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The Two-Kingdoms Approach to Culture

This entry is part 9 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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The two-kingdom approach is essentially built upon two ideas: natural law and a clear distinction between redemptive and non-redemptive social spheres. The first idea is built on passages like Romans 2:14-15 and the assumption that moral norms are inscribed on the hearts of all men. These norms are the basis for common society of which both believers and unbelievers are members. They are not salvific in any way but rather provide for human peace even among the unregenerate. This general civic realm is not all that exists, however, since there also exists salvific revelation beyond this common natural law; two-kingdom advocates sharply distinguish between believers and unbelievers and also between the ecclesiastical government and the civic government. Believers are governed, not only by natural law, but also by a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, his person, and his works. But while a person can be a member of only one city (to use Augustine’s term), a believer has dual membership in both kingdoms and thus submits himself to both governments, each of which has been created by God to order the world. Whether or not Calvin advocated a two-kingdoms or transformationalist approach, he summarizes this perspective particularly well:

This, then, is the distinction: that there is one kind of understanding of earthly things; another of heavenly. I call “earthly things” those which do not pertain to God or his Kingdom, to true justice, or to the blessedness of the future life; but which have their significance and relationship with regard to the present life and are, in a sense, confined within its bounds. I call “heavenly things” the pure knowledge of God, the nature of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the Heavenly Kingdom. The first class includes government, household management, all mechanical skills, and the liberal arts. In the second are the knowledge of God and of his will, and the rule by which we conform our lives to it.1

These two kingdoms rule their respective spheres separately and do not overlap. Christians, as members of both kingdoms, operate fully under the laws of each. As a member of the heavenly kingdom, a Christian submits to the Word of God; as a member of the earthly kingdom, he submits to human laws.2 The two-kingdoms theology is expressed most popularly today by Michael Horton (Where in the World Is the Church? A Christian View of Culture and Your Role in It), D. G. Hart (Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State), Jason Stellman (Dual Citizens: Worship and Life Between the Already and the Not Yet), and David VanDrunen (Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought; Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Cutlure).

Perhaps the most recent popular articulation of two-kingdom thought is David VanDrunen’s in Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. He disagrees with the typical transformationalist motifs of “creation regained” and the “cultural mandate” by insisting that these have been accomplished in Christ as the second Adam and are therefore not the responsibility of the church. Instead of focusing on “creation regained,” VanDrunen suggests that Christians can celebrate “re-creation gained” as a work accomplished in Jesus Christ.3 This does not mean that Christians will not be active in culture, it simply removes the eschatological or “creation mandate” motivations. He argues that Christians are to live as sojourners in this life as part of two distinct kingdoms and explores practical ways this thinking will affect church ministry and Christian living.

The two-kingdom approach thus avoids the triumphalism that can sometimes characterize the transformationalists. It has no aspirations to transform society but rather claims to have a more realistic understanding of the fallenness of the world. It also protects the regular, God-ordained operations of the church governed by explicit biblical commands. So while Christians can and should be actively involved in the civic realm, the church itself is limited only to those matters expressly prescribed in scripture.

The two-kingdoms approach has also come under criticism from a number of sources, however. First, this view can give the impression that God has no place in the public sphere. Despite Luther’s insistence that God ordained and rules through both kingdoms, a sharp distinction between them may lead Christians to fail to recognize the necessity to do all to God’s glory even in the public sphere.4 Separation of church and state may very easily becomes separation of Christianity from life. As Carson points out, “What this vision rightly captures is the tension . . . but it is easy so to polarize the two kingdoms that we forget that one God stands over all.”5 Second, the idea of natural law sometimes gives the impression of a neutral middle ground between believers and unbelievers. Thus while the two-kingdoms approach preserves a distinction between kingdoms, the antithesis may be blurred with the idea of natural law.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Calvin, Institutes, []
  2. John Witte summarizes: “The earthly kingdom is distorted by sin and governed by the Law. The Heavenly kingdom is renewed by grace and guided by the Gospel. A Christian is a citizen of both kingdoms at once and invariably comes under the distinctive government of each. As a heavenly citizen, the Christian remains free in his or her conscience, called to live fully by the light of the Word of God. But as an earthly citizen, the Christian is bound by law, and called to obey the natural orders and offices that God has ordained and maintained for the Governments of this earthly kingdom” (John Witte Jr., Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation, 1st ed. [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002], 5–6). []
  3. VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, 26. []
  4. One poignant example of this was Christians in the southern United States who ignored the issue of slavery as an issue in which they should not involve themselves. []
  5. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 211. []