Two kingdom theology has been defined by some as the belief that the church is never given the sword and Caesar is never given the keys to Christ’s kingdom.
However, this definition does not rule out the concept of an Established (State) Church where idolatry and false worship is punished by the sword – the common practice of reformed churches. Note that the confessions do not speak in terms of two-kingdoms and Calvin’s “two-fold government” is not the same thing as two-kingdom theology. Therefore this is not properly two kingdom theology. Belgic 36 specifically says the magistrate is to promote the kingdom of Christ by means of the sword (note the CRCA foonote) and WCF (1646) says it is the magistrate’s duty to suppress heresy and prevent corruption of worship so that the truth of God may be kept pure and entire. Thus we may call this a distinction without separation between the church and the state. Each have specific spheres of authority, but both work hand in hand to further the kingdom of Christ.
The 17th century saw fierce debate over this issue, particularly in England and New England. Christ’s statement in John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not of this world”) was specifically appealed to in defense of liberty of conscience and against establishmentarianism. The Westminster Divines argued this was a misinterpretation of John 18:36.
Therefore, two kingdom theology is properly defined as the belief that no kingdom of this world may draw the sword to promote the kingdom of Christ because it is not of this world.
This doctrine continued to ferment and develop among various reformed traditions (Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist), especially since the loss of power in the Great Ejection and struggles to define the role of the church and state in the colonies. Around 1720, New England Puritan Increase Mather (son-in-law of outspoken establishment defender John Cotton), reflecting upon a long life spent in theocratic New England, repented of his error, noting “The Christian faith brings us into no earthly Canaan, and has no weapons but what are spiritual.” In 1765, Scottish Presbyterian John Erskine argued against the established church, noting
If Christ’s kingdom was of this world, it would be reasonable to inflict like penalties upon those who will not that he should reign over them. But Christ himself hath told us that his kingdom is not of this world and that it is secured not by external violence or persecution, but by the influences of the Spirit of grace. (aa) [In this footnote, Erskine specifically quotes a longer portion of Mather’s quote above]
In 1783, English Particular Baptist Abraham Booth’s “The Kingdom of Christ” explicitly builds upon Erskine’s dissertation throughout. He notes
Very different then, is the kingdom of Christ from the ancient Israelitish Theocracy… For the great Proprietor and Lord of the Christian church having absolutely disclaimed a kingdom that is “of this world” cannot acknowledge any as the subjects of his government who do not know and revere him – who do not confide in him and sincerely love him… Appearing as the head of his church, merely under the character of a spiritual monarch, over whomsoever he reigns, it is in the understanding, by the light of his truth; in the conscience, by the force of his authority; and in the heart, by the influence of his love…
Further: If all the subjects of Christ be real saints, it may be justly queried, whether any National religious establishment can be a part of his kingdom. That multitudes of individuals belonging to such establishments are subjects of the King Messiah, is cheerfully granted, and the thought gives us much pleasure: but is it not plain, that a National church is inimical to the spirit of our Lord’s declaration, “My kingdom is not of this world”? Does not that comprehensive and important saying compel us to view the church and the world in a contrasted point of light? And does not the idea of a National church lead us to confound them? Does it not manifestly confound the church of the first-born, which are written in heaven;” with “the world, that lies in wickedness,” whose names are entered in parish registers?
At the same time in America (where Booth’s work went through 4 editions), Particular Baptist Daniel Merrill expounded upon the implications of Christ’s spiritual kingdom. Merrill notes (1808):
[M]en… have generally held to the bringing of persons into the kingdom of God by blood, by their own wills, or by the wills of other men; and from thence have come all national churches… [T]he kingdom, which the God of heaven hath set up, has never needed, so has never debased herself by soliciting, the secular arm to enforce the mandates of the Church… Of the civil authority she asks no more, than to have it stand out of her sunshine. That Cesar, in agreement with the ordinance of heaven, would look well to the management of Cesar’s kingdom, and leave it with the Lord to manage his.
In 1773, 10 years before Booth’s work, before the American Revolution, Particular Baptist Isaac Backus notes in An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the Present Day
This is the nature of his kingdom, which he says, is not of this world: and gives that as the reason why his servants should not tight or defend him with the sword. John. 18. 36. 37. And it appears to us that the true difference and exact limits between ecclesiastical and civil government is this, That the church is armed with light and truth, to pull down the strong holds of iniquity, and to gain souls to Christ, and into his church, to be governed by his rules therein; and again to exclude such from their communion, who will not be so governed; while the state is armed with the sword to guard the peace, and the civil rights of all persons and societies, and to punish those who violate the same. And where these two kinds of government, and the weapons which belong to them, are well distinguished, and improved according to the true nature and end of their institution. the effects are happy, and they do not at all interfere with each other: but where they have been confounded together, no tongue nor pen can fully describe the mischiefs that have ensued; of which the Holy Ghost gave early and plain warnings…
Now who can hear Christ declare, that his kingdom is, not of this world, and yet believe that this blending of church and state together can be pleasing to him?
The Shaftsbury (Vermont) Baptist Association expressed similar sentiments in its 1796 circular letter. The “kingdom of heaven… is not defended by carnal weapons” and “forms no alliance with the kingdoms and states of this world, but is distinct from them.” The Philadelphia Association likewise proclaimed, “Christ’s kingdom needs no support from union with the governments of this world; that the more distinctly the line is drawn between them the better.”
In 1788, the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America revised the Westminster Standards to accommodate more religious liberty. Of specific interest is the addition of John 18:36 as a proof text for the revision of 23.3 that the magistrate may not “in the least, interfere in matters of faith.” Charles Hodge (Princeton Review, 1863) notes that it was not Enlightenment thinking that led to this revision, but rather a change in interpretation of Scripture.
William G. McLouglin in the American Historical Review, notes that
The role of Isaac Backus (1724-1806) and the Separate Baptists in the development of the American tradition of separation of church and state has not yet been given its due. Yet any careful evaluation of this tradition must acknowledge that neither the position of Roger Williams nor that of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison adequately defines it… Backus evolved his principles and wrote his against the New England establishment before he had even heard of Jefferson or Madison… Backus specifically repudiated the contract theory of government…
Backus probably represents most adequately the evangelical view of Separationism… that has predominated. Historians would do well to re-examine his position and to give it is rightful place in future evaluations of this notable tradition.
This historic two kingdom theology is what Reformed Libertarianism holds to.
Very recently, some modern reformed theologians have developed a peculiar twist on two kingdom theology. David VanDrunen has argued that each kingdom is ruled by a different ethic. Scripture is a covenant document given only to the church, the kingdom of Christ. The kingdom of this world, which includes the state as well as all common cultural activities outside of the church, is to be ruled by “natural law” instead of Scripture.
This view, sometimes dubbed “Radical Two Kingdoms” is wrong in two respects. First, it errs in trying to read two kingdom theology back into the reformed tradition and confessions. Second, it rejects the sophisticated reformed revision of natural law, which identified natural law with the law revealed in Scripture (WCF 19.2). VanDrunen explicitly rejects this view, stating his agreement with Thomas Aquinas that natural law instead refers to “all things to which human beings are inclined by nature.”
This position is utterly inconsistent with reformed theology. “One must bear in mind always Calvin’s rigorous application of his doctrine of the fall when assessing his definition of natural law.” Since the fall, general revelation is insufficient to arrive at any truth consistently.
But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness…
For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly…
The course which God followed towards his Church from the very first, was to supplement these common proofs by the addition of his Word, as a surer and more direct means of discovering himself. And there can be no doubt that it was by this help, Adam, Noah, Abraham, and the other patriarchs, attained to that familiar knowledge which, in a manner, distinguished them from unbelievers. I am not now speaking of the peculiar doctrines of faith by which they were elevated to the hope of eternal blessedness. It was necessary, in passing from death unto life, that they should know God, not only as a Creator, but as a Redeemer also; and both kinds of knowledge they certainly did obtain from the Word. In point of order, however, the knowledge first given was that which made them acquainted with the God by whom the world was made and is governed… I am only showing that it is necessary to apply to Scripture, in order to learn the sure marks which distinguish God, as the Creator of the world, from the whole herd of fictitious gods. We shall afterward, in due course, consider the work of Redemption.
To charge the intellect with perpetual blindness, so as to leave it no intelligence of any description whatever, is repugnant not only to the Word of God, but to common experience… Still it is true that this love of truth fails before it reaches the goal, forthwith falling away into vanity. As the human mind is unable, from dullness, to pursue the right path of investigation, and, after various wanderings, stumbling every now and then like one groping in darkness, at length gets completely bewildered, so its whole procedure proves how unfit it is to search the truth and find it…
The distinction is, that we have one kind of intelligence of earthly things, and another of heavenly things. By earthly things, I mean those which relate not to God and his kingdom, to true righteousness and future blessedness, but have some connection with the present life, and are in a manner confined within its boundaries…
Since man is by nature a social animal, he is disposed, from natural instinct, to cherish and preserve society; and accordingly we see that the minds of all men have impressions of civil order and honesty. Hence it is that every individual understands how human societies must he regulated by laws, and also is able to comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence the universal agreement in regard to such subjects, both among nations and individuals, the seeds of them being implanted in the breasts of all without a teacher or lawgiver. The truth of this fact is not affected by the wars and dissensions which immediately arise, while some, such as thieves and robbers, would invert the rules of justice, loosen the bonds of law, and give free scope to their lust; and while others (a vice of most frequent occurrence) deem that to be unjust which is elsewhere regarded as just, and, on the contrary, hold that to be praiseworthy which is elsewhere forbidden. For such persons do not hate the laws from not knowing that they are good and sacred, but, inflamed with headlong passion, quarrel with what is clearly reasonable, and licentiously hate what their mind and understanding approve. Quarrels of this latter kind do not destroy the primary idea of justice. For while men dispute with each other as to particular enactments, their ideas of equity agree in substance. This, no doubt, proves the weakness of the human mind, which, even when it seems on the right path, halts and hesitates. Still, however, it is true, that some principle of civil order is impressed on all. And this is ample proof, that, in regard to the constitution of the present life, no man is devoid of the light of reason…
If the Gentiles have the righteousness of the law naturally engraven on their minds, we certainly cannot say that they are altogether blind as to the rule of life. Nothing, indeed is more common, than for man to be sufficiently instructed in a right course of conduct by natural law, of which the Apostle here speaks. Let us consider, however for what end this knowledge of the law was given to men. For from this it will forthwith appear how far it can conduct them in the way of reason and truth… The end of the natural law, therefore, is to render man inexcusable, and may be not improperly defined—the judgment of conscience distinguishing sufficiently between just and unjust, and by convicting men on their own testimony depriving them of all pretext for ignorance. So indulgent is man towards himself, that, while doing evil, he always endeavours as much as he can to suppress the idea of sin…[T]he intellect is very seldom mistaken in the general definition or essence of the matter; but that deception begins as it advances farther, namely, when it descends to particulars. That homicide, putting the case in the abstract, is an evil, no man will deny; and yet one who is conspiring the death of his enemy deliberates on it as if the thing was good. The adulterer will condemn adultery in the abstract, and yet flatter himself while privately committing it. The ignorance lies here: that man, when he comes to the particular, forgets the rule which he had laid down in the general case…
Moreover, when you hear of a universal judgment in man distinguishing between good and evil, you must not suppose that this judgment is, in every respect, sound and entire. For if the hearts of men are imbued with a sense of justice and injustice, in order that they may have no pretext to allege ignorance, it is by no means necessary for this purpose that they should discern the truth in particular cases… Indeed, if we would test our reason by the Divine Law, which is a perfect standard of righteousness, we should find how blind it is in many respects. It certainly attains not to the principal heads in the First Table… As to the precepts of the Second Table, there is considerably more knowledge of them, inasmuch as they are more closely connected with the preservation of civil society. Even here, however, there is something defective… For the natural man cannot bear to recognise diseases in his lusts. The light of nature is stifled sooner than take the first step into this profound abyss…
See also the Canons of Dort
There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God.
Thus Abraham Kuyper was right when he said
[We insist] that sin refers to moral fall and guilt, and further, that this fall consisted in three things: a darkening of the light of reason, an impairment of the power of the will, and a corrupting of our affections. From this it follows that without spectacles, as Calvin expressed it, the book of nature can no longer be read, such that neither from nature nor from the light of our reason can we know whether, and if so, in what way, there is any means whereby we may escape the power and guilt of sin. From this flows the need for a further special revelation to be added to nature, having two purposes: both to teach us to understand again the book of Nature, and to open for us the path to reconciliation with God. So we receive a word of God in twofold form: A word of God within the creation, and a word of God with which he adds to created things (Band aan het Woord, 10).
Thus Scripture is absolutely necessary to properly understand general revelation.
Furthermore, VanDrunen does not understand the role that presuppositionalism plays in all matters of philosophy, including political philosophy. He has incorrectly stated that it only has relevance to apologetics.
Thus Reformed Libertarianism rejects “Radical Two Kingdoms” with its dual ethics. Scripture is necessary and must be the foundation of a correct political philosophy. Historic two kingdom theology rightly understood that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world and may not be defended by the sword of this world. Christians are to live among non-Christians in a pluralistic society just as Christ taught that the wheat must grow among the tares, awaiting his return.