2 Calvin, Knox, Puritans

The Dangers of Covenant Theology, Part 2: A Critique of Gary North’s anti-Constitutionalism


By Vern Crisler

Copyright, 2006

Rough Draft


1.  Sacred Imperialism

2.  Calvin and Government

3.  Knox and the Covenant

4.  The Puritans


1.  Sacred Imperialism


Emperor Theodosius I introduced sacred imperialism into the world in 380 A.D.  It had only been a few years earlier in 313 A.D. when emperor Constantine and his co-emperor Licinius issued an imperial edict of toleration known as the Edict of Milan.  They said:


“Our purpose is to grant both to the Christians and to all others full authority to follow whatever worship each man has desired; whereby whatsoever Divinity dwells in heaven may be benevolent and propitious to us, and to all who are placed under our authority.  Therefore we thought it salutary and most proper to establish our purpose that no man whatever should be refused complete toleration, who has given up his mind either to the cult of the Christians, or to the religion which he personally feels best suited to himself; to the end that the supreme Divinity, to whose worship we devote ourselves under no compulsion, may continue in all things to grant us his wonted favour and beneficence….[I]t is our pleasure…that every one of those who have a common wish to follow the religion of the Christians may from this moment freely and unconditionally proceed to observe the same out any annoyance or disquiet.”  (C. W. Hollister, et al., eds., Medieval Europe: A Short Sourcebook, 2nd ed., 1992, p. 10.)


Unfortunately, it would all be wrecked soon enough, for Constantine himself persecuted those who disagreed with what he considered to be the orthodox catholic faith.  A few years later, Theodosius decreed rightly that the God of the Nicene faith was the “One and Supreme God” but then decreed wrongly that those who rejected the Nicene faith were to be “branded upon the disclosure of their crimes.”  (Ibid., p. 13.)  Constantine’s decree of tolerance was ignored:


“They shall be removed and completely barred from the threshold of all churches, since We forbid all heretics anything.  We order that their madness shall be banished and that they shall be driven away from the very walls of the cities, in order that Catholic churches through the whole world may be restored to all orthodox bishops who hold the Nicene faith.”  (Idem.)


The Roman empire would now punish heretics and would enforce the decisions of church councils with banishment.  Starting with Pope Leo I (440-461) and Pope Gelasius I (492-496), the papacy with its “two swords” concept began to lay claim to supremacy over the “order of religion”—the church.  (Ibid., p. 41.)  The idea of a papal monarchy grew and grew until by 1075, Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII) could claim the “power to depose emperors,” and pompously declare that the “Roman Church has never erred and will never err to all eternity….” (Ibid., pp. 183, 184.)  Hildebrand also objected to the custom of having bishops or abbots “sworn in” by local princes, counts, dukes, kings, or emperors, seeing this as undermining the power of the (institutional) church.  (Ibid., p. 184.)  The emperor Henry IV promptly declared Hildebrand a “false monk” whereupon the “false monk” excommunicated Henry, who later groveled before the Pope to lift the sentence.  The (investiture) controversy continued until a compromise was reached by Henry V, son of Henry IV, and Pope Calixtus II in 1122.  At least in this case, the power of the Church acted as a check on the pretensions of royal power.


A few years later in 1198, Pope Innocent III could use a solar system metaphor to describe the relation of papal to royal power.  The Pope was the sun and the emperor was the moon, and the moon received its light from the sun.  This metaphor moved Dante (1265-1321) to write a political treatise De Monarchia in which he attacked the sun-moon analogy.  (Ibid., p. 194.)  A little later, Pope Boniface III, in 1302 issued Unum Sanctum, which continued the “two swords” concept with a twist.  The pope claimed that both swords were in “the power of the Church, the material sword and the spiritual.”  (Ibid., p. 215.)  King Philip’s French and Italian troops paid a visit to Boniface’s palace, and heaped choice words upon him.  They also “carted away his furniture” and “it is believed that the Lord Pope put in a bad night.”  (Ibid., p. 217.)


It would not be long before the popes would move from Rome to Avignon (1309), and a generation would pass (1378-1415) while two popes claimed to be the true leaders of the Roman church.  All this time, of course, the Inquisition was enforcing the decrees of the Roman church against heretics or dissenters in the name of the gentle Savior.  Jan Hus, a skeptic of papal pretensions and a defender of Wycliffe, was treacherously burned at the stake in 1415 by the sons of Belial who presided at the council of Constance, and who had promised him safe passage.  (Ibid., p. 266.)


The papacy was, for many years, the home of the sacred imperialism doctrine.  While some adherents of this doctrine may have had good intentions, others through arrogance, cruelty, corruption, schism, treachery, and sheer stupidity, caused it to lose its hold on the minds of thinking men.  Nevertheless, its demise was gradual, not at all in the en bloc Hegelian way.  It continued on at a watered down level, for instance, in England, where Henry VIII set up his own brand of sacred imperialism by virtually identifying church and state.  This would last all the way through Elizabeth 1’s reign—though at a more tolerant level.  Still, many churchmen began to grumble about the ecclesiastical situation, and were not at all satisfied with the “Elizabethan settlement” but there was not much they could do at that point.  These dissatisfied Englishmen would become known as “Puritans.”  (We will have more to say in a later chapter about Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, the development of covenant theology in England, the rise of Cromwell, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution.)


2.  Calvin and Government


John Calvin was the principle figure behind the English Reformation, influencing Knox in Scotland, and the Puritans and Anglicans in England.  What were his views on government?  Did Calvin adhere to sacred imperialism or to covenant theology?  Or something different from both?  Calvin’s sermons provide some insights into his views, but his mature thoughts on civil government can be found in his Institutes, and the following will provide a summary of those views.


For Calvin, civil government pertains to “civil justice” and “outward morality.”  (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 20; McNeil & Battles edition, 2:1485.)  He was concerned to uphold biblical civil government against two evils, the one that tended toward disorder, and the other that encouraged arbitrary political power.  The first view saw in the liberty of the gospel (that only Christ is head of the church) an excuse to renounce civil courts, laws, magistrates, etc.  In answer, Calvin distinguished the “spiritual Kingdom” from the “civil jurisdiction” (2:1486).  The freedom of the Christian with respect to ecclesiastical government (freedom from popes, bishops, etc.) was not a legitimate basis for rejecting magistrates in the civil order, for “it makes no difference what your condition among men may be or under what nation’s laws you live, since the Kingdom of Christ does not at all consist in these things” (Idem).  The notion that civil government is “polluted” and has nothing to do with Christians is rejected as the shouting of “fanatics.”  Unfortunately, Calvin could not escape the limits of his own century and said:


“Yet civil government has as its appointed end, so long as we live among men, to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church, to adjust our life to the society of men, to form our social behavior to civil righteousness, to reconcile us with one another, and to promote general peace and tranquility.”  (McNeil & Battles, 2:1487.)


We should not condemn Calvin for his failure to anticipate modern constitutionalism, though his failure both marginalizes and alienates him with regard to our present understanding of civil government.  However, in the above statement, the primary desire was not to enunciate a new view of church and civil government, but to reject the separatism and other-worldliness of some of the anabaptists who refused to accept the validity of any civil government that was not as holy and as righteous as they imagined themselves to be.       


Still, Calvin was a man of his own times, and saw the role of civil government as, among other things, preventing “idolatry, sacrilege against God’s name, blasphemies against his truth, and other public offenses against religion from arising and spreading among the people” (2:1488).  He ascribes to civil government the duty of “rightly establishing religion”; believes that the “office of magistrate” is ordained by God (2:1489), and that magistrates should be upright and just in their dealings (2:1491).  The best type of government was one that combined “aristocracy and democracy” (2:1493).  The state cannot limit its enforcement only to the “second table” of the Mosaic law but must also enforce the first table, and the first concern of the state must be the establishment of “piety,” and the restoration of the worship of God.  Calvin says,


“This proves the folly of those who would neglect the concern for God and would give attention only to rendering justice among men.”  (McNeil & Battles, 2:1495.)


Nevertheless, Calvin did not think the establishment of religious piety in a state undermined the important function of rendering justice among men.  He defended the right of magistrates to inflict punishment on law-breakers but also praised clemency in rulers (2:1497).  The magistrate should not show “excessive severity” which may do more harm than good, nor fall into a cruel “gentleness” where order breaks down and “everything is allowed” (2:1499).


Calvin rejects the concept of pacifism that was held to by some anabaptists, and defends the right of states to enter into lawful wars, though the magistrate who makes war should show pity and humanity (2:1499).  The right of a state to levy taxes is also defended (2:1501), and the view that states are illegitimate if not ruled by the Mosaic law is forcefully rejected:


“For there are some who deny that a commonwealth is duly framed which neglects the political system of Moses, and is ruled by the common law of nations.  Let other men consider how perilous and seditious this notion is; it will be enough for me to have proved it false and foolish.”  (McNeil & Battles, 2:1502.)


Calvin accepted the traditional distinction between moral, judicial, and ceremonial laws in the Mosaic code, and held that only the moral law is to be maintained by modern states, not the judicial or ceremonial laws of ancient Israel (which were a mixture of “tutelage” and love).  However, whatever of love that was contained in these latter could still remain, even though the “judicial laws were taken away.”


“[I]f this is true, surely every nation is left free to make such laws as it foresees to be profitable for itself.  Yet these must be in conformity to that perpetual rule of love, so that they indeed vary in form but have the same purpose.” (McNeil & Battles, 2:1503.)


For Calvin “equity” was the basis for civil laws, and was derived from natural law and conscience.  “It is a fact,” says Calvin, “that the law of God which we call the moral law is nothing else than a testimony of natural law and of that conscience which God has engraved upon the minds of men….Hence, this equity alone must be the goal and rule and limit of all laws” (2:1504).  In answer to the Moses-only view, Calvin says, “Whatever laws shall be framed to that rule [of equity], directed to that goal, bound by that limit, there is no reason why we should disapprove of them, howsoever they may differ from the Jewish law, or among themselves” (Idem).  Calvin goes on to describe the diversity of punishments among nations—some more severe than others, some less so—and regards these laws as tending to the same thing, the punishment of those who violate God’s perpetual laws against murder, theft, adultery, and false witness.  However, these laws “do not agree on the manner of punishment.  Nor is this either necessary or expedient” (2:1505).  Calvin lists various pragmatic reasons why states may have harsher penalties for some crimes.  War often engenders inhumanity among soldiers, and harsher penalties are needed in such circumstances.  Drought and pestilence bring about the need for greater severity to stave off the ruin of the country.  Some nations are afflicted with a particular vice, which requires sharp repression.  These harsher punishments appear to conflict with the idea of equity, a concept which appears to become contextualized to some extent in Calvin’s thought, but he does not pursue it any farther.  He does, however, rebuke those who would be offended by these departures, not from equity, but from the Mosaic laws:


“For the statement of some, that the law of God given through Moses is dishonored when it is abrogated and new laws preferred to it, is utterly vain.”  (McNeil & Battles, 2:1505.)


It does no good to complain when a new law is enacted simply because it does not conform to the Mosaic code, for the new law is rightly enacted “with regard to the condition of the times, place, and nation” (2:1505).  Nor is there any good reason to complain if a Mosaic law has never been established in a modern state, “when that law is abrogated which was never enacted for us….”  Calvin rejects the view that the Mosaic judicial or ceremonial law applies to ancient or modern states.   They are restricted to ancient Israel, the only nation ever allowed to enter into a covenant with God:


“For the Lord through the hand of Moses did not give that law to be proclaimed among all nations and to be in force everywhere; but when he had taken the Jewish nation into his safekeeping, defense, and protection, he also willed to be a lawgiver especially to it; and—as became a wise lawgiver—he had special concern for it in making its laws.”  (McNeil & Battles, 2:1505; emphasis added.)


Against anabaptists, the legitimacy of the judicial process is defended, even among Christians (2:1506ff.).  Obedience is enjoined even under unjust rulers, that they are to be given due honor since it is not the unjust rulers who are honored, but rather their office or order (2:1510).  Magistrates, however, can rise up against tyrannical kings (2:1519).  Yet a magisterial uprising is not legitimate simply because a king makes himself out to be an absolute monarch, or disbands a parliament, or changes the form of government.  It is rather a king who acts wickedly, and tramples on the common folk, who must be resisted.  In other words, it is not the form of government, but rather the egregious misbehavior of a king that requires resistance in Calvin’s view.  This explains Calvin’s embarrassment over the John Knox pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which caused the new Queen Elizabeth I to turn away from Geneva.  Calvin thought the book had lost him all his English friends and complained about the “thoughtless arrogance” of Knox.  (Greaves, p. 28.)


Calvin was not a (radical) revolutionary, nor did he teach popular sovereignty, nor did he approve of everything said in his name on the subject of government.  (McNeal & Battles, pp. 2:1518-19, ftn. 54.)  Finally, Calvin says that Christians must obey God rather than men.  That is, if a magistrate exceeds his limits in matters of piety or worship, he must be disobeyed (citing Daniel’s refusal to worship an idol).  In accordance with St. Peter’s injunction, Calvin places piety before politics:


“[L]et us comfort ourselves with the thought that we are rendering that obedience which the Lord requires when we suffer anything rather than turn aside from piety” (2:1521).


3.  Knox and the Covenant


The Scottish preacher, John Knox, enunciated what to us are fairly bloodthirsty ideas about resistance to government, but we should remember that Knox was living in a harsh age, and was by no means the only one guilty of such thinking.  He and his friends, after all, had been the subject of equally bloodthirsty persecution by Catholics.  Knox’s views, whether justified or not, influenced the development of the Puritan idea of covenant theology in the Tudor age.  One can see this in Knox’s treatment of the biblical queen, Athaliah.  This queen of ancient Israel was executed by the officers of the newly crowned king Joash (2 Kings. 11:13-16).  The Knoxian analogy was between Athaliah and Mary Tudor, the latter being rather bloodthirsty herself (“Bloody” Mary), and that is what a strong covenant theology does—it takes the political history of ancient Israel and applies it to the politics of modern states.  Knox spoke like the prophets of old, demanding the extermination of Catholics.  Greaves says:


“Knox evoked the covenant motif: God’s covenant with his people required that they obey his law, which called for the execution of idolaters without respect to status.  Knox’s extension of the principle of active disobedience to the people (i.e., the saints) thus occurred in a covenant context and because of covenant responsibilities.”  (Richard L. Greaves, Theology & Revolution in the Scottish Reformation, 1980, p. 139.)


This appears to be religious fanaticism from our modern perspective.  Surely, the notion of exterminating other Christians contradicts the teachings of the Prince of Peace.  However, as noted, Knox’s views are based on a very strong analogy between the ancient Mosaic polity and modern states.  On the other hand, Catholic fanaticism of the Tudor age was based on the principle of sacred imperialism rather than on covenant theology, but it still led to the same result—persecution of fellow Christians.  One would think that a Protestant who had been subjected to persecution from Catholics would have enjoined a principle of tolerance, but it was not to be.  Knox’s strong version of covenant theology led him to adopt an intolerant position.  Seemingly ignoring the redemptive-historical nature of ancient Israel, Knox said that,


“[T]he Gentiles…[are] bound to the same league and covenant that God made with his people Israel.”  (“Appellation,” 1558, cf., Greaves, p. 120.)


This covenant required civil magistrates to “slay all idolaters.”  (The Works of John Knox, 3:166; Greaves, p. 134.)  Knox would later deliver similar exhortations to Queen Elizabeth’s subjects, and preached that Catholics and even queens (not excepting Elizabeth herself) who established Catholicism were to be executed.  (Greaves, p. 140.) 


As noted, Knox is also known for his famous book, The First Blast of the Trumpet, etc.  This book was probably one of the most ill-timed books in history.  It was an attack upon the idea that women were fit to rule, except by very occasional divine allowance.  While its immediate target was Mary Tudor, she died soon after the book was published and Elizabeth became Queen of England.  Naturally, Elizabeth was incensed by the book, and Knox himself had to backtrack a little, though he did not give up his basic ideas.  He claimed as excuse that he was talking about Mary, not Elizabeth, but the damage to the Reformation in England by strict covenant theology had already been done.


4.  The Puritans


Most Americans know of the Puritans by way of the stories told in schoolbooks about the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving, or they know them by way of silly Hollywood movies.  In addition, the Puritans are often confused with Quakers, whom the Puritans despised.  Some do not realize that the Puritans had deep roots in England, and that only a minority of Puritans actually came here to America to set up “Zion” in the “Indian wilderness” of America.  Puritans by and large remained in England, and even the Puritan émigrés to the new world were not rejecting the mother country.  The Massachusetts Bay Puritans were not like the Plymouth Pilgrims, who had come over as separatists from the church of England.  Instead, the Massachusetts Puritans were a corporation of English design, and had no intentions of separating from England.


The “American” Puritan understanding of church-state relations was essentially “covenantal.”  In place of the sacred imperialism of Rome, the Massachusetts Bay Puritans followed Knox’s example and adopted the ancient Israelite theocracy as a model.  However, by the time of Jonathan Edwards and the great Awakening, the strictest form of Puritanism was nearly dead, and the covenant idea had been watered down, even though it was still an important viewpoint in colonial America.  This moderate covenantalism was basic to the American Revolution, though combined with other elements in the rather eclectic philosophy of the Revolutionaries.  (Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Colonial Experience, 1958, p. 6.)


We will explore the history of the Puritans in America and the covenant idea in a later essay.  Right now, our focus will be on North’s view of the Constitution, and whether it represents a betrayal of Christianity, and this will require us to discuss religion in the colonies before the Constitution and after.  If time allows, an understanding of the history of the Puritans in England, of Cromwell’s revolution, of the Glorious Revolution, and of English Bill of Rights, will be of great value when we discuss the origins of the American Constitution.  Readers who are curious about this should consult Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order for a good introduction (aside from the medievalism).  Also valuable is Isaac A. Cornelison’s The Relation of Religion to Civil Government in the United States of America, written in 1895, which will be the main text consulted for our next essay.