Review: John Owen and English Puritanism

by Crawford Gribben. Oxford.

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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.

Review: Beeke and Jones, Puritan theology

Old review.  I am just moving it to this site.

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Beeke, Joel.  and Jones, Mark.  Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.  Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

This is one of those “game-changer” books.  Beeke provides decades of pastoral reflection from the Puritans (and admittedly, there is a lot of repetition) while Jones brings clear Christological reflection from giants like Thomas Goodwin and John Owen.  The book is structured around the standard loci.  While we perhaps would like more from some chapters, the overwhelming amount of primary sources, and the clear mastery of secondary literature, allows us to continue the research if necessary.

My review will reflect my biases and what I like to study.  That can’t be helped, otherwise an exegetical review of this book would take ten pages.  This book is a Christological masterpiece.  I learned more from the chapters on Christology than I did in my week-long seminary class on Christology.  I agree with Carl Trueman, this book is both doctrinal and devotional.

Christological Supralapsarianism

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In regard to the end, Goodwin viewed mankind as unfallen in His election of human beings, but fallen in His decrees as the means to that end” (155).

“Means” — what Christ, as redeemer of God’s elect, performed for his people.  It has reference to Christ’s redemptive work, which presupposes a fall.

Key point: “whether God’s decree regarding both the end and the means was pitched ‘either wholly upon man considered in the mass of creability [potential human beings] afore the Fall, or wholly upon the mass of mankind considered and viewed first as fallen into sin” (Jones, quoting Goodwin 156).

The decree to elect falls under a twofold consideration: a) regarding the end, the fall was not a necessity…but an impediment; b) the decree to elect may be understood also with respect to man fallen, which God foresaw, as the means.

Election has reference to the end.  Here God decrees to give men eternal life without consideration of the fall.  But when we look at predestination, we view man as fallen.  Predestination involves the means to the end.

Covenants

While some have noted concern on the section of the Covenant of Works, the section on the Covenant of Redemption is fantastic. Differences between Covenant of Grace and Covenant of Redemption

(1) CoR sprang from grace in both parties (Father and Christ), whereas the CoG sprang from grace only from the Father.
(2) Though both are everlasting, only the CoR is eternal.
(3) The parties in the CoR are equal; the parties in CoG (and CoW) are not.
(4) The parties differ in both covenants.
(5) There is no mediator in the CoR
(6) The promises of the New Covenant (such as a new heart and forgiveness of sins) cannot be applied to Christ.
(7) Christ was not threatened in the CoR, whereas those in the CoG are (Heb. 2.3; 1 Cor. 16.22).
(8) The conditions in each covenant differ.
(9) The CoR did not require man’s consent.

Taken from Patrick Gillespie, Ark of the Covenant Opened, 113-117, quoted in Beeke and Jones, 254.

On Coming to Christ

The chapter on preparationism, while correct in rebutting the “Calvin vs. Calvinists/Preparationists” thesis, didn’t quite address the reality of those covenant children  who hear the covenant promises from earliest days and trust in the Christ of these promises, yet don’t appear to go through the preparationist stages.

Owen on Justification and Union

For Puritans like Owen and Goodwin, there is a Three fold union

Immanent: being elected in union with Christ from all eternity
Transient: union with Christ in time past; to wit, his mediatorial death and resurrection
Applicatory: experience of union in the present time.

Christ “apprehends” and gives his Spirit to the believer.

Owen: Christ is the first and principal grace in respect of causality and efficacy” (20:150). Union is the cause of the other graces.  It is the ground of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers.  Such is the logical priority of union regarding justification.  The act whereby Christ unites himself to the elect is the same act whereby he regenerates them (3:464).

Witsius: the elect are united to Christ when his Spirit takes a hold of them and infuses a new principal of life.  Yet, there is a mutual union whereby the soul draws near to Christ by faith only.  From this follows the other benefits of the covenant of grace.

Charnock: justification gives us a right; regeneration gives us a fitness (3:90).

Conclusion

This review did not cover all, or even much of the book.  Indeed, it could not.  But not only does it encourage you to read the Puritans, it points one to a number of crucial studies on the Puritans.

Review: Meet the Puritans

Beeke, Joel. Reformation Heritage Publishing.

Most people never realized encyclopedias could be fun to read. In many ways, if the reader knows how to approach it, this book has the danger and thrill associated with the English Civil War.

I think it is safe to say that Beeke leaves no Puritan behind–even the ones you’ve never heard of and whose writings will never be published. But some chapters are truly good, and there are some Puritans who get center stage: Thomas Goodwin, Richard Baxter, Jonathan Edwards, Solomon Stoddard, the Mather Clan, and more.

Each entry is usually between 4 to 8 pages long. The first 60% of each entry is a short biography with a one to two paragraph analysis of the teachings. Then–and this is the good part–a list of the major works, when they were published and sometimes which ones to start first.

*Thomas Goodwin was deep in with Cromwell, as was John Owen.
*Cotton Mather broke with his father’s eschatological method to something approaching millennarianism (430). While Mather’s suggestions on dealing with witches today might bother modern readers, those who’ve been on the mission field (or some urban areas in America) can probably attest to what he is saying. But more importantly, Mather denied the legitimacy of spectral evidence in court, pace the idiocy of Arthur Miller.

The sections on Scottish Puritans and the Dutch Nadere repeats most of Beeke’s works found elsewhere, namely *Puritan Reformed Spirituality.*

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).