As Christians, we are called to be “in” the world but not “of” the world. Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount that our mission is to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). But exactly how are we supposed to do this in the midst of a secular culture? What does it look like concretely? Should we seek to transform culture, should we withdraw from culture altogether, or should we create our own counter-culture? In other words, what does it mean to be both a Christian and a citizen at the same time?
The Reformed world is currently being pulled in two different directions over this question. On one side is a view with many connections to the Lutheran tradition, known as “two kingdoms” theology (sometimes called R2K for “Reformed/radical two kingdoms,” or “neo-two kingdoms”). On the other side is a view that builds upon the thought of Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, and is identified with St. Augustine’s “two cities” model (I’ll call it R2C—let’s see if that catches on!). At present it is unclear whether either view will emerge as the dominant Reformed view, due largely to the profound complexity of all the issues involved. My goal here is to clarify these issues, giving a brief summary of each position. Although I personally favor the two cities model, I will save my evaluations for a later post.
The “two kingdoms” of R2K correspond to the orders of creation and redemption, both of which are governed by God, but differ in the manner in which God governs them. On this view, redemption is not understood as the restoration of creation, but rather as an addendum or overlay to creation. That is, they are supplemental spheres. What this means is that the order of creation, which is preserved by God’s common grace, serves merely penultimate ends like peace and justice, but not the ultimate end of salvation. This constitutes the civil or secular kingdom—the realm of culture—which is governed not by Scripture but by natural law. Therefore, since believers and unbelievers have shared access to this natural law, they are on the same footing insofar as creation is concerned. Unbelievers can be model citizens and still headed for hell. On the other hand, the religious or sacred kingdom, the church, is where God’s work of redemption is accomplished. This realm is the exclusive domain of Scripture’s authority. Christians are citizens of both kingdoms, but they should not participate in the civil kingdom as Christians, since culture is not something that can be redeemed—at least not until the eschaton, when the present order will be overthrown and replaced by the new creation (in sharper discontinuity than restoration). This explains why R2K advocates are sometimes suspicious of the concept of a “Christian worldview.” They do not believe in the existence of a comprehensive Christian vision that encompasses such mundane things as plumbing or politics. Chief proponents of R2K would be the faculty members of Westminster Seminary California (especially David VanDrunen and R. Scott Clark) and D.G. Hart of Hillsdale College.
By contrast, the “two cities” model follows the neo-Kuyperian understanding of redemption: “grace restores nature” (so creation and redemption are not compartmentalized supplements, as in R2K). Ironically, Kuyper himself did not hold to R2C. As Branson Parler has shown in the multi-author volume Kingdoms Apart, Kuyper would have agreed with R2K proponents that believers and unbelievers are on equal footing with regard to the penultimate ends of the civil realm. But Kuyper’s disciples have been more consistent in following Kuyper’s presuppositions to their logical conclusions. Theologians like Klaas Schilder and James K.A. Smith (as well as Parler himself) have built their social theory on the work of St. Augustine, who taught that there are not two kingdoms but two cities. Augustine defined “city” as a community bound together by a common love, loyalty, or telos. Augustine’s two cities differ from the two kingdoms in two crucial ways. First, the two cities do not constitute two distinct spheres or domains; rather, they are competing, intermingling loyalties within the same sphere (see image above). And second, the two cities are not both governed by God; rather, there is a city of God and a city of man, the latter of which is under Satan’s dominion. These cities are therefore antithetical and all-encompassing (worldviews!), including both ultimate and penultimate ends. Augustine taught that one cannot have properly ordered penultimate ends if one’s ultimate ends are disordered. Consequently, we should not expect unbelievers to rightly exercise citizenship in the public sphere. To be sure, there will still be some semblance of God’s justice in the city of man, but this is only because unbelievers cannot be fully consistent in their rebellion against God (in the words of Cornelius Van Til, they are living on “borrowed capital”). Insofar as this earthly city admits any degree or semblance of justice, Christians may participate in it for the sake of the common good and the peace of the church (Smith calls this “selective collaboration”). But this is not quite the same thing as “redeeming” culture. The city of man is by nature set in opposition to God, and as such cannot be redeemed (there is no truly Christian nation). For this reason, proponents of R2C ought to avoid the language of “transforming culture” or “building the kingdom.” Instead, it would be better to speak of Christians engaging culture as those who have been transformed.
- David VanDrunen. Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.
- D.G. Hart. A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State. Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.
- Branson Parler. “Two Kingdoms or Two Cities? The Importance of the Ultimate in Reformed Social Thought.” In Kingdoms Apart: Engaging the Two Kingdoms Perspective, edited by Ryan McIlhenny, 173-97. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012.
- James K.A. Smith. “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?” Calvin Theological Journal 47 (2012): 122-37.
- Al Wolters. Creation Regained: A Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005.