How the Two Kingdoms Doctrine Could Have Prevented ECT

From the beginning it was apparent that the cart driving the theological horse in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) negotiations (which continue!) is the pressure to form a “common front” against neo-paganism, secularism, materialism, and other forms of fallout from late modernity.

We are not alone. British evangelicals faced the same sorts of pressures in the 1960s and Jim Packer was involved in discussions then that pre-figured the ECT discussions in the ’90s in North America (see McGrath’s biography of Packer on this). In that case conservative British Christians were beginning to feel the need form a common front against the inroads of modernity into the church and society. Conservative Anglicans (Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals) needed to form a sort of union against the “the liberals.” If justification got in the way, well the culture war was more important.

If one reads the defenses of ECT and especially if one reads the reaction to the criticisms of ECT by confessional types it becomes clear (at least it has become so to me) that what drives the ECT process is the need to find grounds for some sort of union of conservative Christians over against liberals of various sorts (and materialism and the other modernist isms of the age). If one presumes that, in order to cooperate on a social level, Christians must form some sort of nominal theological union, then the sort of open equivocation on justification represented by ECT becomes necessary. This is the best explanation for ECT. Yes, I’m aware the Chuck Colson believes that one day we’ll all see that he was a visionary and that the private assurances of Cardinal Cassidy will bear fruit in a theological Reformation of the Roman Communion (prompted by a Baptist layman and a lapsed LCMS Lutheran minister turned Roman priest). Well, forgive me for sounding a little cynical but that’s a historian’s prerogative.

More to the point it’s not necessary! If both sides, and especially the “evangelical” side in these negotiations would only recognize that Christ rules sovereignly over creation and all nations but administers that sovereign rule in two distinct ways the need to equivocate on justification (i.e. to say two things at the same time using the same words) would vanish. Evangelicals (and there were some Reformed folk who also signed the first two ECT documents) don’t need to agree with Rome on soteriology, the church, the sacraments, Mary, the saints, eschatology, or virtually any other such theological question in order to cooperate with them in social questions. Indeed, given the two kingdoms, we don’t have to agree with Mitt Romney on any theological questions either. We can even cooperate with Muslims, Hindus, and agnostics (e.g. Nat Hentoff) who share certain basic convictions about civil life. To cooperate we need only agree that there are certain fixed, embedded laws in creation. We need only agree that “we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The fundamental point that evangelicals (and many Reformed folk) need to recognize is that there are two kingdoms in this world, spiritual and civil. The spiritual kingdom is represented by the visible, institutional church. In that kingdom there is no compromise on the means and the message of the kingdom. In worship we live by the regulative principle. In the Christian life we live by the law of God in the grace of God by faith. We are righteous with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The power and authority of the visible church is spiritual and it touches spiritual ends: faith and sanctity and its means are spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline. The civil kingdom is also ruled by Christ but administered quite differently. Its power is more than persuasion. Its means are not spiritual but coercive. Its principle is not grace but works and law. To be sure the spiritual kingdom preaches the law and administers it (e.g. in the pedagogical use, the elenctic use, and in discipline) but it does so to spiritual ends. The civil magistrate may and should exercise forbearance or mercy but not grace. The civil magistrate does not always bring to bear the full weight of the law but this is in the interests of justice, not grace. The basic stuff of the civil kingdom is law and that law is revealed in nature, in the human conscience, and is universally known by humans and has been used by civil entities since creation. Christians, who live in both kingdoms simultaneously, may cooperate as members of the civil kingdom toward common ends without agreeing on the sorts of issues entailed in ECT.

In the two-kingdoms scheme, the sorts of negotiations and compromises built into the ECT process are unnecessary. I don’t need to agree with Father Neuhaus on anything but the existence and basic tenets of natural law to oppose the inroads of statism or whatever else needs attention in the civil kingdom.As a member of the civil kingdom I recognize fellow citizens as image-bearers, as persons with dignity, and I owe them charity. There is no reason why I must agree with my Roman neighbors on justification in order to sign CCRs when I buy my house. There’s no reason I have to agree with the theology of my Mormon neighbors when we sign the same petition to oppose homosexual marriage. There’s no reason why I have to agree theologically with my Muslim neighbor about the authority of Mohammed in order to agree that children do not belong to the state but to parents. We may well send our children to different schools but we drive the same roads and pay taxes to the same civil entities and submit to the same common laws that bind our outward, civil behavior.

In ECT it appears that both the evangelicals and Romanists and agreed on too much and too little. They’ve agreed on too much when it comes to soteriology. They both seem to assume a sort of one-kingdom model. The discussions that should have happened in ECT should have focussed (and perhaps they have at some point) on whether there is one kingdom in this world or two and how those two ought to relate. When it comes to civil matters it is irrelevant whether Cardinal Cassidy is born again. What matters is whether he believes there is a fixed law to which even the magistrate is bound.

This is not to say that ecclesiastical (not private) negotiation with representatives of the Roman communion is not important, it is important. It is useful but the evangelical side of the ECT negotiations was not ecclesiastical. It was a bunch of private cats with no ecclesiastical standing and, in some cases, little preparation for such discussions. Further, the evangelicals seem to think that negotiation entails giving away the farm. We should call Rome to repent of her condemnation of the gospel and we should repent of our too often nasty and bigoted caricatures of Roman theology, piety, and practice. Honest discussions would admit that the great difference still exists. Either we are justified sola gratia et sola fide and either the authority of the church is sola scriptura or it isn’t. These two sides are antithetical. There is no Hegelian synthesis here and there’s no need to confuse the two kingdoms.

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  1. Reminds me of Rome’s concern that Luther divisiveness would prevent Christendom from presenting a unified front against the Turk.

  2. I was happily Catholic – a “cafeteria” Catholic, thinking I could still worship God there, have lots of kids, ignore Mary, and hold a Protestant view of justification (I had already spent some years as a Protestant), when a Presbyterian friend mailed his May 1994 issue of First Things to me, the issue which carried the first ECT statement.

    (here it is, for reference:

    At first I was overjoyed. But it wasn’t long afterward that I discovered the “equivocation on justification” that you alluded to. By 1996 I was strongly questioning my leftover Catholicism; by 1998 I had firmly renounced that organization.

    Who knows why such things take so much time to get worked out? We have “daily lives” that interfere with our studies. We tend to trust people in authority. We have family members who don’t see the same things we see.

    Who among us hadn’t read lots of Colson books? Who couldn’t look at an issue of First Things and say, “wow, this is really an intelligent, wonderful, sophisticated publication?”

    When we get asked, “Did God really say…” the distinctions are finer and finer these days, and so hard to sort out.

    Many Reformed pastors and teachers today are able to quote this or that Reformer or Puritan, without making the leap of “what that really means to us today.” Turretin teaches wonderful lessons, but not much of what he says seems to have practical application today, or even relevance today. Especially not when people like Benedict XVI or Joel Osteen or even Mitt Romney get all the media attention.

    That’s why I am grateful for sites like this one, and for the body of knowledge (i.e. “the Reformation,” and subsequent Protestant scholarship and theology) that you are bringing to light today, and making relevant today.

  3. Dr Clark, a helpful post indeed. Have you ever read Oliver O’Donovan’s book “Desire of the Nations”? I highly recommend it if you want a nuanced biblical political theology that draws tremendously from the Christian tradition. God bless, Marty.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with that quote from the Declaration of Independence. But I agree with the rest of what you have to say.

  5. Is it absolutely necessary to affirm the concept of “unalienable rights” as a basis for agreement? I’m not sure that the whole notion of “rights” can be defended from Scripture. Could we more profitably proceed on the basis of a common understanding of man being made in God’s image and our responsibility to defend and protect that image? What is the biblical defense of the concept of “rights”?

  6. Hi Steve,

    Well, perhaps not, but if you take a look at the Protestant theory of resistance to tyrants as it developed, esp. after the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre you’ll find a good bit of this sort of language. I was just looking for widely accepted language that communicates the idea of “creational” or “natural” rights. The reason that they are inalienable is that they are divinely given. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (relative to the civil kingdom) are pretty basic. I wouldn’t argue much from the history of Israel but I might be able to argue from Rom 12 and perhaps elsewhere from the pre-Mosaic history. Is it acceptable to look at things as they are and make deductions too? Is Scripture intended to give us a theory of civil government?

  7. Thanks for responding, and, by the way, your post was great. It and other like it are helping me think through the 2 Kingdoms stuff.

    I know the Netherlands especially did a lot in developing the concept of “rights”, and from the perspective of government enforcement I think I can agree. And certainly the Reformed fell on the side of the civil magistrate being responsible to enforce civil liberty. The problem is when “rights” becomes a matter defended from the bottom up, i.e. when people take it into their own hands to defend their own rights and then expand and multiply those rights to include anything and everything they want to do or have. In a society that is governed like ours, I think it might be more useful to talk about our responsibility to defend and protect the image of God in others, rather than being so concerned that it is defended in us. Its the difference (I think) between “loving your neighbor” and making sure that your neighbor loves you properly. I don’t think Scripture is intended to give us a theory of civil government, but I do think that our theory of civil government should agree with or at least not contradict Scripture since natural law proceeds from the same source as special revelation. So I’ll ruminate on Rom. 12. Thanks for your helpful thoughts!

  8. Dr. Clark:

    Am re-reading this in light of a 2009 post on historical antecedents and Jim Packer.

    First, the Vatican model is a one-kingdom view, to this day, as you know. They’re all too willing to absorb cultural conservatives while attempting to co-opt their theology.

    Second, this is exactly where, in my estimation, that JIP is coming.


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