Neocalvinism Compared with Independency II

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State I

Rev. C. A. Lingbeek
This article originally appeared in De Gereformeerde Kerk, no. 1848, March 6th, 1924

When you consult John Owen’s writings on our present subject, you may at first feel disappointed. Because you note that while the questions which he discusses lie in the same field in which we now occupy ourselves, they are yet in a different area of that field. Dr. Owen usually contends with theologians of the episcopal Church of England, and what he combats in them is their Erastian principles.

Erastus was a theologian of the Reformation and something of a philosopher as well, who conferred on the magistrate a right in the church not only to appoint the ministers of the church but also to establish doctrine, nay, even to have dominion over consciences, and to command men: so and so shall ye believe. At any rate, in Owen’s day there were men in the English state church who defended such enormities as had only been proclaimed in our country in the days of Oldenbarnevelt, by a Johannes Uyttenbogaert, for example, who was then in government with fellow Remonstrants and who, with the aid of government authority, would gladly have molded our Reformed people into the Remonstrant form, by force if necessary.

But what was only proclaimed on our soil during the short period in which the Remonstrants held sway and which never again was defended, not even by the Remonstrants themselves, was still the favored position in England among some (fortunately not among all) high ecclesiastical or Episcopal divines. And that position is what Owen combats. And of course, when Owen opposes Erastianism, that doctrine according to which government should have divine authority in matters of ecclesiastical and religious matters, then we stand back and enjoy watching Owen teach his adversaries a lesson.

For instance, Dr. Parker, one of Owen’s opponents, tries to maintain his position on civil authority in the church by pointing out that God’s Word expressly calls magistrates “nursing fathers unto the church.” But then Dr. Owen drolly answers: You don’t bring a nurse into the house for her to give birth there herself; not at all! but only to help raise other people’s children. Well, that is the task of the magistrate towards the church. The church herself bears her children by the Word; the magistrate only helps the church in her task. But, Owen writes, what my opponent wants, “The proposing, prescribing, commanding, binding religion on the consciences of men, is rather the begetting of it than its nursing” (The works of John Owen, Volume XIII, p. 402).

And then when Dr. Parker pushes even further and asks Owen the question, “What doth the Scripture mean when it styles our Saviour the King of kings, and maketh princes his vicegerents here on earth?” Owen again replies sharply: When the Scripture calls Christ the Ruler of the kings of the earth, it does not mean that those kings of the earth are kings over the consciences of their subjects, but only that Christ is King over those kings, and that they will do what Christ has commanded them and no more, in subjection to Him (Works, XIII, p. 402).

All this and so much more are important discussions to follow, but they do not directly affect the questions that concern us now. What we want to know is: what does Owen think of the theses of our modern Calvinists; e.g., that the magistrate as such has only to do with the natural light and not with the light of divine revelation, or that the magistrate has only to do with the second table of God’s Law and not with the first, or that the magistrate has no vocation towards Christ’s church and gospel except to allow them to proceed quietly; that “the silver cord” which connects church and state in our country is to be condemned in principle and therefore should be allowed to expire, the sooner the better.

Yes, that and such like are the questions for which we would now like an unequivocal answer. And happily, Owen has also written about these questions, in fact so often and so much that we would almost be at a loss about what to do with so much material.

Let us, however, endeavor now, as far as our brief account will permit, to provide an overview of Owen’s doctrine on the points discussed. And, if possible and as far as is necessary, let us do so by allowing the great Independentist “wordsmith,” as Dr. Kuyper once rightly called him, to speak in his own words.

First of all then comes the question of questions: according to Owen, is the magistrate as such bound to the Word of the Lord? Or (as Dr. Kuyper taught) does the Word of the Lord only apply to the government persons, and the light of reason alone apply to the magistrate in his official capacity?

When one reads through Owen’s sermons and other treatises, it sometimes seems for a moment that you see the Anabaptist wolf hair emerging through it. After all, Owen often speaks of the light of nature, which teaches the government that this or that is appropriate or not, etc. And when he preaches before Parliament, it is often as if he only has to do with the Members of Parliament, who must personally fear God and set an example of godliness, if it is to go well in the land. And as if he was not speaking to the government per se.

However, with Owen they need not be wolfish characteristics at all, for although God’s Word applies to the magistrate, the light of nature does not for that reason lose its authority. For, according to the confession of our church, we know God from nature and from Scripture. And if Owen insists so much that MPs personally fear God, that is certainly not enough, for we want to know if they have to do so in their official capacity as well. But the latter need not exclude the former; neither does the former exclude the latter. And that that is not the case now, at least with Owen, he has unequivocally stated in more than one place.

Or what do you think of the following declaration?

As all men in general, so magistrates, even as such, are bound to know the mind and will of God in the things which concern his honor and worship. They are bound, I say, to know it. This obligation lies upon all creatures capable of knowing the Creator, answerably to that light which of him they have, and the means of revelation which they do enjoy. He of whom we speak is supposed to have that most sovereign and supreme of all outward teachings, the word of God, with such other helps as are thereby revealed, and therein appointed; so as he is bound to know the will of God in every thing him concerning. Wherein he fails and comes short of the truth, it is his sin; — the defect being not in the manner of the revelation, but in the corruption of his darkened mind. Now, that he is to make this inquiry in reference to his calling, is evident from that of David, 2 Samuel 23:3, ‘He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.’ This fear is only taught by the word. Without a right knowledge of God and his mind, there can be no true fear of him. That command, also, for the Jewish magistrate to study it day and night, and to have the book of the law continually before him, because it was the rule of that civil polity whereof he was, under God, the head and preserver (Works, vol. VIII, p. 188).

But, the reader is immediately inclined to ask, does Owen not reckon with the difference between the Old and New Testaments? And then Owen himself answers in this manner:

Although the institutions and examples of the Old Testament, of the duty of magistrates in the things and about the worship of God, are not, in their whole latitude and extent, to be drawn into rules that should be obligatory to all magistrates now, under the administration of the gospel, — and that because the magistrate then was ‘custos, vindex, et administrator legis judicialis, et politiae Mosaicae,’ from which, as most think, we are freed; — yet, doubtless, there is something moral in those institutions, which, being unclothed of their Judaical form, is still binding to all in the like kind, as to some analogy and proportion (Works, vol. VIII, p. 394).

Enough; what we have seen here is:

1st. that Owen leaves the Word of God in force for civil government as such;

2nd. that he distinguishes between the Old and New Testaments, but yet, also with regard to the regulations for the office of the magistrate, he does not set aside the Old Testament in an Anabaptist way.

In this manner we now, as a matter of course, arrive at what Owen teaches on the basis of Scripture about the vocation of government towards the church and religion.