Natural Law and Two Kingdoms in Reformed History

When I was in college, I had a class on “spiritual formation” that was basically a huge dose of medieval mysticism with just a touch of English puritanism.  (I’ve wondered since then if this teacher of mine knew what the English Puritans said about Rome!)  Since the class was de-forming my “spirituality” (I did NOT want to go through the stations of the cross in my ‘mental spirit’), I sat quietly off to the side and read Calvin’s Institutes which my sister gave me for Christmas. 

When my teacher (and others at the school) started talking about Calvinism’s insistence on transforming every square inch of culture, I wondered which Calvin(ism) they were talking about.  I just wasn’t seeing it in the Institutes.  That’s where David VanDrunen’s new book comes in: Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).  Too bad my teachers missed this – they would have talked less about transformation and more about the real Calvinist ‘T’ word: TULIP. 

In Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, VanDrunen spends just over 400 pages tracing the history and content of the Reformed understanding of natural law and two kingdoms.  VanDrunen tackles the prevalent teaching (like I had in college) that natural law and two kingdoms are quite foreign to Reformed orthodoxy and more medieval/Roman or Lutheran.  Here’s what he says in the first part.

“My argument in the present volume is that the early Reformed tradition, drawing from and building upon important strands of patristic and medieval theology, developed clear and interconnected categories of natural law and the two kingdoms that played a foundational role in its social thought.” … “This study is…largely a tracing of the development of two doctrines through the history of a particular theological tradition, with special reference to the relationship of these doctrines to its social thought” (p. 15).

VanDrunen starts with the patristics (the Epistle to Diognetus, Augustine, etc.), then moves to a few medieval theologians to Aquinas, then to Luther.  He spends time on Calvin, the writings of the post-reformation writers, Reformed scholasticism, theocratic New England, Kuyper, Barth, neo-Calvinism, as well as Van Til (largely in that order).  It is a gold mine of clear, cogent, concise, and well-documented research. 

If my week goes as planned, I hope to blog through this book in the next few days as a sort of extended book review.  I do think this book is an important contribution to this area of study.  Like the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works, these doctrines of natural law and the two kingdoms have fallen out of vogue in Reformed circles in the past 75 years or so.  Some modern Reformed Christians are happy to see these go; I, however, am not.  I fully agree with VanDrunen that a recovery of these great doctrines is certainly a worthy endeavor as they relate to our current cultural/political situation(s), something he argues well in the final chapter.

Not only do neo-Calvinists/Kuyperians need to read this if they want to honestly dig into their Reformed past, those of us who are already in agreement with these doctrines need to read it as well to chasten our possible over-statements of the two kingdoms and natural law doctrines.  It is well written – it won’t bog you down despite its size.  VanDrunen is a clear writer who doesn’t use puff-phrases or buzz words to make a point.  This is a straight forward and honest discussion that demands to be read by those interested.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

5 thoughts on “Natural Law and Two Kingdoms in Reformed History”

  1. That sounds like a really fascinating book! I’ll have to put that on my list of books to read some day. I actually just read the Epistle to Diognetus last night. I’ve been reading my copy of the Penguin Classics Early Christian Writings. It’s so interesting to see how the church developed after the apostles. It’s too bad there’s not more writings out there from that time period. It’s amazing how much of what we have has been only fairly recently discovered too.

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  2. Ohhh man… I was in the Eerdmans book store on the day those arrived. I’m kicking myself for not nabbing a copy then!

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    1. Thanks, CW.

      To be honest, after Frame’s review of Horton’s “Christless Christianity” awhile back, his reviews don’t mean much for me anymore. He lost a ton of my respect – not because he has something against Horton – but because the review itself was a complete disaster (which other blogs pointed out better than I can). It was a review “not becoming a scholar” to say the least.

      Also, CW, unless you got the link wrong, this is Frame’s review of an older book by VanDrunen (though somewhat similar). Double check that.

      More later,
      shane lems

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