Manfred Svensson, “John Owen and John Locke: Confessionalism, doctrinal minimalism, and toleration,” History of European Ideas (2016)

Manfred Svensson’s recent article on “John Owen and John Locke: Confessionalism, doctrinal minimalism, and toleration” connects two individuals who likely first met as dean and undergraduate student in Christ Church, Oxford, in the 1650s. Svensson notes that both Owen and Locke published on the theme of toleration, and that after the Restoration both appear to have been associated with the Shaftesbury circle (a context that needs much further exploration). These writers were arguing for religious toleration on competing bases, however: Svensson notes that Owen defended toleration on the basis of “classical confessionalism,” while Locke argued on the basis of “modern doctrinal minimalism.”

Svensson’s article is an another indication of the expansion of interest in Owen’s work that has followed Tim Cooper’s “masterful” sequence of re-evaluations of Owen (p. 13), most notably in John Owen, Richard Baxter and the Formation of Nonconformity (2011). Svensson notes that “Protestant scholasticism now appears to stand in greater continuity with the original sixteenth-century insights, and, at the same time, is acknowledged as a vibrant and multi-faceted intellectual movement” (p. 3). He argues that Owen was “a representative for the idea that toleration is above all a disposition towards rival beliefs or convictions, not a property of our own beliefs; it is precisely for this reason that it is compatible with robust philosophical and theological convictions, as long as these leave room for forbearance or permission of objected practices” (p. 3). Owen’s convictions about toleration in the early 1650s were farsighted, being “roughly the same as those provided for by the 1689 Toleration Act” (p. 3), but mutable, as later in the decade, he considered the positions he had taken in the Humble Proposals (1652) to be “insufficient” to protect Christian orthodoxy: “what is valid for the history of toleration in general is valid for Owen’s biography as well: there is no uncomplicated linear development towards greater toleration” (pp. 3-4). Svensson reports the agreement of scholars that “Owen significantly influenced Locke’s later views on toleration” (p. 5), although these scholars do not agree how or to what extent he did so.

This article certainly on to something. Owen was “confessional”: he would have signed up to the 39 Articles for his ordinations as deacon and priest within the Church of England; he would have subscribed to the Westminster Confession of Faith as part of the move from his first to his second parish; he took an active role in protracted negotiations to define the “fundamentals” of the Cromwellian church settlement in a series of confessions of faith; and he was closely involved in the drafting of the Savoy Declaration (though not, as is often assumed, the author of its preface, according to Nathaniel Mather, who attended the Savoy assembly). But Owen was not uncomplicatedly “confessional”: Owen hardly refers to the Savoy Declaration, or any confession other than the 39 Articles, which he cites repeatedly in the 1640s, 1660s and beyond, in the later period certainly for political reasons.

And it is true that there likely existed an important intellectual relationship between Owen and his former student. This was not necessarily a positive relationship: Locke appears to make fun of Owen in his letters from Christ Church in the 1650s [Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism, pp. 165, 202-3], and his preference in the Letter on Toleration for a “rule of faith” that is expressed in “the exact words of Scripture” (p. 8) sounds a lot like the critique of the English Reformed confessional tradition advanced by Owen’s chief antagonist, Richard Baxter.

But perhaps the distance between Owen and Locke is not as great as it seems. Owen did not always argue on the basis of classical confessionalism. From as early as Animadversions on Fiat Lux (1662) and its Vindication (1664), Owen was proposing that Christians would unite only when the Bible alone provided their agreed statement of faith. While later in the 1660s Owen was happy to refer to the Savoy Declaration, he may, at the end of his life, have come to endorse Baxter’s project to develop the unity of nonconformists on the basis of a minimalist creed (Reliquiae Baxterianae, iii, 69).

Svensson’s article draws attention to a key debate and a key intellectual relationship. This is a very important addition to scholarly work on Owen.


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