Several recent blog posts—the first by Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Gospel Coalition), the second by Michael Horton (White Horse Inn), and the third by James K. A. Smith (Calvin College)—seek to advance the discussion of issues involving the relation between Christ and culture, religion and culture, the church and culture, and two kingdoms theology.
On December 15, Keller wrote on “Coming Together on Culture: Theological Issues.” Then, on December 17, Horton interacted with “Christ and Culture Once More.” From an altogether different vantage point, on December 21, Smith teased us with “The Temptations of Assimilation: Schilder our Bellow?“
Go back a moment to the last part of the opening paragraph above. Regarding the pairs listed there, it is important to note, in going forward, that each of these pairs embodies distinct questions and issues, and therefore these pairs should not be elided or merged. They are not interchangeable.
This can become clear from reading the 1947 monograph, Christus en Cultuur (Christ and Culture), by Dutch Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder. He began his penetrating analysis by explaining the inadequacies attending the discussions of “Christianity and culture,” or “religion and culture,” or “church and culture,” and even “Jesus and culture.” In fact, according to Schilder, the devaluation of the name Christ has brought with it the devaluation of the notion of culture. The starting point for clarifying this entire constellation of issues, then, must be . . . Christology, the doctrine of the person and work of Christ. The first and primary question is: What of Christ and culture?
In this masterful monograph, whose prose is as dense as its subject is complex, Schilder bemoaned the fogginess surrounding the rhetoric of the followers of Abraham Kuyper. The notion of “sphere sovereignty” was anything but clear, and the dangers of triumphalism were all too real. Schilder reminds us that though Christ healed lepers, he never founded leper-homes; though he delivered many who were demon-possessed, he never built a clinic.
But we will need to leave for a later time a fuller explanation of Schilder’s relevant contribution to this discussion.
It may be unfortunate, but it is no less true, that any helpful analysis of these matters hinges on fine points, narrow points, careful points. Until we are able to tease out the unspoken, unstated elements embedded within such fine points, the discussion will likely not progress. Without identifying inadequate choices and unsatisfying options, without honestly interacting with a third way, we will continue the temporary stalemate. Dr. Horton complains that the contemporary view of “two kingdom” theology is either ignored or misrepresented; but as will become obvious below, he himself continues to ignore a proposed alternative third way in his repeated defense of his “two kingdom” view.
In wanting to break the stalemate, Tim Keller’s essay is seeking that third way, and as someone who knows and appreciates the contribution of Dutch Reformed theologians Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, he is quite able to “show and tell.”
In interacting with Tim Keller, Dr. Horton tries very hard to clarify, once again, his understanding of how two kingdom theology plays out among Reformed people. He writes:
The Reformers were convinced that when the church is properly executing its ministry of preaching, sacrament, and discipline, there will be disciples who reflect their Christian faith in their daily living. The goal of the church as an institution is not cultural transformation, but preaching, teaching, baptizing, communing, praying, confessing, and sharing their inheritance in Christ. The church is a re-salinization plant, where the salt becomes salty each week, but the salt is scattered into the world.
Much of this is very good. As far as it goes. But let’s try, once again, to clarify the real point at issue. Regarding the goal of the church, why are we being restricted to choosing between “cultural transformation” or “preaching, teaching, baptizing, communing, praying, confessing, and sharing their inheritance in Christ”? Here’s a third alternative: producing or generating culture as Christ-followers who are converted, taught, baptized, etc. Why not understand and extend the communio sanctorum to function beyond the institutional church, as the Heidelberg Catechism implies?
This fallacy of a false dilemma recurs when we are invited to make this choice: “Our goal should not be to change the world, but to maintain a faithful presence in the world as ‘salt’ and ‘light’.” How about this option: Let us as Christians-together-in-the-world generate a communal lifestyle of love serving justice in every sphere of human living? The communal response of Christian schools is “salt” and “light.” The communal response of Christian political and labor associations is “salt” and “light.”
Readers may, in fact, think Dr. Horton might agree with exploring a Kuyperian third way in this discussion, for he writes next:
If I’m not mistaken, this is pretty close to Abraham Kuyper’s distinction between the church as organization (institution) and the church as organism (believers in their callings). Kuyper observed that Christ is King over all kingdoms, but in different ways. None of the “spheres”—including the church—could encroach on the other spheres’ independence. Together, these observations yield a position that is in principle consistent with “two kingdoms.”
Well, pretty close . . . but not quite.
Because here’s the hinge—the fine point, that narrow, careful analysis on which the discussion swings.
You see, Abraham Kuyper employed this distinction between church as institute and church as organism precisely to pave the way for Christians-together-in-the-world to produce a communal, Bible-guided, gospel-applied, obedience-driven Christian way of life in every sphere of human activity. As many theologians have shown (including S. Greidanus, J. Wiskerke, S. G. de Graaf, C. Veenhof, S. U. Zuidema, W. Velema, and J. Douma), this distinction between the church as institute and the church as organism helped Kuyper to maintain an essential connection between special grace and common grace, with the latter being shaped by and serviceable to the former.
Now, if that’s what contemporary advocates of “two kingdoms” wish to endorse, then they have Abraham as their father. Kuyper & Co. were very well aware of “two kingdom” theology, both from the Reformed tradition and more existentially, during the years of World War II, from neighboring Lutheran Germany. But they refined it, clarified it, yes, improved it, by calling the church-as-organism to distinctively Christian communal cultural activity in every sphere of life. These true heirs of Abraham Kuyper were not interested in exercising Christian “influence” in the world, or in pursuing “secular” vocations in a secular way “as Christians.” They sought to live all of life pro Rege, for the King, under his banner and under the normative guidance of his Word.