The Ironic Luxury of Forgetting

Richard Niebuhr’s minor classic Christ and Culture posits five paradigms for how Christians have related the Christian Faith to culture, but today’s environment largely reduces to two: transformationism and privatism. Transformationism sees the task of Christians as gradually influencing society with Christian truth in the hope (and certainty) that all of life will eventually be redeemed. Privatism (sometimes called “pietism”) believes Christians should be faithful citizens in the wider society but limit their Christianity as Christians to the family, church, friendships, personal evangelism, and other “non-public” spheres. The realm of culture is common to all, believers and unbelievers. The realm of the church is sacred, special, for believers. The ethics of Faith are ethics for the church; ethics for culture are common (common sense?), not distinctively Christian ethics. Among Reformation people, the distilled, sophisticated version of this paradigm is designated the “Two Kingdom Theology” (2KT), championed today by such Calvinists as Michael Horton and David VanDrunen.




Brian Mattson (Ph.D., Aberdeen), Senior Scholar of Public Theology at the Center for Cultural Leadership (CCL, which I lead), contests 2KT in Cultural Amnesia, and it is a testimony to Mattson’s remarkable giftedness that in 50 pages he manages graciously to demolish that viewpoint. If you want the most succinct, incisive refutation of 2KT, in fact, this is it.


The book consists of three essays, the first two talks delivered at a CCL symposium a few years ago, and the third a short piece originally published on the web. Chapter 1 refutes the basic 2KT argument that ethics are common to all people and that, therefore, there’s nothing especially Christian about them. In short, according to 2KT, we don’t need Christian cultural ethics, just Christian churchly ethics. Mattson furnishes examples of the fact that common cultural ethics aren’t actually that common — and where they are, it’s because of Christian influence. 2KT advocates can argue against distinctly Christian cultural ethics only because of the success of those very ethics: they enjoy the ironic luxury of forgetting. They suffer from cultural amnesia.


In chapter 2, Mattson lays out the unity between creation (Genesis 1–2) and re-creation (redemption by Jesus Christ), a unity which doesn’t permit the dualism of 2KT, which actually severs creation and redemption. Mattson relies on the paradigm of Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (Mattson wrote his doctoral dissertation on Bavinck): “Grace restores and perfects nature.” If we decouple redemption from creation, as 2KT in effect does, we march toward Gnosticism, which sees redemption as salvation from the created order, and not from sin itself.


Mattson’s concluding chapter is ingenious. He puts 2KT to the test by applying the thesis to the obviously pre-Christian, originally non-redemptive institution: the family. Surely, if any cultural institution is exempt from Christian redemption and distinctively Christian ethics, it’s the family. Right? Wrong. 2KT epic fail.


A theologian friend once remarked to me that it doesn’t take long tomes to expound a number of the doctrines of the Bible. Similarly, it doesn’t require a multi-volume series to refute 2KT.


You could do it in 50 pages.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s