2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Volume 4: The Age of Religious Conflict – Nick Needham

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The final edition of Needham’s as yet unfinished Church history series, covering from about 1560 to 1740. The structure of the book has changed subtley to reflect the much more diverse nature of the Church in comparison to the earlier volumes.

In this volume, the Lutheran Church is considered in its own chater, followed by the Continental Reformed faith, then two chapters on the Puritans (mostly in England), one on the Scottich Covenanters, two on the enduring Roman Catholic Church, and then the final chapter on the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Given such diversity within the 16th and 17th century post – Reformation Churches, the structure allows the reader to only focus on one tradition at a time, which makes it most helpful to follow.

Much as the last volumes, the writing is excellent and engaging, the biographical portrayals lively, the respective movements considered are all well defined (where possible!), and the source texts at the end of the chapter are, as always, most illuminating. Some particular highlights include:

  • The explanation of the origins of the Thirty Years’ War was, at least from a religious point of view, clearly explained. This is personally a conflict that I hadn’t had much prior knowledge of, so I found this particularly useful.
  • The discussion of Moise Amyraut was fascinating. He is such an enigmatic character. Indeed, the whole issues of some potentially Amyraldian influences in the Westminster Assembly was interesting to consider and the effects of hypothetical universalism on the final draft of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
  • The English civil war was explained in a nuanced light that I appreciated. Too often, the definition of the term ‘Puritan’ is made in such a way that makes the English civil war too simplistic (and, of course, the Puritans are the ‘bad guys’) . Indeed, the whole definition of the term ‘Puritan’ is so nuanced, as Needham shows. He takes the stance that before the civil war, a Puritan was, broadly, an Anglican who sought further reformation of the Church of England. During the civil war and Cromwellian eras, Needham uses the term Puritan to mean those who wished to self – consciously advance Protestant ideals under in a national church context. After this time (the ejections of the Purtians from the national church in 1662), the term ‘Puritan’ is abandoned in favour of ‘Nonconformist’ (or if they left voluntarily before 1662 as ‘Separatist’). I very much welcomed the rigorous methodology in defining such a key term of 17th century English Church history.
  • Moreover, the Covenanters of Scotland were given significant space in the book and I personally found their coverage particularly well written. I expected to be ‘bogged down’ in covering the Scottish Church but I was pleasantly surprised!

Needham goes to great lengths never to wholly demean, nor hero – worship, any one particular individual or group/tradition in the Church. In fact, it is a most refreshingly balanced read that gives credit, concessions, and charitable readings where they are dew. Most notable, Needham’s coverage of Cyril Lucaris was particularly excellent.

The only major things I found slighlty disappointing were:

  1. The continued lack of information regarding textual transmission or textual criticism. Needham openly states he believes it to be beyond the scope of the series, but I did leave me a little disappointed.
  2. The section on Roman Catholic Gallicanism was a little laborious. This is probably due to my lower interest in the topic as opposed to, say, the Puritan era. The danger with such a broad overview of Church history is those areas of particular traditions that you care little about. This can hardly be helped, but I felt it slightly tedious all the same.

It must be said that I thoroughly enjoyed each and every volume in the series so far, and I eagerly anticipate Volume 5. I will be among the first to order it, I am sure!

Review: Communion with God – John Owen

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is difficult to overstate the importance of John Owen’s work to the understanding of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Indeed, this work is fundamentally all about the Trinity, and how communion with God is really communion with the Father, communion with the Son, and communion with the Holy Spirit. In an important sense, we do not commune with Being but with Person – or, three Persons, as the case may be.

In the opening chapter, Owen highlights how our communion with God ‘lies in His giving Himself to us and our giving ourselves and all that He requires to Him’ (p. 3) However, the lens through which communion with God is viewed by Owen is that it is only complete in Christ’s full glory, in the age to come.

The basis of this union, though presently imperfect, that we now share with God is with each person.

Owen starts with communion with the Father. A key insight that Owen makes here is that the Father’s love for His elect is not one that is required of Him by anything external to Himself – not even price Christ paid on the cross to redeem His bride. Rather, the Father’s love is eternal and free and He loves us Himself. This combats the view that the Father loves us because the Son, whom He sent, died for us. Rather, the Father sent the Son because He already loved us.

The largest section of the book, as one might imagine, is Owen’s explanation of our communion with the Son. Our fellowship with Christ, Owen points out is one of grace. Owen explains the type of communion that the Saints have with Christ. In particular, Owen stresses the nature of the imputed righteousness of Christ was not in any way for His own sake, but entirely for ours. Christ, being perfectly righteous, was already fit to be our sacrifice for sin. His works of obedience were not necessary to this end. Rather ‘whatever Christ did as Mediator, He did for those whose Mediator He was or in whose place and for whose good He carried out the office of Mediator before God…What His people could not do because of sin, Christ did for them. He did it so that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us’ (p. 120)

His obedience was not superfluous, or even part of His suffering, but a necessary component of our justification. Owen is showing that we are, in fact, justified by works – that is, the works of Christ.

The other consideration Owen makes is that in communion with the Son, we see His excellencies and His glories. In highlighting this, Owen uses imagery from the Song of Songs and takes the view that this Song is necessarily about Christ and His Church – which is a position of which I am not entirely convinced. Nevertheless, all His points are sound, and it forces us to ask the question of ourselves: do we see Christ as lovely, and excellent?

The final section is about our communion with the Holy Spirit. The way in which Owen talks about the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer would mystify many modern charismatics. Owen speaks nothing of tongues, miraculous healing, private revelations etc, but takes his explanation of the Spirit’s work from the Upper Room Discourse in John’s Gospel.

Owen speaks of seven general works of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer:
– bring to mind the words and promises of Christ
– glorify Christ
– pour the love of God into our hearts
– bear witness with our spirits that we are the children of God
– sealing us
– being an ‘earnest’, ‘deposit’, or ‘guarantee’
– anointing believers

If your aim is to dig deep into how to commune with God – not just the idea of a God – concept in general – but have relationship with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then this book will serve that purpose. Furthermore, R. J. K. Law’s work on this Puritan Paperback edition helps make reading this work relatively easy and those intimidated by Owen’s reputation should not be put off on this account.