John Owen’s Principles Of Nonconformity -- By: James E. Dolezal
PRJ 2:2 (July 2010) p. 259
John Owen’s Principles Of Nonconformity
“The utmost of our aim is but to pass the residue of our pilgrimage in peace, serving God in the way of our devotion.”1 The Puritan divine John Owen (1616-1683) wrote these words in defense of himself and his fellow Protestant Nonconformists in the year 1667.2 As a Nonconformist living in the middle of seventeenth-century England, Owen experienced both the triumph and defeat of his ecclesiastical convictions. He is remembered for many roles—pastor, scholar, writer, statesman, and congregational churchman. To these important
PRJ 2:2 (July 2010) p. 260
roles must be added that of leader in the cause of English Protestant Nonconformity.3
In his first book-length treatise defending Nonconformity, Of Schism (1657), Owen reveals his reluctance to be a contender for the cause: “I confess I would rather, much rather, spend all my time and days in making up and healing the breaches and schisms that are amongst Christians than one hour in justifying our divisions, even wherein, on the one side, they are capable of a fair defense.”4 And yet this “healing” ministry was not to be Owen’s lot. Conformity to the Church of England was the most explosive ecclesiastical issue in England throughout Owen’s lifetime, and he is rightly understood as a man embroiled in that historical debate.
Though convinced of their necessity, Owen did not seem to regard his contributions to nonconformist thought as his most significant.5 Indeed, the modern reader of Owen may have difficulty sustaining interest in his lengthy treatment of such time-bound controversies as uniformity to the state-church, forced conformity in worship, and charges of ecclesiastical schism. This may account for the comparative neglect of volumes 13, 14, and 15 of his Works.
After the Act of Toleration, instituted under William and Mary in May of 1689 (six years after Owen’s death), Nonconformity came to have an accepted place in English church life. Naturally, interest in Owen’s highly nuanced defense of Nonconformity waned after 1689. Among North American readers, in the absence of an established state-church, his writings about Nonconformity are even more unappreciated. But, as distant as Owen’s ecclesiastical context is from the modern reader, a study of his contributions to Nonconformity will still help moderns formulate their own ecclesiological convictions regarding the present ci...
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