Results tagged “John Owen” from Reformation21 Blog

The Westminster Conference will take place later this year, God willing, in central London at Regent Hall on Oxford Street. As usual, there are two days of lectures and discussion, Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December. The outline for the two days is below, and the brochure can be downloaded to obtain the booking form. More information can be found at the conference website.

Sin and sanctification in John Owen (Sinclair Ferguson ~ Elder at St. Peter's Free Church, Dundee). John Owen is one of the monumental figures of the seventeenth century. His profound scriptural sensitivity to sin and understanding of sanctification form some of the deepest currents of his work both as a theologian and as a pastor. This paper will explore these complementary and contradictory elements of Christian experience through the lens of Owen's wrestling with the issues.

"On the side of God": Andrew Fuller's pastoral theology
(Jeremy Walker ~ Pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley). Andrew Fuller is recognised as a theologian and for his friendship with and support of William Carey. However, these labours cannot be divorced from his principles and practices as a pastor and a preacher. This was his primary calling. It informed and was expressed in everything else in which he was involved. This paper will draw together some of the convictions recorded, conclusions reached and counsels expressed by Andrew Fuller in the realm of pastoral theology.

The atonement and evangelistic preaching in John Owen (David Pfeiffer ~ Minister of Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church). Apparent tensions between convictions about the definite extent of the atonement joined with commitments to the freeness of the gospel offer are perennial issues in Christ's church. Few men have contended for the former more effectively than John Owen and his works breathe a lively and transparent concern that lost men should trust in the only Saviour of sinners. David Pfeiffer will help us to see these elements of Owen's labour in healthy parallel.

Erasmus and the Greek New Testament (Peter Hallihan ~ retired from pastoral ministry; Editorial Consultant for TBS). Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469-1536) was the genius sometimes described as the prince of the humanists. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to learning and religion was his edition of the Greek New Testament of 1516, which became the basis of most vernacular translations of the Scriptures for the next three centuries. Peter Hallihan will give us insights into the man and his work, tracing some of his influences and influence.

Jonathan Edwards and the religious affections
(Paul Helm ~ formerly Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King's College, London). The name of Jonathan Edwards, together with select elements of his theology, has become more prominent in the thinking and practice of Reformed evangelicals in recent years. Ready reference is made to well-known but not always well-understood works such as Edwards' study of the religious affections. Paul Helm will take a fresh look at this book, emphasising its setting and its sources, helping us grasp the substance and application of Edwards' work.

Isaac Watts and the gift of prayer
(Benedict Bird ~ ThM Student and Greek Teacher at London Theological Seminary). Best known for his hymnody, Isaac Watts was also an influential theologian. He considered prayer to be not only a duty but a precious privilege, and he wrote to assist the saints in learning to pray. He showed that prayer is a gift, but one that can be developed. Prayer is not always high on the agenda in the church of Christ, and not often developed to a high degree when it is. In his Guide to Prayer, Watts directs us still to cultivate "this holy skill of conversation with God."

John Owen was not a Presbyterian

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In the last month or two on Reformation21, I think it's safe to say I have decisively proven once and for all that:

1. John Wesley was an Arminian.
2. John Owen was a Paedobaptist.

I have been challenged to prove other self-evident truths, such as "John Murray was a Calvinist" and "1775 was the start of an illegal colonial rebellion." But I wouldn't want to tax the patience of our readers too much.

We may come back to those later. But for now, let me rather just finish off this mini-series on the great John Owen. True, he was not a Baptist. And what's more to the point, his covenant theology was so thoroughly not Baptistic that he himself always considered it to demand, support, and promote infant baptism. But today, I also bring to you the shocking news that...

John Owen was not a Presbyterian.

I know. It hurts doesn't it? I want to extend a hand and reach out to my brothers and sisters in the PCA, OPC, EPCEW, IPC, URC, PCUSA, BPS, RPCS (and other entirely "catholic" and not at all fissiparous denominations of the Presbyterian variety). I feel your pain, my friends. A great theologian of the past that you know and love is about to be unmasked as not in "perfect harmony" or "practically identical" to what we think of as "sound."

Presbyterian Schisms.jpg
So, what evidence do I adduce for this startling claim, which will no doubt silence the Reformed world? None. I'm too busy. I leave it to the well-developed Presbie blogosphere to point out the perfidious nature of my nefarious misrepresentation. That'll be fun and entertaining! They can surely demonstrate how, since Owen agrees with them on a few things here and there, he must therefore have been "one of them." Though I will say this:
"It is only by a process of torture to which no man's language should be subjected that Owen can be claimed as a Presbyterian."
This from the editorial comments in The Works of John Owen, volume 16 page 2. From the pen of a minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland! Outrageous.

I don't have time to go into how Owen thought silly, confused, control-freak, power-hungry Presbyterians were a greater threat to the Reformation and the church of Christ than even the nasty Laudian Anglicans had been.

You can't make this stuff up, but it's all there in Owen's Works if you care to read them. Who'd thunk it? I mean, what next? You'll be telling me Owen was an ordained Anglican who loved The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion next...

Revd Gatiss is still committed to that promised post on how John Owen was a good Anglican. But he's got to bombproof his windows and doors first, in case any nonconformists come a-calling.

John Owen: still not a Baptist

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Well, if I thought it was bad when I exposed a few less-well-known things about John Wesley, that's nothing compared to what happens when you touch the sacred shibboleths of Owenian Baptists!

There was a bit of a social media frenzy about my post yesterday concerning John Owen's covenant theology and its relationship to his doctrine of infant baptism. If I may (2 Corinthians 12:11), I thought I might reply to one of the blog responses to it (one that doesn't call me a ditzy blonde).

This baptist blogger makes the following claims in his post:

1. Baptists couldn't possibly know what they're talking about
2. I admitted I hadn't read Pascal Denault's book
3. I only listened to ten minutes of a podcast
4. I misunderstood a joke
5. I judged a book by its cover
6. I felt it was urgent to inform people that John Owen was a paedobaptist
7. That's not the point
8. Quoting passages where Owen affirms infant baptism, is not the point
9. Owen's covenant theology undergirding infant baptism changed
10. Section 4.7 of On Infant Baptism is refuted by Owen on Hebrews 8:6
11. Owen contradicted himself
12. Paedobaptists are shocked that Baptists can read too

Serious and weighty charges. Let's examine them.

1. Baptists couldn't possibly know what they're talking about
Presumably this opinion in his title is to be imputed to me. Though I never asserted any such thing, and I believe it to be untrue so would never assert such a thing. To say that just because someone is a Baptist they therefore couldn't possibly know what they are talking about would be as illogical as someone asserting that just because someone doesn't follow the Westminster Confession's line on every aspect of covenant theology they must therefore have a tendency towards anti-paedobaptism.

2. I admitted I hadn't read Pascal Denault's book
I admitted no such thing. Why would I? When Pascal demanded on Twitter that I give his book a positive review in my next post, I said I would think about it. If he sent me a free copy of it. How does our blogger know that I am not planning to give that free copy to Mark Jones to review?

3. I only listened to ten minutes of a podcast
Actually, it was over an hour, and I listened to all of it. Much to my wife's annoyance I might add. In my original post, I even cited "42 minutes in". So this appears to be a cheap and failed attempt to score a point, possibly as a way of avoiding what I actually said.

4. I misunderstood a joke
Wait, Baptists tell jokes?  :)

But more seriously, is it the book that's meant to be a joke, or the podcast? I can't tell.

There was also this tweet from Pascal himself:

@pascaldenault: @LeeGatiss Calling him John The Baptist Owen is just funny. We don't deny that Owen died a peado... so close to be credo... which he is now

Now that appears to be good natured humour. Pascal seems to get what I'm trying to do, and the tone. He's still wrong though, with respect to my friend. But he has a sense of humour at least.

5. I judged a book by its cover
Not at all. I used the adverb "cheekily" when pointing out that Owen is on the cover of a book about Baptist theology. To me that's like having a picture of Martyn Lloyd Jones on a website for Anglican Evangelicals (ahem: http://ceec.info). In the small print, the subtitle mentions comparisons with "paedobaptist federalism", so it's maybe OK to have paedos and credos on the cover together. A bit misleading when the big book title is about the distinctiveness of Baptist theology though. And not great design or marketing to my mind. But hey, at least it wasn't a sunrise or a rainbow or a dove as on so many Christian books.

To be frank, if the twitterstorm about my post is about how I used that one adverb to describe my subjective feelings about the book's cover, then I profess that seems to me like implicitly conceding my substantive points by way of tergiversation. Or, in American: "Is that the best you've got?"

6. I felt it was urgent to inform people that John Owen was a paedobaptist
Not urgent, no. But Reformation21 isn't just about the urgent and the immediate. We're trying to engage important and topical issues with humour and intelligence. I know I fail on both scores, being an utter idiot (according to one rather brutal blogger who thinks "Owen migrated toward the Baptist form of covenant theology toward the end of his life" -- ha ha ha!!! Good joke.). 

However, as I did point out in my post, the reason I wrote is that a number of people, well educated people, doctors, and a Professor of Philosophy even, have all come to me with the same basic misunderstanding, sometimes pointing to Pascal's book or that podcast as the source of the confusion. I've since had many other messages saying the same thing. So it needed saying: Owen was never a Baptist.

7. That's not the point
Well, it might not be his point. But it was one of mine. Though hopefully these folks who impugn my honour and intelligence have read beyond the title of my post to see what I actually wrote?

Pascal tells me on Twitter that his point is about Owen's covenant theology (CT):

@pascaldenault: @LeeGatiss We all know Owen was never a Baptist, we only affirm that his CT fits perfectly ours

Fine. I know you know he wasn't a Baptist really. My point is that you're not always giving that impression -- that podcast interview is one notorious instance. And importantly, as I said, "Owen unwaveringly believes that his covenant theology supports promotes, and demands infant baptism." He thinks denying infant baptism is to dishonour Christ.

But that's "more or less identical" as our brutal blogger puts it, to having a covenant theology that completely denies infant baptism, isn't it?  Erm... awkward...

Owen used covenant theology in his tract On Infant Baptism to teach infant baptism. All the quotes I gave from all over his Hebrews commentary also derive infant baptism directly from his covenant theology. So Owen's theology cannot be said to "perfectly fit" an anti-paedobaptist covenant theology. Unless in French "perfectly fit" means "looks very different in practice and denies things which Owen held dear and explicitly linked to his own covenant theology." My French isn't great though, so maybe it does.

8. Quoting lots of passages from Owen where he affirms infant baptism is not the point
No, indeed. I agree. That's not why I picked those passages. That would have only made the point that Owen taught infants should be baptised. I was trying to say more than that because you already knew that. And I knew that you already knew that. And you knew that I already knew that you knew that. (2 Corinthians 12:11)

I picked those passages out of many places where Owen teaches infant baptism because they were all a) from his later Hebrews commentary, and b) all explicitly linked Owen's doctrine of infant baptism to Owen's own covenant theology.

9. Owen's covenant theology undergirding infant baptism changed
I'm not really sure this is proven by the quotations given by our blogger. I think that needs much more careful demonstration. Often reading Owen one can think he might be contradicting himself, but upon careful reflection and further reading one can later see that he isn't.

However, one thing is utterly clear: from life's first cry to final breath, Owen thought at every point that his covenant theology (whatever it was) supported, promoted, and demanded infant baptism. That is my point.

Have I repeated it enough times yet? It was all in the original post.

10 Section 4.7 of On Infant Baptism is refuted by Owen on Hebrews 8:6.
Again, I'm not convinced the "analysis" here is much more than blunt and tendentious assertion. But even if it was, all that's shown -- supported by a quotation from secondary source our blogger himself gives -- is that Owen is more like a Lutheran on some things than the Westminster Confession.

Since Lutherans are not anti-paedobaptists, this doesn't help at all to establish my interlocutor's assertions, or substantiate the worrisome misrepresentation with which I was primarily concerned. There are possible Salmurian currents behind Owen's thinking on the covenants too; but as far as I am aware, Camero et Amyraut et comrades were not anti-paedobaptists either.

11. Owen contradicted himself
Well, in theory, it's possible. He's only human after all. He's allowed to change his mind. But I'm skeptical such contradictions have been adequately demonstrated and explained by the aforementioned blogger. And even if they were to be (in a prolix animadversion of a blog post, full of oversized block quotes), that wouldn't alter in any way the conclusion that Owen always thought his covenant theology demanded, promoted, and supported infant baptism. 

12. Paedobaptists are shocked that Baptists can read too.
I never asserted any such thing. I have never experienced such shock. Many of my Baptist friends are very serious readers, and writers. Nor do I believe (as our baptist blogger quotes) that "Methodists are Baptists who can read." But that's a different story. We don't want to go there again.

I confess I do think that some Baptists need to be more careful how they read Owen, more circumspect in what they claim about him, and less irate in discussing that subject. But not all, or even most. I have some very serious Baptist friends who wouldn't make those mistakes, even if one or two are fonder of girlie drinks than they should be. 

[Editor, shall I add a big smiley face at the end to show I mean no harm or personal offence but am only engaging in a friendly (from my side) and well-meaning debate? I'm a nice guy really.]

If anyone is really interested in hearing him waffle on more about this subject, Revd Gatiss outlines the Reformed Anglican view of baptism in this article and this video:

John Owen was never a Baptist

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I remember once telling a friend at church that I was going to go do a PhD on John Owen. They replied, "Oh yes, I know him. He's that great Baptist theologian." 

Somewhat startled, I thought I'd since made this point pretty clear. The great 17th century theologian John Owen practised and taught infant baptism. I have expounded his doctrine of infant baptism and infant salvation in a cheap Kindle book, From Life's First Cry.  (UK: USA)

But as I've been preparing to speak on infant baptism next week at a conference, I've heard a number of times recently that Owen was really a Baptist. A closet, crypto-Baptist whose real views have been hidden because no-one had read his Hebrews commentary. 

The argument goes something like this: His work from the 1650s which I focus on particularly in From Life's First Cry are "early." But in his later Hebrews commentary, he evolved. There, he gives us a better covenant theology, which is in tune with anti-paedobaptist doctrine. You can read about that in this book on Baptist covenant theology (Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology) which cheekily even has Owen on the cover. Or listen to the first 10 minutes of this podcast interview (and around 42 minutes in). 

Baptist-Covenant-Theology.jpg

My considered response is that this is poppycock. (That's a technical term in logic for such flawed claims.) 

Owen's covenant theology may have been nuanced as he got older, and I talk about that in my forthcoming monograph on his Hebrews commentary. But time and time and time again in his commentary (4 vols.,1668-1684), Owen explicitly applies his own covenant theology to the subject of infant baptism. And -- guess what?! -- he unwaveringly believes that his covenant theology supports, promotes, and demands infant baptism. 

Here are a few examples: 

Believers' children are in the covenant & receive its seal.
The Hebrews... "shall lose nothing, no privilege, by coming over to the gospel state by faith in Christ Jesus. Upon a new account they become "the people of God;" which interests them and their children in the covenant, with the seals and all the ordinances of it, even as formerly. For this name, "people," doth not firstly respect individuals, but a collective body of men, with and in all their relations. Believers, not singly considered, but they and their seed, or their children, are this people; and where they are excluded from the initial ordinance of the covenant, I know not how believers can be called "the people of God." Hebrews vol 4:328 (Banner edition) 

Infant baptism is the greatest privilege of the gospel covenant. To deny it is anti-gospel.
"And is it possible that any man should be a loser by the coming of Christ, or by his own coming unto Christ? It is against the whole gospel once to imagine it in the least instance. Let it now be inquired whether it were not a great privilege of the people of God of old, that their infant seed were taken into covenant with them, and were made partakers of the initial seal thereof? Doubtless it was the greatest they enjoyed, next to the grace they received for the saving of their own souls. That it was so granted them, so esteemed by them, may be easily proved. And without this, whatever they were, they were not a people. Believers under the gospel are, as we have spoken, the people of God; and that with all sorts of advantages annexed unto that condition, above what were enjoyed by them who of old were so. How is it, then, that this people of God, made so by Jesus Christ in the gospel, should have their charter, upon its renewal, razed with a deprivation of one of their choicest rights and privileges? Assuredly it is not so. And therefore if believers are now, as the apostle says they are, "the people of God," their children have a right to the initial seal of the covenant. Hebrews vol 4:329 

Denying covenantal infant baptism takes away from Christ's glory and the honour of the gospel.
"...this is enough to secure the application of the initial seal of the covenant unto the infant seed of believers. For whereas it was granted to the church under the old testament as a signal favour and spiritual privilege, it is derogatory to the glory of Christ and honour of the gospel to suppose that the church is now deprived of it; for in the whole system and frame of worship God had ordained "the better things for us, that they without us should not be made perfect." Hebrews vol 4:418 

Infants are in the covenant, were baptised in apostolical times, and should be now. 
"For whereas there were two sorts of persons that were baptized, namely, those that were adult at their first hearing of the gospel, and the infant children of believers, who were admitted to be members of the church; the first sort were instructed in the principles mentioned before they were admitted unto baptism, by the profession whereof they laid the foundation of their own personal right thereunto; but the other, being received as a part and branches of a family whereupon the blessing of Abraham was come, and to whom the promise of the covenant was extended, being thereon baptized in their infancy, were to be instructed in them as they grew up unto years of understanding. Afterwards, when they were established in the knowledge of these necessary truths, and had resolved on personal obedience unto the gospel, they were offered unto the fellowship of the faithful. And hereon, giving the same account of their faith and repentance which others had done before they were baptized, they were admitted into the communion of the church, the elders thereof laying their hands on them in token of their acceptation, and praying for their confirmation in the faith. Hence the same doctrines became previously necessary unto both these rites;--before baptism to them that were adult; and towards them who were baptized in infancy, before the imposition of hands. And I do acknowledge that this was the state of things in the apostolical churches, and that it ought to be so in all others." Hebrews vol 5:58 

Bless your covenant children by baptising them and giving them covenant instruction! 
"Parents bless their children by endeavouring to instate them in their own covenant-interest. God having promised to be a God unto believers, and to their seed in and by them, they do three ways bless them with the good things thereof: first, By communicating unto them the privilege of the initial seal of the covenant, as a sign, token, and pledge of their being blessed of the Lord; secondly, By pleading the promise of the covenant in their behalf; thirdly, By careful instructing of them in the mercies and duties of the covenant." Hebrews vol 5:317-31 (cf. 5:392) 

Giving the seal of the covenant to our kids has always been God's way.
"And this one consideration is enough to confirm the grant of the initial seal of the covenant unto the seed of present believers, which was once given by God himself in the way of an institution, and never by him revoked." Hebrews vol 5:434 

Infant baptism is a great privilege and has preserved many from fatal apostasy. 
"Moses found himself circumcised, and so to belong unto the circumcised people. Hereon God instructed him to inquire into the reason and nature of that distinguishing character. And so he learned that it was the token of God's covenant with the people, the posterity of Abraham, of whom he was. It was a blessed inlet into the knowledge and fear of the true God. And whatever is pretended by some unto the contrary, it is a most eminent divine privilege, to have the seal of the covenant in baptism communicated unto the children of believers in their infancy; and a means it hath been to preserve many from fatal apostasies." Hebrews vol 7:145-146 

Sorry folks, but these are exactly the same applications that Owen makes from his covenant theology in the earlier tract on infant baptism.

None of this is secret knowledge, as his commentary can be freely downloaded from the internet. OK, it's about 2 million words long, is peppered with Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic and reads like a roughly dashed-off English translation of a piece of thinking done in Ciceronian Latin. But it's freely accessible to everyone. 

I am happy for anyone to disagree with infant baptism. Some of my best and most godly friends are Baptists. And even I disagree with Owen on a number of things. So there's nothing wrong with that. 

But it simply won't do to Baptise Owen, or imply that he perhaps wasn't quite clever enough to see that his covenant theology led inexorably to anti-paedobaptism. 

Later Baptists did co-opt some of his theology for their own ends. And some of his best friends were Baptists. But he himself was not, and his theology by no means has to lead there. He certainly didn't think it did or should. And we should probably give him some credit: after all, he'd read the complete works of John Owen and knew the author personally. 

Next week, Lord willing and if he's still in the land of the living, Revd Gatiss will demonstrate that Dr Owen was a good Anglican.
I've been working of late on the doctrine of the pactum salutis, i.e., the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son concerning the redemption of elect sinners. Here, as in so many places, John Owen is instructive. Although it is not central to my own project, Owen's discussion of the particular delight that God takes in the eternal covenant of redemption strikes me as a particularly wonderful topic for contemplation. 

In chapter four of his Christologia (Works, vol. 1, pp. 54-64), Owen addresses a question that received quite a bit of attention in his day, namely, the question of what it means to say that Jesus Christ is the "foundation" of God's decree regarding the salvation of his people. Owen's answer to this question is clear. To say that Jesus Christ is the "foundation" of God's saving decree is to say that God's eternal plan of salvation was laid in Christ to be accomplished by Christ. God chose us "in him" to redeem us "through him" (Eph 1.4-5), and this sovereign decree is the foundation of all God's saving counsels regarding his children.

In discussing Christ's status as the foundation of God's saving decree, Owen makes the remarkable claim that God takes more delight in making his eternal decree of salvation than in executing said decree. Such a claim is not only hard to understand. On the surface at least, it is also hard to swallow. Is Owen saying that God delights more in the idea of us than in our actual existence as redeemed siblings of Jesus Christ? Is Owen's God perhaps like the person who loves the idea of marriage more than his or her actual spouse? Certainly not. What, then, does Owen mean in saying that God's "principal delight and complacency ... is in his eternal counsels"?  

Fully unpacking Owen's point would require setting it within the broader context of seventeenth century Reformed orthodox discussions of the divine decree, to which we may have opportunity to return at a later time. For now, we may put the matter this way: According to Owen, God takes more delight in his eternal counsels than in the temporal execution of those counsels for the simple reason that God takes more delight in himself than he takes in his creatures. God's works only manifest "the outskirts" of his sublime nature (Job 26.14). However, God's decree, because it is God's decree, is the occasion wherein God rejoices in the unfathomable depths of his triune perfection. According to Owen, God's decree is the principle expression of his infinite wisdom, goodness, love and grace, and the eternal occasion whereby the Father and the Son engage in mutual, ineffable delight through the Spirit. Owen takes Proverbs 8.30-31 as a description of the intratrinitarian delight that characterizes God's eternal decree of salvation: "then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man."

Reflecting upon Owen's discussion of this topic reminds me of the oft-quoted statement from Geerhardus Vos: "The best proof that [God] will never cease to love us lies in that he never began." Translating this statement in an Owenian register, we might say: The best proof that God will never stop loving us lies in that he has always loved the idea of loving us. And this too helps us see that Owen's remarkable point is not misanthropic. God's eternal plan to save us in and through Jesus Christ is not a plan that he engages reluctantly or as the result of external compulsion. It is a plan directed by infinite divine wisdom, whose fountain is the infinite goodness of God and whose womb is the eternal, ineffable delight of the Father and the Son in the fellowship of the Spirit. God's eternal delight in the eternal covenant of redemption is a source of comfort to poor sinners because it reminds us not only that the eternal plan of salvation is God's idea. It also reminds us that God loves his idea with a love whose spring is utterly and wholly divine. 

Call Me Maybe

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How do we deal with the tricky matter of pastors moving from one congregation to another? 

Some time ago I was in a session meeting with my elders, discussing my salary, and the phone rang (a long distance call). Within a minute of the phone conversation, I was asked about becoming the pastor at another congregation. The thought of putting the gentleman on speakerphone never occurred to me until well after my salary had been decided!

The topic of pastors receiving calls, searching for calls, and transferring from one church to another is exceedingly complex. The Early Church addressed this issue, and made provisions against the practice of pastors carelessly and selfishly hopping from one church to another. 

John Owen also addressed this issue. As he reflected back on the Early Church, he writes: 

"For when some churches were increased in members, reputation, privileges, and wealth, above others, it grew an ordinary practice for the bishops to design and endeavor their own removal from a less unto a greater benefice."

Owen also explains how the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon were strongly against the practice of pastors moving from one church to another due to the aforementioned reasons. These councils "would not allow that a man might be a bishop or presbyter in any other place but only in the church wherein he was originally ordained; and, therefore, if any did so remove themselves, decreed that they should be sent home again, and there abide, or cease to be church-officers" (Conc. Nicea. can. 15,16; Chalced., can. 5, 20).

The concept of "open contending for ecclesiastical promotions, benefices, and dignities, were then either unknown or openly condemned."

While appreciating many of the practices of the early church on this particular matter, Owen admits that there are "just causes" for the removal of a Pastor from one congregation to another.  In the case of a "removal" it should be with the "free consent of the churches concerned" and with the advice of other churches, with whom they walk in communion. Owen cites the example of Gregory Nazianzen who was removed from Casima to Constantinople, though with little success.
 
Owen asks another question: "May a Pastor voluntarily, or of his own accord, resign and lay down his office, and remain in a private capacity?"

Again, this was judged as undesirable, "if not unlawful, by the first synod of Ephesus, in the case of Eustathius." Eustathius was aged and wanted to retire and enjoy peace. He was tired of the opposition he faced from the church where he ministered. So, on his own judgment, and without advice, he removed himself from his office in the church so that they could choose a good man to replace him." The synod, however, condemned his decision.

Nonetheless, Owen argues that "no general rule can be established in this case; nor was the judgment or practice of the primitive church precise herein."  Clemens, for example, suggested that ministers should resign their office in the event of divisions in the church. Owen recounts the story of Nazian who "did the same at Constantinople; and protested openly that although he were himself innocent and free from blame, as he truly was, and one of the greatest men of his age, yet he would depart ... rather than they should not have peace among them; which he did accordingly."

It is not permissible, according to Owen, to voluntarily resign on account of 1) weakness for work; and 2) weariness of and despondency under opposition and reproaches.  It is lawful, however, "in such an incurable decay of intellectual abilities and in the event of incurable divisions in the church, even when the Pastor is not the cause of them." Moreover, a Pastor can remove himself if the church is "wholly negligent in its duty" to provide for him and his family.

James Durham also has some interesting thoughts on this in his commentary on Revelation. He makes the claim that God has gifted his ministers differently. So, for example, a particularly gifted minister may be in a "lesser Congregation" and yet be "more qualified" to be in a larger congregation. He perhaps should leave for the good of the larger church because of his "larger" gifting compared to other less gifted men.   

While Durham's point ought to be carefully considered, I think there are many other factors that should cause us to exercise caution regarding the principle of the "greater good." For example, the "greater good" may require a gifted young pastor to remain in a smaller church for many years before he is ready for the demands of a larger body of believers. 

Whatever our views on this important issue - and I think this topic requires a great deal more thought than I am able to give in a blog post - it seems to me that this is an area that requires greater theological reflection in our present thinking on "calling." Not only pastors, but also Christ's sheep may be damaged by unwise, careless "processes" where "pastoral calls" have more in common with high-school dating - apologies to home-schoolers who can't relate - than with biblical principles. 

The Early Church and many Post-Reformation Reformed theologians wrestled intensely with these issues. And, I believe, so should we.

Pastor Mark Jones is happy where he is in Vancouver, where, due to the rain, the grass is always green on this side!

Concessions and contentions

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I may have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia," but only slightly less well known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" Then further down the pecking order comes this one: "Never quote Owen in response to Trueman if you do not want a trampling."

Ah, well, if I may quote the great doctor (Trueman, of course), "Fools rush in where monkeys fear to tread." At least taking aim at everyone includes me - thank you, Carl, for making me a part of this . . .

I must admit I come to this with my admiration for Carl marred somewhat by the unsettling notion of a Pentecostal phase. It is like being told that, prior to discovering Led Zeppelin, he flirted with Showaddywaddy or had a brief Diana Ross period. Nevertheless, I care for him enough not to allow his life to become too boring, and so I offer the following concessions and contentions.

Concessions

Naturally, one reads Owen in his own context, and the issue of state imposition of a specific liturgical form is part of that. To simply lift a statement and drop it on someone else without nuance would be unhelpful, and I did not intend to do that. I am glad that Carl has given me an occasion to clarify the issue.

I am not dismissing all "formal liturgy" as necessarily ritualistic and formalistic (although the fact that the words formal and formalistic have the merest smidgin of something in common should suggest a potential connection to our minds).

I am not in the least seeking to dismiss the Reformers as s/Spiritually insubstantial men. However, surely we must apply the same criteria as to Owen and others, that they too were (as we are) of their time, subject to certain influences, thinking in certain categories, reacting against certain issues.

I accept that formalism and fanaticism are not mutually exclusive categories. I think - and this is part of the point, as I shall suggest below - that this may be a horseshoe spectrum (similar to the political example in which both fascism and communism are both actually manifestations of totalitarianism). A person could be fanatically formal or formally fanatical.

I am not dismissing the value of worship informed by the best that the past has to offer. I believe that to divorce ourselves from the past is as much a folly as our enslavement to it - I do not accuse Carl of either the former or the latter, although I imagine that as a church historian he is probably particularly concerned about the historical myopia characteristic of too much of the modern church.

Contentions

The fact that Owen is deriving his principle out of and applying his principle into a specific set of historical circumstances does not render that basic principle necessarily flawed or its present application necessarily inappropriate. Even if we do not see the arrival of liturgy in Colorado Springs as "necessarily representing some kind of formalist dust inevitably filling a vacuum left by the departure of megachurch evangelicalism," I think it is legitimate to ask whether or not it may possibly be typical or representative of the kind of shifts that take place under such circumstances.

Here we might return to the idea of the horseshoe spectrum and the underlying point that I wish to make. Owen - in various places, and not just when addressing liturgy specifically - is concerned that where Christ is not worshipped in spirit and truth then that absence (and all that is lost with it) will be supplied, at least in wish, by recourse to the senses and appetites of men. In that sense, both formalism and fanaticism, properly understood, pander to carnality, and there is enough of it remaining in every saint for us to be constantly on guard against either.

The original article by Gene Veith suggested that the congregation in question was trying to "find its place in historic Christianity" by "bringing in liturgy, every-Sunday communion, the church year, and pastoral care. Its new statement of faith is the Nicene Creed." The parent article in Christianity Today puts some flesh on those bones. However, there's not much doubt that those elements that Veith identified are not inherently united. For example, the church year and pastoral care are no more necessarily bound together than they are necessarily separated. That said, there are elements of the package described that do tend and have often historically tended toward formality, even where they do not impose it.

My concern is that, moving further away from the specifics of this example (and making no accusations), it would not be at all surprising to find that a church that had discovered the emptiness of megachurch evangelicalism and charismatic excesses might very well, rather than turn to the fullness of Christ, simply find a different emptiness that at least had the virtue of novelty without actually solving the problem. So, yes, it may not be inevitable to see a formalist procession sweeping into the vacuum left by fanatical activity, but it is not altogether unlikely.

In this regard, might it not be time to drop this 'everyone has a liturgy' weapon, especially when employed as a catch-all dismission of any dissenting opinion with regard to worship? It has become de rigeur, especially among some Presbyterians, to employ this as a screen not so much to prevent any charges of formalism as to give a blanket defence of their own modes of worship. I recognise that there is a set of definitions of liturgy. Taking a simple line, we acknowledge that almost every church has a liturgy in the limited sense that almost every church conducts its public worship in accordance with a prescribed form (from the highest of Roman or Anglican or Orthodox worship to the broadest of megachurch evangelicalism, as the fairly well-known "Contemporvant" video makes clear).

In responding to Carl, I am not crassly suggesting that the alternative to all this proto-Catholicism is the four hymn sandwich. So, for example, the church I serve has a fairly well established format which allows for a number of variations but follows the same basic outline. It involves reading and singing psalms each Lord's day, morning and evening, as well as portions from the Old and New Testaments, together with a sermon, other hymns, and praying (always extempore, though we do address particular topics). We celebrate the Lord's supper as part of our worship on a regular basis. I hope it is clear that I have no appetite for chaotic, irreverent, man-centred worship-as-performance. At the same time, I steer clear of the deliberately dramatic and theatrical, the scripted, the heavily symbolic (except where biblically mandated), the overtly clerical. In that sense, I do not think that many people would wander into one of our services of worship and immediately suggest that we have a very 'liturgical' approach to things in the popular sense of the word.

I think that Carl and I would both contend that - taking the basic definition of liturgy, and echoing Carl's language - we desire and promote an intelligent pattern of worship that is theologically informed, which we and the churches we serve acknowledge and upon which they reflect, something that is grounded in the Word of God. Doubtless, in pursuing this, we come to the matter burdened by our own experiences and informed by our own convictions, and needing to take account of our own errors and imbalances.

I have not visited the church which Carl serves, so I don't know about their forms of worship, and I will not presume that they have a high and ornate liturgy any more than Carl will (I hope) be presuming that the church where I worship enjoys a four hymn sandwich (for the record, we usually sing three times in each worship service, at least once a psalm). But I am concerned that there are two extremes to avoid, and I see some of my Presbyterian and Baptist brethren reacting to and over-reacting against one or the other extreme. Given the general tendency in much broader evangelicalism toward fanaticism, I am concerned that those who wish to establish or even boast of their Reformed credentials do not swing to the other end of the spectrum, and find themselves in a very different environment, but really not that far away from the errors that they sought to avoid. I am prone to the same reactions and over-reactions, and so I wrestle with the same issues.

I do not deride or ignore the light of the centuries in which men have been living as new covenant believers. I live in it and I love it. But it is not the language of radicalism or shallowness - a sort of aggressive solo Scriptura or Scriptura nuda notion - to say that I pursue the simplicity and sublimity of scriptural worship. I desire something that does not pander overmuch to the senses if the Spirit is not enlivening us, either by way of forms and rituals or excesses and abandonment. I would rather that it all fell to the ground than that we went away imagining that we had worshipped when there had been nothing of any spiritual substance in our exercises, but we had managed to cover it over with something merely carnal, whether of imposed form or seeming freedom. I do not believe that such a desire is mysticism, Welsh or otherwise.

"Formalism is a matter of the heart, not of the written page," writes Carl. That is true, but an over-reliance on forms provides a particular opportunity for formalism just as the abandonment of order opens a door for fanaticism. At the same time, we must all be careful not to portray this simplistically as a fight between incipient radicalism and incipient ritualism. I think that Owen's principle holds good. The discussion for Reformed believers, with our different expectations and traditions, is how to walk the fine line without falling into the pit on the one side or the swamp on the other.

Not so unlikely?

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Though Carl reports that the arrival of a formal liturgy at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs is considered a surprise, if I remember John Owen correctly, he would probably be expecting it.

I cannot recall the precise place (I may try to track it down, or someone might recall it - I vaguely remember having this conversation before!). Nevertheless, Owen somewhere suggests that, in the absence of spiritually (perhaps better, Spiritually) substantial religion, men will run to two extremes in an attempt to fill the void with practices that they hope will replicate or shadow something of the sense and weight that they feel ought to be there. Those two extremes are fanaticism (excess, 'enthusiasm', wildness) and formalism (mere ritual and performance).

While I don't know what David Wells surmises or demonstrates in the book Carl mentions, the suggestion that "forms of worship and content of theology are not neatly and cleanly separable" seems to be at least in measure supported by Owen's assertion.

So where we find an alleged evangelicalism that is not grounded in Scripture but is seeking some kind of religious or spiritual substance, we should not be surprised to see those two extremes being offered as potential alternatives, or people and churches swinging back and forth between formalism and fanaticism. Frankly, I find the current appetite for charismatic excesses and carnal excitements on the one hand, and the growing cultivation of a high and ornate liturgy on the other, mapping pretty accurately across the landscape that Owen suggests. (By the way, if he doesn't suggest it, someone else probably does. If no-one else does, I will gladly take the credit!)

The only thing that arrests the swing is when the anchor drops in the Word of God and simple, unaffected worship enlivened by the Holy Spirit is known and felt by saints who are satisfied with pursuing and enjoying God's promised ends by God's appointed means.

Results tagged “John Owen” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 2.3, Part Two

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iii. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

To limit the Confession's commitment to Trinitarianism to the two sentences that conclude Chapter two would be a serious mistake. Though simplistic revisionists have seen fit to add a chapter on the Holy Spirit, the entire Confession is viewed from a Trinitarian perspective, including the Confession's robust portrayal of the work of the Spirit in the Application of Redemption that comprises the bulk of the central sections of the Confession. 

Of practical import, to neglect the Father will make us soft and lazy, folk of dull consciences inclined to antinomianism and prone to complain at what we view as a lack of parental care for our most urgent needs. Ignoring the Son will lead us to make little of our need for a blood-bought redemption or of giving praise and glory to another, encouraging us in the default of every Adamic heir - a treadmill of works righteousness as we endeavor to make idols of ourselves. Neglecting the Spirit will encourage worldliness of the worst kind, ignoring what he provides in on-going transformational holiness in fruit-bearing, Christ-like lives. 

To get a grasp of how Trinitarianly robust seventeenth century Reformed theology can be, read John Owen's, Of Communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation; or, The Saint's Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Unfolded (1658), otherwise known as Volume 2 of the 16-volumed set of Owen's Works. He will make us appear as theological Lilliputians.