I would like to recommend and introduce a book to you. It’s a short work, only about a hundred pages, called Fountainhead of Federalism by Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker. There are many good books, essays and articles that trace political federalism (contractualism) to federal (covenantal) theology, and specifically to the Protestant Reformation in Zurich under the leadership of Heinrich Bullinger. Some of the contemporary authors I’ve read on this subject include J. Wayne Baker, Charles S. McCoy, Andries Raath, Shaun De Freitas, and Daniel J. Elazar.
Baker’s book Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition is an excellent analysis of Bullinger’s theology. Baker elaborates on Bullinger’s understanding of a bilateral conditional covenant (compact) between God and man. Baker then contrasts this to John Calvin’s doctrine of a unilateral unconditional covenant (testament.) This is very interesting especially in how their covenantal ideas are expressed in the realm of salvation. Bullinger presented a doctrine of single predestination infra-lapsarianism, Calvin a double predestination supra-lapsarianism. I disagree with Baker’s conclusion, however, that Bullinger’s Covenant Theology was so different from that of the Genevans that it should be identified as “The Other Reformed Tradition.” I agree with John V. Fesko that there was Diversity Within the Reformed Tradition. Cornelis P. Venema also argues for the diversity theory in his Heinrich Bullinger and the Doctrine of Predestination.
What is most interesting is how Bullinger’s idea of a bilateral compact influenced political theory. The aforementioned contemporary authors have traced the development of political federalism from Bullinger’s 1534 The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. Bullinger directly influenced his fellow reformers, including the Marian Exiles who carried covenantalism back to the British Isles later developing Presbyterianism and Puritanism. In England, politically, their federalism played out in the Civil Wars of the 1640s and again in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Upon arrival in the New World they established the colonial confederal societies, which of course led to the United States. Bullinger’s federal theology also influenced the Dutch Reformers who helped in the establishment of the United Provinces in the 1580s. (In reference to the United States and the United Provinces, John Adams wrote “the originals of the two Republics are so much alike that the history of one seems but a transcript from that of the other.” Compare our Declaration of Independence with the Dutch Declaration of Abjuration.)
In Fountainhead of Federalism Baker and McCoy explain that many political historians have been unable to properly identify the source of James Madison’s political theory. It is wrong to assume that his source is John Locke. Raised in a covenantal Puritan household, Locke was an inheritor of the federal tradition. His contributions to federal political theory were monumental; however, Baker and McCoy argue, Locke was not the primary source of thought for the “Father of the Constitution.” Long before reading this book I noticed some clear differences between Locke and Madison. One example is in the remedy against tyranny. Locke does not allow for the secession of a state or province (which was the course of action taken by the American colonies in 1776); Lockean revolution is an overthrow of a tyrannical regime, not a territorial withdraw from it. The authors argue that Madison learned his federalism from “the federal tradition embedded in the colonial institutions and experience surrounding Madison and exemplified in John Witherspoon, who taught Madison theology and political philosophy at Princeton.” The “colonial institutions” they examine were established years prior to Locke’s publishing of the Two Treatises of Government. Think of the Pilgrims in 1620 and their Mayflower Compact.
The book explores Bullinger’s federal theology and its relationship to federal political theory from Mornay and Althusius to Cocceius and Madison. Part Two of the book is an English translation of Bullinger’s The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. This is valuable since much of Bullinger’s writing hasn’t been translated into English and what has been is difficult to obtain.
I recommend this book but also encourage you to read the essays written by the authors I named in the beginning of this review and then dive into the books written by the federal political authors of the Reformation Era. Johannes Althusius wrote Politica in 1603. Elazar in Althusius’ Grand Design for a Federal Commonwealth wrote that Althusius built “a systematic political philosophy out of the Reformed experience . . . Politica was the first book to present a comprehensive theory of federal republicanism rooted in a covenantal view of human society.”
In the preface of his third edition in 1614, Althusius wrote, “I have attributed the rights of sovereignty, as they are called, not to the supreme magistrate, but to the commonwealth or universal association. . . . I recognize the prince as the administrator, overseer, and governor of these rights of sovereignty. But the owner and usufructuary of sovereignty is none other than the total people associated in one symbiotic body from many smaller associations.”
The beauty of the Althusian federal system is his structuring of society by the “many smaller associations” beginning with the family, a political unit, as the base of a federal commonwealth. Husband and wife covenant with one another and with God, entering into union forming a covenant family. Families form villages. Villages form provinces. Provinces form the commonwealth. “All came together into a certain public body that we call the commonwealth,” wrote Althusius, “and by mutual aid devoted themselves to the general good and welfare of this body.” Althusius, throughout Politica, reinforces the contractual nature of the various federal levels of the commonwealth: “The people and the supreme magistrate enter into a covenant concerning certain laws and conditions that set forth the form and manner of imperium and subjection.” The laws and conditions of the covenant must be clearly expressed in the contract. All rights and powers not explicitly delegated to the supreme magistrate are reserved by the people of the commonwealth: “The supreme magistrate exercises as much authority as has been explicitly conceded to him by the associated members or bodies of the realm. And what has not been given to him must be considered to have been left under the control of the people or universal association. Such is the nature of the contractual mandate.”
In explaining the duties of the ephors, or “representatives of the commonwealth,” Althusius is clear that one of their primary duties is to restrain a tyrant who is in the process of destroying the commonwealth. There are two types of tyranny. The first is “the overthrow and destruction of the fundamental laws of the realm.” The second is “when the supreme magistrate like an enemy plunders, perverts, and upsets the church and commonwealth.” He also makes it clear that “Subjects and citizens who love their country and resist a tyrant, and want the commonwealth and its rights to be safe and sound, should join themselves to a resisting ephor or optimate. Those who refuse to help the resisting ephor with their strength, money, and counsel are considered enemies and deserters.” Theodore Beza held a similar view in regard to the duty of the representative. He wrote in De Jure Magistratum that the subordinate magistrates “are certainly bound, even by means of armed force if they can, to protect against manifest tyranny the safety of those who have been entrusted to their care.”
Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion warned representatives of not doing their duty: “For when popular magistrates have been appointed to curb the tyranny of kings” and neglect their duty, or even conspire with a despotic magistrate, they are “not free from nefarious perfidy, because they fraudulently betray the liberty of the people, while knowing that, by the ordinance of God, they are its appointed guardians.” The same idea is conveyed by Althusius: “For the ephors either abolish or overcome the wicked actions or tyranny of the supreme magistrate. . . . Unless the ephors have done all this, they themselves are held liable and are rightly said to be betrayers of the commonwealth, especially when they secretly conspire or connive in the wicked and impious actions of the king.”
There are “just remedies” against tyranny. It is our duty to be able to properly identify tyranny and then, wrote Althusius, “each and all ought to move quickly against a tyrant as against a common fire, and eagerly carry water, scale the walls, and confine the flame so that the entire commonwealth does not burn.” Protestant Christians have understood these principles in the past. A long held motto was “Resistance to Tyranny is Obedience to God.” In 1878 R. L. Dabney wrote in his Systematic Theology concerning the civil magistrate: “To Americans whose national existence and glory are all founded on the right of revolution, slight arguments would probably be needed to support it.” How times have changed! Most American Christians have a very distorted perspective of our political inheritance and responsibilities. Why else would they not vote for Ron Paul? With a better understanding of the theological roots of federalism, in my opinion, one is left with the conclusion that complacency in the political sphere of society is sinful and we will be held accountable before God for our political actions and in-actions.
Revised: 18 Feb. 2008