The problems facing American Neo-Covenanting

There is much good in the Covenanter tradition, and this post will pain many (myself most of all).  But if they want an intellectual (Or even better, political) future then they need to own up to some challenges.  I honor and admire Richard Cameron and Alexander Peden (hey, they received extra-scriptural prophecy.  Anybody want to take up that one?).  I do not think, however, that the entire Covenanting tradition was able to hold the strings together.  And that’s not just my take on it. I think Moore argues the same thing (Our Covenant Heritage). These challenges are not simply my making up because people started slandering Christ’s elders in his church on Facebook (like Stonewall Jackson).  They point to deeper issues.

While the problems in the Covenanter tradition can easily point back to the Battle of Bothwell Bridge (cf Maurice Grant’s biographies of both Cameron and Cargill; excellent reads), I was alerted to some of the tensions by T. Harris.  Again, I am writing this so Covenanters can work out the difficulties now instead of having to make hard and fast choices on the field of battle later.   You can be angry with me, but I am your best friend.

1.  The Hatred of the South

This is myopic and almost unhealthy.   Modern covenanting talks about how evil the South is and never once tries to work through the sticky issues of how best to help freed slaves.   Or slaves who didn’t want to be freed.  As evil as slavery might have been, simply throwing the blacks out on the street only it makes it worse.   The slave-owners (and many slaves) knew this.

And it really comes back to the question:  is the relation between master and slave sinful?  This is a very specific question.  This is why Freshman atheists have a field day with us.  But I know the response:  buying stolen property, especially human property, is sinful.  Perhaps it is, but didn’t Paul know this when he outlined healthy parameters for both masters and slaves?  How do you think the ancient Romans got slaves in the first place?  Democratic vote?  They were often prisoners of war, babies of raped women, and worse.  And does Paul say, in good John Brown fashion, “Rise up slaves and kill your masters” (though to be fair John Brown actually killed white Northerners)?

Northern Covenanters love to boast on how they “deny communion to man-stealers.”    Harris notes in response,

Athenagoras, defending the church against the pagan charge of cannibalism said, “moreover, we have slaves: some of us more, some fewer. We cannot hide anything from them; yet not one of them has made up such tall stories against us.” (Early Church Fathers, ed. C.C. Richardson, p. 338). But Alexander McLeod says to the slaveholder, “you cannot be in the church,” (p. 25) and this posture was eventually ratified by the entire covenanter church. On this point, their righteousness exceeded even that of our Lord and the apostles. And that is heady stuff.

Am I saying we should have slaves today?  Of course not.  But we need to seriously think through these issues instead of giving non-answers like “Christianity provided for civilization to move forward without slavery.”  To which I say, “early Medieval Russia.”

2.  The strange love-affair with Lincoln

This is odd, too.  Lincoln really didn’t care for Christianity and he routinely made darkie jokes.   He was the biggest white supremacist of the 19th century.  He ran on the platform, in essence, that he would not free a single slave.  My Covenanter friends–you are being deceived.

Someone could respond, “You’re just angry that the South lost.”  Perhaps, perhaps not.  That brings up another point

3.  Consistently outmaneuvered politically and militarily

Why is it that the Covenanters who have such a heroic (and rightly earned) reputation for godly resistance during the Killing  Times have routinely been outmaneuvered in the public square?  I’ll give three examples: Bothwell Bridge, Cromwell, and The War Between the States.

Bothwell

The Covenanters had already proved themselves at Drumclog.  Further, Bothwell Bridge forced the Royalists into a chokepoint.   While the ultimate cause for the covenanters defeat was lack of artillery and ammo, the outcome was in the air for a while.   The problem was whether to allow Indulged parties to participate.  Granted, the Indulged sinned and were under God’s judgment.  Cameron and others were right to resist elsewhere, but Bothwell was not an ecclesiastical act.  It was a military one.   Indulged ammunition wasn’t sinful per se.

Cromwell

Covenanters call Cromwell the Usurper.   It is somewhat ironic given that these Covenanters had fought a war of defiance (rightly so) against the very same king.  I have to ask, though, precisely what did you expect when rallying behind the (well-known) debauched papal pervert Charles II?  Granted, he vowed the covenants.  Granted, he should have owned up to them.   Still, anyone could have seen how this was going to end.

How else was Cromwell to interpret this?   He knew the Covenanters were militarily capable, so he is seeing an armed host rallying behind the dynasty against which both had recently fought a war.  But even then, the Covenanters could have held him off and forced a peace.   Their actions at Dunbar as as unbelievable as they are inexplicable.  They had the advantage of both place and time.  Ignoring that, they decided to meet Cromwell on equal footing.  In response, Cromwell executed one of the most perfect maneuvers in military history (that was still studied and practiced in the 20th century by America, England, and Germany) and in effect subdued Scotland.

To make it worse, Grant notes that Cromwell’s subjugation of Scotland allowed the kirk to flourish spiritually.  Ye shall know them by their fruits.

Lincoln (again)

I must quote Harris in detail for full affect.

“Most of its members were enthusiastically for the war and anxious to participate in it as far as they could without violating their principle of dissent from the government.” (p. 58) This despite the fact that Lincoln himself constantly said the war was not about slavery. We now know Lincoln was a pathological liar; the covenanters must have known this in their bones as well, and gave vent to their approval of the “real reason,” concealed by Lincoln. At any rate, it is hard to imagine them getting so excited about a war that was about enforced union. In view of their history, that would be ironic indeed.

However, they exhibited a certain naiveté in two ways which may go part way to explain the madness. At one point, they concocted an oath to propose to the US as a basis for enlisting in the army, an oath that would be consistent with continued resistance to full submission. “I do swear by the living God, that I will be faithful to the United States, and will aid and defend them against the armies of the Confederate States, yielding all due obedience to military orders.” (p. 58) The charming bit here is the notion of defending against the armies of the CSA — armies which were purely defensive, and which would have been glad to disperse and go home, if it weren’t for the invading and marauding union armies. Somehow, they had built up a mythic view of an aggressive South, gobbling up adjacent lands by force of arms.

Covenanting on the Ground

This is open for discussion.  How exactly is National Covenanting going to work today?  Surely it means more than strong-arming congress in rejecting the First Amendment.

Note Bene:  Harris’s quotations are from David M. Carson. Transplanted to America: A Popular History of the American Covenanters to 1871. (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, n/d).

Letham’s Westminster Assembly

With this volume Letham has established himself as the leading English-speaking Reformed theologian.

HOLY SCRIPTURE

Letham gives the basic Reformed understanding of Scripture.

Continuationism

It’s there, albeit in a mild form.  Letham notes that William Bridge, George Gillespie, and John Knox received (or claimed they did; or others claimed they did) prophetic revelation.  Letham is quick to point out this is only “providential” illumination of Scripture (127).  Letham is correct that the Assembly felt no need to deal with this issue (nor would they have affirmed it), but other studies clearly demonstrate that the Scottish Reformation (both in its First and Second phases) saw manifestation of prophetic gifts beyond that of simply “illuminating” Scripture.  When Cargill and Cameron prophcied the deaths of certain (specific) wicked men, they weren’t merely “applying” the general sense of Scripture.  If “prophecy” means illumination, then every pastor is a prophet!  In which case prophecy is still valid today, but nobody reasons that way.

Part of the Reformed world’s problem here is the presupposition that every prophetic utterance necessarily carries the full binding of God with it.   In another place Wayne Grudem shows that is simply not the case.

God the Holy Trinity

Without passions…

Letham is aware that a hard division on God’s not having passions must take into account the fact that the Incarnation brought into true union with humanity.  Jesus experiences human thoughts, human emotions, etc (162).  Letham is certainly on the correct path, but the problem is much deeper (and this isn’t a slam against Reformed Christology;  all Christological traditions hailing from the Chalcedonian definition must face this problem:  does our definition of what it means to be a person today include self-reflection?  If it does, then we are on the road to Nestorianism. If it doesn’t, is it really coherent to speak of person anymore?)

Letham gives a competent discussion on Creation, though one that will annoy many.  He admits, contra many Klineans, that the divines likely held to six solar days, yet he points out that the more pertinent goal was to reject Augustine’s view of instantaneous creation.  Further, what we must also admit, no matter where we land on this discussion, is that the divines did presuppose a geocentric cosmology which saw theology in spatial terms.  Indeed, one wonders if George Walker even knew that the world is spherical (Letham 191 n.50).

Christ and covenant

“Condescension”

  • Makes the Klinean meritorious reading strained.
  • CoW, while perhaps the correct reading, is not necessary to maintain Reformed theology.  It was developed over time and if Kline’s reading is correct, then huge swathes of Reformed theology would have proved defective before Westminster (233).

Covenant of Redemption?

Letham highlights a number of problems.  While he doesn’t note the problem of person, if person does not include mind (which is usually subsumed under nature), then does it make sense to speak of three individuals who all share the same mind making an agreement?  I’m not saying it is a wrong idea, and the CoR certainly preserves a few key values, but it does have problems.

Assurance

Great section on assurance and he places these (sometimes) painful discussions in their pastoral context, which context is often lost on critics of Reformed assurance.  For the record, I agree with Goodwin pace Owen on the Spirit’s sealing.

Law, Liberty, Church and Eschatology

Great section on Law and Liberty–and he avoids getting involved in the painful theonomy disputes.  Letham shows how the RPW should be read and interpreted in light of the Laudian imprisonment and persecution of Reformed believers.  On another note, he points out how the Presbyterians really failed on clinching and continuing the “liberty of conscience” victory it justly won.   I will elaborate:

Did the Solemn League and Covenant bind the consciences of those who didn’t vow it?  Said another way, was Cromwell later on obligated to establish Presbyterian government?  If he was, how does this square with what (Covenanter) Samuel Rutherford said, “It is in our power to vow, but not in the church’s power to command us to vow” (quoted in Letham 299)?  Maybe the two points don’t contradict each other, but the tension is certainly strained.

And it appears the Presbyterians couldn’t maintain this tension.  They chose to deal with the tyrant Charles I and supported (to their fatal regret later) the pervert Charles II.  Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar is fully justified.

Conclusion:

This isn’t a commentary on the Confession.  It is a theological exploration of the historical circumstances behind it.  Letham’s scholarship is judicious, measured, and quite frankly awe-inspiring.

Cromwell, the Covenanters, and a Critical Reflection

This is a hard post to write, not only because I am not entirely certain where I stand on this issue, but that the answer to this question appears for force the answers to a number of other questions.  My goal in this post is not to vindicate Cromwell.  I want to add clarity to a few key moments in English history where Cromwell clashed with the Covenanters.  Ecclesiastically, I side with the Covenanters.  While I have an appreciation for many Independents, I think it is problematic.   Further, the Covenanters’ testimony during the Killing Times is nothing short of awe-inspiring.  However, some problems remain and I will try to explore these:

  1. Cromwell may be a covenant-breaker, but how was Scots’ aligning with Charles II not a similar violation of the Covenant on the grounds of allying with malignants?   While Rutherford may have had distaste for Cromwell, I think he realized this very point (cf Coffey, 251).
  2. If (1) is true, and if Covenanting Scots had even fought against Charles I and his bishops previously, as they had (Fissel:  1994), then on what grounds can later Covenanter tracts condemn Cromwell as “the Usurper?”
  3. Following (2), isn’t it likely that Cromwell would have left alone Presbyterian Scotland had they not crowned a Stuart Monarch?  Cromwell, being a military and political genius, saw it as cementing a Stuart (and probably quasi-papist, Charles II’s swearing to the Covenant notwithstanding) political power to his north, which would have been a danger.  Cromwell didn’t necessarily want to invade Scotland for invasion’s sake.  The Scots had already proved their mettle earlier and have even defeated some of Cromwell’s lieutenants earlier. Indeed, even when Cromwell brought the bulk of his army to Scotland, he found himself in a terrible trap.  Inexplicably, the Scots abandoned their military vantage point, met Cromwell on equal footing, and lost their army, and soon their liberty.  Precisely who is at fault here?
  4. Following (3), even a Covenanter like Maurice Grant admits that Cromwell’s occupation of Scotland silenced many church disputes and allowed the church to flourish spiritually (Grant, 37).
  5. This is not to say that Cromwell was 100% in the right.  It is sad that Christopher Love was executed.  Assuming he was innocent of those charges, exactly how was correspondence with Catholic monarchs in Europe supposed to be viewed by Cromwell?   I say this as someone who loves Thomas Watson, for example.

Works Cited

Coffey, John.  Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History).
Fissell, Mark.  The Bishops’ Wars: Charles I’s Campaigns against Scotland, 1638-1640 (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History).
Grant, Maurice.  The Lion of the Covenant: The Story of Richard Cameron.

D’Aubigne on Cromwell: Review of The Protector

I’ve gone back and forth in my appraisal of Cromwell for over a decade.   His military genius cannot be denied, nor his spirituality.   While one can make a sound case for the execution of Charles I, it still feels “off.”  Many Cromwell supporters have praised D’Aubigne’s biography on Cromwell.  I critically differ.  It is worth reading.  It is pastorally warm and soul-stirring, but D’Aubigne woefully misreads some key details.  Further, I think D’Aubigne’s own analysis is blatantly self-contradictory, as I will demonstrate below.

While D’Aubigne does a fine job with Cromwell’s spirituality and family life, he is very critical of Cromwell’s military life.  Without any argumentation beyond a simplistic appeal to the Sermon on the Mount, D’Aubigne says Cromwell was wrong to resist the king because that is not what Jesus would have done, or something like that.   (D’Aubigne makes the same criticism of Zwingli; cf William Cunningham for a rebuttal).

I was critical of D’Aubigne’s approach to Cromwell when I first began the biography. I still think my criticisms of MD are justified. But here are some wonderful snippets from his biography that are worthy of reflection (and imitation!).
Speaking of Cromwell’s opposition to Turkish Islamism:

He sailed right into the harbor, and though the shore was planted with heavy guns, he burnt nine of the Turkish vessels, and brought the tyrant to reason. But he did not confine himself to this mission: he spread the terror of the English name over all of Italy, even to Rome itself (211).

Cromwell himself reflects on his army,

I raised such men as had the fear of God before them, as made some conscience of what they did; and from that day forward, I must say to you, they were never beaten, and wherever they engaged the enemy, they beat continually (240-241).

D’Aubigne concludes:

Without Cromwell, humanly speaking, liberty would have been lost not only to England, but to Europe (278).

Contradictions:

It is logically impossible for D’Aubigne to say (1) Cromwell was wrong as a Christian for going to war but (2) Cromwell is right for bringing liberty to Europe.  Precisely, one may ask, how did Cromwell bring liberty to Europe?  Further, D’Aubigne’s gloss on Matthew 5 effectively guts the whole Christian just-war tradition.

Semi-Retractare on Cromwell

In seminary I was a defender of Cromwell and the idea of a specifically Christian republic.  In the past five years I backed off that idea.  Cromwell is best seen as a good idea gone horribly wrong.  He is to be credited with recognizing Roman Catholicism as a political power and doing his best in England to negate it.  Still, as a Presbyterian and a descendant of Scottish Presbyterianism, it’s hard for me to like him.   It is easy to demonize Cromwell.   I won’t do that.  I will just lay out the facts as best I can.  Pros and Cons.

Pros

  1. In a strange sense, despite his invasion of Presbyterian Scotland, Cromwell shared the same view as the “Protesters” vis-a-vis Charles Stuart II.  Cromwell, like Rutherford, saw Charles Stuart II as a degenerate who would butcher Protestants if given the chance.  We can say that his invasion of Scotland was wrong, but we cannot deny Cromwell was prescient on this matter.
  2. It has since come to light that Charles I hired an Army of Irish pagans to butcher Protestants in England.  On this point anyway, Cromwell was entirely in the right to resist him.
  3. Romanists and Royalists on Facebook like to bitch about how evil Cromwell is and how good it would have been to be a Royalist cavalier.  Okay.  Explain why Cromwell’s New Model Army kicked your ass every time.  Cromwell was a military genius.
  4. Despite his heavy-handed measures, even some Covenanters admit that Scotland had more peace (if also more austerity) under Cromwell.
  5. Cromwell has been demonized for his Irish invasion.  It’s kind of hard to feel sorry for the Irish when they had previously slaughtered between 50,000 to 200,000 Protestants, thus calling for a response by Cromwell.   A recent book by an Irish Catholic, Cromwell, Honorable Enemy, vindicates Cromwell on this point.

Cons

  1. It’s hard to justify king-killing.  Resistance to the king?  Absolutely.   Killing him?  That’s an awful burden of proof.
  2. His religious toleration suffered the same problems as all pluralistic governments.
  3. His policy towards the Jew opened England back to Usury.