NOTE: this article originally appeared in the January 2017 edition of Ad Fontes (Issue 1.5)
Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian military theorist, famously described war as “the continuation of politics by other means.” Widely appropriated, the aphorism continues to pop up in pop culture and political analysis alike; I believe I ran across it first in the classic 1995 political thriller Red Dawn. In studying the liturgical theology of John Owen, I can’t help but tweak this trope for my own use: for Owen, prayer was politics by other means.
Prayer in Owen’s Theology and Politics
Too often in academic as well as popular approaches to John Owen, he is only read theologically. In his liturgical theology worship is summed up as communion with the Triune God in heaven. In particular, his view was that public prayer was the gift of the Triune God by means of the ascended Christ through the Holy Spirit in and through ministers. It was concerning that pneumatological work that he wrote his 1682 A Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer (1682).
Owen cannot, however, be read purely theologically. We need to break out of viewing him as if he were, as one recent journal article describes him, Owen the “super theologian, leaping quodlibetal questions in a single bound.” Why Owen said what he said about prayer was deeply influenced by the political realities of his day. A Non-Conformist (which at the time meant an Anglican who ignored some of the rubrics of Anglican practice, regarding them as tinged with Romanism) and later Dissenter outside the re-established Anglican church, Owen accentuated the individual minister’s spiritual gifting for public prayer; this emphasis was in deliberate contrast to conforming Anglicanism’s focus on the Book of Common Prayer. His position was born from a particular politico-eschatological outlook; it was not simply the result of biblical exegesis.
Owen’s Shifting Eschatological Outlook
While in his first parish ministry in 1643, Owen described his early eschatological vision:
The glass of our lives seems to run and keep pace with the extremity of time. The end of those ‘ends of the world’ which began with the gospel is doubtless coming upon us…Much sand cannot be behind, and Christ shakes the glass; many minutes of that hour cannot remain; the next measure we are to expect is but ‘a moment, the twinkling of an eye, where we shall all be changed.’
At that early point, Owen viewed the end of human history as imminent. He went on to claim that more error had crept into the English Church from the Roman during the previous sixteen years than had entered the church in the hundred years before that. Sixteen years: this meant 1628, the year William Laud became Bishop of London. In that first country parish, then, Owen sat back and saw the English Civil War, which had begun in 1642, the year before he wrote, as a precursor to the end of history.
At some point, though, his eschatological view seemed to shift. He began to look towards a future golden age As Martyn Cowan says, “he eagerly anticipated another turn of the hourglass.” It’s my conjecture that this change reflected his own improved prospects: as a disappointed parish pastor in the country Owen looked for an imminent end to history; once he reached the halls of power as a Parliamentary preacher, his view shifted. His view of prayer, too, wasn’t developed merely as he knelt in his personal prayer closet, but as he walked the halls of power. In 1649 and then in 1651 he recorded this change in writing: this coming age, he wrote, would be characterized by peace, multitudes of converts—especially of the Jews—and the special presence of Christ to administer the ordinances of worship with power and purity.
What was his explanation of the change? Owen would look back in 1672 and say that some forty years earlier “God enabled me to observe…that God had a controversy [that is, a dispute] with the nation” and that he had felt himself, in his change in perception about the eschatological implications of this controversy, “like a man out of a dead sleep that lifts up his head, and rubs his eyes for a time.” That controversy was rooted in the tyranny and idolatry of the Roman spirit of antichrist that had entered the English Church. Owen’s eschatology was theo-political.
Prayer in Owen’s Eschatology
As his spiritual eyes began to be cleared, Owen saw four apocalyptic events being fulfilled in his time. First, he applied “the vengeance of the temple” (Jer. 50–51), that is, Babylon’s destruction by the Medes in retribution for the destruction of Israel’s temple to the defeat of both the Laudian party, who set up “an outside, formal worship, in opposition unto the spiritual worship of the Gospel” and of rigid Presbyterianism. Second, he read the “measuring of the temple” (Rev. 11) as the restoration of true worship: “the full casting out and rejecting of all will-worship, and their attendant abominations” would be replaced by “purity and beauty of ordinances and gospel worship.” Third, he began to read the dissolution of the heavens and earth and ushering in of a new heavens and earth (2 Peter 3; Rev. 21) as not the eternal state, but as a future state of the church in its renewed condition when “God would have his tabernacle with men” (Rev. 21:3), meaning, God’s presence would be known in gathered churches of visible saints. Even the promise of “no more sea” (Rev. 21:1) was reinterpreted to be fulfilled in there being no more “pretended clergyman from all nations into general councils” while the apocalyptic imagery of gold, the sea of glass, and the precious stones was prophetic idiom for the purity of gospel ordinances. Finally, the shaking of the heavens and earth (Heb. 12) he interpreted as the shaking of the political heights of power in the First Civil War. This was “not to the last and final judgment of the world, but of that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state.”
In April 1649 Owen wrote that the end of the Papal antichrist was “nigh at hand, even at the doors.” In 1657, in what the devotional work, On Communion with God, he said that God would “in these latter days pour out upon the Antichristian world” the seven bowls of God’s wrath of Revelation 16. Cowan argues that Owen believed he was living in the time of the fifth bowl that brought darkness not only on the Papacy but on all episcopacy as a tool of antichrist. Unlike the pessimism of his 1643 parish ministry, this was an optimistic apocalypticism: “These are the times wherein the Spirit of grace and of supplications is promised to be poured out upon the Jerusalem of God.” Public prayer by individually gifted ministers without the use of the prelatic Prayer Book, therefore, was a manifestation of a new age of theo-politics.
The popular view of Owen as pious champion of “free” prayer and the “regulative principle of worship” against overly formalistic kinds of worship is not the whole story. Public prayer was politics by other means because it was directly linked to his eschatology of a glorious age of gospel purity in worship. As we consider John Owen’s change of mind, surely one lesson we can learn is to beware of attaching our theology too closely, or at least too exclusively, to the political ups and downs of one particular State at one particular time.
Daniel R. Hyde is the Pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church (Carlsbad/Oceanside, California), Adjunct Instructor of Ministerial Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, and Adjunct Instructor of Systematic Theology and Missions at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is currently writing his PhD on John Owen’s liturgical theology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.