I was speaking at an OPC family camp for a few days this week. Really great folks and very theologically literate. The after-session discussion du jour focused on two kingdom theology v. neo-Kuyperianism (sounds like your family camp too, I know).
In broad strokes, the two kingdom folks believe in a kingdom of this world and a kingdom of Christ. We have a dual citizenship as Christians. Further, the realm of nature should not be expected to function and look like the realm of grace. Living in the tension of two kingdoms we should stop trying to transform the culture of this world into the kingdom of our Lord and instead focus on the church being the church, led by it duly ordained officers and ministering through the ordinary means of grace.
On the other hand, neo-Kupyerianism (intellectual descendants of the Dutch theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper) argue that every square inch of this world belongs to Christ. Therefore, his Lordship should be felt and manifested in politics, in the arts, in education, in short, everywhere. Because the work of Christ was not just to save sinners but also to renew the whole cosmos, we should be at work to change the world and transform the culture.
I don’t like the “third rail” folks who are always positioning themselves as the sane alternative between two extremes, but I have to admit that there are elements of both approaches–two kingdom theology and neo-Kuyperianism–that seem biblical and elements that seem dangerous.
On the plus side for the two-kingdom approach:
• Emphasis on the church and the ordinary means (e.g., preaching, sacraments)
• Realistic appraisal of our fallen world and the dangers of utopian idealism
• Acknowledges that while Christians can do and should do many worthwhile things in the world, the church as church has a more limited mandate
• Avoids endless, and often silly, pronouncements on all sorts of cultural and political matters
• Takes seriously the already and not-yet of the kingdom
• Understands that every nice thing that happens in the world is not “kingdom work”
• A bulwark against theonomy and reconstructionism
But I also see some dangers in a radical two-kingdom approach:
• An exaggerated distinction between laity and church officers (e.g., evangelism is the responsibility of elders and pastors not of the regular church members)
• An unwillingness to boldly call Christians to work for positive change in their communities and believe that some change is possible
• The doctrine of the “spirituality of the church” allowed the southern church to “punt” (or worse) on the issue of slavery during the 19th century
The neo-Kuyperians have some positives too:
• A desire to make their faith public
• Zeal to confront injustice and help the hurting
• Appreciation for the goodness of the created world
• Takes seriously that Christianity is about more than sinners getting their ticket punched for heaven
But, alas, there are also number of shortcomings with the neo-Kuyperian view:
• Blurs the distinction between common grace and special grace
• Blurs the distinction between general and special revelation
• Can minimize personal redemption at the expense of cosmic renewal
• Explicit biblical support for commanding all Christians to change the world or transform the culture is very thin
• Devolves quickly into an indistinct moralism
So where does this leave us? I’m not quite sure. The two kingdom theology has better biblical support in my opinion. It seems to me we are more like the Israelites in exile in Babylon than we are the Israelites in the promised land. The earnest calls for world transformation assume that because Christ will renew the whole cosmos therefore our main job as Christians is to do the same. But this is basing a whole lot of theology on a pretty tenuous implication. Two kingdom theology feels more realistic to me and fits better with the “un-preoccupied-with-transforming-society” vibe I get from the New Testament.
And yet, I am loathe to be an apologist for the status quo, or to throw cold water on young people who want to see abortion eradicated or dream of kids in Africa having clean water. I don’t think it’s wrong for a church to have an adoption ministry or an addiction recovery program. I think changing structures, institutions, and ideas not only helps people but can pave the way for gospel reception.
Perhaps there is a–I can’t believe I’m going to say it–a middle ground. I say, let’s not lose the heart of the gospel, divine self-satisfaction through self-substitution. And let’s not apologize for challenging Christians to show this same kind of dying love to others. Let’s not be embarrassed by the doctrine of hell and the necessity of repentance and regeneration. And let’s not be afraid to do good to all people, especially to the household of faith. Let’s work against the injustices and suffering in our day, and let’s be realistic that the poor, as Jesus said, will always be among us. Bottom line: let’s work for change where God calls us and gifts us, but let’s not forget that the Great Commission is go into the world and make disciples, not go into the world and build the kingdom.
NOTE: I won’t be able to engage in a lot of discussion on this issue, but I do welcome your thoughts. I know I have painted with very broad strokes, so all you two-kingdom folks and neo-Kuyperians feel free to make a better case for your position than I have laid out here.