by John Owen
Formatted, modernized, and annotated by William H. Gross
This is chapters 4-8 of The True Nature of a Gospel Church by John Owen
On the ground of some statements in the following treatise, which was published in 1689, it has been gravely argued that the author returned to the Presbyterianism of his early days before he died. In the "Inquiry concerning Evangelical Churches," (see vol. 15), which forms the first part of this work, Owen states that he would "neither examine nor oppose the opinion" in favor of "a national church-state, arising from an association of the officers of particular churches, in several degrees, which they call classical and provincial." — p. 262. He declares in his answer to Stillingfleet, that had the Presbyterian government been established at the Restoration "without a rigorous imposition of everything supposed by any to belong to it," Presbyterians and Independents "would have both been to blame" if they had continued in a state of separation from each other. "If it is asked, then," he proceeds, "why they did not formerly agree in the Assembly? I answer, — (1.) I was not part of them, and cannot tell; (2.) In my judgment they agreed well enough, if they could have thought so; and further I am not concerned in the difference." — p. 433.
The author of the anonymous memoir prefixed to Marshall's edition of his Sermons remarks, "He was of so healing a temper, that I heard him say before a person of quality and others, that he could readily join with Presbytery as it was exercised in Scotland." In his MSS. Analecta, under date 1716, the historian Wodrow records the following statement: — "Mr. George Redpath told me two or three years ago, when in Edinburgh, that he visited Dr. Owen on his deathbed, and Presbytery and Episcopacy came to be discoursed about; and the Doctor said how he had seen his mistake as to the Independent way, and declared to him a day or two before his death, that after his utmost search into the Scriptures and antiquity, he was now satisfied that Presbytery was the way Christ had appointed in his new testament church." If we add, that on the subject of the ruling elder (see chapter 7 of the following treatise) the views of Owen are in perfect harmony with Presbyterianism, and that, under certain qualifications, he contends for the lawfulness and authority of synods, we exhaust the evidence that in his last days he was more of a Presbyterian than an Independent.
Mr. Orme admits that "he seems to contend for a distinct office of ruling elder, or for elders who are called to rule and not to teach;" but he argues that it was a view which could not be reconciled with his other sentiments, and that it differs from the Presbyterian scheme, according to which pastor and elder "are offices so distinct that the ministers alone are considered as mere pastors, and the elders as mere laymen." But Presbyterians really do not hold that elders are laymen, nor that there is any difference in respect of office between the minister and ruling elder, although their functions vary, rule being common to both, while teaching is the duty of the pastor; and on this point, Owen was no more chargeable with inconsistency as an Independent than other eminent men of the same denomination — Thomas Hooker, Cotton Mather, and Timothy Dwight, — who contend for the office of the ruling elder. Some Presbyterians would confirm implicitly the exposition which our author gives of the nature and objects of synodical action. But here his agreement with Presbyterian principles is, on the whole, not so clear and decided as in the case of the ruling elder. He objects to synods determining articles of faith, and issuing orders and decrees on their own authority; but asserts their "authority to declare the mind of God from the Scripture in doctrine, or give counsel as to practice." There is nothing in this view from which Presbyterians would dissent.
That he should differ from both parties on some points is not surprising when we mark how carefully he has thought out his own views, from Scripture, giving a freshness and originality of coloring to his treatises on church-government, which render them to the present day peculiarly interesting and worthy of consultation. It is only, however, by a process of torture to which no man's language should be subjected, that Owen can be claimed as a Presbyterian. We may gladly accept his decision on some points — not as confirming Presbyterianism so much, as affording room for the hope that, on matters of polity, evangelical churches may yet be united in common action and under the same forms. But the opinions of Owen can only be understood by reading the former part of this treatise in connection with this which follows, and "which," says Chauncey, "he esteemed as his legacy to the church of Christ." In the latter part, there is no recantation of the principle so abundantly urged in the former, that "the visible churchstate which Christ has instituted under the New Testament consists in a special society or congregation of professed, believers;" and that for two hundred years after Christ, there is no mention "of any other organic, visibly professing church, but only that which is parochial or congregational." That Owen might deem it possible to accomplish and secure all the ends of congregational duty under the system of Presbytery may be true; but it would be hardihood to question that he was a Congregationalist, in regard to the spirit and substance of the ecclesiastical system for which he pleaded. To the story of Redpath must be opposed the assertion of Chauncey, by whom this treatise was edited, that it was corrected by Owen immediately before his death. Had he undergone a change of view so complete as is represented, he was not the man to quit the world in a spirit of dishonorable reticence, but would have frankly avowed to what extent his previous convictions had been modified or abandoned.
Edmund Blys, son of a clergyman in Devonshire, author of some Latin productions in prose and poetry, replied to this work in 1690, by the publication of "Animadversions3 upon some passages in a book entitled 'The True Nature of a Gospel Church,' etc." — ED.
OFFICERS OF THE CHURCH
OF RULING ELDERS
DUTY OF RULING ELDERS