Exilic Political Theology

On Seeking a Better Country

In 1 Peter 2:11, the apostle writes that Christians are “sojourners and exiles” who therefore must “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” The King James translation translates the first phrase as “strangers and pilgrims,” whereas the New International Version has it as “foreigners and exiles.” This exact phrase appears in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) in Genesis 23:4, referring to Abraham in his wanderings in the land that was promised to his descendants. Abraham himself never possessed that land. Thus, he lived in it as a sojourner and exile.

Some contemporary theologians—particularly those identifying with the Reformed Two Kingdoms (R2K) view—have based much of their understanding of how Christians should live in the world, and engage with it, on their understanding of the biblical language of Christians as “sojourners and exiles.” David VanDrunen is one of the leading representatives of this view. In his book Living in God’s Two Kingdoms (pp. 87–88) he writes that

Abraham and his descendants were “sojourners” and “strangers” (Gen. 12:10; 15:13; 20:1; 21:34; 23:4; Heb. 11:13), precisely what Christians today are called to be (1 Pet. 2:11). As participants in the Noahic covenant, they joined in cultural activities with their pagan neighbors in the common kingdom. As participants in the Abrahamic covenant, they were simultaneously citizens of the redemptive kingdom, remaining radically separate from their neighbors in their religious commitment as they trusted in the true God for justification (Gen. 15:6) and eternal life (Heb. 11:13–16).

One could summarize the R2K view briefly as follows. Under the Noahic covenant (Genesis 8:20–9:17) all cultural labor, including human government, is common to all men, although spiritually speaking, God’s people must remain absolutely distinct from the world. Only under the Mosaic covenant are things different for God’s people. Israel, under that covenant, is to be ruled directly by God’s law. Thus, under the Mosaic covenant, there is to be not only a spiritual antithesis between God’s people and the peoples of the world, but also a cultural and political antithesis. As VanDrunen puts it: “The cultural commonality among believers and unbelievers ordained in the Noahic covenant, was suspended for Israel within the borders of the Promised Land” (Living in God’s Two Kingdoms, p. 89). The cultural and political antithesis, however, disappears when the Mosaic covenant comes to an end (when Israel is exiled for disobedience).

As stated by VanDrunen, some of the primary implications of the R2K view for believers today are that we should not become anxious about the wickedness of our own nation, we should engage in politics without expecting unbelievers to act like believers, and we should have “modest expectations” in what we can accomplish in our cultural endeavors. Above all else R2Kers appear concerned that believers will confuse the earthly kingdoms of man for the kingdom of God. While VanDrunen can write that “Peter’s terminology also suggests that Christians should be active participants in their communities of exile,” one gets the distinct impression this is only the case if one qualifies such participation with the caveat that it will never actually succeed in forming just nations, that even the attempt to succeed in this way is an unbiblical effort to transform the kingdoms of man into the kingdom of God.

There have been a variety of critical responses to R2K theology, but most are united in rejecting what they would call a cultural and political theology of exile. Despite disagreements (in eschatology, a view of the Mosaic law, etc.) these critics of the R2K view agree that the exilic theology as described above is not biblical. What I have noticed, however, is that there is rarely a corresponding attempt to explain what the biblical texts that call Christians sojourners, exiles, and so on, actually mean. It just seems obvious that they can’t mean that Christians should disengage from pursuing cultural and political success.

But these texts are in the Bible, and there are a good number of them. What do they mean, if they aren’t articulating cultural retreatism? In addition to 1 Peter 2:11 we could include the following texts:

1 Peter 1:1: Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who are elect exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, . . .

1 Pet 1:17: And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, . . .

Hebrews 11:13–16: “These [Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sarah] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

First Peter 1:1 uses “exile,” the same word the ESV translates as “exile” in 1 Peter 2:11. First Peter 1:17 refers to our time of “exile,” using the noun form of the word that in its adjectival form the ESV translates as “sojourner” in 1 Pet 2:11 (for linguistic reasons it probably would have been better for the ESV to use “time of sojourn” in 1:17 rather than “time of exile”). The OT background of exile is the forced expulsion of Israel into Assyria, and then later, of Judah into Babylon. The OT background of sojourning is Abraham’s life in the land of promise, but without possessing it as his own.

The vital question to ask of these texts is: exile from what? One major assumption of the R2K view appears to be that the exile is an exile from the nations and political orders of this world. It is as if being a Christian, a citizen of Heaven (Phil 3:20), prevents one from vigorously pursuing justice and the political flourishing of one’s earthly nation. But nothing in these texts indicates that at all. In fact, the contrast appears quite clearly to be between our life in this fallen world and our future heavenly life. It is because we are “sojourners and exiles” that we are to “abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Pet 2:11), not that we are to abstain from establishing, building, or reforming earthly nations. Admittedly these texts don’t refer to such cultural labors either, but it would be wrong, on the basis of such texts, to build a political theology of exile that discourages vigorous Christian efforts in cultural and political activities.

That the exile scripture refers to is an exile from our future, heavenly home is all the clearer in Hebrews 11:13–16. The patriarchs “were strangers and exiles on the earth.” The fact that they lived in the land of promise without receiving “the things promised” (i.e., without inheriting the land as a possession), but “greeted them from afar” is meant to be a model for Christians in all ages. We too “are seeking a homeland” and “desire a better country.” We have not yet arrived at our heavenly home, the city prepared for us by God.

Our exile, then, is not an exile from faithful and energetic service to our nation, desiring to be successful in those labors. Instead, we are exiles because we await the arrival of the fullness of the new creation that will be brought about at the second coming of our savior. It is, of course, always true that earthly goods can capture our hearts and turn them away from heavenly-mindedness and a love for Christ, but this is just as true for any earthly good. Christians don’t believe that being exiles from heaven forces us to take a hands-off or hesitant approach to marriage, or child-rearing, or providing for our families in our earthly jobs. Christian husbands are not worried that loving our wives as our own bodies (Eph 5:28) is a confusion of earthly and heavenly kingdoms. Why would our status as exiles from Heaven mandate such an approach to earthly cultural and political action?

There is one, final biblical text, however, that is even more decisive in revealing that the Christian’s exile is not an exile from earthly political striving. It is 1 Chronicles 29:14–15, a text that recounts King David’s prayer to God in anticipation of the soon-to-be-constructed temple:

But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.

The claim of R2K exilic political theology is that “modest expectations” and hesitancy toward spirited political Christian action are unique features of the exilic existence in the New Covenant age or of any historical epoch apart from Israel’s life in the land of promise under the Mosaic covenant. But David makes it clear that even at the height of his power, and under the Mosaic and Davidic covenants, he too was a stranger and a sojourner, that is, an exile. But an exile from what? Just like us, he was an exile from the consummate, heavenly presence of God, from the realm in which the mere shadow of our fleeting earthly existence gives way to the enduring and abiding heavenly city God has prepared for all of his children.

In sum, our present sojourn and exile on this earth should create in us a longing for our heavenly home in the new creation, but it should not cause us to disengage from enthusiastically pursuing the good in the nations in which God has placed us. As a matter of fact, R2Kers don’t always deny this in principle, though in practice they are rarely focused on anything other than what Christians should not do regarding civic and political involvement. The effect, then, is not to prod Christians into actually seeking the welfare of their cities (Jeremiah 29:7), but rather to discourage them from ever making the attempt.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

One thought on “Exilic Political Theology

  1. Clearly Dunson misses a key point of R2K. For when VanDrunen talks about exile and a detachment from the political and cultural ventures, he is speaking about the Church as an institution. R2K has clearly stated that Christians can pursue justice in the political and cultural spheres as individuals however.

    I am not speaking as a R2K fan. I take the same approach to R2K and Transformationalism which Martin Luther King Jr. took to Capitalism and Marxism/Communism. That is that just has he looked to develop a hybrid approach between the two ideologies, so I look to develop a hybrid approach to R2K and Transformationalism. The problem with R2K is that it prevents or limits the Church from speaking prophetically to society and the state especially about corporate sins. The problem with Transformationalism is that it fails to recognize the proper distinctions between the 2 kingdoms that do exist.

    As a person who politically leans toward Marx, I believe that the Church should pursue justice and seek to make nations more just. But I don’t include the first table of the law in determining what that justice should look like. In fact, I don’t include everything from the 2nd table of the law either.

    One thing that R2K gets right is that we do live in exile. And the cited passage from I Peter 2 isn’t the only passage that talks about our exile here. Jesus talks about His kingdom as not being an earthly kingdom. Jesus also tells us to lay up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. And Hebrews 13:14 also talks about having no earthly home here.

    So what should we make of the Christian Nationalists who want to enforce to some degree the first table of the law. That they want to pursue justice is good. But the standard for the justice they want to pursue for a given nation is not only unsupportable in either the Old or New Testaments, but to pursue that standard of justice would cause us to disobey what Jesus said about ‘lording it over others.’

    Here we should note that much of what we see in the Scriptures defines justice for the covenantal people of God. But what were the Biblical expectations of those nations and those people who did not belong to God’s covenant? When Amos condemned the neighbors of Israel, was it because they disobeyed the first table of the law or was it because of how those nations treated others? When Peter is talking about living as exiles, does he in any way, shape, or form expect the Gentiles to live as being free from the flesh as he expects believers to live? When Paul disciplines a member of the Corinthian Church for an unusual sexual sin, doesn’t he state that his concern is for the purity of the Church, not society (see I Corinthians 5)? And doesn’t Jesus tell his disciples that they should move on when the audience they are speaking to does not believe what they have to say?

    And so we need to look at all of the Scriptures when it comes to defining what is justice for those other than the covenantal people of God. In the New Testament, the covenantal people of God is the Church. There is not one nation that is included in that covenant. And so here we should note that we believers belong to two different groups of people. We belong to a given nation which is not part of God’s covenant while we also belong to God’s covenantal people: thus the 2 kingdoms and our exile for as long as we live on earth. Therefore, we should deal with nations and societies as being outside of the covenantal people of God. And so the question becomes what are the Biblical demands for justice for those who live outside God’s covenant? The idea that there is a distinction between what is justice for God’s covenantal people vs what is justice for those outside the covenant is a key contribution made by R2K. And not enough distinction between those two standards of justice is being made by those contributing articles to this website. Perhaps that is because of the all-or-nothing thinking that is employed in their arguments. And as a result, their writings are placing burdens on believers which are not supported by the Scriptures as well as what has been suggested on this website has been tried in the past and has greatly harmed the reputation of the Gospel.

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