Heidelcast 227: Is Distinguishing Between The Two Spheres Of God’s Kingdom “Radical”?

Recently someone posted some criticisms of what they characterize as “radical two kingdom” theology or R2K. What are we talking about? In the 16th and 17th centuries our classic Reformed theologians regularly distinguished between “two kingdoms.” This way of talking was not controversial in the classical period of Reformed theology.  It was not controversial in the 18th century or the 19th century. In the 20th century, like a lot of other aspects of Reformed theology, we lost this distinction. Why? In some cases we just assumed it. We were really busy defending the faith against the liberals who were denying the truth and reliability the Scriptures, the resurrection, etc. That is about all we did from the turn of the century until WWII. We forgot the distinction and we only began to recover it recently. Like other classic Reformed doctrines (e.g., the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, the distinction between law and gospel) the recovery of this distinction has become controversial because we need to recover our Reformed confession. Dr Clark also answers an important and timely question from Jeremy about how to think about providence and the temptation to become fearful in face of terrible tragedies such as the one in Uvalde, Texas yesterday.

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Show Notes

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  1. There’s nothing radical about distinguishing two kingdoms. That’s not the actual dispute. The actual dispute is over the contention that the first table of the moral law has no regulatory authority in the “left hand” kingdom sphere, not even in the sense that our American Presbyterian forebears held it to have that authority (i.e., a non-establishmentarian sense.

    • David,

      I’ve been answering neo-Kuyperian objections to any distinction between the spheres since 2008. E.g., I posted this in response to these very objections. Go look at the HB archive from the period.

      I’m glad to see that you’re conceding a conceptual distinction between the two spheres.

      What exactly do you have in mind when you talk about the “regulatory authority” of the 1st table. Please be specific.

  2. Dr Clark,

    I have affirmed a distinction between two kingdoms since back in 2002 or so when I first learned it from Calvin and was then reinforced in it by Horton, Kline, you, and Van Drunen. I continued to affirm it after I perceived that you all (minus Calvin) appeared to be expressing a novel view wherein natural law is deprived of the first table and Scripture barred from the public square. You typically counter the accusation of novelty by pointing out that Reformed and Presbyterian denominations have revised their confessions of faith with respect to the duties of the civil magistrate. Yes, that is of course indisputable, but it has no bearing on the issue under dispute, which is the continuing obligation of the (entire) moral law in ALL spheres. I’m no Kuyperian but I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that your denial of this latter point is what those folks object to, not the distinguishing of spheres (which of course is one of their hallmarks).

    Regarding specifics, take Charles Hodge, for example, as a classic non-establishmentarian affirmation of the continuing regulatory authority of the moral law in the civil sphere:

    “It is absurd to say that civil governments have nothing to do with religion. That is not true even of a fire company, or of a manufactory, or of a banking-house. The religion embraced by the individuals composing these associations must influence their corporate action, as well as their individual conduct. If a man may not blaspheme, a publishing firm may not print and disseminate a blasphemous book. A civil government cannot ignore religion any more than physiology. It was not constituted to teach either the one or the other, but it must, by a like necessity, conform its action to the laws of both. Indeed it would be far safer for a government to pass an act violating the laws of health, than one violating the religious convictions of its citizens. The one would be unwise, the other would be tyrannical. Men put up with folly, with more patience than they do with injustice. It is vain for the potsherds of the earth to contend with their Maker. They must submit to the laws of their nature not only as sentient, but also as moral and religious beings. And it is time that blatant atheists, whether communists, scientists, or philosophers, should know that they are as much and as justly the objects of pity and contempt, as of indignation to all right-minded men. By right-minded men, is meant men who think, feel, and act according to the laws of their nature. Those laws are ordained, administered, and enforced by God, and there is no escape from their obligation, or from the penalties attached to their violation.” (Systematic Theology, volume 3, p. 342)

    • David,

      I appreciate this reference. This gives us something concrete to discuss. Hodge was not here calling for a de cure state-church but he was assuming a de facto state-church.

      So, you want to go back to the 19th century (c. 1850), when the country was dominated by White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASPs), to a de facto state-religion? Setting aside, for the moment, the question of principle, how do you propose to go backward in history?

      When Hodge was writing the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants had just begun. In his life they were largely Irish. Later in the century and in the early 20th century they would be Italian. Since that time Romanists have continued to immigrate to the USA. In the 20th century, post-1964 there have probably been something like 30 million Romanist immigrants (both legal and illegal). There are more than 70 million Romanists in the USA.

      When Hodge wrote he could assume a number of shared convictions and experiences that simply no longer exist in the USA. The “blue laws” were unquestioned. When they were taken off the books in the 1970s and 80s there was barely a whimper. The old order is gone. Christendom in America is gone.

      As a matter of principle, the existence of blasphemy laws was always problematic. The Muslims regard it as blasphemy when Christians reject the prophet. Shall we enforce Islamic and Christian blasphemy laws? On what basis? The practical problems in 2022 seem insuperable. There were always tensions. The was a small number of mosques in the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries. We didn’t have to worry about it. There were a small number of synagogues. Protestant Christianity was socially dominant.

      In 2022, however, barely 10% of the country attends church weekly and only half attends two services. So, the unchurched 90-95% are to be governed by the religious convictions of 5-10% of the population?

      What counts of blasphemy or religious sin? The Reformed confess that the mass is a blasphemy. In that case, the I should demand that the state enforce the Heidelberg Catechism and suppress the Mass for 70+ million Romanists? We confess that representations of the deity are sin so now virtually every other Christian church in the USA should be shuttered?

      As a matter of principle, Hodge was wrong. It is not obvious to all reasonable people that there have to be blasphemy laws etc (i.e., the old blue-law codes). It wasn’t obvious to the New Testament church nor to the early post-apostolic church.

      As a matter of nature it belongs to the magistrate to keep the peace but it doesn’t belong to the magistrate to sort out competing religious claims.

      Kuyper (that radical!) was correct. The state-enforcement of Christian “orthodoxy” was disastrous for actual orthodoxy.

      Do you hold to two kingdoms or to Gelasius’ “two swords”? There is a difference.

    • Dr. Clark wrote this: “When Hodge was writing the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants had just begun. In his life they were largely Irish. Later in the century and in the early 20th century they would be Italian.”

      Thank you, Dr. Clark, for bringing out an important point here. Both Irish and Italian immigrants had experienced “Christendom” in their home countries before emigrating, but experienced it in quite different ways.

      An Irish immigrant in the early-to-mid 1800s valued American religious freedom because it allowed him to be a faithful Roman Catholic without abuse, at least of an official kind, from Protestants and from a Protestant state church. Whatever discrimination he received in America (and yes, I know the term “paddy wagon” was created for a reason) was far less than Irish Catholics received in Ireland at the hands of the British.

      However, an Italian immigrant in the late 1800 and early 1900s valued American religious freedom because he no longer had to endure abuse from rapacious civil rulers in Italy, not uncommonly in league with complicit priests or priests who, at least prior to the Risorgimento (Italian reunification) may themselves have been abusive in their enforcement of ecclesiastical prerogatives.

      Something to consider: The Roman Catholic Church is far from monolithic in its actual practice, no matter what the theory may be. I can point out examples in the 1800s of Irish priests in New York City forbidding Italians from coming to Mass in their parishes, which forced the Archbishop of New York to authorize the creation of ethnic parishes for the new Italian immigrants. More recently, the New York Times did an article on a priest from Spain who just retired, but as a much younger man, organized a Spanish-speaking parish in Texas for Mexican immigrants who were not welcome in the local Italian parish.

      While there were many reasons for the Irish-Italian animosity, one key was the difference in attitudes in Ireland and in Italy by laypeople toward the clergy.

      Being Roman Catholic was a key part of the ethnic identity of Irish opponents to British Protestant rule of Ireland. However, almost no Italian immigrants had any experience with rulers who were not themselves Roman Catholic. Unlike the Irish who looked to their priests as natural leaders to defend Roman Catholics against a potentially hostile Protestant civil government, many Italian immigrants were quite anti-clerical due to their experience of being abused by Roman Catholic priests and by Roman Catholic civil rulers back in Italy. Being anti-clerical didn’t necessarily equate to being anti-Christian, but it did mean significant animosity toward the clergy in general, while perhaps being appreciative of individual priests who were regarded as actually caring about their people.

      A century ago, the anti-clericalism and lack of deep commitment to the Church which would be implied by my Italian last name would have made me quite unwelcome in most English-speaking parishes, which were usually just as ethnic as the officially “ethnic” parishes, the difference being that the English-speaking parishes were for the Irish immigrants and (maybe) a few second-generation people from other ethnic groups who no longer spoke the language of their parents.

      An example of how bad the Irish-vs-Italian animosity remained, even in the second and third generations of immigration, was that a Waldensian pastor serving in the Northern Presbyterian Church in the “roaring 20s” in Chicago started to make pastoral calls on the widows and children of Italian mobsters who had been killed either by police or in gangland warfare. When that pastor got into trouble from some in the Italian community, Al Capone personally put the word out that anyone who touched that Waldensian pastor would have to answer to Capone, as head of the “Chicago Outfit,” which even by Mafia standards was known for being extreme in its violence. Capone was certainly no Protestant, and he lived a murderous and dissolute life, but he valued a Protestant pastor who clearly cared about people’s souls and was willing to protect that pastor against threats from members of his own Roman Catholic Church.

      For whatever it may be worth, one of my relatives back in Italy was a Roman Catholic priest in the Trentino region of the Tyrol that is now part of far northern Italy but was then part of Austria. He got into trouble with his bishop for supporting the Italian government during the First World War, during a period when the Pope was still a “prisoner of the Vatican” and the Italian civil government was viewed as hostile to the Roman Catholic Church but the Austro-Hungarian Empire was viewed as supportive of the church. He ended up being captured by the Austrians, made a prisoner of war due to his clerical status rather than being executed as a rebel against Austrian rule, and returned after the war as a local hero. Let’s just say his bishop couldn’t do much to him after that, and tolerated him pastoring what was in all but name a schismatic chapel that remained officially in communion with Rome but essentially ignored the local bishop.

      My point in saying this is that we deal with the Roman Catholic Church, particularly when dealing with laypeople, it’s important to recognize vast differences in actual practice that are far greater that what we find in Protestantism.

      I think it’s fair to say that the difference between the average URC member and the average member of the “National Partnership” wing of the PCA is far less than the difference between Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Justice Amy Coney Barrett.

      Roman Catholic doctrine is wrong on many points and in no way am I minimizing that. I am not defending that doctrine. What I am doing is saying that the Protestant approach has to be based on what the actual person in front of us actually believes, which may be significantly different from what their church officially teaches.

      Most of us are glad that Justice Barrett is on the Supreme Court, and I think we’re right to be glad for that, but for obvious reasons she cannot and should not be admitted to communion in any Reformed church that takes its confessions seriously.

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