John Owen, Richard Baxter And The Battle For Calvin In Later-Seventeenth-Century England -- By: Tim Cooper

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 20:4 (Winter 2016)
Article: John Owen, Richard Baxter And The Battle For Calvin In Later-Seventeenth-Century England
Author: Tim Cooper


John Owen, Richard Baxter And The Battle For Calvin In Later-Seventeenth-Century England1

Tim Cooper

Tim Cooper is Associate Professor of Church History in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He earned his PhD from the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He is the author of John Owen, Richard Baxter and the Formation of Nonconformity (Ashgate, 2011) and Fear and Polemic in Seventeenth-Century England: Richard Baxter and Antinomianism (Ashgate, 2001).

In 1985 J. Wayne Baker offered an account of “the battle for Luther in seventeenth-century England.” That battle did not go well. By the end of the century “the very idea of justification sola fide, sola gratia was in bad repute.” Residual support for his soteriology existed mainly in small pockets within Nonconformity. Luther’s influence “slowly but surely had been eroded among the English clergy in the space of one century.”2 If Baker had focused on John Calvin the story would have been just as bleak. As G. R. Cragg famously put it, there was no more striking change in English religious thought than what he called “the overthrow of Calvinism.” “At the beginning of the century, it had dominated the religious life of England; by the end its power had been completely overthrown.”3 While the reality was not quite as stark as that, the downward trajectory is undeniable.

It is easy enough to trace the main outlines of Calvin’s decline. Nicholas Tyacke has long since demonstrated that an initial Calvinist dominance within the theology of the Church of England faced the challenge of a rising

Arminianism during the 1620s and 1630s. The chaos of the 1640s together with the failure of Puritan rule during the 1650s served to discredit Calvinism, which was, ever after, associated in the minds of many with sedition, disorder, impiety, fanaticism and rebellion.4 At the same time Socinianism came increasingly to the fore within intellectual circles. Socinians read the Scriptures in a uniformly flat way to dissolve what they perceived as an imposed doctrinal overlay of Trinitarian Christology, all of which had ominous implications for soteriology.5 The glimmerings of an early Enlightenment appeared in a new confidence in human reason—illustrated by the Cambridge Platonists with their “quiet Arminianism”—and a broad shift of emphasis from grace to nature....

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