29 November 2016

A Lutheran Interpretation of Reformed Two Kingdom Theology: Some Observations and Considerations


Jordan Cooper of Just and Sinner recently lectured on some of the significant differences between the Reformed and Lutheran versions of Two Kingdom Theology. The Reformed variety usually associated with Westminster Seminary West in Escondido California is often conflated with the Lutheran variety and this troubles Cooper. He wants to set the record straight. This has probably been furthered by the fact that to many, Westminster West also has (more or less) embraced a Lutheran Soteriology and understanding of sola fide.

This is a generalisation. The seminary does not formally advocate these positions nor does the entire faculty hold to them. Yet, these positions are indeed held and propagated by a small group of figures who are associated with the school and thus the school is (rightly or wrongly) linked with these teachings.

Cooper was fair in his assessment of Westminster Two Kingdom theology. He equated it with a frequent epithet known as R2K or Radical Two Kingdom theology. He was actually incorrect at this point. Because R2K is usually pinned on a more Anabaptist variety of Two Kingdom theology, akin to what is advocated by this author. From Cooper's perspective as well as some Theonomists the Westminster West (or Escondido) variety is more or less a reconstitution of Anabaptist theology... but this is patently untrue.

Westminster West's Two Kingdom theology breaks at points with the Lutheran variety and is certainly somewhat hostile to Theonomy and yet its retention of Kuyperian Dominionism places it much closer to the Lutheran and Theonomist understandings of the Kingdom than it does to the Anabaptist. Westminster's version of Two Kingdoms is still very much pro-culture formation and while not Transformationalist in a de jure sense, from the standpoint of 'radical' Two Kingdom theology it represents a de facto rejection of Two Kingdoms.   

The Anabaptist position if we are to accept that unfortunate label would identify both the Lutheran and Westminster West (or Escondido) positions as being One Kingdom with different nuances and not genuine expressions of Biblical Two Kingdom theology. From my standpoint it's just a diluted (and thus somewhat improved) One Kingdom or Sacralist understanding of the Kingdom.

Cooper is to be commended in some aspects of his presentation and argument. He does a great job demonstrating the actual Sacralist (One Kingdom) nature of Lutheran so-called Two Kingdom theology, a point I've been trying to make for many years. He intimately weds it to the Magisterial Reformation. His proper explanation of Lutheran Two Kingdom theology demonstrates that the charges made by Theonomists regarding its equivalence with the Anabaptist version are completely false.

For example whenever the Theonomists wish to attack what they call Radical Two Kingdom theology they will pin the indifference and acquiescence of the German population in the 1930s on their embrace of Lutheran Two Kingdom theology. Two Kingdom theology led to separatism (it is argued) and passivity. And thus the German Church and people let the Nazis come to power.

And then when Westminster Two Kingdom advocates point to Lutheranism as an example of a Two Kingdom Reformation heritage, and that their view is not guilty of novelty, the Theonomists will suddenly argue that Lutheran Two Kingdoms is more akin to their own Sacralist and Established Church position. They will then argue the Escondido variety is actually a version of Radical Two Kingdom theology, which is (as mentioned above) also a false assertion. As usual the Theonomists have little interest in the truth of the matter and wish instead to destroy their intra-denominational opponents. Their historical theology is politicised and that's something that always needs to be recognised when dealing with the Christian Right.

The politicisation of theology can be frustrating but Cooper makes it exceedingly clear. The Lutheran view has a very positive attitude to the state and in reality its model can be described as One Kingdom in two spheres... very much like the Kuyperian model embraced by Westminster West.

This further demonstrates a point I have often made that it was the Sacral Theology of German Lutheranism that taught moral complacency, compliance and social conformity. They lost their sense of antithesis and equated German Kultur with Christianity. Hitler's nationalism and anti-communism were sentiments they readily identified with. The German Church didn't embrace Nazism due to passivity. Rather they (speaking in general terms) actively embraced it, viewing nationalism and political anti-communism (not to mention anti-Semitism) as expressions of piety and Christian culture.

True advocates of Two Kingdom theology are governed by antithesis and would never be taken in by or support such agendas. This is not to blame or slander Lutherans for what happened under the Third Reich but it helps to understand why an ostensibly 'Christian' nation would embrace a figure like Hitler and the agenda of his regime.

While Cooper decries the equation of Westminster Two Kingdom theology with Lutheranism they are closer than he realises. He clearly misunderstands the social posture of the Westminster understanding of Two Kingdoms. They are not retreatists in the least and in fact heartily embrace Kuyper's model of Sphere Sovereignty. They are careful to not conflate the Church and State but their ideas regarding separation are nothing like the Anabaptist position.

It must be further stated the Lutheran distinctions between Left and Right Kingdom, let alone their entire framework of Law and Gospel are largely false. These categories as they express them are convenient fictions, contrived and imposed on Scripture as a means of maintaining the coherence of their speculative theological system. That said, these positions are not too distant from what some at Westminster West advocate. The nomenclature differs but the concepts are fairly close and often overlap.

I continue to be baffled by the charges of Evangelical isolationism which Cooper repeats. These are after all the people who just made Donald Trump's election possible. Christian radio and literature are absolutely saturated with Dominion theology and the need to engage if not transform culture. As usual, it is the Church that has been transformed by the culture. It is the consequence of such a defective and dangerous theology.

I did have a good laugh about 47:00 minutes in. One of the questioners seemed to utterly lack an understanding of the issues at stake. I laughed out loud when I discovered the inquirer was none other than Gene Edward Veith. A professor at Patrick Henry College he serves as the chief advocate for Dominion Theology and Sacralism in Lutheran circles and perhaps something of a bridge figure between the Lutheran and Reformed worlds. He's viewed as an expert commentator on culture and vocation and yet in reality is a blind guide, ill informed, and ignorant of both Western culture and its intellectual history. I've responded to portions of his pseudo-intellectualism in some other pieces. I'm afraid he's not in Cooper's league but he remains quite popular. Every Missouri Synod Lutheran I've known seems to revere him and recommend his deeply flawed books.

Cooper consigns so-called 'radical' Two Kingdom theology to a manifestation of American individualist culture. This is perhaps his weakest point and again shows his failure to understand both the Kuyperian aspect to Westminster's thought, let alone the Anabaptist version of Two Kingdom theology which actually antedates the 16th century and the Anabaptist movement itself. This was the theological position of figures like Chelcicky and the Waldensians. It's not a fruit of modern American culture. The rejection of Constantinian and Sacralist presuppositions did not begin with the Enlightenment.

Rather I would argue the old and now obsolete version of Fundamentalist Separatism (wed to Dispensationalism) presented a sort of American individualist disengagement. Even that's a stretch but I think a better case could be made. Of course that variety of Fundamentalism was also pacifist and anti-patriotic. Sadly it largely died and disappeared with World War II. The old J Vernon McGee maxim of not 'polishing brass on a sinking ship' is not advocated by anyone in the contemporary Evangelical or Fundamentalist scene and it's certainly not the view of Westminster West.

He falls into many of the typical caricatures and mischaracterisations of so-called radical Two Kingdom theology but he's hardly alone. In this absurd piece RC Sproul Jr. also accuses R2K of endangering the Church's prophetic voice.

Ironically it is the One Kingdom Theology of Sproul Jr., Westminster West, Cooper and Confessional Lutheranism and most certainly Theonomy which cause the Church to lose its prophetic voice. They seem to think in order to possess prophetic standing one must be integrated into the political order. Somehow being outside it delegitimises your testimony. They are political animals and cannot think beyond its categories.

Of course this thinking has directly led to the Christian embrace of Donald Trump. History repeats itself and the Church is not exempt especially when led by such blind guides. Many of them lament this turn of events but in their folly, they laid the groundwork for it.

There are also disputes which Cooper only touched on regarding the place of Natural Law in terms of governing society. Or to put it differently what is the standard Christians should use when dealing with the application of Christian ethics to the state? Westminster/Escondido has grasped the profound difficulties in trying to apply a Covenant document to a non-Covenantal entity and thus has turned to Natural Law. This has especially upset many in the Reformed world due to the embrace of Cornelius Van Til's version of Presuppositional Apologetics which is quite hostile to the idea of Natural Law as an authority for ethics, let alone the possibility of constructing a Natural Theology that doesn't immediately succumb to idolatry.

Theonomy's 'By What Standard' argument is guilty of begging the question, but I'm afraid Westminster West in embracing the same flawed premise of the Theonomic position is forced to justify their standpoint by turning to inferential and subjective arguments that are unlikely to gain traction in the contemporary Dominionist climate that insists all civilisational questions and paradigms are answered in Scripture. This view could be called Hyper- or Extra-Covenantal Sufficiency. The truth is that Theonomy and Dominionism engage in the same sort of philosophical speculation and when they form systems that 'seem' coherent with Scriptural principles they think (wrongly) that their positions are thus Biblical and equal to Scripture itself. Their system is not Biblical in the least, but is instead a coherent construct based on their subjective presuppositions. It's philosophically sound but does not reflect Scripture and is thus just as flawed as any Natural Law construct.

Being a Lutheran, Cooper has little problem with Natural Law, nor does he seem to find difficulty with the state enforcing Christian dictates.

To put it simply if you believe the state should enforce blasphemy laws or require Church attendance etc... you're not advocating Two Kingdom theology, you are in fact a Sacralist. And Cooper proves conclusively that Lutheran Two Kingdom theology is Sacralist at its core and foundations. This is at the heart of the Magisterial Reformation. This view was embraced by the Lutherans, Reformed and of course the Anglican Churches. Almost alone the Anabaptists stood against this error and thus took up the torch of some of the proto-protestant forebears who also maintained this testimony during the centuries of Papal power.

In addition to completely misunderstanding the origins and underpinnings of a non-Sacralist version of Two Kingdom theology it is no great surprise that Cooper all but proclaims his embrace of Constantinianism in his acceptance of and even endorsement of the Medieval order. Contrary to his assumptions I would argue the vast majority of people living under Roman Catholic Christendom were not Christians and thus the order cannot be described as such for this reason alone let alone its unsustainability as a doctrine derived by means of New Testament exegesis. As I've said many times the concept of Christendom is bogus from start to finish. Too call a culture or nation Christian is to necessarily redefine the term. You must employ extra-Biblical frameworks and philosophical speculation to conceptualise, let alone flesh out the term. It's not a Scriptural concept.

This of course destroys, nay decimates the Lutheran meta-narrative of Church history. These questions have to be resolved and common ground has to be found before any kind of rapprochement can take place. And to be honest, the gulf is wide.

But from the standpoint of one who holds to Biblical Two Kingdom theology, what Cooper calls 'radical', the gulf between Westminster West and Confessional Lutheranism is almost insignificant.

That said, both of these erroneous forms of Two Kingdom theology offer some hope. They both stand in contrast to the Absolute Sacralism that is ascendant in Reformed circles and is increasingly being embraced by other leaders associated with Evangelicalism and the Christian Right. While rigid or traditional Theonomy has been largely rejected, the movement has morphed and metastasised. Cooper's understanding of the Kingdom will provide some (albeit limited) restraint to the worst forms of that impulse.

The Westminster variety possesses another aspect Cooper did not touch upon and I will do so only briefly. The Westminster Confession was modified in the late 18th century to accommodate the new formation of the American Republic and the principle of Disestablishment. While some might call this purely pragmatic it in fact represents something larger and that is the Christian embrace of Classical Liberalism.

Some argue (erroneously) that this is a fruit of the Reformation. I will agree that it is a result of the Reformation, or came about due to forces generated by the Reformation. It is a grave error to believe Classical Liberalism represents an outworking of New Testament or even Reformation theology. As I've said before it may be advantageous as a Christian to live in a democracy but the concept itself is not a Biblical one. American Presbyterianism took a turn in the late 18th century and abandoned certain aspects of its Magisterial-Sacralist heritage in its modification of the 17th century Westminster Confession of Faith. The history of American political Christianity is one of contradictions and internal conflicts. These contradictions merely simmered beneath the surface during the period of social consensus.

When the consensus broke is a question of debate. In one sense it was certainly shattered by the Civil War but despite the questions surrounding that conflict in many ways the general consensus continued right up to the turn of the 20th century and perhaps even through the World Wars. The questions were on the table but the contradictions were not pressed until the post-War period. Since then, the contradictions of Confessional Protestantism embracing Classical Liberalism have risen to the surface and we see a wide array of positions and postures. Some Christians are reverting to almost 'Throne and Altar' anti-modernist positions in order to defend their cultural assumptions and narratives. Others continue to defend Classical Liberal ideals and have worked more assiduously to synthesise these ideals with New Testament exegesis. Many have engaged in historical revisionism and have read Classical Liberal ideas into the Reformation and in other cases have transformed the American Founders into Throne and Altar flavoured conservatives.

There are additional questions regarding the nature of the Enlightenment, when it took a bad turn etc... These questions also play into one's understanding of Classical Liberalism, one's narrative regarding the progress or deformation of American culture etc.

The Westminster West variety of Two Kingdom theology is largely favourable to Classical Liberalism or at least seems to accept the notion that it is an outgrowth and positive consequence of Reformation thought. If Cooper wants to identify an American aspect to this theology then he would need to address the similar influences affecting Confessional Lutheranism. Because when I listen to GE Veith, let alone Todd Wilken's radio programme I'm hearing these same varieties of synthesis and contradiction.

The dilemma for the Confessionalist is how to reconcile these modern intellectual trends with their deuterocanonical authorities and requirements of subscription. Though not a few Presbyterian hardliners decry the 18th century redaction to Westminster Confession, it gives the Escondido faction a historical leg to stand. Confessional Lutheranism does not and thus their embrace of Classical Liberalism's concepts of the individual, reason, property, economics and the state are without warrant. They are instead manifestations of the Aufklärung.