Gary North’s Covenantalism as a contribution to political economy

Speech by Robert Grözinger given to the 16th meeting of the Property and Freedom Society in Bodrum, Turkey, 16th September 2022

Many of you will be familiar with at least some of Gary North’s writings. Indeed, quite a few of you will have met him personally which is something I cannot claim. So I won’t spend much time introducing him. He was born in 1942 and died in February this year. Wikipedia writes, as far as I can see correctly, that he was “[an] American writer, Austrian School economic historian, and leading figure in the Christian reconstructionist movement. North authored or co-authored over fifty books on topics including Reformed Protestant theology, economics, and history. He was an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute.

In this half hour, it is my aim to show you how North’s covenantalism can help us analyse a society and identify its weak points. In addition, I will explain why I believe that his covenantalism points to a way out of the current impasse humanity is in. It is, admittedly, not an easy way. It is not a short way. But at least it is a way. 

Covenantalism is primarily a theological concept. But, as we will see, it is also a universally applicable concept. I will say up front that I am no theologian. However, that may actually have been helpful when I first encountered North’s writings about 20 years ago. Had I been a theologian, I would probably have been a mainstream theologian and would therefore have dismissed him from the start. However, my background is in economics. And a few years prior to discovering North, I had discovered, and been converted to, Austrianism. And it was Austrianism that enabled me to recognise, when reading North, that I was in the presence of the work of a first-rate thinker and polymath. 

I have read maybe 10 or 12 of his books. I followed his current affairs and background articles for many years until he passed away. It was through North’s monumental life’s work of many volumes of Biblical economics that I entered the world of theology. So, without further ado:

What is covenantalism?

According to North, every society is resting on a covenant. It is inescapable. A covenant is a bit like a contract, but with some important differences. Probably the most important fact about a covenant is that it recognises a sovereign. A final decider.

One leading difference between a contract and a covenant can be seen when looking at arbitration. With a contract, in the case of differences of opinion on whether the contract has been broken or not – what is required is an arbitrator or judge, a third, neutral party. A covenant on the other hand means that one side of this “agreement” lays down all the laws and sanctions, after which there is no room for negotiation. There is however the possibility to walk away from a covenant. But, and this is another crucial difference between it and a contract, only if one enters into a covenant with another sovereign. Because it is ingrained in our nature.

Now, some might argue that they don’t recognise any sovereign. In that case, in covenantal terms, this person recognises himself as the sovereign and enters a covenant with himself. Taken to its full extent this is rare in real life, as it often leads to behaviour that others consider rather pathological and so such kinds of sovereigns usually don’t survive for long, at least not in freedom. Or, they remove themselves from society and live in obscurity. Nevertheless, some people try this path, but often do not go the full way and factually, if reluctantly, submit to some kind of other sovereign. 

So, we are all under some kind of covenant. The next important characteristic is this: No matter who the sovereign is, every covenant has five identical points. This is important because, armed with this knowledge, every society can be analysed effectively and comprehensively along these five points.

North didn’t discover these five points himself. He writes about their discovery in the introduction to his book “God’s Covenants”, which by the way is the book on which I have mostly based my talk:

Beginning with the researches of George Mendenhall in the 1950s, Bible scholars, liberals and conservatives, have come to recognize that the Mosaic covenant has a particular structure. It has five points. […] In 1963, a book by Westminster Seminary’s Meredith G. Kline appeared: Treaty of the Great King. It was a brief commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy. Following Mendenhall, Kline divided Deuteronomy into five sections. He then made comparisons of this structure with suzerainty treaties of the Middle East in the second millennium, B.C. They, too, had the same five-point structure. He concluded that this is evidence that Deuteronomy was written in the second millennium, B.C., and not almost a millennium later in the first millennium, B.C., which liberals have long insisted.

Here is a slide showing you, in the left column, the five points of any covenant as compiled by Gary North.  Next, we see them as stated by him in social theory terms. Next, as stated by him in economic terms, as questions. Next to that the corresponding books of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, whose content are, as North and others claim, representative of the five points of the covenant.  

How is all this relevant to us? It is relevant because, if we are all under a covenant, we need to ask these questions as listed by North in the central column. They are also relevant because North points out that, leaving aside the exception of the solitary and unattached sovereign, in human societies there are two basic answers to each one of these questions. And these two are irreconcilable. 

To explain that, I will go through the five questions in more detail, according to North.

  • Who is in charge here?

This is the question regarding sovereignty. It points to origins. Whoever originates something is in charge of it. North points out that two, and only two kinds of origins are possible: Either purposeful or purposeless. Regarding the origins of the universe, neither answer is provable, they are both presuppositions. They are also irreconcilable. They are known under the terms of purposeful creation and purposeless evolution. I’m not here to discuss the dichotomy of creation vs evolution in scientific terms. I’m just saying that, when looking at the ultimate origin, neither are provable. They are, however, unavoidable presuppositions, and we have to choose. And the choice will have consequences for our further outlook. The majority outlook will shape society. 

  • To whom do I report?

This is the question regarding authority and hierarchy. Whoever has authority has been given this authority by someone higher up, and ultimately by the sovereign through a covenant. The word hierarchy points to something religious. It comes from the ancient Greek word “hiereus” which means priest.

And now I quote North again: “Each view claims a hierarchical system of authority. For Christians, the God of the Bible is represented by mankind. The voice of authority is the Bible.”

What he means is that in this theonomic view, mankind has been given the authority to rule over nature, under the guidance of God’s laws, and with the purpose of looking after it and improving it.

I continue with the quote from North: “For Darwinists, the god of nature, [i.e., not the God of the Bible] which is not self-conscious and does not speak, is represented by mankind. Mankind speaks alone, and so takes on the function of divinity: no higher court of appeal.”

This means the following: under this view, we humans are personal and conscious and with direction, so we appear to ourselves as being above nature. In that way, it does not differ from the creation view. Then however, because of the unavoidability of covenantalism, mankind automatically elevates itself into the otherwise empty position of sovereignty. And now, because a position of sovereignty is irreconcilable with the idea of a plurality of opinions and directions, the result of such a view, with regard to society, is collectivism. In other words: Covenantally speaking, Darwinism as a confession of faith leads to collectivism.

  • What are the rules?

I start again with a quote from North: “Every covenant is marked by laws. These laws serve as boundaries for thought, word, and deed. There are limits beyond which men may not lawfully pass. The archetype is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Some laws are positive, such as the archetype positive law: Exercise dominion. Some laws are negative, such as the archetype negative law: Do not eat from this tree. But there are always laws.”

If God is the sovereign, the laws are from God. According to the Bible they were given from on high. I think however it is more likely they were discovered in a process not unlike that of the common law.

If mankind is the sovereign, there are two ways of conceptualising law-making. Laws can either be discovered, that would be the natural law idea. Or, and here I quote North again: “Some legal theorists add that civil laws take on the characteristics of law merely by their formal declaration by certified and legitimate agents of the civil government. These laws are laws only because the State declares them and then enforces them. On this point, there has been a philosophical division, but on the whole, the ‘declarationists’ have won the battle intellectually and surely politically.”

The reason the declarationists have won is because of the structure of the covenant. Mankind would not be sovereign if it needed to discover laws. A sovereign wouldn’t be a sovereign if he can’t make laws. And that’s what we are doing currently in this world. 

  • What happens to me if I obey? Disobey?

This points to judgment and sanctions. Every covenant has them. Because without sanctions, laws are not laws, but only suggestions. If there are God-given laws, there are God-given sanctions. And here, North emphasises something that most Christians don’t like to hear. These sanctions pertain not only personally, but societally. Near the end of Deuteronomy, the fifth and last book of Moses, in chapter 28, there is a whole long list of blessings and curses promised by God to his people. In other words: positive and negative sanctions. The blessings for the whole nation are promised if society adheres to God’s laws, the curses are promised if they don’t.

However, the main point here is, and I quote North: “Connections exist among general legal principles, case laws, and specific events in history.” Which means, according to North, if countries fail and collapse, if empires fail and collapse, it’s because they didn’t adhere to God’s laws.

Now, what happens if man alone declares the law? Quoting North: “Man’s authority to discover, interpret, declare, and enforce laws puts him in charge of nature, including other men. This means that experts who understand the law and its workings eventually gain the authority to declare and enforce the law.” And these experts do so of course on their own terms, as they do not recognise any authority above them, let alone a sovereign.

So, North continues, “Autonomous man has no one judging him. Yet he is not united. So, would-be autonomous man becomes would-be autonomous men. The result is a potential war of all against all. This is how Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) described mankind’s condition prior to the hypothetical social contract.”

We thus see that, even if covenantalism is ignored or negated, it emerges through the back door, in a twisted way and with mythical terms such as the social contract.

  • Does this outfit have a future?

This points to succession, inheritance, and kingdom. The endgame. The aim above all aims. Every covenant has this point. To quote North: “Kingdom is an inescapable concept. It is never a question of kingdom vs. no kingdom. It is always a question of whose kingdom.”

When Pilate asked Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews, Jesus answers him: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:33–36).

Here, Christians are divided.

According to North, most Christians, “interpret Christ’s words in the way that Pilate did, namely, that Jesus’ kingdom has no influence in the civil affairs of this world. […] They interpret [the words] ‘not of this world’ as ‘not in this world.’ They deny His kingdom its rightful authority in history”.

North thinks this is fundamentally wrong. He explains that by delving deep into the meaning of the ancient Greek words of these verses. This is how he interprets the words Jesus uttered to Pilate. Quoting North: “His kingdom is not of this world, meaning that its origin is not in this world.” Nevertheless, “Jesus was claiming absolute authority, meaning authority over Rome. His kingdom is not from this world. It is over this world.”

North concludes that “Christ’s kingdom is authorized by God to spread wherever sin reigns.” He says that this means not just in the hearts of individuals, not just in how families are run and not just in how churches conduct themselves. It also means it should spread to the way the society is run and how it conducts itself. According to the blessings and the curses in the book of Deuteronomy, this will lead to a “stable, just and peaceful social order”, to quote the words Hans-Hermann Hoppe used in his speech on the superiority of the 10 commandments over the libertarian Non-Aggression-Principle.

In contrast, the kingdom of man is based on purposeless origins that can evolve in all sorts of directions and in endless ways. Under such a covenant, there are, to quote North, “no unchanging moral principles, for there is no unchanging impersonal external environment, including the world of man. So, the kingdom of man is itself evolving.”

Therefore, concludes North, in the kingdom of man there is a constant push for its logical end point, namely a world civil government. Only that kind of kingdom is the true reflection of collective mankind as the sovereign, with the sovereignty delegated to the experts of law, who will then create laws and sanctions as they see fit. They, being just as flawed as all of us, will surely lead us into a society that is unstable, unjust and unpeaceful.

This means that there are two basic, irreconcilable covenants in the world. One of them leads to the establishment of the Kingdom of God. The other to the establishment of the Kingdom of Man. 

Now, having explained the five points of the covenant and the two irreconcilable ways of answering them, it is important to emphasise that North was an optimist. He believed that, in the long run, the Kingdom of God will win out. It is worth looking at why he thought that.

North was a postmillennialist. This means that he believed a) in the second coming of Christ and b) that Christ will not return until we humans have established the millennium, meaning the Kingdom of God on Earth. After which Christ will proceed to judge the living and the dead. Now, of course libertarians are always on the alert when someone promises something like that. I’ll discuss that with regard to North in a minute. First, I want to contrast his postmillennialism with two other views of the end times.

For one, there are the so-called premillennialists. They too believe in the second coming of Christ, but, crucially, they believe that Christ will then, after arrival, usher in the millennium. So, before he arrives, there will be no millennium. At the end of the millennium, they believe, there will be a last battle with Satan, after which Christ will judge the living and the dead.

The third group of Christians are the amillennialists. They believe in the second coming of Christ, but not that there will be any kind of this-worldly millennium. Or rather, they think the millennium is just a symbolic term for the time between the resurrection and second coming of Christ.

Here’s the important thing: The expectations of premillennialists and amillennialists lead politically to pessimism and apathy. While these Christians want to be good people and good neighbours, they don’t believe that anything they do could shape the world toward something better. Some even believe that, in this world, Satan will inevitably win. And only Jesus, with his second coming, will sort out the bad guys in the end.    

Contrast this with the attitude that comes with the outlook of postmillennialists. They see it as their God-given task to improve the world. Or rather, they see that if they personally adhere to God’s laws, they or their heirs will be rewarded in this world and given more responsibility over worldly things. That is how they understand the Parable of the Talents. So their actions will improve the world. And when it is sufficiently improved, Jesus will return and judge the righteous and the unrighteous, the living and the dead. This is a huge incentive to not only be a good person and a good neighbour, but also to leave the world a better, or more Godly place at the end of one’s life.

Now the important caveat: If one isn’t careful, postmillennial thinking can easily lead to wanting to use force, and above all government monopoly force, in an attempt to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God. Murray Rothbard vividly described the deeds of the Anabaptists of Münster. They were an early example of misdirected postmillennialism. Communism and Wokism are their modern heirs, they are both a kind of postmillennialism minus God.

But, on close examination, those early Anabaptists were also postmillennialists minus God. Even though they proclaimed to be believers. Because with their murdering and thieving and whoring they were certainly not adhering to God’s commandments. That is what North emphasises. A proper adherence to God’s commandments will, gradually and progressively, move us towards the Kingdom of God on earth. He also emphasises that this doesn’t mean a return to paradise, because, according to the Bible, we humans won’t be able to abolish death. Death will be the last enemy to be defeated, writes Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians.

To conclude: North’s contribution to political economy reveals a clear connection between Darwinism as an ideology, and collectivism. The latter needs the former as a quasi-religious foundation.

It is uncomfortable reading for many Christians but also for non-believers. For Christians because it leads them to the conclusion that it is not enough to be good neighbours. They are also called to strive to increase the Kingdom of God in this world.

For non-believers it is uncomfortable because it compels them, as Ayn Rand would say, to “check their premises” and concede that they need to allow for the possibility of a purposeful origin of the universe if they ever want a hope to keep their liberty.  

I personally think there is a lot of truth in what North says in this regard. In a lecture he gave at the Mises Institute in 2013, called “How come we’re so rich”, he offered something akin to historical evidence. He said that early in the 17th century Netherlands, there was a shift in attitude towards “entrepreneurship, innovation and personal wealth derived from innovation and entrepreneurship.”

North offered two reasons for this change of minds:

  1. Ethics. A Transformation of what constitutes good and evil. For the first time, within the preaching of the Protestants and especially the Calvinists, there was a shift of view. And that was that personal wealth was legitimate.
  2. A shift in the view of the future. A new optimism about what the Kingdom of God can do in the midst of history. That there can be a compound expansion and growth of liberty, power and influence in a society that is faithful to the ethics preached by the preachers.

These Dutch were Calvinists, and their view spread from the Netherlands to the Calvinists of Britain. After the civil war there, there came the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which ushered in what North calls a “secularised version of Cromwell’s Calvinism”.

He admits he can’t finally prove the next statement, so more research is needed. However, North firmly believes that this above all else drove the Industrial Revolution. In other words, the material blessings we enjoy today are the result of a widespread adherence to God’s laws in the past. They are the result of the Dutch, British and then American ancestors’ 300 years ago widespread adherence and submission to God’s covenant and a rejection of the kingdom of man.

In other words: In order to prevent further moves towards collectivism, in particular a global collectivism, we need to spread God’s word and do our best to adhere to it. This will not only improve personal and spiritual wellbeing and freedom, but also create a society blessed with being on a path of increasing wealth and prosperity.  

Thank you for your attention.

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