Southern Seminary’s Andrew Fuller Conference spotlights Baxter, Owen, and Kiffen

Communications Staff — September 29, 2016

Herman J. Selderhuis, professor of church history at the Theological University Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, speaks in Southern Seminary's Broadus Chapel during the 10th annual Andrew Fuller Conference.
Herman J. Selderhuis, professor of church history at the Theological University Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, speaks in Southern Seminary’s Broadus Chapel during the 10th annual Andrew Fuller Conference.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (SBTS) — Four centuries after their births, Puritan theologians Richard Baxter, John Owen, and William Kiffen provide insight on how experiences shape a diversity of convictions on matters of faith and practice, said church historians during the 10th annual Andrew Fuller Conference at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Sept. 19-21.

The conference, which was themed “The Diversity of Dissent,” brought together historians from four different continents, including: Herman J. Selderhuis, professor of church history at the Theological University Apeldoorn in the Netherlands; Crawford Gribben, professor of early modern British history at Queen’s University in Northern Ireland; Tim Cooper, associate professor of church history at the University of Otago in New Zealand; and David Sytsma, assistant professor at Tokyo Christian University in Japan.

Despite being regarded today as simply “Puritans,” these three 17th-century figures occupied different streams of dissent against the Church of England and came to diverse conclusions on issues like Calvinism, justification, and suffering. In his own day, the Presbyterian Baxter was the most popular writer of the three, and his experience in the civil war and subsequent repudiation of antinomianism contributed to the decline of Calvinism in England, said Cooper.

“The wars seemed to discredit Calvinist speculation, which left people open to alternatives that emphasized human moral responsibility, moderation, and good behavior,” Cooper said. “Orthodox Calvinism became unviable for a great many English Puritans — in large part because of Baxter’s influence — and within the population at large. If so, this is further evidence that ideas are not pristine; biography matters.”

While Baxter tried to reconcile opposing factions in the battle for Calvinism with his “mere Christianity,” Owen insisted on Calvinist soteriology for preserving the gospel, according to Cooper. A Congregationalist who supported Oliver Cromwell, Owen’s determination stemmed from a season of distress earlier in his life, which Cooper said indicates “experience conditions theology, even if it does not determine it.”

“The peace that mattered most to Owen, then, was not the peace of the world around him, it was that inner peace only the gospel could provide,” Cooper said. “Faced with some sort of crisis, it is plausible to imagine the sense of relief Owen might have felt to be assured that the resources for his own salvation did not lie within himself but were fully provided by Christ.”

Tim Cooper, associate professor of church history at the University of Otago in New Zealand, delivers a paper on the battle for Calvinism in the 17th century.
Tim Cooper, associate professor of church history at the University of Otago in New Zealand, delivers a paper on the battle for Calvinism in the 17th century.

While Baxter and Owen disagreed on Calvinism, Selderhuis said their writings on suffering contradict the popular notion that Puritans were gripped in fear of death. According to Selderhuis, Owen argued Christ’s death frees believers from fear and the focused instead on living in holiness. Baxter, on the other hand, endured a lifetime of physical pain and sickness and encouraged Christians to prepare for death during illness and focus on God’s promises for eternal life.

“Changing doubt into certainty without losing the anxieties of death works clearly through in the views of Owen and Baxter,” Selderhuis said. “Nowhere in their works is there even a trace of intense fear of death. In fact, the opposite is the case and death is seen as the happy transition into eternal glory.”

Owen also defended the doctrine of justification against new challenges toward the end of his life, according to Shawn Wright, associate professor of church history at Southern Seminary. Owen and Particular Baptist pastor William Kiffen shared a confessional foundation on justification and confronted Catholic, Arminian, antinomian, and Socinian forces they saw as threats to the central doctrine of the Reformation.

“Both William Kiffen and John Owen ended their lives not feeling like they had won,” Wright concluded. “All around them things in the culture and the churches seemed to be drifting further and further away from God and godliness. Yet they continued teaching justification by faith alone as the only hope for sinners.”

Owen considered his work a failure at the end of his life, according to Gribben, who recently wrote a new critical biography of Owen. But after his death, Owen’s works gained prominence in colonial America and Victorian England, and now he is considered the most prominent Calvinist of his age.

Additionally, Christian pastors and scholars who rediscovered and republished Owen’s works after World War II used his Calvinist theology for contemporary renewal of the Reformed evangelical movement, said Nathan Finn, dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Finn said J.I. Packer’s popular writings on Owen, the reprints published by Banner of Truth, and scholarly engagement with Owen have helped popularize “the doctrines of grace” and limited atonement.

“There have never been more scholars or pastors interested in Owen’s life and thought,” Finn said. “There is a need for authoritative editions of his writings that include critical annotations, substantive footnotes, and scholarly introductory essays.”

And while Kiffen only published two works and is the lesser known of the trio, his significant wealth in the 17th century aided his efforts in various theological and political controversies and in establishing the Baptist identity, noted Michael A.G. Haykin, SBTS professor of church history and director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. Kiffen signed both the First London Baptist Confession (1644) and the Second London Baptist Confession (1689), and played a key role in drafting the documents.

“William Kiffen was a source of strength and stability to the Calvinistic Baptist movement and played a vital role in its growth and advance,” Haykin said. “It was during his years of leadership of the movement that those positions distinctive of the Calvinistic Baptists were hammered out — congregational church government, believers’ baptism, and a strong commitment to evangelical Calvinism.”

The conference also included plenary sessions from Southern Seminary professors Jonathan Arnold, Timothy K. Beougher, and Russell Fuller; SBTS Ph.D. candidate Seth Osborne; and Steve Weaver, senior pastor of Farmdale Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Audio and video of the conference are available online at sbts.edu/resources.

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