Christopher Haigh, “‘Theological wars’: ‘Socinians’ v. ‘Antinomians’ in Restoration England,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 67:2 (2016), pp. 325-50.

Christopher Haigh’s most recent publication focuses on exchanges between conformists and nonconformists in the 1660s and 1670s. Appealing for toleration outside the national church (following Owen) or comprehension within it (following Baxter), dissenters were repudiated as antinomians, and responded to their Anglican critics by alleging their Socinianism. But these exchanges were complicated by debates about justification within (as well as between) these parties of conformists and nonconformists. Haigh’s article concludes by arguing that the threat of a restoration of Catholicism in the late 1670s pushed the parties in this debate into a new pan-protestant alliance, in which their previous differences could be submerged.

Haigh’s article begins with readings of [Simon Patrick’s] A friendly debate betwixt two neighbours (1668 / 1669), which, despite its title, mounted a furious attack on the moral character of dissenting religion, and Samuel Rolle’s A sober answer to the friendly debate (1669), which repudiated Patrick’s claims – and justified a slew of further publications. Haigh notes the dissenter’s strategy of appealing to the 39 Articles to evidence doctrinal clarity, and to gesture towards a shared protestant faith – a debating strategy that Owen had earlier pursued in his Fiat lux publications (1662, 1664). Haigh notes Owen’s intervention in this debate, in Truth and innocence vindicated (1669), describing Owen as a “Congregational guru” (p. 327). And yet, Owen insisted, “we have no new faith to declare, no new doctrine to teach, no private opinions to divulge, no point or truth do we profess, no not one, which hath not been delivered, taught, divulged and esteemed as the common doctrine of the Church of England ever since the Reformation” (A peace-offering [1667], p. 13). The ground had shifted, so that the theological debates about toleration, comprehension and conformity regularly settled on the question of the proper interpretation of the Church of England’s statement of faith. George Vernon’s intervention in this debate, A letter to a friend (1670), lamented the “enthusiastic Owenistical spirit” of the politically and theologically untrustworthy dissenters, and argued that “Owenists” should be legally restrained. Samuel Parker continued to describe Owen as “the great bell-whether of disturbance and sedition.” It was in this context that Richard Baxter, always his own man, and never one to keep out of someone else’s fight, published The life of faith (1670) to describe Owen and his followers as antinomian divines and so to provide theological evidence to substantiate the allegations of the Anglican polemicists. As the debate spiralled, John Bunyan published his Defence of the doctrine of justification by faith in Jesus Christ (1672) – only to be abused by Edward Fowler in his Dirt wit off (1672). William Sherlock’s  Discourse concerning the knowledge of Jesus Christ (1674) returned attention to Owen, complaining about an earlier publication by the “Congregational guru,” his Of communion with God (1657), about which Vernon had also complained in A letter to a friend (1670). Both sides were appealing to the doctrinal formularies of the 39 Articles as being their own, while vituperating their opponents. Sherlock was clearly enjoying the spectacle: “What a blessed change has my book wrought in the Doctor [Owen]! He is now mightily concerned for the honour and reputation of the bishops and Church … Who could ever have hoped for this, who had known the Doctor in the blessed times of Reformation?” But Haigh notes an even more striking inversion: how few of the Anglican theologians entered the lists in defence of the old puritan doctrine of justification by faith alone. And Baxter’s attempt to moderate the debate, in Of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and in Richard Baxter’s Catholick theologie, put Owen’s words in the mouth of a character called “Libertine.” Not for the first time, Baxter’s representation of Owen was less than charitable, and his aspirations for peace foundered on his total insensitivity to his opponents’s sense of worth. But Owen continued the debate, exposing in The nature of apostasie (1676) the Socinian influence within the Church of England, and defending his own doctrine as authentically Anglican in The doctrine of justification by faith through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (1677). Owen’s difficulty was, of course, that some dissenters were in fact moving towards antinomianism in their defence of justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone, as Peter Toon has argued, and so Owen’s somewhat cautious preface to Stephen Lobb’s The glory of free grace display’d (1680) endorsed his colleague’s emphasis on the necessity for salvation of repentance and a godly life. Owen continued to have Anglican allies: In 1678, Thomas Barlow, who had been Owen’s tutor in the 1620s and a key albeit royalist ally who had become bishop of Lincoln, emphasised the doctrine of imputation and threatened to discipline any clergy within his diocese who taught justification by works.

Haigh’s careful and nuanced article reconstructs in meticulous detail the debate about justification that extended across the 53 works published on the subject by 34 authors between 1675 and 1680 – including 6 by Baxter and 3 by Owen. Only 14 of these authors wrote in defence of the old puritan doctrine of justification, of whom only 3 were conformists. But, Owen might have noticed, if the conformists could not be trusted to defend the doctrine of justification by faith, the dissenters were not presenting a united front either. No wonder Owen feared for the future of English protestantism.


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