Conservatism and the Reformed Doctrine of Covenant

My goal in the following article is to detail the relation between Conservatism and Reformed Theology. My basic thesis is that the idea of Conservatism and the Reformed doctrine of the covenant sweetly coalesce with one another. In what follows, I will briefly (1) outline what I mean by the idea of the “conservative attitude,” (2) do the same with the Reformed doctrine of Covenant, and (3) demonstrate their concurrency.

The Idea of the Conservative Attitude

There are many different conceptions of Conservatism; there are Burkean Conservatives (those who follow the tradition of Edmund Burke), National Conservatives (those who seek to maintain the distinct identity of their nation), religious Conservatives, and the like. Modern parlance, for those of us in America, would associate the word “Conservative” with those who, at a socio-political level, advocate for traditional morality and free-markets. This contemporary viewpoint, though a real form of conservation, should not be confused with the more general conception of Conservatism I am articulating here. Broad Conservatism, at the human level, encapsulates the attitude of one who believes he has something, deeply tied to his identity, that is worth defending and holding fast to.

Conservatism in this broad sense esteems the social mechanism for the education and preservation of knowledg—an intergenerational duty. As Burke pointed out, society is a “partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead and those who are to be born.”[1]

The Reformed Doctrine of the Covenant

The Reformed doctrine of the Covenant details the manner in which God relates to mankind throughout history (WCF VII:I). God, to our human father Adam, gave a covenant of works. He, the representative of all mankind, was called to keep all God’s commandments as our righteous head. “Life,” as the confession says, “was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon the condition of perfect and personal obedience” (WCF VII:II). Yet Adam did not obey, and man is consequently fallen. Having fallen, God mercifully initiated the covenant of grace and continually and effectually conveys the substance of that covenant, Christ, to His elect. This covenant, for us, is received by faith alone and not by works (WCF VII:III).

God historically, substantively, definitively, and eternally inaugurated this covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15. And it’s substance, Christ, is progressively revealed throughout redemptive/scriptural history. Initially, we learn of the substance of the covenant when we are taught about a representative unlike Adam who will come to crush the head of the serpent, (Genesis 3:15). Then under Abraham, we learn that this substance, in fact, a person, the Christ, will be a blessing unto the nations (Genesis 17:7-9). Under Moses, we learn in detail and clearly how this substance, the Mediator, will become a sacrifice for us. Under David, we learn that He will be a king. And in the New Covenant, we know Him, His name, and His works, – He is Christ, the Lord Jesus, God almighty – the One who came to save His people from their sins.

God gave our fallen first parents the Gospel in promise. He gave to Abraham the sign of circumcision as a sign that he would be a God to Abraham and all his children after him (Gen 17:7). The Lord set apart Abraham’s physical offspring for the conservation of the Gospel and the birthing of his covenant people Israel. God preserved the same familial unit He inaugurated in creation and perfected it by His grace. That is circumcision was a reminder to the people of God of the promised One to come. These males bore in their body the promise of the Redeemer, a social method of preserving and passing along knowledge intergenerationally.

Under Israel, God used the passover lamb in order to teach his people of the sacrificial nature of Christ. In giving the law, He set them apart as a political nation in order that they might give birth to Christ in due time. Pointedly, God ordained that parents teach their children the Word of God contained in the law in fullness. God, in addition to other means of keeping His Gospel, established familial education as a mechanism of Gospel conservation.

In the Davidic covenant, He gave them the knowledge that the coming Savior would also be a king, and also set up the lineage, the kingly line that the Savior would ultimately fulfill. Even David’s failures, from one perspective, were a foil for the exceeding greatness and perfection of the Lord of glory, our majestic God incarnate – King Jesus.

Under the New Covenant, though changing the external structure, Christ maintained and clarified and built upon what He had, as the Logos (the Word of God), proclaimed to His people in times past. He came to fulfill the law, not to destroy it (Matthew 5:17). He cut off the dead wood of Phariseeism from the tree that is His church; yet he maintained His remnant, being the root. Indeed, he grafted us in (Romans 11:11-26). Blessed be our God.

He changed the structure of our covenant meal from a bloody sacrificial ritual pointing to His necessary death to a bloodless distribution of his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. He changed the initiatory rite into His covenantal community from the bloody sign of circumcision, to the watery grace of Baptism. And yet in all these things, in all these marvelous and glorious changes (dare I say progressions), He maintained the substance of the covenant—which is to say He maintained Himself.

Reformed Theology and Conservatism

Basic continuity, not radical discontinuity, is at the core of conservatism’s “society as an intergenerational partnership” and Reformed Covenantalism both alike. It must be admitted that though the Conservative attitude, as an attitude, is in itself good, the Conservative attitude’s total goodness is relative to that which is being conserved.

To state this more plainly, it’s good to conserve good things and it’s bad to conserve bad things. In that manner, we might say, as far as God is conservative, He is good in His conservatism to the uttermost (just as He is good in anything He wishes to change in this world). The substantial point, though, which everything I’ve written is aiming at, is this: Reformed Theology’s doctrine of the covenant and the best of the conservative attitude are of a piece.

The best of Conservatism has a place for the family and of the families’ education as a principle mechanism of the conservation of the good and the transmission of knowledge.

Reformed Theology, likewise, maintains that the children are a vital part of the covenant life who are members being trained up for the conservation of the Gospel, the highest good and most important knowledge. Thus their education is key. Conservatism and Covenantalism alike understand and honor the nature of collective and shared knowledge, a duty of one generation to the next.

And, as I’ve argued here, Reformed Theology, as defined by the historic Reformed confessions, maintains a Covenant Theology wherein the substance of the Gospel, Christ, is conserved by God throughout all redemptive-historical change, whether minor or drastic; the conservation of the glory of the Lord, this is the highest aim for any good conservative, for there is nothing better to conserve than the Gospel itself, Christ Himself for us.

Patrick Steckbeck

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Patrick Steckbeck is a graduate of Reformation Bible College, earning a B.A. in Theological Studies. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Philosophy, specializing in Aristotle and Aquinas. He is the founder of The Reformed Philosopher.

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