Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Almost persuaded me, but not quite

Living in God's Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture by David VanDrunen

This book is a defence of the "Two Kingdoms" view of how Christians are to live in this world and relate to the surrounding culture.

VanDrunen argues against the idea that legitimate cultural activities are redeemed through the gospel. Whereas Al Wolters wrote a very helpful book called Creation Regained, VanDrunen sees his position as being "Re-Creation Gained": "Our cultural activities do not in any sense usher in the new creation. The new creation has been earned and attained once for all by Christ, the last Adam" (p. 28).

VanDrunen does not believe that the creation mandate of Genesis 1:26-28 still applies to Christians today; instead, Jesus has fulfilled Adam's obligations on our behalf (p. 50). Christ "does not restore us to Adam's original task but takes us to where Adam was supposed to arrive" (p. 59).

VanDrunen sees Christians and living in two kingdoms, each ruled by God. The first he calls the "common kingdom", and includes every human being. This is regulated by the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, but not, for example, by the Ten Commandments. The second he calls the "redemptive kingdom", and is to be identified with the church: "the church is the only institution or community in the present world that can be identified with the kingdom proclaimed by Christ" (p. 101). This is virtually the Roman Catholic view, although VanDrunen later clarifies this by saying that the church is not identical to the kingdom (p. 116). "Identified with" but not "identical to" is, however, a rather subtle distinction.

VanDrunen concedes that "the New Testament does not say explicitly that God still rules the broader cultural life of this world through the Noahic covenant," (p. 118) but suggests that "it does not have to" since it was to be a perpetual covenant: "while earth remains" (Gen 8:22). VanDrunen labours under the disadvantage of being forced to invent terminology: the Bible never refers to the "common kingdom".

In practical terms, this means Christians should not try to "take over" or "take back" politics or education (p. 125). Instead, we should see ourselves as exiles, just like the Israelites in Babylon.

VanDrunen writes very well, and his writing is saturated with Scripture. I appreciate his emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ and his high view of the church. Were it not for some obvious drawbacks, I would have been convinced of his view.

Firstly, VanDrunen virtually ignores the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). There, Jesus instructs his disciples in a way that is reminiscent of God's words in Genesis 1:26-28. Now it's quite clear that VanDrunen doesn't view it as supplementing or expanding the creation mandate, but it's disappointing that he does not deal with the text at all. The clear link between creation mandate and Great Commission is a significant argument against VanDrunen's thesis.

Secondly, in regards to education, VanDrunen argues that theology is the province of the redemptive kingdom, and all other areas of study belong to the common kingdom (p. 174). This does not account, however, for subjects on the borderline, such as church history. Is this something the church can teach, or not? It appears that VanDrunen's distinction between the two kingdoms may be rather artificial.

Individual parts of this book are, however, excellent, and I can endorse many of VanDrunen's conclusions while disagreeing with his thesis. For example, he rightly points out that "the church, acting officially through its deacons, has authority to do only the kind of diaconal work that Christ, speaking in Scripture, authorizes it to do" (p. 157). I can agree with that, precisely because I see a distinction between church and kingdom: there are works of service and cultural activities that constitute kingdom work but not church work. The church should focus on the ministry that Christ has specifically called her to do, but the work of Christians (both individually and in groups) goes far beyond that.

Living in God's Two Kingdoms almost persuaded me, but not quite.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

If Wodehouse had been a modern American Christian

Flags Out Front: A Contrarian's Daydream by Douglas Wilson

This is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. It is funny and engaging all the way through.

It concerns a fictional fundamentalist Bible college in the American South (called Choctaw Valley Bible College), and its mild-mannered president, Dr Tom. One night a prankster switches the flags at the front of the college so that the Christian flag is higher than the American flag (see the cover illustration). Dr Tom decides to let it remain like that, and a controversy ensues.

Flags Out Front is all about what being a faithful Christian looks like in modern America. Wilson makes the point that faithful Christians will have enemies on both the left and the right of politics.

Wilson includes plenty of humorous asides, and has obviously been inspired by P. G. Wodehouse in both his plot and his choice of words. This book has instantly become one of my favourites.