Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, by David Van Drunen. Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010. 466 pages. Softcover. ISBN978802864437. Reviewed by Mark H. Hoeksema.
David Van Drunen is Professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics at Westminster Seminary California. As is evident from this and other of his writings, he stands in the conservative tradition of Reformed and Presbyterian theology, and is therefore a voice that needs to be heard.
When I was assigned this book for review, its title intrigued me because of the questions it raised in my mind: What is natural law, what are the two kingdoms, and what is their sociological relation to one another? While possibly an oversimplification, the question is: What is the nature of the kingdom of God, and what is our relation to it as we live in the world?
Van Drunen’s thesis is that the Reformed church has historically held to the concepts both of natural law and of two kingdoms of God in the development of its social thought, and he explains these terms. By “social” or “society” he means “the common life that people live together in their various economic, political, and legal (etc.) relations” (p. 3). In speaking of two kingdoms, he means that God rules the church (the spiritual kingdom) as redeemer in Jesus Christ, while he rules the state and all other social institutions (the civil kingdom) as creator and sustainer (p. 1). These two kingdoms “have significantly different ends, functions, and modes of operation” (p. 1). Natural law is the “belief that God has inscribed his moral law on the heart of every person, such that through the testimony of conscience all human beings have knowledge of their basic moral obligations and, in particular, have a universally accessible standard for the development of civil law” (p. 1). He asserts that classic Reformed theology “interconnects natural law and the two kingdoms doctrine, particularly in looking to natural law as the primary moral standard for life in the civil kingdom” (pp. 1, 2). The Christian, then, is a citizen of “two distinct kingdoms, both of which are ordained of God and under his law, yet exist for different purposes, have different functions, and operate according to different rules” (p. 13).
The author mentions that it is his intention in the future to offer a detailed defense of the natural law/two kingdoms paradigm. Although he is a bit oblique on this point, it seems apparent from his use of the word “defense,” as well as from various comments throughout the book, that he refers to the one-kingdom doctrine of the neo-Calvinists and to their attack on traditional Reformed theology. His stated purpose for writing this volume is to trace the development of the natural law/ two kingdoms doctrine in Reformed thought, showing that Reformed thinkers grounded social life in God’s work of creation and providence, not in his work of redemption (pp. 14-15). He is wisely and carefully laying a historical foundation for future argumentation. To use a colloquialism, he is getting his ducks in a row before he begins shooting.
Van Drunen accomplishes his purpose admirably. He shows that Reformed theologians did not invent the natural law/two kingdoms doctrine, but built upon the foundation of early church fathers and medieval thinkers, including Augustine, Aquinas, Scotus, Luther, and others. He explains Calvin’s position, as well as that of post-Reformation theologians such as Turretin and Cotton. He then turns to the history of this doctrine in northern Europe and America, paying special attention to Thornwell and Abraham Kuyper. He moves on to more recent figures such as Barth, Dooyeweerd, and Van Til, and then draws some conclusions from his study.
It is important to remember that this book is ahistory, not a polemic. Nevertheless, every historian necessarily and understandably writes from a certain bias. This is true also of Van Drunen, who is clearly a defender of the traditional Reformed view and an opponent of neo-Calvinism, though in this book he is only mildly adversarial. Yet he is quite objective in his writing, pointing out that the traditional view sometimes lacks consistency and coherence, and that it does not always answer all of the hard questions involved in the current controversy regarding the nature of the kingdom.
Van Drunen’s book is by no means an easy read. Yet it is an excellent contribution to the understanding of the nature of the kingdom. His writing is complex, yet clear. It is very scholarly, in the sense that he furnishes thorough documentation by means of abundant footnotes. From his stated historical perspective, he has masterfully written a definitive history of the truths in question. This book is highly recommended. In fact, it is, from two viewpoints, mandatory reading for seminary professors and students, ministers, and all those who are interested in the subject of the kingdom of Christ.
First, it lays the historical groundwork for further discussion of the nature of God’s kingdom in the context of the teachings of the neo-Calvinists, who assert that they stand in the tradition of the Reformation in their adherence to a one-kingdom teaching from a redemptive and eschatological perspective. Is there only one kingdom, or are there two kingdoms? If there are two, does natural law define the civil kingdom? If so, what is the correct understanding of natural law and what is the relation of natural law to the kingdom? If there is only one kingdom, what is its nature, and how does it square with the traditional Reformed view of two kingdoms as demonstrated by Van Drunen? Is the one-kingdom idea a heresy, or is it in whole or in part a valid interpretation of historical Reformed and confessional thought?
Second, and more importantly, this book is valuable to the PRCA in that it contributes to our understanding of the nature of God’s kingdom. At the present time it is apparent that we face the issue of the kingdom in the broader context of neo-Calvinism vs. the traditional two-kingdom idea, a controversy concerning which we ought to make our voice heard. But more importantly, we in the PRCA are internally engaged in a discussion of the nature and definition of the kingdom, precipitated by the views of the neo-Calvinists. Some among us assert that the church and the kingdom are identical. Others, myself included, view the kingdom as a broader and more inclusive concept than that of church, in keeping (I believe) with Van Drunen’s historical analysis.
Perhaps this book will help us to sort out some of the complex issues involved in the concept “kingdom.” As we attempt to do so, a caveat is in order: Although it is always important that we be biblically and confessionally correct, opposing all heresy and standing for the truth, this is not a salvific issue. We should therefore not approach this subject from an adversarial perspective, though we may well have differences of opinion, but in a cooperative spirit of understanding for the sake of the positive development of the truth.