Having recently taught a Sunday School class on the Two Kingdoms discussion that has been taking place in the Reformed world over the last several years, I’ve been processing some more about the debate between two-kingdom theology proponents and transformationists (recognizing of course that the labels aren’t that helpful since even the latter believe in the two kingdoms, just formulated differently). One of the inherent things in teaching a one-and-done class on such a topic is that so much of the debate was left out of the picture. My goal in this particular setting was simply to lay out some of the key differences between the two views, as well as key areas where they agree (at least in principle, if not always application).
As I understand the two-kingdoms view and what we could label the transformation view (essentially a neo-Kuyperian view), there are some significant areas of agreement. Now of course there are those who might broadly fall under one of these labels that don’t agree, but as I understand some common proponents of these views (Van Drunen, Horton, and Stellman on the one hand, and Keller, Kuyper, and others on the other), here are some significant areas of agreement:
1. We cannot identify any one country or set of political views with Christ’s kingdom.
2. The role of the institutional church is narrower than that of individual Christians.
3. The Scriptures’ teaching on the way we go about our callings applies to all of us in all of our various callings.
4. We must be willing to criticize and be different from our own culture (and country) in light of the clear teaching of Scripture.
As I said above, there are variations on these points among different writers. For example, while Christopher Wright would be a “transformationist,” I am not sure that he would agree with point #2. But generally, I find that those who are the theological heirs of Kuyper–the sphere-sovereignty proponent–seem to agree with that point in principle at least, though the applications of it may very. Tim Keller, always characterized as a strong transformationist, said this in a comment on my review of Wright’s book, The Mission of God’s People, some time ago:
I agree with you that Chris Wright does not address the difference between the mission of the institutional church and the mission of the people of God as individuals. It may be that he doesn’t believe there is a difference, or he may believe that and simply doesn’t talk about it. I’m not sure.
But I believe that there is a difference, that the primary mission of the institutional church is to preach the word, and the doing of justice is best carried on by individual Christians or Christians united in societies and organizations to help the poor.
By the way, I would never say that the main purpose of the gospel is to change culture. I have always said that the main purpose of gospel salvation is to remove God’s wrath and reconcile us to him. However, the ultimate effect of gospel salvation is not only saved individuals, but a new heaven and a new earth. And therefore we should never think that God’s salvation stops at bringing saved individuals to heaven. It eventually will create a new world that honors and glorifies God. I think that is what Chris Wright means too.
My point in highlighting these things is simply to suggest that there is a lot that unites Reformed people who may disagree on some key areas of the doctrine of the two kingdoms (see Tim Keller’s article making a case that there is more agreement now than perhaps has been in the past). With all that said, there are some key areas of difference.
(1) As I understand it, it seems that the major proponents of the two-kingdoms do not believe that the transformation of culture is part of the presence of the kingdom of God in this life. Transformationists argue on the other hand that the kingdom comes not only with the preaching of salvation from sin, but when all of life is conformed to God’s word.
(2) Two-kingdoms proponents also suggest that the Scriptures are the guide for the spiritual kingdom, but are not be used in the civil kingdom as the foundation of society. This is not to say that transformationists say that only Scripture is to be used in the public realm, for of course they affirm the use of general revelation. But there is a serious dividing line here, between those who say the common kingdom is ruled only by general revelation rather than Scripture also.
Certainly there are other dividing lines between the views, but those to me seem to be the crucial ones. Here are some online resources that I’ve come across that help to lay out some of the differences:
A Two Kingdoms Primer by Kim Riddlebarger
2K or Not 2K? That is the Question: A Review of David Van Drunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms by Keith Mathison
The Kingdom of God by Mark Bates (my pastor)
Lastly, Kevin DeYoung laid out some thoughts a while ago that reflect some of my own thoughts about the subject. He looks for some of the strengths and weaknesses in both positions, and then offers some thoughts of his own. I would encourage you to read all of his thoughts, but I agree with his final thoughts to some extent:
So where does this leave us? I’m not quite sure. The two kingdom theology has better biblical support in my opinion. It seems to me we are more like the Israelites in exile in Babylon than we are the Israelites in the promised land. The earnest calls for world transformation assume that because Christ will renew the whole cosmos therefore our main job as Christians is to do the same. But this is basing a whole lot of theology on a pretty tenuous implication. Two kingdom theology feels more realistic to me and fits better with the “un-preoccupied-with-transforming-society” vibe I get from the New Testament.
And yet, I am loathe to be an apologist for the status quo, or to throw cold water on young people who want to see abortion eradicated or dream of kids in Africa having clean water. I don’t think it’s wrong for a church to have an adoption ministry or an addiction recovery program. I think changing structures, institutions, and ideas not only helps people but can pave the way for gospel reception.
Perhaps there is a–I can’t believe I’m going to say it–a middle ground. I say, let’s not lose the heart of the gospel, divine self-satisfaction through self-substitution. And let’s not apologize for challenging Christians to show this same kind of dying love to others. Let’s not be embarrassed by the doctrine of hell and the necessity of repentance and regeneration. And let’s not be afraid to do good to all people, especially to the household of faith. Let’s work against the injustices and suffering in our day, and let’s be realistic that the poor, as Jesus said, will always be among us. Bottom line: let’s work for change where God calls us and gifts us, but let’s not forget that the Great Commission is go into the world and make disciples, not go into the world and build the kingdom.
It seems to me that he gives some helpful warnings to both groups. To transformationists, he reminds us of the centrality of the message of the cross. To two-kingdoms proponents, he urges them to not cause people to think that issues of poverty and justice are of little import. However, having said that, I think there may be more theological and biblical grounding for the view of transformation than he gives credit for. For example, see the short paper on the kingdom of God by my pastor that I referenced above. What would be really helpful in all of this is if people like Keith Mathison and David Van Drunen would get together and record a conversation about these topics, as unfortunately, it seems that we often speak past each other.Read More