Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Two-kingdom theory

“It seems to us two-kingdoms folks that Jesus, Peter, and Paul all had perfect opportunities to argue for this very thing, but instead took those opportunities to tell us to mind our own business and pay our taxes (Matt. 22:21; Rom. 13:1-7; I Thess. 4:11-12; I Pet. 2:13-17)… But more important than the reasons why I like the doctrine of the two kingdoms or the fact that it is the historic Reformed position is the fact that it is taught implicitly and explicitly in Scripture. So if anyone out there wants to challenge the two-kingdoms position exegetically, the comment button is conveniently located just below this line.”


1.It this the “historic Reformed position?” Seems to me that in its modern formulation it owes more to Meredith Kline than John Calvin or the Westminster Divines. That doesn’t automatically make it wrong, but it also doesn’t make it the historic Reformed position.

However, the question of historical theology is not my primary concern.

2.I assume the locus classicus of two-kingdom theory is Mt 22:15-22 (par. Mk 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26).

3.We can’t assume that Jesus is even stating his own position in this passage. In context, Jesus is responding to a trick question. His enemies are trying to box him into a dilemma: any answer he gives will be the wrong answer. If he answers “yes,” then he will lose popular support. If he answers “no,” then his enemies will denounce him to the Roman authorities as a seditious leader.

Jesus’ response is to expose their hypocrisy, and thereby throw the dilemma back into their own lap. It’s quite possible, then, that his answer is purely tactical or ad hominem.

4.Even at the level of a trick question, the question is narrowly framed. It’s a question of what is permissible, and not necessarily what is obligatory. As such, it doesn’t lay a foundation for a general theory of church/state relations.

Even if his answer is not ad hominem, it says less about what we’re supposed to do, and more about what we’re allowed to do.

5.What was Jesus’ own position? One can think of several possible reasons which would be consistent with the answer he gave:

i) Jesus may have thought that Roman rule was legitimate insofar as Roman occupation represented divine judgment on the Jews for their infidelity to God.

ii) Jesus may have thought that, up-to-a-point, even a decadent regime is preferable to out-all anarchy. After all, it’s only because we live in a fallen world that we even need the state. And since the state exists in, and because of, a fallen world, the state is bound to share in the same corruption.

iii) Jesus may have thought the Jewish establishment was just as corrupt as the Roman establishment, so that Jewish self-rule was no improvement over Roman subjugation. After all, the Sanhedrin was going to try Jesus in a kangaroo court. Was Caiaphas any better than Pilate?

6.Even if you think Jesus is making a timeless pronouncement about church/state relations, his answer doesn’t actually spell out the respective duties of church and state. So you can’t derive much concrete guidance from his answer.

And I think that’s deliberate. There’s a studied ambiguity to his answer. He refuses to play into the hands of his enemies. Instead, he answers them in a way in which they can only clarify the answer at their own expense. If they’re forced to explain why they themselves use Roman coinage, then that will force them to come down on one side or the other of their own trick question. So Jesus answer is designed to silence his opponents on pain of self-incrimination. They tried to trap him. Now they’ve fallen into their own trap.

They dared him to answer a trick question. Having received an answer they didn’t expect, they don’t dare pursue the question any further. He called their bluff, but they can’t afford to play the next card. For them, the next card is a losing card.

7.Jesus doesn’t state that there are two different kingdoms with autonomous spheres of authority. An obvious problem with that bifurcation is that, if you have two different kingdoms, then you have two different kings. Yet Jesus also said his followers can’t serve two masters (Mt 6:24).

Even if Jews and Christians are subject to Caesar, Caesar is subject to God. So we still need to answer the question of how the civil magistrate is held accountable to God. His authority is a divinely delegated authority. As such, it’s possible for him to exceed his God-given mandate.

Therefore, I think the locus classicus of the two-kingdom theory is neutral on the debate between theonomy and two-kingdom theory.


  1. In response to a correspondent:

    Logically speaking, two different kingdoms imply two different kings.

    They gloss this in terms of:

    #1 King=church

    #2 King=state

    Yet in the dominical passage, the two parties are not church and state, but God and Caesar.

    That's a different relation. Church and state are both on the same level insofar as both represent organizations with human leaders.

    But in the dominical passage, Caesar would be subordinate to God.

    Hence, the analogy falls apart.

  2. It seems to me that Jesus's reply was a non-answer. For it leaves open the question, "What is Caesar's? What is God's?"