Natural Law and Two Kingdoms in Reformed Orthodoxy

  In my studies of the Reformers and Reformed Scholasticism, two of the more practical and helpful teachings I found were the doctrines of the two kingdoms and natural law.  In other terms, it was a great learning experience to see 1) how Reformed theologians typically distinguished between many aspects of the church and the civil government and 2) how they explained that God’s law is engraved on every conscience to some extent, which forms the regulations in the civil realm.  I appreciate how David VanDrunen summarizes a few of these things after discussing the teachings of some key Reformed theologians.

“A first respect in which the natural law and two kingdoms doctrines were related in Reformed orthodoxy is that both natural law and the civil law were grounded in God’s work of creation and providence rather than in his work of redemption. As considered above, the Reformed orthodox writers perceived natural law to be given originally in the creational covenant of works and sustained along sinful human beings even apart from the redemptive covenant of grace.  Similarly, they understood the civil kingdom to be established and governed by the triune God as creator but not by Christ in his specific role as mediator of redemption.

“This fundamental relationship between the Reformed orthodox natural law and two kingdoms doctrines is important background for the next point: natural law was considered the primary standard for the civil kingdom but not for the spiritual kingdom, where Scripture was primary. …In this, Reformed orthodoxy made a claim common to the Reformation and medieval traditions before it.  That this grounding of civil law in natural law was closely related to and even incorporated into the two kingdoms doctrine is evident in [Francis] Turretin’s sevenfold distinction between civil and ecclesiastical power, in which he contrasts civil power as that which is regulated by ‘natural reason, civil laws, and human statutes’ and ecclesiastical power as that which is regulated by ‘the word of God alone.'”

“By such statements, Turretin and other Reformed orthodox writers did not mean to say that Scripture is irrelevant for the civil kingdom nor natural law for the spiritual kingdom.  As discussed above, they drew instruction on civil concerns from the Mosaic law and Old Testament history.  Nevertheless, they applied these things to the contemporary situation, at least in their more theoretically reflective moments, when they believed that they were rooted in natural law and therefore generally applicable rather than uniquely suited to the Mosaic theocracy.  On the other side, they also believed that natural law has relevance for the spiritual kingdom, as illustrated in Westminster Confession of Faith 1.6….”

Based on my own readings and studies of the Reformation and Reformed orthodoxy, I believe that’s a good summary.  You can find it on pages 208-9 of VanDrunen’s excellent book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought. 

shane lems

7 thoughts on “Natural Law and Two Kingdoms in Reformed Orthodoxy”

  1. Thank you for this. I have been frustrated dealing with Christians who are postmill and transformationalist types who regularly mis-state the natural law position in order to pillory it (see anything on “American Vision”). The usual argument I hear is that we are saying Scripture is silent on the subject of culture. I want to tear hair out whenever I hear this.


  2. The problem with this view is that one must assume that the ethics found in Scripture are different than the ethics found in natural law. This is one problem with the dichotomy of the R2k position. God’s standard has not changed as Scripture clearly teaches in the New Testament. God’s law is not only a typological shadow of Christ, it is also a gift of grace when used lawfully.

    Christ’ kingdom is established and it is not divided.


    1. Thanks for the comments, guys.

      Eric – I’m not sure your first sentence is true. In the quotes above (and the Reformed scholastics themselves), the idea is that natural law has everything to do with God’s law written on the conscience (cf Rom 2.15). Herman Bavinck even noted that all people in some ways have the covenant of works stamped into their DNA. This is just old-school Reformed teaching.

      While (as I always say!) discussions like these are usually unfruitful via comments on a blog, feel free to explain your first sentence based on the quote I gave above. Again, I don’t believe it follows; there is a hole in your logic.

      Thanks again,



  3. Eric,

    Shane has a point. No one–not the Reformers DVD quotes, “assumes” natural law ethics are different than that found in Scripture; even a cursory reading of the Reformers shows this isn’t so. The Reformers talk about looking to the moral law, the Decalogue. It isn’t helpful to accuse them of ignoring Scripture. Re-read DVD’s last paragraph in the excerpt. You may disagree with people such as Turretin and the writers of the Westminster Confession Faith (see the paragraph cited above), but they were not assuming something different than what Scripture says.


  4. DVD (elsewhere in NLAT2K) does summarize Calvin’s position as saying that the ten commandments are a summary of the natural law. Now, DVD believes that the natural law which the civil realm is still bound to obey was formally instituted in God’s covenant with Noah, which has never been rescinded (in fact, in Gen. 8 we find out that it will NEVER be rescinded). And so Christ’s kingdom is not divided; rather, He preserves the one kingdom, holding it in check by the Noahic covenant, and he redeems the spiritual kingdom by ingrafting the Church into the Abrahamic covenant. Both kingdoms are real and lawful and ruled by God’s law (the civil by God’s natural law, the spiritual by God’s enscripturated spiritual law). Calvin says as much when he says that there are “two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority” (3.19.15).

    Hope this wasn’t overkill.


  5. Adam,

    No, that was a helpful summary. Thank you. It amazes me to see how this position is mis-represented by many who are theonomists with some pretty incendiary language. I see that Al Mohler was recently attacked as a 2K theologian in a theonomist publication.


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