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).

An invitation to John Owen

From the Gospel Reformation-UK blog:

Few puritans have suffered as much as John Owen has suffered at the hands of his admirers. Ask almost anyone in Reformed circles about the greatest seventeenth-century protestant theologian, and they will tell you about his books – all bound in green, and all lined up on a high shelf, where they can be properly reverenced but need never be disturbed. Owen’s books have come to function like a talisman. His works have become an icon of theological solidity. It’s probably true that most people who invest in the handsome volumes that continue to be published by the Banner of Truth do so to make a point not about what they do read, but about what they hope other people will believe that they read. At best, those brave enough to crack open these formidable volumes will dip into one of Owen’s classics – Of communion with God, for example, or some of his works on sanctification. But the rest of the green volumes – or indeed the seven volumes of his extraordinary commentary on Hebrews – remain largely untouched. From the seventeenth century to the twenty-first, Owen’s works have been collected by individuals who want to identify with the greatest of puritan theologians without learning directly from him. The Works of John Owen function like a badge – a very big and quite expensive badge that reads: “I am very Reformed.”

This situation is sad – but it’s also quite amusing. 

It’s sad because our tendency to collect rather than read the works of Owen points to the ways in which we have allowed our faith to be commodified. Owen matters as a display. In other words, what matters is not what I believe, but what my book-buying habits show that I believe. It’s very easy to become the kind of person who collects the works of puritan writers to show that we are more serious about theology than are the people in the next-door pew. And this problem isn’t new. It’s striking to consult first editions of Owen’s works in university special collections and to see how few of these books have ever been opened. Owen has always had far more buyers than readers. 

But the situation is also quite amusing. For Owen can only function as a badge of Reformed orthodoxy as long as no-one reads him. Owen didn’t simply inherit a body of divinity that he defended tooth and nail throughout his eight million published words. Throughout his long life, Owen was a student of the Bible, as well as of the rabbinical, patristic, medieval, Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed traditions. He read the Bible through life experiences that included a revolution and its horrific aftermath, as an advisor to a head of state and as a persecuted minister living on the run, as someone who could both praise the piety of the king and be arrested on suspicion of plotting his assassination. Owen’s constant reading and his constantly changing circumstances forced him to ask new questions of Scripture – and, in some very important ways, to change his mind on such matters as the meaning and necessity of ordination, the meaning and effect of baptism, the frequency of the Lord’s Supper, the proper government of the church, the return of the Jews to the promised land and the timing of the millennium, as well as the need for confessions of faith, the ideal form of national government, and the question of whether smaller religious movements should be tolerated. Owen had many changes of mind – and at several points in his life he was less “Reformed” than are his modern admirers. Owen is always surprising.

So why should we read Owen? 

We should read Owen because the myths are true – because Owen is without doubt the greatest of the puritan theologians. This means something intellectually: even as he changes his position on important matters, Owen mines Scripture and the confessional and exegetical tradition in a way that is almost unknown among modern writers. But this also means something spiritually: for all of his failures, and even in his occasional mistakes, there is a depth and weightiness in Owen’s description of the Christian life that, as far as I can see, is unmatched by any modern writer. Owen was a better theologian that any modern writer that I have read. But Owen knew that theological expertise was not an end in itself. He explained that the goal of our studies should be “such a walking with God … that we may come to the enjoyment of him hereafter,”[1] for “there is a wide difference between understanding the doctrine of Scripture as in the letter, and a true knowing the mind of Christ.”[2] Owen understood that knowing theology – even knowing the Bible – is not the same as knowing Jesus Christ. Have we missed the forest for the trees?

But we should also read Owen because the myths aren’t true. Theological egg-heads like to use Owen to promote the idea that progress in doctrine is only for an intellectual elite – people who have the time, money and brains to work through long and complex books refuting heresies that were obscure even in the seventeenth century. You can see that in the theological huffing and puffing that sometimes goes on at the big conferences. But this makes a nonsense of Owen’s work. With very few exceptions, Owen didn’t write books for intellectuals. He wrote almost all of his books in English because his goal was to encourage ordinary Christians, not to impress the biggest brains in protestant Europe. Owen was not a cold rationalist, a theological architect who merely drew lines between different sets of ideas. Owen was a spiritual writer, who could plumb the depth of a theological argument only to explode the idea that theology itself is sufficient, who could reveal unnoticed connections between passages of Scripture only to warn us that Bible-reading must be led by and depend upon the Holy Spirit or it will do real harm to our souls. Owen was not just the greatest of the puritan theologians – he understood how dangerous that knowledge could be. Owen wrote for the mind – and for the heart.

Ordinary Christians have always responded to Owen’s devotional warmth. In 1779, the wife of an Anglican rector read a copy of The nature, power, deceit, and prevalency of the remainders of indwelling sin in believers, and noted in her diary that “I hope to read it often, that I may transcribe it on my memory and note the many useful remarks contained in it.”[3] Jim Elliot was thinking about Owen before he set off on his journey to Ecuador – and his martyrdom. And now, more than ever before, readers are turning to Owen. Over the last few months, I’ve connected with groups of Owen readers from all over the world, in online reading groups organised everywhere from south-east Asia to North America, and with members whose backgrounds range from Reformed Presbyterian to Plymouth Brethren. For all of their differences – cultural, geographical, and even theological – these readers are turning to Owen to understand their hunger for God and his word, and to learn “such a walking with God … that we may come to the enjoyment of him hereafter.” 

And that’s why we need to read Owen too.

You can read the first couple of chapters of An introduction to John Owen (Crossway, 2020) here.


[1] Owen’s preface to Scudder, The Christians daily walk, sig. Av.

[2] Owen, Works, 2: 108, 120.

[3] The diary of Mrs Arabella Davies, late wife of the Rev. E. Davies, A. B., Rector of Coychurch (London, 1788), p. 124.