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.

The Limits of Democracy

I read Front Porch Republic on a regular basis. I find the idea of localism attractive, but as both a regular reader and a rootless cosmpolitan, I will also be the first to note that the local is not an idea, it is a place. And Jennifer and I have not yet found the place where we are willing to call our home.

Mostly I love the site for its suspicion of the big, whether that be the big state or the big corporation. But I also like its intellectual suspicion of ideology, especially democracy, and John Medaille (in an otherwise somewhat silly posting on Egypt) says something better than I have been able, so far, to say:

We in the West have a mythical belief in the power of democracy to cure kleptocracy and to bring peace. These myths are held in the face of the facts. Far from being peaceful, the 20th century, the bloodiest in history, was characterized by a series of wars to make the world safe for democracy. Which we did, but we made democracy unsafe for the world. And it is true that we have very little criminal corruption in this country for the simple reason that we have legalized it. The backward politicians of the Middle East take bribes; our enlightened politicians take campaign contributions and plush jobs on retirement. Getting caught with your hand in the till is a sign of low imagination, since there are plenty of legal ways to accomplish the same thing.

Democracy legitimates the ruling class in a way that no other form of government can. But it is not necessarily “democratic” in the sense of expressing the “will of the people,” assuming they have a unified will.

Medaille hints at, but fails to really say, that both world wars were the product of “popular” governments — that is, mass government done in the name of “the people governed.” Dictatorship in the 19th and 20th century is always done in the name of “the people,” and has always justified itself that way. (Americans, because of our heritage, confuse monarchy and dictatorship.) The First World War especially was a conflict of relatively democratic societies (Germany was as much a democratic state as Britain, as much a monarchy, and in the contingency of war, as much a dictatorship), a war of democracies against each other (with the exception of Russia). He also notes that the economic problems prompting the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt are simply insoluble through political means. I’ve long noted that the promise made by social democracy that the economy would be politically accountable is a false promise, one of many made by social democracy that is so beguiling that reality itself cannot even begin to scratch at the promise itself. Much less dent it.

(His jibe at “legalized” corruption, however, skirts the matter — if it’s legal, is it corruption?)

But there are days when it is good to know that I am not alone in my deep and abiding suspicion of democratic governance.