Puritan Covenant Theology Redux
This article is in response to an invitation from Joe Carter of the Evangelical Outpost to participate in the Evangelical Outpost Blog Symposium revolving around an article by David Gelerntar at Commentary magazine that claims Americanism is the successor of Puritanism. Contributions to this Evangelical Outpost Blog Symposium can be found at the link above. (Final revision, 01/10/2005)
David Gelernter has recently published an article at Commentary magazine entitled, Americanism and Its Enemies The article is provocative and compelling reading. Gelernter's thesis is that "Americanism" is a direct descendent of New England Puritanism in particular, and more broadly Puritanism generally. In Gelernter's words:
"Americans kept talking about their country as if it were the biblical Israel and they were the chosen people.
Where did that view of America come from? It came from Puritanism--Puritanism being not a separate type of Christianity but a certain approach to Protestantism... And here is a strange fact about Puritanism. It originated in 16th-century England; it became one of the most powerful forces in religious if not all human history...
...What happened to it? In a narrow sense, Puritan congregations sometimes liberalized and became Unitarian; the Transcendentalists, prominent in American literature from roughly 1820 through 1860, are often described as the spiritual successors of the Puritans. But Puritanism was too potent, too vibrant simply to vanish. Where did all that powerful religious passion go?
I believe that Puritanism did not drop out of history. It transformed itself into Americanism. This new religion was the end-stage of Puritanism: Puritanism realized among God's self-proclaimed "new" chosen people--or, in Abraham Lincoln's remarkable phrase, God's "almost chosen people."
..But my thesis is that Puritanism did not merely inspire or influence Americanism; it turned into Americanism. Puritanism and Americanism are not just parallel or related developments; they are two stages of a single phenomenon...
There is much more, and you will want to read the whole article to understand the context of these brief quotes.
Throughout Americanism and Its Enemies Gelernter quotes from Pilgrim father and New England Puritan alike to illustrate the close connection in the Puritan mind between the new country they were settling, and the Israel of Old Testament times. They were "Israel". As Almighty God directed the affairs of Israel of old, so now in the Puritan era He was directing and guiding the "New Israel". This new Israel was a "city on a hill". Old Testament Scripture passages were paraphrased to describe the Puritan vision and thought.
Part of Gelernter's thesis is that when Puritanism disappeared in history, it morphed not just into the more narrow theological school of Unitarianism, but that the vision and fervor of political Puritanism was transformed into "Americanism".
The bottom line? Anti-Americans hate Americanism for the same basic reasons Anti-Puritans hated Puritanism.
In terms of the Puritan vision and thought, Gelernter has accurately related the factual history. Nor can it be denied that much of Americanism is couched in language that the Puritans used to describe their view and vision of themselves. I will leave it for those more knowledgeable to debate the connection of Puritanism to Americanism that Gelernter has advocated.
What is in my mind has to do more with how the theology of the Puritans fed their vision, and in turn became fuel for the religion of Americanism.
I can still remember the 1980 U.S. elections. It was a historical turning point, probably one of the most significant politically in my lifetime. One of the phenomena of that time was the rise of The Moral Majority under the leadership of Jerry Falwell. Much was made of the Christian heritage of the United States. I think it is fair to say that The Moral Majority was an attempt to bring Americanism back to a more specifically Puritan vision of America being a special people and nation specially favored of God, and with a God given mission. What is ironic is that the Puritan theology behind that vision was in contrast and even opposition to the more popular Evangelical theology that Falwell, and many associated with him, held to. It was at this point the split personality of American Evangelicalism begins to be seen.
The Puritans held to what is called Covenant theology; a theology that emphasizes the continuity between the Old and New Testaments in a way that brings much of the Old Testament view into the church age. One of the keys of Covenant theology is a "replacement" view of Israel. In the New Testament age, the new people of God that makes up the Christian church replaces Israel. The Old Testament promises to Israel are now transferred to the church. Another term for this view is "supersessonism"(1).
What is not so well remembered in many Evangelical and Reformed circles is that the Covenant theology held by the Puritans was in some radical ways, different from the Covenant theology articulated today by many of those who hold that view. No document better reflected basic Puritan thought then the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The WCF used by most Presbyterians today is not the same WCF originally compiled in 1647. The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order, used by the Congregatinal Puritans, was written in 1658, and was taken in the main from the WCF
The most graphic illustration of the above assertion is found in a comparison of the original statements in the WCF relating to the civil magistrate. The Savoy Declaration contains similar though somewhat muted language at this point. In the original WCF's Chapter XXIII, paragraph III, the civil magistrate's duties included:
"...to order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed..." (Westminster Confession of Faith, Free Presbyterian Publications, Glasgow, 1973)
The above statement is not found in the versions of the WCF the vast majority of Presbyterians in the United States hold to now days. In those versions that portion of the WCF was changed to reflect a different perspective, one reflecting that the civil magistrate was not to interfere in the affairs of the church.
The point of the whole discussion of the WCF is to illustrate how the Puritan mindset was deadly earnest in their assertion of the Puritan movement being the new Israel of God. They meant that much more literally then we now days give them credit for, or are able to imagine. The history of Quakers and Baptists in early New England stands as a testimony to how the Puritans viewed and practiced their view of the civil magistrate. As Israel of old was to enforce conformity in worship, (and it was), so also the "New Israel"(2).
It is that very vision of supersessionism that merges into the language of Americanism. America is a special nation, favored of God, with a vision and mission that goes beyond our borders to include all mankind. Gelernter's article points to example after example throughout American history; the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and even Harry S. Truman. The Old Testament imagery and thought is pervasive.
It is that theological background to Americanism that is in contrast to the Dispensationalism of Jerry Falwell and many others who were involved in The Moral Majority, as well much of the American Evangelical church at large. There is a broad spectrum in Dispensationalism; from old dispensationalism on the right to the more recent Progressive Dispensationalism on the left. But wherever a dispensationalist falls in that spectrum, their focus is more on the discontinuity and difference between the Old and New Testaments in contrast to Covenant theology's focus on continuity and sameness. In Dispensationalism, promises to Israel in the Old Testament are not automatically transfered to the New Testament church.
That is why I spoke earlier of the "split-personality" of political Evangelicalism at large. Historic Puritan Covenant theology imagery came into a largely dispensational political Evangelicalism through the back door of Americanism. The historic theological basis of this kind of Evangelical vision of political involvement stands in opposition to the professed theology of much, though not all, of that Evangelicalism.
The same could be said for much of the Reformed church that holds to the modified and adapted Covenant theology reflected in the modern versions of the WCF. They rejected the imagery of the original confession as it related to the Puritan political vision, but it came back to many of them in the imagery of Americanism. Yes indeed, Gelernter's thesis that Puritan fervor and vision is now found in Americanism is provocative, but it is not without basis.
Since that 1980 election, Evangelical Christians in the United States have struggled with this question. Are we as Christians to be Davids in a political Israel, or Josephs and Daniels in our Egypt or Babylon? Gelernter's thesis of a metamorphosis of political Puritanism into the religion of Americanism gives much food for thought on that question.
Another point Gelernter mentions in his article is that Americanism is "a millenarian religion". For the better part of the 19th century, the predominate millenarian view in American Evangelicalism was postmillennialism. This postmillennialism carried a very positive view of the future. There is a claim that the Puritans were for the most part postmillennial. That may be, and I'll leave that question for others to answer. My point is that Americanism is basically postmillennial in its positive view of the future. The optimism found in the speeches of Ronald Reagan amply illustrate that vision. Once again a mostly premillennial American Evangelicalism, with the premillennial foreboding regarding the future, is found embracing a political Americanism with a vision more in line with classic postmillennialism. Ironic indeed!
I believe as Christians we are called upon to be like Joseph or Daniel in our respective Egypt or Babylon. In an increasingly fractured post-modern culture, such is our calling. It is a dangerous thing for any one person, culture, or nation to have a Messiah complex. Yes, we need to do good whenever and wherever we can, but only Jesus is the Messiah, the one who can and will redeem a fallen and broken world. When "Americanism" or any "ism' seeks to take the place of Jesus Christ, it is to be resisted. Nor can we allow Americanism to cloud or get in the way of the pure gospel message which is not bound by culture or tradition, but crosses all such boundaries, and embraces all of mankind out of "..every tribe and tongue and nation" (Revelation 5:9).
Why did Puritanism as a cultural force to be reckoned with, dissolve into theological Universalism and political Americanism, and that with barely a whimper? Could part of it be that the New World they settled was not the New Heavens and New Earth of the Biblical promise they sought to claim?
Sola Deo Gloria,
~ The Billy Goat ~
1. For an extended discussion of what supersessionism is, see Michael Vlach's articles at Theological Studies
2. In more recent times, the Christian Reconstruction movement as refelcted in the writings of Rousas J. Rushdoony, Gary North, and others associated with the Chalcedon Foundation, probably best represents the historic Puritan view view of Covenant theology as it relates to the civil state. There are also a few small Presbyterian synods that still hold to the orginal language of the 1647 version of the WCF.