Two Kingdoms Politics [part 4]
April 27, 2015
This is the fourth part of Brad Littlejohn's series exploring 'two kingdoms' theology. The introductory post can be found here, the second dealing with ecumenism here, and the third treating pastoring is found here. - Editor
When the subject of the "two kingdoms" comes up, the first thing that comes to most people's mind is the question of politics--God vs. Caesar, church vs. state, the challenges of Christian citizenship. This is in part due to the political language of "kingdoms," in part due to the fact that the Reformers themselves often used the language of the "civil kingdom" or "political kingdom" in contrast to the "spiritual kingdom," for in their era, unlike ours, pretty much any area of life beyond the inner realm of conscience was potentially subject to the authority of the civil magistrate. For us, though, with a more circumscribed conception of the state's responsibilities, this language can be misleading, and I have thus sought to emphasize in this series the full scope of what we might better call simply the "temporal kingdom," and waited until four posts in to broach the subject of politics.
However, the political question is clearly central to the two-kingdoms doctrine, almost as much today as it was in the Reformation era. Here the doctrine seeks to hold together the eschatological tension between Christ's insistence that "my kingdom is not of this world" with the triumphant declaration of Revelation that "the kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ." On the one hand, there is clearly something about Christ's reign that is radically inward and hidden, that works by the transforming power of the Spirit rather than through the coercive power of the sword or the observable chains of earthly cause and effect. On the other hand, we have his promise that his reign shall not remain hidden, but at the last day shall be fully public, acknowledged by rulers and principalities.
But what about in the meantime? Does the whole political and social order lie outside of the Christian message, as some would have it? And if so, is this because the Christian message is one of radical interiority, an antinomian proclamation of grace that never becomes incarnate, as libertines would have it? Or is it because the Christian message is one of a new law and a new social order unto itself, the church as alternative community, as Anabaptists old and new would have it? Or is the political and social order subsumed into the church's proclamation, such that the gospel is not rightly preached until it has taken on flesh and bones in a renewed set of laws and institutions, and in which we can point to these renewed laws and institutions and say "here is the kingdom in our midst. Christ's reign on earth has begun." Theocrats of every age have taught such a doctrine, and it persists in a subtler form among liberal social gospellers and conservative Kuyperian worldview warriors. Classical two-kingdoms thinking eschews all these alternatives, though I only have space for a few suggestive bullet-points as to how it does so.
• Christ is reigning through worldly rulers and institutions to preserve his good world. Classical two-kingdoms thinking insists that even while asserting the centrality of Christ's saving work in the church and the hearts of the faithful, we must not abandon the rest of the world to the devil, or to some spiritual no-mans land. Jesus is Caesar's Lord, and obeying Caesar can be a way of obeying Christ.
• Christ's temporal reign is indirect and mediated in a way his spiritual reign is not. Civil authorities cannot claim to speak directly for God or demand in God's name to always be obeyed. This may seem obvious to us, but certainly has not always been, and even today Christians easily fall prey to the temptation to identify some particular political institution as somehow the bearer of the divine will. Even when political authorities or earthly institutions are indeed doing the will of God, they remain fragile and fallible, not something that we can ever grasp hold of and say, "here indeed is the Kingdom."
• Christ's temporal reign serves to guard the goodness of the created order. Political rule is not amoral or free-floating, making things up according to the demands of realpolitik. No, it is bound to the moral order of the world as God created it, albeit that order has been distorted by sin, thus requiring political rule to take a distinctively coercive shape. Because the fundamental task of political rule is the maintenance and flourishing of created goods, rather than the distinctive tasks of redemption, which are the chief focus of Scripture, the general norm of political rule is natural revelation and natural law, not Scripture, and hence Christians do not have anything like a monopoly on good government.• Christ's temporal reign cannot be fully separated from his redeeming work. Some two-kingdoms thinkers who make a great deal of "creation" and "redemption" as the division between the two kingdoms seem to forget that "redeem" is a transitive verb, and Scripture is quite clear that the object of this redemption is not merely the souls of believers, but the whole created order. To be sure, the application of redemption begins in the souls of believers, but it works its way outward (though never close to fully until the consummation). The world is broken, and is being healed. Political rulers ought not seek to pre-empt the shape of the new creation, but neither must they rest content with a fully broken world; inasmuch as Scripture reveals and the gospel enables a world ordered as it was originally meant to be, politics may be guided by this ideal and nourished by this Christian virtue.• We are then called to witness in a distinctively Christian, but always provisional, mode to Christ's temporal reign. What all this means is that there is a call to take our faith into the public square, and call rulers to account as fallible agents of the Lord. But the changeless and eternal spiritual rule of Christ is not mirrored in the radically changing and time-bound political order. We should not expect ready-made solutions from Scripture to the challenges of the 21st-century, nor should we forget that most political prudence comes from nature, not grace. And we should not expect radical transformation of the temporal order into the new Jerusalem; it can only ever hint at and witness to Christ's reign, not incarnate it. But that in itself is a potentially revolutionary Christian contribution to politics, since earthly politics is always prone to claim for itself an ultimacy it cannot sustain, or make redemptive promises it cannot deliver. Precisely by pointing to an excess that always lies beyond politics, two-kingdoms thinking promises to reshape political life even at its most apolitical.
Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com