“Covenant” and Polity in the Thought of the Early Reformers

This article by Simon P. Kennedy of the University of Queensland appeared in the February issue of our Ad Fontes magazineTo subscribe to receive full issues in your inbox, click here.
The idea of “covenant” is prominent in Reformed political thought. Indeed, early Reformed thinkers who wrote about politics often used the concept of covenant to illustrate their ideas about society or to theorise about the relationship between the ruler and the people. However, the dominance of liberalism in post-seventeenth century Western political thought often means that anything resembling a consensual agreement is liable to be labelled a “social contract.” This has resulted in a distortion of the concept of covenant and perhaps a distortion of the nature and legacy of the Reformed tradition of political thought more generally. I hope to demonstrate that the earliest Reformed political thinkers did not understand “covenant” as equivalent to the later idea of ‘social contract’. There is not space enough to compare the two concepts at length, so I will merely show how the idea of “covenant” was used and understood in early Reformed political thought.
First, some definitions. The family of words under question here includes terms like covenant, compact, pact, treaty, and contract along with their Latin equivalents (foedus, pactum or pactio, and contractus).[1] But in using this family of terms, did Reformed Protestants intend anything like the liberal idea of a social contract? The evidence suggests that they did not.
John Calvin applied the idea of pacto, and the related foedera, to God’s dealings with his people (both Israel and the Church) in a number of places. In his discussion of the continuities between the Old and New Testaments, Calvin uses the term foedus to refer to the way that God related in a particular and conditional manner to his people. Two examples will suffice. In one case Calvin says that God related to Israel through a particular covenant before Christ’s advent. He writes about ”the covenant [foedus] which the Lord made with the Israelites before the advent of Christ.”[2] A further example can be found in Calvin’s discussion of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, where he writes that “since the Lord calls his promises covenants [foedera] … sacraments are signs of the covenants [foederum], [and] a resemblance is able to be adduced from the covenants [foederibus] of men themselves.’[3]
So foedus is used by Calvin to describe God’s dealings with humankind, and principally as a theological term, while he mentions the “covenants of men themselves” as an aside. However, the idea of foedus, and the related pactio, were given common political-theological usage by Reformed thinkers during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.
The influential tract Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (1573), attributed to “Junius Brutus” but probably authored by Phillipe Du Plessis Mornay, provides an example of political- theological use of the foedus word family.[4] Mornay writes that “we read of two sorts of covenants (foedus) at the inaugurating of kings, the first between God, the king, and the people, that the people might be the people of God. The second, between the king and the people, that the people shall obey faithfully, and the king command justly.”[5] Mornay is here establishing the principle of covenant (foedus) between both a people and God, a King and God, and (critically for Huguenot political theory) between a people and their King. He goes on to use both pactio and foedus in the same line of thought when he writes: “Now after that kings were given unto the people, there was so little purpose of disannulling or disbanding the former pact (pactio) … We have formerly said [that] at the inaugurating of kings, there was a double covenant (foedus).”[6] This example from Vinidiciae Contra Tyrannos illustrates the seed of the political-theological concept of covenant in the political thought of the Reformed stream.
Johannes Althusius’ ideas about pactio fit within, and develop, this stream of Reformed thought. Althusius conceived of society itself as a kind of pact (or compact). In the opening paragraph of his Politca (1614), Althusius writes that the symbiotes make a pact each with the other.(Politca 1:1) Further on he says that they form a bond by way of a pact (vinculo pacti). (Politca 1:6) This pact is either expressly made or tacitly made; there is no need to have to draw up a new pact each time the conditions of the political fellowship (consociatio) change slightly. (Cf. Politica 5:3) People participate by general consensus through this pact in the building of political life together. Humans bind themselves to one another through this pact. People are in society together, closely connected, and are so because of a kind of mutually-binding oath.
This is clearly no kind of “social contract” as liberal theorists would understand it. Althusius’ pactio is not a loose agreement whereby some people can be disqualified if they transgress the conditions of said agreement, nor is it voluntary in nature and therefore easily dissoluble.[7] The pact described by Althusius is also not based on individual people agreeing together to submit themselves to a ruler or a sovereign. As Althusius expounds in the rest of the Politica, his idea of a pact involves different elements of society, including the family, the guild, local and provincial authorities. Indeed, as Harro Höpfl and Martyn Thompson observe, Althusius “insisted on interpreting all significant relationships within the societas perfecta as contractual,” but in the sense of a consensual ‘covenant’.”[8] Society, in the thought of Althusius, is evidently not underpinned by a social contract as such.
This necessarily brief excursus into the early Reformed politico-theological idea of covenant hopefully demonstrates that the idea is best understood in the context of the broader tradition’s theology and social theory. It is beyond question that Calvin’s ideas about biblical covenants do not resemble a modern liberal social contract. Both the author of the Vindiciae and Althusius should not be labelled social contractarians either. Instead, Reformed political ideas about societal covenants and pacts ought to be understood within the theological and social context in which they were formed.
Simon P. Kennedy is a 2016/17 Davenant Fellow and a PhD candidate at the University Queensland. This material formed part of a paper recently presented at the 2017 meeting of  the Southern Political Science Association.
[1] Harro Höpfl and Martyn P. Thompson, “The History of Contract as a Motif in Political Thought,” The American Historical Review 84, no. 4 (1979): 927.
[2] ‘quod olim cum Israelitis foedus ante Christi adventum Dominus pepigit‘. Jean Calvin, Institutio christianae religionis (Geneva: Robert I. Estienne, 1559a), 290, 2.10.1 The translation is my own..
[3]Et quando Dominus promissiones suas foedera nuncupat sacramenta, symbola foederum: ab ipsis hominum foederibus simile adduci potest.’ Jean Calvin, Institutio christianae religionis. (Geneva: Robert I. Estienne, 1559b), 353, 4.14.6 Translation is my own.
[4] On the question of authorship, I follow those whom Quentin Skinner describes as ‘the best modern scholars’; see Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought: Volume 2. The Age of Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 306, n3.
[5]Duplex autem foedus in Regum inauguratione legimus: primum, inter Deum & Regem & Populum, ut esset Populus, Dei Populus. Secundum vero inter Regem & Populum, ut bene imperanti bene obtemperarentur.‘ Junius Brutus, Vindiciae contra tyrannos: sive, de principis in populum, populique in principem, legitima potestate ([s.n.]: Edimburgi, 1579), 11–2. The translation is from Junius Brutus, Vindiciae contra tyrannos, a defence of liberty against tyrants, or, Of the lawful power of the prince over the people, and of the people over the prince, trans. by William Walker (London: Richard Baldwin, 1689), 8.
[6] ‘Iam ex quo Reges Populo dati sunt, no modo non dehit haec eadem Pactio … Diximus in Rege inaugurando duplex foedus initum suisse.’ Brutus, Vindiciae contra tyrannos, 35–6. Translation is from Brutus, A defence of liberty, 26. I have changed the translation of pactio from ‘contract’ to ‘pact’.
[7] The only exception to this is the pact to form a collegium. This matches the nature of the political fellowship in question, and is not reflective of Althusius’ own idea of a societal pact.
[8] Höpfl and Thompson, “The History of Contract”, 935.


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