Covenant With Whom?

Jeffrey Polet over at Front Porch Republic reviews a book I clearly need to read — Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenantal Theology by Glenn Moots. I won’t comment much, since I’ve not read the book (I thought our seminary library might have it, but alas, since it’s clearly not by a Frankfurt-school inspired wanna-be liberation theologian, they don’t). But I do have something to say about covenantal theology.

Polet writes in his review:

Stanley Hauerwas has complained that in America the object of theological reflection is America itself – a criticism that has some truth to it, but may not be as big a problem as Hauerwas assumes it is. A lot hinges here on how one sees the theological relationship between creation, redemption, and sanctification. Much can be made of the idolatrous nature of America seeing itself as a “Redeemer nation” – and indeed, this will be a problem if one assumes God’s holiness is communicable. Surely Americans have been susceptible to this temptation. But I’m not so sure that this provides an adequate theological framework for understanding America.

Moots operates at all three levels of the theological enterprise: descriptive, critical, and apologetic. Even if the concept of covenanting may seem like a narrow part of the theological enterprise, Moots carefully unfolds the full range of its political and ethical implications while at the same time remaining firmly grounded in Biblical religion. With scholarly precision, Moots unfolds the process by which representative thinkers figured out how best to balance the twin problems of the relationship between individual and corporate responsibility with the reality that God is somehow present and active in the historical process.

By carefully unraveling the various threads and types of covenanting, Moots shows how theology shaped relationships between civil and ecclesiastical authorities in the crucial period between 1500 and 1700. Significant in this regard was the development of the idea of a “covenant of works” which would be binding on all persons regardless of their state of ecclesiastical fellowship (the covenant of grace). “Just as these two covenants worked together in the economy of salvation, so the civil and ecclesiastical could work together in the polity.” (80) This, coupled with a deeper understanding of the role of conscience in the process of redemption, allowed for a greater understanding of how to balance the public and private elements of religious belief and its foundational role in creating public order.

I am a self-confessed Hauerwasian, so any attempt to convince me that there are “two covenants” — one with the church and another with the society/state — is going to have to work hard to accomplish nothing. Since a “covenant” is a product of revelation, and since no one can produce any evidence that God has made a covenant with the state (in this case, it would be the American state), I do not and will not believe that any covenant with the civil order exists. The only covenants that God has made are with God’s people Israel and with the church (and they are one in the same). At least Moses came down from Sinai with tablets and Jesus actually called disciples. But the American sense of callenness and chosenness is merely a self-assertion. Heck, the very Calvinist notion of covenant is a self-assertion grounded in nothing except a transference of “Israel” to the Calvinist polity.

What is the point of the separation of church (one of modernity’s greatest moral claims) if church and state are to share the same purpose and work toward the same ends? Is the church not then vested in the state — and (as I always note) its violence — to achieve the shared outcome? This has always been a problem in Christendom, and one reason why I believe this assertion of separation has never been what its defenders have claimed it be. Even in the Enlightenment and even with liberalism. Perhaps especially with liberalism.

But this is not an argument to have with Polet and his book review. This is an argument to have with Moots and his book.