Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology. Glenn A. Moots. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2010.
I suspect that Glenn Moots is a great fan of Agatha Christie. It is not that his book is a work of fiction, but it certainly does read like a murder mystery. True to the genre, the tale begins with the discovery of a death: in this case, God’s.
But this is a detective story with a twist. The mystery is not who killed God, or even who killed “covenant” as a political symbol and device, for as the tale of the historical development of covenant in Anglo-American political thought and practice unfolds, the truth emerges that they are not entirely dead, despite the best efforts of all sorts of characters, both suspicious and noble.
The mystery is, rather, whether God and covenant can be saved in the public realm and, if so, how and by whom? In other words, Moots is concerned with a challenge taken up by Hercule Poirot in the short story “Wasps’ Nest:” can the detective solve the murder before it is accomplished, and perchance prevent it?
It would be the ultimate triumph for a detective; and given that Moots has set out to do this with his first book, and that he keeps us in suspension to the end, meticulously weaving his story strand by strand, it is a tale fraught with real tension. But of course such books always end well, and I can assure you, without giving away the ending (at least not just yet), the author does not disappoint.
Just as one would expect, it all comes together in a library, where, to add perspective, the author sets up an encounter with the works of Eric Voegelin, Daniel Elazar, and David Novak. And just as might Agatha Christie, the author shows how a careful review of the reformed tradition’s practical experience with covenant reveals all the clues a reader needs to solve the mystery. But Moots must first, like any good detective, examine the crime scene. How has the attempt to murder God been effected, and why thus far has it not succeeded?
The weapon Moots finds at the scene is the modern ideology of secularism, which elevates politics above religion and relegates political theology to the dustbin of history, and which he carefully distinguishes from the ancient and medieval concept and practice of secularity, involving the separation of the secular and sacred, but in formally equal, cooperating spheres. Moots thus asks the reader to take a look at this scene, to see how religion and politics actually are and have been lived in real communities, to see why God has survived the attempt so far (although tens of millions of lesser beings have not), and then to draw from that conclusions as to how the relationship ought to be.
He argues that when we look at political reality, we can see that as a result of having raised politics above religion, and of having attempted in the public realm to turn our backs to the call of transcendence, we have opened ourselves up to several ills.
First: as we can see with the murderous, collectivist ideologies of the Twentieth Century, the call of transcendence is not diminished by being dismissed, as immanent eschatons replace other-worldly ones. Should we fail to learn to deal with this call in the public realm, we risk further catastrophes.
Second: as people show themselves in practice to be in their essence both political and religious, and not first one or the other, we do violence to both aspects of our humanity and breed distrust in society by preferring one over the other and disrupting the working tension between the two.
Third: as Moots’ work sets out to show, many of the political ideas, beliefs, practices, and institutions that we now enjoy were not only born of theological insights and debates, but could never have been sustained over centuries in America had they not been seen to be in accord with Americans’ religious beliefs.
The narrow implication of this, in terms of the discipline of political theory, is an unjustifiable, unconscionable gap between what is read and taught. More broadly and more dangerously, in willfully forgetting the theological roots of politics, we have immobilized ourselves through a self-induced amnesia and risk civilizational disintegration, as we are unable to provide an ultimate rationale as to what we do and who we are, either before ourselves or external challengers. We cannot hope to carry on as a civilization merely on our inheritance of attitudes, habits and institutions, but must at some point, and in some way, allow our religious communities to replenish our political tradition.
Moots’ primary concern in preventing the ultimate murder (if not moreover preventing the murder of millions of others), is therefore to assist in restoring theology to what he sees as its rightful place in the public realm, i.e., as an equal rather than subservient partner to politics and philosophy. He frames his task thus:
“Learning how to approach the call of divine transcendence must remain part of our political conversation. Transcendent politics can sometimes be a very dangerous politics, but it is the only kind fit for human beings. So long as we remain lower than the angels but higher than the brute beasts, our nature will rightly call on us to somehow wed transcendence to our political orders.”
What follows is how one particular political tradition answered that call, and how we might think about it today.
The author focuses on the covenant tradition because of its vast influence in shaping Anglo-American political thought and practice, far exceeding that of any other tradition, religious or philosophical. Within it, solutions to the church-state debate were being worked out in word and deed, and theories of social contract developed, a hundred years before philosophers such as Spinoza, Hobbes, and Locke came on the scene. As Moots asserts, to omit the role of the Reformation from the history of political theory would be 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.”
During those centuries, great numbers of people in England, Scotland, and the American colonies learned their politics in their church and local communities, and these peoples, Puritans and Presbyterians, drove the civil wars of the United Kingdom and did much to shape the American Founding. As the work of Donald Lutz has shown, for example, the most cited text in American political writings from 1765 to 1805 was not just the Bible, but its most politically prescriptive book, Deuteronomy. And as Moots goes on to show, even arguments based in natural law could reasonably be supposed to have more often than not arisen from these church communities, rather than individuals acting out of purely philosophical conviction.
In setting out to journey from Biblical Jerusalem to the American Founding, Moots had the advantage of a route that has been increasingly well-marked of late, by scholars with various purposes: some seeking to draw attention to overlooked historical phenomena; others wanting to challenge the settled interpretation of the American First Amendment, strictly separating church and state; and yet others joyfully exploring the vast assortment of situations and applications in which the covenantal symbol, ethos, and devices are manifest in our contemporary world.
A pioneer in mapping that tradition, the late Daniel Elazar–very much the inspiration for that last group of scholars–observed that the historical transmission of covenant theology and federalism, from the Biblical Hebrews, through Reform Christianity, to the English Civil War and the American Founding, took the same geographical trajectory as that of a plane flying from Jerusalem to Washington, along what might be called the ‘arc of the covenant,’ heading northwest via Zurich, Rhineland Germany, the Netherlands, England or even Scotland, and then southwest over Nova Scotia, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Moots navigates the reader along that arc by constantly holding in view the Reformers’ doctrine of salvation (soteriology). He makes a careful study of the covenantal writings and related deeds of Reform theologians and leaders, examining their assumptions and arguments as to how and why individuals are saved or damned and communities flourish or perish, and the practical implications concerning sacraments, church membership and discipline, and church-state relations.
He does so because of the central place of soteriology in their adoption of covenanting as the defining symbol, ethos, and model for institutional design. Covenanting symbolize a cosmos in which man finds himself in a form of partnership with the Divine Creator, where the meaning of man’s existence and salvation of his soul lie in accepting that partnership. God reveals Himself in reaching out to man, in love, to summon a loving response from man, and man is at liberty to decide whether or not to endeavor to bring himself, in heart and deed, into alignment with that summons, from which decision ensues either the blessings of attunement or the wages of sin.
Man, although in no way God’s substantive equal, is respected and treated by God as formally and, by virtue of covenanting, legally equal, in order to enable man to realize what is best in himself, his divine aspect, i.e., in order that man would be a loving being, first toward God and then perforce toward all of God’s creation. Man’s flourishing in fulfilling his purpose, in the metaxy between God and the rest of creation, thus entails the forming of relationships and communities in which man can not only ensure his basic needs, but above all learn to love God and His creation, through loving God and His creation: marriages and families, communities of faith, and nations.
As such love seeks the good and fulfillment of the purpose of others, polities endeavoring to fulfill God’s purpose in such a cosmos, no matter whether they are sacred or secular, must be structured in accordance with an ethos and principles for human relations entirely concerned with ensuring the common good, thereby enabling everyone to respond appropriately to the divine summons. This means that such polities must be based on the same form of equality and liberty as God has revealed to man through the covenant, and as is required for the creation and sustenance of genuine partnership: formal equality and federal liberty–the liberty required to fulfill one’s purpose as a loving, responsive member of a community.
Polities must thus be structured with two profoundly purposive features: formally equal spheres of liberty, enabling, in each sphere, the responsibility particular to a distinct type of human relations and action; and an acceptance of the messiness of life that accompanies free will, a multitude of diverse souls, and inappropriate, and in fact evil, responses. For the Reformers, as for the Hebrews, different types of covenants governed different types of relationships, each in its own particular sphere of liberty, watched over by its own authorities, on its own terms, with its own rewards and punishments.
In the sacred sphere, the Reformers saw themselves as heirs to the promises of salvation made to Abraham, under a covenant of grace; and in the secular sphere, as heirs, with all mankind, to the Noahide covenant, or natural law, as a covenant of works, i.e., a covenant by which all men, by virtue of being commonly endowed with the knowledge of good and evil and conscience, could establish some measure of political order and justice, and by which men’s souls could be prepared for acceptance of a covenant of grace, by becoming accustomed to self-limitation and assuming responsibility for the common good.
In addition, there were smaller but no less important spheres governed by other covenants, such as marital ones governing families, whose scope extended across the boundary of the sacred and secular spheres, in accordance with the families’ sacred and secular needs, and whose integrity should be respected by sacred and secular authorities, in order to protect its higher purposes in responding to God.
Moots tracks how, over time, the Reformers gradually worked out how heavenly salvation is to be won for souls under the covenant of grace and some reasonable measure of political order and community rewards under the covenant of works, and how these covenantal spheres interacted. He does so by examining the writings and deeds of early Reform theologians and leaders such as Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) of Zurich, and John Calvin (1509-1564) of Geneva, and others who took the tradition further, such as Theodore Beza, Johannes Althusius, John Knox, Roger Williams, and Jonathan Edwards.
He devotes two foundational chapters to Bullinger’s “A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God” and “Decades”, and Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” arguing that these works must be given the greatest attention and studied side by side, for they represent the major contrasting traditions of Reform theology, and that Bullinger deserves our particular attention, for he was far more influential than Calvin.
Bullinger had a more inclusive approach to church membership and the sacraments, and allowed for a broad overlap between church and state, while Calvin had a more exclusive approach with less overlap. As Moots shows, over the course of the book, each approach when fully applied to church-state relations collapses under its own weight, resulting in either an all-inclusive Presbyterian Church that is intolerant toward non-conformists, or pure Independent or Congregationalist churches that have separated themselves from the civil realm, yet are tolerant of others.
But one would search Moots’ book in vain, if one tried to find a general theological distinction that would explain their divergence, such is his thoroughness in qualifying their positions. Rather, one must conclude as Moots does that the main difference lies in what they thought to be pastorally efficacious, in helping souls get into Heaven, with Bullinger preferring the carrot and Calvin the stick, or in other words, with the former being German and the latter French.
Moots also devotes particular attention to the writings of those who positioned the covenant of works squarely in the classical tradition of natural law: Calvin, Christopher Goodman, Knox, Philippe Du Plessis Mornay, and Samuel Rutherford. As the author notes, the Reformers were schooled in the tradition of Christian humanism, and as they were not revolutionaries but reformers, it was sensible for them to weave their new synthesis with Hebrew, Greek, and Roman threads, within the existing institutional framework.
In reckoning not only with free will but also with those who are not open to the call of divine transcendence, or open to such a call differently understood or received, they adopted and rearticulated the Roman law commonwealth tradition of salus populi (the common good) and natural law in ways that made sense, theologically, pastorally, and practically, in the lives and faith of northwestern European Reform Protestant communities that were struggling to organize increasingly pluralistic political bodies. Moots holds, quite rightly, that this was a substantial contribution to the development of western political thought and practice, for not only did it provide continuity in employing useful tools, it added new moral force to certain long-standing, developing principles of politics and justice.
The doctrine of salus populi in the secular realm could be integrated seamlessly into the Reformer’s larger overall project involving the recasting of all authority as delegated from God in trust, in all spheres, familial, sacral, and secular, which thereby called for a moral reformation of its use. Moots notes that civil government and civil society were cast as coming from the will of God, as expressed by human nature, and activated by, in some sense, the consent of the people. If one thinks of covenant as a conceptual device, much like the original position or social contract in liberalism, it is not necessary to look for an actual exchange of pledges between ruler and ruled.
Although parents may make such a bilateral pledge when marrying, and may make a unilateral pledge to their children when bringing them into the world, the absence of such pledges explicitly is not seen in any way to diminish the nature of the authority as a trust relationship, or the moral imperatives that such authority would be exercised for the other parties’ good, in the fullest sense, as something sacred, delegated from God. Thus, it matters not whether a polity is a monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, or whether rulers are elected by the people or their representatives or simply born into office, but that they serve the common good in agreement with the implied consent of all, i.e., it is implied that people consent to what is done in accordance with the common good and their own good, but they cannot be thought to have consented to rules that fundamentally contravene their need for formal equality and federal liberty.
People cannot grant a greater authority to a ruler than God has granted to them, and what God has given man to govern his own life are limited forms of equality and liberty, given in trust, conditionally. This is thematic in Glenn Moots’ book. No individual or community could make an unlimited, unconditional grant of its liberty to a ruler, without violating the trust of God, which would thereby render the grant void. Consequently, the covenantal approach to political society limited authority, necessitated a moral critique of tyranny, gave rise to a righteous right of resistance, to be exercised by the people’s representatives, when such implicit consent was violated in a substantial manner, and also provided a profound moral ground and political legitimacy for the exercise of individual conscience.
This naturally leads to questions as to how far resistance may be taken, i.e., what can be its legitimate aims, and what are its bounds. In sifting the evidence offered up by the Reform tradition, Moots must, of course, deal with the question as to whether millennialism is a logically necessary development of covenantal politics, since some Reformers did take the tradition to a revolutionary conclusion in the English Civil War.
Does it logically result, despite it origins, in a revolt against God? The author begins by asserting that there was nothing in the thought of Bullinger and Calvin that would have suggested that direction, for both were clearly Augustinian in locating the eschaton beyond the horizon of creation. Nor would one find such a thing in the covenantal thought per se of their successors. The assumptions and logic of covenantal thought, which in enabling responses to God are entirely concerned with accepting and working with man’s fallen nature, do not compel men to adopt revolutionary goals and methods aimed at the perfection of man and society in the created world.
But Moots, looking at the tradition in Voegelinian terms, did find that the practice of covenantal politics can increase the temptation to be that radical, in certain circumstances. While the temptation to Gnostic immanentisation may be an ever-present human phenomenon, unrelated to covenantal symbolism, as man finds it difficult to live with the reality of an unseen God and sometimes seeks to flee, as Voegelin put it, “from uncertain truth to certain untruth,” or in other words, to exchange mystery for mastery, and although the covenant symbol may be helpful in illuminating and relieving the tension in man’s existence in the Metaxy, a tension of which man must be aware and respect, it also a somewhat dangerous symbol.
It not only affirms political order as a necessary part of the fulfillment of God’s purpose, requiring man’s submission, but also, as noted, offers a potent critique of all particular human efforts and institutions that do not measure up to God’s example in providing formal equality and federal liberty. The covenantal approach to politics thereby elevates the importance of individual conscience, raises the stakes politically, and adds weight to all spheres of life. The added weight of putting man’s salvation into the equation, or of man’s dignity if you wish, means that political oppression or alienation may be made to seem existentially unbearable for some.
Moots notes, however, that covenantal political theology, unlike modern ideologies, does provide its own correctives. Firstly, its inclusive and exclusive approaches can serve to keep each other in check, reminding each other of the limitations of their perspectives. Secondly, so long as its practitioners remain biblically focused, they must always bear in mind man’s fallen nature, as did later American Reformers, learning from the British experience. This was expressed in numerous ways that Moots explores, but is especially evident in the checks and balances of the American Constitution, which were put in place with fallen man very much in mind.
Moots’ historical inquiries take us to the threshold of our own age, but no further; far enough to show what contribution the covenant tradition has made to our debates, our institutions, and who we are. He has shown what any study of our politics must take that into account. He has also shown and that until such time as someone can come up with a sustainable foundation for political order and justice constructed independently of revelation, we must confront the fact that we are, in our essence, as much religious beings as political ones.
But where does this leave us today? What does our experience with the covenant tradition in politics teach us about how or how not to respond to this challenge, to this call of transcendence? Does it really offer a way to save God in the political realm, or is it just a matter of time before God is truly dead in our world, i.e., before the secularism we have set in motion renders us dead to the call of transcendence? With such questions, Moots turns to the works of his three expert witnesses.
Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) was no fan of the Reformation: he saw the struggle of Israel, and particularly the monarchy’s pragmatic appropriation of the covenant, as representative of the struggle of all who are tempted to seek the Promised Land in time and in this world, and he took a similar view of the Reformation (which he did not study as broadly or as charitably as Moots has), as a Gnostic invasion of western institutions.
Yet, as noted above, Voegelin considered the covenant to be helpful: while it should not be employed for ordinary politics, and salvation is not a matter proper to such politics, the covenant can serve, as oft it has, in aid of restoring liberty. It reminds us of the deep purposefulness of liberty and calls upon individual conscience to resist tyranny. But as Voegelin and Moots stress, covenant is best understood as something to be absorbed into the souls of “those who listen to the call,” which requires spiritual openness and creates community.
The explorations of Daniel Elazar (1934-1999), much inspired by Voegelin’s study of symbolization and representation, tracked the course of the covenant symbol from its first articulation in compact form by the Hebrews, through its gradual differentiation into various devices, habits, and attitudes, to its dispersion far beyond its community of origin, almost wholly drained of its original sense. In looking at our times, Elazar was primarily interested in and delighted by the practical legacy of the covenant tradition: the vast array of ‘federal’ devices, habits, and ways of thought that surround us, almost as part of the air that we breathe. In this he saw great hope for post-modernity, in dealing with the challenge of maintaining meaningful, overlapping spheres of self-governance in an increasingly interdependent world.
Yet, he was also aware that we must ask how long the legacy of covenanting may endure, as its animating worldview wanes: can the covenantal ethos endure without the divine? He was clear that without that worldview certain institutional dimensions of constitutionalism cannot succeed: separation of powers, limited government, the jury system, and true federalism. But he placed his hopes in that worldview carrying on, in some form, via political culture and its interaction with human nature, which he understood covenantally.
He observed that constitutionalism thrived wherever societies have a legacy of covenantal religion and politics, and he expected that such societies would in future always come up with unexpected solutions derived in some way from that convenantal source, because at the most fundamental level, people’s souls were prepared for federal liberty under God by the covenant of works, by sacrifices of natural liberty. But Moots is rightly sceptical to ask how long we can go on benefiting from this legacy, if we cannot grasp the sense of it, and if there is no longer a spiritual life behind it in communities. Moots does not believe that this inarticulate legacy alone is sufficient to allow us to counter the civilizational disintegration that accompanies secularism, and Elazar himself admitted that the divine party must be made more explicit again, but was unclear as to how to do this.
Moots then turns to David Novak (b. 1941) as his last witness. With Novak, the inquiry shifts from whether an original covenant could supply a cultural and spiritual legacy for later secular phenomena, to consider the place of contemporary covenantal communities in larger non-covenantal civil societies. Novak first takes issue with secularism, dismissing any suggestion that natural law (or the Noahide Covenant, i.e., morality based only on indirect revelation), however important it may be as a moral and political tool, can serve as a sufficient basis for political order.
It has two insurmountable political problems, both of which stem from the fact that it supplies only negative commands: first, such commands may satisfy our needs for justice and order, but they cannot enable the creation of community and or a relationship with God, and thus do not satisfy our need for “deep cultural existence.” Second, natural law cannot limit the power of the state, because the preservation of liberty requires putting the claims of community prior to the demands of civil society, and civil society cannot, of its own accord, protect that which it can neither create nor understand, i.e., persons, families, and religious associations.
Novak holds that at the root of secularism lies an anthropological error. We do not leave the state of nature and enter into civil society; we leave the state of nature to enter communities that then exist inside civil society. We are members of particular communities before we are citizens. Only “full persons” are capable of agreeing to a social contract, and such persons first “reside” in communities, primarily religious communities. Therefore religious association and community take ontological and historical priority over citizenship, and sustainable political order requires communities that are animated with the covenantal ethos, to supply civil society with that which society cannot itself supply: love. And there must be an understanding of the origins of such love in those communities responding to the call of transcendence, as well as respect for the integrity of those communities, as essential partners in civil society.
As Novak points out: minimalist social contract thinking extends goodwill and tolerance for the sake of safety, but the covenant, animating communities, offers the way of shalom, i.e., peace and wholeness, which is essential to civilization. In thinking of such communities, Novak would have us look to the community established by the Sinaitic Covenant. It is a model in which God is the basis of authority, calling us to an end beyond citizenship and beyond the reach of earth-bound eros. It is from God that one learns to love. It is also in response to God that one expresses one’s love for others. Its positive commandments (fulfilling duties to others) are addressed to persons who are linked with one another through identity and revelation. The Hebraic alternative places the life mediated by the Torah between a state of nature and civil society and moderates justice with the virtues of community.
As Novak suggests, such a model could help us resolve differences between so-called liberals, who tend to overemphasise rights, and communitarians, who tend to overemphasise duties. Only when God’s authority is presented in the covenant do the lesser authority of society and the lesser authority of the individual person find their rightful places respectively and their rightful correlation. A delicate balance of enforcement is required, using both legal institutions and personal interaction in communities. Imbalance can subvert God’s authority. The biblical approach keeps the person from becoming an idol or falling into a trap of subjective autonomy.
Rights must be rooted in duties to others, including God. Rights are means to a dutiful end. Non-covenantal theories of natural right are insufficient because they lack the context of a voice or a relationship. A covenantal view of rights emphasizes that God is the basis of authority over all rights and duties, rather than the individual (autonomy) or the community (heteronomy) being the basis of authority.
And what if anything can save God in the public realm? After all this, Moots comes to the conclusion that the key is federal liberty, the same liberty that the covenant tradition claims God has given man, not just so that man would do what is right, but that man would establish relationships and communities, which would summon the qualities of man’s nature that are divine. Looking at the matter from the perspective of covenantal communities, Moots notes that members of such communities must remember that liberty is the historical sine qua non of the covenant. When covenant is recalled in politics, it must be to restore liberty that has been lost; beyond that, it points only to a spiritual end, the City of God.
To the extent that such members perceive that our society and civilization are suffering from a spiritual problem, they must recall that:
“we cannot presume to have the authority of the biblical prophets and, ourselves, seek political solutions to spiritual problems. Spiritual problems require spiritual solutions, which now must come at the level of community rather than political authority or legal institution.”
If the repair of spiritual deformation requires a revival of the prophetic voice, even the rhetoric of the jeremiad, so be it. But this prophetic voice must come from the community and its members (to whom also falls the burden of preserving the covenant in the community).
In order for covenantal communities to persevere, however, there must be an appropriate relationship between them and civil society. Looking at the matter from the perspective of civil society, Moots would have us all recall that”
“[The] democratic polity depends on the nurture and socialization capacity of its communities. Persons exist in communities before they can exist in societies. Their happiness depends on those communities enjoying a certain degree of autonomy–together with respect–from society at large . . . .”
One makes room for real society only by making room for communities. . . . This suggests a federal, and therefore covenantal, solution to a human problem. This means decentralizing, dispersing, and moderating authority.
Moots then asks how morality and law will be negotiated between covenanted communities and the rest of civil society. He asserts that “a successful social contract for civil society at large will address the task of social morality through both theology and philosophy–not through just one or the other.” After all, moral principles do not emerge in society at large. They come from the respective traditions and communities within a society, which are then coordinated through philosophical reasoning. Theology is used to articulate the norms within a particular tradition and community. Philosophy, particularly ‘natural law,’ is used to enable intercultural dialogue.
Lastly, Moots considers what the covenantal ethos has to offer our political order, when federal liberty preserves the space for it within communities. He claims that its ultimate contribution “is to enable the kind of community that fulfils the highest aspirations of politics and human nature while we remain in the Metaxy.” Enabling begins with a call for a relationship whose terms cannot be negotiated, and whose benefits must still be sought and won. We are called “to things that precede and transcend us, with the wisdom of obligations from time out of memory.” “Covenants stand for community and against both individual autonomy and moral expediency . . . . Rightly understood, community is defined by the ethics of responsibility. This is the heart of the covenant.”
The federal liberty of the covenant requires us to transcend the love of self. The model of love is divine love, and covenant begins with the love of God, rather than the love of self. God is chesed in the biblical tradition, what some English Bibles translated as ‘loving-kindness’. The ultimate end of the loving-kindness is shalom, meaning peace and wholeness. Shalom is the great contribution of the covenant tradition. The possibility for loving-kindness in communities holds out hope for a truly humane political order.
Were Moots to work this up into a stage play, it might enjoy a long run. It is after all a timeless drama, perhaps more so than ‘The Mousetrap.’
An excerpt of the book is available here.