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Two-Kingdom vs. Transformationalism: What’s all this fuss about?

There has been quite a surge on the blogsphere in recent days over debates between so-called “Two-Kingdom” advocates and “Transformationalists.” This post is an attempt to let you know what all the fuss is about.

Here are some representative examples of commentary on both sides of the debate, just in the past few months:

This is basically an intramural debate within Reformed circles, but one that has spread beyond that and influenced other traditions. It is an important discussion about the relationship between the Church and culture with relevance to the Church’s responsibility toward politics, freedom, social issues, poverty, justice, education, and many other critical issues.

To help clear the fog for those just entering the fray, I’d like to briefly sketch both positions below and direct you to one, accessible book for each position.

The Two-Kingdom Approach

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 2:14–151 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. The moral norms 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-kingdom or transformationalist approach (a matter of heated debate in Reformed circles), 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.2

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. 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.3

The two-kingdom 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 Culture). You’ll also find it above in Carl Trueman and Kevin DeYoung (although I’m not sure DeYoung would necessarily call himself 2K).

Perhaps the most recent popular articulation of two-kingdom thought is David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms. I highly recommend this for a basic, accessible introduction to 2K.

The two-kingdom approach thus avoids the triumphalism that can sometimes characterize the transformationalists (see below). 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-kingdom approach has 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 outside the gatherings of the church. Separation of church and state may very easily become 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.”4 Second, the idea of natural law sometimes gives the impression of a neutral middle ground between believers and unbelievers. Thus while the two-kingdom approach preserves a distinction between kingdoms, the antithesis may be blurred with the idea of natural law.

The Transformationalist Approach

kuyperThe transformationalist approach (also called Neo-Calvinist or Neo-Kuyperian) appeals to the redemption motif in Scripture, namely that God desires to redeem all of his creation and that the church is already involved in that process through cultural redemption. This, transformationalists argue, is a continuation of the creation mandate5 that was interrupted by the Fall, and thus the Great Commission6 is essentially a continuation of that original mandate this side of the cross. Thus they deny any real sacred/secular distinction; for the transformationalist, all of life is worship. Although they recognize antithesis between the values of Christianity and the values of the world’s system, they nevertheless tend to emphasize common grace, which gives all of culture a neutral, or even positive, framework for engagement. They accomplish this through a distinction between worldview and culture. The worldviews of believers and unbelievers are at complete odds with one another, but the cultural material they use to express their worldviews is neutral in itself. Cornelius Plantinga summarizes this perspective well: “All has been created good, including the full range of human cultures that emerge when humans act according to God’s design.”7

Those defending this position typically classify themselves as Reformed followers of John Calvin through the thinking of Abraham Kuyper. However, there are those in the Reformed camps who insist that the transformationalists have departed from the teachings of both Calvin and Kuyper, which is why the monikers “Neo-Calvinist” or “Neo-Kuyperian” are used to describe them. Popular defenders of variations of the transformationalist position include Cornelius Plantinga (Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living), Albert Wolters (Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview), and Michael Goheen (Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview). You’ll also see this theology in just about any “New Calvinist” or proponent of the “missional church” you read, and there’s plenty of those these days. You can recognize them by any appeal to cultural transformation or a “Creation-Fall-Redemption” motif in which the Church participates today.

Perhaps one of the most popular and influential proponents of the transformationalist approach is Albert Wolters, who seeks to articulate a “reformational worldview” in Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview. Wolters very much reflects Kuyper in the aim of his book, which he states “is an attempt to spell out the content of a biblical worldview and its significance for our lives as we seek to be obedient to the Scripture.”[9] This is not just any “biblical worldview,” however; Wolters specifically calls it “reformational” and in particular ties his understanding to the Dutch reformed movement. Essential to his “reformational worldview” is the idea that all the scriptural concepts of salvation apply not just to individuals but to the entire creation:

The strength of this model is that it recognizes the inherent goodness of God’s original creation as well as the mandate for God’s people to be active in his world, cultivating what he has given them and actively living out their faith in every sphere of life. But Wolters’s book also demonstrates most transformationalists’ failure to recognize several key distinctions in their argumentation. First, Wolters fails to distinguish between God’s creation and man’s creation. He often conflates the two categories, equating the intrinsic goodness of God’s handiwork with what mankind produces. He is correct that everything God creates is intrinsically good and that even the act of human creation is a good thing. However, to insist that every product of man’s hand is therefore also intrinsically good is to slide dangerously close to Pelagianism.

Second, Wolters fails to distinguish between what might be called elements and their forms. He may be correct in that the basic elements of human civilization are good, but the forms they take may be intrinsically evil. His structure/direction categories have the potential of helping to distinguish between elements (structure) and forms (direction), but he often fails to do so by mis-categorizing forms as elements. He lists several different “structures” that Christians may face, but some of what he lists is really the form (the direction) of a more basic element (structure). For example, he lists technology as a structure, but technology is already a direction itself; it is a form of the more basic element of communication. The same is true for dance and music. In short, Wolterss’ structure/direction categories are a good starting point, but the situation is often more complex.

The problem with a failure to recognize such distinctions is that the transformationalist position eventually understands culture in general to be neutral. Any “sinful direction” it recognizes is typically limited to the content of a given cultural form but not the form itself. Rather, since forms are characterized as elements (or directions as structures), very few if any cultural forms are judged to be against God’s law. The danger of this view is that anything in culture is fair game for the Christian, and “cultural redemption” means little more than adoption and reorientation of cultural forms that are themselves sinful. Andy Crouch astutely observes where the transformationalist approach has often led: “The rise of interest in cultural transformation has been accompanied by a rise in cultural transformation of a different sort—the transformation of the church into the culture’s image.”8

A Third Way?

As you can see from my summary above, I’m not thrilled with either position as they are typically articulated. I see a need for a third way that clearly defines “the church” and limits its mandate to biblical prescriptions (i.e., the Great Commission) but that also emphasizes the need for Christians to actively live out their Christian values in every aspect of their lives. I strongly believe that the church’s mission is limited to the explicit instructions given in the Great Commission and that there is no mandate to “redeem” culture. However, I also strongly believe in a singular Christian worldview that should affect all of life, and I reject the notion that any part of culture is neutral (as Becky articulated well here with relation to education and history). So this definitely puts me at odds with both standard views.

The transformationalist approach rightly recognizes the reality of common grace on the cultures of unbelievers and the need for Christians to express their values in every sphere of life, but they do so to the neglect of any real antithesis in the cultures themselves and a broadening of the church’s mandate beyond Scripture. Perhaps the two-kingdom approach is closest to the New Testament perspective, with its balance of both antithesis and commonality, but it fails to emphasize that a Christian’s involvement in the culture should manifest his Christian values and actually has evangelistic impact.9

Understanding culture as behavior of people that is a reflection of their values (as I argue here) provides an alternative that combines the strengths of each view and protects against their respective weaknesses. This view, which could be called the sanctificationist approach to culture,10 simply seeks to apply what the Bible has to say about behavior to every area of the Christian’s life. A Christian is to be holy in all of his conduct; the Holy Spirit uses the Bible to progressively sanctify that conduct each day. A Christian does not have to overly concern himself with whether or not he may adopt the behavior of others; he simply lives out his Christian life according to the precepts found in Scripture. When the behavior of unbelievers reflects those same precepts, he will resemble the unbeliever’s culture; when it does not, separation must take place. Nevertheless, in either case, the believer’s good conduct among the unbelievers will shine forth as a beacon of truth to draw them to redemption in Jesus Christ. And when they are redeemed, their culture will change. Perhaps the best New Testament posture for Christians who are in the world but not of the world is found in 1 Peter 1:17–18:

And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.

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. “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.” []
  2. Calvin, Institutes, []
  3. John Witte Jr., Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 5–6. []
  4. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited, 211. []
  5. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen 1:28). []
  6. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 18:19–20). []
  7. Cornelius J. Plantinga, Engaging God’s World: A Christian Vision of Faith, Learning, and Living (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 10–11. []
  8. Crouch, Culture Making, 189. []
  9. Some two-kingdom advocates do stress the need for Christian values to influence every aspect of the Christian life, even in the public sphere: “This two-kingdoms doctrine strongly affirms that God has made all things, that sin corrupts all aspects of life, that Christians should be active in human culture, that all lawful cultural vocations are honorable, that all people are accountable to God in every activity, and that Christians should seek to live out the implications of their faith in their daily vocations” (VanDrunen, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, 14–15). []
  10. This view could rightly be called the transformationalist approach, as long as the transformation means complete change of behavior. Yet since transformation has come to mean little more than adaptation rather than fundamental change, a new term is needed. []