A few years back, Westminster West professor Michael Horton published a defense of the “two kingdoms” doctrine against the charge that it “led to the toleration if not outright encouragement of slavery and segregation in the Southern Presbyterian Church.” I, too, have made this connection, and I have some interest in the subject. I still think it is not only defensible, but a necessary point of correction. Since the Problem of Slavery project, I have had it in mind to revisit Horton’s older article critically. Now is the time.
Dr. Horton argues that the stated claim is a caricature of the view. He introduces it along with his stated opponent as such:
According to the caricature at least, a “two kingdoms” view separates the believer’s life in the church from his or her life in the world. Anthony Bradley is a conservative Reformed and African-American theologian. In his dialogue with Carl Trueman and others, he raised some pretty important questions about whether such a “dualistic” perspective was precisely what kept the Presbyterian Church in the South from opposing slavery and then segregation.
It is crucial, in my opinion, to get this issue right. There are two issues with two possible variations each: First, either the church can teach on non-spiritual, “worldly” matters, or it cannot. Second, the standard by which the civil magistrate must decide matters of justice is either the revealed law of God, or it is not. Considering all of these aspects of this debate, the matter is not quite as simplistic as Horton makes it. The moment you say, for example, “segregation is evil,” or, “kidnapping is evil,” then you have appealed to an ethic. What is your standard for that ethic? Is it Scripture? Is it biblical law? Or is it natural law? And what is that, exactly? And how do we know? Etc.
These and other such questions are crucial because the moment church decides it needs to speak out on such issues, at that same moment it had better have a distinctly biblical social theory to offer. If it does not, it will not only not be authoritative, it will be one big de facto hand-off of the pulpit and social theory to humanistic ideas—be they left or right wings of the Enlightenment. For sticking our necks out, we’ll get nothing more than baptized secular scholarship, sociology, psychology, etc. So, we’d better have a theory and practice for social issues based squarely upon biblical law. The important of this point will become obvious to you when we get to the end of this response.
Dr. Horton’s article comes in two parts: four rebuttals of the claim, followed by three positive arguments of how “two kingdoms,” or “the spirituality of the church,” would really have looked. In my view, both of these parts miss the mark, albeit in different ways. The first part involves straw men. The second involves basically abandoning the “two kingdoms” distinctive and adopting something more like a transformationalist, or even theonomic, ethic, yet without admitting this. Let’s look at the arguments:
Burning straw men and crosses
Dr. Horton’s four rebuttal arguments all include straw man arguments to some degree. He says,
First, it is implausible to suggest that the “spirituality of the church” (or “two kingdoms”) was the glue that held together the southern Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist churches in their common defense of slavery.
The argument was never that the “spirituality” doctrine was the “glue” binding them all together. The argument is, as Horton himself put it, that the two kingdoms view “led to the toleration” of slavery, and by tolerating the ever-increasing moral hazard, led to the “encouragement” of the institution. Sure, it was not the “glue,” but it was a mighty bulwark protecting the more fundamental sins that were in fact the glue. Shifting the argument like this does little to salvage the doctrine.
The truth is, as we document in the book, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Baptists all addressed the issue in official denominational assemblies and publications, and all unanimously appealed to the two kingdoms and spirituality of the church as reasons not to engage, explicitly. This is in addition to the numerous sermons, pamphlets, books, etc. that make use of the same theological construction as a bulwark to protect American slavery from theological criticism.
Second, Dr. Horton adds,
even if we could accept the caricature of the “spirituality” or “two kingdoms” approach as dualistic, this would only mean that the church refused to address the evil because it was a political matter. In actual fact, though, the church itself was segregated—often more so than society at large.
The problem here is that everyone acknowledges the latter aspect also, already. It is not evidence that the problem lay elsewhere; it is compounding the evidence that the church refused to act in preaching what it should—not just to political issues, but to social issues in general. Yes, the church was in fact segregated, too—because of the bulwark provided by two kingdoms advocates.
Third, Southern Presbyterian theologians who labored indefatigably to defend slavery may have cloaked some of their arguments in appeals to the church’s spiritual mission, but they were calling the state to perpetuate the institution from the pulpit and classroom lectern. I have in mind especially R. L. Dabney and James Henley Thornwell, who based their arguments on a vision of a Christian society that would make the South the envy of the world and enemy of revolutionaries everywhere. Their arguments for slavery were not based on the spirituality of the church (I’m not even sure how they could be) but on racist dogmas, Scripture twisting, and wicked cultural prejudices that vitiated the gospel. Charles Hodge was exactly right when he said that Thornwell was using the spirituality of the church as a cover for his errors.
Some of this is only partially true, and other parts reveal the chink in the armor. While the peers of Dabney and Thornwell did envision a Christian society, when they—Dabney, at least—spoke in terms of this vision as culminated, they actually spoke of their slave system as something that would not endure under the rule of Christ. Otherwise, they spoke of it as something that occurred in the course of God’s providence in history, but outside the purview of the church, and thus it must be tolerated and “property” protected. Sure, their arguments for slavery itself were not based upon the spirituality of the church, but their insistence that slavery be tolerated and protected most definitely was based squarely, and almost solely, on that doctrine. In this regard, their appeal to the state to “perpetuate the institution” was certainly not an aspect of imposing their twisted views of the Bible onto the state, but using their two kingdoms doctrine to prevent the church from challenging the state’s law. The appeals to the state were for it to continue doing its job, protecting property and upholding the law as-is, in the rule of God’s providence. This view was perfectly in keeping with the state in traditional two-kingdoms theory.
Finally, Dr. Horton rebuts that “it is ‘guilt-by-association’ to argue that because such views on slavery and race were held by people who also spoke of the ‘spirituality of the church,’ the latter view is implicated.” The argument, however, is not that there is a mere correlation of the views, as if they just so happened to speak of these things at the same time. The southern theologians across the board, profusely, explicitly, in every way possible, appealed to the spirituality of the church doctrine as the chief reason why the church should not speak out against the civil institution. Slavery was deemed a “purely civil matter” and thus outside the bounds of that which the church could address.
In all these cases, Dr. Horton is going far too easy on the spirituality of the church concept. It was wielded front and center by the slave-protecting churches. In Dr. Horton’s appeal to Charles Hodge, I agree, “Thornwell was using the spirituality of the church as a cover for his errors.” Is this really an exoneration of the view? Hardly. It is more like an admission that the original claim is true. The church used the doctrine as a powerful bulwark for slavery and segregation.
Redefining the doctrine?
In his section of positive arguments on what a true spirituality view would accomplish, Dr. Horton virtually redefines the traditional doctrine and appropriates some of what theonomists have been arguing the whole time. In other cases, the arguments are not distinctive to two kingdoms thinking, and thus do not serve as a unique defense for it.
Dr. Horton asks, “What would a ‘two kingdoms’ or ‘spirituality of the church’ doctrine lead one to do?” for example, in the 1850s. He answers,
First, it would lead the church to exercise its spiritual function—specifically, the ministry of the keys (opening and shutting the kingdom of heaven in Christ’s name).
This would be done by preaching the whole counsel of God, including his wrath against the sin of slavery. There is no Christian liberty to disobey God’s commands and he has commanded clearly that he hates kidnapping, theft, and murder. . . .
Further exercising the keys, churches committed to the spirituality doctrine would have disciplined members and especially officers who held slaves or shared in the traffic of slaves.
This is absolutely true. It is also perfectly true that the Southern churches brought discipline in very few cases, even though they knew abuses took place. Church discipline, however, is hardly a distinctive of the spirituality doctrine. All Reformed churches of every persuasion believe this, and many others do as well. The failure to exercise the positive duties that remain in the doctrine is hardly an exoneration of the doctrine, nor does it get it off the hook in the slightest for the role it played in tolerating wickedness in society.
Dr. Horton adds,
Second, there is nothing in the “two kingdoms” or “spirituality” doctrine to keep the church from declaring to the civil powers directly what it proclaims to the world from the pulpit.
To those who have followed the debate between Christian Reconstruction and the radical two kingdoms advocates in modern times, this is certainly news to us. It is not news, of course, that the Westminster Confession says the church may humbly petition the civil magistrate in extraordinary cases. It is news that those most keenly against us would suddenly take note of it. As we have always said, theonomy and Reconstruction are matters of emphasis within the church. They are things we have always generally believed, and which need renewed emphasis today. Likewise, we have always said a beginning of the discussion was right there in the Confession all along. It is relatively encouraging to see the radical two kingdoms advocates pick it up with us, even if it is only while looking back at 1850. It’s a start.
Dr. Horton seems to come even closer when he makes this emphasis a point of duty: “The church has no authority to determine the details of public policy, but it does have the authority—indeed, the obligation—to declare God’s condemnation of public as well as private sin.” Let’s continue this discussion, shall we?
Finally, Dr. Horton asks, “Third, the church is not only the people of God gathered, but the people of God scattered into the world as parents, children, neighbors, and citizens.” By this, he intimates that when preaching transforms Christian individuals, it cannot help but have an impact on society. “Wouldn’t they carry their convictions to the voting booth as loyal citizens? Some would even do so as judges, legislators, and generals.” Indeed! If you would couple this with the pulpit proclaiming God’s law to the public square as told in the previous point, this would be a wondrous thing to behold.
It would almost be like Theonomy and Christian Reconstruction.
In short, to protect the reputation and future viability of “two kingdoms”-ism, Dr. Horton has to borrow from the rival worldview of a theonomic society. Certainly, he has not appropriated a full theonomic outlook, which he would be swift to reject. But in charging the church with some responsibility to preach God’s laws to the public square, and by appealing to some biblical standard for that preaching, he has by definition appropriated the theonomic outlook to some degree. This is also a departure from the traditional distinctives of two kingdoms or spirituality of the church advocates, from Martin Luther, through Dabney and Thornwell, all the way to modern times.
By What Standard?
This is where the biggest issue at hand comes into play. For these things to take place, the church not only needs to preach to these issues, it needs to do so from the right standard. If, through articles such as this, the Dr. Hortons of the world open a space, even a mandate, for the church to engage on social issues, if it does not have a biblical answer ready to meet that challenge, it will by default do the same thing it is doing now: leaving the debate to secularists, Marxists, etc. Only it will be worse: you will have pagan ideas taught in Christian language, by the church, and accepted as Gospel truth.
That is something we should all fear when we see non-theonomists entering public square. Dr. Horton states that the church has a duty to “encourage Caesar in his defense of justice and punishment of evil-doers,” and for this task, “we announce a law to which everyone is bound. . . .” This is the message of theonomy from day one, and it is incumbent upon us when we hear it spoken by non-theonomists that we make sure to force them to be consistent with it and preach God’s law without compromise, not to bring to the discussion of justice “a law” not of God but of men.
This task is incumbent upon us all the more when we see this standard announced in the name of the very doctrines used to oppose the advance of God’s law in society for centuries, especially in the history of our own nation. We cannot let the radical two kingdomites absolve the slaveholding church of their two kingdoms tragedy by shifting language midstream and speaking like theonomists. No, we need to uphold the standard of God’s law in the public square and say down with that bulwark of racism and slavery, and all manner of political and social evil, at the same time.
I do not find Dr. Horton’s exoneration of the two kingdoms or spirituality doctrine here persuasive. I find it quite lacking in both perspective and historical detail. His effort to make his case, however, I think forced him to stretch beyond where classical two kingdoms, or “spirituality of the church,” doctrines have been comfortable going, and beyond any meaningful past expression of them in practice. This stretch has pushed the two kingdoms advocate into the discussion theonomy has been leading the whole time. It’s time to bring God’s law to bear from the pulpit, person, home, business, and every other venue upon the public square and all our civil institutions. This, I would repeat with Dr. Horton, is an obligation of God’s people.
The fact that his has been lacking in American history especially in those ecclesiastical bodies that pronounced the “spirituality” view most adamantly speaks volumes against the dangers of that view in itself. One could make the argument that because the church refused to speak out on matters of civil justice in general, she also refused to do the more difficult case of actually cleaning up the infractions within her own house and excommunicating folk. One could argue in the reverse as well. I think the fact that both fully make sense shows that the whole is a package deal.
If we are serious about God’s justice, we will do both: clean up our own house and become the most vocal proponents in society and civil realms as well. The fact that we usually fail at both simultaneously is telling then as now. If we admit this, however, then we at the same time reject the traditional two kingdoms practice, because we will be saying instead that we cannot address justice or social issues within the church without simultaneously condemning their tolerance in society.
Dr. McDurmon is the author of The Problem of Slavery in Christian America: An Ethical-Judicial History of American Slavery and Racism, and the President of American Vision.