What’s Wrong with 2K?

Bill Evans head shot

The fallout and discussion from Carl Trueman’s first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of transformationalists (“Cigar Smoke and Mirrors and Transformation”) continues.  Faithful readers of The Ecclesial Calvinist will recall Trueman’s suggestion that transformationalism (the idea that Christians can have a positive and redemptive influence on culture) is wrongheaded and that it is “time to become realistic” about the adverse cultural situation we face.  As I noted in an earlier blog post, Trueman presented “a syllogism of sorts, which can be summarized in this way:  (1) Despite his gifts Abraham Kuyper failed to transform Dutch society; (2) Tim Keller is our best hope for social transformation; (3) Tim Keller is no Abraham Kuyper; and (4) Ergo, transformationalism is a pipe dream.”

As it happens, soon after my second post on the topic Trueman finally did concede that Christianity can make a positive difference as believers live out their callings.  He wrote:

I do not believe the church as an institution has a calling to be involved directly in political action.  But I do believe that as Christians hear the word each week and receive it by faith, as they grasp the significance of their baptism, as they take the Lord’s Supper, as they worship and fellowship with other believers, their characters are impacted and shaped; and that this will affect how they behave as members of civic society.   In short, they will be those whose faith informs how they think and behave as they go about their daily business in this world.   Christianity makes a difference—through the lives of the individual Christians pursuing their civic callings as Christians, not through the political posturing and lobbying of the church.

That’s not a bad statement as far as it goes, though I can anticipate situations in which the institutional church needs to involve itself in political or secular legal process in order to protect itself and the less fortunate from the encroachments of the state and others.  That’s why, for example, I will not criticize the involvement of the black church in the civil rights movement or the current efforts by former PCUSA and TEC congregations to defend their property rights in court.  But like Trueman and his 2K friends, I don’t want to see the church become an appendage for whatever political program—on the left or the right—happens to be popular this week.  In fact, such is my “chastened transformationalism” that Darryl Hart apparently seems to think that I’m really a closet devotee of 2K.  Given the contextual complexities the church faces, I would argue that these matters call for wisdom, not a one-size-fits-all theological a priori.

But this is where I’m perplexed by Trueman’s posts.  It seems to me that neither Tim Keller nor Abraham Kuyper have tried to hijack the church for political ends, and Kuyper in particular had some rather well formed theological reasons for not doing so. So why the criticism of Keller and Kuyper?  Here, I suspect, is the rub: Kuyper and Keller demonstrate both a belief that grace can really effect transformation (albeit not of an eschatologically final and definitive sort) and a concern to equip Christians to make a difference.  Given the totality of Trueman’s comments on the topic I’m left with the sense that while he is not going to forbid Christians going out and trying to effect positive change in the world, deep down he thinks it’s a waste of time.  So, it seems that the real issue here is not so much protecting the church from being co-opted by politics, though we certainly need to be watchful on that score.  Rather, it is the deeper question of what can the Gospel accomplish in our lives as individuals, in our families, and, yes, even in the broader culture.  And that issue brings us to the focus of this post—the so-called Two-Kingdoms theology (2K).

In a recent Facebook post I responded to a question about the cash value of 2K in this way:

I think the basics can be summarized as follows: (1) There are two realms [or Kingdoms]—a. the world, which is governed by creational wisdom/natural law, and b. the Church, which is shaped and governed by the Gospel. (2) There is no distinctively “Christian worldview” that is to be applied to all of life (i.e., no Christian-worldview perspective on politics, economics, etc.). (3) Christian efforts to transform or redeem society will inevitably fail, and the ministry of the Church is exclusively spiritual in nature.

One of my more ardent 2K Facebook friends observed that this was “a good, concise explanation,” so I’ll assume that my description of 2K thinking is at least in the right zip code.  On the face of it, this position may seem innocuous and perhaps even laudable, and I’ll be the first to admit that 2K advocates have some legitimate concerns.

That being said, there are problems here, both in the presuppositions and the entailments of 2K.  Here we will focus on three issues—the misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God, an invidious creation-redemption dualism, and a resulting undue skepticism regarding transformation.  And just for the record, while Carl Trueman has expressed appreciation for “much” that various proponents of 2K have said, he has not formally endorsed 2K theology, and I make no presumption as to what his specific positions on these three issues might be.

First, there is a failure to understand the nature of the Kingdom of God.  More specifically, the institutional Church is wrongly equated with the Kingdom.  While admittedly there has been a range of opinion in Reformed circles on this matter over the years, my sense is that there is a rough consensus among more conservative New Testament scholars (as opposed to the historians and systematicians who seem to dominate 2K) that the Kingdom of God is not to be simply identified with the church.  In a nutshell, the Kingdom of God is a much more comprehensive reality than the institutional church.  Herman Ridderbos phrases the matter well in his seminal volume The Coming of the Kingdom:

There can be no uncertainty about either the connection or the difference between these two fundamental notions: The basileia is the great divine work of salvation in its fulfillment and consummation in Christ; the ekklesia is the people elected and called by God and sharing in the bliss of the basileia.  Logically the basileia ranks first, and not the ekklesia.  The former, therefore, has a much more comprehensive content.  It represents the all-embracing perspective, it denotes the consummation of all history, brings both grace and judgment, has cosmic dimensions, fills time and eternity.  The ekklesia in all this is the people who in this great drama have been placed on the side of God in Christ by virtue of the divine election and covenant (p. 354; see also G. E. Ladd, Theology of the New Testament [1974], pp. 111-119).

This misidentification of the institutional church with the Kingdom of God has all sorts of unfortunate results, among them being the current unfocused and poorly defined squabbles over what the individual Christians can do as opposed to what the institutional church should or should not do, and confusion over the nature of “kingdom work.”

Second, 2K theology persistently evinces a radical dualism in its understanding of the relationship between creation and redemption.  There is a denial of any real continuity or carryover from the old creation to the new.  In a mainstream and accessible presentation of 2K theology David VanDrunen writes,

Our earthly bodies are the only part of the present world that Scripture says will be transformed and taken up into the world-to-come.  Believers themselves are the point of continuity between this creation and the new creation. . . . If the present natural order is destined for radical dissolution, then what does that mean for present human culture?  Will the products of human culture—or at least the good ones, or the ones produced by Christians—somehow survive the consuming fire of the last day and adorn the new creation?  Will the worthy cultural artifacts produced by Christians serve as “the building materials for that new earth?”  As we will consider in subsequent chapters, Scripture treats our cultural labors as meaningful and honorable, but this does not mean that they are meant to last forever.  The New Testament teaches that the entirety of present cultural activities and products will be brought to a radical end, along with the natural order, at the second coming of Christ (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms [2010], pp. 66-67).

In other words, while our efforts to apply creational wisdom or natural law are not bad things, our experience of salvation today is entirely a spiritual matter and our efforts to effect change in this world have no lasting or eternal significance for the world to come.  Furthermore, this present world in its entirety (except for our physical bodies) will be destroyed.

But is this radical creation-redemption dualism as biblical as VanDrunen claims?  To be sure, he can point to passages that present the relationship of the old and new creations in terms of discontinuity (e.g., 2 Peter 3:11-13).  At the same time, other passages depict restoration rather than annihilation. When the Old Testament prophets speak of the new heavens and the new earth they do so in terms that suggest considerable continuity with the old (see Isaiah 65:17-25; 66:22-24).  Moreover, the New Testament writers will use language that suggests the regeneration and restoration of the created order rather than its destruction (see Matthew 19:28; Acts 3:21).  Perhaps most telling for this issue is Paul’s argument in Romans 8:18-25, where the Apostle notes that while “the creation was subject to futility,” it “will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  At very least this suggests that VanDrunen’s approach to the matter is one-sided and selective, and that he has missed the careful dialectic of eschatological continuity and discontinuity present in Scripture.  Perhaps he has been led astray by the vividness of biblical apocalyptic language.

Interestingly, it is generally recognized that the physical and cultural annihilationism VanDrunen advocates is much more characteristic of the Lutheran tradition than the Reformed.  Charles Hodge observed, “Many of the old theologians, especially among the Lutherans, understood the Bible to teach the absolute annihilation of our world. . . . Most of the Reformed theologians generally oppose the idea of annihilation.  Turrettin certainly does” (Systematic Theology, III:852-53).

Third (and most important), there seems to be at work in 2K a real skepticism about any sort of intrinsic transformation—personal or corporate.  In an earlier post on this topic I noted that there is “a connection between personal transformation, or individual soteriology, and corporate transformation, and battle lines on the question of individual soteriology have been sharply drawn more recently.”  Related to this, there is in 2K a persistently disjunctive impulse—separating sanctification and justification, Law and Gospel (another Lutheran distinctive), the transformatory and the forensic, the kingdom of the world and the institutional Church.

Thus Mike Horton (the 2K theologian who has reflected most deeply, substantively, and creatively on these issues of individual soteriology) rejects the older Reformed scholastic notion of the infusion of gracious habits in regeneration found in the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession (Dordt III/IV, Arts. 11, 12, Rej. Par. 6; WCF 13.1), which denominated a real and lasting change intrinsic to the Christian, and he challenges the distinction between regeneration and effectual calling (see his Covenant and Salvation, 230-242).  Horton’s reasoning here is clear in that he thinks the older infusionism subverts forensic justification: “Infusionism has never created a forensic space in its ontology” (Covenant and Salvation, 215).  He also rejects the traditional participationist option—another historic way of articulating real change in the Christian—as too Platonic (see, e.g., his “Participation and Covenant,” in Smith and Olthuis, eds., Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition (2005), 107-32).  Consistent with his prioritizing of the forensic, Horton argues that the forensic decree of justification results in sanctification via what he calls a “covenantal ontology,” and he tries to flesh this out using speech-act theory.   But here Horton seems to rely on aesthetic metaphors such as “being overwhelmed by beauty” or “falling in love” (see Covenant and Salvation, 230, 240).  At the end of the day, despite Horton’s intriguing and significant effort to recast Reformed soteriology in a contemporary idiom and his clear desire to affirm that a change in the Christian’s behavior takes place, his explanations of how this works never get much beyond the extrinsic and the evocative.  It seems that he simply does not have conceptual apparatus at his disposal to say much of anything about a real change or transformation intrinsic to the Christian.

Along these lines, VanDrunen’s statement quoted above that “[o]ur earthly bodies are the only part of the present world that Scripture says will be transformed and taken up into the world-to-come” is telling.    It appears that there is no intrinsic transformation in this life, and what transformation there may be is shunted into the eschaton.

If this 2K approach strikes the reader as quite different from Calvin’s Geneva, or Presbyterian Scotland, or the Puritans, or the Old Princeton Postmillennialists, or the 20th-century Neo-Calvinists, the gentle reader is correct—diligent exercises in historical revisionism emanating from Hillsdale and Escondido notwithstanding.  In fact, all that I noted above (and much more) regarding the biblical witness to the transformation of nature and culture is quite evident in the Reformed dogmatic and exegetical tradition (see, e.g., Calvin, Comm. on 2 Peter 3:10; Turretin, Institutes (1997): III: 590-96; C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, III:851-55; A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, 575; Dabney, Systematic Theology, 850-52; Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, IV: 715-30; Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 737; Berkouwer, Return of Christ, 219-25; Hoekema, Bible and the Future, 23-40, 73-75).  It is quite safe to say that, with respect to the issue of continuity between the old creation and the new, the center gravity of the Reformed tradition is decidedly transformational rather than annihilationist, and facile references to the “diversity” of the Reformed tradition neither change that nor advance the discussion.  In fact, where there are annihilationist voices they tend to be found in oddities like Eduard Böhl, a Kohlbrüggian federalist according to whom all of salvation (including sanctification) is imputed and there is no change of nature in the inner being of the Christian (see Berkouwer, Return of Christ, 219).

While there is diversity within the 2K camp, upon close examination some 2K advocates seem to be channeling H. Richard Niebuhr’s model of “Christ and Culture in Paradox” presented in his Christ and Culture.  Niebuhr rightly associates this model with the Lutheran tradition and aptly terms it “the theology of the dualists.”  According to Niebuhr, this model starts with the grace of justification (pp. 150-51), it divides reality into two kingdoms, and operates with persistent dualities of “revelation and reason, of law and grace, of the Creator and Redeemer” (pp. 156-57).  It is pessimistic about both personal and social transformation, and tends to reserve such improvement for the eschaton (p. 178).  Finally, the dualist has a rather negative view of creation.  As Niebuhr insightfully puts it, for the dualist creation is “order for corruption” and destruction rather than “corrupted order” that can be restored (p. 194).  All this should sound familiar to those conversant with 2K.

But much more important than the historical antecedents of this theology are its practical consequences. According to 2K, saving grace doesn’t really change us (though our behavior may improve) and it doesn’t change society either.  What we have emerging here is a hyper-spiritualized, forensically overloaded, and inconsequential theology.  Is the 2K theology a response to some legitimate problems?  I think it is.  Is the cure worse than the disease?  I’m afraid that it is.  Furthermore, sober realism demands the recognition that the 2K movement has the clear potential further to divide the already splintered conservative Reformed movement.