John Owen, On Schism And The Nature Of The Church -- By: Henry M. Knapp

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 72:2 (Fall 2010)
Article: John Owen, On Schism And The Nature Of The Church
Author: Henry M. Knapp

John Owen, On Schism And The Nature Of The Church

Henry M. Knapp

Henry M. Knapp is a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Beaver, Pa., and part-time facility at Geneva College. Beaver Falls, Pa.

Although the Christian religion doth lay the greatest obligations on mankind to peace and unity, by the strictest commands, the highest examples, and the most prevailing arguments, yet so much have the passions and interests of men oversway’d the sense of their duty, that as nothing ought to be more in our wishes, so nothing seems more remote from our hopes, than the universal peace of the Christian world. (Bishop Edward Stillingfleet, The Mischief of Separation [1680], p. 1)

Following the splintering of English, Reformed-minded churchmen into numerous diverse ecclesiastical communities in the seventeenth century, the glaring absence of any visible unity between the bodies gave rise to a proliferation of accusations of schism. The guilt of this sin was viewed as so heinous by nearly all of Christendom that the accused could hardly ignore the charge. Responding to this reproach, the Nonconformist John Owen (1616-1683) defended himself and his Independent brethren by carefully analyzing the nature of the church and what defines its unity. His writings on this subject caused a spirited debate with Presbyterian and Anglican opponents.1 Their arguments concerning the essential characteristics of the church, the constitutive elements of unity, and the biblical concept of schism highlight important systematic issues that remain relevant for ecclesiological discussions today.

I. Background On The Rise Of The Independents And The Charge Of Schism

Seventeenth-century England was a tumultuous time, both politically and ecclesiastically. The force of the Reformation upon the Englishman in the sixteenth century, especially with the anti-establishment preaching of the Tudor Puritans, eventually welled up in a revolutionary, anti-authoritarian ground-swell that plunged the country into civil war (1642-1648). In the latter half of the sixteenth century, numerous Reformed-minded churchmen had challenged certain elements of the structure and form of the state church as sanctioned by

Elizabeth, and suffered persecution or exile as a result.2 By and large, their main aim was to purify the Church of England, removing from it distasteful aspects of residual Popery, that is, aspects which seemed too similar to the Roman church. These clergymen were called Puritans and differed significantly from another group of religious dissidents, the Separatists, who, led by m...

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