Sunday, March 01, 2015

“Political Defeat was the Condition of Cultural Achievement.”

John Owen
In England, civil war from 1642-1646 ended in almost a complete triumph for Puritanism, religiously and politically. Churchill, in his “History of the English-Speaking Peoples” (New York, Barnes and Noble edition, 1995) noted that:

By the spring of 1646 all armed resistance to the Parliamentary Army was beaten down. The Puritans had triumphed. In the main the middle class, being more solid for Parliament, had beaten the aristocracy and gentry, who were divided. The new money-power of the City had beaten the old loyalties. The townsfolk had mastered the country side. What would some day be the “Chapel” had beaten the [Anglican] Church. There were many contrary examples, but upon the whole this was how it lay … (pg 190).

During these years, the Puritans seemingly were the political “masters of the universe”. They had political power. They had the freedom to move and operate, and seemingly to shape their own destinies and the destiny of the country.

The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) was ratified in 1647; in the years following, (which became known as “the Interregnum” – when Puritans and notably Oliver Cromwell led Parliament and during which time there was no king in England), it was a time of almost unlimited political opportunity.

During those years as well, John Owen was active, both politically and also working to create and ratify “The Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order” (1658), which, essentially was a version of the WCF but with a Congregationalist church order (from Ryan Kelly, “Reformed or Reforming? In Kapic and Jones, eds, “The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology”, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, ©2012, pgs 3-30).

J.I. Packer noted:
The Puritan goal was to complete what England’s Reformation began: to finish reshaping Anglican worship, to introduce effective church discipline into Anglican parishes, to establish righteousness in the political, domestic, and socio-economic fields, and to convert all Englishmen to a vigorous evangelical faith.

Through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, and the sanctifying of all arts, sciences, and skills, England was to become a land of saints, a model and paragon of corporate godliness, and as such a means of blessing to the world.

Such was the Puritan dream as it developed under Elizabeth, James, and Charles, and blossomed in the Interregnum, before it withered in the dark tunnel of persecution between 1660 (Restoration) and 1689 (Toleration). This dream bred the giants with whom this book is concerned.
(From J.I. Packer, “A Quest for Godliness”, Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, ©1990, pgs 28-29).

Whatever political theories the Puritans may have had, whatever experience at shaping the government of their day, it all crashed and burned seemingly overnight… The Puritan movement, as a political movement in England, ended up being a complete failure.

In 1660, not long after the death of Oliver Cromwell, there was “Restoration” of the English throne. Charles II was recognized to have been king in the years since the beheading of his father Charles I, and any Puritan involvement in the English government came to an abrupt halt.

And yet, while this chain of events set off what Packer called “the dark tunnel of persecution”, Owen managed to see the most productive literary accomplishment of his life, having used the next 20 years to write his Commentary on Hebrews (4 volumes, 1668-1684). “He completed the work just before his death in 1683. When finished, it consisted of four hefty tomes exceeding 2000 folio pages and over two million words, making it one of the largest expositions of the pre-Reformation era if not the entire history of biblical interpretation” (John Tweeddale, “John Owen’s Commentary on Hebrews in Context, in Kapic and Jones, pg 49).

Of this period of time, Tweeddale notes:
The production of a commentary of the magnitude of Hebrews is itself noteworthy. Owen’s exposition however was not his only work during this period. After his removal as Dean of Christ Church [Oxford] by parliament in 1660, he wrote at a prolific rate. Freed from his administrative duties at Oxford and the demands of public life under the Commonwealth, he was able to devote considerable effort to his literary output.

Although Owen suffered comparatively little from the impact of the Restoration and the subsequent Clarendon Code, these events served as a catalyst for his writing career.

And while the abrupt conclusion of the Interregnum may have crippled the political aspirations of some Puritans, the re-ascension of the Stuart monarchy also paradoxically served to foster a period of literary excellence within Puritanism.

In the words of Neil Keeble, “political defeat was the condition of cultural achievement.” Owen’s commentary was one of many outstanding accomplishments from Puritan pens during this period.

The same timeframe from which Hebrews emerged also saw the publication of notable masterpieces such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), probably the two most important literary achievements of the seventeenth century (Tweeddale, 51).
Tweeddale notes that “Even if Owen never produced his massive commentary, his literary accomplishments during this period alone would secure for him a place as one of the most prodigious Puritans in seventeenth century England (52)”.

Owen’s motive: his writing during this period was the “only way left me to serve the will of God and the interest of the church in my generation” (52).

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