Old Dead Guys Notes #9: John Owen

Notes #9– John Owen

John Wiers PhD 2020

  1. Introduction
    1. 1616-1683
  1. The Greatest British theologian; some have said the greatest English speaking theologian.
  1. He was an English Puritan who also is a prime example of what it usually referred to as High Orthodoxy in the Reformed tradition.
  1. He has had a great influence on some well-known theologians of our era.  Sinclair Ferguson wrote his doctoral thesis on Owen, later published as John Owen on the Christian Life. He said Owen was the greatest theological influence on his life.
  1. Charles Spurgeon called him “the prince of divines.
  1. J I Packer said that he not only owes his theological grounding from Owen, but his sanity.  Owen’s work on indwelling sin rescued him from a view of the Christian life known as Keswick theology that had him tangled in knots.
  1. William Carey, the father of modern missions’, main theological influence, Andrew Fuller, was greatly indebted to John Owen.  
  1. His works have often been reprinted and all of them are in print today, including some in condensed and modernized versions– see especially those done by Reformed theologian Kelly Kapic.  Even John Wesley recommended some of his works in his 50 volume essential library for ministers and Moody Press had a version of Owen’s work on the Glories of Christ in its Classic Texts library.
  1. Owen is not easy to read.  Packer says that he has the gait of lumbering elephant and that he wrote for those who cannot rest until they have gotten to the bottom of a subject and for those who do not find exhaustiveness exhausting but satisfying and refreshing.  A recent study of Owen says that he leaves no stone unturned. 
  1.  Owen himself said that he is not for those who want to dabble in his subject and says that if that’s your goal, “Farewell”– his actual word.
  1. His style is described by many as Latinate and included relative clauses within relative clauses, with multiple subdivisions– he lived in an era when fine distinctions in theology were part of their very fabric– and he can be repetitive and his organization doesn’t seem natural to most of his modern readers.
  1. One recent book on Owen said he is not so much generally rejected, but simply not read. 
  1.  He wrote in every area of theology, but never wrote a systematic theology text.  Instead he wrote massive studies of all eras of theology: the Trinity, Christology, the Person of Christ, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit– his is considered the most extensive written by any theologian– Justification, the Atonement, Perseverance, the doctrine of the church– he was a strong advocate of Congregationalism– and a polemical book against Arminianism and what he considered the most serious theological challenge, the heretical movement, Socinianism.
  1. In each of his treatises-his collected works are 24 volumes– he often ties virtually every other aspect of theology to the topic of hand.  His theology is highly structured around the Trinity and the work of each person of the Trinity always is involved in each of his discussions of theology.
  1. He is very much oriented around all of his theology leading to living for the glory of God.
  1. His Life
    1. Owen was born near Oxford, the son of an Oxford Puritan minister.  We know very little about his childhood or his family because Owen was very private about his life.
  1. He entered Oxford at age 12 and was a serious student, often getting only 4 hours of sleep a night, but he did take part in athletics, throwing the javelin and doing the long jump and played the flute.
  1. He graduated with his MA from Oxford, but never quite completed his ministerial training due to the shifting political climate that made it difficult for those with Puritan sympathies.
  1.  He took a position as a private chaplain in 1637, but the rise of political Puritanism gave him opportunities.  He spent a few years in 2 small churches in Essex, in that part of England where Puritanism was the strongest.
  1. He seems to have struggled with assurance of salvation as a young minister, once when he went to hear a famous minister in London, the minister was absent that day and an unknown guest preacher preached a sermon that the Lord used to bring him settled assurance.
  1. He began writing theological treatises early in his career– his first was a polemic against Arminianism.
  1. He pastored 2 modest sized congregations in Essex, near London when Puritan political fortunes improved. 
  1. He became noted as a preacher and was asked to preach the sermon before Parliament the day after King Charles I was beheaded.  Without mentioning the event, he preached a sermon with strong political overtones. He often preached before Parliament during the English Civil War.  He saw providential confirmation in the rightness of the Parliamentary cause. 
  1. He caught the attention of Oliver Cromwell and was essentially made his chief chaplain; accompanying Cromwell in his military campaigns in Ireland and Scotland– he called the bloody Irish campaign “a terrible necessity.” 
  1. He was appointed Chancellor of Oxford and took on a heavy administrative load as well as his productive outpouring of theological works.  He often preached to the students at Oxford and had a reputation as a fine biblical preacher.  Some of his practical works, such as Mortification of Sin came out of his preaching there. 
  1. He doesn’t seem to have had a large circle of friends, but he was described as a pleasant man to be around and has been described as a ‘natural political animal” by one historian, but somewhat easily exasperated.   He was tall of stature.
  1. While at Oxford he sometimes could be heavy handed and the generous salary– 10 times that of the average pastor– allowed him to indulge what some of said was a somewhat vain concern with his appearance– he was somewhat of a peacock in his dress and was an early user of powdered hair– one critic said that he had enough powder in his hair to fire 8 cannons!
  1. He was considered Oxford’s greatest ornament at the time which also included William Penn, Christopher Wren, and some other well-known Puritans being in residence there.
  1. Although he and Cromwell had a falling out, Cromwell’s death and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy had the greatest impact.  Although not imprisoned like some non-conforming non-Anglicans when the Anglican church was reestablished– his political connections that he had developed kept him out of jail– he served quietly in obscure places for a few years
  1. Because he respected John Bunyan, the Baptist author of Pilgrim’s Progress, he worked to try to get Bunyan out of jail and found him a publisher.  He would be one of the earliest advocates of toleration on a somewhat limited scale– he wanted toleration for all Trinitarian Protestants. 
  1. He helped to write the Savoy Declaration of Faith, the modest Congregational revision of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith, mostly to demonstrate that the Independent churches were not radical like some of the strange sects that had emerged during the Puritan era, but held to all of the main doctrinal points of Reformed theology. 
  1. His last years, after he moved to London when the restrictions against non-Anglicans were somewhat toned down, were productive ones in theological writing, although he continued to dabble in politics, even having his house raided once– they found several cases of pistols. Powerful, politically connected friends had kept him out of jail, unlike John Bunyan. 
  1. He had 11 children with his first wife before she died, but only 1 lived into adulthood and she died as a young adult due to “consumption”– likely cancer or tuberculosis. He lost a child on average every 3 years, at least 2 from the plague.  He married a widow after his 1st wife’s death
  1. He was offered the presidency of Harvard, the pastorate of 1st Church Boston, and a couple of other European theology chairs, but felt he should stay in Britain.  He admitted it was a dry time for him spiritually, though. 
  1. He continued to write, including his 7 volume commentary on Hebrews– 2 ½ volumes were introductory essays which he called Exercitations.
  1. His interests were wide ranging.  On his death, his personal library was found to contain volumes on music, magic, classical literature and home brewing. 
  1. Never of strong health, his health faded while writing his Meditations on the Glory of Christ, his last book.
  1. Known for his devout life, his last letter stated: “I am going to Him whom my soul has loved, or rather who hath loved me with an everlasting love; which is the whole ground of all my consolation.”
  1.  His last words to his good friend William Payne on hearing that his book on the Glory of Christ was about ready for publication were: “I am glad to hear it, O brother Payne.  The long wished for day is come at last in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing in this world.” 
  1.  The setting
    1. Owen is considered the pinnacle Puritan pastoral theologian, but he was also a stellar example of what is called High Reformed Orthodoxy or the Reformed version of Protestant scholasticism.
  1. Puritanism was a reform movement in the Church of England (Anglican) spanning the late 1560s to the late 1660s.  Owen did his theological work at the peak of Puritan successes.
  1. Puritanism was both a theological and a pastoral movement that argued that the Anglican church was insufficiently Reformed and had retained far too many Roman Catholic practices in spite of its essentially Reformation Protestant theology.  Hence most Puritans were Presbyterian or Congregational rather than Episcopalian in church structure.
  1. Puritanism also had a strong moral and devotional component.  Most Puritans were not satisfied with the shallow level in which evangelical truth had entered into English church life and wanted to see serious moral and devotional as well as doctrinal reformation.
  1. Reformed orthodoxy or Reformed scholasticism are the names given to those Post-Reformation theologians who sought to consolidate, explain and defend the theology of the Reformation.
  1. While some have tried to argue that those theologians “betrayed’ the theology by reintroducing Aristotelian logic, different methods– Swiss theologian Francis Turretin, for example, uses the Q and A method of Aquinas– and more elaborate systems, many recent scholars have argued that these had only minimal effect on the actual content of these theologians.
  1. Most of the Reformed Orthodox were primarily technical theologians and didn’t emphasize the pastoral aspects, although there were exceptions.
  1. Most of the theologians of High Orthodoxy were on the European continent.  However, Puritan pastoral influence did make considerable influence in the Netherlands.
  1. Owen bridges both types and wrote with all of the technical approaches found in High Orthodoxy and the pastoral emphasis found in Puritanism.
  1. Owen’s theology
    1. Owen wrote on nearly every area of theology, but his Trinitarian and Christological focus always come to the fore.
  1. He also wrote considerable polemical theology, starting with his critique of Arminianism.
  1. His big guns were most trained on Socinianism, a movement developed by Italian theologians Laelius and Faustus Socinus,  who denied the Trinity, the deity of Christ and the penal substitutionary nature of the atonement.
  1. Socinianism argued that no punishment for penalty was necessary for God to forgive and Christ’s death as simply a moral example
  1. He also carried on a long feud with Richard Baxter who tried to make some changes in Reformation theology to prevent the rise of antinomianism that erupted during the English Civil War and the number of strange movements it spawned.
  1. Although Owen wrote in almost every area of theology, he is most noted for his work on the Trinity, the Person of Christ, the atonement, the Holy Spirit, and indwelling sin.
  1. Most of his theology is standard Reformed theology, but developed more fuller and sometimes in a distinctly Puritan form. 
  1.  His works are both polemical and practical.  His works against Arminianism and Socinianism are very polemical, as is his work on the atonement.  His meditations on the glory of Christ and communion with the Triune God are deeply devotional as well as theological and are Puritan practical theology at its best.
  1. His works on Indwelling Sin– he wrote 3- are probably the best ever written on the topic and is the antidote to doctrines of the Christian life that argue that a simple act of consecration or prayer will instantly cure the believer of indwelling sin.  Owen argued that it would always be a struggle and requires constant mortification of sin. 
  1. He has been called an “acute psychologist of the Christian life.”
  1. He gives detailed instruction on putting sin to death– he gives 9 specific directions. 

V. Communion with God

  1. Owen’s book on communion with God focused on communing with each person of the Trinity. The full title was Of Communion with the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly , in Love, Grace and Consolation or The Saint’s Everlasting Fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit Unfolded. 
  1. It’s unique with its Trinitarian emphasis and in Owen shows awareness of the whole history of discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity. He wrote this volume when anti-Trinitarians such as the Socinians were making ground and many were wondering if the doctrine of the Trinity was really all that necessary. 
  1. He emphasizes both the unity of the Godhead as found in Augustine and the distinction of the persons as found in some of the Eastern patristic writers.
  1. There is always a Christ-centered approach to his doctrine of communion with God, since it is through the God-Man Mediator that we commune with the Father and the Holy Spirit, since the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Christ.
  1. Unlike our conversion, in which we are passive, we are active communion with God. 
  1. A lengthy meditation on 1 John 1:3 is the foundational text he works with. 
  1.  God communicates his free, personal love to us and we return that love which flows through the work of Christ mediated by the Holy Spirit.  Yet each person of the Trinity has an influence in each act of communion with God. 
  1. All of our return of love to God is through the mediation of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit. 
  1. The true communion with the Holy Spirit always glorifies Christ and Christ sends out the Holy Spirit.  The true goal of every Christian is to bring glory to Christ. 
  1.  He uses language of sweetness, delight, safety, support, consolation, to describe this communion with God and has a lengthy allegorical interpretation of Song of Solomon to flesh this out.
  1. Owen’s Trinitarian and Christological understanding of communion with God is very important in his reworking of the Beatific Vision, the vision of God in the afterlife.  The Lord’s Supper should be a place where we experience that foretaste especially
  1. Aquinas and other medieval theologians had often spoken of this as the summa of our experience, but were vague in how this related to the Trinity.  Yet the Reformers had spoken very little of it, perhaps because it seemed too speculative and tied into Aristotelian philosophy for them.  Some have argued that their Aristotelian understanding of knowing primarily through the senses kept them from being clear here. 
  1. Owen says that our relationship with the Triune God, through the mediatorial work of Christ is a foretaste of that, but it is consummated when we see Christ.  Owen appealed to John 17:24 where, in his High Priestly prayer, Jesus asks the Father that we, those whom the Father had given Him, would see Him in his glory. He also works with 2 Corinthians 3: 18 in his development of the doctrine. 
  1. For Owen, the Beatific Vision was of the glorified Christ as the God-Man, because the essence of God will remain invisible to us, even in our glorified state.   His is a version of the Beatific Vision that took historic Christology seriously. 

VI. Owen on the atonement

  1. This is his most polemical book to most moderns, although it flowed out of his long debates with Arminianism and Socinianism. The title is The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.  However, John Piper says that the book has rich devotional value and kept him up several evenings as he wrestled through the issue of the extent of the atonement. 
  1. It also was triggered by his long-time theological feud with Richard Baxter, who really seemed to have gotten under his theological skin.
  1. Baxter was a Puritan who modified Puritan theology because he became frightened at the strong antinomian tendencies of some of the radical sects spawned by the English Civil War– think Quaker, Muggletonians.
  1. Baxter argued for a universal atonement that put us in a “savable” state.  It was not strictly penal substitution, but governmental– God was showing that he couldn’t wink at sin and maintain order in the universe, but it was not strictly a payment for sin.  Rather now salvation was based upon our faith and “evangelical obedience” which was not strict obedience to the law, but a lesser, NT obedience.  
  1. Baxter critiqued standard Puritans such as Owen, as being antinomian.  Baxter argued that if the atonement was strictly penal and decreed from eternal past, then it must imply eternal justification and was thus inherently antinomian.
  1. Owen set out to counteract Arminianism, Socinianism, and Baxterism.  He worked on the book for more than 7 years. 
  1. Owen sets out what most have called the definitive treatment of Particular or Definite Atonement.  Although many have labeled this as Limited Atonement– the famous L in the Tulip acrostic– many theologians have pointed out that all non-universalists “limit” the atonement.  It just depends on where the limitation is put.  J I Packer says that if you are going to refute Particular Redemption you must refute Owen.  Many have claimed that he has never been refuted.  
  1. Owen sets his doctrine of the atonement in the eternal Covenant of Redemption– the Pactum Salutis– Owen says it could be called a compact, covenant, convention, agreement, the term didn’t matter– between the persons of the Trinity in eternity past– and the High Priestly work of Christ.  His basic critique of non-Reformed doctrines of the atonement is that they bifurcate the work of the Trinity in salvation so that each person of the Trinity ends up being in odds with the other rather than working harmoniously as any orthodox Trinitarian doctrine should.  Owen appealed to such texts as Psalm 40;7-8, Psalm 80: 17. Isaiah 40; 6, Isaiah 53: 10, Zechariah 6:13; Luke 22:29, Hebrews 7, Galatians 3: 16-17,  Revelation 13:8. 
  1. The internal compact was the foundation of the priestly work of Christ for Owen.   This internal was also the foundation for the covenant of grace which is worked out in human history in which Christ is the covenant head of his people, undoing the broken covenant bequeathed to us by Adam. 
  1.  He argues that the real question is not the sufficiency of the atonement– he agreed it was sufficient to save any and every human being– but its intent.  Since God clearly did not plan universal salvation, the atonement was intended for the salvation of the elect.
  1.  This was not merely a logical deduction on Owen’s part, but due to the exegesis of actual texts on atonement that said Christ laid down his life for his sheep– John 10– and some were not his sheep, that he laid down his life for his church, and from the very nature of penal substitution. In John 17 Jesus speaks about those “given to him” by the Father and the Scripture elsewhere says that Jesus died for the children of God, his brethren, the many.  Owen pointed out that Isaiah 53 says that Jesus was satisfied with the results of His death, showing that those who are ultimately saved are those he laid his life down for.
  1. Owen said that there were really 3 options
    1. Christ died for some of the sins of all people– i.e. he didn’t die for unbelief.  Owen asks why should unbelief be singled out as a sin that wasn’t atoned for in a universal atonement? 
    1. Christ died for all of the sins of all people– universalism.
    1. Christ died for all of the sins of some people– particular redemption or definite atonement.
  1. Owen argued that universal atonement with limited application both wrecked the eternal design of the atonement and overlooked that faith was a gift from God.  If all gifts to the elect believer were grounded in our union with Christ, then faith must also be one of the gifts purchased by Christ for us on the cross.  Thus, Owen argued that universal atonement with limited application won’t work.  Christ went to the cross to redeem specific people.
  1. Owen also argued that the high priestly work of Christ can’t be divided.  The Bible clearly says that Christ intercedes for his people, not for everyone.  He argued that Christ’s work can’t be divided.  He intercedes for the same ones he dies for.  His high priestly work is one, not divided.  He develops this strongly out of the book of Hebrews.  Christ said that a people was given to him and this group of people is the same group that he dies for and intercedes for in John 17.
  1. Owen argues that the so-called “universal atonement” texts need to be taken in context.  Some are simply correcting Jewish exclusivity that had been wrongly deduced form the Old Testament.  Some are simply using world in the sense of people from every tribe, tongue and nation.  Others are simply ways of reminding us that the gospel is to be preached indiscriminately since we don’t know who the elect are. Some are just charitable judgments describing those who outwardly profess to be believers. 
  1. Owen gives a thorough rebuttal of universal atonement understandings of each proof text that is typically brought forward and provides an alternate interpretation that he believes is compatible with Particular Redemption.
  1. He points out that appeals to John 3:16 when examined carefully actually demonstrate particular redemption because the text in Greek literally says that the Father gave the Son so that all believers will not perish.
  1. He argues that particular redemption is really a true ground of assurance of salvation because Jesus really is a personal savior and not an impersonal one.  Christ actually died for actual sinners and not just hypothetically for sinners.  Christ’s merits are applied to sinners in time as they come to faith, but that faith was purchased for them on the cross.  The merits of Christ’s death don’t go to generic heavenly treasury of merit.

VI.  What we can learn from Owen

  1. Devotion and highly technical theology can go hand in hand.
  1. A Trinitarian and Christ centered theology must be at the center of our worship. 
  1. We need to think carefully about how all of theology hangs together, as he especially shows in his work on the extent of the atonement.  One doctrine can’t be cut off from others on the basis of what he would call overly simplistic proof-texting.
  1. Owen would argue that we need to use more care in how we call people to turn to Christ.