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Cities of God

Christianity meets culture.

Oct 11, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 04 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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Regarding Augustine’s famous treatment of the City of Man and the City of God, VanDrunen says, “the two cities idea .  .  . became something of a standard for subsequent Christian reflection on the relation of Christianity to the broader world.” That later reflection, treated in detail here, led to the two kingdoms doctrine, the most articulate expression of which came during the Reformation. As VanDrunen describes it, God rules all human institutions and activities but he does so in two fundamentally different ways: God rules the spiritual kingdom expressed in the church “as redeemer in Jesus Christ,” and God rules the civil kingdom including the state and all other social institutions not as redeemer but “as creator and sustainer.”--

The two kingdoms, VanDrunen emphasizes, “exist for different purposes, have different functions, and operate according to different rules,” and Christian engagement with the civil kingdom (or culture or world) must take those differences into account. In particular, as citizens of the spiritual kingdom, believers submit to “the redemptive ethic of Scripture.” But as citizens of the civil kingdom they “can engage in genuine moral conversation with those of other faiths .  .  . without making adherence to Scripture a test for participating in cultural affairs.” Likewise, as citizens of the spiritual kingdom, they “can view the state and other institutions as temporal and destined to pass away.” Yet as citizens of the civil kingdom they “can have keen interest in promoting the welfare of human society here and now.”

The story VanDrunen tells continues from the Reformation to the present. He includes a fascinating chapter on the fate of the two kingdoms doctrine in the United States that begins in early 17th-century Massachusetts with the Puritan John Cotton (1584-1652). Cotton defended the institutional distinction between church and state, as well as their different functions; yet “these ideas”—central to two kingdoms doctrine—“tended to fade into the background in the face of [Cotton’s] zeal to defend civil religion.” VanDrunen also presents figures less well remembered than Cotton, among them the 19th-century Kentucky Presbyterian Stuart Robinson (1814-1881), an able defender of two kingdoms who, on theological grounds, not only questioned the authority of government to call upon churches to observe fast days but also opposed calls for a constitutional amendment that would acknowledge God as the source of all power and Jesus Christ as governor of the nations.

Robinson failed to persuade the transformationalists of his day, whose influence was rising. Indeed, as VanDrunen  shows, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, influential theologians in the Reformed tradition sought to provide “a redemptive and eschatological grounding to culture and Christians’ participation in it.” Inevitably, in the thinking of many of these theologians, the two kingdoms were collapsed into one: “This kingdom,” VanDrunen observes, “was originally created by God in perfect righteousness, .  .  . was corrupted through the fall into sin and is now being redeemed from corruption and advanced toward its eschatological goal” of the new heaven and the new earth. And so, with regard to how believers should engage the world, they “are not to dismiss any area of life as outside of God’s redemptive concern, and .  .  . are to seek to transform all activities and institutions in ways that reflect .  .  . [the kingdom’s] final destiny.” 

Oddly, To Change the World has little to say about two kingdoms, notwithstanding its rooting in a millennium and a half of Christian reflection. And what the book does say is a caricature: According to Hunter, the doctrine leads its adherents “to increasingly withdraw into their own communities with less and less interest in any engagement with the larger world.” Hunter fails to consider such evidence as VanDrunen has weighed and which supports the proposition that two-kingdoms doctrine encompasses the idea of promoting the welfare of society, or as Hunter himself might say, its “overall flourishing.”  

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