"He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty." Historian George Bancroft
Covenant Reformed theology is discussed first because of its importance to the founding of Western Civilization. Luther's main focus during the Reformation era was on soteriology, or how one is saved from eternal damnation by faith through the sacrifice of Christ. John Calvin, on the other hand, provided a more holistic biblical worldview that addressed all of life and promoted the transformation of the nations toward a Christian based culture. This Reformed Covenant theology went on to transform nations and was instrumental in the establishment of republic forms of government based on God's law. Covenant theology is in line with the last command given by Jesus in Mathew 28 to make disciples of all nations. Missionaries that carried this holistic gospel out to the world produced a faith that transformed nations to reflect a culture based on biblical revelation and God's law.
What is Covenant Theology?
Covenant theology (also known as covenantalism, federal theology, or federalism) is a conceptual overview and interpretive framework for understanding the overall structure of the Bible. It uses the theological concept of a covenant as an organizing principle for Christian theology. Basically, a covenant is an agreement between two parties which is bound with an oath. Bible scholars have defined covenant in various ways. The word covenant is translated from the Hebrew word berith and the Greek word diathēke. The concept of a covenant is important because of the way it has impacted human history. In order for humans to get along with each other they had to make mutual agreements so they could live together successfully without tensions which could lead to violence, social disorder or civil war. Today we see this same concept being used in legal agreements such as contracts, business law and national treaties. Our concern about covenants in this post revolves around the covenant theology that originated from the Reformation and its impact on the development of both personal liberty and Western Civilization.
In the past God made covenants with humans. In a divine covenant, God sovereignly established the relationship between him and His creatures. God's first covenant was with Adam and Eve. They were promised eternal life with Him based on the condition that they obey his command not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They failed to keep their part of the covenant. This led to their loss of paradise and upset the original relationship they had with their maker. God then entered into another divine covenant with them after their fall into sinful rebellion. In this new covenant God bound Himself, by His own oath, to provide a future Messiah who would redeem mankind.
The concept of biblical covenants was developed by theologians as they further studied the Bible. They realized that God gave to mankind instructions on how we are to live before him. Following the Reformation era the covenant concept was developed in depth by the Reformed stream of church leaders who followed the theology of John Calvin. Today it is referred to as Reformed covenantal theology. The early settlers of America were the Puritans and Pilgrims who followed Calvin's theology. They implemented biblical concepts into their culture which included covenants. The first government they established is called the Mayflower Compact of 1620. This compact was based on Reformed covenant theology.
The biblical principles of covenant theology played a major role in America's founding and the development of its laws. Calvin's theology was based on the total sovereignty of God and what that means for how we are to live our lives. Calvin looked to God's revelation for the wisdom needed to live our lives in faithfulness to God. He recognized scripture revealed mankind has a fallen sinful nature. Calvin reasoned that since we are sinful and selfish by nature, people cannot be entrusted with too much power in organizational structures. He reasoned that a checks and balance system of government was needed to protect the people from sinful rulers who would likely abuse their powers. Organizations, especially churches and civil governments, needed a checks and balance system to hold leaders accountable to both God and the people they represented. These ideas were later developed further and served as the basis for our nation's constitutional republic.
Covenant theology (also known as covenantalism, federal theology, or federalism) is a conceptual overview and interpretive framework for understanding the overall structure of the Bible. It uses the theological concept of a covenant as an organizing principle for Christian theology. The standard form of covenant theology views the history of God's dealings with mankind, from Creation to Fall to Redemption to Consummation, under the framework of three overarching theological covenants: those of redemption, of works, and of grace.
Covenentalists call these three covenants "theological" because, though not explicitly presented as such in the Bible, they are thought of as theologically implicit, describing and summarizing a wealth of scriptural data. Historical Reformed systems of thought treat classical covenant theology not merely as a point of doctrine or as a central dogma, but as the structure by which the biblical text organizes itself. The most well known form of Covenant Theology is associated with Presbyterians and comes from the Westminster Confession of Faith. Another form is called "Baptist Covenant Theology" or "1689 Federalism", to distinguish it from the standard covenant theology of Presbyterian "Westminster Federalism". It is associated with Reformed Baptists and comes from the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689. Methodist hermeneutics traditionally use a variation of this, known as Wesleyan covenant theology, which is consistent with Arminian soteriology.
As a framework for biblical interpretation, covenant theology stands in contrast to dispensationalism in regard to the relationship between the Old Covenant (with national Israel) and the New Covenant (with the house of Israel [Jeremiah 31:31] in Christ's blood). That such a framework exists appears at least feasible, since from New Testament times the Bible of Israel has been known as the Old Testament (i.e., Covenant; see 2 Cor 3:14 [NRSV], "they [Jews] hear the reading of the old covenant"), in contrast to the Christian addition which has become known as the New Testament (or Covenant).
Critics of covenant theology will often refer to it as "supersessionism" or as "replacement theology," due to their perception that it teaches that God has abandoned the promises made to the Jews and has replaced the Jews with Christians as His chosen people on the Earth. Not all covenant theologians teach that God has abandoned His promises to Israel. They see the fulfillment of the promises to Israel in the person and the work of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus established the church in organic "continuity" with Israel, not as a separate replacement of Israel. Many covenant theologians see a future promise of gracious restoration for unregenerate Israel.
Impact of Covenant Theology
Ideas have consequences. This section will cover the impact of Cavin's biblically derived ideas and their impact in the formation of world governments and Western civilization. When John Calvin wrote his Institutes, he had little idea that his teaching on the sinful nature of mankind and its cultural application would impact the founding and governing of nations. Yet his theology would have a significant influence on the founding of the United States. Historian David W. Hall in his book, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding, points out that John Adams viewed Calvin’s Geneva as a model for the American republic to emulate. In the following article James Kennedy describes the impact of Calvin's biblical worldview on the founding of the American republic.
The Man Who Founded America
What one individual would you identify as the virtual founder of America? Would it be George Washington? Thomas Jefferson? Thomas Paine? Benjamin Franklin?
I believe that the man history clearly gives this designation to is a humble reformer from Geneva, Switzerland, who died in 1564. His name is John Calvin.
The great American historian, George Bancroft, who was far from a Calvinist, calls John Calvin "the father of America." According to Bancroft, "He who will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty."
If we are to get back to the principles that made America great, I believe we must get back to the principles of John Calvin, because it was precisely his principles that made this nation great.
For Calvin and the Colonists, the starting point was the sovereignty of God and the final authority of Scripture. Calvin taught that Scripture is applicable not just to matters of sin and salvation, but to all of life. His exposition of the Bible formed, in the main, the whole political, economic, and religious life of America in her infancy. When his biblically-based Christian worldview ran up against prevailing ecclesiastical and political authorities, it held firm.
This was demonstrated during America's founding, as Presbyterians, who were Calvinists in theology, formed the backbone of the American Revolution. More than half of the soldiers and officers in America's Revolutionary army were Presbyterians; all but one of the colonels were Presbyterian elders. In fact, the War for Independence was referred to in Britain as the "Presbyterian rebellion."
According to Bancroft, "The Revolution of 1776, so far as it was affected by religion, was a Presbyterian measure." One ardent colonial supporter wrote to King George III the following words: "I fix all of the blame for these extraordinary proceedings upon the Presbyterians. They have been the chief and principal instruments in all these flaming measures."
Afterwards, when Independence had been won and the battlefield smoke had cleared, the government that took shape also deserves to be attributed to Calvin. The form of government that existed in the Presbyterian church, which was the only "republic" existing on this continent for 75 years before 1776, was one which the American government, to a great extent, simply mirrored.
In fact, Calvinism and republican self-government are related to each other as cause and effect. One of the great contributions Calvin gave to the world has been the representative system of government.
Calvin is also credited with the rise of capitalism, the economic system that has made America the envy of the whole world.
Finally, Calvinism gave rise to American education. Almost all of America's first colleges and universities—including Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—were founded by Calvinists.
Calvin's contribution to America is monumental, but no monument marks his gravesite—a terse J.C. adorns his small gravestone in Geneva. It is a reminder of the One he served, the One whose principles he gave to this world. Those principles stirred the blood, thrilled the heart and gave birth to the freest nation in history. Jesus Christ, the sovereign Lord of all, was the One he glorified, and if this country is to have any hope of sustaining that freedom, it will be found in a return to Him.
D. James Kennedy, Ph.D., is senior minister of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, and president of Coral Ridge Ministries, an international Christian broadcast outreach.