Christians Who Changed Their World

The Reformation and Politics 3: Government as Covenant


Glenn Sunshine

Martin Luther’s Two Kingdom doctrine was a significant contribution to Western political thought and is experiencing a resurgence in some circles today. John Calvin accepted Two Kingdom doctrine, but added another component to political thought that was arguably even more important than Luther’s: the idea that government should be based on a covenant between the ruler and the people. 


According to the late political science professor Daniel Elazar, governments can originate in three different ways: by conquest, organically, or by covenant. (Although Elazar does not say this, conquest tends to lead to monarchies or aristocracies, and organic governments tend toward aristocracies or republics.) Although other covenants existed earlier, the first fully covenantal government was established by God at Sinai in the book of Exodus.

In Exodus, God frees his people from Egypt, brings them to Sinai, and offers to enter a covenant with them. The terms are simple: God lays out a law code and promises to bless the children of Israel if they obey but to curse them if they disobey. He then asks the Israelites three times if they will accept the covenant. Only after they have agreed all three times does this covenant go into effect.


Elazar argues that after the failure of ancient Israel, covenantal government next emerged in Calvin’s Geneva. From Exodus, Calvin and his successors argued that government was properly based on a covenant between the ruler and the people, and that the people had to enter this covenant freely. Just as God asked the people three times if they would accept his covenant, so governments must be based on the consent of the governed if they are to be legitimate.

Calvin’s ideas began a strain of political thought that would change Western history. In the wake of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres of 1572, in which tens of thousands of Protestants were slaughtered across France, Huguenot thinkers began weaving covenantal ideas into Protestant resistance theory, which addressed the question of when a legitimate king turned into an illegitimate tyrant.

Puritan Politics

These ideas would spread to the English Puritans. Puritan political thought was shaped by Calvin’s understanding of the implications of Sinai and by Huguenot arguments about tyranny, and this provided the theoretical foundation for both the Parliamentary side of the English Civil War (1642-51) and the Commonwealth (roughly 1649-59). Covenantal government also spread to England’s American colonies, particularly in Puritan New England. We see this in the Mayflower Compact (1620) and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (1639), arguably the first written constitution in the Western world.

Unfortunately, the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy after the Commonwealth (1660) cut short the development and influence of covenantal thinking about government in England.

John Locke

A secularized form of covenantal politics experienced a resurgence in England in the wake of the Glorious Revolution (1688), notably in John Locke’s “Two Treatises of Government” (1689). In his second treatise, Locke explains human beings were created with unalienable rights, including the rights to life, liberty, and property. Governments are established as a contract with the people to protect these rights. Should the government fail to do so, the people have the right to revoke the contract via rebellion and to institute a contract with a new government.

Most discussions of Locke’s political theory fail to recognize the biblical and theological roots of his ideas, presenting them instead as a product of Enlightenment secularism. There is an element of truth in this: Locke was certainly influenced by early Enlightenment thought, and so he presented a secularized version of Calvinist covenant theory, as evidenced by the change from the earlier language of compacts and covenants to that of contracts. This has led this entire tradition of political thought to be somewhat misleadingly called “Calvinist Social Contract Theory” rather than Covenant Theory.

The Source of Rights

At the same time, however, Locke was not a secularist in the modern sense of the word. He grew up as a Puritan, and while he may have moved toward a more liberal strain of Protestantism, he never lost his Christianity. More importantly, he developed his ideas out of an understanding of Christian theologians’ reflections on government and human rights going back centuries. In addition to Calvinist influences on his thought, his argument that government exists to preserve unalienable rights was built on medieval theologians’ reflections on the rights given by God to humanity in the Garden of Eden, before human government. These rights are thus pre-political, and as a result government does not have a right to deprive us of them arbitrarily.


The first of Locke’s unalienable rights is the right to life. God gave humanity life, and while the Old Testament Law permits capital punishment under certain circumstances, these are carefully defined and restricted; government cannot take a person’s life except for serious crimes after due process, or in the course of fighting a just war.

Liberty vs. License

God also gave Adam and Eve liberty in the garden. This is frequently equated with freedom, but our concept of freedom is far broader than the medieval and early modern concept of liberty. In early modern terms, our idea of freedom includes both liberty and license. Liberty is defined as the right to pursue the Good. This is an old idea: Augustine, for example, believed that God has perfect liberty because he is unable to do anything but the Good. License, on the other hand, is freedom from restraint and thus the right to pursue vice rather than virtue.

To put it differently, liberty is freedom for something—a positive definition of freedom pointing to its legitimate end in the Good—while license is freedom from external rules or constraints—a negative definition of freedom. In the postmodern world, our understanding of freedom is far closer to license than to liberty. Yet no political thinker, including Locke, believed that we had a right to license. The only meaningful freedom was freedom in service of the Good, not in pursuit of evil, selfishness, or personal autonomy.

Liberty was given to Adam and Eve in the Garden, where they had the opportunity and ability to obey God; the fact that they did not do so does not alter the fact that genuine freedom is found in liberty and not in license, and that is the only kind of freedom government is to protect.

(The cultural transition from liberty to license came with the rise of ideas of cultural and ethical relativity. In a relativistic system, there is no Good to aspire to except what the autonomous individual decides for her/himself is good; in this context, liberty disappears and all that is left is license.)


Locke’s third unalienable right, the right to property, also dates back to Eden, an insight that ironically enough came from Franciscan theologians who emphasized apostolic poverty, the idea that clergy should have no possessions at all. In Eden, Adam and Eve were told to tend the garden and were given permission to eat fruit from any tree (except one). They were thus literally entitled to the fruit of their labor.

This observation became the foundation of the labor theory of property, which says that when you put labor into natural resources, some of yourself goes into those resources and thus you rightfully own them. Locke added the proviso that this law holds only if sufficient resources of the same quality remain available for others to obtain ownership for themselves in the same way.

Since this right predates government, government cannot legitimately deprive you of your property except through taxes to pay for its legitimate functions, or through fines imposed after due process.

(Note that the labor theory of property is different from the labor theory of value, which states that the value of an item is determined by the amount of labor that went into producing it rather than by the pleasure or use the owner gets from it, an idea associated with Marxist economics.)

Locke’s ideas thus combined medieval Catholic ideas about rights and government derived from Genesis with covenantal political ideas drawn from Calvinism and derived from Exodus, into a powerful theory that both provided justification for England’s Glorious Revolution and influenced Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence.

Covenantal Government and America

Elazar argues that the third emergence of covenantal government is in America. The Constitution is a compact between the states and people on the one hand, and the federal government on the other, which established a new system of government for the country, and which was ratified by the people through their representatives and thus was based on the consent of the governed. All of these points are derived from God’s covenant with Israel at Sinai as interpreted by the Calvinist political tradition via the Puritans, Locke, and Jefferson. So the political legacy of Protestant theologians has shaped America, and through America, much of the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, along with its positive contributions to political thought, the Reformation’s legacy also includes persecution, religious wars, and massacres, and indirectly contributed to the secularization of Western society. We will explore these themes in the next article.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia and zodebala at iStock by Getty Images. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.

Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


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