John Owen on Constantine’s Corruption of the Church

Instead of quoting great theologians, Owen draws his arguments from Scripture.

I think it’s clear that Owen did not view Constantine’s “countenance and protection” of “the Christian religion” as an entirely positive historical event. It led the church away from a sole reliance on ecclesiastical power and the truth of Scripture, as they instead began to rely on “General Councils, armed with mixed power, partly civil and partly ecclesiastical.”  

 

John Owen’s Christologia is a brilliant exposition and defense of Christology according to the Scripture. One of the things strikingly missing from the body of Christologia is an abundance of authoritative quotes from the church fathers to support his points. Instead of quoting great theologians, Owen draws his arguments from Scripture.

In the Preface. Owen does add the opinions of church fathers, but he explains that he prefers to formulate his defense of the truth from Scripture alone. In doing so, Owen laments the fact that “In process of time, when the power of the Roman empire gave countenance and protection unto the Christian religion,” the practice of making theological arguments Scripture was abandoned and replaced with “the use of such assemblies of bishops and others as they called General Councils, armed with a mixed power, partly civil and partly ecclesiastical — with respect unto the authority of the emperors and that jurisdiction in the church which began then to be first talked of.”

I think it’s clear that Owen did not view Constantine’s “countenance and protection” of “the Christian religion” as an entirely positive historical event. It led the church away from a sole reliance on ecclesiastical power and the truth of Scripture, as they instead began to rely on “General Councils, armed with mixed power, partly civil and partly ecclesiastical.”

Here’s the full excerpt from Owen:

From the Preface to Christologia (emphasis added):

The defense of the truth, from the beginning, was left in charge unto, and managed by, the guides and rulers of the church in their several capacities. And by the Scripture it was that they discharged their duty confirmed with apostolic tradition consonant thereunto. This was left in charge unto them by the great apostle, Acts xx. 28–31; 1 Tim. vi. 13, 14; 2 Tim. ii. 1, 2, 15, 23, 24, iv. 1–5, and wherein any of them failed in this duty, they were reproved by Christ himself: Rev. ii. 14, 15, 20.

Nor were private believers (in their places and capacities) either unable for this duty or exempt from it, but discharged themselves faithfully therein, according unto commandment given unto them: 1 John ii. 20, 27, iv. 1–3; 2 John 8, 9. All true believers, in their several stations — by mutual watchfulness, preaching, or writing, according unto their calls and abilities — effectually used the outward means for the preservation and propagation of the faith of the church.

And the same means are still sufficient unto the same ends, were they attended unto with conscience and diligence. The pretended defense of truth with arts and arms of another kind hath been the bane of religion, and lost the peace of Christians beyond recovery. And it may be observed, that whilst this way alone for the preservation of the truth was insisted on and pursued, although innumerable heresies arose one after another, and sometimes many together, yet they never made any great progress, nor arrived unto any such consistency as to make a stated opposition unto the truth; but the errors themselves and their authors, were as vagrant meteors, which appeared for a little while, and vanished away.

Afterwards it was not so, when other ways and means for the suppression of heresies were judged convenient and needful. For in process of time, when the power of the Roman empire gave countenance and protection unto the Christian religion, another way was fixed on for this end, viz., the use of such assemblies of bishops and others as they called General Councils, armed with a mixed power, partly civil and partly ecclesiastical — with respect unto the authority of the emperors and that jurisdiction in the church which began then to be first talked of.

This way was begun in the Council of Nice, wherein, although there was a determination of the doctrine concerning the person of Christ — then in agitation, and opposed, as unto his divine nature therein — according unto the truth, yet sundry evils and inconveniences ensued thereon. For thenceforth the faith of Christians began greatly to be resolved into the authority of men, and as much, if not more weight to be laid on what was decreed by the fathers there assembled, than on what was clearly taught in the Scriptures.

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.