This book is about the relationship between Christ and culture. It is a robust defense of the neo-Calvinist viewpoint associated with names like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Herman Dooyeweerd. The editor and authors of this volume evidently feel that the Two Kingdoms viewpoint on the relationship between Christ and culture, advocated by many of the professors at Westminster Seminary California (particularly David VanDrunen), has grown in popularity and that the neo-Calvinist perspective is under attack. This volume is edited by Ryan McIlhenny (son of long-time OPC pastor Chuck McIlhenny), who teaches history and humanities at Providence Christian College in Pasadena, California.
As one who went to WSC and who has been influenced by Meredith Kline (who was also one of VanDrunen’s influential teachers), I guess I would say I belong to the Two Kingdoms camp. I don’t recall Kline using that label, but with VanDrunen’s publication of his two books Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms (Eerdmans, 2010) and Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (Crossway, 2010), that label seems here to stay. I think I have a fairly good understanding of the Two Kingdoms position, and would even say that I agree with much of VanDrunen’s project, but I wanted to read this book edited by McIlhenny to get the other side of this issue. I undertook the reading of this book with an open mind, genuinely desiring to understand where my neo-Calvinist brothers are coming from.
McIlhenny’s Introduction “In Defense of Neo-Calvinism” is a great place to start to get an overview of neo-Calvinism’s themes and concerns. He argues that neo-Calvinism has four critical tenets: (1) the cultural mandate, (2) sphere sovereignty, (3) the antithesis, and (4) common grace. In my opinion, the differences between neo-Calvinism and the Two Kingdoms perspective are clearest under the first point. The central foundational element of neo-Calvinism is a continuationist interpretation of the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:26 in which redemption in Christ restores the ability of humans to fulfill the pre-fall mandate as they transform culture. An important sub-issue under the cultural mandate is eschatology – to be specific, the question whether and to what extent human culture will be purified and brought into the eschatological new creation. Neo-Calvinists generally think this will happen, but Two Kingdom thinkers deny it. The other three points (sphere sovereignty, the antithesis, and common grace) present a less stark contrast, since Two Kingdom thought embraces those three points as well, albeit with different emphases, placing more emphasis on common grace and less on the antithesis.
I came away from reading this book hopeful about the possibility of further dialogue on this topic. Although the two sides do have substantive theological differences (focused on the place of the cultural mandate in relation to redemption in Christ and eschatology), I think there are also important swaths of common ground. I would like to see the temperature of the rhetoric turned down. This book makes an effort to keep the temperature with bounds, although it occasionally heats up more than is warranted, including in some of the endorsements. We have a long way to go just in getting the two camps to understand each other’s positions – as well as the sub-variants within each camp – before we can even have a real debate.
It is intriguing to me that there are some interesting points of contact between the two camps - between neo-Calvinism’s sphere sovereignty and Two Kingdoms’ spirituality of the church; between neo-Calvinism’s common grace and Two Kingdoms’ natural law; and between neo-Calvinism’s distinction between structure and direction and Two Kingdoms’ distinction between culture objectively considered and the believer’s subjective sanctification of culture (see Kline, Kingdom Prologue, p. 201). VanDrunen has also argued that Abraham Kuyper can in some ways be interpreted as a representative of the historic Reformed Two Kingdoms tradition going back to Calvin.
There were several encouraging occasions in this book when a neo-Calvinist contributor made important concessions and qualifications that would make a Two Kingdom person feel that their concerns are being heard. In my opinion, the essay by Scott Swanson (“How Does ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ Before the End? Theology of the Present and Future Kingdom in the Book of Revelation”) and the concluding one by McIlhenny (“Christian Witness As Redeemed Culture”) provide the most opportunities for seeking common ground.
I found McIlhenny’s concluding essay to be very helpful. Shockingly, aside from his continued use of the language of “redeeming culture,” I found myself not at all repulsed by and in fact attracted to his vision of Christian cultural engagement. He argues that “redeeming culture is not a matter of transforming the ding an sich of material things,” since culture is purely phenomenal (p. 271). Rather, building on the work of Clifford Geertz and Andy Crouch, culture is essentially language, a system of communicating meaning. This leads him to commend Christian cultural activity and engagement, not so much with an eschatological goal of trying to build a culture that will enter the eschaton (at least he doesn’t mention that idea in this essay), but with the more modest missional goal of Christian witness. As Christians engage in cultural activity they communicate to their neighbors their most fundamental beliefs about God and the gospel. Through this means (in conjunction with the preaching of the gospel), Christians let their light shine before men. He quotes Heidelberg Catechism #86, which states that one reason believers should engage in good works is “that by our godly walk of life we may win our neighbors for Christ.” Of course, preaching the gospel ought to be our primary means of witness, but Christian cultural activity can play a subordinate role of adorning the gospel, making the gospel attractive to outsiders, and enabling the Christian message to gain a hearing.
Scott Swanson in his essay also makes a similar point, focusing on witness as the primary goal. He also recognizes the eschatological reserve that characterizes our existence as pilgrims living between the ages:
“So does Revelation imply or at least allow for a ‘Christian’ culture, a ‘Christian’ politics? How could it not be otherwise, if Christians’ public life in all its callings and spheres must manifest a distinct difference from that of the kingdom of this world? ... Yet Revelation’s message should also warn against any triumphalistic overconfidence in Christian cultural transformation in this world. Nor does it encourage us to see our cultural engagements as in themselves advancing Christ’s kingdom ... The beast, in all his embodiments, will not finally be defeated, nor will Babylon finally fall, before the end. Christ has ‘begun to reign,’ but we wait with perseverance in our testimony and commandment-keeping for God’s climactic intervention in history to finally bring in the new heaven and new earth. And so we pray, ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’ (Rev. 22:20) ... It is thus significant that Revelation begins and ends not with calls to transform culture, but with warnings to heed the message of the book by being overcomers. It leaves us with the urgency of avoiding any compromise with the sins of this world and the call to faithful testimony and keeping God’s commandments” (pp. 225-26). Amen!