Not Two Kingdoms, But Two Ages

For centuries Christians have considered different ways of relating the church and the world, particularly with respect to the God-established authorities in each domain. Well-known proposals include Augustine’s “two cities,” Gelasius’s “two swords,” Luther’s “two kingdoms,” and Kuyper’s ideas about sphere sovereignty, which operate inside of what might be called a “one-kingdom” framework.

I would like to offer an alternative that learns from each of these, but that also draws on the last half-century of New Testament theology. In a nutshell, I would propose that the Spirit-given power of the new covenant requires a doctrine of two ages. A doctrine of two ages or inaugurated eschatology is a popular way among New Testament theologians for characterizing how creation history and redemptive history bifurcated when Christ’s kingdom was inaugurated but not consummated through the giving of the new covenant. The history of new creation began even while the history of the old creation continued. Oliver O’Donovan helpfully transplants this New Testament conversation into the domain of political theology: “The passing age of principalities and powers has overlapped with the coming age of God’s kingdom.”

Forced Logic of Two Kingdoms

A doctrine of two ages is diachronic and derives from the Bible’s covenantal framework, unlike Luther’s two kingdoms, which is synchronic and is built on a logical formulation. So Luther begins, biblically enough, with Augustine’s two cities, which refers not to two governments but two communities of people: those who submit to God and those who do not. But then Luther places two governments over those two communities, one being the state, the other being the Word and to some measure the church.

The two-kingdoms formulation is logically tidy, and it has much explanatory power, but it doesn’t quite fit with Scripture’s institutions. The Bible doesn’t exactly place the church and Word only over God’s people and the state over the rest of humanity. It’s a forced parallel. The Bible and church have things to say for all humanity. And the state rules over God’s people.

Luther’s two kingdoms also divides the person between inner and outer, and places a spiritual government over one and a secular government over the other. But does the Bible divide things so cleanly?

Life in the Spirit vs. Life in the Flesh

A doctrine of two ages, on the other hand, doesn’t start with a contrast of two governments and the division of a person’s life between different domains (spiritual/secular; inner/outer). It starts with a contrast between two whole stories or ages, which effectively divides two kinds of life right where the Bible divides them—life in the flesh versus life in the Spirit.

The key anthropological division, then, isn’t between the inseparable inner and outer person, but between the Pauline “old man” and “new man.” And the term to be contrasted with secular isn’t sacred or spiritual, but eternal. One age and its rulers are passing; the other is not. The existential line between the two ages, in fact, is death. Everything to which new covenant renewal has come will not die. Everything else, still under the curse, does.

Two Heads, Powers, and Authorities

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Both ages possess a representative head: two individuals who emerge from the Bible’s covenantal structure and who typologically correspond to Paul’s “old man” and “new man,” namely, Adam and Christ. One brings condemnation and death; the other brings justification and life (Rom. 5:12–19).

Both ages are animated by different powers. One is animated by the Spirit. The other by the world, the flesh, and the devil (Eph. 2:1–3).

And both ages possess their own institutional authorities. The creation age possesses marriage, the family, and the state. The eschatological age possesses the church and ordained elders. The institutions of both ages rely on biblically authorized means to accomplish their respective mandates: the state, for instance, relies on the coercive powers of metal and money, while the church relies on Word and the keys of the kingdom.

Two Ages as Simultaneous—Hence Sinful and Justified

What’s important to recognize, then, is that a doctrine of two ages layers the new creation on top of the old creation so that they are simultaneous. It presents a picture of the whole person (mind and body) living within the legitimate but fallen institutional structures of creation (family, state, and so on); and simultaneously a picture of the whole person, once regenerated, living by the power of the Spirit within the institutional structures of the new creation (church, ordained elders). Indeed, it’s because these two ages move simultaneously in the present that the Christian struggle between the “old man” and the “new” is so well captured by Luther’s formulation simul justus et peccator.

Christians are capable of acting both according to the flesh and according to the Spirit. Which further means, activities of the flesh and Spirit will inform the activities of both creation institutions and new creation institutions. Hence, churches remain capable of sinful err, while Christian members of governments will be capable of making Spirit-informed decisions about the course of righteousness and justice. And vice versa.

Institutions of Each Age Serve the Other

These institutions of family and state may occupy a different age than the church and its elders. But the present simultaneity of the ages means that God often employs the institutions of one age to serve the institutions of the other, whether in direct or typological fashion. The state exists to provide a platform for the church’s work of redemption, while the righteousness and justice of the church serves as a prophetic witness for the state.

The love and faithfulness of a Christian husband and wife serve as a symbol of Christ’s love for the church, while the elders of a church should present an example of patient instruction for parents.

More broadly, we can say that new covenant members still belong to creation and the present age. So they should submit to the institutions of the present age, and they should employ, when occasion permits, the divinely authorized institutional mechanisms of this present age like the sword or child-bearing for the purposes specifically given to those institutions.

Institutions of Present Age to Pass

At the same time, new covenant members anticipate that, upon the consummation of the present age and the full coming of the final age, the institutions of the present age will pass, or at least radically change form. Marriage, says Jesus, will not continue beyond the resurrection as the shadow gives way to the substance (Matt. 22:30). And presumably some sort of governance will continue in the final age as the saints share in the rule of Christ, but the rule of the tax-collecting and judgment imposing governments of Genesis 9:5–6 and Romans 13 will come to an end, or at least be transformed beyond imagination (see Matt. 17:24–27).

Finally, we can say that the church possesses authority not over “religion” or the “inner/private person,” but over the “new man” as he can be discerned in the whole man. And the state possesses authority not over “politics” or “the outer/public person,” but over the “old man,” again, as he can be discerned in the whole man.

The governments of this world, meanwhile, are thrust into a peripheral role, authorized to keep the peace by rendering judgment against transgressors. Caesar must be rendered honor, not because he can accomplish salvation, but because he uses the sword of judgment to serve God’s greater purposes of providing a space for the gospel to go forth.


Editors’ note: Taken from Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ's Rule by Jonathan Leeman. Copyright (c) 2016 by Jonathan Leeman. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com

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