Review: John Owen and English Puritanism

by Crawford Gribben. Oxford.

Image result for crawford gribben john owen

Crawford Gribben suggests, perhaps ironically, that John Owen’s life is shaped around a series of “defeats.” Although this text is part of Oxford’s series on historical theology, is weighted more towards biography than to theology, though Gribben is capable of skillfully surveying Owen’s theological developments.

Gribben gives considerable detail to Owen’s life in the Cromwellian era, both as a chaplain for the Irish invasion and as a courtier under Cromwell’s reign. On Gribben’s reading Owen isn’t necessarily opposed to Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, merely grieved at some of the (inevitable?) excesses of a shock-and-awe campaign.

What is even more shocking, though, is Owen’s hostility to Presbyterianism. He fully supported Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland (Granted, the Presbyterian’s decision to back the debauched pervert Charles II is fairly high on the stupidity list). Owen’s specific criticism of Scotland should be seen in the larger context of “exporting England’s revolution” (cited in Gribben 106).

Much of Owen’s hostility to Scottish Presbyterianism owes to the latter’s view of a “National Religion.” He minces no words. “An unjust usurper had taken possession of this house, and kept it in bondage; —Satan had seized on it, and brought it, through the wrath of God, under his power” (Owen 8:298).

The rest of Gribben’s narrative matches conventional accounts of Owen’s life. Now to the theology. One of the criticisms of the Goold edition of Owen’s works is that they are arranged topically rather than chronologically. For example, “A Display of Arminianism,” one of Owen’s earliest works, is in the same volume as Death of Death.

This is a fine volume that deals with many nuances of Owen’s life in a judicial and sensitive manner. Gribben writes with an easy and engaging prose style.

Politics as Athanasian Pluralism

Gary North might have just solved my dilemma on Cromwell and the Covenanters.  As a Presbyterian I want to like the Covenanters, but given how they universally failed every political and military test, and how a national church is unworkable, and how most modern Internet Covenanters are hyper-legalists, I just couldn’t do it.

And while I like Cromwell, I was always troubled the nature of the Independents and schismatics in the New Model Army.  But maybe that’s just the cost of doing business in a fallen world.  I was tipped off to this possibility by reading Gary North’s Conspiracy in Philadelphia, arguably his best book. He described Cromwell’s project in this way:

He created a trinitarian civil government in which all Protestant churches would have equal access politically, and the state would be guided by “the common light of Christianity.”(I call this “Athanasian pluralism.”) [North 27].  North footnotes chapter 12 of Political Polytheism.

I think the New Model Army got into some problems because it had abandoned aspects of Covenantal Thinking.  In his just execution of Charles I it didn’t rely on the earlier Covenantal models of John Knox. So what would a Cromwellian system guided by the 5 Point Covenantal Model look like?  I think Athanasian Pluralism is a good start.

Political and ethical pluralism is bad.  But there can be a biblical pluralism.  It just means a plurality of covenants in a society.  At this point I am heavily relying on chapter 12 of Political Polytheism.

Dominion Christianity teaches that there are four covenants under God, meaning four kinds of vows under God: personal (individual), and the three institutional covenants: ecclesiastical, civil, and familial. 2 All other human institutions (business, educational, charitable, etc.) are to one degree or other under the jurisdiction of one or more of these four covenants. No single human covenant is absolute; therefore, no single human institution is all-powerful. Thus, Christian liberty is liberty under God and God’s law, administered by plural legal authorities (576).

The Solemn League and Covenant fails because it collapses civil and ecclesiastical covenants into one, so that the SLC is neither.

The Failure of Political Confessionalism

North explains why political Presbyterianism failed so badly in England:

Other oddities of the five-year effort of the Assembly are also worth mentioning. Scotland’s Solemn League and Covenant (1643) had been signed in preparation for entry into a war against the King, whose safety the 1639 National Covenant had promised to uphold.  Scotland became a military ally of Cromwell and the Independents, who rose to power and then destroyed the judicial basis of the Scottish National Covenant: first by executing the King; second, by imposing Protestant religious toleration on the realm, including Scotland.
As it turned out, a group of Englishmen established the foundational documents of Scottish Presbyterianism. In 1648, the year after the Assembly completed the annotated Confession, England went to war with Scotland (North, Crossed Fingers, 994).

The English Presbyterians had been trapped by the decision of the Scottish Presbyterians to defend the King and a Throne-Church theocratic order, which had been affirmed by the language of the Solemn League and Covenant (Sec. VI). English Presbyterians could impose Church unity only by force, but the only significant force available was Cromwell’s New Model Army, which opposed Presbyterianism.95 Haller writes: “The advance of the army under Cromwell’s leadership meant the final defeat of the work of the Westminster Assembly.”96 He concludes: “The English people were never again to be united in a visible church of any sort.,,97 After the Restoration, English Presbyterianism refused to accept the Westminster Confession of Faith as binding, and in 1719, the denomination went unitarian (996).

After 1647, the Presbyterians had a monumental problem. The Church’s foundational documents had been written to gain the acceptance of a civil assembly that included non-Presbyterians-as time went on, a growing number of non-Presbyterians. The documents did not fit together. The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government (1645) had no required statement of faith, i.e., no theological stipulations. It required no oath from Church officers or members. The Confession of Faith (1647) also did not mention Church oaths. It did not specify how its own stipulations were to apply judicially. The burning question should have been this: What was the covenantal relationship between these two completely separate documents? But no one in authority asked it in 1648, and no one in authority has asked it since.

This is why intellectually the Political Covenanter movement failed before it even began.

Bibliography on English Civil War

I’ve been asked my thoughts on books relating to British revolution.  I am a little more knowledgeable about the time period 1630-1662, with some moments during the Killing times.

Fraser, Antonia.  Cromwell.  Not a scholarly biography, but a wealth of material nonetheless.  Remarkably fair, given that Fraser is a Catholic.

Pestana.  Oliver Cromwell and the Bid for Jamaica.  Not out yet, but looks fascinating.

Coffey, John.  Politics, Religion, and the British Revolution.  Best book on Samuel Rutherford.

Fissel, Mark Charles.  The Bishops’ Wars. I’ve had my eye on this for a while.  Should be important, given that this incident set in motion events that would eventually decapitate Charles I.

Ackroyd.  Rebellion.  Follows events up to the Glorious Revolution.

D’Aubigne, Merle.  The Protector.  Warm and pastoral bio on Cromwell.  Mostly outstanding but D’Aubigne completely misunderstands Matthew 5-7 in his criticism of Cromwell.

Hill, Christopher.  God’s Englishman.  Bio of Cromwell from a Marxist perspective.  Ironically, he probably understand Cromwell better than most Christians.

———–.  The Century of Revolution.  

Roberts, Keith.  Cromwell’s War Machine.  I had fun with it.

Movies

Not a scholarly source, but fun nonetheless.

Cromwell starring Alec Guinnes and Richard Harris.  Focuses on events up to Cromwell’s sending the Army on Parliament.  Wonderful movie.  In seminary I watched it at least once a week.

The Devil’s Whore.  (Available on Youtube).  Not from a Christian perspective, but mostly well-done.  Chronicles the career of Lady Fairshaw. Some sexuality but no actual nudity.  Great job on Cromwell and his generals (though some are fictitious).

To Kill a King.  Bleh.  Lacked the epic feel of Cromwell and the quality production of The Devil’s Whore.

 

My Infamous Covenanter Post

Somebody at Real Life Prebyterians posted this from my old blog, which got some guys mad at Covenanter Theonomists group.  So if I am going to get all that traffic, might as well get it here.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

On leaving the Facebook Covenanter Group

Okay, I admit this doesn’t have the same existential or rhetorical import of Luther’s 95 theses, but it might prove interesting, nonetheless.

The Covenanter Theonomist group on Facebook actually had a lot going for it.  Unlike Reconstructionists groups, they cared for the church (so to speak) and had a modicum of self-reflection.  I did notice a number of unhealthy habits, though.

  1. Inventing Kinism:  One of the most overblown debates in the Reformed world is kinism.  I don’t want to get into defining it.   The troubling phenomenon, though, is that groups associated with theonomy often attract kinists.  I wonder why that is.  These guys look for Kinists to create so they can talk about how evil slavery and the South is.   Their definition of kinism also happens to include every human society until 1789.  I am not endorsing kinism, mind you, but I am equally wary of over-reacting to such an extent that you are a Jacobin from the French Revolution.
  2. Speaking of which, the Covenanters, which were usually a Northern Christian denomination in the United States, love to praise Lincoln and John Brown and attack the South (see here for the most devastating deconstruction of American Covenanter thought).  It’s sort of myopic and disturbing.  They brag about how they opposed man-stealing while never reflecting on how Roman Christian slave-owners in the New Testament might have acquired slaves (hint: it had to do with empire and conquest).  They even boast about denying communion to Southern Slave owners (though this was probably a moot point, since the RCNA really wasn’t operative in the South, and the Scottish ecclesial tradition probably didn’t have Communion that often, anyway).  This is going beyond Scripture is is “getting holier than Jesus.”
  3. Will a Covenanter movement ever “get off the ground?”  No.  With a few exceptions, Covenanter denominations are almost always the results of schisms from the larger Reformed world.  They are intellectually isolated (this isn’t a value judgment; it’s a historical observation) and really haven’t contributed much to Reformed theology in the last 300 years beyond some monographs on the Mediatorial Reign of Christ, which is staple Reformed thought, anyway.
  4. One of the reasons they won’t get off the ground is that they are self-legally obligated to support a magistrate who upholds the Solemn League and Covenant.  I’ll let you reflect on that possibility for a while.  (although they didn’t have a problem joining with Lincoln to attack their fellow Celtic brothers in the South; evidently the Constitution wasn’t that bad then).
The above are some of the reasons I left the group. Below is a more sustained reflection on the self-limitations of Covenanter thought.
There is much good in the Covenanter tradition, and this post will pain many (myself most of all).  But if they want an intellectual (Or even better, political) future then they need to own up to some challenges.  I honor and admire Richard Cameron and Alexander Peden (hey, they received extra-scriptural prophecy.  Anybody want to take up that one?).  I do not think, however, that the entire Covenanting tradition was able to hold the strings together.  And that’s not just my take on it. I think Moore argues the same thing (Our Covenant Heritage). These challenges are not simply my making up because people started slandering Christ’s elders in his church on Facebook (like Stonewall Jackson).  They point to deeper issues.
While the problems in the Covenanter tradition can easily point back to the Battle of Bothwell Bridge (cf Maurice Grant’s biographies of both Cameron and Cargill; excellent reads), I was alerted to some of the tensions by T. Harris.  Again, I am writing this so Covenanters can work out the difficulties now instead of having to make hard and fast choices on the field of battle later.   You can be angry with me, but I am your best friend.
1.  The Hatred of the South
 
This is myopic and almost unhealthy.   Modern covenanting talks about how evil the South is and never once tries to work through the sticky issues of how best to help freed slaves.   Or slaves who didn’t want to be freed.  As evil as slavery might have been, simply throwing the blacks out on the street without resources only it makes it worse.   The slave-owners (and many slaves) knew this.
And it really comes back to the question:  is the relation between master and slave sinful?  This is a very specific question.  This is why Freshman atheists have a field day with us.  But I know the response:  buying stolen property, especially human property, is sinful.  Perhaps it is, but didn’t Paul know this when he outlined healthy parameters for both masters and slaves?  How do you think the ancient Romans got slaves in the first place?  Democratic vote?  They were often prisoners of war, babies of raped women, and worse.  And does Paul say, in good John Brown fashion, “Rise up slaves and kill your masters” (though to be fair John Brown actually killed white Northerners)?
Northern Covenanters love to boast on how they “deny communion to man-stealers.”    Harris notes in response,

Athenagoras, defending the church against the pagan charge of cannibalism said, “moreover, we have slaves: some of us more, some fewer. We cannot hide anything from them; yet not one of them has made up such tall stories against us.” (Early Church Fathers, ed. C.C. Richardson, p. 338). But Alexander McLeod says to the slaveholder, “you cannot be in the church,” (p. 25) and this posture was eventually ratified by the entire covenanter church. On this point, their righteousness exceeded even that of our Lord and the apostles. And that is heady stuff.

Am I saying we should have slaves today?  Of course not.  But we need to seriously think through these issues instead of giving non-answers like “Christianity provided for civilization to move forward without slavery.”  To which I say, “early Medieval Russia.”
2.  The strange love-affair with Lincoln
 
This is odd, too.  Lincoln really didn’t care for Christianity and he routinely made racist jokes.   He was the biggest white supremacist of the 19th century.  He ran on the platform, in essence, that he would not free a single slave.  My Covenanter friends–you are being deceived.
Someone could respond, “You’re just angry that the South lost.”  Perhaps, perhaps not.  That brings up another point
3.  Consistently outmaneuvered politically and militarily
Why is it that the Covenanters who have such a heroic (and rightly earned) reputation for godly resistance during the Killing  Times have routinely been outmaneuvered in the public square?  I’ll give three examples: Bothwell Bridge, Cromwell, and The War Between the States.
Bothwell
 
The Covenanters had already proved themselves at Drumclog.  Further, Bothwell Bridge forced the Royalists into a chokepoint.   While the ultimate cause for the covenanters defeat was lack of artillery and ammo, the outcome was in the air for a while.   The problem was whether to allow Indulged parties to participate.  Granted, the Indulged sinned and were under God’s judgment.  Cameron and others were right to resist elsewhere, but Bothwell was not an ecclesiastical act.  It was a military one.   Indulged ammunition wasn’t sinful per se.
Cromwell
 
Covenanters call Cromwell the Usurper.   It is somewhat ironic given that these Covenanters had fought a war of defiance (rightly so) against the very same king.  I have to ask, though, precisely what did you expect when rallying behind the (well-known) debauched papal pervert Charles II?  Granted, he vowed the covenants.  Granted, he should have owned up to them.   Still, anyone could have seen how this was going to end.
How else was Cromwell to interpret this?   He knew the Covenanters were militarily capable, so he is seeing an armed host rallying behind the dynasty against which both had recently fought a war.  But even then, the Covenanters could have held him off and forced a peace.   Their actions at Dunbar as as unbelievable as they are inexplicable.  They had the advantage of both place and time.  Ignoring that, they decided to meet Cromwell on equal footing.  In response, Cromwell executed one of the most perfect maneuvers in military history (that was still studied and practiced in the 20th century by America, England, and Germany) and in effect subdued Scotland.
To make it worse, Grant notes that Cromwell’s subjugation of Scotland allowed the kirk to flourish spiritually.  Ye shall know them by their fruits.  Interpreting Providence is dangerous, but this might mean that the Covenanters didn’t even deserve political independence.
Lincoln (again)
 
I must quote Harris in detail for full affect.

“Most of its members were enthusiastically for the war and anxious to participate in it as far as they could without violating their principle of dissent from the government.” (p. 58) This despite the fact that Lincoln himself constantly said the war was not about slavery. We now know Lincoln was a pathological liar; the covenanters must have known this in their bones as well, and gave vent to their approval of the “real reason,” concealed by Lincoln. At any rate, it is hard to imagine them getting so excited about a war that was about enforced union. In view of their history, that would be ironic indeed.

However, they exhibited a certain naiveté in two ways which may go part way to explain the madness. At one point, they concocted an oath to propose to the US as a basis for enlisting in the army, an oath that would be consistent with continued resistance to full submission. “I do swear by the living God, that I will be faithful to the United States, and will aid and defend them against the armies of the Confederate States, yielding all due obedience to military orders.” (p. 58) The charming bit here is the notion of defendingagainst the armies of the CSA — armies which were purely defensive, and which would have been glad to disperse and go home, if it weren’t for the invading and marauding union armies. Somehow, they had built up a mythic view of an aggressive South, gobbling up adjacent lands by force of arms.

Covenanting on the Ground
 
This is open for discussion.  How exactly is National Covenanting going to work today?  Surely it means more than strong-arming congress in rejecting the First Amendment.

Note Bene:  Harris’s quotations are from David M. Carson. Transplanted to America: A Popular History of the American Covenanters to 1871. (Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant Publications, n/d).