Monday, April 4, 2011

John Owen on the Duty of Rulers to Protect Biblical Worship

John Owen
'whether the supreme magistrate in a nation or commonwealth of men professing the religion of Jesus Christ, may or ought to exert his power legislative and executive, for the supportment, preservation, and furtherance of the profession of the faith and worship of God; and whether he may and ought to forbid, coerce, or restrain such principles and practices as are contrary to them, and destructive of them?'
The affirmative of both the parts of this question is proved,
I. From the light and law of nature.
1. That there is a God.
2. That this God ought to be believed in, and worshipped according to the revelation that he makes of himself.
3. That it is incumbent on his worshippers in their several capacities, to defend and further that worship which answers the light and knowledge they have of him.
4. That to revile, or blaspheme this God, or his name, is an evil to be punished by them who have 'jus puniendi,' or the right of restraint in them, or committed unto them;
Are all dictates of the law of nature, principles inseparable from that light which is natural, and necessary unto rational creatures, subsisting in a moral dependence on God, and confirmed by Scripture; Heb. xi. 6. Exod. xxii. 28.
To assert then that the supreme magistrate, as such, in any nation, ought not to exert his authority for the ends, and in the way inquired after, is contrary to the light and law of nature. 
vol. xix.
II. From the law of nations. 


1. The due and regular improvement of common natural notions, and inbred principles, unto universal public good, is the law of nations, whose general foundation is laid, Gen. ix. 5, 6.
2. The constant usage of mankind in their political societies, answerable unto right reason, is the revealer or discoverer of this law of nations.
3. This law is an evidence and presumption of truth and right, paramount unto, and uncontrollable by, any thing but express revelation; or it is a discovery of the will of God, less than, and subordinate unto, no way but that of immediate revelation.
4. The wilful breach or contempt of this law, in its allotments or assignation of bounds to the interests and concernments of men, is generally esteemed the most righteous ground of one nation's waging war upon another.
5; That the supreme magistrate in each commonwealth, ought to exert his power and authority for the supportment, preservation, and furtherance of the worship of God, and to coerce and restrain that which would ruin it, is a maxim of this law of nations, manifested by the common constant usage, and universal entrances, unimpeached by any one contrary instance (where this law hath prevailed) of all mankind in their political societies; nor is this practice controlled by express revelation, but is rather confirmed; Jer. ii. 10.
Therefore to deny the lawfulness of the authority inquired after, and its due execution, is contrary to the law of nations.
III. From God's institution, in and by laws positive, upon doctrines of faith, and ways of worship, of pure revelation.
1. Among the people of the Jews, as is known and confessed, God appointed this as the chief and supreme care and duty of the magistrate, to provide by the authority committed to him, that his worship, as by himself revealed, should be preserved and provided for, in all the concernments of it; and that what was contrary unto it in some instances, he should coerce and restrain; Deut. xiv. 2, 3. 18, 19. xvi. 18—22.
2. Though the instituted worship of God was for the greatest part then typical, and to endure but for a season, yet the preservation of that worship by God commanded was a moral duty ; Deut. xvi. 20.
3. God's command to the magistrate, for the exercise of his care and duty in reference unto his typical worship, did not respect it, as typical, but as his worship.  
  4. The law and command of God for the magistrate in that commonwealth to take care and do as above, was not only an eminent privilege, blessing, and advantage to the commonwealth, as such; but it was also a special mercy to all and every one of his chosen ones in that commonwealth; and what is given or granted by God to all or any of his saints by the way of privilege or mercy, is not disannulled, but either by express revocation, or the institution of somewhat exhibiting a greater privilege or mercy, wherewith the former proves inconsistent.
5- No revocation of this grant, or command and institution, no appointment of any thing inconsistent with it, appears in the gospel.
Then universally to deny the right and exercise of the power inquired after, is contrary to the positive law of God, given in reference unto doctrines of faith, and ways of worship, of pure revelation; such as were those possessed and walked in under the Old Testament.
IV. From the example of all godly magistrates, accepted with God from the foundation of the world.
1. There is no one magistrate left on record in the whole book of God, with any commendation given unto him, or approbation of him, as such, but it is firstly and chiefly on this account, that he exerted the power and duty inquired after. David, Hezekiah, Josiah, Nehemiah, as others, are instances.
2. Since the days of the publication of the gospel, no one magistrate hath obtained a good report among the saints and churches of Christ, but upon the same account.
3. No one magistrate is remembered to have omitted this care, work, or duty, but a mark or blot is left upon him for it, as a person disapproved and rejected of God.
4 Nothing but an express discharge by way of revelation, can acquit a magistrate from following the example of all and every one of them, who in their work have been approved of God, in that wherein they were so approved. Wherefore,
To affirm that the supreme magistrate ought not to exert his authority for the ends mentioned, is to affirm, that the magistrate is now accepted with God, in and for the not doing of that which all other magistrates have been accepted with God in and by the doing of: which seems unreasonable.
V. From the promises of gospel times.
1. Promises given in a way of privilege and mercy, that men should do any thing, declare it to be their duty so to do.
2. There are many promises that in gospel times magistrates shall lay out their power, and exert their authority, for the furtherance and preservation of the true worship of God, the profession of the faith, the worshippers and professors thereof, and therein the whole interest of Zion; Isa. i. 26. xlix. 22, 23.
3. All the promises relating unto God's providential dispensations in the world, with reference unto the interest of his church and people, do centre in this, that the rulers in and of the world shall exert and exercise their power in subserviency to the interest of Christ, which lies in his truth and his worship; which cannot be done, if the power inquired after be denied; Isa. lx. 3. 11—17. Rev. xi. 15.
To say, then, that the supreme magistrate in a commonwealth of men professing the true Christian religion, ought not to exert his legislative and executive power in the defence, and for the furtherance of the truth and worship of God, and for the restraint of the things that are destructive thereunto, is to say, that 'the promise of God is of no effect.'
VI. From the equity of gospel rules.
1. Whatever is of moral equity, and hath the power of obligation from thence, the gospel supposeth, and leaves men under that obligation, pressing them unto obedience thereunto; Phil. iv. 8.
2. Whatever was instituted and appointed of God formerly, is of moral positive equity, if it be not repealed by the gospel; and therefore the forementioned institution of the magistrate's duty in the things under consideration, is supposed in the gospel.
3. The gospel rules on this supposition are, that the magistrate is to promote all good, and to hinder all evil that comes to his cognizance, that would disadvantage the whole, by its civil disturbance, or provoking God against it, and that in order to the interest of Christ and his church; Rom. xiii. 1—7. 1 Tim. ii. 2. Prov. viii. 15, 16.
4. That what is good and evil upon an evangelical account, evidently and manifestly is exempted from these rules, cannot be proved.
Therefore to say it, is contrary to the equity of gospel rules.
VII. From the confession of all the Protestant churches in the world.
That all the Protestant churches in the world assert, at least the whole of the duty contained in the affirmative of the question to be incumbent on the supreme magistrate, is known to all men that care to know what they assert.
VIII. From the confession of those in particular, who suffer in the world on the account of the largeness of their principles, as to toleration and forbearance.
The Independents; whose words in their confession are as followeth:
'Although the magistrate is bound to encourage, promote, and protect the professors and profession of the gospel, and to manage and order civil administrations in a due subserviency to the interest of Christ in the world, and to that end to take care that men of corrupt minds and conversations do not licentiously publish and divulge blasphemies and errors, in their own nature subverting the faith, and inevitably destroying the souls of them that receive them; yet in such differences about the doctrines of the gospel, or ways of the worship of God, as may befall men exercising a good conscience, manifesting it in their conversation, and holding the foundation, not disturbing others in their ways or worship that differ from them, there is no warrant for the magistrate under the gospel to abridge them of their liberty.'
IX. From the spiritual sense of the generality of godly men in the world.
This can be no otherwise known, but by the declaration of their judgments, and as to what can by that way be found out or discovered, a thousand to one, of men truly godly, are for the affirmative,' Vox populi Dei, est vox Dei.'
X. From the pernicious consequences of the contrary assertion; whereof I shall mention only two.
1. The condemnation and abrenunciation of the whole work of reformation, in this and other nations, so far as it hath been promoted by laws or constitutions of supreme magistrates: as in the removal of idolatry, destroying of idols and images, prohibiting the mass, declaring and asserting the doctrine of the gospel, supporting the professors of it; which things have been visibly owned and blessed of God.
2. The destruction of the plea of Christ's interest in the government of the nations ; especially as stated by them, who in words contend to place him in the head of their laws and fundamental constitutions; where nothing in a government may be done for him, nothing against them who openly oppose him, men can scarce be thought to act under him, and in subordination to him.
The conclusion from hence is, to advance an opinion into any necessity of its being received, which is contrary to the law of nature and nations, God's institutions and promises, the equity of gospel rules, the example of all magistrates who have obtained testimony from God, that they discharged their duty unto acceptation with him, to the confession of all Protestant churches, the spiritual sense of the generality of godly men in the world, and attended in itself with pernicious consequences, seems to be the effect of selffulness, and readiness to impose men's private apprehensions upon others, the only evil pretended to be avoided by it.       

John Owen, "Two Questions Concerning the Power of the Supreme Magistrate about Religion and the Worship of God," in The Works of John Owen: Volume 19, ed. Thomas Russell (London: Richard Baynes, 1826), 385-390.

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Lawrence said...

Interesting that Owen limits his statements with:
"in a nation or commonwealth of men professing the religion of Jesus Christ"

Steve C. Halbrook said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve C. Halbrook said...

Lawrence, I don't believe Owen limits his statements to a Christian commonwealth at all. He begins with the question of whether supreme rulers of Christian commonwealths must protect biblical and oppose unbiblical worship, and he answers that yes, they must do so, since it is a moral duty, which in fact applies to *all nations*:

"I. From the *light and law of nature*...

Are all dictates of the *law of nature,* principles inseparable from that light which is *natural,* and *necessary unto rational creatures,* subsisting in a *moral dependence on God,* and confirmed by Scripture; Heb. xi. 6. Exod. xxii. 28. [Implication is, Yes, of course!]

To assert then that the supreme magistrate, as such, in *any nation,* ought not to exert his authority for the ends, and in the way inquired after, is *contrary to the light and law of nature.*
vol. xix."

"II. From the *law of nations*...

That the supreme magistrate in *each commonwealth,* ought to exert his power and authority for the supportment, preservation, and furtherance of the worship of God, and to coerce and restrain that which would ruin it, is a maxim of this *law of nations,* manifested by the *common constant usage,* and *universal* entrances..."

Brandon said...

Thanks for posting this. Do you have any comment on his much longer "of toleration..."?

2. Whatever was instituted and appointed of God for merly, is of moral positive equity, if it be not repealed by the gospel; and therefore the forementioned institution of the magistrate's duty in the things under consideration, is supposed in the gospel.

Have you studied the development of Owen's thought on the covenants? In working through his Hebrews commentary, his thoughts changed in some very important ways.

He came to reject the reformed view of the old covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace:
…Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended... Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.
Hebrews 8:6, written in 1680


The whole decalogue, I acknowledge, as given on mount Sinai to the Israelites, had a political use, as being made the principal instrument or rule of the polity and government of their nation, as peculiarly under the rule of God.

Exercitation XI


Brandon said...

Richard Barcellos did his PhD dissertation on Owen's biblical theology. The following comes from his paper on the decalogue in Owen and others.

1. John Owen. Owen teaches that the whole law of Moses (even the moral element) has been abrogated. Commenting on Hebrews 7:18, 19, Owen says:

I have proved before that “the commandment” in this verse [Heb. 7:18] is of equal extent and signification with “the law” in the next. And “the law” there doth evidently intend the whole law, in both the parts of it, moral and ceremonial, as it was given by Moses unto the church of Israel [emphasis added].[1]

Commenting on Hebrews 7:12, Owen says:

It was the whole “law of commandments contained in ordinances,” or the whole law of Moses, so far as it was the rule of worship and obedience unto the church; for that law it is that followeth the fates of the priesthood.[2]

Wherefore the whole law of Moses, as given unto the Jews, whether as used or abused by them, was repugnant unto and inconsistent with the gospel, and the mediation of Christ, especially his priestly office, therein declared; neither did God either design, appoint, or direct that they should be co-existent.

Owen, of course, carefully qualifies what he means by the whole law and its abrogation. Commenting again on Hebrews 7:18, 19, he says:

Nor is it the whole ceremonial law only that is intended by “the command” in this place, but the moral law also [emphasis his], so far as it was compacted with the other into one body of precepts for the same end [emphasis added]; for with respect unto the efficacy of the whole law of Moses, as unto our drawing nigh unto God, it is here considered.[4]

Again, Owen says:

By all these ways was the church of the Hebrews forewarned that the time would come when the whole Mosaical law, as to its legal or covenant efficacy, should be disannulled, unto the unspeakable advantage of the church.[5]

This comes in a section in which Owen is showing how “the whole law may be considered …absolutely in itself” or “with respect …unto the end for which it was given” or “unto the persons unto whom it was given.”[6] He calls the law “the whole system of Mosaical ordinances, as it was the covenant which God made with the people of Horeb. For the apostle takes ‘the commandment,’ and ‘the law’ for the same in this chapter; and ‘the covenant,’ in the next, for the same in them both.”[7] Owen is concentrating on the whole Mosaic law, i.e., it is the law in its totality as it related to God’s Old Covenant people that has been abrogated. Thus the abrogation of the law in Owen refers to the whole law as it functioned in Old Covenant Israel.[8]

[1] Owen, Works, XXI:464.
[2] Owen, Works, XXI:428.
[3] Owen, Works, XXI:429.
[4] Owen, Works, XXI:458.
[5] Owen, Works, XXI:469.
[6] Owen, Works, XXI:466.
[7] Owen, Works, XXI:471.

The Decalogue in the Thought of Key Reformed Theologians with Special Reference to John Owen

Steve C. Halbrook said...

Thanks Brandon. It may take me some time to get around to reading all of this carefully (including the link), but my current understanding of Owen when it comes to civil matters is that he held to the English Congregationalist view that, generally, there should be no coercion of fellow Christians for secondary matters (e.g., regarding church government), but the magistrate should punish such gross sins as open idolatry and blasphemy (such matters which would not related to tender consciences, but matters that clearly violate anyone's conscience). He would, I think, distinguish between punishing gross sins, and forcing one to become a Christian. The Savoy Declaration I take as a good source of Owen's thought: