Neocalvinism Compared with Independency I

Rev. C. A. Lingbeek
This article originally appeared in De Gereformeerde Kerk, no. 1847, February 28th, 1924

Hitherto we have reviewed one by one all the opponents of a union of church and state, in order to show how they all lived from the same principle. However, even if there was a common family trait in all of them, we naturally did not mean to imply that it was equally or almost equally developed in all of them. What distance is there, e.g., between a Sophist who denies all revealed truth and a Dr. Kuyper who gladly acknowledges the authority of God’s Word but then officially gives no place to that Word in public life! Nor is it the case that there should be a regular ascent or descent among those various opponents of the union of church and state, whom we have passed in review before us, so that we could see how far one of them went in the peculiar principle that drove them all, simply from the time in which he lived.

Yet it is important for us to know whether our present Dutch opponents of the union of Church and State, especially Dr. Kuyper, Dr. Severijn and the like, must be counted among the most advanced opponents, or among the more moderate on this point.

And to this end it seems best to us once more to compare them closely to the Independents.

Why exactly the Independents?

First let us attempt to make this clear.

Among the nice little books by the American writer [James Oliver] Curwood, which transport all of us into the animal world and which, translated into our language, have also found many readers in our country, belongs the well-known Kazan.

Kazan was a mongrel, three-fourths dog and one-fourth wolf.

And now the nice thing about this book is that the author, who probably thought not only of animals, although he also arranged the material in the form of an animal story, shows us in turn how the dog nature and the wolf nature alternately predominated in Kazan. As a wolf he keeps to the wolves for a while and fights bravely with them, but when the wolves are about to tear into a woman with a small child at her breast, the dog’s attachment to man comes up within him and he suddenly throws himself into the defense of that woman and bites furiously at his erstwhile comrades.

Such-like beings, but this time in the spiritual realm, are what the Independents were.

Half-Anabaptist and half-Calvinist.

From the Anabaptists they received their subjectivism and, in connection with it, their lack of appreciation for the church as historically developed.

From the Reformed they received their unconditional recognition of the Bible as the Word of God and their deep realization of the truth of the doctrine of eternal election.

That Anabaptist thread and that Reformed thread are constantly intertwining in all of them, as in a fabric; as is also the case that the Anabaptist trait is more prominent in the one Independent, the Reformed in another.

And now we do not deem it useless to compare our contemporary Neocalvinists, especially with regard to their views on church and state in their mutual relationship, with those Independents. This will make clearer to us to which group or orientation they are most closely related on the point discussed.

This time from among the Independents, we select John Owen.

Why exactly Owen?

Owen was decidedly Independent. A friend of Cromwell’s and of the Independent poet Milton. He more than once defended the ecclesiastical views of the Independents in writing. When he elevated the local church and pulled down the universal (instituted) church, he used words as if he were taking them from Dr. Kuyper’s or Dr. Severijn’s writings.

Owen was therefore decidedly Independent, an opponent of the Presbyterian or Reformed church idea.

But he was, moreover, a man whose godly disposition and conduct were known.

And then he was one of very extraordinary talents, and of such awe-inspiring erudition that he is still regarded as the greatest English theologian of his century.

Consult Dr. Owen’s many large and small divine works, which he wrote in English, Latin, etc., and you soon notice that he not only was well-read in the writings of Greek and Latin antiquity, but apparently had learned them almost by heart. For every subject he knows how to quote a suitable saying or a suitable line of verse or to tell a witty anecdote. But you will soon also notice how he apparently read and re-read all the early Christian writings, not only of the great Fathers of the church, but also by authors who are almost unknown to us, in the original languages, so that he was completely at home in them. Yes, he also appears to have been fully acquainted with the writings of the Jewish divines and philosophers, whose distinct Hebrew he not only reads, but also writes like a learned rabbi. No less does he know the theological writings of the Roman Catholics, and the often subtle differences between Dominicans, Jesuits, etc.

Whoever mentions Owen’s name, mentions a giant of erudition.

Whoever thinks to be proud of his knowledge should sit down and study Owen; he will soon grow small and abashed within himself.

And in more ways than one did his talent proved to be unparalleled.

In his great divine works; but also in his smaller pamphlets, wherein he shed light on all kinds of ecclesiastical and theological questions of his time and in which he shattered the swords of his opponents in an instant, as if they were wooden.

And then at last we have Owen’s sermons, which are quite peculiar in character.

Owen’s sermons were not touching little pieces, not sweet, beautiful sermons rich in tinsel and poor in substance.

Nor were they sermons that tried to demonstrate to you that the gospel is after all so simple that it could easily be written on a coin.

No, Owen’s sermons had a different content.

On various solemn occasions; after a great defeat or victory, suffered or won on land or sea, for example on the day after the execution of King Charles I, on the day of thanksgiving for the destruction of the Scottish army at Worcester, or whenever something special seemed to be brewing in the political heavens, Dr. Owen received an invitation to appear in the English Parliament and open the session with an appropriate sermon.

And when Owen appeared, the “Honourable Sirs” as he addressed them, got to hear a sermon which not only brought them new thoughts from God’s Word, but also sought to shine the light of that Word upon all life, especially upon the life of nations and their rulers, all, of course, in connection with the circumstances of the moment.

We list only a few sermon headings to show the direction these sermons took:

“And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.” Heb. xii. 27. [“The Shaking and Translating of Heaven and Earth” (The Works of John Owen, vol. VIII, Sermon V)].

“For mine house shall be called an house of prayer for all people.” Isa. lvi. 7. [“The Branch of the Lord the Beauty of Zion: Or, the Glory of the Church in Its Relation Unto Christ” (Works, vol. VIII, Sermon VI).]

“What shall one then answer the messengers of the nation? That the Lord hath founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall trust in it.” Isa. xiv. 32. [“God’s Work in Founding Zion, and His People’s Duty Thereupon” (Works, vol. VIII, Sermon X).]

“They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” Luke xvi. 29. [“The Testimony of the Church is not the Only nor the Chief Reason of Our Believing the Scripture to be the Word of God” (Works, vol. VIII, Sermon XIV).]

“And he went out to meet Asa, and said unto him, Hear ye me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin; The Lord is with you, while ye be with him; and if ye seek him, he will be found of you; but if ye forsake him, he will forsake you.” 2 Chr. xv. 2. [“God’s Presence with a People the Spring of their Prosperity” (Works, vol. VIII, Sermon XI).]

Owen preached to the House of Commons on these and many other subjects. And they were sermons, which, as one contemporary testified, came, not as with ornate crimps and entwinings from a goldsmith’s shop, but each of which could be compared to a bar of pure gold.

Perhaps the greatest flaw was that too much material was compressed into the space of a single sermon.

Yet what Owen had to say was always not only deep but clear, truly spiritual, as equally wholesome as it was powerful.

The English House of Commons was always captivated by Owen, and repeatedly expressed its respect and warm gratitude to him.

Well now, in various writings, treatises, and sermons this great Independent laid down his thoughts on our present subject, the relationship of church and state.

For its own sake it would be worth the effort to take cognizance of it. All the more so in view of the matter which concerns us now.