What is "Two Kingdoms" theology and why does it matter...

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(NOTE: This is a prequel in a (so far) eleven-part series opposing the liberal theology called "Two Kingdom," "Radical Two-Kingdom," "Rigid Two Kingdom," or "Revisionist Two Kingdom," and abbreviated here simply as "R2K." Here's the first in this series, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the tenth, and the eleventh.) 

Some weeks back, I read on another forum some shorter posts by a friend, Darrell Todd Maurina, that were quite helpful in understanding the "R2K" or "Radical Two Kingdom" error. Contacting Darrell, I asked if he'd be willing to compile the posts into a larger essay making whatever additions he thought helpful. Darrell agreed and this is the result.

It's rare we run such a long piece, but really, this one is a must-read. Please give your time to it.

We live in an evil day when the usurpation of the authority of mediating institutions by Washington D.C. and its satellites is growing each year. Combined with the demands of the monsters of the id that no contrary voice be allowed to speak and Christians find ourselves in an increasingly untenable position...

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How are we to teach and preach and make disciples of all men when the demand all around us is that we keep our "religion," which is to say our Christian faith and witness, private? When even the most orthodox believers and their pastors are unwilling to preach or publicly witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in any matter under public debate? When the most boringly orthodox convictions are never owned on the internet by faithful men of God who sign their first and last names because they have been told they will be fired if they speak for God publicly?

What here on Baylyblog we refer to as the "R2K" or "Radical Two Kingdom" error is a recent innovation by men like Darryl Hart and a couple professors at Westminster Seminary in Escondido that seeks to avoid this growing persecution by demanding the silence of pastors and the radical privatization of Christian faith. (In the essay, the Radical Two Kingdom error is referred to simply as "Two Kingdoms.")

This is an alarming departure from the Apostolic witness that was exceedingly public—think the Apostle Paul front and center in Athens speaking in the Areopagus—which public witness continued through two millenia into modern times when Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon signed our own Declaration of Independence.

Hatred and rebellion against our Father Almighty is visceral among postmoderns, and growing. The question of our time is how we are to live and serve as faithful witnesses to our Lord amid such hatred? We must pray that our Lord will give us much wisdom, and also boldness. This essay will connect us with the faithful men who have gone before us making their own good confession in their own evil days. We're convinced an accurate historical understanding of where our fathers in the Reformed faith stood across the past five centuries will serve us well in recognizing the narrow path of faithfulness we and our children are called to walk today and tomorrow. 

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What is "Two Kingdoms" theology and why does it matter?  

By Darrell Todd Maurina

Conservative Calvinists are no strangers to controversy, whether internal or external.

As Calvinists, we’re not focused on seeking an emotional experience of exuberance but rather on careful exegesis and application of Scripture to our lives. That means we are used to reading, debating, and defending our positions.

Externally, many of us are used to fighting both liberals and non-Reformed evangelicals over key questions such as the authority of Scripture, the sovereignty of God, the extent of the love of God, the standards for ordination (including gender), and many related issues.

Internally, within the Reformed world, many of us are used to debates over such questions as whether to baptize children, how early to encourage children to profess faith and come to communion, how much of an emphasis to place on the experience of personal conversion, the role of catechesis, and the place of Christian education or homeschooling vis-à-vis public schools. The “worship wars” which vex many evangelical churches take a particular focus for Calvinists because for us, worship is not merely a matter of preference but has doctrinal implications.

A new debate, however, is brewing in Reformed circles. That debate centers on what is often known as “Two Kingdoms” theology.

We are now seeing the rise of people who, while they affirm standard conservative Reformed positions on all the issues cited above and may even affirm some of the strictest possible interpretations of the Reformed confessional standards on such things as psalm singing and the Sabbath, at the same time argue that they should not “impose” their strictly conservative Christian views on those outside the church via political decisions on questions of public policy or morals.

Let us not minimize the seriousness of the positions these people take.

We now have prominent professors at Reformed seminaries who are writing things like this:

“Although a contractual relationship denies God’s will for human dignity, I could affirm domestic partnerships as a way of protecting people’s legal and economic security.”

Again,

“The challenge there is that two Christians who hold the same beliefs about marriage as Christians may appeal to neighbor-love to support or to oppose legalization of same-sex marriage.”

(Source: White Horse Inn Blog)

Those comments weren’t written by a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) teaching at San Francisco Theological Seminary, but rather by Dr. Michael Horton, an ordained minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America teaching at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, Calif.

Dr. Horton is not alone. Much worse views are out there.

Among the worst views are those of Misty Irons, the wife of a former Orthodox Presbyterian minister who left the OPC and whose husband is now a PCA ruling elder. She describes herself this way on her blog:

“Straight, married with three kids, homeschooling, evangelical Christian of the Reformed variety. Okay, now that the scary part is out of the way, see ‘More about me’ to find out why I support gay marriage in society and oppose it in the church.”

(Source: More Musings On Blog)

One can fairly argue that a person who has done great good for the Reformed church world should not be quickly condemned to the outer darkness for uttering some aberrant viewpoints. It’s hard to get everything right when one has written thousands of pages. For example, few if any of those who support the experiential Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards endorse his ownership of slaves. Dr. Horton, to his credit, has a long history of defending not just generically conservative positions but distinctively Reformed confessional orthodoxy.

That cannot be said of Misty Irons, who, with her husband, was driven out of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. She said this about her experience:

“It would soon become evident that the whole denomination would divide up according to which side people resonated most strongly with ... The news that an OPC pastor’s wife had not only come out in favor of civil same-sex marriage but defended it publicly could not be contained. My article spread to four other internet discussion lists and, I was told, seven other Reformed denominations.”

Misty Irons points out with regard to advocates of homosexual civil unions that she “provided a service of making them look like moderates by comparison.”

More recently, she spoke to a “Gay Christian Network” conference in which she argued for her position and severely criticized the OPC for its treatment of her and her husband.

Note carefully Misty Irons’ view that she has “provided a service of making them” (i.e., people less radical than herself) “look like moderates by comparison.”

We need to beware of the “frog in the kettle” syndrome here.

Perhaps it’s true that frogs don’t jump out of boiling pots if they’re heated slowly.

However, it’s the job of seminary professors to be more discerning than frogs.

Clearly this issue is not over; the Misty Irons problem hasn’t moved from the OPC to the liberal Presbyterian Church (USA), where it belongs, but rather from the small and strictly Reformed circles of the OPC to the much larger, more broadly evangelical, and less discerning PCA, where her views could easily do much more damage.

But the problem is not totally out of the OPC either.

Men like Rev. Todd Bordow, pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, are saying this about bestiality:

Not being a theonomist or theocrat, I do not believe it is the state’s role to enforce religion or Christian morality. So allowing something legally is not the same as endorsing it morally. I don’t want the state punishing people for practicing homosexuality. Other Christians disagree. Fine. That’s allowed. That is the distinction. Another example - beastiality (sic) is a grotesque sin and obviously if a professing member engages in it he is subject to church discipline. But as one who leans libertarian in my politics, I would see problems with the state trying to enforce it; not wanting the state involved at all in such personal practices; I’m content to let the Lord judge it when he returns. A fellow church member might advocate for beastiality (sic) laws. Neither would be in sin whatever the side of the debate. Now if the lines are blurry in these disctinctions,(sic) that is always true in pastoral ministry dealing with real people in real cases in this fallen world.”

(Link: Puritanboard Internet Forum)

Certainly we can be grateful for Rev. Bordow’s affirmation that we live in a fallen world. But apparently, in Rev. Bordow’s world, not only is homosexuality a matter of moral indifference to the state, even the puppies are not safe, and we have no moral imperative to protect them from sexual perversion.

These are, of course, not new problems. One can fairly argue that homosexuality has a history going back to ancient Greece. Those who argue that the Bible knows nothing of homosexuality as a mutually consensual loving relationship and who argue that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed based on a homosexual rape attempt rather than consensual homosexuality are simply unaware of or unconcerned about the situation in Greco-Roman world in which the apostles lived and wrote. Scripture also condemns sex with animals, so that sin clearly existed thousands of years ago. At least one case of bestiality happened in Puritan New England, where Calvinists in that day had very different views from Rev. Bordow on how to punish the lawbreaker.

American culture has become increasingly accommodated to many practices, including but not limited to homosexuality, which were once illegal in virtually every state of the Union. The heat has been steadily turned up for decades on the kettle of homosexual advocacy, the water is now boiling, the frog never jumped out, and perhaps it should surprise nobody that we now have ministers in conservative Reformed denominations arguing that Christians should not “impose” the standards of Romans 1-3 on the civil state.

But how can anyone possibly argue, even on the basis of natural law rather than revealed religion, that the civil magistrate should not punish those who have sex with dogs, cats, cows, pigs and goats? Bestiality isn’t a common problem today, but it is still punished by law in at least some American jurisdictions.

Why are we even discussing this in conservative and confessional Reformed circles where our ministers and members can be presumed to believe the Bible? Aren’t some things so obviously wrong that even most unbelievers today still understand they need to be prohibited and punished? Even secular liberals in animal rights organizations generally understand the need to protect puppies from abuse.

 

I. “Two Kingdoms” theology: It’s not re-warmed liberalism

Where are things like this coming from? How could men be saying such things who have degrees from what are generally considered to be solidly conservative Reformed seminaries?

The answers to those questions are not simple.

While the underlying sins are at least as old as the Apostle Paul, probably as old as Abraham and Lot, and in their roots are as old as Adam and Eve’s fall which transmitted original sin to all of us, the modern response by some in the Reformed world to those sins truly is new.

We’re dealing with a problem that does not precisely parallel the later 1800s or the 1920s or the 1950s with the entrance into the American church world of traditional liberalism and later of neo-orthodoxy.

Unlike classical liberals, these new “Two Kingdoms” advocates do affirm the fundamentals of the faith which were at issue during the modernist-fundamentalist fights of the 1920s which led to the doctrinal destruction of Princeton Seminary and the northern Presbyterian Church (USA), eventually leading to the creation of Westminster Theological Seminary and later the OPC. Furthermore, many if not all of them would take Cornelius Van Til’s side in the neo-orthodox fights with Karl Barth which wrecked the southern Presbyterian Church (US) and numerous other denominations in the 1950s, eventually leading to the creation of the PCA in the 1970s.

Far from being traditional liberals, these “Two Kingdoms” people not only claim to be conservatives, they claim to be strictly conservative confessional Calvinists. Some of them have done commendable work for Reformed orthodoxy to defend the confessions against attacks and to promote the expansion of Reformed Christianity as a viable alternative to the lukewarmness and latitudinarian streams of modern evangelicalism.

The problem is that these “Two Kingdoms” people, while affirming Scripture and the confessions as understood by classic Reformed orthodoxy, and in some cases strenuously defending them against attacks, limit the authority of Scripture to the church and argue that we have no call to “impose” our confessional and biblical stances on those outside the church.

Many though certainly not all of the people advocating this new “Two Kingdoms” theology are coming from Westminster-West (Escondido), the branch campus of Westminster Theological Seminary which began in California and is now an independent seminary. While the quotes above from Horton, Irons, and Bordow may well be extreme examples, the underlying “Two Kingdoms” theology is also advocated by men such as Westminster-West professors Dr. R. Scott Clark, Dr. David VanDrunen, their former student Matt Tuininga who is now doing his doctoral study at Emory University, and former Westminster-West professor Dr. Darryl Hart who now teaches at Hillsdale College.

While led by professors, this is far from being an academic tempest in a teapot.

Many of these people are active participants in the blogosphere, and have been joined by others who are promoting their views to a new generation of young people, many of whom are themselves fairly new to the Reformed faith rather than being covenant children from a long family history of familiarity with Reformed theology. Modern technology has aided in widely disseminating these views outside traditional Reformed church circles. Things have reached the point that a fair number of younger people in the Reformed world, especially those who have come to the Reformed faith through the influence of men like Horton and the role of the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation, have been led to believe that “Two Kingdoms” theology is standard Reformed doctrine. They often welcome it as a relief from bad biblical exegesis in their prior evangelical churches by pastors who too quickly identified “Christian America” with the promises given to Old Testament Israel.

A partial listing of some of the more prominent websites and webmasters promoting this theology include the following:

Since many of the “Two Kingdoms” advocates are young and internet-savvy, the list of such websites could be multiplied many times over with individuals who have decided to promote their understanding of what it means to be Reformed.

The list above is far from exhaustive, but the first three provide a responsible academic articulation of the “Two Kingdoms” viewpoint written by or overseen by men with many years of formal academic training in theology.

The “Confessional Outhouse” includes some radical and prolific bloggers such as “ZRim” (Steve Zrimec) who show up on many other websites, and the site is one of the better examples of lay theology advocated via the blogosphere in the “Two Kingdoms” movement.

The last site, while it gets much less traffic, is run by a lawyer who often has excellent insights into why the court systems rule the way they do. His insights not uncommonly show up elsewhere on other “Two Kingdoms” websites as a practical example of how “Two Kingdoms” theology applies in the modern American legal system.

All of these people have memberships in conservative Reformed churches. Hart is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Clark was originally ordained in the Reformed Church in the United States and has been for many years a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America. Tuininga is the son of one of the founding ministers of the United Reformed Churches in North America, whose church was among the first to lead the secession out of the Christian Reformed Church. Bordow and Mahan are Orthodox Presbyterians; Zrimec and Bierling are members of the URC. None of them are members of denominations that can fairly be considered “loose” in their theological commitments to the Reformed faith, and that reality may well have given “cover” to men advocating views which would surprise if not shock many fellow members of their denominations.

While some of the “Two Kingdoms” advocates would disown them, the websites of Lee Irons, formerly an OPC minister and now a PCA elder, and his wife Misty Irons are must-reads for those who want to understand the theological principles of the “Two Kingdoms” theology. Lee Irons has helpfully posted the theological papers he prepared during the fight in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church over his theological views, and they provide a window to understand why the OPC decided that at least the extreme versions of this theology were out of line.

Those websites include this, this, and this, with the following highlights:

  • Misty Irons’ speech to the Gay Christian Network conference.
  • Misty Irons’ paper “A conservative Christian case for civil same-sex marriage.”
  • This particularly helpful paper by Lee Irons giving his side of the OPC controversy. 

Fairness requires a clear statement that some of the “Two Kingdoms” people listed deserve credit for forcefully arguing against legalization of homosexual marriage and sex with animals, and a fair number argue that Lee and Misty Irons have not only gone too far but have fundamentally misunderstood the theology learned at Westminster-West. The general argument of such people is that a “Two Kingdoms” view of natural law or general revelation — i.e., certain basic truths about the world which Romans 1 say should be known by both believers and unbelievers — would forbid legalization of such practices even though they continue to argue that an argument based on Scripture is insufficient or even inappropriate for Christians when arguing against legalization of homosexuality or bestiality.

However, the least that can be said is the positions of some of the “Two Kingdoms” advocates are making Westminster-West look bad and creating a public relations problem for their seminary. Perhaps more of a concern is that this “Two Kingdoms” theology is leading its adherents, step by step and perhaps too slowly for them to notice, into some very bad places.

This is a new problem.

It must be addressed.

And it must be addressed now in Reformed circles, or the aggressive and in some cases quite successful efforts of “Two Kingdoms” leaders to present their theology as classic Reformed orthodoxy will confuse an entire generation of young seminarians and people who are being brought to the Reformed faith from outside Reformed circles.

 

II. Outsiders, insiders, welcoming and discipleship 

While theological arguments ought to be able to stand alone on their own without regard to the biography of their advocates, the reality in modern discourse is that people’s backgrounds either lend credibility to or detract from their arguments.

Therefore, a few things must be said about my own background.

I was born in Grand Rapids, lived most of my life in West Michigan, and even at one point lived on a Dutch dairy farm, but neither my last name nor my ethnicity nor my upbringing are in any way either Dutch or Reformed. On the contrary, I’m the son of a Republican Party official in Grand Rapids, was raised in a theologically liberal but politically conservative suburban Grand Rapids church, was converted as a young adult, was discipled through Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship at a secular college, learned of the Reformed faith by reading Calvin’s Institutes, transferred to Calvin College in an effort to learn more about Calvinism, and became involved in the Reformed church world in my twenties. I have an interracial marriage, and my wife and I have both spent most of our lives in predominantly liberal professions — in my case, the news media, and in my wife’s case, as a clinical psychologist.

In other words, at the time I was converted and became Reformed, I fit the demographic profile of many of the young people from secular backgrounds who are now flocking to the types of churches pastored by “Two Kingdoms” advocates or those who have studied their theology under those advocates.

Becoming Reformed was not an easy move for me — not by any means.

Calvinism was much less common at that time than it is today, and it would have been far easier for me to become broadly evangelical following my conversion. Not only was it unusual for me to find Calvin’s Institutes while hunting for a theology that was consistently faithful to Scripture without adding to or taking away from the Word of God, once I had found Calvin’s theology, it was difficult to find Calvinists.

Today’s “young, restless and Reformed” movement is gathering many young people. The “Two Kingdoms” movement is also gaining numerous young people through aggressive internet advocacy, the role of the White Horse Inn and Modern Reformation, and young seminarians planting new churches.

However, that sort of Reformed outreach simply did not exist in the 1980s, at least in West Michigan where I grew up.

It is certainly true that Grand Rapids has been well-known for decades as a center of Reformed church life and Christian publishing. There was a day that reputation was justified.

However, by the time I became Reformed, the few conservative Reformed churches I found in Grand Rapids were mostly filled with elderly white-haired people whose children had long since left any form of confessional Calvinism, either for the excitement of broad evangelicalism and Pentecostalism on the one hand, or on the other, for a liberal rejection of “old fashioned rules,” a rejection which had become typical fare in far too many liberal Christian Reformed and Reformed Church in America congregations. Names such as Robert Schuller, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Bill Hybels — names from a Dutch Reformed background who deliberately rejected the Calvinist theology of total depravity with which they had been raised — were much more likely to be cited as good models of church life than John Calvin or any of the historic leaders of either the Dutch Reformed or the American Presbyterian traditions.

It was not unusual for me to be the only person visiting a conservative Reformed church who had not come as a guest of a relative; mentioning the well-known liberal church where I was then still a member routinely generated shocked expressions and raised eyebrows. The Reformed churches I saw were not directed toward discipling young adults or teaching the Reformed faith to “outsiders,” and my own doctrinal positions back then were problematic enough that they too often generated an instinct toward self-preservation that, quite frankly, was legitimate. Conversion is the beginning of a process, and it often takes a long time to get rid of the baggage of seriously wrongheaded worldviews.

Conservative Reformed Christianity has changed considerably in the last three decades, and much of that change is good.

Rather than being a narrowminded insular theology held by people mostly concerned about maintaining their own orthodoxy and keeping threats out of their churches, modern Calvinism is aggressive, assertive, and making considerable headway, not only in the strictly confessional Reformed denominations that have always been Calvinist, but also in major evangelical denominations which have little if any modern acquaintance with Reformed doctrine. In my view, that’s a very good thing. I’m anything but a Baptist or a charismatic, but Calvinism has its own internal logic, and people in charismatic and baptistic circles who accept Five Point Calvinism are quite likely, with time, to work out the implications of a Reformed worldview based on God’s sole sovereignty for the Christian nurture of their children and the sole authority of the Word rather than personal experience.

I trust I’ve said enough to indicate that I have strong sympathies for the passion of many of the key men associated with the “Two Kingdoms” movement to advance the cause of Reformed Christianity. We need more Reformed churches, we need to disciple people coming into those churches so they become Reformed and stay Reformed, and we need to repudiate the curse of sectarian bitterness and backbiting that has too often driven people out of the Reformed world and into the open and affirming arms of Arminians, liberals, and others who deny the sovereignty of God. If we believe that God is the King of kings and Lord of lords, we need to act like it, and that includes aggressive church planting and in-depth discipleship.

There’s a problem, however.

When we as Reformed Christians move from a focus on keeping “outsiders” away and change to a focus on making “outsiders” into consistent confessional Calvinists, it is absolutely critical that we not forget that our Enemy is a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. While “outsiders” need to be viewed as opportunities, not as threats, there truly are threats out there.

The real threat is not from people outside our Calvinist church circles who visit our churches, but rather from our Enemy who is outside the grace of God and seeks to lead astray, if it were possible, even the elect of God. That threat is all too real, and when we become welcoming to “outsiders” and work to disciple them, we must be sure to disciple them properly or we will find that we have brought dangers into the church.

People who maintain serious doctrinal error without being carefully discipled can easily confuse, corrupt, and eventually destroy the same churches that welcomed them with open arms.

Church history is littered with the sad results of churches, some of which were once Reformed, which forgot that truth.

 

III. The importance of studying confessional history in discipleship 

American Christians are notorious for acting as if church history began just a few generations ago.

Henry Ford’s words to the Chicago Tribune in 1916, while often taken out of context (he was actually an avid historian of people’s social and personal lives, just not of wars and politics) fairly describe the attitude of typical American Christians:

“History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.”

While Reformed Christians are better than typical evangelicals — at least we understand the importance of teaching “old writers” from the 1600s and onward in seminary — that doesn’t mean our people have studied Reformed church history as well as they should have done. It is not enough to catechize our children and our adult converts; we need to make sure they understand the context in which the catechisms and confessions were written so they know what our doctrinal standards were written to fight against.

Furthermore, we need to make sure newly Reformed people understand how previous generations of Reformed people have misunderstood or misapplied the confessions. Our Enemy is not inventive or constructive; on the contrary, Satan is destructive and his devices today often follow similar lines of attack to those he has used in the past. We can learn much from our Reformed church history about how previous generations have used the confessions and their Scripture proofs to rebuke error and to drive false teachings out of the church, and sadly, we can also learn how our orthodox forebears have sometimes been forced out of their churches when false teachers took over the denominational hierarchies.

“Two Kingdoms” advocates cannot claim that their theology is identical to that of Knox, Cromwell, the New England Puritans, or for that matter, to any other major stream of the English-speaking Reformed world. They cannot claim that their theology is compatible with the original versions of either the Westminster Standards of American Presbyterianism or the Belgic Confession of the Dutch Reformed churches.

On the contrary, they must make their case based on the fact that both American Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches amended key sections of the Westminster Confession and the Belgic Confession at various dates to modify their original teaching on church-state relations.

It is my position that the amendments to the confessions did not do what some “Two Kingdoms” people think they did, and while most modern Reformed views of church-state relations do differ from the older Reformed position, at least the more radical versions of “Two Kingdoms” theology are unconfessional and are much closer to antinomian and Anabaptist views of the state which have always been condemned by Calvinists.

In what follows, I am trying to be fair to people in the “Two Kingdoms” movement with whom I strongly disagree, and with whom I’ve been sparring online for several years. What follows is a summary that doesn’t address some important details at all and glosses over others. I’m bending over backwards to try to give the maximum benefit of the doubt to the “Two Kingdoms” people that they reflect at least one part of the historic American Presbyterian tradition — the Old School tradition, and more specifically, the Southern Presbyterian Old School tradition — even though I seriously question whether they actually are an accurate reflection of that part of the American Presbyterian tradition.

Furthermore, even if they’re right about being part of that tradition, I believe that the stance of the American Old School Southern Presbyterian tradition on political engagement was fundamentally wrong, unbiblical, and contrary to the earlier history of Reformed Christianity.

Put bluntly, the American Old School Southern Presbyterian tradition was a theology developed to protect the “peculiar institution” of slavery from theological criticism by seeking to put political questions outside the realm of the “spiritual” concerns of the institutional church. Reformed Christians are well-known for having a high view of the law of God. While there is certainly room for differences on details, and it is certainly true that Old Testament Israel is not modern America, a theology which claims to protect the “spirituality of the church” by keeping it away from political questions on which God’s law has clearly spoken — not disputable points but ones where God in fact has spoken through His inerrant and infallible Word — is not compatible with our Reformed theology or most of our Reformed history.

I realize that statement will seriously offend some conservatives in the Presbyterian Church in America. Being “TR” (Truly Reformed) in a PCA context means being faithful to the Old School Southern Presbyterian views of men like Dabney and Thornwell, including their “spirituality of the church” viewpoint.

To those PCA conservatives who I am offending — please understand you are not my primary target. I do not believe “Two Kingdoms” theology is a consistent development of your own views, either, even though you are the only historic stream of Reformed theology in the English-speaking world to which “Two Kingdoms” theology has any real resemblance. Internet debates with one of the more prominent “Two Kingdoms” advocates have revealed that at least one of the “Two Kingdoms” proponents openly admits that he is not very familiar with Southern Presbyterian theology. While the “TRs” in the PCA clearly have more than enough problems to fight, it is in your long-term best interest to do your own research, write your own essays, and prove that “Two Kingdoms” theology would be repudiated not only by the Westminster Divines but also by Dabney and Thornwell.

 A. Calvinism and politics were historically intertwined

For those who take history with even the slightest degree of seriousness, it is beyond any reasonable doubt that our Reformed tradition has a long history of active political engagement. There is no way to read the secular history of France, England, Scotland, the Netherlands, Hungary, or New England without realizing the political effects of Calvinism.

The reality of Calvinism’s influence on society is generally granted by writers ranging all the way from secular sociologists of religion who approve of Protestantism’s effect on European culture to Marxists who argued that it ended late medieval economics and politics by creating early modern capitalism, the middle class, and nation-states.

As Max Weber wrote, often though not always correctly, the sociological impact of a Calvinist or more generically Protestant worldview had a massive effect on the economies of Northern European nations in comparison to what had for many years been much more wealthy Southern European nations. Tiny and largely irrelevant nations such as Scotland and the Netherlands became economic powerhouses after accepting the Reformation, and that happened too often in Europe to be merely chance. Nations such as Spain, despite having access to previously unknown resources of great wealth from their new South American colonies, were eclipsed by the rising economic and political power of Northern Europe.

Even secular historians acknowledge the political and sociological importance of the Reformation in general, and more specifically, the importance of Calvinist doctrine on the politics of the English-speaking world. One simply cannot explain what happened in Britain during the Reformation and the Puritan era without taking into account the role of religion.

Those who deny that political heritage of Calvinism simply have not read their history books or don’t care about history. The case is so clear that even the “Two Kingdoms” advocates generally acknowledge it.

 B. Confessional changes affecting church and state

Having started with that point, let’s proceed to acknowledge that the “Two Kingdoms” advocates have a point when they argue that the so-called “Old Reformed” position has been modified in key ways by confessional changes made by American Presbyterians in the late 1700s and by the Dutch Reformed in the early 1900s.

Those confessional changes have to do with the relationship of the church and the state.

In both the British and the Dutch contexts, a state church had been in place long before the Reformation, and in Britain, even most of those who left the Establishment to begin nonconformist churches still in theory advocated either state establishment or state recognition of religion. They differed from the Church of England not on whether England, Scotland and Ireland should be Christian nations with some sort of official relationship with ecclesiastical bodies, but only on which ecclesiastical body should be recognized, established, or given some other level of official governmental support.

The American context is radically different — radical in the sense of “to the root.” The Westminster Confession itself was changed more than two centuries ago, reflecting an earlier consensus that dates back even further among Scots and Scots-Irish immigrant Presbyterians to the American colonies. 

The Westminster Confession of Faith was amended for a reason, namely, to reject official governmental establishment of a particular denomination of Christians. While Congregationalists can legitimately point to the heritage of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies with formally established churches, the Presbyterian experience in America during colonial days always (except for the Dutch Reformed in colonial New Amsterdam, later New York) had generally been that of a minority group which was at best tolerated by the dominant Congregational or Anglican establishments, and sometimes harassed by officials of both the church and the state. There are reasons why early Presbyterianism grew most quickly in Quaker-run Pennsylvania, where denominational toleration was official colonial policy, and in the “back parts” of rural Southern states where the long arm of the governments of church and of state only rarely reached out with effective control into the mountainous lands where Scots-Irish settlers chose to live.

The revisions initiated by the 1787 Synod of Philadelphia and New York and completed by the 1788 Synod, together with a few other differences between the original Westminster Confession and the form used by modern Presbyterians in the PCA and OPC, involve 145 words out of a total of 12,063 words of the Westminster Confession affecting seven sections in six chapters, namely, Chapter 20:4, 22:3, 23:3, 24:4, 25:6, and 31:1-2, in addition to four words deleted in 1788 from Question 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism. (Link)

Not all seven changes are of equal importance, and some only tangentially involve church-state relations. The original 1646 version was drafted by the Westminster Assembly of Divines which had been called in 1643 by the English Parliament; most but not all of the original version was eventually adopted by the English Parliament and all of it was adopted in 1647 by the Kirk of Scotland.

American Presbyterians, unlike Scots Presbyterians, do not confess:

  • That “the power of the civil magistrate,” not only “the censures of the church,” can be used against those who publish opinions or maintain “such practices as are contrary to the light of nature or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation, or to the power of godliness” (WCF 20:4).
  • that the civil magistrate "hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed” (WCF 23:3) but rather that civil magistrates may not “in the least, interfere in matters of faith” and have a duty “to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger.”
  • that “as magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with, about matters of religion; so, if magistrates be open enemies to the Church, the ministers of Christ of themselves, by virtue of their office, or they, with other fit persons, upon delegation from their Churches, may meet together in such assemblies” (WCF 31:2, original section deleted and sections 3-5 renumbered as 2-4)
  • that “tolerating a false religion” is among the violations of the Second Commandment prohibition against idolatry (WLC Q.109). 

In addition to those four revisions, additional changes have been made to the standard version of the Westminster Confession now in use among American Presbyterians, removing statements:

  • that “it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority” (WCF 22:3), deleted by the 1903 Northern Presbyterian General Assembly with that deletion reaffirmed by the Second General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in November 1936.
  • that the Pope “is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God,” deleted by the 1903 Northern Presbyterian General Assembly with that deletion reaffirmed by the OPC’s Second General Assembly.
  • that “the man may not marry any of his wife’s kindred nearer in blood than he may of his own; nor the woman of her husband’s kindred nearer in blood than of her own” (WCF 24:4), deleted by American Presbyterians after debates during the 1800s. 

It goes beyond the scope of this essay to delve into the details of the Dutch Reformed revision of similar but briefer language in the Belgic Confession, one of the three confessional standards which make up the “Three Forms of Unity” confessed by the Dutch Reformed churches. However, for purpose of completeness, because quite a few readers of this essay will be Dutch Reformed, and because a number of key advocates of “Two Kingdoms” theology are members of the United Reformed Churches in North America, the relevant revisions to the Belgic Confession should be noted as well.

The original version of the Belgic Confession, as written by Guido de Bres in 1567, stated in Chapter XXXVI that God “has invested the magistracy with the sword for the punishment of evil-doers and for the protection of them that do well.” The second paragraph states that “their office is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also that they protect the sacred ministry, and thus may remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship, that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed and the kingdom of Christ promoted. They must therefore countenance the preaching of the Word of the gospel everywhere, that God may be honored and worshipped by every one, as He commands in His Word.” After affirming the duty of Christians to obey civil rulers, the fourth paragraph states that “we detest the Anabaptists and other seditious people, and in general all those who reject the higher powers and magistrates and would subvert justice, introduce community of goods, and confound that decency and good order which God has established among men.”

This language, written in the early days of the Dutch Reformation by a Protestant minister seeking to convince Roman Catholic persecutors that Calvinists were not Anabaptists, remained unchanged long after the Westminster Standards had been amended by American Presbyterians. It was not until the early 1900s that most but not all conservative Dutch Reformed churches in the Netherlands and in North America amended the language, under the influence of a Kuyperian “sphere sovereignty” view of church-state relations.

The first amendments in 1910 and 1938 deleted the phrase on civil magistrates having the right to “remove and prevent all idolatry and false worship that the kingdom of antichrist may be thus destroyed.” The effect of that revision was to state that the magistrates’ office “is not only to have regard unto and watch for the welfare of the civil state, but also to protect the sacred ministry, that the kingdom of Christ may be promoted.”

By 1958, a substitute second paragraph was developed by the Christian Reformed Church in North America, submitted to other Reformed churches holding the Belgic Confession for review, and later adopted which reads as follows:

“And being called in this manner to contribute to the advancement of a society that is pleasing to God, the civil rulers have the task, in subjection to the law of God, while completely refraining from any tendency toward exercising absolute authority, and while functioning in the sphere entrusted to them and with the means belonging to them, to remove every obstacle to the preaching of the gospel and to every aspect of divine worship, in order that the Word of God may have free course, the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress, and every anti-Christian power be resisted.”

In 1985, the synod of the Christian Reformed Church in North America placed the entirety of the fourth paragraph of Chapter XXXVI against the Anabaptists and others into a footnote; a modern-language translation adopted by the CRC also placed the text into unnumbered verses and added new paragraph breaks. Most readers of this essay will be in denominations which consider the acts of the CRC synods of the 1980s to be suspect, and more need not be said on subsequent details of confessional revisions.

However, it should be clear that members and especially ordained ministers and elders of the United Reformed Churches are confessionally required to believe that even if civil magistrates need not “prevent all idolatry and false worship,” civil magistrates who are members of denominations holding the versions of the Belgic Confession in effect since 1910 and 1938 are required to protect Christianity. If the revisions of the Synod of 1958 are considered binding, the task of the civil magistrate is to act “in subjection to the law of God,” removing hindrances to Christianity “in order that the Word of God may have free course, the kingdom of Jesus Christ may make progress, and every anti-Christian power be resisted.”

It is hardly easy to argue that those words lead logically to a “Two Kingdoms” view of church-state relations, meaning that the current version of the Belgic Confession creates more problems for “Two Kingdoms” people who have signed the Form of Subscription than the current version of the Westminster Confession does for Presbyterians.

 C. The context and consequences of the confessional changes

Of course, assessing motives is always difficult apart from clear statements by those advocating changes, but it is difficult not to interpret the changes to the Westminster Standards apart from the experience of the American Revolution.

The revisions to the Westminster Confession show a marked change in attitude toward government establishment of a state church and tolerating false religions, which the Westminster Divines would have considered to include not merely utterly pagan beliefs such as ancient religions and modern Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., with which they had very little if any contact, but more significantly, Roman Catholicism and Judaism.

The American colonies were not poor — solid work ethics had built thirteen colonies with relatively robust economies, the logical result both from the theology preached out of most pulpits of the day and from the natural selection process of only healthy, strong, and highly motivated people being willing to brave the tremendous dangers of colonization. However, the simple historical fact of the American Revolution is that the colonists were a small scattered populace fighting Great Britain, one of the most powerful military forces of the European world, allied in many cases with Native Americans who knew the land well and often knew no laws of mercy for their battle enemies.

The aid of France, which at that time prior to the French Revolution was still staunchly Roman Catholic, the support of wealthy colonial Roman Catholics in Maryland, and Alexander Hamilton’s personal acquaintance with Jewish financiers in the Caribbean and New York City, were all important to and perhaps essential to winning the Revolutionary War. Both Roman Catholics and Jews in America regarded the cause of the American Revolution as one likely to bring about a more supportive government than what prevailed in England, and subsequent developments in the late 1700s and early 1800s were to prove them right. Jews and Roman Catholics participated extensively in the American government from its earliest days, with a Jewish cadet being among the first graduates of the United States Military Academy at West Point, devout Jewish merchants taking key roles in keeping the government financially afloat, and Roman Catholics in Maryland obtaining full civil rights for themselves that were simply impossible in England or virtually any other predominantly Protestant country of contemporary Europe.

These theological changes did not take place in a political vacuum.

In the century and a quarter which had elapsed between the Westminster Assembly and the founding of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, the public perception of Roman Catholicism had changed considerably.

Roman Catholicism at the time of Westminster was viewed as being the religion of dangerous and persecuting foreign powers in Spain and France which threatened invasion of England and promoted massacres of English and Scottish settlers in Ireland. There were good reasons for the British, regardless of the depth of their faith, to fear Roman Catholics.

By the late 1700s, however, Roman Catholics in Maryland had established themselves as legitimate American patriots who opposed British authority just as much as any Yankee townsman in Boston, Lexington or Concord, angry Scots-Irish mountaineer in the Appalachians, or wealthy plantation owner in Virginia, the Carolinas, or Georgia. Marylanders didn’t side with their French co-religionists during the French and Indian Wars of the late 1600s and early 1700s. The British conquest of Canada had largely removed Roman Catholicism as a foreign French threat to frontier settlements, and had forced the British to tolerate Roman Catholicism among the Canadian population to avoid constant revolts. It is not irrelevant that Canadians, who based on religion and history could have been expected to rally to calls to fight the British and join the French, remained loyal to the Protestant King George III of England while the king’s Protestant subjects, not only among the Congregationalists and Presbyterians of New England, the middle states, and Appalachia but also his shared co-religionists among the Episcopalian gentry of the South, raised large armies of angry militiamen to fight for their independence from the British Crown.

Furthermore, Oliver Cromwell’s fight to tolerate Judaism in England in the mid-1600s, while a clear violation of the original text of Question 109 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, had resulted in de facto though not de jure toleration of Judaism in Commonwealth and post-Commonwealth England. Toleration for Jews was even greater in many American colonies, which led to small but significant numbers of Jewish settlers coming to the American colonies where they were often tolerated, sometimes allowed to build synagogues, and generally treated no worse than any other religious nonconformists under colonial laws.

It is not only modern dispensationalists who have a high regard for Jewish people; similar sentiments date back all the way to the Puritan era and were a marked improvement over the horrific treatment Jews received from the hands of the Roman Catholic inquisitors, from the pens of Lutheran polemicists, and from pogroms of the Russian Orthodox. Jewish residents of the colonies had good reasons to be American patriots.

This is not to say that the American revisers of the Westminster Confession made their revisions for purely political reasons. Good biblical reasons can be given for saying that Presbyterians are free to believe that the Pope is the Antichrist but not requiring that belief. Strictly Reformed Christians in the Netherlands have a centuries-long history of tolerable and even good relations with Judaism that dates back far earlier than the American Revolution. Few if any would argue that Cromwell was lukewarm in his Calvinism, and Cromwell’s own example in England argues against declaring toleration of false religions to be a Second Commandment violation.

Most of the American revisions to the confession allow the older beliefs but merely remove the older beliefs from the list of confessional requirements. It is perfectly possible for a confessional Presbyterian to hold nearly all of the most rigorous beliefs of the Westminster Divines which have been struck from the Confession and the Larger Catechism; he simply isn’t required to do so.

There is one key exception, however.

Modern American Presbyterians are now required to believe not only that civil magistrate may not in the least, interfere in matters of faith” but also that “as nursing fathers, it is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger. And, as Jesus Christ hath appointed a regular government and discipline in his church, no law of any commonwealth should interfere with, let, or hinder, the due exercise thereof, among the voluntary members of any denomination of Christians, according to their own profession and belief. It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance (WCF 23:3).

The Westminster Divines claimed the right of civil magistrates to cause significant problems for those who opposed the state church. Their insistence on that right led to problems for themselves when they tried and failed to get their original unrevised draft through a Parliament that had numerous nonconformists in its membership and would soon have a Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, who had markedly different views on church government.

However, it is crystal clear from the text of the American revision to WCF 23:3 that a modern Presbyterian may not advocate civil governments “giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest” and must support civil magistrates giving protection even to those accused of infidelity in matters of religion.

Even those theonomists who accept the American revision of the Westminster Confession (and not all do) have made an important break from the position of Zwingli, Calvin, Knox, and the Westminster Divines on church-state relationships. When theonomists, in their heyday of the 1970s and 1980s, were cooperating with Baptists and Pentecostals in the Christian schooling and Christian conservative political movements, they were being much more faithful to the American revisions than to the original intent of the Westminster Divines who certainly would have thrown the “rebaptizers” and “enthusiasts” of their day into jail for their religious beliefs.

D. Reading too much or too little into the confessional changes

Lee and Misty Irons are wrong about many things, but when Lee Irons argues that the Westminster Confession revisions rule out the older “theocratic” position of the Westminster Divines, he’s right.

It must be acknowledged that “Two Kingdoms” people have a point when they say that even though they reject what some have called the “Old Reformed” position on church-state relations, they are not necessarily violating the confessions in doing so. Not all forms of “Two Kingdoms” theology are unconfessional, and it is hard to see the Westminster Divines — who were, after all, summoned to their work by the civil authority of the English Parliament — agreeing with the American revisions.

The confessions are a subordinate standard to Scripture. Unlike the Bible, the confessions are at least in theory amendable, and in this case they were actually amended.

It is certainly true that many confessional changes have been made to accommodate non-Reformed influences. One can think of the changes in 1903 which allowed the merger of the Northern Presbyterians with the Cumberland Presbyterians, or more recently, the allowance of “exceptions” by presbyteries for liberal Presbyterian ministers such as Mansfield Kaseman who denied the deity of Christ.

However, this change made at the First General Assembly of American Presbyterianism isn’t liberalism, Arminianism, ecumenism, or some other foreign influence getting into the confession. It reflects a rejection of the establishment principle that is closely tied to the foundation of the United States and came to be affirmed throughout nearly all of the American Presbyterian tradition. The simple fact of the matter is that this confessional change is more than two centuries old and has stood the test of time. Furthermore, it reflected a consensus in American colonial Presbyterianism dating back at least one and probably two or more generations previous to the change.

What this change does mark is an important difference between the conservative American Presbyterian tradition and the versions of conservative Calvinism still held by a few conservative denominations such as the Free Church of Scotland which still affirm the older establishment principle. We can argue with our Scottish brethren over establishment if we wish, or we can argue with theonomists who say that we have denied the crown rights of King Jesus by making our nation into a democracy, but nearly all modern American Calvinists affirm the principle that the civil government should not be giving preference to any particular denomination of Christians.

Even the original version of the Westminster Confession has a view of the Old Testament civil law which does not logically lead to a theonomic adoption of Old Testament civil law to modern civil affairs. Neither modern America nor Puritan England and Scotland were Old Testament Israel, and the Westminster Divines knew that. It’s pretty hard to argue that WCF 19:4’s statement that “to them also (the Jews), as a body politic, He gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the State of that people; not obliging under any now, further than the general equity thereof may require” is theonomic. While a good case can be made that the American revisions go even further in ruling out theonomy, the revisions prove less than the “Two Kingdoms” advocates think.

Let us not forget that the American revisions were made under the leadership of the moderator of the First General Assembly, the Rev. John Witherspoon, who was also the president of what is now Princeton and was a member of the Continental Congress and the New Jersey state legislature. He was known for being a strongly conservative Christian, and while valid accusations of Unitarianism and Deism can be leveled against a fair number of the Founding Fathers, leveling such accusations against Witherspoon would be foolishness.

Where the “Two Kingdoms” theologians err, I believe, is extending that change in the language of the Westminster Confession revision against “giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest” to argue that the civil government should give no preference to religion at all.

That, bluntly speaking, goes beyond the confession, even in its amended form. It is neither required by the confessional change nor a logical development of doctrine from the change.

On the contrary, it is a dangerous development which is unconfessional at best, probably is anti-confessional, and must be strongly opposed by Reformed Christians.

 

 IV. Old School, New School, and church-state relations 

While the importance of the American revisions to the Westminster Confession can be and has been overstated, it did produce a development in 1800s American Presbyterianism which simply would have been inconceivable for conservative confessional Calvinists working under the older context of an established church.

That development happened in the context of the Old School-New School division in American Presbyterianism, which to some extent repeated the earlier Old Side/Old Light-New Side/New Light division over the First Great Awakening under Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and many others.

A great deal can be and has been said about the similarities and differences between being Old School and Old Side/Old Light. Personally I would be comfortable calling myself an Edwardsean at the time of the First Great Awakening in the early 1700s, emphasizing the need for personal conversion, but would be a strong opponent of Finney and his “new methods” in the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, which proceeded from a denial of the doctrine of total depravity and argued for man’s ability to generate conversions by right use of the proper methods.

For the purpose of this discussion, however, the focus must remain on only one aspect of the Old School objection to the New School theologians, namely, the relationship of Christianity to social reform movements.

Not only were the New School theologians open to many non-Reformed influences in theology, and can fairly be described as the progenitors of modern semi-creedal and non-creedal American evangelical influence in Reformed circles, they were open to all sorts of social reform movements of the day which claimed Christian sanction for their activities. Two of the most obvious examples include the temperance movement attempting to ban alcohol and the abolition movement against slavery.

The key issue here is not whether we should be teetotalers or whether we should abolish slavery. The problem with the New Schoolers is that they essentially denied the Reformed principle of Christian freedom by saying that the church had the right to take stands on social issues which were not clearly taught by Scripture.

The question is what Scripture teaches.

I do not drink alcohol as a personal choice, not as a Scriptural mandate, and do not impose my choice on others. On the other hand, I believe an essay by Jonathan Edwards’ son against slavery makes a compelling conservative Biblical case against slavery.

Edwards is well worth serious reading, not only for his horrific descriptions of the slave trade and the conditions of slavery in America, but more importantly for his extensive biblical exegesis refuting numerous false arguments in favor of slavery. That carries personal poignancy when one realizes that Jonathan Edwards, Jr., was implicitly criticizing the practices of his own father who had been a slaveholder; the son had seen slavery firsthand in his own father’s parsonage and knew that his father had defended another minister elsewhere whose congregation objected to his ownership of slaves. For modern purposes, perhaps the most important point of Edwards’ exegesis is his answer to the argument that the Apostles did not oppose Roman slavery, noting quite correctly that “as the apostle Paul requires masters to give their servants that which is just and equal, (Col. iv. I.) so if any were enslaved unjustly, of course he in this text requires of the masters of such, to give them their freedom.” Far from being a book favoring slavery, the Bible actually argues against slavery in any form remotely comparable to the sort of slavery which was practiced in antebellum America.

Rather than following Edwards in carefully asking what Scripture does or does not teach, we find today that much of modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism repeats the Roman Catholic error of adding to the commands of God, forbidding what has not been forbidden and requiring what has not been required.

I am perfectly willing to argue against alcohol, tobacco, dancing, card playing, most movies, and other “worldly amusements,” and in my personal behavior choices I would give no offense to all but the most extreme of fundamentalists. However, while I will argue against drinking as unnecessary and unwise, and I believe the biblical principle of taking a little wine for our health, with modern water supply systems, is better followed by using chlorine to kill bacteria, I do not believe Scripture allows me to call drinking a sin.

This became a key issue with slavery because too many of its abolitionist opponents tried to do the right thing for the wrong reasons, and in doing so, did serious damage to the American abolitionist movement by the mid-1800s in ways that did not happen with the successful British abolitionist movement.

Edwards relied on Scripture for his political arguments against slavery and made a compelling biblical case against slavery as practiced in the American South. However, many of his fellow abolitionists were Unitarians, liberals or other freethinkers who rejected Scripture. Still others didn’t hold a Reformed view of Christian freedom and were willing to say that even if the Bible allows slavery, it would be acceptable for the church to reject things which God’s Word does not reject.

In reaction against that New School position held mostly though not entirely in the northern churches and connected closely to political abolitionism and theological liberalism, the Southern Presbyterian Old School tradition eventually developed a doctrine known as the “spirituality of the church.” That position, in brief, argues that the ecclesiastical assemblies should not ordinarily discuss matters of civil government since they are inappropriate in an assembly which is to discuss spiritual rather than temporal concerns.

That certainly has an outward appearance of being Reformed. The Westminster Confession teaches this in Chapter 31:4: Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.”

The Southern Old School position claimed to affirm that confessional teaching, and can make that claim with some justification.

It is certainly true that the church is not to become either the “Republican Party at Prayer” for conservative churches or the “Democratic Party at Prayer” for those of a liberal persuasion. There are many questions on which the institutional church has nothing to say from its biblical mandate, and many other questions on which Scripture speaks only in general principles. A biblical and confessional view, as opposed to a “New School” view, should say that when Scripture is silent, the church should be silent and not presume to go beyond what is written.

However, it should be beyond question that the “Spirituality of the Church” doctrine, as developed in the South, could not possibly have been on the mind of the Westminster Divines given their roots in a state church situation and their advocacy of, at an absolute minimum, state recognition of Christianity, and for most of the Westminster Divines, formal state establishment of an official government-supported church. Anyone who argues that the “Spirituality of the Church” doctrine is either compatible with or required by the American revisions of the Westminster Confession must also admit that it was not the original intent of the Westminster Divines.

Time and space do not permit more than a radical oversimplification of the Southern Presbyterian position. That is not fair to the theological arguments of Dabney, Thornwell, and others. Those men had biblical exegesis for their views, and they were held not only in the South but also by many Old Schoolers in the Northern Presbyterian tradition, particularly those at Princeton Seminary, which in those days was the most strictly Reformed of the major Presbyterian seminaries.

What counts here are not the details of the Southern Presbyterian position, which has its own integrity and deserves to be dealt with separately on its own terms, but rather that the old Southern Presbyterians are cited as a precedent by the modern “Two Kingdoms” advocates.

 

V. Can “Two Kingdoms” theology legitimately claim “Old School” roots? 

The modern “Two Kingdoms” theologians often though not always claim to be the heirs of the Southern Presbyterian position against ecclesiastical entanglement in civil affairs, or at least claim the Northern Presbyterian Old School position of Princeton Seminary as support for their views.

Furthermore, the entire concept of the church taking stands on “social justice” issues, due to its frequent use by theological liberals, is perceived by significant parts of modern conservative Calvinism as being inherently un-Reformed and a violation of what are sometimes called Old School principles and sometimes called “Spirituality of the Church” principles.

How should we respond to this claim by “Two Kingdoms” advocates that they represent the historic Reformed position, at least in America under the American revisions to the Westminster Standards?

The answer, in brief, is that where the Scripture speaks, we should speak; where the Scripture is silent, we should be silent. The Reformed tenet of Christian freedom means that we are to lay no burdens on men’s consciences which God has not laid on them.

When the church speaks to political issues — referring here not to individual Christians engaged in politics but rather to the church as institute, speaking through its formal assemblies of local church elders, regional association/classis/presbytery, or national conferences, councils, synods or general assemblies — it needs to exercise great caution not to speak things in God’s name that go beyond what God has said. Christians can and will disagree on issues which are not clearly taught in God’s Word, and the institutional church has no business making declarations on disputable matters.

Often that means the practical outworkings of a Christian principle need to be addressed not by the church as institute but by individual Christians working in nonecclesiastical organizations.

An obvious modern example is the abortion issue.

It is clear from God’s Word that He forbids abortion because it is the unjustified taking of a human life. The church as institute can and should speak to that issue. Churches can and should excommunicate abortionists and people who obtain abortions, regarding them as murderers in need of repentance. The church has every right to teach, preach, and discipline on that issue. Furthermore, because the primary purpose of the state under Romans 13 is to restrain evil and wickedness, the state can and should forbid abortion like any other form of murder.

Many of the particulars of how to implement that in civil law, however, are beyond the competence of the institutional church and ought to be addressed by Christian civil magistrates, not by Christian clergy or by delegates to ecclesiastical assemblies. Pastors and elders may have opinions and may give advice, but their opinions and advice do and cannot not have the force of ecclesiastical law unless they are backed up by the Bible.

Here are just a few examples of such questions.

In the American context, should we be working primarily to get pro-life justices appointed to the US Supreme Court, or should we be working primarily to increase restrictions on abortion to make it more and more difficult to obtain, or should we be working primarily to educate people on why abortion is wrong?

A Christian case could be made in America for any of those three options as a short-term measure with the ultimate goal of outlawing abortion. In some countries other than the United States, some of those options may be more realistic than others, and still other options may be available in their specific needs and circumstances.

Let’s say Roe v Wade, the 1973 United States Supreme Court decision allowing abortion, is overturned. If that were to happen, new questions would arise.

Among those questions are ones such as these: Should we be content under federalism with letting each state make its own decision on abortion, which was the pre-Roe position? Should a human life amendment be passed to forbid abortion nationwide? And how rapidly should efforts be made to recriminalize abortion, and what exceptions on debatable cases should be allowed?

Our Constitution does not have divine sanction, but as Christian conservatives, our theology has important teachings about respecting the institutions of civil government, and we should not be making radical changes in our governmental structure to centralize power merely because a single election has been won. Checks and balances exist for a reason, and radical revolutions proceeding from the power of the popular vote can just as easily swing back against the victors in a subsequent election. Federalism is not biblically required — those who want to apply the precedents of the twelve tribes of Israel as a principle for modern civil government are stretching Scripture beyond its intent — but experience certainly has shown federalism and other forms of limited government to be helpful in keeping civil rulers focused on their primary purposes under Romans 13. Working out the implications of federalism for abortion is clearly a matter for civil magistrates to decide, not for ecclesiastical assemblies.

Furthermore, if abortion is made illegal, how should the governments in those jurisdictions where abortion is illegal implement the one exception on which virtually all pro-life people agree — the “life of the mother” exception — considering both the advances and limitations of modern medicine? To cite a possibility which is unworkable under current civil law, if the unborn baby in a tubal pregnancy is a human being, do we need to hold a court trial to evaluate the medical situation and have a jury decide whether it is beyond a reasonable doubt that the baby will kill the mother unless aborted? It’s hard to argue that Scripture addresses that question in anything other than general principles; the details would need to be worked out by the civil government.

Finally, there are situations in which well-meaning people may make wrong decisions, and it is not always clear how far the law can or should go in punishing honest mistakes. What about true life-and-death emergencies where doctors must make spur-of-the-moment choices or both mother and baby will die? That often involves the question of when the unborn baby is capable of living outside the mother’s womb, and improvements in technology are changing the answer to the question.

Many practical questions of how to work out a biblical principle belong to the sphere of the state and need to be worked out by Christian politicians, not church assemblies operating in the sphere of the institutional church. However, some are questions of principle on which conservative Christians will disagree. Such questions are rare today since nearly all abortions are elective, but hard cases do happen, and justice requires that Christians have answers for critically important questions which will be asked by the mothers and the doctors involved, as well as by the civil magistrates. If a prosecutor, judge, and jury are going to have to decide whether an abortion was legitimate or not and then determine penalties for those convicted of an illegal abortion, they need to have both statute law and case precedents to help them make the right decisions.

A traditional Old School Southern Presbyterian might be able to agree with most if not all of this argumentation. The Westminster Confession, after all, says that the government should not give preference to any denomination of Christians. It does not say that the government should not prefer Christian values.

The Old School Southern Presbyterians lived in the Southern Bible Belt, after all, and it would be foolish to argue that they were secret libertarians in their politics who hid their views from their people while living in a part of the United States where conservative evangelical Christianity had tremendous influence. Any Southern Presbyterian who publicly argued that Christianity should not influence the state, in the context of the 1800s, would likely be branded an irreligious heathen and either lose his pulpit or see many of his parishioners flee to the nearest Southern Baptist church.

What the “Two Kingdoms” theologians are doing, however, is something very different.

The “Two Kingdoms” theologians are arguing that when Christians act as citizens, they are to apply natural law, not Scripture, to their debates in an effort to convince what has sometimes been called the “naked public square” — naked because it has been stripped of moral or religious values — of the validity of an essentially Christian position based on secular arguments.

There is some validity to that approach. With some people, particularly those who are highly educated, it can and will work. If a non-Christian can be convinced to vote for biblical principles based on secular grounds, that is not a bad thing, and every vote counts.

Furthermore, in the current state of our American legal system, when a law supporting Christian principles is challenged as unconstitutional, it is typically necessary to prove to a trial court that the law has a secular purpose, and then win one’s case on appeal with a higher judge deciding the initial trial court didn’t err in determining that the law had a secular purpose. All sorts of strange contortions have been made and accepted by judges to defend “common pause days,” government-paid military chaplains, and many other remnants of America’s once-Christian heritage, using secular grounds to do so.

However, such arguments have at least an appearance of being “bait and switch” tactics. They make Christians look bad because the average non-Christian knows full well that conservative Christians opposing homosexual marriage, abortion, bestiality, or other gross sins are not doing so based on secular grounds but rather on religious grounds.

Most judges know it, too.

As Christians, honesty is a key virtue, and since our most crucial battles will be fought not in the court systems but rather in the courts of public opinion when we try to get conservative Christians elected to public office who will appoint judges who share our values, we might as well be open about our goals and intentions. Uncertain trumpets do not rally troops, and the “natural law” argument simply doesn’t work with the average layperson. Those who agree won’t be rallied to the fight, those who disagree won’t be convinced, and all we have done is trade an argument based on the inerrant Word for an argument based on the shifting sands of general revelation.

That doesn’t work for the simple reason that common sense is not so common.

Still worse, however, are the “Two Kingdoms” theologians who argue that there can be two different Christian positions on such things as whether homosexual marriage or abortion should be legal. This is the logical and perhaps inevitable result of relying on the uncertainties of natural law rather than the certainties of Scripture to make our decisions.

There was a day that Spartan government officials, based on their concept of law, examined babies to see if they were healthy and should be allowed to live, with babies not being allowed to live who were expected to become a burden on the state. There was a day when the great philosophers of Athens considered homosexual behavior to be normal and appropriate. There was a day that Romans considered it an inherent right of a father to expose his children to the elements if he did not choose to accept the financial obligations inherent in raising his child, and if no kindhearted person chose to take up the child left out for exposure and assume those obligations, the child would die.

These were not barbarians, but rather representatives of some of the most highly developed civilizations of their day. One need not cite extreme examples such as Nazi Germany to show the barbarity to which humanity can descend in abusing humans viewed as weak or worthless. Natural law is simply an insufficient ground on which to base our political positions when Scripture has spoken to those issues.

Christianity changed Greco-Roman society by eliminating many evil practices. Modern Christians may find much to condemn in the practices of sports stars, but certainly a violent foul-mouthed hockey or football player is preferable to a Roman gladiator trained to kill other gladiators for sport before a crowd hungry for the sight of blood, gore, and death. Why would modern Christians want to adopt a theology that would have told a Roman citizen to look to his “natural law” to know whether bloody gladiator games are good?

The bottom line here is that we can and should grant that “Two Kingdoms” advocates are not entirely wrong. Talking about the church advocating “social justice” in an American context truly is problematic, and when “Two Kingdoms” advocates oppose such talk, often they are right to do so.

That term is typically used in a liberal context, or at least a New School context, and often involves the church as institute being asked to take all sorts of political positions which either have very little to do with the Bible or go into particulars that are far more specific than the broader biblical principles on which the church can legitimately speak. 

Many of those who argue that the church ought not to be getting involved in “social justice” issues are conservative Bible-believing Christians who are quite properly reacting against liberalism. They’re quite correct in many cases.

Others are Old School Calvinists who want to be very careful not to bind the conscience of Christians by having the assemblies of the church say more than Scripture has said. Again, that’s legitimate. Organizations like National Right to Life can and quite possibly should say many things about how to stop abortion that the institutional church should not be saying, and it is very legitimate for a pastor in his role as a private citizen to advocate things in a Monday night Right to Life meeting which he cannot and should not advocate from his pulpit on Sunday morning.

That — the role of nonecclesiastical organizations in Christian political advocacy — is the key to solving problems which Christians must confront but should not be and in many cases cannot be addressed effectively by the institutional church.

 

VI. Dutch Kuyperians: A solution to an American Reformed dilemma 

Much of what has been written above presumes an underlying Kuyperian view of Christian political involvement, one following the lead of Abraham Kuyper, founder of a conservative secession movement that became the second-largest Protestant denomination in the Netherlands, as well as the founder of a Christian university, two Christian newspapers, and a key figure in the creation of numerous other Christian organizations that kept the Netherlands fairly conservative in the 1800s when the rest of Europe was falling apart religiously, morally, socially and politically. He was also elected Prime Minister of the Netherlands as a member of a Christian political party, and wrote extensively on church-state matters.

A Kuyperian theology of church-state relations is complicated and not all of it can be applied to an American context.

In brief, Kuyper argued that Christians operate in three spheres, the family, the state, and the church, all of which are separate and all of which have their own methods of covenant administration, with the family being more “basic” and underlying the other two spheres. A great deal could be said on that issue, but what’s relevant for this purpose is that Christians who cannot and should not cooperate ecclesiastically — Calvinists and Roman Catholics, for example — can under certain circumstances cooperate in the sphere of the state.

Conservative Calvinists are wary, and often for good reason, about cooperating with other churches which do not share our doctrines. What Kuyper succeeded in doing was to develop a theology of political and social engagement which allowed Reformed Christians to maintain the strictest standards of orthodoxy in their own churches, while working together with people from other churches in the spheres of the state and of the family where Christians have a role but where the institutional church cannot or should not make pronouncements.

Unfortunately, modern American Calvinists often tend toward one of two errors. Either we adopt the prevailing evangelical Christian viewpoints on politics — which can be good but is sometimes exceedingly unhelpful — or we lapse into a secular conservative stance of thinking separation of church and state means we must separate faith from politics. 

There is no good reason for this lack of knowledge of our own history.

As Calvinists, we have a very long and deep tradition of theological reflection on politics that dates back to John Calvin himself. Unlike Lutheranism, which after the suppression of a peasant revolt and the debacle of the Anabaptists at Muntzer, generally moved into a position of saying Christians must be subservient to the state under most circumstances, Calvinism from its very earliest days was intensely political and was directly involved in the major political battles of the 1500s and 1600s in France, England, Scotland, Hungary, and New England. 

Kuyper was not a fool and he knew his history. His decision to cooperate with Roman Catholics was not made lightly. The Dutch nation was founded in warfare against Catholic Spain, and that was not a popular decision in conservative Protestant circles.

Obviously, cooperation with people from other churches has its limits, and today’s ally may be tomorrow’s adversary. When the Duke of Alva was laying siege to Dutch cities and massacring Protestants in the streets, Calvinists in the 1500s and 1600s were not going to be cooperating politically with Catholics who supported the Spanish Inquisition. But in the context of the 1800s where the radical doctrines of the French Revolution were attacking the foundations of any sort of theistic belief and Christian cultural heritage, Kuyper was quite willing to work with Roman Catholics in the Netherlands in the sphere of the state, and his Anti-Revolutionary Party made common cause with various socially conservative Roman Catholic political groups to fight for shared Christian values in the state.

In fact, Kuyper’s own party suffered a serious schism when Kuyper’s heirs insisted on continuing that cooperation with Roman Catholics, and a strictly conservative minister by the name of G.H. Kersten, the key organizer of a different conservative Reformed denomination whose American equivalent is the Netherlands Reformed Congregations, brought down the Dutch government over the issue of cooperation with Roman Catholics.

This is not merely foreign history.

John Witherspoon, the moderator of the First General Assembly and president of what is now Princeton, was also a member of the Continental Congress, a key figure in the American Revolution, a member of the New Jersey Legislature, and an important advocate of ratifying the United States Constitution. Anyone who argues that separation of church and state means what the ACLU thinks it means needs to deal with Witherspoon and others who were emphatic advocates of Christian political engagement right at the beginning of the United States.

More recently, we have Reformed people such as Francis Schaeffer and D. James Kennedy whose influence goes far beyond the Reformed world and whose work, unfortunately, is probably better known in broadly evangelical circles than in our own Reformed circles.

A key lesson to learn here from Kuyper, whose views were quite influential on Schaeffer and Kennedy, is that pastors have more than enough work to do and much of the work of Christians needs to be done by laypeople, not the ordained ministers or the assemblies of the church.

Many Reformed pastors are busy men who have too many things to do in their own churches. When we have enough problems fighting liberalism in our own denominations, and many of our churches are relatively small and take a back seat to much larger Baptist, charismatic, and broadly evangelical nondenominational churches in our communities, pastors can be forgiven for believing their time can be better used elsewhere.

I’m not going to tell local pastors what to do. I am going to say Christian laymen need to spend more time doing what our Reformed forefathers did.

While pastors have a role, politics is primarily the job of laymen. As laymen, we need to work harder to learn our own history. Our Reformed history of political engagement simply is not compatible with the “Two Kingdoms” movement, at least in its more radical forms.

 

VII. A closing summary 

The problem here is that the “Two Kingdoms” movement coming out of Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido is going beyond saying that politics is primarily the work of laymen and nonecclesiastical organizations and is arguing that Christians ought not to apply Scripture in the civil realm, but rather use natural law principles.

I am prepared to believe that many and perhaps most of people coming out of Westminster-West have good motives. They are also reacting to a long fight against theonomy in Southern California, and perhaps this is a case of a pendulum swinging too far the other way. Even the faculty is not united on this issue. Certain leading professors at Westminster-West need to be doing more to make clear that “Two Kingdoms” theology is not the official position of the seminary, but only the personal view of certain very vocal professors. Those who speak the loudest may get heard the most, but that does not make them the majority.

However, just as I have major problems with the church saying things that go beyond Scripture, I have major problems with the church NOT saying things on which Scripture clearly has spoken. That, I fear, is what is coming out of certain prominent theologians associated with Westminster-West.

Until the last few years, I’ve stayed quiet in these “Two Kingdoms” debates. I believe I have stayed quiet too long, given my own family background in politics and my fairly unusual combination of being theologically trained but working as a reporter covering politics.

I believe the “Two Kingdoms” theology has made headway in Reformed circles in large measure because, at least in an American context, many pastors feel uncomfortable addressing political questions. Most American pastors are not well-trained in our own Reformed tradition of political engagement.  What I have written above is a summary of my position that I’ve been articulating online for a number of years while interacting with some of the key “Two Kingdoms” advocates.

After a number of years I am convinced of several things in this debate:

First, the “Two Kingdoms” movement claims not only to be Reformed, but actually to be a continuation of the conservative Old School Presbyterian heritage;

Second, most if not all of the “Two Kingdoms” advocates sincerely believe they are being confessional Calvinists, and therefore are deserving of our respect and need to be treated as brothers, even when we disagree;

But third, and sadly, the “Two Kingdoms” movement, especially as it has developed in its more radical forms, is not in line with traditional Reformed views of political engagement.

While it claims to be a needed corrective against the intrusion of liberal “social gospel” theology into the church, and it probably is an attempt to respond to theonomy in a Southern California context, “Two Kingdoms” theology at best comes from bad theological roots of Southern Presbyterianism that were once used to defend slavery, and at worst, has developed in a brand-new direction that will seriously damage not merely the church’s witness to the world but also Christian engagement with the world.

Even the Old School Southern Presbyterians believed that Christian laypeople ought to be engaged in politics. After all, they fought a war and many of them died for their (wrong) beliefs in certain Southern distinctive positions. I now live in the South and am very much aware that the American South, even today, is our nation’s “Bible Belt.” It cannot be repeated often enough that the Old School Southern Presbyterians were not opposed to Christians being involved in politics, but rather to the church as institute taking stands on political questions. Their view was that pastors should stick to preaching the gospel, and when people are converted, they’ll act to apply Christian values in their lives and communities.

What many of the modern “Two Kingdoms” people want to do is not only to stop the church as institute from taking liberal positions on social gospel debates — which would be entirely appropriate — but also to deter individual Christians from participating in conservative Christian “religious right” activism such as opposition to abortion and opposition to homosexual marriage.

“Two Kingdoms” people seem to come in two varieties.

The more moderate “Two Kingdoms” people argue that Christians can enter the political realm as citizens, not as Christians, and when doing so, Christians should argue for biblical positions based not on the Bible but rather on natural law. In other words, they say that when Christians oppose abortion and homosexual marriage, we need to use secular arguments against aborting babies and marrying homosexuals.

I disagree, and disagree very strongly, but my disagreement with these people is mostly over tactics and principle, not necessarily over the end result. In a much more radically secular country than the United States, or in some of the worst parts of America, I might agree that their tactics are the only ones that have any chance of success.

Perhaps Southern California really has become so bad that the people at Westminster-West, acting as citizens in public life rather than as theological professors and pastors, really do have no other hope except using secular arguments.

If so, fine.

But let those of us who live in places where the foundations have not yet been destroyed try to restore what is left of our Christian heritage in America.

However, the more radical “Two Kingdoms” people believe something much worse, namely, that once a question has become “politicized,” Christians ought to avoid preaching on it because it will identify the church with a political party or a political position and drive people away.

The key question ought not to be whether we will offend people and drive them away, but whether we will offend God and be driven by Him out of His presence regardless of how many people fill the pews of our churches. God has strong words to false prophets who seek to please people rather than pleasing God.

What we must ask is whether God has spoken to an issue in His Word. If God has spoken, the church must speak. If God has not spoken, the church must stay silent.

Is that not obvious? If so, why are we still debating this?

With all due respect to people who call themselves conservative Calvinists — if the trumpet of the church gives an uncertain sound on murdering babies in the womb and advocating official state recognition of sodomy through marriage out of fear that we will offend people, the church has lapsed into cowardice.

God will not look kindly on cowardice in the church.

* * *

Darrell Todd Maurina, owner of the Pulaski County Daily News outside Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks, has been a reporter since the 1980s. While he now works in the secular media primarily covering the military, government and law enforcement, he is a Calvin College graduate and spent many years in the 1990s covering the conservative movement in and eventual secession from the Christian Reformed church.


(NOTE: This is a prequel in a (so far) eleven-part series opposing the liberal theology called "Two Kingdom," "Radical Two-Kingdom," "Rigid Two Kingdom," or "Revisionist Two Kingdom," and abbreviated here simply as "R2K." Here's the first in this series, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, the eighth, the ninth, the tenth, and the eleventh.)

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!