Between Biblicism and Secularism: Covenanting as Robust and Existential Political Theology

Glenn A. Moots
Wednesday, November 10th 2021

What should the role of theology be in the construction of political prescriptions? The role of theology can be said to exist on a continuum between two hypothetical extremes. One extreme would assert that all political thought must be rooted in revealed theology. This is a hard standard to find in historical practice. There has always existed a strain of humanism in Christian political thought which has saved it from political fundamentalism. At the other extreme is the assertion that political thought cannot appeal to traditional theological categories at all. This standard can be charged to some atheistic totalitarian regimes in recent memory, as well as some postmodern criticisms of traditional (or at least traditional metaphysical) theological discourse.

Any effort to purge all political thought of theological content will prove unsuccessful. Such an attempted purge would require one to disentangle “theological” texts and arguments from “secular” texts and arguments. The practical challenge of such an exercise speaks for itself. How would one conclusively disentangle longstanding theological axioms and premises from recognizable conclusions? There are too many complicated threads to follow. Furthermore, such a segregation implies a threat to the rights and beliefs of religious persons who consider theological texts an indispensable resource for most or all matters of life.

Political theology’s modern opponents have historically considered two routes of attack in replacing or eliminating political theology. One route attempts to make religion politically innocuous or irrelevant. In other words, take away all “revealed” content. The other route subordinates religion to political goals. Both routes of attack are substantially problematic.

To make religion politically innocuous or irrelevant attempts the articulation of religion without existential significance. If religion can be stripped of fundamental and absolute moral imperatives, usually drawn from eschatology, it will be less likely to conflict with the moral and political demands of competing political ideologies. Removing these imperatives allows “religion” to remain but disarms it of its more politically minded content. This project is impossible— short of a massive revisionist project against both theology and history.

A second alternative to robust political theology is a civil religion in the spirit of Machiavelli or Rousseau, for example. Such civil religions are designed to serve political ends by promoting loyalty, courage, or civic mindedness. This includes the more cynical kind of civil religion—the kind that creates a moral hierarchy which subordinates all religion to political goals. This alternative is guilty of massive epistemological and ontological overreach, tempts tyranny, and violates natural rights.

Creation, Covenant, Community

In the biblical account, God speaks to Moses to reveal that he is the “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). This is, as Pascal reminds us, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is a God who deliberately speaks to persons to provide moral imperatives, not simply a being existing for inspiration or contemplation. The biblical moral imperatives are not just appeals to absolutes or immaterial forms. God is not presented merely as a co-discoverer of truths above both God and humankind.

God’s revealed moral imperatives are intended to communicate directly both man’s nature and his destiny. These imperatives are essential to covenants, the blessing and cursing that summarize much of the biblical message. These covenants comprise the existential (moral and political) significance of biblical religion. In asserting that God communicates directly to persons through word and text, revealed theology makes its decisive break with philosophy and with a purely philosophical natural theology. God’s speaking to persons to communicate ultimate moral imperatives of temporal and eternal consequence is the root of the biblical eschaton in Western theology. The promise of judgment and expectation of covenant faithfulness makes religion ethical and therefore political.

The biblical eschaton is not merely discovered by reason or experience, as might be the case if its discovery was confined to classical metaphysics. Divine revelation is a quantum leap in political thinking. The visions of divine reward and punishment in Plato’s Republic or Gorgias are argued inductively from the nature of justice. They do not claim divine inspiration in the same way the Christian texts do. Plato seems to point us to the gods for the sake of what is true and rational. He is not pointing us to what is true and rational for the sake of the gods. The emphasis is on grasping truth, not establishing a deliberate relationship with the Divine Person who is the source of that truth. This is a substantial difference from biblical religion.

Thomistic metaphysics, though appreciative of Aristotle, expanded the gulf between Christianity and the ancients. Thomistic metaphysics cannot be cast as a mere syncretistic synthesis. Existing things are what they are not only because they possess some apprehensible essence, as argued by Plato or Aristotle, but because they exist as the thing that they are in the mind of a willing Creator. They are the product of a deliberate and willed Creation that began in the mind of God. This makes all intelligibility inexorably bound to God’s own existence. The fundamental act of Creation becomes the foundation for intelligibility, and there can be no rational intelligibility apart from God’s supreme existence and actions.

It is not enough to say that things exist because God exists. That, broadly considered, would simply restate what Aristotle said about the unmoved mover. Rather, things exist because a God who defines himself as “I Am Who I Am” exists and chose willfully to bring about all existing things, particularly other rational and existential beings made in the Imago Dei. Behind existence, understood in this way, is a creative will and purposeful mind that has generated these existences and made them as they are. Thus, we can move beyond the “how” a thing is what it is, to answer also the “why” of what it is. It is this “why” that enables a relationship among rational beings.

“Why” gives moral purpose. “Why” enables politics and necessitates political theology. Because their deities are not revelational, Aristotle’s “why” can only be “nature” (phusis) and Plato’s can only be the existence of a cosmos or a transcendent but imprecise realm of forms. The Greeks never get beyond nature or essence. In Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysics, by contrast, a thing’s essence exists and is communicable because it first existed in the mind of God. It is doubtful that one would understand this point through philosophy only, let alone enter into a relationship with the Creator; the knowledge of real essence and a relationship with its source necessitates the existential act of divine revelation.

Divine revelation does more than reveal something intelligible, however. It also calls one into a relationship with that Self-Existence through covenants. Of note are the biblical virtues: faith, hope and love. These provide not only intellectual support in the face of what would otherwise be intellectually and metaphysically overwhelming; they invite a relationship with the Creator. These biblical virtues are relational virtues. They enhance the existential dimension of biblical religion and give force to its eschaton.

Protestantism further strengthens the existential qualities of Christianity. One need look no further than mottos now associated with the Reformation—sola scriptura, sola fides, sola gratia. This heightened emphasis on Scripture enhances the existential dimension, underscoring that God communicates directly with those made in the divine image. The emphasis on faith (sola fides) and grace (sola gratia) underscores one’s direct relationship to God through the individual priesthood of the believer, maximizing the responsibility of the acting individual. These are states of being that are sought, won, and felt experientially. They are not merely understood rationally or doctrinally.

The covenant reveals what [Eric] Voegelin calls the Metaxy of human existence: the fact that humankind is suspended between divinity and the mundane. Because the covenant addresses the challenges of humankind’s special status as the Imago Dei, it is a political theology par excellence. The covenant summons with a moral call that transcends selfishness and cynicism. Its exacting treatment of authority warns us of the tyranny of political expediency. The covenant exalts the highest fulfillments of community and morality. It calls us not merely to conform to what is right but also to establish relationships and communities around what is just and good. Establishing these relationships and communities summons the qualities of our nature that are divine, those rightly emphasized by the jeremiads of the biblical prophets. We must not trade those transcending principles of justice and goodness for cynical and utilitarian goals of realpolitik or the deceptive visions of political demagogues and messiahs.

Voegelin’s argument must be read as a warning against appropriating any symbol in such a way as to allow a nation to see itself as the culmination of history. In the case of the Britain, the result of apocalyptic exceptionalism was theological suicide for the covenant tradition there. By the time of their War for Independence, Americans had succeeded in building levees against the theological spillover of millenarianism and chiliasm that had doomed the covenant in Britain. The American Founders called upon another aspect of Reformed theology, the limitations of the postlapsarian condition, to curb the excesses of Gnosticism lest the chosen people think themselves called to something other than the mansions of heaven. As Ellis Sandoz casts it, this was a republic for sinners rather than for saints. Realistic acknowledgment of postlapsarian (fallen and imperfect) human nature carried on into the Constitution and its distrust of centralized power. As the so-called “father of the Constitution” James Madison argued, self-interested human nature would not and could not be miraculously cured. Rather, it was to be used in the service of limiting power. Men were not angels. They were ambitious and factious, and that fact must be acknowledged and then harnessed in the service of liberty.

Recovering the Covenant in Politics

The call of the covenant is more clearly discerned during the spiritual openness caused by crises of liberty. This is demonstrated in covenanting episodes both ancient and modern and in the endless replaying of the Exodus narrative throughout history. When the covenant is recalled in politics, it must be used only to restore the liberty that has been lost. Anything more ambitious than the restoration of liberty leads to messianic ideology and tempts peoples to political excesses that come from believing themselves “chosen.” Beyond the restoration of political liberty, the covenant points only to a spiritual end, the Civitas Dei, the City of God. This was the great challenge for those who revived the covenant later in Europe, England, and America.

If the covenant symbol is ever to be recovered in politics, its end must be clearly established from the beginning. This requires a proper approach to history, and a proper approach to authorizing, interpreting, and mediating the covenant. If the goal of covenanting is some messianic end beyond the defense of liberty, then politics and the state become deformed. The civil magistrate is not, and cannot be, a messiah. Politics cannot bring heaven to earth. It cannot resolve or close the Metaxy of human existence and make the mundane heavenly or the heavenly mundane. This was the challenge to Britain on the eve of the regicide and further civil war, when the country was driven to bloodshed, from what Voegelin calls metastatic dreams to metastatic nightmares. It has been a recurring challenge to Americans, once described by Abraham Lincoln as the Almighty’s “almost chosen people.”

The abuse of the covenant comes from those who falsely claim a mediatory power equal to the biblical prophets. The biblical covenants were administered by the offices of persons whom Scripture claims were divinely raised up for unique events in time and place. We can find common ground with their spiritual and political crises. But 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 must now come at the level of community rather than political authority or legal institution. Mediating the covenant cannot be delegated to the civil magistrate or subsumed to civil religion in largely secular liberal polities.

Why preserve the covenant at all in political life? While it has served as a powerful symbol for moral reformation and liberty in the face of moral decline and the abuse of political power, any justification of it must extend further. The covenant represents more than a “Thou shalt not” to tyrants and moral depravity. The ultimate contribution of the covenant is to enable the kind of community that fulfills the highest aspirations of politics and human nature while we remain in the Metaxy. This enabling begins with a call or a hearkening. The covenant’s terms are not negotiated, but its benefits must still be sought and won. We must decide if we will hearken to this particular call of the covenant.

Covenants stand for community and against both individual autonomy and moral expediency. As social philosophies, autonomy and expediency present both an epistemological problem (truly perceiving what one’s self-interest is) and a motivational problem (acting outside of what one perceives to be one’s self-interest). While it is true that decisions can be made in the interests of both self and community without conflict, as Cicero argued in De Officiis, casting the dichotomy this way emphasizes Daniel Elazar’s salient contrast between a contract and a covenant. A contract creates something with the consent of parties presumed to act only upon expediency. A covenant binds its parties with predefined terms that go beyond the foreseeable horizons of expediency.

Unlike a contract, which presumes to create things ex nihilo, covenants call us to things that precede and transcend us. It is no mere coincidence that covenants are therefore associated with communities whose traditions cannot be created out of nothing: the marriage covenant, the church covenant, the oath of citizenship. These communities and traditions precede and transcend us with the wisdom of obligations descending from time out of memory. Just as a covenant binds parties beyond the letter of the law, it also creates something larger than the sum of its members. When the parties to a marriage, a church, or a nation join a covenant, they answer a call to something they did not create.

No covenant is under the precise control of the human covenanting parties. They are invited into it—perhaps even bound to it—by divine call. They can decide whether to hear its call by adhering to its terms, but they do not create that to which they are called. Nor do they define the terms of participation. One could even draw a link between covenants and the traditional meaning of vocation. Consistent with the Latin root of the word vox, one is called to one’s vocation. This is true in the classical sense, as exemplified in the Hippocratic Oath, and in the broader biblical sense. Those who bind themselves by oath to the profession of medicine take on obligations they did not define. The same is true of secular or sacred vocations in Christianity or Judaism.

One does not have absolute freedom in a covenant. But if one thinks of liberty as more than the desire or calculation at the end of one’s nose, then what is defined as “covenant liberty” is indeed the only sustainable kind of liberty for a community. It is, as both Elazar and John Winthrop defined it, federal liberty, the freedom to do what is according to our nature as a member of a community. Rightly understood, community is defined by the ethics of responsibility. This is the heart of the covenant.

Dr. Glenn A. Moots is Professor at Northwood University and serves as a Research Fellow at the McNair Center there. In addition to being the author of Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology, (recently translated into Portuguese), he is also co-editor of Justifying Revolution: Law, Virtue, and Violence in the American Revolution (University of Oklahoma Press, 2018).

This article has been taken from Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology, by Glenn A. Moots, and has been altered by him for this article. Used by permission of University of Missouri Press. Copyright 2010, paperback edition 2022. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 10th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology