Skip to content →

A Note on the Religious and the Secular

It’s dawned on me that our understanding of the nature of the Kingdoms (the City of God and the City of Man, to use Augustine phrases) influences our understanding of the meaning of religious as opposed to secular. Clearly, for the Neo-Kuyperians, dominionists, and other one-kingdomers, everything is religious because there is no other alternative, being as there is only one kingdom.

To clarify the way I use the language, given my understanding of the covenants, let me say this. If “religion” means having to do with the kingdom of heaven, then it can be properly juxtaposed with secular, which refers to the second (earthy) kingdom. If religion means worldview or, as I prefer, “philosophical system,” well then juxtaposing with with “secular” makes no sense.

Clearly, my favorite definition, in general, of religion is philosophical system. But when I use religion in the context of a religious/secular distinction, I am actually trying to communicate the distinction between the kingdoms. In this case, therefore, I am not drawing a distinction, as the one-kingdomers might blame me, between living/thinking philosophically neutral and living/thinking religiously.

“Secular” doesn’t refer to a state of philosophical “neutrality,” it refers to whatever is not in the very narrow kingdom of heaven (the church). Secular refers to the “mixed” covenant, in which stands both the elect and the non-elect.

Published in C.Jay Engel

  • Jared Leonard

    This note on the difference between “religious” and “secular” isn’t helpful to me. For the Neo-Kuyperians, dominionists, and other one-kingdomers, everything is religious regardless of how many kingdoms actually exist or are perceived to exist. This is because all human activity (including eating sandwiches) sits in some relationship to God as either righteous or unrighteous based on the redemptive status of the individual. In this view, “religion/religious” is used as per your preferred definition. Humans are spiritual and incarnate beings, not predominantly one or the other. I would see this as the primary defeater of two-kingdom thinking. That and the gnostic vibe…

    At any rate, you go on to setup a useless distinction between a vaguely defined instance of “religious” and an even more vaguely defined instance of “secular.” These, as you say, can be properly juxtaposed, presumably because if it “has to do” with the kingdom of heaven, then it’s “religious” and if it has to do with the earthy kingdom (which I would interpret as everything else), then it is “secular.” This is basically a tautology that tells us nothing beyond its propositional confines. On this schema, where does “worldview” or “philosophical system” land? How about standards for government and politics? Or ethics and morality?

    Then you offer a second definition of “religion” wherein you appear to be equating it with worldview or “philosophical system,” and make the claim that this understanding of “religion/religious” cannot be juxtaposed with the previous definition of “secular.” On this schema, juxtaposing “religion” with “secular” doesn’t make any sense because they are not categorically relatable; one is a systematic framework of axioms and derivations while the other is simply a bucket for anything not related to the kingdom of heaven. The problem becomes immediately visible: does religion, in the second sense here, go in the secular bucket? If it doesn’t, then does this mean worldviews and philosophical systems are only meaningful or operative within the kingdom of heaven? If it does, then what is the kingdom of heaven equivalent? We need one to maintain the viability of the previous juxtaposition.

    You say “secular” refers to whatever is not in the very narrow kingdom of heaven, which you now identify as/with the church. So what *is* in this narrow kingdom of heaven? Is there government? Is there morality and ethics? Is there politics? Are there worldviews and/or philosophical systems? Is there liberty? If these things are in the narrow kingdom of heaven, then they can’t be “secular” as you have defined it here.

    Lastly, what is this “’mixed’ covenant” you talk about? My understanding is that there is a singular covenant which is active now, what has historically been called the “New Covenant.” Introducing some other distinct covenant poses some complex legal problems (at a minimum), I would think.

    • C.Jay Engel

      Jared, you are extremely confused and I’m trying to make this simple for you.

      The division between “secular” and “religious” is a historical one. This goes back to the Reformation. I didnt make it up. Historically, the divide between the secular and religious came into play when thinkers and public servants were trying to figure out the relationship between the king/monarch/ruler and the Church. The ones who made decisions related to jurisprudence and law were the secular and those making decisions relating to spiritual. So take up the “useless distinction” with historical theology.

      On “this schema” there is no worldview questions. Because it is dealing with something else entirely. Hence why if you read my post you’ll see that sometimes “religion” is juxtaposed with secular (in which case I am not talking about worldview questions) and sometimes it does refer to worldview. Do you see? I’m trying to incorporate and comment on the history of the religious/secular debate. If you read our previous conversation closely, you’ll notice how I stated that there was only one true and proper worldview, but this doesn’t prevent a 2 kingdom outlook because 2 kingdoms theology refers to the secular/religious issue, not worldview questions. Hence how I am a presuppositionalist and a 2 kingdoms advocate.

      Since you are so confused let me make it even more simple: God rules over everyone and everyone is under his authority. This is his creation and there are saved and unsaved people within. This is what is called a “mixed kingdom” because there are saved and unsaved. Now, there is also the New Covenant, in which are only the elect. This is the kingdom of heaven and only the saved are members. Non-elect aren’t part of the new covenant. If they were, they would be saved. The New Covenant is perfect in that it fails to save no member of it. These are the two kingdoms. See John Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 6 for more.

      Now, the religious/secular distinction comes into play in that the word religion can be employed to refer to those things relating to the kingdom of heaven (Church, salvation, prayer, Scriptural readings) and secular refers to those things relating to the temporary mixed kingdom that is passing away (politics, government, sports, marriage).

      Now, move all the above aside and consider the other meaning of religion: worldview, philosophical system. This is where theory sits: theory of ethics, theory of politics, theory of knowledge, theory metaphysics, etc. Since everyone has a worldview or system of thought, and since these are synonyms of religion, we say that everyone is religious. Everyone has a worldview that informs the way they think about everything, including those things which are strictly relevant to secular concerns.

      Now, political matters are relegated to the earthly, temporary kingdom. That is, we fight with our fellow advocates for liberty even if they are unsaved because we are trying to simply build a better place on earth. My ultimate justification for liberty might be based on a Christian worldview (theory, the second definition of religious), and my friend’s ultimate justification might be based on something less than Christian. But because the goal is to the benefit of both of us and our children here on earth before the return of Christ (that is, it is a secular concern for the elect and the non-elect, not just the elect particularly), we can share in the battle together.