Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Owen-Baxter Conflict

Tim Cooper, John Owen, Richard Baxter and the Formation of Nonconformity (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011). 342pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

In this work, Tim Cooper has chosen to examine the strained relationship between John Owen and Richard Baxter. The result is an illuminating picture of the life and work of both men and the effects of their personalities and labors on seventeenth century non-conformity. Baxter’s colorful personality serves to highlight the historically elusive figure of Owen by way of contrast as much as by comparison. This book incorporates historical theology with political, ecclesiastical, and psychological history. Cooper’s study is insightful, but he often overestimates how much Owen and Baxter had in common; and he underestimates the significance of their disagreement over the doctrine of justification. This is a very important volume that provides a perspective that most works on historical theology do not delve into, but it simultaneously illustrates the way in which historians can downplay the importance of theology as a primary cause of personal differences in the seventeenth century.

The work begins the story of Owen and Baxter’s strained relationship with Owen’s rise to prominence in the 1640’s. Cooper addresses two primary questions: First, why did Owen and Baxter dislike each other? Second, what effect did this relationship have upon Nonconformity? (1). He reassesses the scanty record of Owen’s personal life by setting him in contrast to Baxter (2, 5-7). One of his primary contentions is that “The disagreement between Owen and Baxter was so strong only because they shared so much” (11). I will demonstrate below that this statement is as overstated as it is true. Cooper has largely failed to distinguish between the differing levels of importance that seventeenth century theologians attached to different areas of their theology. For instance, Baxter and Owen could hold common concerns in the areas of church unity, experimental piety, regard for Scripture, and many other points, and yet another area of doctrinal disagreement (such as justification) could be the fly that ruins the ointment.

Chapter 1 demonstrates the radically different experiences that Own and Baxter had during the English Civil War. Owen’s experience of relative ease and peace helped promote an optimistic view of current events and the progress of the gospel in England. By contrast, Baxter saw the brutalities of war first hand, and he had a knack for alienating the powers that be. This chapter paints a vivid picture of the manner in which different experiences can shape two people’s interpretations of the same events.

Chapter 2 draws attention to the way in which Owen and Baxter’s differing theological opponents shaped their emphases. This chapter is pivotal in assessing accurately the remaining material of the work. Owen’s primary concerns were Socinianism and Arminianism, while Baxter was preoccupied with Antinomianism. While they shared common concerns in these areas, their differing fears and emphases sometimes led to conflict. After introducing the Calvin vs. the Calvinists debate among historians (56-59), Cooper provides a brief analysis of Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ. He refers to Owen’s exegesis of Scripture as “weak and unconvincing” (63, 67). He adds that Owen confirms the charge of mangling texts of Scripture to fit his views (72). However, Cooper’s criticism presupposes a bias in favor of Arminian exegesis. For the sake of argument, if orthodox Reformed theology did reflect the teaching of Scripture, then it would be natural for a Reformed orthodox theologian such as Owen to harmonize every relevant passage of Scripture with this viewpoint. Cooper’s bias against Reformed exegesis creates a de facto bias in favor of their opponents. Although there is no such thing as an unbiased historian, the way in which he treats this subject threatens to color unnecessarily the historical accuracy of his assessment.

The remainder of Chapter 2 examines Baxter’s views of justification. In light of the importance of the question of justification in Reformed orthodoxy, this difference should have occupied a more prominent place in Cooper’s analysis. Baxter believed that the idea of the imputed righteousness of Christ to believers was the root cause of Antinomianism (75). Christ supplied a legal righteousness to his people, but this legal righteousness did nothing more than remove the penalty merited by the broken covenant of works. (77). Believers supply an evangelical righteousness of faith and obedience. Christ supplied the conditions of the old covenant and believers fulfill the conditions of the new covenant. This excludes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (either active or passive obedience. 78-79). Justification is always incomplete and provisional in this life (79). Declarative justification occurs at death only (80). Baxter was accused from several directions of being a Papist and an Arminian (81-82). Owen would have regarded this position as denying the gospel and utter apostasy.

In light of their differences in soteriology, it is actually surprising that Owen and Baxter were willing to work together at all. Though Cooper stresses what the two men held in common as a primary reason for the tension between them, the doctrine of justification was historically a doctrine that drew a firm line in the sand between opposing parties in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Cooper mistakenly treats this difference with less importance than theologians in that time period would have. While his analysis of these two men is thought-provoking and helpful, the real puzzling question in light of this fundamental difference is how they could cooperate as much as they did.

Chapters 3 through 5 address how the conflict between Owen and Baxter developed. These three chapters address the seemingly incidentally manner in which Owen and Baxter came into theological conflict, the radically different personality of each man, and the conflicting ways in which they pursued unity among Protestants. The evidence employed in constructing the personality of each figure is scant at times, but this problem is inherent in attempting to construct a psychological profile of men who have been dead for over three hundred years. The question of unity revolved in large part around forming a common confession that English Protestants could subscribe to. Baxter made the process difficult by insisting that a creed to which the average church-goer subscribed must consist of the exact words of Scripture only (150). This was out of accord with the historic use of creeds and confessions, which stated what the church thought the Scriptures taught instead of merely regurgitating the words of Scripture. Baxter’s policy mirrored that of the Socinians, which did not help him win favor with the Reformed orthodox in England. Chapter 6 illustrates Baxter’s inability to include a statement on the deity of the Holy Spirit based upon his principles. Cooper’s final assessment of Baxter’s role in these events is an appropriate summary of the whole: “It would have had almost the same effect on the outcome, and it would have made more friends, if Baxter had simply taken the next coach home” (181).

Chapter 7 expands upon the controversy over justification. Cooper undermines the weight and the importance of Owen’s difference with Baxter over justification (197). Disagreement over this point could ruin all possibility of fellowship and cooperation in the context of Reformed orthodoxy, since the doctrine of justification was one of the primary planks of the Reformation. In addition, Cooper does not give enough weight to the affinities between Baxter and the Socinians on justification. It is one thing for Baxter to accuse Owen of potentially laying a theological foundation for Antinomianism, but it is another thing for Baxter actually to teach a view of imputed righteousness that coincides with the Socinian view. This makes the dispute between Owen and Baxter over justification far more than “a sophisticated exercise in name-calling” (211), as Cooper asserts. This faulty assessment is evident as well when Cooper asserts that Owen and Baxter held to “a common Calvinism” (302). This assertion depends upon whether one regards the atonement as an integral part of what it meant to be Calvinism in the seventeenth century.

Chapters 8 and 9 insightfully illustrate how the fact that Baxter held Owen responsible for the fall of Richard Cromwell colored every future relationship between them. The manner in which Baxter’s memory of these events developed is particularly interesting. In his conclusion, Cooper notes, “Understanding the breakdown in the relationship between these two men throws a great deal of light on the reasons why the Puritan movement more generally ended up permanently riven by conflict and disagreement” (301). With mild humor, he concludes his intriguing by stating, “Owen was easily exasperated; Baxter was simply exasperating” (305).

The true question that arises after reading this work is how Baxter and Owen were able to cooperate at all. This is less confusing on Baxter’s side of the equation, since he desired to work with those who held to widely differing views theologically. But on Owen’s side, it is puzzling how he could disagree with Baxter over a doctrine that Calvin and others called the article on which the church stands or falls and still and cooperate with him at all. While this question remains unanswered, Cooper’s work provides an intriguing window into the personalities of two of the most important men in seventeenth century England.

The review above first appeared in the Calvin Theological Journal in the Fall of 2012.