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A Strange Land

Although we often associate Medieval Europe with feudalism, there were pockets of republicanism on the margins and in the mountains. These communities retained some independence from the empires that encroached upon their lands. A classic case in point is Switzerland. In 1291, representatives from three republics assembled on the field of Rutli to sign a covenant uniting them against Austrian imperial control. Other city states and regions joined the Swiss Confederation over the ensuing centuries.

Traditional covenants involved pact-making among closely related and roughly equal peoples. These particular arrangements, unlike secular compacts, invoked the name of God to make them morally binding.[1] The rest of Europe, by way of contrast, followed the Roman example in setting up a hierarchy with the sovereign/pope at the top, a thin layer of aristocrats/bishops next, followed by a mass of serfs/laity at the bottom. Each layer owed its allegiance to the one above, not out of mutual consent as in the case of covenants, but as a matter of power and status.

Covenanting took on stronger theological overtones with the arrival of Reformed Protestantism. Its leaders—especially Bullinger in the Zurich republic—emphasized a single, eternal covenant between God and His elect. On this view, which drew heavily on Old Testament examples, Christianity came to be seen as a federal arrangement (from the Latin foedus, meaning “covenant”) in which the community of believers and its political leaders would all agree to uphold their obligations to God and to one another.[2]

Switzerland was ripe for covenant theology. A similar convergence took hold in other parts of Europe. John Knox carried the model from Geneva to his native Scotland, and in 1560 convinced parliament to make the entire country an outpost of the Reformation.

In addition to a history of confederation among its clans, Scotland had a covenantal relationship with its elected kings. According to the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), the people would freely recognize the dignity of the crown, while the king would agree to act as their servant. If he failed to meet his obligations, the people would “drive him out” as their “enemy.” Above all, the document registered the then-Catholic nation’s objection to papal influence through the kings and bishops of England.

Reformation offered no guarantee of independence. King James I, of Bible version fame, tried to abolish the presbytery system of the Scottish Kirk. His son, Charles I, pressed the issue even harder, culminating in the National Covenant. Signed in 1638, this document laid out an agreement between the king of England and the people of Scotland for “the glory of God” and the “preservation of religion.”

Portraying itself as a statement of “true Christian faith,” the National Covenant cites only Joshua 24:25, 2 Kings 11:17, and Isaiah 44:5. Another document from the same era, the Westminster Confession (1646), imposes on rulers the duty to safeguard the purity and entirety of God’s truth. Eight passages, all from the Old Testament, are offered in support of this claim.

Therein lies the problem of national covenantalism. The generous if not exclusive use of Old Testament passages to define the relationship between church and state is a perilous theological move. After all, the Old Testament, as our schoolmaster, can bring us up to, but no further than, the cross of Christ (Galatians 3:24; Colossians 2:13-14). Moreover, whereas the covenant between God and Israel was a national theocracy, the New Testament church is a spiritual theocracy (Galatians 3:27-28; 1 Timothy 6:13-16).

Rulers and authorities obviously serve a divine purpose, but the church was never promised a political rose garden (1 Peter 2:13-17, 4:12-16). If anything, a better society in the Christian age would have to emerge from the bottom up, not the top down. It would depend, not on a Christianized civil government, but on individual Christians being salt and light to the world. Here we are but straying pilgrims—strangers in a strange land.

Although covenant thinking on church-state relations might appeal to Christians, it can lead to increasingly extreme positions, such as theonomy and national theocracy.[3] It is time to put the nostalgia for Reformed Puritan America behind us. What we need more than ever is not a Christian nation, but a nation of Christians.

[A version of this article was published originally in Think, July 2009, p. 38.]

[1] Daniel Elazar, Covenant & Commonwealth. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1996, pp. 1-2, 91.

[2] J. Wayne Baker, “Covenant and Community in the Thought of Heinrich Bullinger,” in The Covenant Connection. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2000, pp. 15-29.

[3] Richard John Neuhaus, “Why Wait for the Kingdom? The Theonomist Temptation,” First Things, May 1990.

© 2009 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.