Travailing We Seek

Joshua Schendel
Friday, July 1st 2022
Jul/Aug 2022

Throughout the great ecclesial conflicts that troubled England during its civil wars and the Restoration, John Owen (1616–1683) set for himself the task of specifying the terms upon which the English church could unite groups such as the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Independents, while also excluding such groups as the Catholics and Socinians. On one occasion, while speaking on the matter in London, he was heard by the then-ejected minister Richard Baxter (1615–1691). Baxter and Owen had previously engaged in a public, written dispute during the 1650s, which had set them greatly at odds with each other. Baxter wanted peace, not only between himself and Owen but also between the increasingly divided conformist and nonconformist groups in England. After their meeting, Owen returned Baxter’s sentiment in a letter: “Could I contribute anything towards the accomplishment of so holy, so necessary a work, I should willingly spend my self [sic], and be spent in it.”

Over the next year, Owen and Baxter carried on toward their goal with secret meetings and correspondence for fear that their nonconformist attempts at a union would be interpreted by the conformists as a threat to the English Crown. Baxter wrote a set of theses he considered both “necessary to our agreement” and “as narrow a compass as may be.” He wanted to outline only the most foundational points upon which all parties could agree. So, he required only confession of the Holy Scriptures as the ultimate authority for life and faith and the Apostles’ Creed. Owen thought this too broad. Such a confession would exclude the Catholics, he remarked, but not the Socinians. Not only the Apostles’ Creed, Owen suggested, but its exposition in the first four councils as well must be affirmed. Baxter responded by writing: “The reasons, why I make no larger a profession necessary than the Creed and Scriptures, are, because if we depart from this old sufficient catholicke [sic] rule, we narrow the Church, and depart from old Catholicism [the church universal]: And we never know where to rest: from the same reasons as you will take in four councils, another will take in six, and another eight, and the Papists will say, why not the rest, as well as these?”

For Baxter, further doctrinal definition is required for growth in understanding and for correcting errors, but it is not the foundation on which true communion is established. For Owen, true communion is always firmly established on the truth; and because truth is always exclusive of falsity, true communion is manifest insofar as error is excluded. Due as much to external conditions as to personal convictions, the joint labors of Owen and Baxter were ultimately unproductive.

Managing doctrinal disputes toward truth while pursuing unity in love has always been a fraught task. Indeed, as Owen wrote to Baxter in one of his letters, “If God give not an [sic] heart and mind to desire peace and union, every expression will be disputed, under the pretense of truth and accuracy.” Yet surely, we can all also agree with Owen that its difficulty does not invalidate it; it remains “a holy and necessary work,” a task we are summoned to by God who is himself one.

Joshua Schendel is the executive editor of Modern Reformation.

Friday, July 1st 2022

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology