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Jordan Cooper (Lutheran) Critique of VanDrunen’s Two Kingdoms

Jordan Cooper is a popular Lutheran pastor who is well acquainted with the reformed tradition. At a recent conference, he critiqued VanDrunen’s two kingdom theology. His primary interest was to clarify that VanDrunen’s view is not Luther’s view. While VanDrunen identifies the kingdom of Christ as the institutional church, in contrast to the state in the other kingdom, Luther identified the kingdom of God as our conscience before God and placed the institutional church in the other kingdom – our life before men.

What Luther’s really getting at when he’s talking about this distinction – the right hand kingdom, the kingdom of God as we usually talk about it, is the realm we live in before God. If I live before God, I am in the kingdom of God. If I am in a right relationship to God, if I am justified, if I am saved, I am in the kingdom of God. Now, it’s important to say, this is not identical with the church as an institution. Luther makes this clear repeatedly. The church itself includes both left and right hand kingdom aspects. This is going to be a huge differentiation. Remember, because I said with VanDrunen, the church as institution is the redemptive kingdom and that means everything the church does including its offices and officers and pastors – that’s all part of the redemptive kingdom of God. But if you have a church constitution and you’re in a church council discussing your constitution, are you talking about the law or are you talking about the gospel? Law! You’re talking structure. You’re talking about who does what. What are the rules here? How does this church function? How do we make decisions? How do I make corrections in our church constitutions? These are issues of structure and issues of organization. These are part of the left-hand kingdom.

If we come with that understanding we see that even the church – it’s not so much the church and the then the state. But the church itself has both realities.

Anything having to do with my interaction with other men is part of the left-hand kingdom. My inward conscience before God is part of the right-hand kingdom. Here is a diagram of what Cooper is referring to:

It’s important to understand how different this two kingdom theology is from VanDrunen’s because Calvin largely followed Luther. Both were simply adopting the typical medieval view.

The important difference between Luther and Calvin has to do with the relationship between church and state within the outward kingdom. While Luther believed the state had authority over the institutional church, Calvin argued they were coordinate jurisdictions working side by side. Many wrongly read Calvin’s two-fold government as referring to church and state. (For more, see Calvin’s Two-fold Government). This leads Cooper to say

The radical two kingdom theological school is not two kingdom theology at all, but a modern caricature of Luther’s thought. And, unfortunately, I think it is the case that it is exposited through the lens of an American division between church and state. Now, they’re going to deny that. They’re going to say “No, that’s not what we’re doing.” But I think historically a two kingdom distinction in the way it is formulated could not exist apart from our American culture. And I think whether intentionally or not, it is impacted by the various divisions that we have, sort of the Jeffersonian type stuff.

But Cooper is not quite correct here. The identification of the institutional church with the kingdom of God was developed by 17th century reformed theologians in Britain in response to Erastianism as it was debated in the Westminster Assembly. They were merely refining Calvin’s insistence that the state has no authority over the church. This became known as de jure divino Prebyterianism. God immediately instituted the church with its government apart from any mediation by the civil government. For more on this, see the excellent essay Confessional Two Kingdoms. 30 years after the Westminster Confession, the particular baptists refined that even further to the logical conclusion of liberty for all religions in the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith.

Natural Law

Cooper also points out VanDrunen’s strange view of natural law.

They say, “Well, the redemptive kingdom is governed by what God’s revealed” which they would say is law and gospel. Again, I would say just gospel – talking about the right hand realm. But then they would also say “Then the left-hand realm, or especially the government, should be governed by natural law.” Now, it seems to me, in the way some of them describe this, you end up with two separate laws. So you have the natural law in creation over here, and then you’ve got God’s law over here that’s revealed. Well, natural law’s nothing different than God’s revealed law. It just means that you can discover God’s law through reason and creation because it’s written on the heart. It’s not a different law. It’s the same law.

In his excellent Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, Richard Muller defines natural law as

lex naturalis: natural law; also lex naturae; law of nature; the universal moral law either impressed by God upon the mind of all people or immediately discerned by the reason in its encounter with the order of nature. The natural law was therefore available even to those pagans who did not have the advantage of the Sinaitic revelation and the lex Mosaica [i.e., Mosaic law, which includes the natural law, though in a different form] with the result that they were left without excuse in their sins, convicted by conscientia. The scholastics argue the identity of the lex naturalis with the lex Mosaica or lex moralis quoad substantium, according to substance, and distinguish them quoad formam, according to form. The lex naturalis is inward, written on the heart and therefore obscure [due to sin], whereas the lex Mosacia is revealed externally and written on tablets and thus of greater clarity.

That is what VanDrunen says he does not believe.

I believe that my project, in many significant ways, stands in continuity with the perennially important natural law theory of Thomas Aquinas, but also is biblically reformed in other important respects… Thomas understood the natural law more in terms of a moral order than a series of discrete rules. Natural law, for Thomas, is encapsulated in one rule – pursue good and shun evil – but this is so general that it is of little concrete usefulness. More specific rules (such as those of the Decalogue) can also be understood through practical reason, but even these do not capture the natural law comprehensively, for natural law pertains to all things to which human beings are inclined by nature. Though again I develop these matters differently, the idea of natural law in terms of moral order rather than discrete rules is also important to the theology of natural law for which I argue in subsequent chapters.

Divine Covenants and Moral Order (22-25)

And just to be clear:

Turning to Calvin’s epistemology and definition of natural law it will become evident that the most notable difference between Thomas and Calvin is that the latter defined natural law primarily in terms of the Decalogue and Thomas did not… Far from being a conduit of the Classical or Thomistic view of the lex naturalis Calvin made a very sophisticated revision of the concept of natural law by removing it from the Stoic and Thomistic corpus of “self-evident” truths and identifying it with the content of the Law revealed in the Garden and at Sinai and in the Sermon on the Mount… The “scholastic” view was really Calvin’s. It was also the view of the confessional age theologians and it was grounded in their view of the covenant, which they learned, in substance, from Calvin… Calvin did not follow Thomas’ doctrine of natural law, though he did make significant use of natural law.

-R. Scott Clark, “Calvin and the Lex Naturalis,” Stulos Theological Journal 6 (1998): 1–22.

(On this point, see more here)

Published in Brandon Adams