Neocalvinism Compared with Independency IV

John Owen on “The Other Side” of the Sword of the Civil Magistrate

Rev. C. A. Lingbeek
This article originally appeared in De Gereformeerde Kerk, no. 1850, March 20th, 1924

We have heard what Owen said was the positive calling of civil government towards Church and religion. But, as he literally writes:

There is another part of the magistrate’s power,—the other side of his sword,—to be exercised towards the opposition of that truth which he hath embraced.

(Works, vol. VIII, p. 193)

In passing we note here that Owen speaks of civil government quite differently than does Dr. Kuyper. According to Kuyper, the government lacks the organ to determine for itself what divine truth is; for it is not born again! Owen speaks of that truth which the civil government itself embraces.

Well then, how, according to Owen, should the magistrate behave towards those who follow a different doctrine than that which the magistrate recognizes as true?

Owen wrote much about it, and that in contradiction with some Presbyterians and especially Episcopalians in his homeland. The latter, especially the very last, always insisted on the persecution and punishment of those who advocated a different form of Christianity than what was officially recognized. And that is what Owen resisted with all his might.

But, and that is the main issue here: on what grounds does Owen oppose the infliction of any punishment on heretics?

As is his wont, on this point Owen overwhelms his adversaries with arguments, now presenting this one, now that.

He provides some practical arguments.

For instance, he says that to persecute heresy is of no use: the more you persecute them, the more you help increase their number (Works, vol. VIII, “Of Toleration,” pp. 181 and especially 184).

Another time he describes the “hell” which arose in the empire of the Emperor Constantine the Great and in the church of those days when the magistrate became involved in dealing with heresies:

Neither did the Christians of old at once step into the persuasion of punishing corporeally in case of religion. Constantine makes a decree at first… “ that liberty of worship is not to be denied; and therefore the Christians, as others, should have liberty to keep the faith of their religion and heresy,” Euseb., Eccles. Hist, lib. x. cap. 5. And in the same edict he saith (how truly I know not, but yet great Constantine said it), “That it is most certain, that this is conducing to the peace of the empire, that free option and choice of religion be left to all.”

(“Of Toleration,” p. 185)

But, Owen continues:

Afterward, when he began a little farther to engage himself in the business of religion, being indeed wearied with the petitions of bishops and their associates for the persecution of one another, what troubles in a few years did he intricate himself withal! Perplexed he was in his spirit to see the untoward revengefulness of that sort of people; insomuch that he writes expressly to them, being assembled in council at Tyre, “ That they had neither care of the truth, nor love to peace, nor conscience of scandal, nor would by any means be prevailed on to lay down their malice and animosities,” Socrat Hist., lib. i cap. 34.


And further:

At length an Arian priest curries favour with his sister Constantia: she gets him into the esteem of her brother: after some insinuations of his, new edicts, new synods, new recallings, new banishments of other persons, follow one upon the neck of another, Rufin. Eccles. Hist., lib. i. cap. 11. And when this knack was once found out of promoting a sect by imperial favour, it is admirable to consider how those good princes, Constantine and his sons, were abused, misled, enraged, engaged into mutual dissensions, by the lies, flatteries, equivocations of such as called themselves bishops, Rufin., lib. i. cap. 15, 16, &c. As also, how soon, with the many, the whole business of religion was hereupon turned into a matter of external pomp and dominion. But it is beside my purpose to rake into that hell of confusion which by this means brake in upon the churches in succeeding ages.


So much for now. Owen’s argument is strong enough, if there should be any sympathy for religious persecution in us (which fortunately has always been rare among Dutch Protestants), to make us think again before wishing to introduce it. But we are still looking for an answer to the question: on what fundamental grounds did Owen oppose it? Was it because the civil government would not have to reckon with the Bible in this, as in other things (as Dr. Kuyper teaches)? Far from it; if Owen is against the persecution of the heretics, it is not because the magistrate has no Bible to deal with, but because the Bible, which he does have to deal with, nowhere instructs or empowers him to persecute heretics.

Owen writes:

I am bold positively to assert, that… the magistrate hath no warrant from the word of God, nor command, rule, or precept, to enable him to force such persons to submit unto the truth as by him established.

(“Of Toleration,” p. 204)

Perhaps then, according to Owen, the magistrate only has to punish the violation of the commandments of the second table? By no means; the magistrate certainly also has to do with the first table of God’s Law; just — and here Owen lays down a peculiar rule — the magistrate does not have to penalize all violations of the second table. The second table prohibits e.g. covetousness, but the magistrate does not think of punishing lust. And so the first table forbids unbelief, or heresy, but such unbelief is not for the magistrate to reprove.

And where, then, is the boundary between humanly punishable and non-punishable transgressions of God’s law?

Owen writes:

It is a mistake, to affirm that those who plead for toleration do allow of punishment for offences against the second table,—not against the first. The case is the same both in respect of the one and the other. What offences against the second table are punishable? Doubtless not all, but only such as, by a disorderly eruption, pervert the course of public quiet and society; yea, none but such fall under human cognizance.

(“Of Toleration,” p. 164, cf. p. 168)

But does not the Old Testament teach that the magistrate is to punish idolaters? Yes, says Owen, but you cannot infer from this that a heretic should also be punished: “Neither is the inference any stronger, than that a man may be hanged for coveting, because he may be so for murdering” (Of Toleration,” pp. 165, 166). Idolatry and heresy are not one!

But must the magistrate, according to Owen, remain utterly unmoved regarding all heresies and against all possible pernicious doctrines?

Nay, says Owen, as for the heretics, the magistrate has not to support them in their pernicious doctrines, but only in their civil liberties (“Of Toleration,” p. 205).

But further, there is, according to Owen, a distinction to be made between heresy, however wicked it may be, and enormities that disturb the peace. Should then some sentiments have the natural tendency to disturb the public peace, then either public peace is not of God, or God the Lord permits outward restraint to be exercised upon such sentiments (“Of Toleration,” p. 164).

Owen counted the Roman Catholic religion among such enormities in his country at that time.

Popish religion, warming in its very bowels a fatal engine against all magistracy amongst us, cannot upon our concessions plead for forbearance.

(“Of Toleration,” p. 165)

But tolerance does not end only with Rome.

When any have entertained any singular opinion in matters of great weight and importance,—such as nearly concern the glory of God, and the minds of Christians, in reverence of his holy name, are most tenderly affected withal, so that without much horror of mind they can scarce hear those errors whereby those grand truths are opposed,—yet those persons who have entertained such uncouth opinions shall not be content so to have done, and also in all lawful ways (as to civil society) endeavoured to propagate the said opinions to others; but, in the pursuit of this their design of opposing truth, shall publicly use such expressions, or perform such acts, as are fit to pour contempt and scorn upon the truth which they do oppose,—reviling it also, or God himself so represented as he is in the truth they abominate, with odious and execrable appellations (as, for instance, the calling the holy Trinity, “Tricipitem Cerberum”);—if the question be put, Whether in this case the magistrate be not obliged to vindicate the honour of God by corporeal restraints, in some degrees at least, upon the persons of those men?—truly, for my part, I incline to the affirmative.

(“Of Toleration,” p. 196)

And then Owen makes this rule:

In these, and such like cases as these, when men shall break forth into disturbance of common order and enormities against the light of nature, beyond all positive command of any pretended religion whatsoever, that the magistrate ought to set hedges of thorns in their ways, sharpened according to their several delinquencies, I suppose no man not abhorred of common sense can once hesitate or doubt.

(“Of Toleration,” p. 197)

So much for the sentiments of the great Independent theologian on the relation of civil government to the living God, His Church, and His revelation.

We have deliberately dwelt on this at length, because we wanted to make clear to ourselves and to the reader where our present Neo-Reformed people stand.

According to Kuyper, the magistrate as such only has to do with natural light (see Our Program).

Dr. Severijn says in his dark and apodictic language: it must be borne in mind that from the perspective of the Christian worldview the state is libertine in nature, as an institution in a fallen world which conforms to the needs and views of the people (Dr. Severijn, Kerk en Staat, p. 36).

Against this, the great Independent taught:

Hence kingdoms are said to serve the church; that is, all kingdoms. They must do so, or be broken in pieces, and cease to be kingdoms.

And it is kingdoms as such which are spoken of:

… a kingdom, as a kingdom (for it is taken formally, and not materially, merely for the individuals of it, as appears by the threatening of its being broken in pieces)…

(Works, vol. VIII, p. 389).

If anyone might think that Owen makes an exception here for the Independents, Owen calls upon the confession of the Independents of those days, in which the following is stated:

Although the magistrate is bound to encourage, promote, and protect the professors and profession of the gospel, and to manage and order civil administrations in a due subserviency to the interest of Christ in the world, and to that end to take care that men of corrupt minds and conversations do not licentiously publish and divulge blasphemies and errors, in their own nature subverting the faith, and inevitably destroying the souls of them that receive them; yet in such differences about the doctrines of the gospel or ways of the worship of God as may befall men exercising a good conscience, manifesting it in their conversation, and holding the foundation, not disturbing others in their ways or worship that differ from them, there is no warrant for the magistrate under the gospel to abridge them of their liberty.

(Works, vol. XIII, “The Power of the Supreme Magistrate,” p. 513)

But enough. What do we see here?

We thought (and we are not alone!) that we more or less knew the spot at which to place our present Neocalvinists, to wit, at some point on the road between the genuine Reformed and the Independents.

But now, after having gone over everything, we exclaim: would that it were so! And: how wrong we were.

For now it has become clear to us: Dr. Kuyper and his followers are not inclined to the Independent view of the relationship between religion and the state; no, they already left the Independent station miles and miles behind them.

But if they are not Independents, what are they? Where then should we put them?

That should become clear to us next time!