One of the more frequent criticisms of the attempt to appropriate the older Reformed “two kingdoms” (or as Calvin put, “a twofold kingdom”) approach to Reformed ethics for a post-Constantinian setting, as distinct from the “transformationalist” or some versions of neo-Kuyperianism, is that it introduces a kind of “neutrality” into Reformed theology. A comment made by a recent correspondent suggested that this remains an issue for some folk.
Anyone who is familiar with the work of Abraham Kuyper or Herman Bavinck or Cornelius Van Til knows that the idea of “neutrality” is consistently and thoroughly rejected by the framers of much of modern Dutch Reformed theology and thus, were a 2K (as people like to put it) guilty of introducing it into Reformed theology that would be a great, even fatal flaw.
In this discussion, “neutrality” means “a sphere of life which is un-interpreted by God’s Word” or “an un-normed sphere of life” or “an un-interpreted sphere of life” over which the Christian or even an unbeliever would be able to say, “This is mine.” This is a truly legitimate concern. Reformed theology opposes human autonomy (self-rule). Abraham Kuyper was absolutely correct to say, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me!’””
For proponents of a so-called 2K ethic, the question is not whether Jesus is sovereign but how. As I understand the neo-Calvinist movement (van Prinsterer, Kuyper, Bavinck, Van Til, Berkhof, et al) they all taught two complementary principles: antithesis and common grace (Gemeene Gratie). As I understand a so-called 2K model, it is an attempt to describe the way common grace functions relative to the antithesis.
Common grace is a way of speaking of those areas of life which are not ecclesiastical, which are, in some sense, common to believers and unbelievers and in which God operates by his providence to restrain evil and in which unbelievers are said to be able to do civic (not saving) good. It also relates (see below) to the question of the Free or Well-Meant Offer of the gospel. The contemporary discussion of them, in N. America, tends to start with the three points of doctrinal deliverance by Synod Kalamazoo (1924) of the Christian Reformed Church(es):
Synod, having considered that part of the Advice of the Committee in General which is found in point III under the head: Treatment of the Three Points, comes to the following conclusions:
The First Point
Concerning the first point, touching the favorable attitude of God toward mankind in general, and not alone toward the elect, Synod declares that it is certain, according to Scripture and the Confession, that there is, besides the saving grace of God, shown only to those chosen to eternal life, also a certain favor or grace of God which he shows to his creatures in general. This is evident from the quoted Scripture passages and from the Canons of Dort, II, 5, and III and IV, 8 and 9, where the general offer of the gospel is discussed; while it is evident from the quoted declarations of Reformed writers of the period of florescence of Reformed theology that our Reformed fathers from of old have championed this view.
The Second Point
Concerning the second point, touching the restraint of sin in the life of the individual and in society, the Synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confession, there is such a restraint of sin. This is evident from the quoted Scripture passages and from the Belgic Confession, article 13 and 36, where it is taught that God through the general operations of his Spirit, without renewing the heart, restrains sin in its unhindered break¬ing forth, as a result of which human society has remained possible; while it is evident from the quoted declarations of Reformed writers of the period of florescence of Reformed theology that our Reformed fathers from of old have championed this view.
The Third Point
Concerning the third point, touching the performance of so-called civic righteousness by the unregenerate, the Synod declares that according to Scripture and the Confession the unregenerate, though incapable of any saving good (Canons of Dort, III, IV, 3), can perform such civic good. This is evident from the quoted Scripture passages and from the Canons of Dort, III, IV, 4, and the Belgic Confession, where it is taught that God, without renewing the heart, exercises such influence upon man that he is enabled to perform civic good; while it is evident from the quoted declarations of Reformed writers of the period of florescence of Reformed theology, that our Reformed fathers have from of old championed this view.
The supporting material offered by Synod in defense of the three points is omitted for space. Synod quoted chiefly Calvin and Petrus van Mastricht on these points. I’ve discussed the first point in “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel and Westminster Theology,” in David VanDrunen, ed., The Pattern of Sound Words: A Festschrift for Robert B. Strimple (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 149–80.
One of the problems in the neo-Calvinist movement is that folk have tended to fall on one side or the other of the common grace/antithesis distinction. Some, such as K. Schilder and H. Hoeksema, rejected common grace altogether. Others seem to ignore antithesis altogether. Kuyper, Bavinck, and Van Til, however, tried to keep the two principles together.
Unless common grace entails neutrality, and Cornelius Van Til did not think so, then the 2K ethic does not entail neutrality. Van Til wrote in defense of common grace at length. He wrote three books on common grace specifically:
- Common Grace (1947)
- Particularism and Common Grace (1951)
- Common Grace and the Gospel (1977)
This list of titles only suggests his interest in common grace. A doctrine of common grace pervaded his writings, so much so that Gary North wrote a volume rejecting it (and CVT’s amillennial eschatology) while trying to hang on to his Van Tillian credentials.
When CVT taught common grace he did not teach “neutrality.” He did not teach that there is a square inch over which Christ has not said, “This is mine!” He taught that God operates in common life in one way and he operates savingly in another. The restraint of evil is not a saving operation by the Spirit. The work of the Spirit, through the preaching of the gospel, is a saving operation. These two operations may be thought of as occurring in different spheres, or to use the older language, “kingdoms.” To be sure, these spheres overlap because we live in both spheres or kingdoms simultaneously.
It is sinners who sit in church to hear the gospel. Those sinners are citizens of the common (or secular) sphere. If a sinner parks his car in a red zone during church, he is likely to get a ticket just like a pagan. He is under the authority of the magistrate, even in church. We count on the magistrate to keep us safe while we gather in church for Word and sacrament. That magistrate is simultaneously protecting the unchurched. Pagans and Christians drive the same cars on the same roads. We eat in the same restaurants. We do the same math. Christians learn from pagans constantly. How? Common grace. Proponents of a so-called 2K ethic place this common life under the “civil kingdom.”
The antithesis exists on multiple levels the most foundational of which is the level of explanation. The Christian and the non-Christian give quite different explanations for the meaning of common life, providence, and reality. The non-Christian asserts his independence, his autonomy from God. He asserts his lordship over area, sphere, and inch. With Van Til, the Christian who understands Scripture and the faith correctly, rejects the pagan’s claims to autonomy. We say, “You are like a child who slaps his father’s face. He is only able to do it because he is sitting in his father’s lap.”
In truth is no such thing as neutrality. We live in a world that has been described authoritatively by God. He has revealed himself and laid claim to all of life. He has assigned meaning to everything and the Christian submits to that authoritative description of reality. Reformed theology teaches, however, that God has revealed himself in two books: nature and Scripture. In nature God has revealed his existence, some of his attributes, and his moral law. In Scripture, God has revealed his moral law and his gospel, so there is some overlap between general or natural revelation and special revelation. The moral law of God is seen in both places. The gospel, however, is only seen in Scripture.
The doctrine of the natural revelation of God’s moral law is not only clearly taught in Reformed theology since the 16th century but it is also enshrined in the Reformed confessions. In the modern period, however, this idea has fallen on hard times and those for whom Reformed theology started in the 19th or 20th centuries, are likely to be unfamiliar with it. Karl Barth, the most influential Reformed theologian of the 20th century, rejected the very idea of natural law. Just as many Reformed folk have apparently been influenced by his rejection of the law/gospel distinction and his radical re-working of covenant theology, so to many have been influenced by his approach to natural law and natural revelation. By this I do not mean to say that people have sat down and read Barth and agreed with him, but people have, nevertheless, come under his influence or the influence of his ideas.
Others, in reacting to the collapse of the culture, have so emphasized the antithesis between Christians and non-Christians as to almost obliterate any notion of common grace. The antithesis is real and essential to Christianity and a Christian interpretation of the world (the so-called “world and life view“). To reject common grace or a common sphere of life or the civil kingdom, which operates under the moral law of God known in nature, conscience, and Scripture, is to run the very real risk of Manicheanism, i.e. of dividing the world into ontologically good and and evil categories so that the common world becomes no longer “creational” but “wicked” and in need of cleansing (baptism).
In truth, no self-respecting Kuyperian or Van Tillian should be talking about “re-taking” any common cultural endeavor since Christ is already Lord. We do not have to “make him Lord,” as some say. He is Lord. Certainly, post-Christendom and in a post-Christian world, fewer people are willing to acknowledge that fact but their refusal to acknowledge Christ’s Lordship doesn’t change the fact of his ascension and his ruling over all things.
Nor does the refusal of the pagan to acknowledge King Jesus alter his sovereign decree to administer his kingdom in two distinct spheres. Here’s where it seems that some trip over the nomenclature of “two kingdoms.” Lack of familiarity with the Reformation and older ways of talking about this question has confused some. We might just as well speak of one kingdom with two spheres. King Jesus rules the ecclesiastical or redemptive sphere with law and gospel. The latter is found only in special revelation and the former is in special and natural revelation. He rules the civil or common or creational sphere with his law, revealed in creation (nature) and the conscience and by his restraining providence. He is equally Lord over both. His revelation norms both spheres but they do function distinctly and he administers them distinctly. We do not expect the magistrate to preach the gospel but we do expect him to punish the criminal. We do not expect the minister to write parking tickets but we do expect him to preach the gospel. Both preacher and judge are ministers of God but they have distinct functions in two distinct spheres or kingdoms.
The difference between the two spheres is the difference between law and gospel. This is another of those classic Reformed distinctions that has been lost in the modern period. You can read more about this in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. The civil magistrate is concerned with the law, not the gospel. In covenantal terms, the magistrate’s work is part of the covenant of works. Our relationship with each other in the civil realm is based on works, not grace. Our relationship to each other in the ecclesiastical or spiritual or redemptive sphere/kingdom is based on grace, not works. When the United States Navy defended that ship they were not conducting a gospel ministry but a legal work. Piracy is a violation of an implied or explicit legal relation between those who sail. Theft is a violation of God’s law.
There is no such thing as epistemic or moral neutrality. God’s Word has sovereignly described all things. In civil or common life we acknowledge his Kingship by conducting ourselves according to his law revealed in creation and conscience. In the ecclesiastical or spiritual or redemptive sphere we acknowledge his Kingship by preaching the law and the gospel and by living according to his moral law out of gratitude, in the Spirit, in union with Christ, as adopted children of our heavenly Father.
[This post was first published on the HB in 2009 and has been lightly revised]