One of the founding principles of the Covenant was the idea of “Christian freedom,” a belief that individual followers of Jesus are free to pray, study scripture, and search for God’s truth in their own unique ways, rather than having all the answers handed down to them by church authorities. This longstanding conviction of our denomination grew out of a series of events and conversations that took place in Sweden in the 1870s.
In 1870, a group of ministers in Sweden were discussing over coffee the concept of “atonement” and the traditional understanding that Christ, through suffering and death on the cross, took on the punishment that humankind deserved by appeasing God’s wrath. During that conversation, one pastor asked the critical question: “But where is it written?”
An early Covenant leader named Paul Peter Waldenström took that question seriously. Ordained in the Church of Sweden, he held a PhD in classical languages and literature from Sweden’s oldest university, Uppsala. In 1872, after intensive study of scripture, Waldenström concluded that many popular ideas about atonement were not strongly supported by scripture, and he injected a new thought into the debate that was then raging in both Sweden and America. He proclaimed that God’s love, not wrath, was the motivating work of atonement. So the death of Jesus is less about God’s need to punish, and more about drawing human beings back into relationship with their creator.
For most Mission Friends (the original name of the Covenant movement), Waldenström’s explanation fit best with their own experience of God. Swedish Archbishop Nathan Söderblom would later say that Waldenström had restored to the Swedish people a truly evangelical view of God, a face of love and not angry judgment.
This foundational belief, along with the process that led to it, convinced those organizing the Covenant Church to not formally adopt the Lutheran Augsburg Confession or write a creed of their own. Everyone was to be free to read and think for themselves in accordance with the Bible. They believed that real wisdom came from the believing community in conversation with one another and dependent on the Spirit’s leading.
This theological freedom in the context of the Bible’s authority is highly prized by Covenanters, and is seen as a mark of mature Christian faith. David Nyvall, founding president of the Covenant’s North Park University in Chicago, once said that “freedom is the last of the spiritual gifts to mature.”
This question so simply stated (“Where is it written?”) does not give Covenanters permission to search scripture for simple proofs or easy answers. Its intent is to ask, “What do the scriptures really say?” and to invite study and conversation of biblical texts in order to discern God’s truth for each pilgrim’s journey. At times this may lead to disagreement or ambiguity, but cohesion of the church relies on our shared life in Christ, not on everyone agreeing.
(content adapted from covchurch.org)