Review of The Two Kingdoms

The Two Kingdoms book cover

The Two Kingdoms: A Guide for the Perplexed is not merely an introduction to Reformed Two Kingdoms thought but also a corrective of the so-called “Reformed Two Kingdoms” position espoused by David VanDrunen, among others. W. Bradford Littlejohn is explicitly arguing that VanDrunen position is not the historic two kingdoms view. In the book’s eight chapters (6 body), Littlejohn seeks to establish the historical position (chs. 2-3) and unpack some of its contributions (chs. 4-7).


According to Littlejohn, the two kingdoms doctrine from Luther to Hooker cannot be equated with a church and state distinction; instead, it is an internal-external, visible-invisible distinction. It is analogous to the distinction between justification and sanctification (13-14), which is the legal reality worked out externally, though with no perfect correspondence in this life. The two kingdoms are “two ways in which the kingship of Christ made itself felt in the life of each and every believer” (7-8). From Zwingli, Littlejohn suggests that “kingdom” is better termed “two governments” or “realms” (9). He states, “Human life is not a two-dimensional map onto which the two kingdoms are drawn as a dividing line between spheres of jurisdiction; it is rather a three-dimensional reality of which the whole horizontal dimension is coterminous with the temporal kingdom, with the spiritual kingdom forming the third dimension—the vertical God-ward relation which intimates all the rest” (9). Thus, we are simultaneously and at all times “free lords and dutiful servants” (10), with a foot in both kingdoms. It is shorthand “for the magisterial Protestant answer to [the question, what it means to live as a Christian in the world]” (10).

For Luther, the two kingdoms were “a comprehensive framework on which he hangs his understanding of God, man, and society, predicated on the reformer’s basic distinction between man as he is coram Deo and coram hominibus” [i.e. before God and before man] (14). As humans are both justified and being sanctified—simultaneously sinners and righteous—so the church is both invisible, “in its hidden identity before God,” and visible in its “outward ministries” (16). This is significant because Christian liberty applied to the invisible reality, not the outward (16).1 There was just a realm of activities, those things indifferent, on which Scripture “offered no direct or perpetually binding command,” which was left up to discretion (16). On the other hand, because the civil magistrate was God’s agent in the temporal sphere, they “could wield authority and demand obedience in ecclesiastical adiaphora—questions of outward order, polity, and to some extent liturgy” (17). However, the magistrate, disassociated as it was from the sacral sphere, could not make any claims on conscience, and its authority was limited to the adiaphora (17). Littlejohn observes continuity between Luther and Reformed theology, though the latter relied more heavily on mosaic law. He sees in Calvin, Bucer, and others a restriction of adiaphora, “since those matters determined by Scripture could not really be considered indifferent, and the role of ministers, as teachers of Scripture, expanded to include the oversight and censure of morals” (22). Sanctification was not indifferent to salvation.

For Calvin, like Luther, the two kingdoms are internal and external, the forum of conscience and the external forum (25). “Christian liberty … is fundamentally soteriological, the proclamation of the freedom of the believer’s conscience from the bondage of external works” (26). A particularly sticky area was the topic of church discipline, which seemed to straddle the border of both kingdoms, with some reformers welcoming Civil involvement and others restricting it to the church (32-33). However, for Calvin and Luther, whatever care the State had for the church was expressed on the basis of “natural equity, not divine law” (33); “The exercise of human authority, whether in church and state, remained—although tenuously—an exercise of prudence and charity in the government of things indifferent, not the voice of God” (33). In Puritan Presbyterianism, Littlejohn sees a move towards a more institutional two kingdoms view: “If the Word of God has strictly required a particular system of church government, then implementation of it is binding on conscience and such government no longer falls within the realm of prudence that characterized the Reformer’s understanding of the civil kingdom” (33). Presbyterianism thus “rolled back key gains of the Reformation,” but Richard Hooker replied in defence of Christian liberty (37). Hooker, in the line of Thomism, “classifies human law, which governs all ‘politique societies,’ as the product of rational discernment of the natural law” (40). Some of this “human law” is in Scripture; the supernatural, divine law “is not to be understood as everything in Scripture… but rather as that which is supernatural in respect of its end. In other words, the supernatural law is that which directs us to our end of union with God of which sin has made us utterly incapable, it establishes the way of salvation; in short, it governs the spiritual kingdom” (40). The human law sated in Scripture is binding “by virtue of creation, not by virtue of Scripture” (41). In this way, the natural law found in Scripture is instructive for us, who are in a different position than those for whom it originally applied; “we are free to use reason, illuminated by attention to Scriptural principles and precedents, to do otherwise” (41). As a political society, the church is to be governed by human law (42). In conclusion, he writes “the most important thing to be said in defense of the contemporary relevance of the two-kingdoms doctrine is that it is true, and truth must always be proclaimed” (103).


Littlejohn’s study is rich with insight into Reformation thought and its influence on Christian thought until today. The historical dimensions of his study are a helpful corrective to the historical case for the Reformed 2 Kingdoms being made today. However, he far is far less persuasive in the normative claim, namely, that the Reformation two kingdoms doctrine is true. Indeed, VanDrunen admirably makes a case for his position from Scripture, though I judge his argument unconvincing. Despite proclaiming the truth of the Reformation two kingdoms position, Littlejohn never argues for its scriptural truthfulness. He assumes without evidence that Hooker’s two-kingdom doctrine is the truth, dismissing the Presbyterian arguments (rooted in Scripture) pejoratively (37) and presenting a teleology with Hooker’s theology as its rightful culmination (46). I, for one, find the non-conformist arguments far stronger than Hooker’s political theology. Furthermore, there have been significant challenges raised against the concept of natural law to assume without argument that it is true and has a proper function in Christian political theology. The Bibliology of Hooker, where Scripture is part human law and part divine law is indefensible from the Bible itself; without this solution to the problems of early two kingdoms teaching, it may be that the Presbyterian evolution was more accurate than Hooker’s. For its historical insight in the modern discussion, this short volume is indispensable; as a defence of a valid alternative to the contemporary debates over public theology, it certainly has some insights but is neither persuasive nor compelling.

  1. for a great article on this, see Wyatt Graham’s here. []

Leave a Reply