Is the SL&C Binding Today? Some Initial Thoughts

The most bothersome fact about modern Covenanting–to some people, anyway–and to the Solemn League and Covenant (SL&C) is that it binds a posterity to a specific historical context centuries earlier.   In other words, if one’s great-grandfather…x, Rev. Dougal McDougal swore to uphold the (SL&C) as part of a nation’s general obligation to (SL&C), then it seems rather odd to argue that one is bound to it today.  In fact, it seems outrageous.   I will argue below the biblical covenanting is good for the Christian life today and necessary for society.  I will argue that the Solemn League and Covenant is one of the most faithful expressions of Christian Testimony.  (To ward off fears, though, I am not a Steelite and will critique some Steelite claims in another post.)

I understand both sides of the argument, and I will try to present them fairly.  The negative position–that one is not bound to them–is fairly straightforward and is most people’s default position.   The first objection:  how can one claim that people today are bound to an ancient oath made centuries earlier.   While having a prima-facie plausibility, this is actually a weak counter and it will be dealt with below.  The second objection is a bit weightier:  does America have such a relation to England that warrants such a binding to (SL&C)?

Response to objection 1:  if this is taken seriously, then a number of similar theological and civil positions become untenable.  Is it fair for posterity (and all of the cosmos) to suffer the results of Adam’s sin?  Is it fair for children to be bound to the vows made by their parents’ at baptism?   Is it rational that I am an American based on the decisions of Masonic Deists like Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin?  Further, Scripture routinely assumes not only that ancient covenants are binding on posterity, but that children can suffer for the civil crimes of their ancestors.   Galatians 3: 15 says, “Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.”  Amos 1:9 says, “ “For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof, because they delivered up the whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant.”  Amos is referring most likely to the Covenant made between Solomon and Hiram.   This is a civil covenant with no theological overtones, yet God deems it binding.   The entirety of 2 Samuel 21 has God exacting vengeance on Saul, his household, and all of Israel because he broke Joshua’s covenant with Gibeon.

Response to objection 2:  This objection appears to have moral force because of postmodernity’s antipathy to the nation-state.   National boundaries are scorned not only by liberals, but even Reformed conservatives.    Indeed, the worst insult one can suffer is being called a “nationalist” or a “racist.”  As a result, men don’t normally think in terms of  national identity.   Notwithstanding, and I admit my own conclusions are somewhat tentative, most people will see America as a child, whether legitimate or bastard, of Great Britain.  The American Revolution is a negative proof for it.  America inherited the legal and religious traditions, not to mention the language, of England.   America was bound to the English crown for almost two centuries.   Formidable American divines like Edwards and Whitefield saw themselves as good English monarchists (cf. Mahaffey, 2011).   In fact, Whitefield openly championed the Protestant British throne against Roman Catholic Jacobites.

Another objection surfaces:  “Your references are from the Old Testament, which isn’t binding on Christians today.  God only covenanted with the theocratic state of Israel.   The Church is Israel now.”  I am not necessarily quoting Dispensationalists.   This position is the default position among Reformed biblical theologians today.   Let’s consider it:   not all of the quotations were from the OT (cf. Galatians 3:15, which is probably the strongest argument) .  Secondly, while it is true that God uniquely covenanted with Israel, it by no means follows that God frowns on nations today who want to covenant with him.   The objection seems absurd.  Finally, in a promise of the New Covenant, God anticipates Gentile nations seeking to covenant with him.   Isaiah 19 says,

And the land of Judah shall be a terror unto Egypt; every one that maketh mention thereof shall be afraid in himself, because of the counsel of the Lord of hosts, which He hath determined against it.

18 In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan and swear to the Lord of hosts; one shall be called the City of Destruction.

19 In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar at the border thereof to the Lord.

20 And it shall be for a sign and for a witness unto the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they shall cry unto the Lord because of the oppressors, and He shall send them a savior and a great one, and He shall deliver them.

21 And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord and perform it.

The language of covenanting cannot get any more specific.   We have God prophesying that a Gentile nation will seek to covenant with God, even using the language of “vowing.”

So what should we do?

Saying we ought to uphold the SL&C today isn’t that shocking, once considered.  Do you as a Christian believe that Jesus rules over the nations (Ps. 2, 110)?  Do you believe nations are obligated to confess Jesus as Lord?  Do you believe that God judges covenant-breaking?  Is it not true that God destroys nations who actively violate his law?  Most conservative Westminster Presbyterians will agree with everything I have just said.  It’s merely a summary of Reformed political ethics (No, I am not a theonomist).   They simply chafe at seeing the SL&C as binding today, but it need not be seen that way.  We need to consider a number of factors:

  • No one, outside some Steelites, believes that the SL&C should be woodenly applied in a ham-handed way today.  Being obedient and faithful to God means being obedient and faithful in the situation in which he has placed us.  This means:

  • Our relation to the SL&C must also take into account our relation to the U.S. Constitution.  To what degree do we owe allegiance to the U.S. Constitution?

  • And the most problematic application, as seen in objection #2, is the fact that we are currently subject to a country which is legally sovereign and independent from the United Kingdom.

  • This means that the critique must cut deeper:  was the U.S. born in iniquity?

These and other questions can be raised.   Raising them means thinking about the issues.   One of the reasons that Theonomy did so terrible a job in America is that theonomists did very little reflection on the issues beyond cliched slogans like “No Neutrality.”  I think Covenanting has a better future.  It is more faithful to Westminster, has a higher view of the church, and did not originate among fringe groups.

15 comments on “Is the SL&C Binding Today? Some Initial Thoughts

  1. Trent says:

    What do you think of theosis and how compatible is it with Reformed theology? Any reformed theologians have good insights into it?
    I ask since the PB has a new thread on it.

  2. Trent says:

    Do you think then Scotland and other covenanted countries will be under a sort of wrath now that its becoming secular and the churches, are compromising?

    • I don’t know the specifics of the situations in those countries, but yes: speaking as an American to America, it’s hard to argue otherwise.

  3. Excellent post, Jacob. Isaiah 19 completely disarms the standard “Reformed” objection to social covenanting. Keep in mind, though, that the United Kingdom did not come into existence until 1707. Before that England and Scotland had a shared monarchy (Ireland did not join the UK until 1801). The Covenanter opposed the union of 1707, viewing it as a breach of te SLC owing to the establishment of prelacy in England. Colin Kidd has an excellent discussion of this in his book “Union and unionisms” (CUP) and his article “Conditional Britons” (I think it was published in English Historical Review).

    • Thanks. I was actually aware of the dates of the Union, but when I was wriiting I took a break and came back to it and spoke too loosely. This is my first foray into covenanting, so I am still exploring the exegesis and implications of the issues. For better or worse, I actually found Greg Price’s general arguments compelling (leaving alone the Steelite cause for the moment).

  4. Andrew says:

    Would you say that nations are obligated by something like the contents of the SL&C irrespective of whether that nation is covenanted? And if so, how does this differ from the SL&C being binding today but without its historical circumstance in 17th Century Britain?

    • If a nation did not make a specific covenant, then that nation is not obligated to the specific terms of that covenant. More generally, however, all nations are obligated to bend the knee to Christ. The stipulations of a specific covenant depend on a covenant being made. To use an analogy: I am obligated to chastity and sexual purity, but I am not necessarily obligated to fulfill specific functions of chastity with any woman, only to the woman to whom I made marriage vows.

  5. […] is perhaps where I offer mild dissent.   Isaiah 19 does say that nations will covenant with God.   Is there a 1:1 causal relation on material […]

  6. […] Reformed Churches, but when interpreted in the light of the Solemn League and Covenant, are binding upon the kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland?  If he cannot get these most basic points established, what hope does the reader have that he […]

  7. […] Reformed Churches, but when interpreted in the light of the Solemn League and Covenant, are binding upon the kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland?  If he cannot get these most basic points established, what hope does the reader have that he […]

Comments are closed.