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Prefatory note.

Unlike most of Owen’s works, the following treatise on schism has neither dedication, nor preface, nor note to the reader, from which we might have inferred his reasons for undertaking the preparation of it. There is no reference to any authors of the day by whose writings he might have been stimulated to defend his position as an Independent. Perhaps the design of Owen was more effectually promoted by the care with which he abstains from all personal controversies. The charge of schism was frequently resorted to by the different ecclesiastical parties of that age; and so long as the term was shrouded in a certain vague mystery of import, it told on some minds with peculiar effect. Romanists were fond of it as a weapon of no mean power in their dispute with the Church of England, and several treatises might be named, written about this period, in which the latter is earnestly defended from the charge. The members of that church, on the other hand, used the same plea against the Presbyterians and Independents; while Presbyterians, fresh from the task of replying to the charge of schism preferred against themselves, delighted in urging it against their brethren of Congregational views.

As the nature of the sin itself was left undefined, and the term, as borrowed from Scripture, was employed with much laxity of application, the religions party to which Owen belonged stood especially obnoxious to the reproach of following a divisive and schismatic course. If not a new denomination, they had only of late risen to such strength as to exert an influence on the national movements; and their first appearance in public affairs had traversed the designs of the Presbyterians, by first thwarting and latterly superseding them in the enjoyment of political supremacy. The latter were thus tempted to resort to the accusation of schism against the Independents, while the acrimony with which the accusation was made could not fail to be enhanced by the circumstance that Independency, as new to its opponents, would be in some measure misunderstood. Its theory of particular churches, united under no bond of common jurisdiction, seemed to involve the essence of schism and a palpable breach of Christian unity; and its practice of “gathering churches out of churches” wore an aspect too aggressive to meet with silent connivance on the part of other Christian bodies. Our author, in defence of his party, refrains from all recrimination, and, instead of bandying with their opponents the charge of schismatic views and tendencies, in one of those bread, masterly, and comprehensive statements which shed such light upon a complex question as effectually redeems it from a world of error and confusion, examines the scriptural import of the term “schism,”and proves that it denotes, not a rupture in ecclesiastical communion, but causes less divisions within the pale of a church. This argument was obviously not the less effective that it was of equal avail to the Anglican church against the Romanist, and to the Presbyterian against the former, while it was of peculiar service to the Independent against them all. The questions on which they differed came to be adjusted on their proper merits, and not under the perverting influence of the magic and mystery of an ambiguous word.

Thus far the discussion has been brought in the course of the first three chapters. The task, however, was but half done, if, whatever might be the scriptural usage of the term “schism,” a breach of Christian unity were still a sin, and Independents, from their views of the nature of a church, were involved in it. That they were not justly open to this charge, he proves in reference to the different meanings of the word “church.” If it be taken to denote the body of the elect. Independents, though separate from other religious bodies, and contending for a certain isolation among their churches, so far as jurisdiction was concerned, might still be saints of God, and in the church of the elect, chap. iv. If by the “church” is meant the universal body of Christian professors, the bond that connects them is not subjection to the authority of rulers or to the decrees of councils, but the maintenance of the common faith, so that deviation from it, not merely a separate fellowship, must constitute the evidence and measure of the guilt of schism, chap. v.; and our author links in connection with this argument a reply to the Romish charge of schism, which is met on the principle just stated, chap. vi. Finally, he makes reference to particular churches, and after showing in what their unity consists, — submission to the authority of Christ, and the exercise of Christian love among the brethren, — he claims it for his own denomination, and falls back on his original argument, as to the meaning of schism in Scripture, affirming it to be inapplicable “to the secession of any man or men from any particular church,” or to the refusal of one church to hold communion with another, or, lastly, to the departure of any man quietly, and under the dictates of conscience, from the communion of any church whatever, chap. vii. In the last chapter he meets the charge of schism as urged by the church of England against all Christians who cannot acquiesce in an episcopal polity.

Much of all this discussion may now be superseded and out of date by the prevalence of sounder views and a spirit more benign and charitable among evangelical churches, since the time when a vague charge of schism helped a limping argument and heightened the zeal of partisanship; this treatise of Owen, however, is a model, for the Christian temper with which the reasoning is prosecuted, and a master-piece of controversial tact, even though we may demur to some of his most important conclusions. It should be added, that he guards himself against any disparagement of the obligation to unity, and deplores in strong terms the divisions that rend the church of Christ. — Ed.

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