OUR COVENANTAL CONSTITUTION
A UNIQUE DOCUMENT
The Constitution of the United States of America is a unique document based upon principles that are little understood today because historians have generally not been aware of an accurate accounting of its background. The reason for this is that our Constitution is a covenantal document based on principles that come out of Scripture. These principles were common among the Puritan Christians who founded virtually all of the Thirteen Colonies. Our founders were men who looked to God’s Covenant of Grace with man for proper principles upon which to base human government. A ‘covenant’ is a compact or contract between two parties based on their mutual agreement to the authoritative words which define their relationship. Marriage is a good example of a covenant. God’s covenant is based on God’s words as a king who relates Himself to His servants by promising to be “their God,” and to take them as “His people” (Genesis 17:7; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18). Humans receive their place in God’s covenant by believing His words and seeking to obey them (Exodus 19:8).
The provisions of the U.S. Constitution are so sound and practical that even today millions of Americans would love to go back to a strict reading of the Constitution, and thus to a far more stable and honest America, even though they are not aware of where its principles come from. The United States was founded in 1776 by the Declaration of Independence, which clearly gave credit to the Creator (meaning the God of the Bible) for the basic principles of society, namely, that “All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Only if God is the Creator of men and the Giver of their rights, can these rights be considered “unalienable,” that is so innate that no human power has the right to modify, much less take away, those rights.
Then in 1789 the Continental Congress called for a convention of representatives from all of the Colonies to write a Constitution for this new nation that had successfully separated from its former rulers, the government of the kingdom of Great Britain. The result was our present Constitution, a document without equal in the history of mankind, a document which when ratified established the government of our nation neither as a monarchy, which is ruled from the top down by a king, nor a democracy, which when practiced in its purity is mob rule, but a constitutional republic. When, on the day it was completed, a lady of Philadelphia met Benjamin Franklin on the street and asked him, “What have we Mr. Franklin?” The elderly Mr. Franklin responded with, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
It is very important to note that the Constitutional Convention did not even attempt to impose this Constitution but presented it to the states for THEIR ratification. This is a covenantal Reformed practice that is still followed in churches that practice Presbyterian government, as does the RCUS. When officers are to be selected, be they pastors, elders or deacons, the candidates are presented to the congregation for its vote which decides who is chosen. Indeed, already in 1775, when Americans were seriously discussing founding a new nation, British politician Horace Walpole remarked, “Our American cousins have eloped with a Presbyterian Parson.” This “Presbyterian Parson” was John Witherspoon, a pastor in the Church of Scotland, who after a fruitful career there, in 1768 accepted the office of President at the College of New Jersey, later called Princeton College. Witherspoon was a solidly Reformed theologian who strongly emphasized the biblical doctrine of the Covenant of Grace and its implications for human political freedom and responsibility. He not only became one of the leaders of the effort to separate from British rule (he was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) but he also was the major teacher of James Madison, who is rightly called “the Father of the American Constitution,” not only by his contemporaries but also by present-day historians. Madison also served as the fourth President of the United States.
Now this emphasis on a Covenant of Grace (by which God promises to save human beings and requires of them faith and obedience in thanksgiving for salvation) was nothing new to Reformed teaching. The Puritan Calvinists who founded the American Colonies all practiced covenant government right from the beginning with the Mayflower Compact. Their practice can be traced back theologically and politically to Heinrich Bullinger who in 1534 (two years before Calvin’s first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion) wrote a treatise entitled, “The One and Eternal Testament (or Covenant) of God.” Ulrich Zwingli and his follower Bullinger already discussed covenant theology before Zwingli’s death in 1531 and used it effectively to counter the false teaching of the Anabaptists, who arose in Zurich during the 1520’s. Zwingli was, of course, the founder of the Reformed Reformation, which occurred in Zurich, Switzerland, at virtually the same time as Luther’s Reformation in Germany. In fact, Zwingli and Luther met in Marburg, Germany, in 1529 in order to see if they could reconcile
their sharp difference on whether Christ is physically present in the Lord’s Supper, or only spiritually present as the Reformed held. Luther’s letter to his wife after the conference says, in so many words, “our opponents wanted to have mere bread in the Lord’s Supper and acknowledge Christ spiritually in the bread.” (Quoted in The Protestant Reformation, by Hans Hillerbrand, page 163)
Many English speakers have been robbed of an accurate history of Covenant Theology since it was not until 1991 that Bullinger’s treatise on the Covenant was published in English. This treatise includes a section on political implications of the Covenant. It is printed as an appendix to a book entitled, Fountainhead of Federalism: Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenantal Tradition, by Charles McCoy and Wayne Baker. In this book, which I highly recommend to pastors and other interested Christians, Baker and McCoy trace the spread of covenant theology from Switzerland, through Germany, Holland, and England, to the Puritans who founded the English Colonies in America. With few exceptions this history of covenant theology is very useful and accurate, although the authors, not being strong Calvinists, champion the work of Johannes Cocceus, who was somewhat opposed to the Canons of Dordt’s teaching of double predestination.
We need also to note that the name “federal” when applied to government means essentially the same thing as “covenant” when applied to theology. “Covenant” is based on the German word “Bundt” while “Federal” is based on a translation of the Latin word foedus, which also means “covenant.” Interestingly, “covenant” became the normal word for God’s covenant with man, while “federal” became used for a covenantal government.
It is important to recognize that two men familiar to RCUS readers were sound and thoughtful covenant theologians during the later 1500s. They are Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism. The previous catechism of Ursinus, his Major Catechism, begins with a question similar to “What is your only comfort in life and in death, and answers it with, “That God has made a covenant…” Olevianus was a theologian who moved the doctrine of the covenant forward by speaking of a “covenant of nature” God made with the creation in general and a covenant between the Father and Son as a foundation of the covenant of grace. This information helps us understand that there are many covenant ideas which appear in the Heidelberg Catechism even when the word “covenant” is not used very often.
It should be clear to us that the Constitution of the United States of America is so right when it simultaneously deals with human sinfulness and human responsibility by establishing a three-headed government of checks and balances, and by limiting this government to the “powers granted here-in (that is in this Constitution), with the remaining powers reserved to the States and to the people. This was not by mistake, chance, or luck. It was by the application of covenantal principles to the issues of establishing a just government for all the people. And it was ratified by a large majority of all the colonies, not by some king or powerful political establishment. These principles have been so violated by our national government for years through its own officers that our presidents even think they have power to take over private corporations, like General Motors, and decide what kind of bathrooms are available in our public schools. May God grant repentance to our leaders, and save the United States from its own unconstitutional government.
Dr. Robert Grossmann