Lessons In Christian Nationalism From The Scottish Covenanters

Christian Nationalism has become something of a Rorschach test. What do you imagine when you hear this phrase? Is it a rallying cry to a glorious future in which God’s kingdom is manifested on earth? Or does it portend the hellish horrors of fascism? Between these extremes lies a vast array of views. As one contributor to the discussion points out, “The conversation around so-called ‘Christian nationalism’ has rapidly come to dominate discussions in obscure corners of the Reformed and evangelical world and in the mainstream media alike, though it is rarely clear that everyone is talking about the same thing.”1 With this in mind, I have a modest proposal: to conduct a brief, but focused, historical case study. I will focus my discussion on the Scottish Covenanting movement of the seventeenth century. The story of this movement demonstrates fundamental challenges for any attempt to establish a Christian nation. First, we will see the reasons why Scotland was highly successful in establishing itself as a Christian nation. Second, we will see the reasons why Scotland and England did not successfully unite under the Solemn League and Covenant, but instead fought bloody battles for years to come. Finally, I will consider how this story might inform present-day debates over Christian Nationalism in America.

It should be said that what follows is primarily a descriptive argument, not a philosophical or theological case for or against Christian Nationalism. I shall leave that work to minds more vast and subtle than my own. Rather, I will argue that the quality of unity necessary for Christians to unite as a Christian nation is exceedingly difficult to achieve. The history of the Covenanting movement demonstrates this difficulty. Their story is instructive for debates over Christian Nationalism because they experienced both a great success and a total failure in establishing a Christian nation.

A Tale of Two Covenants

The story of the Scottish Covenanters, as their name suggests, can be framed through two covenants: the National Covenant and the Solemn League and Covenant. In the early seventeenth century, tension began to mount between the Church of England and the Scottish Kirk. This tension primarily resulted from the way the Church of England meddled with the worship services of the Scottish Kirk. The Scots were, by and large, staunchly Calvinistic and Presbyterian. As such, they were deeply suspicious of anything in the Church of England which even vaguely looked like a return to Roman Catholic theology and worship. For a time, the Scots who resisted English intrusion in their churches did not face any great censure or consequence. But under Charles I (crowned 1625), pressure began to increase. Charles believed in the divine right of kings and, theologically, he was an Arminian with Roman Catholic sympathies. Unsurprisingly, this cocktail of beliefs would lead to conflict with the Scots. Though Charles I was a Christian monarch, because of theological differences, the Scots would not submit to his requirements.

In 1637, Charles imposed a new liturgy, commonly known as the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), on the Kirk.2 On May 31, 1637, the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, traveled to Edinburgh on the king’s behalf to introduce the new liturgy. He read portions of the BCP to a group of ministers, expecting quick acceptance. Instead, many of the Scottish Presbyterians argued that the Scottish church had not approved the BCP. Furthermore, they objected to the BCP because it was a step back toward Roman Catholicism. Tension only increased from this point. Charles insisted that the Scots adopt the BCP in their worship services. Things came to a head on Sunday July 23, 1637, when the BCP was read for the first time in Scottish churches. According to legend, at St. Giles’ Church of Edinburgh, a woman named Jenny Geddes was so full of indignation and rage that she stood up and threw her stool at the minister.3 This was a portent of what was to come. In the following months, Scotland saw a series of riots in Edinburgh over the imposition of the BCP. Out of a desire to bring order and unity to the opposition, the Scottish minister Alexander Henderson (1583–1646) spearheaded the writing and signing of the National Covenant.

The National Covenant

With the help of lawyer Archibald Johnston of Wariston, Henderson wrote the National Covenant. Henderson thought of a covenant as a solemn oath with God, wherein blessings are gained upon obedience, and curses upon disobedience. His desire was for the entirety of Scotland to unite under this National Covenant. By doing so, they could bring God’s blessing upon Scotland. The National Covenant committed its signers to support the cause of Presbyterianism and oppose Episcopalianism and Roman Catholicism. Those who joined in the Covenant promised: “With our whole hearts we agree, and resolve all the days of our life constantly to adhere unto and to defend the aforesaid true religion.”4 As one scholar puts it, “Henderson and Wariston committed themselves to Presbyterian nationalism.”5 Their desire was to see the nation of Scotland become Presbyterian without exception. They hoped this would spread to England, Ireland, and Wales as well.

On February 28, 1638, at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh, a large group of Scottish Presbyterians ministers and magistrates gathered to sign the National Covenant. In fact, so many people signed it that the paper ran out of space. It is evident from the way the National Covenant united the Scottish church for years to come that those who signed it made their promises with the utmost seriousness and sincerity. Scotland had formally decided to become not merely a Christian Nation, but a Presbyterian one as well. This doctrinal specificity, as well as the fact that they were reacting to a common enemy, made the National Covenant a powerful uniting force for the Scots. Together they promised to preserve “Christ’s true religion, the true and Christian religion, and a perfect religion; which by manifold Acts of Parliament, all within this realm are bound to profess.”6 Note that for the Covenanters, the civil authorities, in addition to the church, were to profess Presbyterian Christianity. This goal was achieved in Scotland. But despite his best efforts, Henderson would not be able to successfully unite the churches of Scotland and England.

The Solemn League and Covenant

The second covenant in this tale is the Solemn League and Covenant. There is a long and complex story leading up to the signing of this covenant. In a nutshell, the English Civil War broke out between the monarchy and parliament. Both sides tried to convince the Scots to join their cause. When parliament called the Westminster Assembly to address the religious problems surrounding the Civil War, they requested military aid from the Scots and delegates for the Assembly. The Scots agreed, according to Henderson, because “the cause of spiritual freedom was now involved in the military struggle.”7 Henderson did not, however, agree without making a stipulation: the Church of Scotland and the Church of England must join together by entering into a covenant with God. The Solemn League and Covenant was signed on September 25, 1643, by members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the Westminster divines, and the commissioners from Scotland.

This was a momentous occasion for the Covenanters. It seemed their dream of a Presbyterian Nation that included England was coming true. Yet, this was not to be the victory for which they hoped. To the Scots, the Solemn League and Covenant was every bit as serious as the National Covenant; but the English did not see it the same way. Henderson thought it would have the same unifying effect as the National Covenant, but it did not. L. Charles Jackson argues that “uniformity between the two churches of Scotland and England was an impractical dream that could not be realized.”8 The fundamental reason for this was Henderson’s insistence that Presbyterian polity was of the essence of the church. He could not reconcile or find middle ground with the Independents at the Westminster Assembly. Despite the incredible level of doctrinal unity reflected in the Confession (adopted by both Presbyterians and Independents), differences on church polity prevented the Christian Nationalism of Scotland from extending to England. Henderson worked tirelessly at the Assembly, hoping to convince the Independents to change their position, but he had no success. Once it became clear that Parliament would win the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell and the Independents no longer needed the Scots. At this point, they rejected the Solemn League and Covenant, which might have crushed Henderson’s hopes except that Charles surrendered to the Scots. Henderson saw this as a new opportunity to unify Scotland and England under the Solemn League and Covenant. He tried to convince Charles to become a Presbyterian. But on August 19, 1646, Henderson passed away, unable to persuade Charles to change his mind.

What Does the Covenanters’ Story Teach Us?

This has been a brief sketch of a complex story; but even a cursory look allows us to draw two conclusions. First, for a nation to unify as Christian, there must be within the church an overwhelming agreement on doctrinal issues. Scotland established the National Covenant largely because the people were not committing to a “mere Christianity,” but a Presbyterian Nationalism. This entailed that the Scots had much to rally around in belief, and perhaps more significantly, on issues that impact the practice of religion—issues such as the liturgy, the Lord’s Supper, and church polity. Significantly, it was disagreement on one particular doctrine—that of church government—that prevented Scotland and England from successfully uniting. Second, there must be meaningful theological agreement between the ruler (monarch or otherwise) and the governed. England and Scotland could not unite, in part, because Charles I held convictions that Presbyterian subjects could not submit to in good conscience. Thus, it seems clear that the quality of unity necessary for a Christian nation to form and sustain itself is exceedingly difficult to achieve. The high degree of theological specificity required to unite a nation’s people, as well as having civil authorities who share this theology, is not an easy combination to acquire. With this in mind, we might ask: How do these conclusions inform present-day debates over Christian Nationalism?

First, the church in America is very theologically diverse. It is quite unlike the Scottish Presbyterian church of the seventeenth century. Beyond theology, there are different geographic realities in North America, as well as vastly different cultural realities dividing American Christians from one another. If England and Scotland could not achieve unity as a Christian Nation despite the incredible amount of doctrinal unity expressed by the Westminster Confession, could America? After all, there is far more than church polity that divides American Christians. The diversity within American Christianity is a major hurdle to the success of any project that seeks to establish Christian Nationalism.

One such project, worth considering in light of what we learn from the Covenanters, is The Statement on Christian Nationalism and the Gospel (hereafter, the Statement). In an interesting move, the writers of the Statement sidestep the hurdle of theological diversity altogether. Article II of the Statement says:

WE AFFIRM that nations are commanded to honor God by officially affirming the orthodox Christian faith as historically and universally defined and affirmed in the creeds (e.g., Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed). We affirm that many denominational confessions articulate the orthodox Christian faith. We affirm that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.

WE DENY that a Christian nation must require or preclude membership in any particular confessional tradition or denomination. Scripture: Acts 20:27; 1 Corinthians 15:1–5; 1 Timothy 3:2, 9; 4:1, 6; 5:8; 6:3, 10, 21; Titus 2:1; Jude 3.

The Statement leads us back to the question posed above. The Scots and the English, who shared an extensive theological unity based on rigorous discussion and debate at the Westminster Assembly, could not sustain their unification under the Solemn League and Covenant. Is it, therefore, likely that a document espousing a basic, creedal Christianity would have greater success? It would seem not. Side-stepping theological disagreement for the sake of unity will not stop those disagreements from existing or from driving rifts between Christians. Just a cursory reading of this article brings to mind several potential points of conflict. First, what of Orthodox Christians? The Statement does not specify if the version of the Nicene Creed they adhere to contains the Filioque clause. Second, what will be done with large, influential, and heretical Christian sects, like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not affirm the creeds? Does the denial “that a Christian nation must require or preclude membership in any particular confessional tradition or denomination” allow for their continued existence within America? Finally, what about all the Roman Catholics who would take issue with the five solas of the Reformation as truths which nations must affirm? Each of these groups represents a fairly large population within America that does not have a place in the Christian Nationalism espoused by the Statement. There was far less diversity within seventeenth-century Scotland and England. It took only one point of disagreement to bring their union crumbling down.

Furthermore, only three creeds are listed, and they are put forth as examples, not as a definitive list that sets the boundaries of orthodox Christianity. This ambiguity, along with the bare minimum of theological truths held in agreement, would struggle to be a reliable guide for a Christian Nation when different confessional traditions and denominations disagree over practical issues of worship and Christian living. As one example, consider the use of images of Christ in worship. Some denominations who hold to orthodox, creedal Christianity see them as a violation of the second commandment. Others do not, and permit images of Christ. Should the government allow or forbid images of Christ? Not only is this a point of division, but Article XI also creates a divide between signatories who support legislating all ten of the Ten Commandments and those who would only legislate commandments five through ten. If the Covenanters story has anything to show, the key to unifying a Christian nation is maximal doctrinal agreement because that will lead to shared views on worship and the Christian life.

The second lesson to be learned from the Covenanters is that there must be meaningful theological agreement between the ruler and the governed. Can we imagine a president to whom all Christians could unite and submit? I strongly suspect the answer is no. What if a Roman Catholic president insisted all churches celebrate the Mass? What would Protestants do? Would Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians submit to a ruler who required they remove all images from their worship? What would you do if a politician placed requirements on your worship that you do not agree with, as Charles I did to the Scots? Would you submit to the ruling authority (Rom 13), or would you resist in order to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29)? It seems likely that any Christian ruler would inevitably be deeply at odds with at least one of the larger Christian groups or denominations in America. If the Christianity of Christian Nationalism is to have any theological depth or richness, there will inevitably be conflict.

Summing Up

In conclusion, the story of the Covenanting movement illustrates just how difficult it is to create a Christian Nation. The conditions that made the National Covenant effective are not present in contemporary America, and the conditions that prevented Scotland and England from remaining united under the Solemn League and Covenant are present in greater quantity and quality. Perhaps there is a version of Christian Nationalism, different from that of the Covenanters, that could be successful. But any Christian tradition that takes its theology and practice seriously and believes it to be the truest expression of the faith will be hard-pressed to show that Christian Nationalism is a viable project.

Notes

  1. Brad Littlejohn, “Christian Nationalism or Christian Commonwealth? A Call for Clarity,” Ad Fontes, Web Exclusives (December 2022), https://adfontesjournal.com/web-exclusives/christian-nationalism-or-christian-commonwealth-a-call-for-clarity/.
  2. The full title is: Scottish Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments.
  3. Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology 1550–1682, rev. ed (Colorado Springs: Paternoster, 2008), 115.
  4. The full text of The National Covenant can be read online: https://reformationhistory.org/nationalcovenant_text.html.
  5. David George Mullan, Scottish Puritanism 1590–1638 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 299.
  6. The National Covenant, https://reformationhistory.org/nationalcovenant_text.html.
  7. Marcus L. Loane, Makers of Religious Freedom in the Seventeenth Century: Henderson—Rutherford—Bunyan—Baxter (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1961), 46. Note how the desire for Presbyterianism to be established justifies warfare in the mind of Henderson. This is an interesting path to explore in present-day discussions about Christian Nationalism, but outside the scope of this essay.
  8. L. Charles Jackson, “For Kirk and Kingdom: The Public Career of Alexander Henderson (1637–1646)” (PhD diss., University of Leicester, 2012), 277.

© Andrew Menkis. All Rights Reserved.


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34 comments

  1. Well, I imagine the ‘Kirkers’ of the Moscow Mood would claim to be the One True Church. Everyone should bow the knee to Pope Doug and his flannel-shirted cardinals. They will guide us!

    The whole idea of Christian Nationalism is not possible. People become Christians, nations do not. Christians within nations may influence the gov’t, as God wills.

    Btw: I would not attach ‘Christian'(even with the qualifier of heretical) to the Mormons nor JWs, as the author did. I get his point, but those groups have nothing to do with Christ.

  2. What is interesting is that most of the loudest proponents of this line of thinking are themselves rebels who have escaped Church affiliations which required them to submit to the consensus on issues of doctrine and practice. What makes them think that they could defer to their brothers in a secular setting. Oh yes, silly me, they don’t think they could or would. They would just make every issue a conviction rather than a preference and therefore justify their actions as martyrs for THE faith, run off, and splinter again. Then again their are those who just plan to take the nation through outbreeding the infidel. They are on the “God will be faithful for a thousand generations” plan. Well, so is Islam, and they have about a 1300 year start on them.

  3. It pains me to say this about a fellow NAPARC church but I’d love to see the RPCNA denounce their (albeit softer but still confessed) view which promotes the legitimacy of establishing so-called Christian nations (their “crown rights of King Jesus” aka “mediatorial kingship of Christ” doctrine).

    Would be thrilled to see them join the majority of their P&R brethren in seeing the blindspot of our (yes very courageous but in this area misguided) forefathers.

    Would be over the moon if they adopted the American revisions to the WCF, and either significantly revised/shortened or nixed their Testimony document altogether, too (since it repeatedly binds consciences where the Word has not and hampers Christian liberty).

    If any brothers or sisters in the RP know of any movement to go in what the rest of the P&R world views to be a much more biblically sound direction on church and government relations and Christian liberty matters, please inform us.

    Please direct all hate mail to the Heideblog 🙂.

  4. I really wish the author had used some historical sources for his article. I’ve been down the theonomy path and thankfully left it due to my understanding of general equity for civil law in the WCF. I remember theonomists arguing that the Scottish Covenanters were also theonomists. But my understanding after reading all the books I could get my hands on is it was a struggle for religious liberty that led to their persecution. So, while one might see their struggle as a failure, I see it as faithfulness to Christ and their conscience. I realize this article is about Christian nationalism, but let’s be faithful to what the Covenanters struggle was for and how it led to religious liberty for their descendants including those here in America.

    • Thank you, Angela. As you know (but others on the Heidelblog won’t) we live in the same general area of Missouri and we’ve discussed these issues before. The Covenanter position on civil government is an interesting retention of historical distinctives that most Reformed people in North America have forgotten was once part of the Presbyterian heritage.

      Also, as you know, I spent two years attending a RPCNA church when living in a different state where, in my part of that state, the only Reformed congregations were two Covenanter churches, one of them pastored by a now-deceased Westminster-East graduate who had become convinced of Covenanter distinctives many decades earlier when the denomination was in steep decline and joining the RPCNA was a very unusual choice. We also both knew Rev. Ray Joseph back when he was still living and still pastoring a Covenanter church in suburban Detroit.

      In other words, while I’ve never been a RPCNA member, I know the denomination better than most outsiders. It seems clear to me that the Covenanters, while they may be “kissing cousins” to theonomists, are not the same. I’ve heard detailed criticisms, with extensive theological and historical points, from actual Covenanters on why they say the theonomists fail to understand the Solemn League and Covenant and why the theological tradition the theonomists seek to claim and appropriate for a modern theological agenda that is quite different.

      If I’d been living in the 1600s it seems likely I’d have been a moderate supporter of Cromwell trying to mend fences with those among the Anglicans (i.e. Archbishop Ussher, etc.) who shared Puritan piety but differed on worship, and with the moderates among the Presbyterians who didn’t seek to impose their form of church government on the dissenters. In other words, I’d probably like John Owen a great deal. It’s hard to see me agreeing with the Covenanter position, either while it was in control of Scotland before the war with England, or during the period after Cromwell defeated the Scots, or during the period when the Covenanters were persecuted by the restored monarchy, or even after the Covenanters were granted toleration.

      However, I concur with you, Angela, that at least after the restoration of the monarchy, the Covenanter position became identified with religious freedom for conservative Reformed dissenters from the Established Church, and they paved the way for the role later played by the Erskine brothers and the Associate Presbyterian Church, and later for the Free Church of Scotland.

      Those people who want to have an established church need to take a very hard look at the history of establishmentarianism. It’s not pretty. I might be able to support the way the establishment worked in New England, but that was an exception to the norm, it allowed for numerous types of dissenting churches (initially with tolerance for Presbyterians, then for Anglicans and Baptists). Even if the Unitarian Schism hadn’t happened or had been suppressed, I don’t see any way that system could have survived past the Second Great Awakening or the mass migration of Irish Catholics in the early-to-mid 1800s.

      Perhaps the only post-“Enlightenment” example I can think of in which establishmentarianism had any kind of positive outcome was the situation in Italy where King Charles Albert, in his 1848 constitution, declared the Roman Catholic Church to be the established faith of his realm but granted religious liberty to Waldensians and to Jews, in direct opposition to the standard Roman Catholic position of that time. For many years thereafter, as the ruling house of Savoy expanded to eventually encompass all of the Italian peninsula, that grant of religious freedom to a single dissenting Protestant religious group allowed Protestant missionaries to come into Italy under Waldensian auspices.

      The problem is that system worked only because the King had personally visited the Waldensian Valleys, liked what he saw, and decided there was no reason to persecute people who proclaimed themselves to be among his most loyal subjects in all matters except communion with Rome. Many of his predecessors had taken the exact opposite position and the persecutions of the Waldensians by the House of Savoy had been notorious throughout Protestant Europe.

      When religious freedom depends on whether the king personally likes or dislikes the dissenters, that’s not a good foundation. It worked in Italy, and as Waldensians expanded throughout Italy in the 1800s, it showed Catholics the value of a Protestant work ethic and caused many Catholics who had never met a Protestant to decide they weren’t bad people and were good, productive, hard-working citizens who the government had no valid reason to persecute.

      That’s not the normal way establishment worked prior to the Reformation, during the Reformation, or during the 1800s as liberalism began to break apart the older religious consensus. The Waldensians themselves were eventually captured by liberalism (though that was delayed because for a long time they were sending their seminarians to places like the Free Church College in Scotland), and the religious condition of modern Italy is not something any American evangelical Protestant, or for that matter, any traditional Roman Catholic, should want to see held up as a model for how faith should work in civil society. Even Prime Minister Meloni, who to her credit is the most conservative Italian political leader in a very long time and who has done a lot of good things, would not be considered a conservative in the American political spectrum.

      I think many Americans who like the idea of establishmentarianism like it because they have never seen it in practice and read about it only in history books. It hasn’t always worked out badly. But very often it has worked out not just badly but horribly for confessional conservatives, and the Covenanters are a key early example of that.

  5. Tho I find a ‘wee bit’ of empathy in leaning towards Folks who are ‘desiring’ to establish their CN, I know far better in being a God/Yahweh Caused Doctrines of Grace/Calvinistic/Biblical Christian, with my sins & frailties admittedly known. I know ‘of ‘ yet not personally those in both CN and CI (Christian Identity), I shied away from it thru true Biblical convictions many years ago. Tis just not Biblical OR honest. (Thank You, Lord God!).
    Dr. Joel Beeke’s highly xlnt book from 2004-“Puritan Reformed Spirituality” greatly aided in my understandings of these troubling & rising ‘newer’ movements (CN & CI). PRS is very full of problems & splittings (oft violently & even heartlessly) of the actions during those times in primarily Scotland, as well as Wales & England!
    Tho I’m honestly happy God created me from my Scottish, English, Welsh, & Irish family ‘tree,’ I can’t & never SHALL think & act anywhere beyond that!

  6. This reminds me of something … .

    Somebody seemed to think that the solemn league and covenant is still in force and somebody else commended the book the first someone wrote about that claim

    https://dougwils.com/books-and-culture/books/book-of-the-month-february-2023.html

    “The argument of this book is that a mutual covenant cannot be repealed by just one of the parties, and so the covenant is still in force—broken, but still in force. The additional arguments that Wagner mounts are that members of the Commonwealth (Canada, New Zealand, Australia) are still bound by the covenant as well. Because of the unique history of the United States, and our War for Independence, the argument for us takes a little different route, but arrives at the same conclusion. We also are bound by it.

    I think that all Christians would likely agree that covenants made centuries ago, say with the Navajo, should still be honored today. But we think that the covenant with God is just “words on paper.” This is because we believe in the Navajo, but when it comes to God, we are functional unbelievers.”

    The claim that all Christians would likely agree that covenants made centuries ago with the Navajo should still be honored today has to ignore (or be ignorant of) the whole debacle of termination and reparations as policy because the goal, at the time, was to assimilate Native Americans into ordinary citizenship and thus make them no longer functional wards of the BIA. Eventually termination and reparations was viewed as such a debacle the Nixon administration concluded that simply honoring the treaties was the better way to go.

    So, no, a ton of white Christians not only didn’t agree that the “covenants” (i.e. treaties) ought to be kept but the legislatures of states and union sought ways to abolish those “covenants”. The idea that Doug Wilson hasn’t known this stuff with the Nez Perce so close to his base of operations seems impossible to take seriously.

    • Oh man…the Moscow Zealots are going to so co-opt the SL&Covenant now, just as they do with so many other things.

      Nothing they won’t twist for power. Power esp. over their members, who probably don’t know much history (do you think Wilson’s schools teach it well?).

      • This is also a concern of mine. We are to honor our forefathers in the faith and their legacy should not be hijacked by an ego maniac which is what Doug Wilson is in my opinion. This is one reason why I have turned my attention back to the Scottish Covenanters and trying to set the record straight. They deserve so much more than to be associated with Wilson and his followers.

        • Angela,

          The article doesn’t mention Wilson. He’s a major proponent of CN but not the only one.

          The RPCNA Testimony still affirms to mediatorial kingship of Christ but not the national covenant, hence RP members now vote in American elections.

          The point of the essay is to try to get advocates of CN ( and those tempted by it) to learn from the past.

          The USA was organized as it was to avoid the previous centuries of European/British history. It seems obvious to me what will happen if enough people give up on the American experiment. We will replicate the wars of Europe. Human nature hasn’t changed. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anybody is imagining anything other.

    • Dr. Clark wrote: “It seems obvious to me what will happen if enough people give up on the American experiment. We will replicate the wars of Europe. Human nature hasn’t changed. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anybody is imagining anything other.”

      You have a very valid concern if theonomy would ever become dominant in the United States. The chance of that happening is close to zero.

      On the other hand, I spend a fair amount of time reading and speaking with Roman Catholic integralists, who unlike the American brands of theonomists, Christian nationalists, and Christian reconstructionists, seem to have a realistic chance of succeeding in at least some parts of the world.

      I don’t see from the Catholic side of this debate the sort of thing that would replicate the experience of the 1500s and 1600s with religious wars. What I see is a desire to return to the cultural history of the Catholic countries of Europe, perhaps somewhat similar to the “neo-Guelphism” projects advocated in the early-to-mid 1800s before the Pope of that era became reactionary and lost the Papal States to military force.

      What I find interesting is that it looks like a fair number of the Roman Catholics thinking this way are aware of the experience of Abraham Kuyper in the Netherlands and have read the Roman Catholic arguments of the 1800s for cooperating with Kuyper and the Protestants. Modern “integralists” have thought through the issues inherent in cooperation between conservative Protestants and conservative Catholics, and believe it is possible to have a Christian but multiconfessional state. The Netherlands with Kuyper seems to be agreed, by both Protestants and Catholics, as the best modern historical example of something like that working.

      The complication, of course, is that the Netherlands of the 1800s were a small but relatively well-off country with a very high level of church attendance. What country in the modern world meets all three of those categories: small size, financial prosperity, and high levels of church attendance?

      The people who want to apply those structures to the United States recognize that our Constitution has a fundamentally different foundation from European history. (On that point, the older Covenanters had a point about what a radical break the American Constitution was from Western history.) While some will point out, correctly, that the old Swiss Confederation was a multiconfessional state and that the Swiss example was cited by some during the era of the Founding Fathers as an argument for how Maryland and Massachusetts could live together in peace, the Swiss cantons were (or most were at least supposed to be) internally unified on religious matters. We haven’t had established state churches in any American state for two centuries and the Fourteenth Amendment likely would require an amendment to make it possible.

      What would the result be? Perhaps Utah is sufficiently unified in religion to establish Mormonism. Is any other state in the Union sufficiently unified to establish any faith whatsoever? At most, perhaps Texas or Alabama legislators could follow the model of Italy in having the government collect what used to be called the “church tax,” but now is sent to the taxpayers choice of a number of different churches or a secular charity. Even that, however, would certainly require overturning a century and a half of Supreme Court precedent and probably would require a Constitutional amendment.

      I just don’t see that the theonomic/reconstructionist model has any realistic chance of being adopted even in our smallest and most religiously conservative states, with one and only one exception — and Utah should give serious pause to advocates of such a project.

      I have better things to do with my time than chasing after projects like this. I think the advocates of such projects, while they may have a realistic chance of success in some European countries and perhaps some of the heavily Christian countries of the Global South, would be better off discussing American projects that don’t require the supermajorities of a Constitutional amendment that would be needed even to make them possible.

  7. Dr. Clark, thank you. I agree with you and while I haven’t taken an indepth look at CN, I am extremely cautious of it and try to not promote it. I mentioned Doug Wilson in response to earlier comments mentioning him, but he is influential and seems to be the most controversial proponent in my opinion.

  8. Darrell, I wasted much time, energy and money chasing after a theonomic solution to America’s cultural problems a couple of decades ago. So, for me, this is an important subject because I don’t want to see others wasting their resources on something that really isn’t Biblical. Quite truthfully, it affected my marriage and if I hadn’t listened to folks like Dr. Clark, I would probably be a sad, lonely, miserable woman. We can’t just ignore it because it isn’t likely to happen. IMO, we have a duty to warn others when they are on a wrong path. I commend Dr. Clark and others who have been faithful in warning others of these types of teachings.

  9. I mentioned the Wilson link because I’ve kept track of him long enough to know that any mention of the Solemn League and Covenant that shows how it devolved won’t convince them it can’t be replicated. I think we’re dealing with people for whom their minds have been made up and they don’t want to be confused by getting history lessons. Or, as another blogger I interact with put it when describing an entirely different case, we’re dealing with people who will torture the evidence until it yields the desired result.

  10. Great article, I can see how non confessional Christians could whole heartedly agree. But I still don’t understand how confessionally reformed Christians could agree with these concerns. The Reformed Confessions were written with “Constantinian” language and, to some extent, were designed to promote a Protestant form of Christendom. To be reformed, logically leads to a baptized State. Obviously many American reformed Christians don’t like this, so they then change the confessions.

    “* The preceding three paragraphs are a substitution for the original paragraph below, which various Reformed Synods have judged to be unbiblical:
    “And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.”

    • Dr. Clark,

      Thanks for the engagement and sharing the history of the topic. When it comes to the Westminster Confession, the confession of the Covenanters, it’s been primarily the Americans who have made the revisions regarding the magistrate/State. Of course there are some, like the RPCNA (and others, such as the FPC in Scotland and its offshoots ), who have not made the revision and still hold to the original intent of the Westminster Divines. That intent is clearly a Christian State/Commonwealth. It does seem at times that the rhetoric of the so called “Christian Nationalists” are more in line with the Confession than their critics.

    • Dr. Clark,

      I should have clarified with “some” Christian Nationalists…
      The reformed in American have long had racists in their midst. I recall you writing in the past about Machen’s racism and he’s still held in high esteem. My only point is that being in favor of a Christian State is consistent the Westminster and Belgic Confessions. To desire that the State be Christian was and is the original intent of the Reformed.

      • John,

        Yes, all the Protestants (and some of the Anabaptists, in practice) were theocrats. They all assumed Christendom, i.e., an established church and the state-enforcement of religious orthodoxy. It was an unquestioned premise but it was in tension with their distinction between the two kingdoms (which they also made, but which is now strangely considered controversial). Their theocratic assumption was in tension with their distinction between the two spheres (to use Calvin’s language) of God’s kingdom.

        Their acceptance of Christendom/theocracy helped to fuel a century or more of warfare through the 16th and 17th centuries.

        Those who seriously pursue a theocratic agenda in this country will bring war with it.

        As for British and European Christendom, you can have it. Look at it. The state churches are decrepit. American Christianity isn’t healthy but it’s positively robust compared to European and British Christianity chiefly because our churches are free.

        For the life of me I can’t understand the romantic attraction to a state-church.

        It was one thing to imagine a national covenant in the 17th century but the American “covenanters” have rightly given up on it.

        Why do theocrats simply ignore the first 350 years of the history of the church and normativize the history of the church post AD 380?

        By what right?

        By what biblical case? Symington’s argument falls apart in the 2nd half of the book. It assumes what it must prove and doesn’t read Psalm 2 at all the way the NT does. The NT is practically irrelevant to Symington’s argument, which is fatal to it in my view.

        I reviewed it here.

    • Dr. Clark,
      The Confessions were read theocratically -to some extent- until recently. Hodge, Warfield, Machen, etc. all expected, at some point in the future, for the State to be theocratic. They, by and large, did not see the tension. For some, there’s not a romance but a commitment to adhering to the Confessions as they were originally intended. The Westminster Confession was and is intended to be theocratic. You say this doesn’t have biblical warrant. How am I supposed to know this if I’m a member of a church that adheres to the 1647 Confession? I’m not being cheeky. I’d like to better understand.

      • John,

        Hodge and Warfield assumed a Christian majority and a de facto Christendom in America but not a de sure Christendom. They didn’t want an established church. They subscribed the system of doctrine of the American revisions. They didn’t see the tension because Christendom didn’t really end in this country until the repeal of the blue laws. I watched the change.

        That doesn’t mean that the tension didn’t exist. Read Beza’s De iure magistratuum. He makes a powerful case for the spirituality of the church and the end of the national people and then turns around and speaks to and of the King of France as though he were David. It was a deeply ingrained pattern of thought. Have you read Calvin’s comments on the twofold kingdom? They sound rather “R2K” to me:

        Therefore, in order that none of us may stumble on that stone, let us first consider that there is a twofold government in man (duplex esse in homine regimen): one aspect is spiritual, whereby the conscience is instructed in piety and in reverencing God; the second is political, whereby man is educated for the duties of humanity and citizenship that must be maintained among men. These are usually called the “spiritual” and the “temporal” jurisdiction (not improper terms) by which is meant that the former sort of government pertains to the life of the soul, while the latter has to do with the concerns of the present life—not only with food and clothing but with laying down laws whereby a man may live his life among other men holily, honorably, and temperately. For the former resides in the inner mind, while the latter regulates only outward behavior. The one we may call the spiritual kingdom, the other, the political kingdom. Now these two, as we have divided them, must always be examined separately; and while one is being considered, we must call away and turn aside the mind from thinking about the other. There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority.

        JOHN CALVIN | Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559 edition), 3.19.15 (Battles edition).

        The last sentence is especially clear: “There are in man, so to speak, two worlds, over which different kings and different laws have authority.” This is the end of Christendom in principle. It took a few centuries but already during the 17th century, during the 80 Years War/Thirty Years War after after people Like John Owen were thinking about a degree of religious toleration.

        It would take more war and more time for people to begin to ask whether it is necessary to the state to have an established religion? The American founders made a breakthrough in re the federal government and the courts finished the job by 1833 for the state governments.

        That isn’t going to change, by the way. There will be war if anyone tries to establish a church. Human nature hasn’t changed.

        Machen didn’t want the Bible read in public schools so I don’t think he’s a very good candidate for a theocrat. He was opposed to prayer in public school long before it was ruled unconstitutional.

        As to the confession, the church confesses what she does because she thinks and agrees that what Scripture teaches. Clearly there is a division of opinion within the confessing churches. Most of us have rejected theocracy but whatever the case, a thing doesn’t become true because the church confesses it. The church confesses because she believes a thing to be true.

        Popes and councils do err. That’s why confessions are revised.

        Once upon a time we all believed that the sun revolves around the earth. We know better now. We do learn things. We have texts (MSS, papyri etc) to which our forebears had no access. We know that the longer ending of Mark is not authentic and that the woman taken in adultery is most probably not authentic. We know that the longer reading in 1 John 5 is not authentic.

        We can see now that there is no warrant in the New Testament for a state-church. I’ve been asking for decades for someone to make a plausible case, from the New Testament, and no one has because it cannot be done.

    • Thanks again, Dr. Clark. It is appreciated. Clearly Mr. Calvin was inconsistent, being that he used the magistrate to enforce the death penalty for heresy. As for Machen, he was Postmillennial in his eschatology and called for abolishing the public schools. He might not like many of the Christian Nationalists out there but he no doubt had an affinity for a christianized State (not to b confused with a State Church).

      • Did Machen call for the abolition of public schools? He opposed, as I do, the formation of a Dept of Education.

        The abolition of public schools, which I could support, doesn’t a theocrat make.

        Christianized state? No idea what that is.

        As to his eschatology, was he postmillennial in the sense in which it is used today? The category “amillennial” was brand new in the 1920s and 30s. Not many used it of themselves. I doubt that Warfield was what we today would call a postmillennialist. I don’t think Machen expected an earthly glory age before Christ returned.

        Check out these resources on postmillennialism. The exegetical basis for postmillennialism is very thin indeed, as Bob Strimple and man others have argued.

    • Dr. Clark,

      You are the first person I’ve heard claim that Machen may not be Postmillennial (historic not theonomic) in his eschatology. I’ll certainly check out those resources you recommended. As to Christianized State, it’s one that follows the original Belgic Confession:
      “And the government’s task is not limited to caring for and watching over the public domain but extends also to upholding the sacred ministry, with a view to removing and destroying all idolatry and false worship of the Antichrist; to promoting the kingdom of Jesus Christ; and to furthering the preaching of the gospel everywhere; to the end that God may be honored and served by everyone, as he requires in his Word.”

  11. I would like to clarify that I am postmillenial and I adhere to the WCF as originally written. I appreciate the comments on this article and while I am no longer a theonomist, I am also not one who can set aside my faith in civil affairs. I served on a local school board (1994-1999) as a conservative Christian who fought to have Planned Parenthood expelled from the classroom and to teach our children about our Christian heritage. I also agree with those radical founding fathers and mothers who wanted more protection for our Christian religion in the Constitution. We should acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord in our founding documents and that we don’t is why we are in the mess we are in today. I hope Dr. Clark will approve this comment. Thank you.

    • As an amillennialist, I do not SET ASIDE my faith in civil affairs, for instance when voting. We are in a nation that has freedoms for us all to influence politics. Sometimes it goes my way, sometimes not.

      That being said, I would never PUT my faith in civil affairs. Not one bit of it!

      Asking the unregenerate to acknowledge Christ as Lord is a fool’s errand. Only our Lord can turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. We cannot do so through political might.

  12. My comment was in response to the discussion between Dr. Clark and John; I just don’t want folks to think I’ve changed my Covenanter views. Mary, I have no beef with you, but if you don’t tell people that Christ is Lord, how will they know? Shall we let them go to hell because we assume they are not and never will be regenerated? Is that Biblical? I think not.

  13. I’m in agreement Biblically that we are indeed to be Particular Redemptrants AND universal evangelists! That makes Biblical common sense to me/us! Praise His Most Holy Name!✝️📖🛐

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