White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Christ and Culture Once More

Release date:

December 17, 2011

In his blog yesterday (12.16.11) Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, suggested that there has been a lot of helpful conversation about Christ and culture in the last year. I agree, although the caricatures continue unabated and, with it, continued polarization.

“On the surface,” Tim writes, “the Reformed and evangelical world seems divided between ‘Cultural Transformationists’ and the ‘Two Kingdoms’ views.” Although the Transformationists include disparate camps (“neo-Calvinists, the Christian Right, and the theonomists”), “they all believe Christians should be about redeeming and changing the culture along Christian lines.” “On the other hand, the Two Kingdoms view believes essentially the opposite—that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society.” Here, too, there is a spectrum. Then you have the neo-Anabaptists who “much more pessimistic than Reformed 2Ks about the systems of the world, which they view as ‘Empire,’ based on violence and greed.” Yet 2ks and neo-Anabaptists both “reject completely the idea that ‘kingdom work’ means changing society along Christian lines. Both groups believe the main job of Christians is to build up the church, a counter-culture to the world and a witness against it.”

Among the books that Tim thinks have brought greater moderation to the debate is James Hunter’s To Change the World, particularly the University of Virginia sociologist’s emphasis on “faithful presence” as the appropriate model for Christian engagement with culture.

I confess that I am often baffled by the gross caricatures of the 2K position, especially by some within the Reformed community whose vehemence outstrips their attempt to understand and wrestle with the actual position. Especially after several decades of triumphalism in the name of “Christ’s lordship over all of life,” it’s not surprising that the 2K view would seem something like a party-crasher. But what’s gained by misrepresentation?

That is not true of Tim Keller’s interaction, of course, and he is encouraging healthier conversation. Yet even in his post there remain what I would regard as some misunderstandings about the 2K position. I can’t speak for anyone but myself and for more thorough treatments of the view I’d recommend David VanDrunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms and his more scholarly historical work on Reformed social thought, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms. (He also has a new work coming out soon, also with Eerdmans, defending the position with exegetical and biblical-theological depth.)

As usual, Tim is respectful of the different views. However, I want to challenge his description of the 2K position a bit. He describes the 2K position in general as holding that because “Christians do their work alongside non-believers” on the basis of natural law and common grace, “Christians do not, then, pursue their vocation in a ‘distinctively Christian’ way.” Two-Kingdom proponents believe “that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society” and “reject completely the idea that ‘kingdom work’ means changing society along Christian lines. Both groups believe the main job of Christians is to build up the church, a counter-culture to the world and a witness against it.”

This description makes it sound as if 2K folks are more neo-Anabaptist. On one point, I think that’s true. Neo-Anabaptists like Stanley Hauerwas and Scot McKnight argue that the church is called to be a new society in this fading evil age, not to create one.

Beyond that, though, we are worlds apart.

Calvin, who explicitly affirmed the “two kingdoms” in terms identical to Luther’s (for example, Inst. 3.19.15; 4.20.1), not only opposed medieval confusion on the point but also the radical Anabaptist “fanatics” who disparaged God’s common grace in culture (2.2.15). Like Luther, Calvin was convinced that Christ’s kingdom proceeds by Word and Spirit, not by sword, but that Christians could be soldiers and magistrates as well as bakers and candlestick makers. The power of the gospel is not the same power of the state, nor indeed the power that we exercise in everday callings as parents, children, employers, employees, and so forth. The kingdom of grace is distinct from the kingdom of power (pace Rome), but not wholly opposed (pace Anabaptists). Like Luther, Calvin believed that the two kingdoms were God’s two kingdoms, not that there is a secular sphere in which the believer’s faith has no bearing on his or her vocations. And also like Luther, Calvin believed that these two kingdoms or callings intersected in the life of every believer. They are not two tracks that never touch; they are two callings that intersect.

Interestingly, James Madison—a student of Presbyterian theologian John Witherspoon—saw the “two kingdoms” doctrine as essential for the good of the church as well as the civil society; that is, the “due distinction, to which the genius and courage of Luther led the way, between what is due to Caesar and what is due to God.” This view “best prospers the discharge of both obligations,” he said.

Nothing in the 2K view entails that “Christians do not, then, pursue their vocation in a ‘distinctively Christian way'” or “that neither the church nor individual Christians should be in the business of changing the world or society.” Calvin’s heirs are among the most notable figures in the history of the arts, sciences, literature, politics, education, and a host of other fields. They didn’t have to justify their vocations in the world as ushering in Christ’s redemptive kingdom in order to love and serve their neighbors in Christ’s name.

The Reformers were convinced that when the church is properly executing its ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, there will be disciples who reflect their Christian faith in their daily living. The goal of the church as an institution is not cultural transformation, but preaching, teaching, baptizing, communing, praying, confessing, and sharing their inheritance in Christ. The church is a re-salinization plant, where the salt becomes salty each week, but the salt is scattered into the world.

If I’m not mistaken, this is pretty close to Abraham Kuyper’s distinction between the church as organization (institution) and the church as organism (believers in their callings). Kuyper observed that Christ is King over all kingdoms, but in different ways. None of the “spheres”—including the church—could encroach on the other spheres’ independence. Together, these observations yield a position that is in principle consistent with “two kingdoms.”

C. S. Lewis’s line is appropriate here: “I believe in Christ like I believe in the sun, not just because I see it, but by it I can see everything else.” Immersion into God’s world, through Scripture, changes the way we think, feel, and live—even when it doesn’t give us detailed prescriptions on every aspect of our lives. It would be schizophrenic—indeed, hypocritical—to affirm Christian faith and practice on Sunday and to live as if someone or something else were lord on Monday. The biblical drama, doctrines, and doxology yield a discipleship in the world that does indeed transform. It never transforms the kingdoms of this age into the kingdom of Christ (for that we await the King’s bodily return); however, it does touch the lives of ordinary people every day through ordinary relationships. Not everyone is a William Wilberforce, but we can be glad that he was shaped by the faithful ministry of the Anglican Calvinist John Newton and committed his life to the extirpation of the slave trade.

As I read Professor Hunter’s excellent book (To Change the World), I actually thought that his argument for “faithful presence” was exactly what 2K folks are after. Our goal should not be to change the world, but to maintain a faithful presence in the world as “salt” and “light.” That can only happen when the church is doing what it is called to do (viz., the Great Commission), and Christians are engaged actively in their many different callings throughout the week.

So I hope that Tim Keller is right that we’re becoming less polarized over this issue. I suspect, though, that we have a long way to go. One important step is for proponents to articulate the 2K view more clearly and for others to represent it more accurately. In the era of rapid social media, different points of view easily become classified as different schools. We shoot at each other and talk past each other, under one banner or another. That’s very different from realizing that we belong to the church together, with its long conversation, and that our discussions (even debates) today aren’t really radically new but are questions our forebears have wrestled with for a long time and in very different historical contexts that shape the views themselves. This discussion is part of that great conversation and as it matures, one hopes that our cultural engagement will mature as well.