Friday, April 01, 2016

Did John Owen have two minds?

Dublin Castle

In this post I am interested in the mind of John Owen during the time when he was  part of Oliver Cromwell’s ‘leadership team’ as one of Cromwell’s chaplains, travelling with it as military strategy determined, to Ireland, and then to Scotland and so on. The period ends with his published sermon of 1656.

As Dean of Christ Church (1651)  and in the next year as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Owen would travel to Westminster  to preach to the Commons. He owed these positions to Cromwell. He had preached to the Commons earlier, indeed he had first come to Cromwell’s notice through a sermon preached there.  Such sermons were published at the command of the House.

Parallel with these duties Owen was also continuing the series of theological writings for which he is best known today. By the time he became part of Cromwell’s team he had put out A Display of Arminianism (1642) a critique of Arminian theolog.This shortish book, was in effect a defence of the ‘Five Points’ of the Synod of Dordt. Owen was 24. This was followed by Salus Electorum, better known to us as the Death of Death (1647), dedicated to the Earl of Warwick. 

In these books Owen took for granted what was (and is) a central aspect of the Reformed faith, the distinction between God’s secret decrees and his revealed will. In Chapter V  of A Display of Arminianism, ‘Whether the will and purpose of God may be resisted, and he be frustrate of his intentions’ Owen says that the secret will of God

is his eternal, unchangeable purpose concerning all things which he hath made, to be brought by certain means to their appointed ends….[the] eternal, constant, immutable will of God, whose order can neither be broken nor its law transgressed, so long as with him there is neither change nor shadow of turning. (X. 45. Volume and page references are to Goold) )

By contrast

The revealed will of God containeth not his purpose and decree, but our duty, - not what he will do according to his good pleasure, but what we should do if we will please him, and this, consisting in his word, his precepts and promises, belongeth to us and our children, that we may do the will of God.(X. 45)

Similarly in The Death of Death, he makes an application of the distinction to the duty and care of ministers of the gospel.

We must exactly distinguish between man’s duty and God’s purpose, there being no connection between them. The purpose and decree of God is not the rule of our duty; neither is the performance of our duty in doing what we are commanded any declaration of what is God’s purpose to do, or his decree that it should be done…A minister is not to make inquiry after, nor to trouble himself, those secrets of the eternal mind of God, namely, - whom he purposeth to save, and whom he hath sent Christ to die for in particular. (299-300)

So this is one mind of Owen, that of a budding seventeenth-century Orthodox puritan theologian.


We turn now to the evidence of the operation of Owen’s other mind; his own preaching as seen in the sermons preached before Parliament.. Of the 11 or so of Owen’s Commons sermons republished in Goold’s edition of Owen’s Works,  which are presumably all of them, I select two. The first  from Hebrews 12.27, entitled ‘The Shaking and Translating of Heaven and Earth’ was published in May 1649, having been preached for the Commons and ‘the residue of men that wait for the appearance of the Lord Jesus’.  The second sermon,  'The Steadfastness of the Promises',  was on Abraham who ‘staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief’.  There is some doubt as to when this was preached. If 1649, before Ireland, in 1650 after. I am assuming 1650. Now part of the inner circle, Owen preached as Cromwell returned from Ireland. Owen’s purpose, according to this address, was to encourage Parliament ‘to give glory to God, by steadfastness in believing, committing all your ways to him, with patience in well-doing, to the contempt of the most varnished appearances of carnal policy’. With Cromwell in Ireland, Owen had seen the ‘conquering sword of the Protector’ at first hand, had lived for some months in Dublin Castle (from where he signed off The Death of Christ) preached regularly in that city, and seen, he tells us,  the needs of the people and their hunger for the gospel. 


So there is Owen the theological writer and Owen the Commons preacher. The style of the sermons is different from that of his books, naturally. The sermons are biblical expositions based on a thorough exegesis of the chosen passage, and then with a ‘spiritual’ application, that is, (I take it) a general application to the Christian, and then usually 9as regards Commons sermons) a ‘temporal’ application to the events that were going on, the Civil War.

I shall try to justify the claim that Owen exhibits a mind in the preaching that is contradictory to or at least discordant with one important theological particular with his position in his first two books. I shall now try to establish this by looking briefly at his way of thinking about the will of God in these sermons.

The interest for us is in the applications to ‘temporals’, to what is before the House of Commons,  the conduct of the war. What do these events mean? What is going on? To start with, these further applications still fall under the meaning of the text. If in spirituals, ‘staggering’ is unbelief to be avoided and not unbelief to be cultivated, so the same text with the same meaning applies to temporals. Owen believed that the army’s feats are an expression of faith, but in the same way a prey to unbelief. In its application to temporals Owen supplements his appeal to his text with material from the Old Testament prophets, to the future of Israel and then their fulfilment in the Messianic age. So it comes about, Owen thinks,  that England, purged of popery, and of tyrannical monarchs, is the vanguard of God’s purposes for the culmination of these Messianic hopes. It is papistry that brought Ireland to spiritual darkness. Without a great deal of argument, but with a hurried parade of texts and fragments of texts from the prophets,  Owen confidently shows that he takes it for granted that this is so. His concern is that, knowing this,  the Commons should not  waver, nor rely on political chicanery. His stay in Dublin has brought him face to face with instances of need and of hunger and thirst for the gospel, and they will deliver Ireland and establish gospel ministries in it if they do not falter, staggering in unbelief. 

So we see Owen extending his understanding of the 'revealed things' to England by the way he uses this this prophetic material . He argues that these OT texts straightforwardly refer to England and to other such nations, though Owen does not mention any other, but he mentions past movements of reform that have been snuffed out by papal tyranny. So ‘nation’ in such OT prophets means - refers to - nations of the 17th century and onward, especially England, whose domestic and foreign policy is governed by Christian motives to extend Christ’s kingdom and to govern affairs non-tyrannically. He and his fellows are seeing the fulfilment of these prophecies in the English wars, and particularly in the overthrow of Papacy in Ireland, and the defeat of the Scottish Covenanters in Ireland too.  

Isn’t this surprising? Might we not have expected Owen the Independent (as he by now had become) to go in the other direction and interpret the ‘nations’ via  Peter’s description of the congregations of the early church as constituting a nation, that in the NT these words are to be understood in a metaphorical or extended sense?  He is totally silent on this side of things. So, OT in hand, Owen believes himself to offer the Commons a kind of prophetic encouragement, a picture of God's revealed will of England,  to renew its resolve for the work in hand, to fill in public details of what would conventionally have been regarded as among the secret things which belong unto the Lord our God.

For a few years, or perhaps only for a few months,  Owen thought he had received the key to God’s providence, his will for England and Ireland. He says in one place ‘Of the speedy accomplishment of all this I no way doubt.’ (VIII 268-9)

In the sermon on staggering Owen also refers to the revealed and secret will of God distinction, making the point that the promises of God ‘are not declarations of his secret purposes and intentions’ (227). Nevertheless ‘the promises of God do signify of his purposes, that the believer of them shall be the enjoyer of them’ …’The experience which we have of the mighty workings of God for the accomplishment of all his purposes gives light unto this thing.’(229) ’Look upon the affair of Ireland. The engagement of the great God of revenges against murder and treachery, the interest of the Lord Christ and his kingdom against the man of sin, furnished the undertakers with manifold promises to carry them out to a desired, a blessed end. Take now a brief view of some mountains of opposition that lie in the way against any success un that place; and hear the Lord saying to every one of them, ‘Who art thou, O great mountain? Before my people thou be made a plain.’ (Zech. iv.7).  Here he does resort to analogy, but within the framework of a literal understanding of the OT texts, and of their application to then-current events.

The Lord has promised that Ireland will be delivered, and delivered it shall be!

What happened to Owen’s theology can be explained in two phases. In the first phase  his understanding of the accepted Reformed understanding of the secret will and revealed will distinction changed shape during the Commons sermons. As we saw earlier the distinction, as Owen understood this, is between what God decrees, reserved to himself, and what he requires, his revelation. Owen extended the revealed will, the promises, from ‘generals’ to include the particular contemporary and future events in the British Isles about which he preached to the House of Commons, going beyond what he had said were secrets to include the unfolding events of the Civil war and their significance, and in particular to the military operations in Ireland.  He daringly attributed to what he said of these the character of God’s revealed purposes, long prophesied, in turn giving rise to Christian precepts.

It is likely that his relative youth, sudden promotion to Cromwell’s side, and the way of thinking exhibited in his sermons, had turned his mind. He believed he was in the cockpit of the unfolding of God’s plan for England, foretold by the prophets, and that he was their mouthpiece. The outcome was assured.

In the second phase, no doubt to his own horror and chagrin, events do not turn out as Owen was certain they would, though he never concedes as much in his Commons sermons, except perhaps in the silences in the last one, preached in 1659 following the death of His Highness the Lord Protector.

In his last Commons sermon, following Crowell's death,  England is still, according to  Owen, ‘a brand plucked out of the fire’.  The preacher is no long giving prophetic directions for the nation, but consolation to a remnant, of their temporal and spiritual preservation (VIII 458) like Israel in the wilderness. In the course of the sermon he couples godliness with prosperity, and setbacks with a loss of godliness and a popular contempt for it. ‘It was not by prudence of councils, or strength of armies above that of our enemies, that we prevailed; but faith and prayer.’ (465) There is still hope if we have Christ in our hearts, and an opposition to profaneness (467). Those who have Christ are to be encouraged, even though there are differences among them. The sermon, a very short one, closes on this note. Owen seems to be losing faith in his ability to read the mind of God.


Times changed. The last sermon of the Commonwealth period preached before the Commons was in 1659. Charles II was restored as Monarch in 1660, the Act of Uniformity passed in 1662, and John Owen, though not ejected, since he did not have a church living, became, along with thousands of others, a Dissenter. He was at this time 44. Owen’s time at the top table had come to an end.


Then followed the flow of books on which his fame chiefly rests. In none of them as far as I can see did he revisit those prophetic passages that he excitedly preached on before the Commons. Nor is there in these books any autobiographical reflections in which he admits to being self-deceived about the actings of the Lord in providence during the War. And perhaps to being knocked off balance by his sudden and unexpected promotion to Oliver’s side.  (I say nothing here about alleged events in Owen's life at this period suggesting that he had not quite lost his taste for the high life or the hope of regaining it.) Not for the first or last time did the Lord shock his people by bringing about what they did not expect. These omissions in Owen’s oeuvres are to readers of the later Owen a great pity, given that for him as much for as any other Puritan, the world had turned upside down, to use Christopher Hill’s words. More, perhaps, the world turned full circle, and Owen was again on the margins of affairs, as he was in his early years of ministry in Essex, despite his not very successful attempts with others (including with his erstwhile combatant Richard Baxter), to have Dissent unified and recognized, as the laws against dissenters were gradually relaxed. It would be fascinating to learn more about what, in his heart of hearts, he made of all this.

Among Owen’s  later works were the erudite, magisterial expositions of experimental Calvinism, of the chief doctrines of the Reformed faith on which Owen's reputation as a theologian largely rests. At work on these he was on safer ground than when he was composing sermons which claim to identify the unchangeable purpose of God with certain contemporary political and military events. What had happened?  His mind had understandably been knocked sideways first by the sudden promotion of becoming a member of the Lord Protector’s inner circle, and then a few years later knocked again by the death of Oliver, the rising clamour for the restoration of the monarchy, and by the Restoration itself and its consequences. In other respects, chastened and wiser, his mind seems to have recovered its earlier self.