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A general account of the controversy occasioned by Stillingfleet’s sermon “On the Mischief of Separation,” will be found prefixed to Owen’s pamphlet, entitled “A Brief Vindication of the Nonconformists,” etc., vol. xiii. of his works. Stillingfleet in reply published a large work, with the title, “The Unreasonableness of Separation; or, an Impartial account of the history, nature, and pleas of the present separation from the communion of the Church of England. To which several late letters are annexed of eminent protestant divines abroad, concerning the nature of our differences, and the way to compose them.” The first part of this elaborate work consists of a long preface, in which the author first retorts upon the Nonconformists the charge of encouraging Popery from the schism and divisions they had fomented, from their opposition to episcopal polity, which was a main bulwark against Popery, and from certain curious facts, according to which the Jesuits, it would seem, had insinuated themselves among the early Puritans, in order to excite them against the Church of England. He next mentions that he had been led to preach the sermon which had given rise to the controversy by a perusal of two works of Mr Baxter, in which the Church of England was as ailed, and to which he had a right to offer a reply. He alludes, finally, to the five antagonists, Owen, Baxter, Howe, Alsop, and Barret, whom his present work was intended to answer. Of Owen, whom he mentions first, he says, “He treated me with that civility and decent language, that I cannot but return him thanks for it.” The work itself is divided into three parts, — an historical account of the rise and progress of separation, the nature of the present separation, and an examination of the pleas for separation. The praise of great tact and ability must be accorded to this production of Stillingfleet. He takes up the weapons of the Presbyterians against the Independents, during the discussions of the Westminster Assembly, and wields them against the Presbyterians themselves in defence of his own church. With both, his main argument is simply, that separation from a church which they admitted to be a true church of Christ was of necessity schism, and that no grounds could justify separation where there was agreement “in regard to doctrine and the substantials of religion.” In the appendix to the work there are three letters, expressing concurrence with his views, from foreign divines, — Le Moyne, De l’Angle, and Claude. It is affirmed by Robinson, in his Life of Claude, that these letters were procured by Compton, bishop of London, on an unfair representation of the case at issue between Stillingfleet and his opponents, and published as the judgment of these foreign divines against English Nonconformity; and that, on a true statement of the case, they complained of the duplicity with which they had been treated, and gave forth an opinion adverse to the cause of the bishop and Stillingfleet. It is certain that in the letter by Le Moyne, he argues as if the question related to the possibility of salvation within the pale of the Church of England, accounting it “a very strange thing” that the Nonconformists should have “come to that extreme as to believe that a man cannot be saved in the Church of England.” He might well have felt such surprise if there had been the least ground for imputing this uncharitable sentiment to Owen and his compeers in the defence of Nonconformity. Perhaps Stillingfleet himself had most reason to complain of the mistake, by whatever means it was occasioned, for it really deprived his chief argument against them of all its strength and relevancy.
In its first aspect, the following work of Owen, in reply to the Dean of St Paul’s, seems irregular and confused. The dean is assailed, however, in a way most effective, and extremely characteristic of our author, who commonly refutes an antagonist not so much by exposing the weakness of his reasoning, as by establishing on solid grounds the positive truth to be embraced. He had been preparing a work on the nature of evangelical churches before “The Unreasonableness of Separation” appeared. He felt that the substance of his views on the main points involved in the controversy was contained in it, and, like another Scipio, he transfers the war to Africa, by putting the Church of England on its defence for innovations in its ecclesiastical polity, which had no sanction in Scripture or apostolic antiquity, the guilt of schism lying with the church that departed from the apostolic model, not with the church that adhered to it. Opinions, of course, will vary, as to the perfect success of the argument. Few will question the ability with which it is conducted; and his sagacity in selecting this point of attack may be gathered from the fact, that in the view which he presents of the constitution and working of the primitive churches, he has but anticipated the judgment of the learned Neander.
In a preliminary note to the reader, he disposes of the calumny that the Dissenters were abettors of the papal interest in Britain, classing it with stories still more ridiculous, as that they had been receiving large bribes to pursue this unprincipled course. Then follows a preface of some length, in which he meets the argument contained in the first part of Stillingfleet’s work, and founded on the history of separation. He appends to the treatise on evangelical churches a long answer to the remaining parts of his opponent’s work, in which the Nonconformists are charged with schism, and their pleas in vindication of themselves are met and considered. The main treatise — the Inquiry into Evangelical Churches — is but the first part of a work which was completed by the publication in 1689 of “The True Nature of a Gospel Church.” See vol. xvi. of his works. —Ed.
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