John Owen was an Anglican
January 28, 2016
Having previously proved without any shadow of a doubt that the great John Owen was not a Baptist, no, definitely not a Baptist, and certainly not a Presbyterian, it is important that we now go one step further. In this year when we celebrate his 400th birthday, it is important that we recognise the fact that John Owen was an Anglican.
I'm sure I've said this before at the Westminster Conference. But I was just saying it again in more detail on Monday, at the launch of the new John Owen Society in Oxford, which is dedicated to recovering Reformed theology for the 21st Century. The whole talk is online if you want to listen in, but on this particular subject, I said something like this:
The Reverend John Owen was, let it be remembered, an ordained Anglican minister. He served for several years as the vicar (in succession) of two parish churches in Essex, before becoming the Dean of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford.
He may (like his father) have called himself a Puritan, and not been a fan of some aspects of the Church's governance and ceremonies. But doctrinally he was entirely in accord with the confessional basis of Anglicanism. As he says of the Thirty-nine Articles, "what is purely doctrinal we fully embrace and constantly adhere unto" (Works, 13:551).
Even when he had been ejected from the national church by the iniquitous Act of Uniformity in 1662, he was happy to say, "I embrace the doctrine of the church of England, as declared in the Thirty-nine Articles, and other approved public writings of the most famous bishops and other divines thereof" (Works, 14:196). That is tighter than the current form of subscription required of ministers in the Church of England!
Indeed, he wrote in 1669, "the chief glory of the English Reformation consisted in the purity of its doctrine, then first restored to the nation. This, as it is expressed in the articles of religion, and in the publicly-authorized writings of the bishops and chief divines of the church of England, is, as was said, the glory of the English Reformation" (Works, 13:354).
What was this Anglican confessional doctrine to which Owen adhered? He affirmed that on the subject of justification by faith and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, for example, that he was entirely on the side of the Church of England's authentic writings, "-- that is, the articles of religion, and books of homilies, and other writings publicly authorized." In his book on justification, which expounds and defends the comfortable doctrine of justification by faith alone, he added, "I shall not in the least depart from the ancient doctrine of the church of England; yea, I have no design but to declare and vindicate it, as God shall enable" (Works, 5:164).
He wouldn't, of course, have approved of what is now known as Anglo-Catholicism. He was implacably opposed to Antichrist and his religion, believing the Church of Rome to have committed heresy, schism, apostasy, and idolatry (Works, 14:29-30). And as for high church stage props and sumptuous outward aesthetic: "In worship, their paintings, crossings, crucifixes, bowings, cringings, altars, tapers, wafers, organs, anthems, litany, rails, images, copes, vestments,--what were they but Roman varnish, an Italian dress for our devotion, to draw on conformity with that enemy of the Lord Jesus?" (Works, 8:28).
In terms of church polity, Owen initially flirted with Presbyterianism before becoming more persuaded by the Congregational way. He didn't like episcopacy as a system. Yet -- perhaps surprisingly for many -- along with other such Independents during the 17th century, Owen did not believe in the separation of church and state, as many hold to that modern American tenet today.
Owen thought, for example, that the State had a duty to stop anti-Trinitarians infiltrating the church, and to silence those who rejected justification by faith alone. The magistrates could enforce that, in his view; indeed it was against the light and law of nature, he said, for supreme magistrates not to exert their authority to support, preserve, and further the cause of the gospel and forbid, coerce, and restrain false teaching (e.g. Works, 13:509-510). The great John Milton wrote some nasty things about him because of this, in that poem where Cromwell is called "our chief of men."
Owen had little time, however, for those who remained Anglican in form but not in doctrine. There were some in the seventeenth century who attacked nonconformists (who were perfectly sound on basic Protestant doctrines), but who left all manner of heretics alone merely because they obeyed the outward rules. This was scandalous to Owen (see Works, 13:354-355), and should be to all right-thinking people.
In his first published book in 1642 he gave some instances of people "opposing the received doctrine of the church of England, contained in divers of the Thirty-nine Articles." We are living in iniquitous times, he said, because "Had a poor Puritan offended against half so many canons as they opposed articles, he had forfeited his livelihood, if not endangered his life." It was acceptable to many to oppose the doctrine of the Articles of Religion but not to break the outward minutiae of canon law; indeed, even many senior church leaders "were so zealous for the discipline and so negligent of the doctrine of the church" (Works, 10:9).
Owen considered this an outrage, because he was deeply attached to the Protestant Reformed doctrine of the Church of England. As an ordained Anglican minister, we should of course expect no less.
"We own ourselves to have been, and to be, children of the church of England," he said (Works, 13:184). Until 1662, he would have been a fully signed up member of Church Society. And you can't get more proper Anglican than that.
Lee Gatiss is the Director of Church Society (www.churchsociety.org), which seeks to shape the Church of England for the future by building on its Reformed foundations