Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Daniel Elazar Papers Index

The Idea of Covenant

Covenant Traditions in the West

The Covenant Tradition in Politics, Volume 2, Chapter 1

Daniel J. Elazar

West Asian Oaths, Contracts, and Treaties

While full-fledged covenantalism was confined to the Jewish polity in the ancient world, the very fact that pact is one of the three original bases for political organization made it inevitable that other political societies would also exist that in some way or another drew upon the tradition, practice, and sometimes even theory of agreement and consent for the construction of their political organizations. In practical terms, this practice was manifested in three ways: through mutually binding oaths, through contracts, or through treaties. What was characteristic of all of these was their almost exclusive reliance on the self-interest of the parties involved. Even when the gods were invoked, the arrangements established survived only as long as the parties were interested in having them survive or too weak to do anything about it.

Thus the ancient West Asian vassal treaties barely lasted from one revolt to another, not to speak of the frequent changes at the imperial level which required reestablishment of the treaties with the new imperial rulers. There was no moral commitment here, only the realities of naked power, usually military at that. In other words, these treaties were in the category of feudal arrangements whereby oaths and contracts via treaty could temper the reality of conquest by brute force.1

No doubt those vassal treaties rested on an earlier structure of contractualism, since they emerged in Western Asia, but not to the east or south where organic or hierarchical forms or some combination of the two prevailed. Thus, except when conquered by foreign powers with oath or treaty cultures, Egypt has never known anything but hierarchical rule.

The situation in Mesopotamia was quite different, especially after the Sumerians were replaced by the Semites in the first half of the third millenium BCE. The Sumerians, who had settled in southern Mesopotomia between 3200 and 2800 BCE, had created city-states in the organic model which established a kind of state socialism under priestly rule. The Semites discontinued the state socialism and reduced the power of the temples and priests, establishing the palace along with the temple as a separate center of power.2

The oldest historical document that we have comes from the city of Lagash, during the second half of the third millenium. There, after a series of dynastic wars, Urukagina, who had usurped the throne, introduced social reforms through a contract with Ningirsu, the local deity, through which the income of the priests was cut and protections were instituted for widows and orphans. All this is recorded on the stele of vultures. Thus the very first historical document available to us is not only a political contract, but one with a social as well as political purpose.

Unfortunately, it apparently did not last long since the local priests combined with Lugalzaggisi (King of the Lands) of Umma, the last of the Sumerian rulers, who conquered Lagash with their help. Lugalzaggisi briefly succeeded in conquering the other major cities of the lower valley, even to advance to the Mediterranean, but in doing so he evoked the opposition of the Akkadian Empire to the northwest, which conquered him in turn. The Akkadians introduced a typical imperial hierarchy, transforming the ruler into a god, the rulers of the formerly independent cities into subordinate governors, and introducing a bureaucracy to maintain imperial control.

Shortly thereafter, Western Asia entered into an era of vassal treaties. These treaties, in turn, became the basis for what was to become a feature of West Asian imperialism, namely, the maintenance of the local autonomy of conquered peoples within the great imperial systems. That policy became fully articulated with the rise of the Persian Empire in the sixth century BCE. Except for the Neo-Assyrian Empire which dominated the region from the beginning of the ninth to the beginning of the seventh centuries BCE, with its policy of population transfers in an effort to increase the military dominance of the imperial center, it was at least the de facto policy for every successive imperial regime. Thus very early on in West Asia it became established that peoples were more enduring than states, a principle which remains as true today as it ever did.

No doubt Western Asia also was the locus of confederacies of nomadic tribes throughout this period. Echoes of the existence of some such confederacies are to be found in the Bible. Unfortunately, there are no other records except for scattered references in recovered texts to tell us who, what, when, where, and how. While ancient Israel soon transcended that kind of kinship-based confederacy, echoes of it are to be found in the Israelite tribal federation. If the pattern was anything like the pattern among Bedouin today, it seems that what was most characteristic of the nomadic tribes was the sense of being bound by a common kinship. Hence confederal arrangements emerged through the identification of a putative common ancestor which then made the confederates kin. This is reflected in the use of the term Beni (sons of) to identify such confederations among the Bedouin. There may be a carryover of this in the Hebrew bnai brit to describe those who are federated through covenant. The kinship principle of "sons of" is carried over into the terminology, but the fact that they are sons of a covenant rather than a common ancestor, shows the great difference.3

Canaan seems to have been a point of transition or merging of tribal kinship federalism and a more articulated federalism of settled peoples even before and including the Israelites. Permanent alliances of Canaanite city-states are evident from the archaeological evidence.4 The Sea Peoples who came from Crete and the other Greek islands, who became known as the Philistines, established a pentocracy, a five city confederation, which was apparently a typically Greek league of cities.5 This characteristic of that land was to persist not only in connection with the Israelites but in later Hellenistic and Roman times as well, through such political associations as Decapolis, the confederation of 10 cities established by Rome in 62 BCE and which lasted until [INSERT DATE]. Similar political associations could be found in Phoenicia, today's Lebanon. Each city-state was politically autonomous, governed by families of notables united under a common king with limited powers.

The Hellenic-Ionian Leagues

While the idea of covenant was a minor theme at best in Greek and Roman political thought, the application of federal devices in the real world was more widespread. In the fourth century BCE, the growing power of the Macedonian kingdom put an end to the independence of these Greek city-states, bringing them under Macedonian imperial rule. As John Ferguson states in The Heritage of Hellenism: "Cosmopolis did not destroy the polis."6 The Macedonians were, after all, Greeks and had certain Greek sensibilities. Thus they developed an imperial style which the Romans were shortly to copy that strongly resembled imperial federalism, albeit without its democratic elements, at least on the imperial plane.

Indeed, in theory, Alexander the Great established his world empire as president of a league of Greek states: the Corinthian League. In 311, Antigonus, his successor, negotiated a treaty with his rivals recorded on a marble column which stated: "We have declared in our treaty that all Greeks shall bind themselves by oath to the mutual defense of their freedom and autonomy." This treaty became the basis for the post-Alexandrian empire in Ionia and Asia Minor, whereby the empire formally continued to be a league of cities, now with one imperial ruler, while the cities kept their local autonomy and their right to create regional confederations within the imperial domain. This and other treaties essentially relied upon traditional communal liberties of each city to determine its precise status within the overall imperium.7 In a sense, this represented a merger of the Canaanite-Phoenician city-state culture with the Hellenic polis culture to form the local basis of the Hellenistic polity.

This pattern of imperial quasi-federalism persisted through the Hellenistic period and well into the Roman Empire. The Seleucid rulers were particularly notable for the freedom they allowed the cities within their empire, albeit requiring each of them to have a Greek constitution. For example, the Hasmonean revolt began when the Seleucids intervened to force the small province of Judea to reconstitute itself as a Greek polis.

The anchor of these local liberties was to be found in the principle of respect for the ancestral laws of each city, but it was extended beyond this because the age was one of the foundation of new cities for which constitutions were written and which were given the same autonomy as the old, established ones, much in the way that those American states admitted to the union after the adoption of the federal Constitution were deemed the equals of those which had established the federal republic in the first place. To the extent that cities were founded and refounded, they acquired constitutions and had contractual elements in them, but no theory of political compact developed as a result. The form of government was some combination of democracy and oligarchy, whereby all adult male citizens had full political rights, including the eligibility for office, but in fact the offices tended to be in the hands of the wealthy more often than not.

Within the context of these empires, cities were encouraged to form confederacies. As indicated above, the empire itself grew out of the League of Corinth, of which Philip of Macedonia served as hegemon, or president, and which comprised all the states of Greece except Sparta.8 Alexander followed this form and the league was reorganized in 302 and continued formally as the linking vehicle for the empire. Foreign and military policy was concentrated in the hands of the hegemon, although there was no common citizenship. On the other hand, in the League of the Islanders, built around a religious center in Delos, common citizenship was introduced.

The third century BCE became a century of confederacies, including the Ionian League; the Boetian League, dominated by Thebes; the Aetolian League, which had a strong primary assembly for the entire confederacy and involved three arenas: cities, tribal districts; and the confederacy as a whole; in effect, a federal constitution. So, too, was the Acheanian League.9 When not fighting one another the two confederacies established a common superleague.

Perhaps the most federal of all was the Lycian League. Located in the mountains of Asia Minor, the Lycians were not Greeks. Under Greek influence they developed a federal constitution which developed to the point where the federal assembly was a representative body whose seats were distributed approximately in proportion to the population of each member city. On a circumscribed basis it survived well into the period of Roman rule.

The closest to a prefiguring of the federal principle as vital for freedom came in the history of the second Achaean League.10 The first Achaean League had been established in the fourth century BCE, but collapsed shortly after 300 BCE. It was revived in 281-280 BCE and rapidly consolidated its power vis-a-vis Macedonia and the city-states surrounding it.

A generation later, in 251, Aratus led the citizens of Sicyon, his native city, in their successful effort to overthrow its dictator and brought the city into the Achaean League. Perhaps because Sicyon was not an Achean city, Aratus had wider ambitions than the older members of the confederacy. Loathing dictators and Macedonian rule, he saw the league's task as that of liberating Hellas from both by instituting federal democracy. In 245 BCE he was elected the general of the league's armies and became its dominant figure. His first great victory was in 243, when he liberated Corinth. The league then expanded for a while, but by the end of the decade Aratus had reached the limits of his powers and the league had failed to absorb either Athens or Sparta. Clemonomes of Sparta took the lead in opposing Aratus and became his bete-noire.

Aratus, who has been described by Ferguson as being "incorruptible, adventurous, persuasive, skilled in diplomacy, passionately attached to freedom, and implacably ambitious," was the partisan of federalism, but opposed social revolution. Clemonomes was not only a Spartan nationalist, but a social revolutionary. In a sense, their struggle was a prefiguring of the struggle between the federalists and the Jacobins in determining the course of the democratic world two millennia later.

In the end, in order to preserve the federation, Aratus had to invite the hated Macedonians to intervene and Clemonomes was defeated in 222 BCE. While the Achaean League was allowed to retain limited local liberty, it was restored firmly to Macedonian suzerainty. It survived until 146 BCE.

The Achaean League was governed by a primary assembly of all male citizens over the age of thirty, which met to deal with major constitutional issues, and an elected council of several hundred, which met regularly and elected the magistrates. The league adopted common gods and at its greatest extent controlled the whole of the Peloponnesus.

Roman Foederatii

In the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE, the Romans triumphed over the allied Greek cities. In its wake the walls of the conquered cities were razed and the Greek confederacies were dissolved. Thus the history of classical Greece came to an end just as the Jews of Judea launched their successful revolt against the Seleucid extension of Aexandrian Greece in western Asia.

Nevertheless, the rise of Rome did not alter the Greek emphasis on the polis and confederations of like politea. The Romans, like their Greek predecessors, were colonizers, planting cities wherever their armies trod. Under them the polis became the municipium. Citizens of the municipium had a double loyalty, to their city and to Rome. It has been stated that: "Rome conquered by force, but ruled by consent."11 Indeed, the Roman Empire was originally constructed out of a network of treaties, presumably among equals, between Rome and her allies, the foederatii, which further encouraged this duality.12

The Roman municipium became part of a political-juridical constitutional order based upon a public social contract. As Walter Lippman put it: "In this way, freedom emanating from a constitutional order has been advocated, explained, and made real to the imagination and the conscience of Western men; by establishing the presumption that civilized society is founded on a public social contract."13 Lippman's rather optimistic analysis of the Roman public philosophy of contract reflects what has earlier been stated in this book, namely, that "a contract is an agreement reached voluntarily, quid pro quo," namely, it has that narrowness which distinguishes it from covenant in its practical rather than moral foundations and its quid pro quo character. Still, as Lippman suggests, it helped to advance the idea that "the first principle of the civilized state is that power is legitimate only when it is under contract."

The reality of municipal liberty, federal treaties, and the contractual public philosophy disappeared in the Roman Empire to be replaced by a European version of Oriental despotism. At most, echoes of the theory lived on. As we have seen, while the Church may have tried to absorb a version of covenantal thinking into its theology, when it came to matters of governance it followed the Roman imperial model and built a hierarchy.

The idea of Christian republicanism was preserved by a chain of Christian political theorists throughout the Middle Ages. Whle their theories had some covenantal overtones, it would be hard to describe them as covenantal per se. Nevertheless, with the demise of the Roman Empire, the way was open to new arrangements which combined the Roman experience with hierarchy with others derived from covenant and contract. This is reflected in the continuing use of the terms foedus, foedere, and foederatii in medieval Latin to describe covenantal and oath-based linkages among individuals and groups.

The Separation of the Jewish and Christian Traditions

In the last analysis, it was through the Christian reconstitution of the Jewish world that the covenant entered European civilization. After its substantial -- even radical -- redefinition, covenant was to appear sporadically as a political idea for the next millenium or more. In that context, some philosophers and theologians developed more systematic expressions of both the general principle and specific theories of covenant relationships. Their practice, however, was obstructed by organic and hierarchic conceptions of the universe and body-politic, ecclesiastical custody of the Gospel covenant, and feudalism.14

Christianity, like Judaism, regards itself as being founded upon a covenant, but a fundamentally different covenant from God in the person of Jesus who is the source of human salvation.15 Common to the Christian concept of covenant is that, rather than being a matter of agreement and partnership between God and humanity (or some segment of humanity), it was a unilaterally gracious act of the part of God, a bestowal on humanity whose response was merely one of acknowledging (witnessing, in Christian terminology) God's grace. The orthodox Christian view of covenant was as far removed from a classic covenantal perspective as it could be and still remain within the parameters of the idea. Christian witness, rather than partnership, became the active element which must be present in any covenantal framework. Witnessing was the element of consent and so it remains to this day. A homely demonstration of this understanding of covenanting is to be found in the American revival meeting, where people come up and witness or testify for Jesus, and are thereby brought into his covenant, and saved.

On the other hand, those Christian theologians whose own theological position is covenantal emphasize the New Testament as a covenantal document, suggesting that like Deuteronomy it is a renewal of the old covenant.16 Their argument is that the whole New Testament has to be understood as a single treaty covenant with the gospels introducing Jesus as the new king of the church polity, followed by covenant history in the Book of Acts recording the ratification of the new covenant, with the Epistles paralleling the Old Testament prophets and wisdom and worship literature. This, however, is the interpretation of one particular wing of Christian theology which emerged in the Reformation.

Since Christianity was and is a community based upon consent rather than a primordial group based on kinship, and in that respect is a true heir of the Hebrew Bible, even carrying the biblical demand for consent to an extreme; this form of covenanting is not lightly to be dismissed, even by those who favor a more classical partnership approach. On the other hand, neither should its problematics be ignored, namely an extreme individualization of the covenantal experience and the reduction of humans to very weak reeds in the face of an all-powerful, but hopefully gracious, God who sent His specially begotten son to save them. Paul was the first to state the New Testament covenantal doctrine (in Romans I:19-20 and Acts 17:24-27). Paul's idea of the natural covenant under which pagans lived derived from the Jewish concept of the Noahide covenant. Over the centuries, Christian theology and practice have attempted to deal with both of these problems. The classic solution of the first was that of medieval Europe, namely a hierarchical Church and Empire which organized, respectively, the spiritual and temporal life of Christendom. This solution also reintroduced the element of kinship by the back door, in effect making it impossible for any resident of Christendom born to a Christian family to avoid membership in the Church with its ritualized way of acknowledging Jesus Christ. The second involved the elaboration of theology so as to introduce a covenant of works parallel to the covenant of grace (or some other form of double covenant) which thereby demanded that Christians behave as if they were partners with God even though the latter was the real source of salvation.

Christians understand their covenant as fulfilling the promise of the old covenant with Israel as presaged, in the Christian view, by such prophets as Isaiah (55:3) and Jeremiah (31:31-34). Therefore, the Christian Bible is divided into Old and New Testaments, the first being pre-history of God's church and primitive statement of the moral law designed to establish and sustain the people through whom Jesus would come to save humanity. The choice of the term "testament" (especially as used in the original Greek) was deliberate; reflecting as it did the new understanding of covenant as witnessing.

In seeking to translate "covenant," the early church faced several problems. Since the covenant tradition of Israel was seen as referring to the Mosaic law, it could not be readily transferred to the new covenantal scheme established through Jesus called Christ which was understood to supersede the Mosaic covenant. Linguistically, moreover, in the context of the Roman Empire, covenant could be interpreted as meaning both a legal contract and an unlawful secret society.

The church fathers' problem had been presaged in the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Bible and into Greek two to three centuries before the rise of Christianity. The Greek word syntheke, suggesting covenant as compact or treaty, might have been used in that translation; but it was understood as suggesting a loose tie linking separate but equal partners in a kind of alliance as baalei brit rather than bnai brit, following the Hebrew view which implied that God and humans are equal partners in the redemption of the world. Instead, the word chosen for the Septuagint was diatheke, which came close to reflecting the Hebrew edut (witnessing), often used as a synonym for brit in the Pentateuch. The church fathers adopted this usage, rejecting syntheke and accepted diatheke meaning "testament." Later, the Latin Vulgate Bible, translated by Jerome, a careful scholar, restored the original distinction by using foedus and pactum for covenant in much of the Old Testament and testamentum for covenant in the Psalms and New Testament.

Like a testator who makes a last will and testament to be executed by his heirs, God is seen as freely offering a last and everlasting covenant through the death and resurrection of Christ. Just as the testator and heirs are not on the same level, but exercise a kind of mutual responsibility, there is a similar mutuality in the New Testament with God remaining superior (Hebrews 9:15-20). This translation of "covenant" as "testament" permanently alters the meaning of covenant as understood in the Old Testament.17

Some thirty-three references to covenant (diatheke) appear in the New Testament, though almost half of these quote from or refer to the Old Testament (e.g., Romans 11:27; Acts 3:25). The principal reference, the covenant of the New Testament, occurs in the Last Supper.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28).
This new covenant, confirmed in blood like the Mosaic covenant (Exodus 24:8), is also referred to in other passages (Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; I Corinthians 11:25) and alluded to in many others. The book of the New Testament which makes the most use of covenant is the Epistle to the Hebrews (17 references), and anonymous letter written to win back those who were about to abandon Christianity to return to the religion of Israel by convincing them of the superiority of the new covenant over the "obsolete" Mosaic covenant.

It was obviously directed to touch these former Jews conceptually and, inter alia, serves as evidence of the degree to which covenantal thought was important to the Jews of that period. Paul used the term elsewhere on nine occasions: 4 in the synoptic gospels, 2 in Acts, and 1 in the Apocalypse.

The polemics that begin this process of separation were principally written between the years 90 and 100 CE with the publishing of Paul's letters and the response of the Jewish sages to those letters.18 As Paul built upon the omnipotent God's unilateral covenant of grace, whose first appearance was with the Patriarchs, the Jewish sages emphasized the reciprocal covenant of Sinai and the Torah which was part of it and which became the possession of the Jewish people.

In the days of the early church, sacramentum was a secular term referring primarily to the soldiers' oath of loyalty to the emperor -- whose formula goes back to the time of the Hittites -- the early church used it to refer to the Last Supper as the central covenant enactment of Christianity. Those who were parties to the reenactment of this sacramentum became the ekklesia, the assembly, or the Greek equivalent of the edah. It was the post-Apostolic church which transformed those two terms and gave them their present meaning of sacrament and church. In the theology of the church fathers, covenant concepts seem to have centered on transferring the Davidic covenant to Jesus as Messiah. This already marked the step in the direction of a hierarchical rather than a covenantal view of the church. Augustine (354-430) was the last great theologian to pay any attention to covenant until the Reformation.

The Church Fathers

While the original Christian understanding of covenant was derived from the early Christian interpretations of the Old Testament, the true foundations of that understanding were developed in the writings of the church fathers, especially those of the 4th and 5th centuries -- in other words, at the same time that the Jews were completing the Talmud. The church fathers fell into two groups -- those who wrote in Greek and those who wrote in Latin. It was the works of the latter that continued to be read in Western Christendom during the Middle Ages and hence were most influential. Some of the Greek works were translated into Latin and thus made available as well, although it is not known how many were thus transmitted.19

The major problem of these early Christian thinkers was that of the relationship between the old covenant and the new, that is to say, between Judaism and Christianity, and between Jews and Gentiles. Basically three answers were proposed to this problem, each represented by a different group of patristic thinkers. The first group consisted of Judaizers, those who required of all believers a strict observance of biblical law. Justin, a convert from Judaism, is perhaps the foremost of the church fathers in this school as he demonstrates in his Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew. They rejected Pauline Christianity and saw Paul as an apostate because he rejected the Mosaic law. Their principal proof text was the Ebionite gospel of the Hebrews, a rescension of Matthew's gospel. This group was called "Nazarenes" by Jerome and apparently were still widespread in the East during his time.20

The Judaizers were opposed by Marcion and the Marcionites. Marcion, who came to Rome around the year 140, presented a radical antithesis suggesting that there was an absolute opposition between Christianity and Judaism, that Judaism was thoroughly evil and Christianity thoroughly good. Hence the old and new covenants were absolutely different from one another. Accepting the gnostic teachings of Cerdo, Marcion actually posited a double god -- the God of the Old Testament who created the world but is himself imperfect, wrathful and warlike, who knows nothing of grace, and Christ, the good God who overcame his evil rival and was crucified as a result. This enabled Christ to liberate the Gentiles while damning pious Jews. Marcion was for all intents and purposes an anti-Semite and his Marcionite teachings became the foundation of Christian anti-Judaism. They are presented in his Antithesen.21

The mainstream church fathers rejected both the Judaizers and Marcionites as heretics. They sought to define the relationship between the old and new covenants as part of God's plan for the progressive revelation of His presence in the world. In this respect they were Pauline, accepting the idea that even the Gentiles have a certain natural knowledge of God. Therefore they can be redeemed by belief in Jesus as Christ without having to take on the practices of the Jews. It was in this belief that they turned to the Noahide covenant as a sign that God has covenanted with all men and established natural religion and morality within Gentiles as well as Jews. Physical circumcision, the Jewish sign of the covenant, could be replaced by spiritual circumcision since it was not the physical act of cutting which brought salvation but acts of faith. Thus in God's progressive plan, when Jesus established the new covenant, the old became obsolete and the old law abrogated. Jesus becomes personally identified with the new covenant in this system.22

The noted political scientist, Carl Friedrich, identified Augustine, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Lactantius, and Eusebius as the Church fathers in the covenant tradition, although he had to stretch the point somewhat to do so.23 Irenaeus was the only one among them who even hinted at a conditional covenant. J. Wayne Baker suggests that he may have been an influence on Bullinger's later formulation.24

The patristic teaching on covenant emphasized three principal covenants, the Noahide or natural covenant -- the primordial covenant for all humans, the Mosaic or old covenant for Jews, and the Christian or new covenant for Christians, and thus potentially for all humans once again. Justin deals with covenant in chapter 47 of his Dialogue with Trypho.25 In chapter 87 he emphasizes the Noahide covenant (pp. 360-361) and Jesus as the new covenant (p. 337). Jerome, one of the Latin Fathers, deals with covenant in his Epistles 112-113 (CSEL 55-56, p. 381). In his commentary on Zachariah, III, 9, PL, 25, 1503, Jerome emphasized God's blessing of Noah as a decree of universal salvation.

Clement of Alexandria, a Greek theologan, had his own gloss on the three covenant theory,26 suggesting that God established a covenant of philosophy for the Greeks, a covenant of the Mosaic law for the Jews and a covenant of faith for the Christians. Ireneus follows a similar model in Adversus Haereses IV, 9, 3. The first of his three covenants (and he uses the term diathekai as equaling foedera) is that of the natural law of the philosophers and jurists; the second, the ceremonial law of the Jews; and the third, the moral law of the Christians which is the fulfillment and perfection of the second. However he sees the third as a real continuation of the second rather than a break with it.

Augustine, on the other hand, recognized only two covenants, the old and the new, with the covenants with Noah and Abraham and the covenants at Sinai and the Plains of Moab in Deuteronomy all part of the same old law, with the old prefiguring the new.27

Augustine's image of the City of God was, among other things, designed to explain the unity of the old and new covenants as the only ones, with Abraham and Moses representing the old covenant and Noah and Jesus representing the new. Thus the division into two cities -- Jerusalem, the covenanted city of God, and Babylon, the secular city of man -- the first established by Abel, the second by Cain. Through Jesus, Gentiles as well as Jews can enter the City of God, with the Hebrew scriptures written to foretell his coming and the new covenant.

Perhaps because the concept of covenant presented a number of practical and theological problems, in the course of establishing its orthodoxy and endeavoring to unify the Christian system, the church deemphasized covenant, especially after it believed that it had successfully superseded the Mosaic covenant and transferred the authority of the Davidic covenant to Jesus. After Augustine (354-430), the Church paid little attention to covenant and, even though the Eucharist remained central to the Christian liturgy, it ceased to be a truly common meal and its covenantal dimension was overshadowed by other features and meanings attributed to the Last Supper.

At the same time, the New Testament did not readily lend itself to unambiguous political applications. This is partly reflected in the numerous debates concerning "the politics of Jesus" in which has has been construed, among other things, as a violent revolutionary (e.g., Matthew 21:12; Mark 12:15-16) and an entirely otherworldly king (e.g., John 18:36). Given the revolutionary period in which Jesus lived and preached, a time when the Jews were gripped by messianic and eschatological fevers which often found expression in revolt against the Roman rulers of Palestina, this dimension of his teaching is not to be casually dismissed. Anxious to maintain the divinity of Christ and universality of His covenant, the early Church sought to eradicate any conceptions of Jesus as an earthly ruler or political messiah, especially of Israel. Thus early Christianity, like early Talmudic Judaism, downplayed the political dimensions of human existence for its own reasons, leaving the two great faiths of the Western world with a damaged legacy.28

It is not surprising, then, that the New Testament provides few specific guidelines for government or the implementation of a Christian commonwealth. By overriding the structure of law associated with the Mosaic covenant, the church also jettisoned a body of wisdom and experience concerning the organization of civil society. Christ was to rule in the hearts of men and the Kingdom of God would be made manifest in their faith and behavior without the complex structure of institutional law associated with the accumulated traditions of the Mosaic covenant. In this respect, Christianity was also reproaching Israel for having given, in its eyes, too legalistic and contractual a gloss to the idea of covenant.

Yet in being so spiritual, the Christian covenantal scheme tends to neglect politics. The New Testament seems to suggest that Christians may and will live within a variety of political structures, including pagan, authoritarian and decadent ones. While those who administer those structures will ultimately come under God's judgement, Christians must be more mindful of a revolution in faith than politics until the final coming of the Kingdom. As a result, Christians have had a propensity to withdraw from "this-worldly" affairs. Many early Christians sacrificed their lives in the manner of Christ rather than rebelling against Roman persecution. Furthermore, based as it is on a personal covenant emphasizing faith in Christ, the New Testament places a strong emphasis on personal relationships those of service and humility, which are not contingent upon structures and indeed, are presumed to transcend them and liberate individuals from a dependence upon them.

Another possible channel of transmission of covenant ideas may have been through the Pelagiasian heresy. Pelagianism was developed in the fifth century by Pelagius (c.355-c.425), a British-born monk (that is, a layman committed to the religious life), who developed what was then considered a heretical theology because he rejected Augustinian doctrines of predestination and grace as too pessimistic. It was the source of considerable discord in the Church for more than a century. His life was a reverse journey through covenant-prone areas. He left Britain for Rome and then North Africa, where he had many Cartheginian followers, and Palestine where he preached successfully for many years in Jerusalem until he was banished by the Church establishment. He was familiar with the Bible, the Latin classics, the Latin Church fathers, and some Greek theology in translation. He seems also to have been a law student since he has extensive familiarity with legal matters. While both Augustine and Jerome fought Pelagius, aspects of his teaching which may have survived (for example, a semi-Pelagianism continued to be popular in the British Isles in the sixth century) may have later been combined with the covenantal aspects of Augustinian thought. Pelagius's doctrine essentially rejected the damnation of humanity via original sin, thereby reducing the importance of the Christian sacraments. Grace, to him, consisted of the development of the natural attributes in man that lead him to God: reason, free will, and understanding of the Gospel. Because Pelagianism minimized the role of Divine grace in human salvation, it gave more room to free will and opened the door to humans as God's partners rather than merely as beneficiaries.

In his theory Pelagius rejected the Arian view diminishing the full divinity of Jesus and the Manichean mystical view that denied Jesus his full humanity. It was his attack on the latter that led him to emphasize free will and the goodness of human nature and to demand stricter good conduct by Christians. Pelagius was in the tradition of Bible-oriented Christian scholarship.

Toward Hierarchy

Early medieval Christian doctrine regarded political organization as a consequence of Adam's fall. Covenant is a response to sin. The murderer Cain (who founded the first city) and the pagan conqueror Nimrod (who founded the first empire) are its progenitors. While this teaching is potentially subversive of all political structures, and was so perceived by the Romans, it was more often interpreted by the Church in light of those passages which appear to emphasize uncritical obedience to civil authority (e.g., Matthew 22:21; Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1-11; I Peter 2:13-25; II Peter 2:10) while accenting the second coming when perfected mankind will abolish all government except the Kingship of Christ. Under such circumstances, politics is well-nigh superfluous because salvation is a matter of individual faith and common sacraments to which political-legal structures can contribute nothing. There is even a strong anti-political bias in this view since, once all souls are saved, so to speak, questions of politics will become moot.

However, upon assuming the reins of the Roman Empire in the face of the disintegration of the civilized Mediterranean world, the invasions of "barbarians," and the emergence of sectarian movements, the church confronted very real political problems in organizing itself institutionally and providing for the organization of civil society externally. In many instances, moreover, the church, once it had acquired a structure of its own, was compelled or desired to exercise governmental functions directly.

This task was greatly complicated by the universal application of the Christian covenant. Unlike the Mosaic covenant, which created a particular people and body politic of relatively small size, the New Testament was designed to encompass all humanity and obligated the church to evangelize the world. In practical terms, this presented as formidable a political problem as that of organizing a world government. Factions and heresies within the church, strong ideational pressures from indigenous paganisms, the absence of a mandated or accumulated tradition of Christian governance, the fluidity of political systems and allegiances, the diversity and large numbers of people to be brought within the Christian fold as well as the inter-group hostilities among them, and the scope of territory involved in the enterprise, all seemed to rule out a covenantal system of cooperative partnerships.

Even so, the acknowledged greatest theologian and philosopher of medieval Christendom, Thomas Aquinas, whose philosophic system was far removed from overt concerns with covenantal thought, nevertheless, he found his ideal regime in the Mosaic polity of the twelve tribes. To him, it was the best regime because it was a mixed regime. He understood it as being a kind of hierarchical federalism that squared with medieval feudalism as a constitutionalized power pyramid. Nor was he the only one.29

The kind of federal solution to the problem of maintaining democratic republicanism in large commonwealths which James Madison articulated for the United States, for example, could not have been fashioned by the Church because the Madisonian system depends upon the crosspressures of many factions and opinions, both secular and religious.30 The church believed it necessary to convert and bind people to a common orthodoxy. As a result, like most salvational movements which seek to transform human consciousness organizationally along common ideational lines, the character of both church polity and civil polity moved in a more hierarchic, imperial direction. As one contemporary ecumenical advocate had put it: "From the second century of the Christian era onwards the Church as a federal society meant, at least to Western Christendom, the Church as a society with a fixed constitution and with definite laws to be obeyed, and it was not until the time of the Reformation that the truly Biblical view of the Church as God's covenant-people recaptured the minds and imaginations of men."31

The movement towards pyramidal governance was furthered by the tendency of church fathers to turn for guidance to non-covenantal models of political association, especially the more organic and hierarchic models of the Greeks and Romans. At the same time that the church turned away from the political applications of the Israelite covenants, it sought to elevate and legitimate its theology in relation to the intellectually influential systems of Greek and Roman philosophy. Since Rome had long lost its republicanism by the Christian era, the church inherited the example of imperialism and the fact of near anarchy. Rome became the seat of authority of Western Christendom, atop an episcopal system of ranked ecclesiastics.


1. On vassal treaties, see Henri Frankfort, Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought in the Ancient Near East (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1951) and See Andre Parrot, Sumer (Paris: Gallimand, 1960). For vassal treaties in Phoenicia, Minoa, Philistine, Ancient Greece and Assyro-Babylonia, see: Donald Benjamin Harden, The Phoenicians (London: Thames and Hudson, 1963); Andrew Robert Brown, Minoans, Philistines and Greeks, B.C. 1400-900 (London: Kegan Paul, 1930); and Henri Frankfort, Kinship and the Gods (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

2. On the government and politics of ancient Mesopotamia, see op. cit. Frankfort, Before History; and op. cit. Parrot.

3. On tribal confederations cf. Gerald J. Obermeyer, "The Ritual and Politics of Oath in Tribal Society" in Al-Abhath, 26 (1973-1977) and Tagut, Man, and Shariah: The Realms of Law in Tribal Arabia.

4. On Canaanite govt. and politics, see William F. Albright, The Archaelogy of Palestine (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1963) and Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths (London: University of London Press, 1968); and Kathleen Kenyon, Amorites and Canaanites (London: Oxford University Press, 1966).

5. On the Philistines, see H. Kennard, Philistines and Israelites: A New Light on the World's History (London: Chapman and Hall, 1893); Robert Macalister, The Philistines: Their History and Civilization (Chicago: Argonaut, 1965); and Allen H. Jones, Bronze Age Civilization: The Philistines and the Danites (Wash., D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1975).

6. John Ferguson, The Heritage of Hellenism (New York: Science History Publications, 1973).

7. On Greek leagues, see Edward A. Freeman, History of Federal Government in Greece and Italy, 2nd edition (London: Macmillan, 1893).

8. On the Corinthian League, see Ibid.

9. On the Ionian, Aetolian, and first Achean Leagues, see Ibid.

10. On the second Achean League, see Ibid.

11. Henderson, p. 42.

12. On the Roman use of federal devices, see Edward Freeman, Sicily, Phoenician, Greek and Roman (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1894); Gaston Boissier, Tacitus and Other Roman Studies, trans. by W.G. Hutchison (London: A. Constable, 1906); and Wolfgang Kunkel, An Introduction to Roman Legal and Constitutional History, trans. by J.M. Kelley, 2nd edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973).

13. Walter Lippman, The Public Philosophy (London: H. Hamilton, 1955), pp.166-171.

14. Harold Fisch, Jerusalem and Albion (New York: Schocken Books, 1964); James Bryce, The Holy Roman Empire (New York: Macmillan, 1895); Otto Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938).

15. Cf., e.g., Everett Ferguson, et al., eds., The Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1989); William Johnson Everett, God's Federal Republic (New York/ Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1988).

16. Meredith G. Kline, "Canon and Covenant," Westminster Theological Journal, vol. 32, October 1969.

17. On Paul and the Covenant idea, see Edward Parish Sanders, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).

18. See Freeman, Heavenly Kingdom, op. cit., ch. 2.

19. On the writings of the Church Fathers, see Maurice Wiles, The Christian Fathers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

20. On the early "Nazarenes," see Ray A. Pritz, Nazarene Jewish Christianity: From the End of the New Testament Period until its Disappearance in the Fourth Century (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1988).

21. On Marcion's writings, see Edwin Cyril Blackman, Marcion and His Influence (London: SPCK, 1948).

22. Ibid.

23. Carl Joachim Friedrich, Trends of Federalism: The Theory and Practice (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968).

24. J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger on the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1980).

25. Translated by T.B. Falls, New York 1948.

26. Stromata, vol. 6, ch. 5, pp. 327-28, translated by William Wilson, New York 1872.

27. See in Hept. I, v. 9, 49, PL, 34, 770 in the City of God, Bourke edition, New York 1958, p. 10.

28. On messianism in the early Christian era, see Morton Enslin Scott, Christian Beginnings (New York: Harper, 1938).

29. Samuel Beer, To Make America, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), cite chapter on Aquinas.

30. Federalist, No. 10.

31. F.W. Dillistone, "Church Union -- Organic or Federal?" Theology Today, 5 (July, 1948), pp. 186-98.

Elazar Papers Index / JCPA Home Page / Top of Page