John Owen has been called the "greatest English mind the world has ever seen."i It is almost humorous to try and capture even the slightest inkling of his theological and ministerial impact in a mere ten pages. There are few writers throughout Christendom as well written and thorough as Owen. His 24 volume works span thousands of pages and his sermons have graced even more ears. Owen embodied the offices of diplomat of the faith, pastor of the many, and theologian over theologians in a way that few people have ever done, or ever will do.
Born in 1616, it was at the ripe age of 12 that he was first enrolled at Queen's College in Oxford. Even at a young age his scholastic vigor was seen as he slaved away over his work for hours on end into the night. It is said that throughout much of his theological schooling Owen slept only four hours a night. To his own admission Owen regretted this lifestyle (the exertion took a physical toll on his health as his story unfolded) and admitted that, "no holy oil at this time fed his midnight lamp; but that the great motive which had borne him up, during those days and nights of consuming toil, was an ambition to rise to distinction and power in the church."ii
Owen's motivation was stemming from a deficiency of life rather than the excess of one. His motives were to make himself great, rather than being stemmed by the greatness of Christ. At this point in his spiritual life Owen had not come to the knowledge of Christ, which he presented in his later works such as "The Glory of Christ." In fact the young Puritan was less like the Reformer Luther and more like Luther the scared Monk. Owen was very familiar with the salvation presented through Christ, but less familiar, and even less comfortable, with the grace of Christ. It is from this theological deficiency that one can hear the tones of terror and the ramparts of relief in his exegesis of the 130th Psalm and treaties such as "Forgiveness of Sin." As we will later discuss, Owen's works largely revolved around the idea of doing everything through Christ, this is because his early life was run aground through the attempts of acting without Christ.
The moment of Owen's conversion to grace occurred as he and a friend traveled to hear the celebrated preacher Edmund C. Calamy. Early disappointment set in as Owen arrived at Aldermanbury Chapel only to be told that Reverend Calamy would not be in the pulpit that night. His companion suggested that they leave, but it was the substitute preacher's sermon on Matthew 8:26 that brought Owen from the shadow lands of fear and uncertainty towards a holy God and led "him forth into the sunshine of a settled peace."iii Upon this sovereign work of grace, the heart of the Puritan was forever changed. His personal fever was caught up in the beauty and wonder of Christ, it was from this position that Owen worked the remainder of his life.
On one April 16th, Owen who was now an established preacher from Coggeshall, was summoned to preach at Parliament. It was there that he caught the eye of a young and fiery Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was so caught by Owen the preacher, that against Owen's wishes, he was plucked from his Coggeshall congregation and made Cromwell's personal chaplain and religious advisor for his tours in Ireland and Scotland. Cromwell continued to lump responsibility upon Owen, making him Dean of Christ Church Oxford, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford on March 18th, 1651.
I will reserve much discussion of Owen's accolades while at the helm of Oxford for the theological assessment which comes later. There is little to Owen's life that was not driven by and resulting in deep theological influence.
Owen remained in this position even as the relationship between himself and the Protectorate Cromwell began to decline (Owen was one who refused to elect Cromwell king). Not long after Cromwell's death in 1658, Owen was removed from his position at Oxford. When Charles II took the thrown, Owen took the side of the Non-conformist to much of the church structure and organization, the result was a life on the fringes due to his theological convictions. As time passed and Charles' administration waned in power and dogmatics, Owen was able to take up the pastorate again, this time in London. It was in London he continued his ecclesiastical impact, taking the lead on the Savoy Confession, which was a doctrinal statement for independent churches.
On the anniversary of Saint Bartholomew's day, August 24th, 1683, John Owen died at the age of 67. His last recorded words were captured in a letter to his friend, "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."iv
When it comes to Owen's theological gravitas, for the sake of brevity, I will key on three major factors that manifested themselves in throughout the readings for this paper.
1. A Commitment to Calvinism
While Owen was at Oxford, William Laud became Chancellor and began to lead the school in what Owen would call "Popish" fashion. At this time his schooling was being paid for, and the young scholar was probably on the short list for the inheritance of his Royalist uncle. Despite the weight and reward that could have been if he merely tolerated Laud's Catholic bent, Owen refused to allow his theology to be tainted by the rubbish of Rome, "it is far more honourable to suffer with Christ than to reign with the greatest of his enemies."v In this line of commitment Owen left Oxford after only two years. He would later return in a much different fashion.
This first schism of sorts set the table for the remainder of Owen's writing and polemics. One only has to look at the titles of his books and writings to see where his heart lied theologically: The Doctrine of the Justification by Faith, Evidences of the Faith of God's Elect, A Display of Arminianism, The Doctrine of the Saint's Perseverance Explained and Confirmed, The Church of Rome is no safe Guide, to name a few. Owen was staunchly Calvinistic in his theology, the majority of his works were in response to challengers of Reformed thought, and even a refining voice within Reformed thought. Richard Baxter, who was another Puritan contemporary of Owen, was not exempt from Owen's theological treaties. Baxter and Owen did not see eye to eye on numerous skirmishes ranging from church practice (the former a Presbyterian, the latter an independent) and sanctification.vi
One of Owen's crowning works was his Death of Death in the Death of Christ where he did what few Calvinists have done with matching grace. In this book he defended with the utmost of passion and Biblical aptitude the doctrines of election, predestination, perseverance, and the danger of promotion of universal redemption; all major stalwarts in Calvinistic theology. Yet in the face of the strongest defense of limited atonement, Owen promotes "the indiscriminate invitation of the Gospel, in terms as strong and explicit as the most liberal Calvinist would care to use."vii J.I. Packer comments on the book sayings, "It is safe to say that no comparable exposition of the work of redemption as planned and executed by the Triune Jehovah has ever been done since Owen published his. None has been needed."viii
2. Commitment to Christocentrism
Stemming from his conversion of heart at the Aldermanbury Chapel, Owen could not see a world in which Christ was made most visibly manifest. "Whatever obscure, imperfect notions we may have of them other ways, we cannot have 'the light of the' illuminating, irradiating 'knowledge of the glory of God,' which may enlighten our minds and sanctify your hearts, but only, 'in the face' or person 'of Jesus Christ:' for he is 'the image of God.'"ix According to Owen you cannot encounter God but through the Son. In true Trinitarian form he also expresses the need of the Spirit to encounter Christ, but holds Christ as the center mediator of the three, "for Owen, the Spirit's activity is always viewed in light of Christ and never apart from him."x
When it comes to the Christ-Centered nature of Owen you cannot really say or prove much outside of what his writing already proves. Christ is the center of his theology: "the knowledge of Christ was the all-surpassing object of Owen's desires, the center of his doctrinal system, and the end, means, and indispensable prerequisite for Christian theology."xi
3. Commitment to Church
While 24 volumes of work may suggest the otherwise, Owen was first and foremost a pastor. Whether it was Coggeshall, London, Parliament, the fields of Ireland or the coast of Scotland, wherever Owen opened his mouth his goal was to spur individuals to the warmth and mercy of Christ.
When Owen first took over the pulpit in Coggeshall, it was a pulpit long devoid of Christ-centered, meaningful preaching. Owen took this as his sole goal to establish in them a culture of preaching, one he accomplished magnificently. Owen felt that preaching was a necessity to Christian life believing, "truth revealed to any, carries with it an immovable persuasion of conscience that it ought to be published and spoken to others!"xii When the King of England referred to the peaching of Bunyan as that of a "tinker prate," Owen responded "May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinkers abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning."xiii
Owen's commitment to the growth of the individual through preaching is seen more fully on his endorsement to Oxford. Finding the preaching at St. Mary's Church as subpar and often "injurious," Owen and his friend Dr. Goodwin took turns themselves filling the pulpit for noon day preaching.
Owen's book Communing with the Triune God, was written for the layman's own devotion, "while it is clear that he modified, revised, and added various details to this work before it was published, the heart of the material points back to the pulpit."xiv John Owen knew and was the product of the transformative power of the gospel of Christ, and his heart of hearts was not merely to write about that, but to impress that upon every person who ever sat under his preaching.
The overwhelming strength of Owen's theological approach was that it was thoroughly exhausting. It is only in his letters to his congregants and friends where the reader gets a relief from the ridged and overwhelming mind of Owen. It is God's sovereign will that Owen lived some four hundred years ago, because he would never be able to communicate his points in the 120 characters required by today's social media. Owen's parenthetic almost demand the title of treatise themselves. Despite one blundering blemish, of a poorly mounted argument against Brian Walton, Owen entered every theological dispute as the favorite, and exited as the victor. His commentary on Hebrews stands above all other commentaries as the Puritan expounded the book to the fullest of his extent: stretching the thirteen chapter book some thousand pages and three volumes.
Yet this strength of Owen is also his weakness. The works of contemporaries such as Baxter and Bunyan are far more popularized than Owen's because the exhaustive nature and weighty arguments make it too lofty and cumbersome for the average reader. His crowning work on Hebrews is also one of the least accessible. Some of his works, written entirely in Latin, remain untranslated to this day. His sentences often twist and turn just as much as the Parliament he preached to during the Proctorate.
Often times Owen would dive into a subject so far, that the obvious was lost in search of the complicated. This is true with his work on sanctification. Owen refused to fall into the camp of the Antinomians, who claim no need for sanctification, and the Neonomians, who erred on sanctification being a second work of justification. To set his course Owen blazed his theory of union with Christ stemming from the use of pactum salutis and ordo salutis.xv The end of the story is that the union with Christ is the basis and means of a covenant keeping God (Christ being the surety of the covenant), which then leaves room for the satisfaction of Christ through good works done in his blood (not to earn his blood). While Owen lays out the argument in a wonderful and Christ-centered manner, he fails to emphasize enough the reality of sanctification being a result of justification, an idea he believes in, but seems to merely brush by. Perhaps his intended audience for his debate on justification are not those in the pew, but had Owen had finished on a less scholastic and more devotional and practical tone, his defense would have grown a deeper application at the pew level.
The life of John Owen is very inspirational and educational to me because I love theology, and I love the Church. While this may seem like a good and hopefully normative desire of a seminary student, history is riddled with pastors who sought to preach doctoral disputations to show their knowledge to their congregations, rather than showing them Christ. Similarly, many pastors have loved the bride more than the groom; putting all of their hopes and goals into the growth and size of their church rather than the health of the church. Owen first love was Christ, motivated by scripture his second love was the church. He manifested and served those two by using his God given abilities to defend, promote and preach Christ and Christ crucified.
Owen was the ideal "pastor theologian." A recent article on the Gospel Coalition stressed the need for men like Owen in today's church,xvi surely anyone who wishes to answer that call, myself included, ought to look strongly at the life and writings of John Owen. He was a man of great opinion, but far be it from himself to say that his opinion was outside of Christ's opinion. For every stance he took a stand on, he saw himself in the right and necessary cause according to the truth as revealed throughout scripture. That is not to say that everything Owen said was right, but it is worth saying because he never sought to discuss an opinion not discussed and relevant to scripture. Often times it is easy to get lost in conflict for the sake of conflict, Owen was never interested in such debates. I wish to have the discernment and grounding of Owen when it comes to such issues.
Proverbs 22:29 says, "Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will stand before kings, he will not stand before obscure men." Owen was proof of this verse. He stood before literal Kings, spoke to men at the helm of Europe and was a personal chaplain to one of Europe's greatest. In today's culture of Twitter and T.V., Facebook and fleeting fame, Owen would have been the celebrity pastor of celebrity pastors. Yet he was not above his calling as a pastor. One only has to look at the letters he wrote to his congregation to see the heart of the Puritan lay not in the halls of academia, but in the deep recess of the human soul.
This is the most convicting notion to me. While I love to preach, and I love to study theology, and I love to see lives change for the glory of God, I often neglect the individual in pursuit of the holistic. Dr. Derek Thomas has produced an eight part lecture series on the pastoral theology of Owen, this has proven to me a gold mine of conviction and motivation. If the great John Owen was capable of caring pastoral for "the least of these" how much more am I able to, even required to leave the hundred for the one. When you see Owen writing a letter of consolation to a mother who recently lost her child, you can almost feel Owen grieve with her. He signed that very letter, "I am, dear madam, your affectionate servant. J. Owen." He existed to serve. He rolled up his sleeve not only on the battle grounds of theological debate, but also in the care and sacrifice for his church.
John Owen loved the church. John Owen loved the Bible. And John Owen loved Jesus. When you read the words of John Owen you may stand amazed at his written polemics, or become momentarily hung up on his unique views of the Mosaic covenant, but you will never come away wondering what his passion is. He desired a personal communion with Christ, and desired to lead those around him in a similar light. We are blessed to have had such a warrior for the faith, and pastor of the church as John Owen.
"I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of every thing else but converse and communion with him" –John Owen
Thomas, Derek . (2012). The Pastoral Theology of John Owen.
8 Part lecture series available here: http://spurgeon.wordpress.com/2007/06/29/john-owen-derek-thomas/
Fesko, J. (2012). John Owen on Union with Christ and Justification. Themelios, 37(1).
Owen, J. (2007). Communion With the Triune God. Wheaton : Crossway.
Owen, J. (2008). Works Volume I. Carlise: Banner of Truth.
Owen, J. (2008). Works Volume X. Carlise: Banner of Truth.
Packer, J. (n.d.). "Saved by His Precious Blood": An Introduction To John Owen's "Death of Death in the Death of Christ".
Trueman, C. (2009, July). Introduction to Owen.
i Trueman, Carl. Interview: Introduction to John Owen, 2009
ii Thomson, Andrew. The Life of Dr. Owen, Digital Edition, location 149-152
iii Ibid, location 409
iv Ibid, location 3544
v Ibid, location 3422
vi Fesko, J.V. John Owen on Union with Christ and Justification, Themelios V37, I1.
vii Thomson, Andrew. The Life of Dr. Owen, Location 768
viii Packer, J.I.. Saved by His Precious Blood, pg 10
ix Owen, John. Works, X pg 294
x Owen, John. Communion with the Triune God, Digital Edition, Location 608
xi Daniels, Richard. The Christology of John Owen. Pg 516
xii Thomson, Andrew. The Life of Dr. Owen, Location 582
xiii Ibid, location 3079
xiv Owen, John. Communion with the Trinue God, pg 20
xv Fesko, J.V. John Owen on Union with Christ and Justification, Themelios V37, I1.
xvi Sweeney, Doug. A Call and Agenda for Pastor Theologians, April 26, 2012