Two Kingdoms Roundup

From time to time I discuss magisterial Protestant political theology here at CoG, and in that vein I wanted to direct our readers to a series that has just completed. Brad Littlejohn and, in one case, Peter Escalante, have done a helpfully brief series on two kingdom theology, laying out their narrative from Luther (and his context) to the present day, via Calvin, Hooker, and early modern thinkers like Locke.

Here are the six installments

The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 1: Introducing the Antagonists
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 2: From Luther to Calvin
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 3: From Calvin to Hooker
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 4: Richard Hooker
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 5: From Hooker to Locke
The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed—Pt. 6: Why Does it Matter?

Brad nicely summarizes many of the themes within the series (though there is much more in the final installment than the following):

1) It [Protestant two-kingdoms thinking] de-sacralized, or more properly, de-totalized, the State and the exercise of civil authority. Political authority was still ordained by God, accountable to God, and indeed redeemed in Christ, to be sure, and to this extent, could be said to mediate his rule. However, this rule of God’s “left hand” was radically distinct from His proper work of redemption and oversaw matters of temporary and limited significance; civil authorities were responsible to preserve the created order, not to bring in the new creation. This teaching set a decisive limit to the scope of civil authority, or the sorts of demands it could make. Of course, medieval papalism had certainly limited the state as well, but by seeking to make the civil authorities the policemen of the church, it had made rulers tangle with matters of conscience with politics, making heresy a civil crime. Although haltingly and inconsistently, Luther’s heirs worked to disentangle these two.

2) More foundationally, it deprived the church as such of juridical or coercive authority. There could be no spiritual jurisdiction in the full and proper sense of both of these terms. This was in stark contrast to the medieval system, in which the penitential system of the church was conceived in increasingly juridical terms, and the church accordingly tended to take on the characteristics of a civil polity. Worst of all, in the Crusades and in Boniface’s claim to a plenitudo potestatis, it made the sword to be a possession of spiritual rulers, calling for holy violence on behalf of the Church against the Church’s enemies. Luther’s reform, however, radically de-sacralized violence, associating it entirely with temporal rule and very limited temporal ends, and many of his heirs admirably carried forward this legacy.

3) Closely related to these two points, it stood as a bulwark against any attempt to immanentize the eschaton. Since we walk by faith, not by sight, any attempt to attribute eschatological ultimacy to any visible institution or activity was misguided. The two-kingdoms doctrine instilled in the Christian a sense of healthy detachment toward earthly loyalties, a healthy realism about what earthly institutions can accomplish, and offered consolation when they failed to achieve their lofty aims. It discouraged any attempt to make the kingdom of God a complete outward reality here and now by force, whether by holy war or holy law. Neither civil authorities nor church authorities could expect to create a perfectly virtuous people here in the midst of history.

4) Because of all these things, it treated freedom of conscience as sacrosanct. Because faith was not dependent on any human works, nor could it depend on any human authority, God alone remained master of the conscience, and his word alone, not the commands of either princes or bishops, could bind it. Although of course the realm of this freedom was debated fiercely and at times constricted, the principle was clear, and however much Protestants might quarrel over the scope of “things indifferent,” the fact that civil authority was limited to the regulation of these set the stage for the progressive expansion of civil society and individual freedom.

5) It served as a bulwark against an overextension of the sola Scriptura principle, to which many Protestants were tempted, and safeguarded the continuing value of natural reason and prudence to guide political deliberation. Good two-kingdoms thinkers resisted any idea of a Scripturally-mandated blueprint for politics or jurisprudence. This was one respect in which two-kingdoms thinking, in many other respects hostile to late medieval theology, preserved some of the rich contributions of scholastic Aristotelianism. Richard Hooker is perhaps the most prominent example of this use of the two-kingdoms doctrine, recovering the full resources of Thomism in his account of law in the civil kingdom even while maintaining a staunch Protestantism when it came to the spiritual.

6) In all these ways, the two kingdoms doctrine clearly paves the way for the development of liberal institutions. However, it provides what many Christian defenders of liberalism have lacked—a basis for secularity in the sense of non-ultimacy, but not in the sense of non-religiousness. In Protestant two-kingdoms thinking, the civil kingdom, despite all of the above, remains both informed by and concerned with the exercise of true religion. While natural law was retained and even championed by many of these thinkers, Scripture remained its authoritative interpreter, and the redemption wrought in Christ, although fully realized only in the eschaton, had implications for civil rule inasmuch as it disclosed the proper, restored order of fallen creation. Since grace perfected nature, good religion conduced to civil peace, and hence a good ruler could not be entirely indifferent to the promotion of true religion, although he must never seek to compel belief.

As a bonus, a few other essays by these gentlemen:

In celebration of the upcoming DVD release of The Dark Knight Rises, I want to share again a condensed form of a multi-post discussion Littlejohn wrote on the political themes of Christopher Nolan’s trilogy. I include this post here both because I’m a complete Batman nerd, and because TDKR can be plausibly seen, in my humble opinion, as an apology for a 2K order over against the eschaton-immanentizing project of Bane/The League of Shadows.

Escalante (in some cases along with Steven Wedgeworth) has also discussed the themes of the 2K series previously. Here he interacts with Davey Henreckson further on Locke’s period, and here and here Peter and Steven delve into more detail on Calvin.

I commend to you, in general, both The Sword and the Ploughshare, and The Calvinist International.