How Many Kingdoms? Covenants of Commonality and Particularity
“…historic Reformed doctrines affirm a sharp distinction between the church as the non-violent kingdom of Christ and the sword bearing, coercive state. Hence, the state is not and cannot be the kingdom of Christ and… the demise of Christendom can be celebrated rather than mourned.” This quote from David VanDrunen in his book Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms will strike much of contemporary evangelicalism as nothing short of appalling. How can any real Christian hope for the downfall of Christianity in our civil institutions? Whether VanDrunen is referring to a historic understanding of Christendom as it relates Medieval history or to a more modern Christendom like that suggested by Phillip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom (Jenkins suggests that a modern Christendom is emerging in the southern hemisphere that will change social institutions) is irrelevant. It is irrelevant because from a two-kingdom perspective, either would be worth celebrating. I suspect for many, this statement is akin to blasphemy. But for those who identify with a two-kingdom theological framework, it makes perfect sense.
Last week, I explained that a two-kingdom theologian sees two distinct “spheres” in which human beings may operate. On the one hand there is the “civil kingdom.” This kingdom is ruled by Christ as creator and sovereign sustainer. On the other hand, there is the “spiritual kingdom.” This kingdom is comprised of the church and Christ rules this kingdom not only as creator and sovereign sustainer but also as Redeemer. This is contrasted with the one-kingdom view, which sees the risen Christ as ruling all spheres of society as Redeemer.
The idea of a one-kingdom theological framework is now the default position for a swath of Christians across a variety of traditions. In a recent CNN article, entitled “Are Evangelicals Dangerous?”, Albert Mohler writes, “But over recent decades, evangelical Christians have learned that the gospel has implications for every dimension of life, including our political responsibility.” This is a statement that is loaded with theological ideas about social theory and this is supposedly what “evangelical Christians,” have learned. I am here to take the other side of this discussion. I want to start my defense of two-kingdom theology by building an Old Testament foundation for the theological concept. In this initial defense, I hope it starts to become clear why I believe VanDrunen’s opening statement can be looked upon with agreement and appreciation rather than disdain. Without getting overly technical in the next sections, I hope to lay out some key theological ideas that all my readers can understand, in spite of possible disagreements.
A Covenant of Commonality
Essential to two-kingdom thinking is the idea that God develops a covenant with all of mankind. This covenant is not particular to the people of God, but to humanity as a whole. Indeed it is a covenant of commonality. Beginning in Genesis, we can see that all of creation is commanded to “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” (Genesis 1:28). And thus, man is commanded to undertake these common activities of reproduction and subduing the earth. This is not a command that is specifically given to the covenant community but to mankind at large (as sin had not entered the world yet). As the Genesis narrative progresses, all of mankind is affected by Adam’s fall into sin (Gen 3:16-17). Through Adam’s fall, mankind is united in a common corruption.
After the world is destroyed by a flood, God begins the work of establishing a post-fall covenant of common grace with all of mankind. We know this because God explicitly tells Noah that this is a covenant with him and his offspring (Gen 9:9). Being the only man left on earth after the flood, Noah’s offspring is all of humanity. This idea is further reinforced explicitly as God tells Noah that his covenant is with “every living creature” (Gen 9:10, 12, 15, 16). The idea of covenanting with every living creature is found four times in the Genesis 9 narrative. Central to this covenant is God’s statement in verse 6 that “Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Bound up in this covenant of commonality is an idea of justice. Note that the essential elements of this covenant have to do with very temporal non-redemptive issues. Among the vital components of the Noahic covenant is the capital punishment clause (v. 6), the command to procreate (v. 7) the promise to never again destroy all flesh with a flood (v.15). All these essential elements relate to temporal realities and in no way introduce a promise of redemption or for the purposes of our discussion, a “spiritual kingdom.” Indeed the promises of the Noahic covenant will be applicable to the sphere of commonality between believers and their non-believing counterparts.
A Covenant of Particularity
Up to this point in the Genesis, nothing has been done by God to address the spiritual ramifications of the fall. At this point we have a sphere of commonality that has been established in order to preserve relative moral order among all of mankind. But in Genesis 12-17, we see the creation of an entirely different kingdom. The members of this kingdom are those who possess faith in the one true God.
Genesis 12-17 marks at the story of Abraham and the creation of God’s covenant people. This covenant was made with Abraham and his descendants. God tells Abraham that he will make his covenant “between you and your offspring… for an everlasting covenant” (Gen 17:7). While the language is nearly identical to the language used in the Noahic covenant, Abraham is not the only man on the face of the earth at this time. Therefore, his offspring cannot possibly be all of mankind since there is no possible way for all of mankind to be related to him. This is a covenant for all believing people (Galatians 3:14), not for mankind in its entirety. This is a covenant of particularity.
Essential to the Abrahamic covenant is that it deals with issues of redemption. A ceremonial sacrifice (Gen 15:1-21) to cut the covenant would point to a later shedding of blood for the forgiveness of sins. A sign of circumcision would point to circumcision of the heart that was the final aim of the external act (Rom 2:27-29). But beyond the fact that circumcision points to redemptive realities, it also served to draw a clear dividing line between God’s people and those who were not his people. This helps demonstrate not only the redemptive nature of this covenant but also its particularity.
The covenant with Abraham deals with redemptive issues whereas the covenant with Noah deals with cultural, non-eternal issues. They are two entirely different covenants that established two different kingdoms/spheres of life. The Noahic covenant helped form what we call the civil kingdom and the Abrahamic covenant helped form the spiritual kingdom.
In this article I have attempted to show that from the beginning God was establishing two kingdoms in which mankind may operate. These two kingdoms have different aims, different means and different ends.
While I have not explicitly defended VanDrunen’s idea of celebrating the demise of Christendom, I hope some thoughts will be emerging in your mind at this point. Some questions to consider are: If there are two kingdoms, does God rule them both in similar fashion? Do these two kingdoms have the same purpose? Are these two kingdoms to be ruled by different aspects of God’s revelation? Indeed, if we grant that there are two kingdoms, it would seem illogical to say that there is no practical difference between the two. For, if there was no difference, the distinction is of no substantive value.
Thus, when VanDrunen states that the demise of Christendom is something to celebrated, it is because he (and other two-kingdom theologians) see a major difference in the purpose of each kingdom. This is what I hinted at when I suggested that one kingdom deals with cultural, temporal affairs and the other deals with redemptive affairs. If the kingdom that pertains to civil affairs is infiltrated by the one that pertains to redemptive affairs (and vice-versa), then God’s design for each kingdom has not been upheld. And that is a problem—a significant one.