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Book Review: Living in God's Two Kingdoms by David VanDrunen

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Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, by David VanDrunen (Crossway Books, 2010, 208pp.)

----- reviewed by Karl Dahlfred

Should Christians be transforming the culture?  Is there a specifically Christian way of being a teacher, politician, or businessman? Is there a difference between what individual Christians are called to do, and what the church is called to do as an institution?  What is the “kingdom of God” and what does it mean to do “kingdom work”?  These are some of the questions that drive David VanDrunen’s recent book on two kingdoms theology.  

The term “two kingdoms” is unfortunately not very well known outside Reformed and Lutheran circles.  This is a real shame because I found the two kingdoms, as VanDrunen lays it out, to be a helpful and Biblical framework for understanding the relationship between Christianity and culture.  And the world of evangelical Christianity certainly needs more thoughtful reflection on how to approach culture as a whole.

In the first chapter, VanDrunen lays out his argument in brief and states who he believes he is writing to, in particular those who talk about “picking up Adam’s cultural mandate” (multiply & rule - Gen 1:28) in order to “redeem the culture” and thereby participate in God’s redeeming the world, thus ushering in the new heavens and the new earth. After laying out the argument of the other side, VanDrunen clearly states (rightly I believe) that Adam’s cultural mandate was fulfilled in Christ (the Second Adam) - a point which he develops in more detail in chapters two and three.  Periodically throughout the book, VanDrunen emphatically states that Christians do NOT contribute anything to God’s redemption of the world, and sees that assertion as inconsistent with the doctrine of justification.  I have never heard anyone who talks about “cultural transformation” also talk about contributing something to their own justification or salvation, but I can see how such thinking, if followed out to its logical conclusion, could bring one to such a mindset.

The discussion of what Adam did and what Christ has done is important to the two kingdoms framework because if Christ did not fulfill the cultural mandate given to Adam, then it would be imperative that Christians engage themselves in all areas of human activity in an effort to control and transform all institutions of society in the lead up to the kingdom of God fully expressed in the new heavens and the new earth.  A two kingdoms understanding of Scripture, however, does not lead to a Christian triumphalism that attempts to control and dominate society at large.

So, how should Christians be engaged in the society in which they live?  VanDrunen’s answer lies in the thesis that Christians live in two kingdoms, a common kingdom and a redemptive kingdom.  Or, in plain English, the world and the church. All people are part of the common kingdom by virtue of the covenant that God made with Noah and all mankind after the flood in Genesis 9.  At that time, God formally established the preservation of human cultural activities and institutions until they are done away with at the time of the new heavens and the new earth.  Government, education, family, and so forth are valuable human activities common to all people, and Christians share these activities in common with non-believers even though their religious and spiritual values are very different, even hostile to one another.

The redemptive kingdom, on the other hand, has entirely to do with Christians gathered together into the community of the church.  Making a covenant with Abraham, God established a special people for Himself, a redemptive kingdom of those whom God has called out to live a religious life of worship that is distinct from that of the world.  While there are certain requirements that God places on mankind in general (justice, kindness, fairness), there is separate set of requirements that God places on His people in particular (worship of God alone, Sabbath observance, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, prayer, obedience to God’s special revelation in Scripture, etc.)

VanDrunen emphasizes time and again that it is important to keep in mind the distinction between these two kingdoms because depending on what kingdom you are operating in, different things may be required of you.  For example, in discussing the Sermon on the Mount (p.112-116), VanDrunen points out that Jesus is giving an ethical code for the church community, not for the world in general.  These are rules of living for the church.  They are not tips for good living that everyone in the world is expected to obey.  And “Why not?”, you may ask.  Because if the government turned the other cheek (Matt 5:39) towards criminals and practiced a policy of forgiving people as Christians are expected to do, then society would descend into chaos.  Civil government, as part of the common kingdom, has been established by God to preserve order in society (Romans 13).  “If the state wishes to operate according to the ways of the redemptive kingdom as revealed by Jesus then it must forsake the sword -- the very thing that Paul says it must not do.” (p.122)

Positively, if you know into what kingdom a certain activity falls, then you know who is responsible for it.  The church is responsible for preaching the Word of God and the state is responsible for criminal prosecutions and setting economic policy, not vice versa.  Negatively, if you don’t know into what kingdom a certain activity falls, then there is confusion and conflict.  If the state starts regulating the methods or content of religious worship, or if the church comes down on a particular side of a political policy issue not clearly stated in God’s Word (and most aren’t), then big problems ensue.  And knowing the difference of who’s responsible for what brings us into the cash value part of the book.

There is a crisis today regarding defining the mission of the church (redemptive kingdom), and the degree to which the church should be involved in education, business, and politics (among other institutions belonging the common kingdom).  After two helpful chapters on Old Testament sojourners (ch.4) and New Testament sojourners (ch.5), living in the two kingdoms, VanDrunen concludes his book with a section on the the nature and mission of the church (ch.6) and another on the Christian’s approach to education, vocation, and politics (ch.7).  

Regarding the church, VanDrunen helpfully points out that the church (redemptive kingdom) is limited in its authority to areas and tasks specifically spelled out in the Bible.  Therefore, the church should focus on the preaching of the Word, the sacraments, prayer, Sabbath observance, and other religious aspects of the life of God’s people.  Conversely, the church has no authority to speak on issues that the word of God does not talk about.  Therefore, if the church tries to speak or act authoritatively in areas that properly belong to the common kingdom (education, politics, vocation, etc.), then the church has acted presumptuously.  I found this point extremely helpful as I hear Christians talking about the need to be involved in “kingdom work”, i.e. social needs ministries, community development, the arts and other areas that don’t directly have to do with worship, the central task of the church (cf. p.134-135).  VanDrunen has helped me to understand that while Christians MAY come together to engage in mercy ministries, there is no Biblical requirement that such ministries are necessary as a formal program of the church.  

Christians individually have freedom of conscience to work out the implications of Biblical commands to do justice and show mercy, but the church as an institution can not bind the conscience of individual believers to work out these principle in a specific way.  There is a limited set of activities that church as a body must do, and to require church members to do more than that is an imposition on their Christian liberty (p.157). His application of this point to the use skits and liturgical dance in worship was also instructive (p.156-7), as he points out that the value of such worship practices are a matter of personal judgment, not Scriptural command. Thus to use them in corporate worship is to infringe upon the Christian liberty of those in the congregation who would judge such creative worship activities to be unhelpful.

As an aid to churches deciding whether to take on a particular ministry or activity, VanDrunen recommends that a church asks itself the following question “about each thing that it does: is this its own proper work, or did God entrust this work to another, nonecclesiastical institution?” (p.151 emphasis original).  If this question alone were rigorously asked in elders meetings, deacons meetings, and pastoral staff meetings, then I think we would see a widespread sharpening of focus as to the identity and purpose of the local church.

In the final chapter, VanDrunen takes on education, vocation, and politics but not to commend a specific Christian way to do each of these, but to say that there usually isn’t a Christian way to do any of these.  Of course, Christians are called to do all things to the glory of God and to conduct themselves ethically and with integrity, but is there really a Christian way to fix a car?  Isn’t the way that a believer and a non-believer would fix a car be the same?  I found his point on this matter to be a helpful corrective to the excessive labeling of things like diet plans or child raising techniques as Christian (as if the particular method being advocated is the ONLY Christian way to do the task at hand).  I also appreciated the fact that VanDrunen tries to lay down an approach for Christians to think about their engagement with cultural activities and institutions of the common kingdom, but does not proscribe how we are to go about them, other than the general commands of Scripture.  

In summary, VanDrunen’s “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms” is of great value for any Christian who wants to understand how they should approach culture. It is both theological and practical.  But it is not for the faint of heart. Those who want easy reading or prepackaged answers for the Christian’s response to culture should look elsewhere.  That is not to say that VanDrunen is obscure, for he repeatedly tells you where he is going, why he is going there, and where he has been.  His writing style is very readable but because his topic requires a lot of explanation and qualification, I found that I really needed to concentrate to understand his points.  But it is well worth the effort and I now feel like I have a better framework for thinking about the nature, purpose, and calling of the church (and the individual Christian) and their place in their relationship to the other cultural institutions and activities of the world.

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Tags: Book Reviews