Covenant Theology

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Covenant, or federal, or puritan, theology was the dominant Calvinist theology in England and America throughout the 17th century. Its exponents were largely Non-Separatist Congregationalists resourceful enough to find contractual bases for their true Puritan church within the unruptured Church of England framework (see puri tans). The Englishmen W. Ames, W. Perkins, J. Preston, and R. Sibbes at Cambridge elaborated this theology, but its full practical expression occurred only in the Massachusetts Puritan experimentin the work of T. Shepherd, P. Bulkeley, J. Cotton, T. hooker, and the cambridge platform of 1648. Covenant theology is best understood as a complex exfoliation of contracts designed to solve problems endemic to early calvinism.

Calvinist Problems. John Calvin's challenging legacy consisted of the doctrines of predestination and of a transcendent God whose will lies outside human rational categories, and the ideal of a visible Church militant that would employ civil authority to purge itself gradually of the non-Elect. Covenant theologians epitomize one phase of the late Renaissance transition from feudalism to constitutional monarchy, from fixed status to contract. They had to fit an omnipotent voluntarist God into a universe daily proving more rationally tractable, reconcile irresistible grace with man's natural rights, and develop a church polity blending elements of Old Testament theocracy with contemporary theories of voluntary social origins. In the light of current social contract theory, they reexamined the Biblical covenants of Yahweh with Noah, Abraham, and Moses, later renewed in the person of Christ, and discovered contractual relationships by which God freely imposed rational constitutional limitations on His whirlwind caprice, offered Himself as ready contractual partner to each believer, prescribed moral duties not brutally and irrationally but only with each Christian's reasonable and willing consent. Most viable in Puritan New England, the Israelites' new promised land, covenant theology declined as a meaningful rationale only when the age of common sense scoffed at fervid religious wars and Calvin's legacy, and turned to more immediate politicoeconomic problems for which secular contractual theories of T. hobbes, J. locke, and J. J. rousseau offered more pertinent solution.

Exfoliating Contracts. Covenant theologians viewed salvation history as a series of legal landlord-tenant, testator-heir contracts between God and man, freely initiated but perpetually binding. The first covenant of works between Adam and his Creator gave man life on condition that he obey the natural law within him, but Adam's fall broke this covenant and transmitted dread legal penalties to his descendants. A second covenant of works initiated by God on Sinai reaffirmed natural law in the Ten Commandments: God would heal His chosen people's depraved natural powers provided they would trust in a future Messiah. In Christ, the Father opened a covenant of Graceforeshadowed progressively in conscience, the promise to Abraham, the Prophets, but now revealed to all believing Christians who were baptized and heard the ordinance of the preached Word. Here Puritan theologians proposed divergent liberal or strict Calvinist hypotheses: the Christian sinner as covenant-violator either manifests a predestined total absence of covenant or else reveals man's freedom to accept or reject covenant graces God always extends him. A fourth contract, the church covenant, gave visible realization to this invisible covenant of Gracethe saints covenanting together under Christ their head in separate Congregationalist communities, impatient of Anglican bishops and Presbyterian synods cluttering their direct relationship with God. Finally, there was the civil covenant, which fashioned a temporal state to serve the godly citizens of the churchcovenant.

Bibliography: h. c. baker, The Wars of Truth: Studies in the Decay of Christian Humanism in the Earlier 17th Century (Cambridge, MA 1952) 162169, 203214, 291302. p. miller, "The Marrow of Puritan Divinity," Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge, MA 1956); The New England Mind: The 17th Century (Cambridge, MA 1939). v. ruland, "The Theology of New England Puritanism," Heythropj 5 (1964) 165169.

[v. ruland]