VanDrunen’s book Living in Two Kingdoms as for an accessible (but thorough) introduction to Two Kingdoms Theology.