Friday, January 28

Exiled Preacher: John Owen on the authority of the pope

Note: John Owen was one of the most astute of the English Puritans. Of his works, many have said that though difficult at times to understand, when he writes on a subject, he leaves nothing left to say. Thanks to Guy Davis (Exiled Preacher) in the south of England, I am posting his article from yesterday.

John Owen on the authority of the pope

Yesterday I gave a paper on Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome Reloaded to the Bradford on Avon Ministers' Fraternal. Here's an excerpt:

One of Cane’s main arguments in the Fiat Lux was that before England departed from Rome during the reign of Henry VIII, the nation was at peace with itself. Since relinquishing the authority of the pope, however, the country had been beset by terrible divisions between the various Protestant sects. There was nothing for it but to return to Rome, only then all would be well again, ‘we have no remedy for our evils, no means of ending our differences, but by a return unto the rule of the Roman see.’

The legitimacy of the pope’s authority was one of the key points at issue between John Owen and his Roman opponent, John Vincent Cane. He deployed five main lines of argument against the Roman Catholic claim that the pope has universal authority over the Church.

1. Exegetical

The key biblical text that Rome cites to prove its claims concerning the pope is Matthew 16:18 & 19. They reason that as the pope is Peter’s successor as Bishop of Rome, that the keys of the kingdom of heaven now belong to him. Owen however disputes this, devoting virtually a whole chapter of A Vindication to demonstrating that there is not a shred of evidence in the New Testament that the apostle Peter was ever the Bishop of Rome. He applies the words of Jesus, “Upon this rock I will build my church” not to the pope, but to the whole Catholic Church, which is comprised of individual believers who confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.

2. Historical

If the Bishop of Rome was indeed granted universal authority over the Church, then we might expect to find evidence of this in early church history. Cane tries to argue that this is the case, claiming that it was the pope who summoned the council of Nicaea in order to defend the deity of Christ. Owen won’t let him get away with that one. With his expert knowledge of the creedal heritage of the church, he easily sets the record straight. The Bishop of Rome did not preside at Nicaea. Neither was he given a place of special prominence at the Council of Chalcedon. Indeed, in some of the first six ecumenical councils, much to his chagrin, the power of the Bishop of Rome was expressly limited. So much for the ‘universally acknowledged’ authority of the papacy!

3. Christological

Cane argued that since his ascension Christ can no longer be the visible head of the church. According to the Franciscan, Christ was only the head of the church in his human nature. The church apparently needs a visible, human head and that role is now fulfilled by the pope. However, as Owen points out, in suggesting this, Cane was departing from the Catholic faith by driving a wedge between the divine person of the Son and his humanity.

As we have just seen, Cane wanted his readers to believe that the pope was the great champion of Christological orthodoxy at Nicaea and Chalcedon. But now he makes him the living embodiment of the Nestorian heresy condemned at the latter Council. Owen insists that Jesus Christ is the ‘supreme and only head of the church catholic’. He exercises his rule over the church through his appointed bishops or elders. But no bishop, not even the Bishop of Rome may claim to be the head of the church In replacing Christ with the Bishop of Rome as head of the visible church, Rome was as good as admitting that the pope was the Antichrist.

4. National

Owen’s opponent endeavoured to win the people of these islands back to the Roman Catholic fold by saying that the pope, ‘is a good man, one that seeks nothing but our good, that never did us harm, but has the care and inspection of us committed unto him by Christ.’ Owen begs to differ, urging that a return to Rome would be nothing less than disastrous for the people of England,

let him tell us how he will assure us that if this good pope get us into his power again, he will not burn us, as he did our forefathers, unless we submit our consciences to him in all things; that he will not find out ways to draw the treasure out of the nation, nor absolve subjects from their allegiance, nor excommunicate or attempt the deposition of our kings, or the giving away of kingdoms, as he had done in former days.
In The Church of Rome No Safe Guide, the divine likewise warned his fellow countrymen to beware of the ‘insupportable yoke’ of the pope, with his claim to a divine right of universal rule over kings and sovereign princes. For Owen, the pope was the enemy of the peace, liberty and prosperity of the nation.

5. Prophetic

Writing in 1682, near the end of his days, Owen bemoaned the fact that many were endeavouring to minimise the differences between Papists and Protestants. The older view that the pope was the Antichrist was falling out of favour. However, listing the ‘idolatries, persecutions, murders and Luciferian pride’ of the pope and his church, Owen continued to identify the Bishop of Rome as the Antichrist prophesied in the Scriptures. There could be no alliance the man of sin.

On this point, we might do well to reflect on the words of Richard Baxter, "That if the pope be not [the Antichrist], he had ill luck to be so like him."

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