John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man
By Carl R. Trueman
Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2007
The Great Theologians Series
132 pp, pbk, $29.95.
ISBN: 978 0 75461 470 8
There has been a resurgence of interest in the Puritans over the last fifty years or so, encouraged by the ministry of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and fuelled by the reprinting of Puritan works by the Banner of Truth Trust and other publishers. At their best, Puritan writers give us great theological wisdom wedded to a concern for practical and experiential godliness. One of my first major investments in Christian literature was the Banner's 16-volume Works of John Owen. I have read large chunks of Owen, but by no means have I finished working my way through the set. Owen's On Communion with God in Volume 2 of the Works showed me more of what it means to have fellowship with the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit than anything else I have read. If those green and white volumes are simply gathering dust on your shelves, remember that books are not status symbols. They are for reading. Why not start with On Communion with God1 ?
As Trueman notes, however, post-Reformation orthodoxy is often dismissed on account of its supposed 'scholasticism'. Writers like R. T. Kendall have tried to drive a wedge between John Calvin and the Calvinists who followed in his wake. But scholars such as Richard Muller and Paul Helm2 have shown that Calvin was happy to build on the best aspects of medieval scholastic theology. Later Reformed Orthodoxy simply followed in his steps. One of Trueman's aims in this book is to show that theologians like Owen made critical use of sophisticated scholastic methodology in order to respond to the fresh challenges posed to the Reformed faith by the twin threats of Arminianism and Socinianism. He also repeatedly nails the myth that post-Reformation theology adopted a wooden proof-texting approach to Scripture. John Owen was a careful exegete of the biblical text. His exegesis was often characterised by contextual sensitivity, a nuanced understanding of the original languages and deep theological insight.
Owen was one of the greatest, if not the greatest Puritan theologian. Indeed Trueman insists that such was the breadth of Owen's theological vision that it is too constricting simply to view him as a Puritan. His concerns transcended the typical Puritan desire to see a remodelled Church of England. For Trueman, 'Puritan' is at the same time too fuzzy a category, as it embraces semi-Arians like the poet John Milton. I think this is a little unfair on the Puritan movement. Milton's views on the Trinity were an aberration as far as mainstream Puritan thinking was concerned. Owen was certainly happy to identify himself with the Puritan cause, especially as a leader of the Independents. His The True Nature of a Gospel Church in Volume 16 of the Works is the classic statement of Congregationalist Church polity. His piety is unmistakably Puritan with a strong emphasis on the ongoing struggle with sin in the life of the believer. But Trueman is right to place the theologian in the broader context of European Reformed Orthodoxy. In a helpful introductory chapter he identifies Owen as a 'Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man'.
Owen was a true man of the Renaissance. In his studies at Oxford University he was schooled in the rigorous methods of medieval scholasticism. His thorough study of the biblical languages was the product of the ad fontes agenda of the Renaissance was well as the Reformed desire for a direct encounter with the words of Scripture. Owen's library catalogue gives evidence of his broad interests. His theological section boasted works from patristic, medieval, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and heretical writers. He also studied both ancient and contemporary philosophy and linguistics. He even had books on magic and warm beer. Owen hardly conforms to the culturally disengaged Puritan stereotype. This is something of a challenge to many Reformed ministers today. Our library shelves may be heaving under the ever growing weight of books published by the Banner of Truth Trust, Evangelical Press and IVP. But are we reading 'outside the box', giving attention to the wider theological scene and getting to grips with contemporary cultural trends? I sometimes get the impression we are a little afraid that heresy can be caught by reading the 'wrong' books. But if we fail to grapple with what is going on outside the Reformed camp, how can we meaningfully respond to the challenges of today's world? We have a lot to learn from Owen, who put his wide reading to work in the service of Reformed Orthodoxy.
In the remainder of the book, Trueman devotes attention to three important features of Owen's theology, with chapters on 'The Knowledge of the Trinitarian God', 'Divine Covenants and Catholic Christology' and 'The Article on which the Church Stands or Falls' - on justification by faith. Owen made an important contribution to the elaboration and defence of these doctrines from a distinctly Reformed standpoint.
As a Puritan, John Owen was one of history's 'losers'. His work has probably not received the attention it deserves in scholarly circles. However, to neglect Owen is to needlessly impoverish our understanding of Reformed Catholic theology. We need his rich trinitarian focus. His discussion of divine sovereignty and contingency is of help to us in formulating a response to Open Theism. Owen's remarkable insight into the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit will repay careful study. Reformed Evangelicalism would do well to reconsider Owen's carefully constructed biblical case for imputed righteousness at a time when some are questioning that important aspect of justification by faith.
This book is not to be compared with John Owen on the Christian Life by Sinclair B. Ferguson (Banner of Truth Trust, 1987). Ferguson's larger work includes a broader sweep of Owen's theology, and as the title suggests, is more practical in tone. Trueman writes with the slightly different aim of helping us to read Owen with greater historical sensitivity. Some of the theologian's writings have recently been made available in paperback with modernised English and contemporary cover designs3. This development is no doubt most welcome, but we need to remember that Owen wrote from a particular historical situation. Thankfully Lessing's 'ugly ditch' is in no way so deep and broad as to prevent meaningful engagement with the great theologians of the past. We still have much to learn from Owen today. Carl Trueman was served us well in placing John Owen, the Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man in his proper historical context. Above all, this book enhances our appreciation of Owen's valuable contribution to Reformed theology and so enlarges our vision of the triune God of the Gospel.
1. Also available in abridged form in the Trust's Puritan Paperback series (see Note 3).
2. See Paul Helm, Calvin and the Calvinists.
3. The following Owen titles are available in the Trust's Puritan Paperback series:
Apostasy from the Gospel
Communion with God
The Glory of Christ
The Holy Spirit
The Mortification of Sin, now available with its own Study Guide by Rob Edwards
The Spirit and the Church
Temptation Resisted and Repulsed
Guy Davies is Joint-Pastor of Penknap Providence Church and Ebenezer Baptist Church in Wiltshire. This review appeared on his Exiled Preacher blog on September 12, 2008. Notes added.