J.K. Wall is a business journalist in Indianapolis, where he is a member of the Christ Church Reformed Presbyterian congregation. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, writing his master’s thesis on the early sermons of Augustine of Hippo. His book Messiah the Prince Revisited, a modern update on Scottish theologian William Symington’s book, was published in September by Crown & Covenant Publications. J.K. applies Symington’s work to a current theological issue in this guest post entitled “Avoiding Double Vision: A Helpful Historical Lens for the Modern Two Kingdoms Debate.”
It’s natural that we look to past thinkers for guidance in the midst of contemporary theological debates—like the one between two kingdoms theology and the one kingdom, neo-Calvinist viewpoint.
So in recent years, there have been numerous back-and-forth arguments as to whether Augustine’s concept of “two cities” or Luther’s concept of “two kingdoms” or Calvin’s comments about the “twofold government” of a spiritual kingdom and political kingdom give the upper hand to one side or the other of this discussion.
Over at the Reformation 21 blog, Matthew Tuininga declared it “anachronistic and impossible” to fit Calvin into the contemporary two kingdoms controversy—a prudent warning that clearly applies more broadly than Calvin.
And yet there is a Reformed thinker from the past who has given us a lens that, I think, will bring greater clarity to this debate.
William Symington, a nineteenth-century Scottish Presbyterian pastor, wrote his book Messiah the Prince to rigorously document from scripture every aspect of Christ’s kingship and then to help his readers understand how Christ’s kingship should shape our relationships to church and culture.
I have written a new version of Symington’s great work—with simplified language and explanations of his key concepts—to make Symington’s thought more accessible to today’s readers, especially young people and lay people.
This is Symington’s thesis: Jesus Christ is king over the entire universe, not just as Creator of that universe, but as the Redeeming mediator between God and man. Jesus rules over one kingdom with two realms—both church and culture—and is ruling these two realms for one purpose: to build His church.
The key Bible text for Symington is Eph 1:20-22, which says that God the Father raised Christ from the dead, made Christ king “at His right hand,” and gave Christ control over all things for the benefit of the people He is redeeming, the church.
“He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians. “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church.”
Symington’s thesis, if applied today, helps us see what both the two kingdoms and the neo-Calvinist views of the kingdom get right—and where they tend to go wrong.
The neo-Calvinist view—which by today has evolved into quite a diverse array of views and applications of it—can be summed up pretty quickly by Abraham Kuyper’s famous “every square inch” quote: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
Neo-Calvinism attempts to make Christ and His biblical principles the starting point for how we live in every area of life—not only in church, but also in family, school, business, politics and government.
Symington would strongly agree.
“The civil and ecclesiastical constitutions of the earth shall be regulated by the infallible standard of God’s Word; their office-bearers, of every kind, shall acknowledge the authority of Messiah the Prince; and the greatest kings on earth shall cast their crowns at his feet,” Symington wrote, in summing up what Christ’s worldwide authority demands today and what He will accomplish in the future.
Francis Schaeffer put neo-Calvinism into popular form, giving to modern evangelicalism an essentially neo-Calvinist base for its social and political thinking. Four decades later, modern evangelicals have come to view Christ as relating to church and culture in virtually the same way.
But, to the extent that neo-Calvinists share that modern evangelical view, Symington would part ways with them.
The trouble with that line of thinking is that it puts church on an equal plane in Christ’s kingdom with politics, entertainment, business and other cultural pursuits. It can lead people to think that, when it comes to advancing Christ’s kingdom, politics is as important as preaching or that Christian music on the radio is as important as Sunday morning worship.
But Symington wrote, “The Church [is] without doubt the most important society in existence,” reiterating that it is for the benefit of the church “that the Mediator has been invested with power over every other thing.”
For the two kingdoms perspective, consider David VanDrunen’s book, Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, which is probably the most easily accessible yet comprehensive explanation of the two kingdoms doctrine. By way of application, VanDrunen argues these key points about how Christians should understand and operate in the realms of church and culture:
- Centrality of the church. The church should be the primary focus of Christians’ lives because it is where redemption happens. “The church’s worship and fellowship are ends in themselves. Nothing that we do in this world is more important,” VanDrunen writes.
- Spirituality of the church. The church has a supernatural original and a supernatural purpose. It interacts with but should never allow itself to be identified with any particular ethnic group, socio-economic class, government or political party. Rather, the church’s spirituality transcends these earthly distinctions.
- Ministerial authority of the church. The church’s authority is purely ministerial, meaning it cannot make new laws for Christians to follow. So when it comes to life outside the church proper, pastors should only preach the guiding principles the scriptures give, and then let each believer have the freedom to apply those principles to the specific circumstances of their lives.
- Attitude of the church. When Christians talk about their cultural endeavors—especially politics and vocation—VanDrunen wants them to stop throwing around the phrases “take over,” “take back,” “transform,” or “redeem.” He wants them to have a humble attitude that recognizes the modest amount of change they can make in the world.
“Again and again the New Testament reminds us that while cultural life goes on by God’s appointment, it is temporary and of relative importance in comparison to the perfect work of Christ, the flourishing of the church, and the hope of the world-to-come,” VanDrunen wrote.
To the first three of those points Symington would give a hearty amen.
On the attitude of Christians, Symington would absolutely agree that Christians should be humble and modest about what they can change about the world. Rather, he would say Christians ought to declare humbly that Christ is king over all institutions and then to watch confidently as He uses everything, both church and culture, to build His church.
As Christ builds His church He does, as the neo-Calvinists say, transform the culture around it. Symington would not recognize the two kingdoms view that the culture shows little to no influence from the growth of the church.
“The field of Messiah’s operations is the world; nor will he cease to put forth his power for the extension of the church, till he has made the wilderness and the solitary place to be glad,” Symington wrote in summing up his chapter on the church.
Really a Redeemer-King?
Many neo-Calvinist theologians agree with two kingdoms thinkers that Christ rules as Redeemer over the church, but as Creator over the culture.
But scripture says something more, according to Symington. He frequently quotes Psalm 2, which specifically calls on the rulers of nations to submit to Christ as Mediator.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
Be warned O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
For his wrath is quickly kindled.
-Psalm 2:11-12 (NKJV)
How do we know Psalm 2’s reference to “the Son” is a reference to Christ as Redeemer, rather than as Creator? First, because the second verse of the Psalm says it is talking about the LORD and “His Anointed,” which is a clear reference to Christ as Messiah/Mediator, not as Creator. Also, because Acts 13:33, Heb. 1:5 and Heb. 5:5 all cite Psalm 2 as clearly referring to Jesus as Messiah.
Beyond abundant scriptural evidence, Symington also argues this: That if Christ were not controlling both church and culture, as the Redeemer-King, not a single person would be saved.
“Salvation … is not merely, as we are apt to suppose, paying a ransom by which the claims of the divine moral government shall be satisfied; it is not merely making announcement that such satisfaction has been given and accepted, and offering redemption to the guilty on this ground. … if there were nothing more, not a single sinner could ever be saved,” Symington wrote. “The ransom must be applied as well as paid; the offer must be not only made, but accepted; and to secure this the Mediator must be invested with regal power.”
Living in Christ’s Mediatorial Kingdom
Because Christ has been given authority over everyone and everything to accomplish His redemptive work (Matt. 28:18), He has rightly called all people and all institutions to acknowledge Him as king and to obey what His Word says about each particular institution.
This means that both church and culture—each one independently, but ideally in a spirit of cooperation—are part of Christ’s redemptive work and are required to obey Christ in all that they do.
Therefore, in all their cultural roles Christians should acknowledge that Christ, as their Redeemer, is king over them and their institution—whether that’s their family, their business, their church or their nation. When they are in positions of leadership in those institutions, they should seek to live out what Christ’s word—in both the Old and New testaments—says about leading a family, serving customers through business, or ruling a nation.
And when Christians are not in positions of leadership in their cultural institutions, they should rest in the fact that Christ is still using the culture to call out His elect, to redeem them and to build His church.
Two kingdoms theologians won’t find support from Symington for their interpretation of the Noahic covenant or the idea that Christ, as the second Adam, has already completed the cultural mandate given to Adam.
But the two kingdoms doctrine is right about this: Christians don’t need to worry, as modern evangelicalism tends to, about how to take over their culture or how to redeem it.
Rather, they simply need to be willing volunteers for King Jesus, who is building His church by transforming their hearts and is transforming their world by building His church.