By the 16th century virtually no one disagreed on the fact that the West needed to be reformed. What they disagreed on was what that reform should entail and how it was to be effected. In frustrated tension, dozens of competing factions, sects, schisms, rifts, rebellions, and divisions roiled just beneath the surface of the West’s tenuous tranquility for decades. Finally, on October 31, 1517, those pent-up passions burst out into the open when an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. In a single stroke, not one, but two momentous renewal movements renewal movements were launched that at last were able to effect genuine reform within the church: the Protestant Reformation and the reaffirmation of covenantal principles to civil governance.
This is the essential historical and cultural framework out of which the Magdeburg Confession of 1550 was written. Against the backdrop of the centralizing totalitarianism of the Hapsburg hegemony, the newly revived Holy Roman Empire, the people of the little German town of Magdeburg, situated between Berlin and Hanover, not far from Brandenburg, determined to recover their federal, their covenantal, their Biblical culture.
Their confession of faith asserted that Biblical covenantalism was the principle by which men and nations might know the truth of the Gospel and thus afford hope for their souls, it was simultaneously the principle by which their cultural and political and social freedom might be won.
Officially titled The Confession, Instruction, and Admonition of the Pastors and Preachers of the Christian Congregations of Magdeburg, the Confession was a more than just a statement of Protestant and Lutheran orthodoxy. Composed by the nine pastors of the city in 1550 in response to the Augsburg Interim and its legal threat imposing Roman Catholic dictates, the Confession articulates the doctrine of “the lesser magistrates” and offers a Christian defense of the ideas of principled resistance to tyranny, civil disobedience to ungodly decrees, and even the use of force when necessary. It was the first clear declaration of a Biblical posture of resistance against unjust higher authorities. Theodore Beza believed the Confession provided faithful believers with an example of how to respond to political abuse and tyranny—indeed, he used insights from the Confession in his influential notes for the Geneva Bible, the Bible used by most of the Puritans and Pilgrims for at least three generations afterward.
So it was that the font of covenantal ideas in the Confession flowed out into the reforming nations of the West: they were echoed in Calvin and Beza’s Geneva; they helped shape Knox’s Scotland, they were influential in Bucer’s Strassburg; they laid the foundations of Cranmer’s England; and they became central to the vision of the Founders of America’s great experiment in liberty.
But for the same reasons that the Magdeburg pioneers had to recover the old principles of covenantal federalism by means of reformation, we need to pay heed to these ideas today. Western Civilization is once again in very real jeopardy. Freedom is once again threatened. Life, liberty, and opportunity are once again coming under the shadow of vested centralized powers and principalities. By looking back at the essential notions upon which our freedoms were built we may yet be motivated and equipped to begin the process of reforming, restoring, and recovering. May it be so, Lord.