Living the Christian Tension: Keller and VanDrunen on Christian Cultural Engagement

Christianity welcomes its adherents to a tension. It is the tension of being in the world but not of the world. It is the tension of being a community set apart as the Bride of Christ and being a part of the ethnicities, nations, and families whose membership does not preclude unbelievers. From Biblical times to the present, the best means of living out this tension has caused discussion and disagreement in Christ’s Body.

The last few months are no exception. Two recent books by Christian thinkers seek to articulate a framework for understanding culture as well as the Church’s and individual believer’s relationship to it. Multiple works on similar topics presents the advantage of dialogue. These authors interact even though they did not write to each other. Such interaction gives the opportunity for the reader to refine her thinking rather than merely accept or reject arguments outright.

The first book is “Living in God’s Two Kingdoms” by David VanDrunen. VanDrunen teaches systematic theology and ethics at Westminster Seminary California. As the title implies, VanDrunen sees what he refers to as a Two Kingdom approach as the best framework for engaging culture. The Two Kingdoms concept has a long history in Christian theology. Its basic assertion is that while God establishes and is sovereign over all institutions, a qualitative distinction exists between the Church and other associations such as governments, families, and schools. The Church is ruled by the special revelation of Scripture and is the institution through which God is redeeming a people for himself. At its foundation is the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12, a covenant whose promises are fulfilled in Christ and in the New Heavens and New Earth. Government, families, and schools on the other hand are ruled by God through natural revelation and are purposed to preserve order and justice. These institutions’ foundation lay in the Noahic Covenant of Genesis 8 and will pass away upon the Second Coming of Christ.

VanDrunen skillfully explains the logical and Biblical sources of these distinctions, taking the reader through the Old and New Testaments to show the two kingdoms operating. His thinking engages much contemporary Christian thought regarding culture. For one, he denies that Christians are to redeem or restore all institutions in the world or even the earth itself. Such a claim contradicts the assertions of much of Neo-Calvinism, the New Perspective on Paul, and the Emerging Church, many of whom see God restoring or redeeming all of creation. He also argues that texts like prophetic calls for justice and the Sermon on the Mount are meant for either the Church or the New Heavens and New Earth. They have no real application to governments operating under the Noahic Covenant.

Among his more controversial claims is that while Christians should be charitable to the poor as individuals, the Church as an institution should only aid fellow believers. He bases this on the claim that the Church is comprised of ministers of Christ. Ministers may only do what they are told and what is necessary to carry out these instructions. To do otherwise, whether in worship or charitable giving, is an infringement upon Christian liberty. As VanDrunen reads calls to the Church to help the poor within the context of helping believing poor, he claims the Church should not go beyond this task. More defense of this position would have been helpful. As it stands in the book it remains a very questionable assertion.

In general, VanDrunen gives the reader a lot to consider in a short amount of writing. His book begs for continued conversation about Christians’ role as part of the Church and as persons living in the world. To what extent should Scripture guide Christians in government, family, and education? What beyond a very undefined call to justice and procreation does the Noahic Covenant give as guidance to action? Each of these questions and more would be worth the investment of a larger volume.

The question of justice forms the core of the next book, “Generous Justice,” by Tim Keller. Keller seeks to articulate the Biblical view of justice in a manner applicable by contemporary Christians and understandable by non-Christians. In doing so, he expands the definition of justice beyond retribution for wrongs to include a restoration of the social fabric from the effects of sin.

One of Tim Keller’s greatest strengths lay in his ability to disarm and engage across theological and political spectrums. In discussing “social justice,” Keller acknowledges that early 20th century theologians often pared the term with denials of essential Biblical doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the atonement. Justice, understood as the ending of unfair social, economic, and political structures, has been articulated as the substance of the Gospel; ending child labor is a form of salvation. On the other hand, he denies that the Christian life consists of merely evangelism seeking escape from this lost world. Salvation at its core restores the broken relationship between God and man. This restoration forms the foundation for restoring broken relationships between individuals, nations, and the environment. It involves the restoration of a caring community providing for the spiritual and physical needs of its members.

Centering his definition of justice in this restoration unites orthodox theology with a real social conscience. The crucifixion Christ’s atoning death and physical resurrection become the basis and example for seeking justice in the world. Christ becomes poor and oppressed so that he might help the poor and oppressed. We should do the same and deny our position as people redeemed by Christ when we do not. Keller enlists none other than Jonathan Edwards in making these points. Such a move is brilliant, not just because Edwards is worthy of attention but because no one can question the intensity of his theological orthodoxy. When he says the Gospel demands care for the poor, orthodox Christians cannot brush it aside as modernist ranting.

Keller then moves to the political realm. Political disagreements, according to Keller, usually result from over-simplification. Liberals are right to point to unjust social structures as sources of injustice. Conservatives are not wrong in fingering the breakdown of the family and loss of individual virtue as causing evil. Along the same lines, Keller claims that conservatives emphasize the individual at the expense of the community while liberals uphold community at the cost of the individual. Yet neither narrative nor prescription tells the whole story. Vice, familial breakdown, and evil social structures all contribute to injustice. All causes of injustice must be addressed while the individual and the community must be respected at the same time.

This criticism of political philosophies is well taken, though it does partake of over-simplification itself. In economics, conservatives do tend to emphasize individual good while liberals focus on the common good. However, consider an issue like homosexual marriage. Conservatives often argue against its sanction for common good reasons while liberals support its recognition as a realization of individual rights. Keller perhaps over-simplified for reasons of time and space. However, such a move does weaken his own calls for a deeper understanding of social ills and their correction.

Nevertheless, Keller’s attempt to articulate justice in a manner that recognizes the common good and the individual is helpful and on the right track. In the end, he centers justice not in a theory but in the character of God. This move allows justice to include community and individuals, just as God himself is communal and individual in his Trinitarian nature. He also begins an excellent conversation about the foundation of rights, dismantling many enlightenment notions in favor of humans’ possession of the image of God. It is this image that gives all humanity dignity and worth that even claims to the common good cannot override. His use of deep theological and philosophical concepts is easily paired with concrete applications for political participation and aiding in mercy ministries to the poor. Even when his positions are questionable, he possesses the virtue of fairness and thoughtfulness.

Keller’s book, like VanDrunen’s, gives a lot to consider and could easily have been a much larger volume. In fact, a conversation between the two about the limits of justice within the Church and other institutions would clarify and deepen the arguments of each. Thus, each work reads not as a definitive treatise but as worthy beginnings to a nuanced, Biblical understanding of how Christians are to act in the world. It would be to our advantage to join this conversation.

About Adam Carrington

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