Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology

Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology

by Glenn A. Moots

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780826218858
Publisher: University of Missouri Press
Publication date: 06/09/2010
Series: Eric Voegelin Institute Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Glenn Moots is Associate Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Northwood University.

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The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology
By Glenn A. Moots


Copyright © 2010 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8262-1885-8

Chapter One


Returning to Political Theology


This is a study of a particular political theology and its variants, a tradition found among Reformed Protestants over three centuries and one that substantially changed the direction of political thinking in the modern world. "Political theology" is a term requiring some explanation, together with a brief defense of its use instead of the term "civil religion." Noting the difference between these terms gets to the heart of the whole study.

"Theology" is a Greek word that applies the scholarly tradition of logos to the study of God. Translated, logos can mean both speech and investigation. The earliest Greek philosophers understood logos to be a means of studying something by speaking about it. The earliest uses of the word "theology" are found in the works of Plato and Aristotle, who wanted to apply reasonable investigation to divine things. In Christianity the word is used both in this sense (reasonable investigation) and in the sense of words about or from God—the Word of God. The logos tradition, as it has been practiced within Christianity, emphasizes justification by argument and encourages both engagement and debate with secular philosophy and theory. To take a theo-logical approach implies that religious ideas and secular ideas can exist alongside each other and maintain a respectful discussion on the common ground of reason and speech. Thus, I intend "political theology" to be a term that respects religion and politics as a relationship between equals.

The term "civil religion," by contrast, implies a hierarchical approach to religion and politics that makes religion serve political goals. "Civil religion" flirts with judging religious opinions only in terms of what is expedient for the civil or political. This is the approach of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Niccolo Machiavelli. Jefferson's or Franklin's approach is superior to Rousseau's or Machiavelli's because it respects the ennobling spirit of religion to encourage the habits of ordered liberty or republican virtue. Machiavelli's or Rousseau's use is more cynical and utilitarian, using religion only to instill martial virtue or to impose ideological unity. But either use is a consequentialist approach to religion. The result is a dichotomous, even adversarial, approach to the intersection of religion and politics. For many reasons, this will not do. Religion is not the handmaid of politics.

Politics and religion, at least when practiced in a community, are best understood as partners. But this is admittedly a tense partnership. Individuals may sometimes have to resolve the tension when choosing between civil and religious imperatives. This is especially true in a liberal political order where individual rights and individual conscience are considered inviolable.

If one takes a long view of the Western experience, particularly following the Reformation, it is the mutual respect and support between politics and biblical religion (the dominant Western religion) that have encouraged liberty. To suggest dichotomous priorities of "religion" and "politics" invites paranoia and disables respectful discussion. Both church and state begin to wonder which will be subordinated to the other. Dichotomies that seek to divorce the civil from the religious, or to subordinate one to the other, function only in the abstract. They are contrary to political reality, which is always dictated by human nature, and human nature demonstrates itself to be both political and religious. Human nature is not either political or religious; it must be both political and religious.

Furthermore, the great traditions of biblical religion are political by nature. There are three reasons this is true. First, the practice of biblical religions is essentially social and requires institutional (political) structures and offices. Second, biblical religions are inherently legal and ethical. They set boundaries on individual and community behavior. Third, biblical religions share with the political a common grounding in anthropology (in the classical sense); that is, their first principles begin with human nature. The great challenge for modern legal and political practice, therefore, is not to separate the "religious" from the "political." Instead, it is to determine proper jurisdiction for the civil and the religious, particularly as they relate to civil law and practice. Determining jurisdiction is the great challenge taken up by the most prominent early modern political philosophers. As conflict within the church spilled over into the civil during the seventeenth century, famous philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke tried to determine the proper boundaries for ecclesiastical and civil authorities. But for the most part, these political philosophers were not well-known to most people. At least, philosophers were not as well-known as churchmen and theologians. Furthermore, these philosophers were often working outside the bounds of accepted orthodoxy. We err if we look to them before we look to theologians. In the history of the church-state challenge, the arguments of Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke were arguably too little and too late. Where they make important contributions, they usually owe something to arguments made by theologians before them.

Though the challenge of religion and politics was known to Christians during the first fifteen hundred years of church history, the Reformation forced a reorientation of religion and politics. This reorientation occurred one hundred years or more before philosophers tried their hand at solving the problem. This study focuses on one tradition of political theology within the Reformation and its attempts to reconcile the civil/political and the religious. This "Reformed" (often erroneously called "Calvinist") tradition is particularly important because so many people subscribed to its theology. Reformed theology was more familiar to Europeans and Americans than the works of Spinoza, Hobbes, or Locke, and its doctrines had enormous political import. The centerpiece of Reformed theology is the "covenant." Reformed theology's attention to covenanting distinguishes it from other Christian theologies.


In our current intellectual climate, some readers may be suspicious of the assertion that "political theology" can exist within our current political thinking. But both contemporary political practice and historical record remain intransigent against efforts to purge theology from political theory. One need only look at judicial or policy controversies in America to see how religion and politics remain in tense but perennial partnership. One might also consider debates about theological language in proposed drafts of the constitution of the European Union. Perhaps most urgently, while the West continues to decide what crumbs of acknowledgment or influence it will now toss to its historical political theologies, it suffers attacks by a radically other political theology—that of resurgent political Islam. One cannot argue that "they" have a political theology while the West does not, or that the goal should be to eliminate all political theology from political study and practice. The West continues to draw on its own political theology—even if only implicitly. The scholarly community, even where it cherishes distinctly Western political values, often acts as if those political values can be found only in secular texts. This only contributes to an amnesia wherein we forget the theological roots of political theory.

Political theology must be acknowledged alongside the so-called Great Books. For centuries, theology advanced the discussion of political theory more than did the Great Books. Broad discussion of political ideas in the modern age owes its roots to the church as a political institution, Christian theology and its political implications, and the Bible as a political text in its own right. Furthermore, much modern political thought was written against the background of religious controversies. Until there is a successful effort to construct contemporary political theory free from theological arguments that have contributed to the advancement of political theory (and this would essentially be a construction from "whole cloth"), we must acknowledge that what is contemporary is inextricably bound to what is theological.

The old biblical theologies not only stand in contrast to most other theologies and ideologies, they may also serve to revive the liberal West's deepest values in the face of social amnesia. The West not only confronts an identity crisis in the face of a hostile political theology; its own posterity seems unable to articulate any coherent defense of Western political virtues. This is a recipe for cultural suicide. The West appears forgetful or perhaps ashamed that religious axioms mattered historically and matter still—in both theory and practice. No one has yet succeeded in re-founding our modern, Western political virtues apart from some degree of theological premise. Until the proponents of a-theistic ideologies can succeed in fully rearticulating the essential Western political values, we are left with our theological roots. I hope to revive an understanding of theological roots here, perhaps in a way sensitive to modern sensibilities. But whether or not political theologies can be made sensitive to modern sensibilities cannot deter one from studying the historical record and making contemporary applications where one can. The historical record is what it is. Though the merits of political theology can be debated, they cannot be dismissed out of hand or forgotten.


The historical Christianity that intersects most intimately with modern political theory is self-consciously Protestant. The Reformation's political ideas admittedly did not spring forth fully formed in the sixteenth century, and owe something to the traditions that preceded it. But reformers saw themselves offering something new, in protest of previous shortcomings. Given the permeating and persevering political influence of Protestant theology on so many generations, and over centuries, one can only conclude that leaping from "Christian and medieval" to "secular and modern" as the high-water marks of political theory omits the role of the Reformation from the history of political theory.

Reformed political thought is notably absent from many anthologies, histories, and surveys of political ideas. Too few critical studies of modern political theory take its influence seriously, let alone carefully discern its role in forming what we now call "modern" political theory. It is certainly true that many factors and philosophies came together to overcome medieval Christianity and its Aristotelian variants. But scholars in political theory largely ignore Christianity in its Protestant formulations, particularly during the period of early modernity when it was most influential. Such omission is especially negligent given the highly political nature of the Reformation and the massive subscription to Protestant doctrine by all classes of society over three centuries between 1550 and 1850. Perhaps nowhere is this negligence more evident than in the standard "canon" of political thought, wherein one finds few explicitly Protestant Christian authors studied beyond perhaps Calvin and Luther. Students reading standard histories of political theory might be led to think that modern political ideas came from philosophical whole cloth or that there was no significantly influential political theology save for the work of a couple key reformers or churchmen.

Leo Strauss (1899–1973), while in many ways a scholar of the first rank and deeply influential among modern political theorists, doomed the Reformation to obscurity in some corners of political study by essentially separating theology from philosophy. Though a dedicated student of some Jewish political philosophers, Strauss had little to say about the biblical covenants other than to place them firmly within the theological tradition and use them to support his argument "that there is a radical opposition between Bible and philosophy." As for the tradition of Reformed Protestantism, his minimal treatment of Calvin is only to juxtapose him with Spinoza as part of Strauss's reason-revelation dichotomy. Strauss's knowledge of Protestant political theology is difficult to discern, and it is unclear whether he had much familiarity with it at all. His landmark work, Natural Right and History, contains no substantial treatment of any Protestants. His treatment of Luther is scant.

If modern political theory is fundamentally a-theistic in its roots and justifications, then how have its propositions thrived in America and Britain over the last five centuries? This must be asked in light of both the large population of self-identified believers and political clergy. John Adams, for example, cited three Reformed theologians as key to the development of Anglo-American liberty: John Milton (English Puritan), John Ponet (English reformer), and the author of the Vindiciae, Contra Tyrannos (thought to be Philippe Du Plessis Mornay). There is simply no reason to think that many of the texts now included in the canon of political theory took priority over political theology in the thinking of most Anglo-American Protestants.

Anglo-American Protestants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were learning politics largely in the doctrinal, ecclesiastical and theological milieu of "Reformed" Christianity—not just from the canonical authors of political philosophy. American Protestants and their church elders were familiar with theologians who were also political activists: Theodore Beza (Calvin's successor in Geneva), or Scottish Presbyterians John Knox, George Buchanan, and Samuel Rutherford, for example. Americans mimicked the activism of the British and European reformers when they engaged in their own church controversies over antinomianism, religious liberty, church polity, revivalism, covenant theology, and church membership. American civil leaders in the Reformed tradition also had a remarkable opportunity to experiment with systems of government derived from their theology.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed in the case of Puritanism, American Protestantism is overtly political in both theory and practice. How can it be believed that philosophical texts could take precedence over the political theory learned from participation in a Presbyterian synod, congregational controversies about baptism and membership, or debates over itinerant revivalism, for example? To focus on largely secular texts is to miss the social dynamic of Protestantism as an active force in church and civil polity.


Now, in the chapters of this book, it is time for an attempt to address some of these omissions and failures. The first three chapters serve by way of introduction. This first chapter has presented a general definition and defense of political theology's significance. The second chapter extends this defense, with the argument that political theology is best rooted in revealed texts, and that covenant theology in particular is a revealed political theology par excellence. The third chapter provides a concise introduction to the biblical narrative of the covenants and the contrasting ways they are presented in Jewish and Christian traditions.

The body of the text in the following chapters is largely historical. This historical approach is central to the study because it is not enough to discuss political theology in the abstract. We must see how political theology has been applied in order to judge of its historical successes and failures. Chapter 4 provides an introduction to the theological controversies in which early modern covenant theology took root, focusing on Calvin and Bullinger as two founders of Reformed political theology. Chapter 5 provides an overview of early political prescriptions for both church and state in the sixteenth century, comparing and contrasting various approaches to regime, tyranny, and the relationship between church and state. Chapter 6 explores the trajectory of political theology in England during the late sixteenth century, demonstrating how the influences of Zurich and Geneva diverged during the various Puritan controversies. Chapter 7 addresses the role of covenant theology during the British civil wars. Chapter 8 presents political covenanting in America and explains how various persons and events contributed to the decline of covenant theology. Chapter 9 demonstrates how both natural law and natural right were used in Reformed political theology. Chapter 10 reflects on the uses made of covenant throughout the periods just described and offers some conclusions on how the covenant progressed, declined, but eventually remained in political use.

The final chapters conclude the book. Chapter 11 provides insight from contemporary scholars such as Eric Voegelin, Daniel Elazar, and David Novak on the use of the covenant. Chapter 12 offers conclusions concerning the theory and history of the covenant device in politics, taking stock of its contemporary potential and suggesting what it has to offer the modern intersection of religion and politics.


Excerpted from POLITICS REFORMED by Glenn A. Moots Copyright © 2010 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Introduction: Returning to Political Theology....................1
2. Defending Political Theology....................8
3. The Biblical Background to Covenanting....................22
4. Founding Covenant Theologies: Bullinger and Calvin....................33
5. Regime, Discipline, and Resistance: The Covenant and the Civil Magistrate....................51
6. The Legacies of Geneva and Zurich in England and Scotland....................69
7. Covenant, Revolution, War, and Eschatology....................82
8. Reaching Limits: The Covenant in America....................99
9. Natural Law and Natural Right in Reformed Political Theology....................117
10. The Reformation in Retrospect....................130
11. Contemporary Perspectives on Covenanting....................139
12. Lessons for Religion and Politics Today....................155
Works Cited....................199

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