Friday, December 10, 2010

Westminster Conference Report #2

Guy Davies on 'Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome Revisited'


I won't try and summarise my own paper, but here is an excerpt.

II. ‘A very naughty business’: John Owen’s ‘Guide in differences of religion between Papist and Protestant’ 

I have chosen John Owen as my exemplar of Puritan attitudes towards Rome partly because he devoted a considerable amount of time and energy to the controversy. Besides, I think that it might be best to interact in some depth with one Puritan thinker rather than take a more diffuse approach. Owen’s basic attitude to controversy with Rome is almost as instructive as what he actually had to say.

i. Background

Owen’s main anti-Roman writings may be found in Volume 14 of his Works. The majority of that volume is taken up with Animadversions on Fiat Lux and its sequel, Vindication of the Animadversions on Fiat Lux. Volume 14 also includes a shorter piece, The Church of Rome no Safe Guide. In the Animadversions Owen engages in controversy with John Vincent Cane, a Franciscan Friar. In 1661 Cane published his Fiat Lux . It was a blatant attempt to take advantage of the recent upheavals in Protestant England in order to try and win the country back to Rome. His argument ran something like this: “Just look at what has happened to your once peaceful land since leaving the Roman Catholic fold. You Protestant Christians have divided into mutually hostile camps. The nation has been torn apart by religious unrest, Civil War, revolution and regicide. Come back to Rome and all will be well. You know it makes sense.”

The restoration of the monarchy, with Charles II returning to England in 1660, did not succeed in healing old wounds. In the aftermath of the Civil War there were bitter recriminations for the Puritans. The newly installed pro-king, pro-Church of England authorities set about mercilessly persecuting their Puritan fellow Protestants. Cane chose his time well. The opportunity seemed right for his Roman propaganda.

In a sense, Cane’s Fiat Lux was the English equivalent to Cardinal Sadoleto’s Letter to Geneva. Sadoleto sought to exploit the troubles and tensions in Geneva that led to the banishment of John Calvin to woo the city back to Rome. Famously, the exiled Calvin was prevailed upon to answer the Cardinal on behalf of Protestant Geneva. It is a mark of John Owen’s recognised theological clout that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Clarendon sent him a copy of Cane’s Fiat Lux, requesting that the divine answer it on behalf of Protestant England.

ii. John Owen’s Reformed Catholic Attitude Towards Rome

Although he was willing to take on John Vincent Cane , the veteran Puritan minister was no anti-Roman sectarian. In common with many Puritan polemicists, Owen regarded Protestants as the true Catholics. It is instructive that early Puritan, William Perkins’s anti-Roman work was entitled A Reformed Catholique.

Richard Sibbes expressed the typical Puritan thinking on catholicity,

Then, if the question be, which is the catholic truth – Popery or our religion – I say not Popery, but our religion. That which ‘without controversy,’ all churches have held from the apostles’ time…that is catholic.
The problem was that Rome had added its own inventions to the Catholic faith and had therefore become less than Catholic in its teachings. Not for the Puritans what seems to be the view of many contemporary Evangelicals that after the close of the New Testament era, church history all but ground to a halt, only to begin again in 1517 at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Owen was steeped in the creedal heritage of the church. His Trinitarian theology was unashamedly that of the Council of Nicaea. His understanding of the Person of Christ was shaped by the Definition of Chalcedon. Owen was well read in the Church fathers, especially Augustine.

It is sometimes suggested that John Calvin and those who were faithful to his legacy rejected wholesale medieval scholastic thought. However, while Calvin was critical of the speculative excesses of the schoolmen, he drew freely on the resources of scholastic theology in developing some of his key ideas. Similarly, John Owen engaged with scholastic theology and made eclectic use of medieval Catholic literature in his own constructive theological work. In opposing Arminianism he deployed the anti-Pelagian arguments of great medieval schoolman, Thomas Aquinas and others in the Dominican tradition.

In addition, Owen knew what was going on in the world of 17th century Roman Catholic theology. He made a careful study of the controversy between the Augustinian Jansenists and the Semi-pelagian Jesuits. One of the foremost defenders of post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism was Robert Bellarmine. Owen’s extensive library contained a well thumbed set of Bellarmine’s works. In short, he knew what he was talking about when it came to controversy with Rome. Carl Trueman rightly argues that John Owen,

deserves to be taken seriously as a leading proponent not simply of English Puritanism…nor simply of Reformed Orthodoxy, but of the ongoing Western anti-Pelagian and Trinitarian tradition that stretched back from the seventeenth century, past the Reformation, though the Middle Ages, and back to the writings of the early church Fathers.
Accordingly, Owen carefully scrutinised Roman doctrine in the light of Scripture. But also he endeavoured to out-Catholic the Roman Catholics by appealing to the church fathers in order to show that distinctive Roman doctrines such as the universal authority of the pope were not in fact Catholic teachings, that is doctrines that Christians everywhere and at all times had believed. He argued that the Roman Catholic Church was divisive and schismatic in its attempt to foist its distinctive dogmas on all Christian churches.

In his interaction with Cane, Owen does not adopt the stance of a bitter Protestant polemicist, gleefully exposing Romish errors almost for the fun of it. Sometimes he betrays a little irritation with his interlocutor, but on the whole his tone is calm and reasoned. On occasion the great divine even permits himself a little ironic humour. Remarking on this William Goold, editor of Owen’s Works writes in a Prefatory Note to the Vindication, “he reminds us in his humour of the cumbrous gambols of the whale.” In dealing with Cane’s claim that the Roman Catholic Church had never fallen into error he summarises his opponent’s argument like this,

The Roman church did never at any time adhere to any opinion, but what the Roman church at that time adhered unto.
If you will forgive the mixed metaphors, in his dealings with Cane Owen resembles an indulgent cat toying with an overconfident mouse. But this feline divine has sharp teeth and pointed claws. When roused the old Puritan could be devastatingly incisive in dealing with his opponent’s weak arguments.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Thank you, this is helpful; and it is a reminder that we must always, even at the risk of being thought pedantic, refer to the followers of Joseph Ratzinger not as 'Catholics' but as 'Roman Catholics'.