10.31.2015

WHAT IS THIS TWO-KINGDOMS DEBATE REALLY ALL ABOUT?


A while back Carl Trueman posted an article with a fair concern of the transformationalist ideals.  Trueman writes,  
Surely it is time to become realistic. It is time to drop the cultural elitism that poses as significant Christian transformation of culture but only really panders to nothing more than middle class tastes and hobbies.  It is time to look again at the New Testament's teaching on the church as a sojourning people where here we have no lasting home."
Many have written off Trueman's concerns as "R2k" scoffing at Christian efforts to affect culture. But the concern shouldn't be disregarded so quickly. Cannot transformational ideals pander to nothing more than middle class hobbies? Don't we run the danger of confusing the gospel agenda of Jesus with our own worldly one, the very problem of the Jews in John 6? I believe these are fair concerns whatever side one takes on the issue.  What's sad is that these debates have gone on endlessly now for years. The same old arguments are rehashed and the discussion appears to get more and more polarized.  
What interests me is, stepping back from the daily blows of each side, to ask why this discussion has become so heated at this particular moment of time. The inquisitive thinker should pause and consider the timing of this kingdom discussion.  

When things were calm and outwardly prosperous in the United States, and freedom of religion flourished, the perception was that Christianity had free reign to direct the culture. Whether this really happened is another discussion, but that was at least the assumption. Kingdom discussions had little relevance in a culture that accepted Christianity as the religious norm. But as soon as everyone felt the pain of the economic downturn, combined with what has been an aggressive assault on religious liberties in the United States, Christians began to panic. It's at this particular juncture that the kingdom debate broke open, the first time in U.S. history when it no longer matters whether a candidate for the office of president says he's a Christian.

Historically, the transformationalist model has thrived in times of outward prosperity and in a free society where Christianity is accepted as the religious norm. Take this freedom and outward prosperity away, Christian institutions lose funding, the pile of para-church ministries begin to disintegrate, and the middle class, often baby-boomer, hobbies are stripped away by legislation that seeks to undermine the “cosmic” project. How do you transform a culture now hostile to Christianity? Houston we have a problem!

In what has become a perfect storm in the US for Christians, neo-Calvinists now find themselves holding tightly to a particular model of Reformed social thought that is not working well in a culture that is becoming more and more hostile to Christian truth claims. Persecution appears to be coming for Christians in the United States.  The perceived secularization of the United States is causing panic and Christian devotees to Fox News, for instance, often find themselves either in anger or denial of what is really happening to our “Christian nation.”  

Now interject 2k writers who are challenging priorities in this struggle, and who dare to expose the fact that in the long trajectory of transformationalist thought there just hasn’t been all that much transforming (see Trueman’s article), you've just had a collision of catastrophic proportions. The rhetoric may not always be kind or helpful, but think of the struggle that now results when the following assertions are made: 

"Maybe," says the 2k theologian, "the Great Commission of the church has been undervalued in this grand cosmic project. Maybe we need to look a bit deeper into our history, outside of Kuyper, to discern the social thought of other Reformed believers in other times and places who faced these struggles. Maybe the church as organism has swallowed up the church as institution? Maybe the church as institution has become marginalized among the plethora of other Christian projects which has actually facilitated the losing of our saltiness in this world. Maybe we’re making such little influence in this world because many of these kingdom projects have been too this worldly resulting in a lack of truly born again Christians doing "kingdom work." Maybe our priorities have been wrong, and we've told everyone the true difference happens outside the church instead of inside where the power of God is found to truly regenerate hearts through in the gospel preached? Maybe we've confused the kingdom of God with our U.S. earthly agenda. 

Can any of this confusion be tied to the exodus we are facing of (young) people leaving the Christian church? 

Using the words of David Wells, “There have been too many instances of obnoxious empire building going on, too much in evangelicalism that is partisan and small, too much pandering to seekers, and too much adaptation of the Christian message until nothing remain…For many people, the word “evangelical” has become a synonym for what is trite, superficial, and money grubbing, a byword for what has gone wrong with Protestantism (Courage to Be Protestant, 19)." 

Regardless of particular commitments, if the above assessments are accepted as true or even possible, then we should be willing to speak of the deficiencies in the neo-Calvinist model. 

Further, even if there are deficiencies in the application of 2k thought, the complexity of now living in a post-Christian society should be recognized. Christian social thought has never been uniform throughout history due to differing economic and political circumstances. As Carson states in his article on the Kingdom, "One wonders what stances Kuyper would have adopted had he been born in China in 1940."(Themelios 38.2, p201." There is a reason we have a plethora of responses throughout history. And there is also a reason Belgic Confession Article 36 has been through a series of revisions throughout history. 
To be sure, Christians should live their lives in a distinctively Christian way in society, seeking to influence the moral direction of society according to what God has said in his Word and appealing to the law written on every man's conscience (Rom. 2). We are, after all, Christ's salt and light. But wrestling through how the church and the individual Christian living in the world is to relate to the culture when the culture is running at the end of a cycle of iniquity is no easy issue.  

As believers in the U.S., we've never experienced before a sweeping cultural paradigm shift that has left us now living in a post-Christian setting. We are a generation living through this. It's not going to be easy to work through. These will be ongoing struggles as we wrestle together with how to live in a kingdom of this world that has become beastial.  But along the way, I pray that as we have these discussions, we don't tear ourselves apart and lose the very witness to this world that we claim to maintain.  

2 comments:

  1. There are, of course, churches that have not revised Belgic Confession, Article 36 (or Westminster Confession, Chapter 23). I would suggest that the rationale for such changes in our confessional standards have been more a result of the modern American emphasis on religious liberty, and less a result of the earnest seeking of Scripture, and the consideration of the Scriptural arguments of our Reformed fathers. I find it particularly ironic that you reference the Reformed stream of thought pre-Kuyper, deeper into our history, when they spoke with one voice on the subject: that the magistrate is 'custos et vindex utriusque tabulae.'

    Sean McDonald

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  2. It's not that ironic unless, of course, you are making the assumption that Kuyper represents the entire stream of Reformed thought. As I stated, Christian social thought has never been uniform throughout history due to differing economic and political circumstances. The entire 2k discussion has originated because the "one voice on the subject", as you assume, has been challenged. For a intro into the broader tradition, you might look at "Natural Law and Two Kingdoms." The presence of Constantinian application does not translate to everyone accepting the premise, I trust you remember Martin Luther?

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