Tag Archives: Jesse Owens

Symposium Recap: Jesse Owens on the English General Baptists

by Rodney Holloman

Jesse Owens’ excellent presentation at the 2017 Symposium countered the “ahistorical” assertion that all seventeenth-century Arminians were rationalists. This seemingly unchallenged dogma is represented as he takes issue with (among others) Richard Muller and his book God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy. Muller’s book claims that “Arminius’s theology of God, creation, and providence led to an openness among later Arminians to Enlightenment rationalism” (29). Owens argues that that the “early English General Baptists were firm in their adherence to the authority and supremacy of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice” (29).[1]

Granting that there was rationalism among the Remonstrants in the first part of his presentation, Owens disagrees that the parts indicate the whole of the theological spectrum, or that Arminianism inherently produced the rationalistic views of so many in the eighteenth century. After reviewing the spurious views of perspicuity of the Scripture, Owens argues that “neither Arminius nor the English General Baptists followed the Remonstrant approach, despite contrary claims” (30). He addresses the claims by Geoffrey Nuttall that “the Arminianism of the General Baptists, and of the Dissenters at large, was an Arminianism of the head” (30). He then cites the work of Bass to refute Nuttall, which dovetails into a discussion of the Caffyn controversy as well as the debate at Salter’s Hall in 1719. He then rightly characterizes the “undue attention” regarding these historical inferences from these two events as he finalizes the background portion of his presentation (31).

It is at this point that the paper shines brightly as we begin to focus on the writings of Thomas Grantham and Thomas Monck. After some brief biographies and bibliographies of both men, Mr. Owens illustrates concisely and effectively how that their views in the late seventeenth-century were fully orthodox and not in step with Enlightenment Rationalism as has been repeatedly suggested. Using primary sources such as Monck’s Cure for the Cankering Error of the New Eutychians and his help developing An Orthodox Creed, and Grantham’s magnum opus Christianismus Primitivus, he leads us to understanding and agreeing that Muller, et. al. are incorrect concerning their claims about seventeenth-century Arminians. It is a helpful and masterful section as objections are raised and answered using these works to show the thoroughgoing Reformed nature of their theology and epistemology.

Jesse Owens concludes his presentation forcefully with the following lengthy quotations:

“There is no strong evidence supporting a pervasive rationalism amongst English General Baptists until the eighteenth century, when many General Baptists did in fact join the Presbyterians in rejecting essential Christian doctrines. The point here is not simply to say that General Baptist heterodoxy in the eighteenth century had Reformed company, thereby softening their defection. The significance of Presbyterian and General Baptist (one being Calvinist and one being Arminian) heterodoxy in the eighteenth century, is that it demonstrates that it was not the theological system of Arminianism that proved more open to Rationalism than either the Lutheran or the Reformed, but the philosophical and theological milieu of the era.

It should be apparent at this point that Thomas Monck and Thomas Grantham, two of the foremost leaders of the English General Baptists in the late-seventeenth century, firmly adhered to the authority and supremacy of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice. . . On these points they do not deviate from the Reformed tradition in general, or Calvin and The Westminster Confession of Faith in particular. The significance of this is that, contrary to claims that seventeenth century Arminians were predominately driven reason or were the most open to it, the representative figures of Monck and Grantham utterly reject a rationalistic approach to Scripture and the acquisition of religious knowledge (37).”

Overall this was an excellent representation of historical research along with addressing contemporary writing on these subjects. It is well worth your time to read and digest. Thank you, Mr. Owens, for sharing your research and excellent work with us.

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[1] All page numbers are derived from the Symposium Paper Digest, which is available for purchase on our site.