Monday, January 30, 2006

Owen on Toleration: A Summary

Here is a synopsis of Paul Lim’s “Trinity, Adiaphora, Ecclesiology, and Reformation: John Owen’s Theory of Religious Toleration in Context,” Westminster Theological Journal 67 (2005): 281-300. Lim is Assistant Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA.

Contra older historiography which contends that Arminianism (and other “theologically liberalizing tendencies”) was largely responsible for paving the way for modern conceptions of toleration, Lim argues that several theorists of liberty of conscience were Calvinists – not just Arminians (282, 299).

The purpose of his article is to provide a “contextual reading of John Owen’s theology of religious toleration during the Interregnum and the Restoration” (283). Central to his argument is lodging Owen’s views of toleration (especially after the Restoration) in his theory of the liberty of conscience (especially as developed during the Interregnum).

Lim provides three criteria for understanding Owen’s tolerationists writings (283-284): 1) rhetoric against the imposition of adiaphora upon the conscience, 2) development and vision of Congregationalism, and 3) the desire to complete the r­­­eformation.

Let’s briefly look at each of these.

1. Rhetoric against the imposition of adiaphora upon the conscience

The matter of adiaphora (that which is neither good nor bad, neither commanded nor proscribed in the Bible) arose in the early years of the English Reformation, as magisterial imposition of liturgical ceremonies heightened in the Tudor Church of England (287). Likewise, dissenters like Owen were equally concerned with the place of the magistrate after the Restoration. While conceding that magistrates ought to maintain and uphold Christianity, Owen argued that magistrates had no right to direct the specifics of worship. That right was consigned to God alone (who is Lord of the conscience, cf. WCF 20.2). When discussion of the comprehension of dissenters by the established church emerged, Owen resisted by re-emphasizing the liberty of conscience and autonomy of the local church. He not only thought ecclesiastical uniformity ill-advised but vehemently opposed the co-extensive nature of church and state (291).

However, there was a dilemma. Owen acknowledged that the doctrinal basis of the Church of England (39 Articles) was soteriologically sound. Therefore, was separation by dissenters schismatic? Not for Owen. But he could not argue for toleration on purely theological grounds. Another strategy was needed.

2. Development and vision of Congregationalism

Owen based his argument for toleration on 1) issues of worship and 2) the pastoral negligence of the established church (i.e. lack of pastoral discipline). In other words, the purity of gospel worship was ultimate. Worship was central to his theory of toleration. Here is where Owen’s ecclesiology steps in.

Lim states, “This pursuit of the purity of worship required less than what was considered important for prayer-book Anglicans: no Prayer Book, no ceremonies, and no altar. Owen had argued that one of the characteristics of the primitive church was not liturgical uniformity, but precisely the opposite: flexibility and freedom, mutuality and multiplicity of perspectives. Citing Origen for support, Owen argued that the early Christians recognized the intrinsic inevitability of flexibility over secondary and tertiary issues, one of which was over outward ceremonies and rites” (294).

3. The desire to complete the reformation

Not only was Owen convinced of Congregationalism but he was also convinced that “the English diocesan system was a positive impediment to a true reformation” (295). For Owen, religious persecution was contrary to the reformation. For reformation to be achieved, the imposition of matters of indifference (e.g. liturgical ceremonies and rites) could not be allowed. Owen turned the tables of the argument by stating that the failure of the Church of England to properly emphasize the purity of worship, the conversion of sinners, and the edification of the saints was the fundamental cause of the division! Lim then gives a fascinating discussion comparing the Protestant’s separation with Rome and the Dissenters separation with the Church of England as articulated by Owen. He highlights three common theological themes: sola scriptura, priesthood of the believers, and anti-popery polemic.

I have only tried to recap the main points of Lim’s article. I have not even mentioned his interaction with primary sources. I leave that for you to discover. However, I should note that he gives particular attention to Owen’s debates with Samuel Parker and Edward Stillingfleet.

Overall, this is an outstanding article. Despite little interaction with the doctrine of the Trinity (a passing reference to Owen’s controversy with John Biddle), his title is a fitting summary, “The Trinity, Adiaphora, Ecclesiology, and Reformation: John Owen’s Theory of Religious Toleration in Context.” His contextual analysis of Owen, interaction with primary sources, and development of his thesis is exemplary. This article is a model for research students. I recommend this article for anyone with an interest in 1) John Owen, 2) theories of toleration, and 3) 17th century Puritanism.


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