John Owen, Christian politics, and the “empire of conscience”

We don’t tend to think of John Owen, the most famous and most celebrated of the seventeenth-century English puritans, as a political activist or thinker. But, as I show in An introduction to John Owen, recently published by Crossway, Owen did make significant interventions in the sequence of crises that led to the formation of the short-lived English republic, as well as to its demise. In the final months of the English civil wars, Owen’s influence grew as a consequence of his relationship with the army that had been fighting against the king. The published version of his sermon to commemorate the execution of Charles I (1649) became his only best-seller. In the early years of the new republic, Owen was committed to the Cromwellian regime. In 1654, he was elected as a Member of Parliament, and served in several committees that sought to flesh out the religious requirements of the new constitution. In the later years of the Republic, Owen grew increasingly critical of Oliver Cromwell, and worried that the government was backsliding from its earlier godly principles. Conspiring with a number of high-ranking army officers, Owen took part in a high-stakes gamble that sought to return the government of Richard Cromwell to the earliest ideals of the revolution. The gamble failed, and Owen watched in horror as his political miscalculation facilitated the collapse of the republic and the return of the king (1660). In the dangerous years that followed the Restoration, Owen, like many other religious dissidents, lived as inconspicuously as he could, evaded arrest, not always successfully, and did his best to rethink the religious politics that had led to the deaths of tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen, and many thousands more of the inhabitants of Ireland and Scotland. In defeat, and as a persecuted dissenter, Owen developed new ways of thinking about the relationship between politics and faith – including a set of assumptions about economic freedom and liberty of conscience that would be taken up by John Locke, his former student, to become the foundation of the classical liberal order. Owen’s new convictions were chastened by the realities of defeat – but also tempered by his realisation that the kingdom of God could never be extended by political means.

In the very different context of the Restoration, Owen recognised that a great deal of the problems of the previous two decades had been caused by careless religious politics. He accepted that government, in itself, was a good thing. In fact, he explained in 1668, the “greatest mercies and blessings that in this world we are made partakers of, next to them of the gospel and covenant of grace,” come by means of good government (Works, 6: 270). “All authority is originally in God,” he continued in a different context, who lends that authority to “kings and rulers of the earth” – and even to wicked rulers. For that reason, Owen argued that the authority of secular rules did not depend upon their spiritual state. The duty of Christians to obey their rulers “doth not arise from the authority vested in themselves, but from the immediate command of God, that in such things they ought to be obeyed” (Works, 15: 43). Of course, if governments kept to their role, as the Bible outlined it, believers should not expect any trouble. The purpose of government was merely to “keep the rational world in bounds and order, to draw circles about the sons of men, and to keep them from passing their allotted bounds and limits, to the mutual disturbance and destruction of each other” (Works, 2: 115). But Christians should pay attention to their “allotted bounds and limits,” too. Believers should give up on utopian plans to change the world by political means, and focus instead on fulfilling the responsibilities that the New Testament laid upon them. “They are no great things which we desire for ourselves,” he explained. The “utmost of our aim” was to “pass the remainder of the few days of our pilgrimage in the land of our nativity, serving the Lord according to what he hath been pleased to reveal of his mind and will unto us” (Works, 13: 555). Christians should submit to the authority of hostile governments, while remembering that the “empire of conscience belongs unto God alone” (Works, 13: 565). Recognising that political agitation was antithetical to the responsibilities of the church, Christians should not be jockeying for worldly influence. Politics was bad for believers’ spiritual health. Owen lamented that “our churches have never been able to sufficiently disengage themselves from their involvement with peoples, states, nations, and the demands of politics,” and so they had not been able to avoid the “influence, morals, corruptions, and defilements of the world” (Works, 17: 318; translated in Biblical theology, p. 440). Political projects had done the churches harm. 

Despite the clarity of his thinking about politics through much of the 1660s and 1670s, it is possible that Owen began to re-think his commitment to passive resistance and peaceful endurance. In the early 1680s, as it became clear that the reign of Charles II would be followed by that of his openly Catholic brother, James, duke of York, it seemed to Owen and to many other dissenters that the English reformation was coming to an end. Facing the prospect of a Catholic royal succession, Owen recognised that the “protestant interest” in politics was now “beyond hopes of a revival” (Works, 14: 540). Others shared his fears. In 1683, just months before his death, many of his closest associates – including his brother, Henry Owen; his former pastoral assistant, Robert Ferguson; and several of the younger members of his church – were implicated in a plot to assassinate the king and his brother. In the aftermath of the Rye House Plot, Owen was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the conspiracy, but took an oath to testify to his own innocence. 

As the national crisis deepened, Owen advised his congregation to be prepared to “suffer … even unto death” in defence of their faith (Works, 14: 555). But he also encouraged his listeners to remember that God raised up wicked rulers for purposes that only he could understand – and sometimes, in his providential judgements, to set against each other those governments that were at enmity with his people. After all, God had raised up Cyrus “to do great and wonderful things … to ruin and destroy the great, ancient Babylonian monarchy” (Works, 3: 103). Hostile politicians might well over-step the “circles” that kept government and people from “mutual disturbance and destruction” (Works, 2: 115). But believers should suffer whatever was necessary to show that the “empire of conscience” belongs to God alone. 

You can read the first chapter of An introduction to John Owen here.

Two new articles on Owen

That’s right – that’s Owen, in the preface to Θεολογουμενα παντοδαπα. Sive De natura, ortu, progressu, et studio veræ theologiæ (1661), complaining of wannabe-theologues who “squeeze from the theology textbooks enough expertise to be thought of as on a par with other ‘learned’ Divines’” (John Owen, Biblical theology, trans. Stephen Westcott [Grand Rapids, MI: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994], p. xliv). This was a widely complained of problem – and that across the theological spectrum. In 1644, John Milton had worried about the temptations faced by lazy preachers. “It is no new thing never heard of before,” he considered, “for a parochial minister, who has his reward and is at his Hercules’ pillars in a warm benefice, to be easily inclinable, if he have nothing else that may raise up his studies,” to finish his sermon preparation with “ease.” All the lazy preacher required, in addition to his old lecture notes, were “an English concordance and a topic folio … a harmony and a catena, treading the constant round of certain common doctrinal heads, attended with their uses, motives, marks, and means.” With “a little bookcraft, and two hours’ meditation,” Milton’s lazy preacher could make very good use of the “infinite helps of interlinearies, breviaries, synopses, and other loitering gear” as he worked to display his learning (John Milton, Areopagitica (1644), in The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton, eds William Kerrigan, John Rumrich and Stephen M. Fallon [New York, 2007], pp 953-54).

But, Richard Snoddy warns us, this kind of criticism could be directed as Owen, too. Snoddy’s new article, “A display of learning? Citations and shortcuts in John Owen’s Display of Arminianism (1643),” Westminster Theological Journal 82 (2020), pp. 319-35, shows how in putting together his first book Owen depended upon intermediary texts to access the works of those who arguments he was refuting. Snoddy’s extremely detailed close reading of A Display of Arminianism shows how Owen replicated even the mistakes in transcription that these intermediary texts included. We are often reminded of how well-read Owen was – and there is no doubt that his engaging with primary sources extended as his access to library resources improved – but Snoddy offers a helpful reminder that Owen’s first book was prepared in very unpromising circumstances and the young theologian had to make best use of whatever resources he could find.

Brian L. Huizinga’s new article on Owen’s covenant theology returns to more familiar themes. “John Owen and the salt of the covenant of grace,” Protestant Reformed Theological Journal 54 (2020), pp. 76-111, emphasises Owen’s definition of the covenant of grace as “an unchangeable covenant in which the elect are forever secure” (p. 77), a theme that he finds undeveloped in Owen scholarship. Huizinga offers a careful reading of some tricky passages in Owen’s writing, and reminds us of the ways in which Owen could insist that faith was a “condition” in a covenant that was nevertheless without conditions (pp. 98-101).