“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” --Nietzsche
When I discussed the ancient Greeks, I said that the development of written law was “an epochal change in human history, and it sank deep roots in the human mind, it affected how the Greeks viewed the universe in general; it gave rise to concepts like ‘the law of nature,’ ‘natural law,’ etc.”
Around 1600 AD, a related change occurred: the rise of written contracts. During the Middle Ages, relationships were based on status and loyalty. The development of contract relationships, like the development of written law in ancient Greece, sank deep roots in the human mind, and affected how people viewed the world. It gave rise to the theory of a “social contract,” which played an important role in political theory from about 1650 to 1800. And it gave rise to Covenant Theology, which said that there was a covenant or contract between God and man.
Since the Latin word for covenant is foedus, Covenant Theology is called “Federalism.” New England Puritans were, for the most part, Federalists, that is, they believed in a covenant between God and man. Federalists often quoted the 17th chapter of Genesis:
|And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said unto him... I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.... My covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.... And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.... And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.1|
Federalist Theology wasn’t developed in New England, it was brought to New England from England. The three pillars of NewEngland Puritanism were Federalism, Congregationalism, and Ramism, and all three were brought from England. (I said earlier that Congregationalism was the belief that each congregation should be independent, should manage its own affairs.2 Ramism meant following Petrus Ramus, the French scholar who developed new, simplified versions of Logic and Rhetoric.)
Federalist Theology, also known as Covenant Theology, was an important part of NewEngland Puritanism. Miller calls it “the principal doctrine in the theology of early New England, the one tenet upon which all other theories were made to hang.”3 One of Calvin’s main teachings was predestination — you were destined for hell or heaven. Federalism relaxed the doctrine of predestination.
Federalism said that God offered everyone a covenant, a bargain. If you believed, if you had faith in Christ, and if you expressed your faith by following God’s moral commands/teachings, then surely you would be saved, you were bound for heaven, you could be certain of salvation, you were one of the elect. So Federalism was more upbeat than original Calvinism. As John Preston put it, “This is a very comfortable doctrine, if it be well considered.”4
Around 1600, Protestants were starting to chafe under Calvinism, under the contradictions of Calvinism. Calvin had taught that salvation depends on predestination, depends on “a mysterious decree of election.”5 Nonetheless, Calvin argued, if you’re damned, it’s your own fault, you should strive to be moral. “How could the laymen be prevented from finding in these statements ‘such diametrical opposites, and contradictory sayings, as there are not clearer in the world?’”6
As we study Covenant Theology, we can see Puritanism drifting away from the dark creed of Calvin. “Their imposition of the covenant doctrine upon the system of Calvin produced at last in the New England theology an altogether different philosophy from any propounded in Geneva.”7 Calvin had said that we can do nothing without divine grace — we can’t keep the moral laws, our intellectual faculties are weak. The Puritans, on the other hand, said that we scarcely need divine grace because we can choose to enter the covenant. “The Federalists betrayed a marked tendency to reduce the actual intrusion of grace to a very minute point.”8
Even without grace, we can prepare ourselves for faith. The main thing is to try: “Go on boldly, God hath promised to hear you, he cannot deny you.... The way to grow in any grace is the exercise of that grace.”9 While Calvin had emphasized the omnipotence of God, the Puritans emphasized the initiative of man. While predestination discouraged man’s initiative, Covenant Theology encouraged it.
In addition to being less gloomy than Calvinism, Federalism helped Puritans to cope with two heresies, the Antinomian heresy and the Arminian heresy. The Antinomians said that what mattered was feeling the holy spirit within you, it didn’t matter if you followed the moral law. Arminians sat on the other end of the see-saw, they said that what mattered was following God’s moral commands/teachings, it didn’t matter if you felt the holy spirit within you. Puritans tried to navigate between these two heresies, and the covenant theory helped them to do so.10
When Puritans attacked one of these heresies, they were liable to fall into the other one. One Puritan complained of being “ground between two millstones, but neither extreme is good, when virtus is in the middle.”11 Samuel Willard said, “the way lies very narrow between Antinomian and Arminian errors.”12 In an earlier issue, I wrote,
|The Antinomians believed in following the heart, the inner light, the divine voice within, while their opponents emphasized moral law. The Antinomians accused their opponents of preaching a doctrine of works, like the hated Catholics, while they themselves trusted in the grace of God, and the faith of the individual.|
Perhaps the most famous Antinomian was Anne Hutchinson. The Antinomian Controversy divided Boston from 1636 to 1638. Many of the sects that sprang up in England during the 1640s had Antinomian tendencies:
|It is no doubt inexact to label all these sects ‘Antinomians,’ yet most of them, Anabaptists, Quakers, Ranters, Levellers, or what-not, came to their various opinions from a common belief that the union of the elect with the Holy Ghost is immediate and intimate.13|
Arminians followed the teachings of a Dutch theologian, Arminius. The Arminian controversy took place about twenty years before the Antinomian Controversy. The Arminian controversy came to a head at the Synod of Dort in 1618. The Dutch Reformed Church condemned the Arminians, who formed a separate sect called Remonstrants. Arminians were more rational/intellectual than Antinomians.14 The learned Hugo Grotius was an Arminian; he was imprisoned for his heresy, escaped in a chest of books, and went into exile in France.
Calvin had taught that we’re justified by faith (sola fide), we depend on divine grace, we can’t keep the moral law, we can’t earn salvation by good works. Arminians pointed to the Bible’s moral commands/teachings, and asked, “Why would the Bible tell us what to do, if we were incapable of doing it?” Arminians emphasized moral conduct. Arminians emphasized man’s will rather than God’s grace. “Arminius asked if a beggar, to whom a passing monarch tosses a coin, could not reach out his hand for it.”15
Puritans responded, Man is stained by original sin, he can’t follow moral law, he can’t be justified by works. Puritans felt that Arminians put too much emphasis on free will and moral behavior. Puritans felt that salvation depends on God’s grace, and man’s faith. Puritans developed the theory of the Covenant, which quashed (they believed) both the Arminian heresy and the Antinomian heresy.
The covenant between man and God was a kind of legal contract. Both sides enter into it freely, and both sides are bound by it. Miller speaks of “the alliance between Puritanism and the common law.”16
God will look out for us, if we keep our part of the covenant. If we run into problems, that means that we haven’t kept the covenant, and God has withdrawn his favor.
|The afflictions which fall upon Christian communities thus become explicable: they are punishments either for an initial refusal of the people to take the Covenant when it is offered, or for their more willful efforts to extricate their engaged wills from the bond of the Covenant.17|
Everything God does is by the Covenant. If he smiles upon us, if we enjoy eternal salvation, it’s because we’re keeping the Covenant. If he punishes us, if we’re damned for eternity, it’s because we’re violating the Covenant. “The Covenant, its origin, its progressive unfolding, its culmination, was thus the meaning of history, that which made intelligible the whole story of mankind.... God never does anything for His people unless ‘he doth it by virtue of, and according to his Covenant.’”18
The covenant is a clear sign of God’s graciousness.
|A God who condescends to treat with fallen man as an equal is indeed kindly and solicitous. If we stop to consider, urged Preston, it is an exceedingly great mercy: “He is in heaven, and we are on earth; he the glorious God, we dust and ashes; he the Creator, and we but creatures; and yet he is willing to enter into Covenant, which implies a kind of equality between us.”19|
The Covenant Theology of the Puritans was a balancing act — a balance between passively receiving God’s grace, and actively striving for virtue, a balance between confidence of salvation, and awareness of sin. As one Puritan put it, “Though God’s grace do all, yet we must give our consent.”20
|It was easy to see [Miller writes] where Antinomians and Arminians went astray: Antinomians expected God’s grace to do all, Arminians attributed everything to our consent. The covenant theology held to both the grace and the consent, to the decree of God and the full responsibility of man, to assurance in spite of sin and morality in spite of assurance.21|
There were actually two covenants. The first covenant, the Covenant of Works, was between God and Adam. God offered eternal life in exchange for obedience to his moral laws. But Adam and Eve violated the law, they ate the forbidden fruit, so the Covenant of Works became null and void.22
God didn’t stop there, however. Being merciful and benevolent, He offered man a New Covenant, a Covenant of Grace. This New Covenant didn’t require adherence to a moral law. Christ would fulfill the Law on our behalf, our job was to believe, to have faith in Christ. As a concomitant of this faith, as a sign of this faith, we would naturally want to follow God’s moral commandments/teachings. Moral perfection wasn’t required of man, only moral effort; “if he have a single heart, an upright heart, the Lord accepts it.”23 If we uphold our part of the covenant, God would show favor to us in this life and the next.
Covenant Theology makes man more capable, and God less awesome. Calvin had emphasized God’s infinite and mysterious power, the Puritans said that man can choose to enter the covenant, man can satisfy moral requirements by making an effort, man is the agent of his own salvation. The Puritans were making Calvinism into a more “warm and fuzzy” creed, the Puritans were preparing the way for later developments, such as Methodism.
The Puritans strengthened man’s intellectual confidence, as well as his moral confidence; the Puritans were confident that they could bring the sciences and the arts into a comprehensive philosophy. “Their piety was on the wane,” Miller concludes. “The emotional drive of the piety [was] already lessening at the time the colonies were founded.” The colonists were “progressively more swayed by factors in the intellectual heritage than by the hunger of the spirit.”24
I recently became a fan of the American artist Rockwell Kent. He was born in Tarreytown, New York, in 1882, the same year as Edward Hopper, whose paintings remind me of Kent’s. Kent and Hopper were classmates at the New York School of Art (now known as Parsons School of Design). Kent studied with some of the best-known art teachers of his time, such as Arthur Wesley Dow and William Merritt Chase. Kent traveled widely — Ireland, Newfoundland, Monhegan Island, etc.
During one stay on Monhegan Island, Kent hired a carpenter to build a house. Kent grew tired of waiting for the carpenter to begin, so he decided to build the house himself. It’s now a museum. By building, Kent learned how to build, and went on to build several more houses. When he traveled to far-flung corners of the world, he often restored crumbling cabins, then used them as lodgings.
One of his most enjoyable trips was his 1932 trip to Greenland. He became friendly with the natives, and carried out building projects with them. He acquired his own dog team, and his dogs would carry him to scenic spots for outdoor painting. Below is a Kent painting that shows his dogs resting, his sled converted into an easel.
Kent’s journey was the arctic equivalent of Gauguin’s tropical travels.
Kent was a writer as well as an artist, publishing “adventure memoirs,” such as Salamina, which deals with his 1932 trip to Greenland (“Salamina” was the name of his native mistress). Wilderness deals with his trip to Alaska, N by E deals with his 1929 trip to Greenland, and Voyaging Southwards from the Strait of Magellan deals with his trip to Tierra del Fuego. Kent’s books are filled with his own illustrations.
Kent spent his last 45 years on a farm/studio in northeastern New York. He called the farm Asgaard, “Garden of the Gods.” Asgaard can be visited today.
Asgaard is in the town of Au Sable Forks, where the two branches of the Au Sable River meet. From Asgaard, Kent could see the Adirondack Mountains. In his memoir This is My Own, Kent wrote,
|And there, westward and heavenward, to the high ridge of Whiteface northward to the northern limit of the mountains, southward to their highest peaks, was spread the full half-circle panorama of the Adirondacks. It was as if we had never seen the mountains before.|
Some of Kent’s paintings tell a story. In the painting below, it’s the day after Pearl Harbor, and a young man — just a speck on the horizon — is going off to war:
In my piece on genius, I wrote, “Art, unlike philosophy and science, doesn’t require the repression of the unconscious, but rather the participation of the unconscious. Accordingly, artists are often sexually uninhibited.” This seems to be true of Rockwell Kent, whose “private mores scandalized family and friends.”25 Some of his paintings, like the one below, have an erotic tone.
Kent is known for his illustrations as well as his paintings. Here’s one of his MobyDick illustrations:
Kent was politically active, even running for Congress in 1948. He was sympathetic toward socialism, and promoted Soviet-American friendship. During the McCarthy Era, he fell under a cloud of suspicion, and his passport was suspended for eight years.
As Kent grew older, his work became less popular. “His adherence to artistic conservatism and outspoken opposition to modern art led to disfavor within art circles. After many years of declining reputation in this country... Kent gave his unsold paintings — the majority of his oeuvre — to the Soviet Union, where he continued to be immensely popular.”26 The best collection of Kent’s work in the U.S. is at SUNY Plattsburgh, about 30 miles northeast of Kent’s farm, Asgaard. Fans of Kent will enjoy Rockwell Kent: A Documentary by Frederick Lewis.
|1.||The Vulgate uses both pactum and foedus. For example, Genesis 17:13 is eritque pactum meum in carne vestra in foedus aeternum (my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant). back|
|2.||As Federalists quoted Genesis 17, so Congregationalists quoted Matthew 18:20: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” No need for a church hierarchy, no need for bishops. Congregationalists differed with Episcopalians. “Episcopalian” comes from the Latin episcopus, meaning bishop.
“There were evidently Ramists who were not Federalists,” Miller writes, “and Federalists who were not Congregationalists, but the secret of the New England mind is simply that New Englanders were all three at once.”(p. 374) back
|3.||Ch. 13, p. 396. The term “covenant” is found among various branches of Christianity. In Scotland, for example, “covenant” usually refers to the agreement among Protestants to resist Anglicans/Catholics. back|
|4.||p. 390 back|
|5.||p. 367 back|
|6.||p. 368 back|
|7.||p. 367 back|
|8.||p. 395 back|
|9.||pp. 395, 396 back|
|10.||“Arminianism was a kind of ethical rationalism that had lost the sense of piety, and Antinomianism was an uncontrolled piety without the indispensable ballast of reason; Puritanism looked upon itself as the synthesis of piety and reason, and the federal Puritans looked upon the covenant theology as the perfection of that synthesis.”(p. 373)
Would Puritans have developed the covenant theory if they didn’t need to defend themselves against heretics? Did heresy help us to reach truth by forcing us to refine our doctrine? One Puritan wrote, “Though the being of heresies be a great evil, opposition begets disputation, that removes objections, and clears the truth.”(p. 366) back
|11.||p. 372 back|
|12.||p. 372 back|
|13.||p. 370. William Dell, one of the quasi-Antinomians in England, said that “in regeneration Christ himself... comes into our flesh exactly as the divine nature came into the flesh that was born of the Virgin.”(p. 372)
The Quaker sect was one of the sects that had Antinomian tendencies. Miller quotes a Quaker who said that man can keep all God’s commandments, man can be free from sin. Moral perfection is within our reach, we enjoy an “immediate and personal revelation.”(p. 371) Puritans taught that man can’t keep the commandments perfectly, but he must try to keep them. back
|14.||“The two heresies,” Miller writes, “can be regarded as separate embodiments of the halves we have discerned in Puritan thinking, the Antinomians bespeaking the piety without the intellectual accompaniment, and the Arminians effecting a subordination of piety to the intellectual tradition.... It was no accident that the Antinomian sects should be the enemies of learning in ministerial education.”(p. 372)
Arminianism wasn’t confined to the Netherlands, its influence reached to English Anglicans. Miller calls it “the doctrine of the Laudian party in England.”(p. 367)
Miller says that the Puritans were kept busy battling these two heresies (the Arminian and Antinomian heresies), they weren’t much troubled by “deism, skepticism, or scientific rationalism.”(p. 372) back
|15.||p. 369. The Arminian doctrine resembles the ancient doctrine called Pelagianism, or semi-Pelagianism. So Puritans sometimes said they were battling the Pelagian heresy, the same heresy Augustine battled. Both Arminius and Pelagius stressed free will, and taught that man takes the first step on the road to salvation. Since everyone has free will, everyone is capable of being saved. Thus, Arminians didn’t accept Calvin’s notion of predestination.
The Arminian heresy didn’t die with Arminius. According to Wikipedia, Methodism and Pentecostalism are “Arminian-based movements.” Puritanism seemed to be evolving away from Calvinism, and toward Methodism. Puritanism “gave more and more scope to the moral will,”(p. 393) and invited everyone to accept the Covenant, choose Christ, and be saved. back
|16.||p. 397. Elsewhere Miller speaks of “the union between religious reformers and the lawyers.”(p. 374) Miller writes, “Undoubtedly another influence in shaping the doctrine, perhaps indeed the most important, was the common law, for the concept was essentially legal, and some of the writers settled disputes by saying, ‘We will refer it to the Common Law, whether this way of reasoning will hold or no.’”(p. 374)
In the covenant between man and God, as in any contract, “each party may be secured from suffering any damage by the other; but may be able to claim and recover the performance.”(p. 380) If we fulfill our part of the covenant, “we may go to God and demand our salvation of Him.... ‘You may sue Him of his own bond written and sealed,’ said Preston, ‘and He cannot deny it.’”(p. 389)
But while you can haul Him into court, it’s equally true that He can haul you into court. Beware. “‘To transact with the infinitely Holy God,’” one Puritan wrote, “‘in a way of Covenant, is a very awful thing,’ and requires “the greatest care imaginable, to comply with our engagements.”(p. 394)
Federalist Theology may be related to the middle-class origins of Puritanism. Miller says, “the doctrine must bear some intimate relation to contemporaneous social history, to the points of view which Puritans were defending in the political and economic struggles of the century.”(p. 397) Miller speaks of, “the commercial metaphors so constantly employed in all preaching of this doctrine.”(p. 384) I’m reminded of the remark ascribed to Napoleon: The English are a nation of shopkeepers. Covenant Theology turns salvation into a transaction, an exchange, a quid pro quo. According to Miller, Calvin would not approve: “The horrified ghost of Calvin shuddered to behold his theology twisted into this spiritual commercialism.”(p. 389) back
|17.||p. 395. Puritans could argue against Antinomians by pointing to the grim end of Anne Hutchinson, the arch-Antinomian who was killed by Indians. “Let her damned heresies she fell into,” said one Puritan, “and the just vengeance of God, by which she perished, terrify all her seduced followers.”(p. 391) back|
|18.||p. 378. The covenant theory preserved the distinction between the hidden God and the revealed God. The hidden God is infinite, unfathomable, the revealed God has voluntarily entered into the covenant. “In His nature He remains above all law, outside all morality, beyond all reason, but in the Covenant He is ruled by a law, constrained to be moral, committed to sweet reasonableness.”(p. 379) back|
|19.||p. 381 back|
|20.||p. 389 back|
|21.||p. 389 back|
|22.||p. 377. Though the Covenant of Works is no longer in force, the believer who accepts the Covenant of Grace will strive for virtue. Though good works don’t justify, they accompany justification, and indicate justification. “It is a warrantable and safe way for a man by and from his sanctification [i.e., his virtuous life] to take an evidence of his justification.”(p. 388) back|
|23.||p. 377. Men “are to be saved for trying, not for succeeding, whereas the reprobate are eternally damned, not for failing, but for not trying.”(p. 384) “They are saved because they carry a constant purpose of heart to do it and never give over striving.”(p. 387) The “struggle for holiness [is] an indispensable part of believing.”(p. 387)
Even repeated moral failures are compatible with salvation, if we travel the road of “faith and repentance.”(p. 386) As far as outward behavior is concerned, there’s little difference between a saint and a sinner. “The difference would be in the aims and aspirations, in the earnestness of the effort.”(p. 386)
Looking back on the covenant theory, one is struck by how flimsy it is, how silly it is. Every day brings fresh evidence that piety isn’t always rewarded, impiety isn’t always punished. Federalists pointed to Genesis 17, but Genesis doesn’t mention faith or virtue, it only requires circumcision (“Every man child among you shall be circumcised”). James Joyce dubbed the Almighty, “Collector of prepuces.” God doesn’t offer Abraham wisdom or happiness, he offers land (“I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession”).
Puritans seemed to acknowledge these flaws. Puritans argued that the covenant was evolving; God “unfolds the covenant gradually... educating men up to it.”(p. 382) The present covenant was the result of “the tutoring of many hundred years by the Law.” This implies that the original covenant with Abraham was rather primitive.
Puritans argued that God suited the covenant to the present state of development of mankind. It’s more plausible, in my view, to argue that our conception of God (and the covenant) evolves as we evolve, that God (and the covenant) are created by man, and reflect man’s development. back
|24.||p. 396 back|
|25.||hydecollection.org/blog/2018/ march-26-hyde-open-rockwell-kent-exhibitions/ back|
|26.||plattsburgh.edu/plattslife/arts/art-museum/ rockwell-kent-collection.html back|