This year is the 400th birthday of the great Reformed theologian, John Owen (1616-1683). Who was this ‘Prince of the Puritans’?
First, Owen was a Christian statesman. Indeed, Peter Toon’s biography of the English divine is called God’s Statesman. He earns this title especially by virtue of his relationship with the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. As John Milton wrote of that great leader:
Cromwell, our chief of men, who through a cloud
Not of war only, but detractions rude,
Guided by faith and matchless fortitude,
To peace and truth thy glorious way hast plough’d…
Owen sat with ‘our chief of men’, and where Milton says he was ‘guided by faith’ that sometimes meant in practice that he was guided by Owen.
Siding with Parliament in the Civil Wars meant Owen was cut off by the rich uncle in Wales who had paid for his university education, so it was a brave thing to do. But it was the making of him politically, and brought him into contact with a wide range of powerful patrons in the army and in Parliament. He built up a network of patronage and contacts with the deliberate purpose of bringing about godly religious reform and freedom of conscience. He was a leading player in those turbulent interregnum years.
A fine scholar
Second, Owen was a fine scholar. He knew his classics, for example. He had first-hand knowledge of this canon of ancient literature and philosophy, in the original languages, and could call it to mind and employ it with good effect. His Greek, Hebrew, and Latin were all very much up-to-scratch.
Indeed, in his gigantic two-million-word commentary on Hebrews, Owen took great pains to interact with the Jewish background material in a far more extensive way than anyone else had ever done. He was at the cutting edge of the scholarly application of Hebraic studies to the understanding of the New Testament in the 17th century. None of the other commentaries available in English at this time had the depth, breadth, and audacious size and scope of Owen’s work. Whatever they thought of his churchmanship and politics, he earned the respect of the academy for his deep stores of learning.
Owen’s writing ‘reads like the roughly dashed-off translation of a piece of thinking done in Ciceronian Latin,’ as Jim Packer once put it. However, one of the most admirable things about Owen’s voluminous works is that the vast majority of them were indeed published in English. Competent though he was in Latin – the language of the lecture hall and the international scholarly guild of his day – he usually chose not to present his theology in that alien tongue but in a language that this countryman could (with a little patient effort) understand.
This was probably a function of the third characteristic of Owen to which I would like to draw attention, which is that he was a thoroughgoing Protestant. Owen loved the Reformation settlement of the Church of England.
Protestant through and through
Reverend John Owen was, let it be remembered, an ordained Anglican minister. He served for several years as the vicar (in succession) of two parish churches in Essex, before becoming the Dean of the Cathedral Church of Christ in Oxford. He may have been characterised as a Puritan, and not been a fan of some aspects of the Church’s governance, ceremonies, or liturgy. But he was entirely in accord with the doctrinal basis of Anglicanism.
Even when he had been alienated from the national church by the iniquitous Act of Uniformity in 1662, he was happy to say ‘I embrace the doctrine of the church of England, as declared in the Thirty-nine Articles.’ That doctrine was ‘the chief glory of the English Reformation’ he said.
Owen held firmly to classic Protestant doctrines such as justification sola fide, salvation by grace alone through Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, and all for the glory of God alone. He was fiercely opposed to Roman Catholic errors, writing: ‘In worship, their paintings, crossings, crucifixes, bowings, cringings, altars, tapers, wafers, organs, anthems, litany, rails, images, copes, vestments, – what were they but Roman varnish, an Italian dress for our devotion, to draw on conformity with that enemy of the Lord Jesus?’
In terms of church polity, Owen initially flirted with Presbyterianism before becoming more persuaded by the Congregational way. Yet along with other such Independents during the 17th century, Owen did not believe in the separation of church and state as many hold to that tenet today. Owen thought, for example, that the state had a duty to stop anti-Trinitarians infiltrating the church, and to silence those who rejected justification by faith alone.
A Reformed theologian
Finally, Owen was, to be more specific, a solidly Reformed theologian. He saw himself as part of the international community of Reformed believers. Owen felt himself to be in harmony with the Reformed churches from places like the Netherlands, Heidelberg, Strasbourg, Zurich, and Geneva.
Owen has, however, been accused of being a Reformed Scholastic – the final word there often being pronounced with a decidedly derisory sneer. The lively gospel message of the early Reformers was supposedly replaced by such scholastics with a gospel-obscuring logic-chopping dead-letter. They replaced the personal with the propositional, and the dynamic with the static. This characterisation, however, is one of the now discarded waste-products of the discredited ‘Calvin against the Calvinists’ school of thought.
Scholasticism was first and foremost a method rather than a set of conclusions, and as such it was used by people all along the theological spectrum. Reformed scholastics were merely trying to carefully formulate, defend, and pass on Reformation truth in schools (hence ‘scholastic’ – which is just another word for ‘academic’). In his day, the theology of grace was under attack from increasingly sophisticated counter-arguments, and Owen believed that one has to defend against false teaching with a comparable level of academic depth.
To put it bluntly: if your opponent comes against you with a sword, you might win by being a better swordsman; if he comes at you with a spear, you might prevail by putting up a shield; but when he comes at you with a tank, you need to put the shield away and upgrade your defences. Owen was absolutely convinced that first generation Reformation truth was more than capable of being defended at the most complex levels of exegesis, theology, and philosophy. Reformed scholasticism then, is just Reformation theology in an academic gown – though oddly enough, Owen tried to abolish academic garb when he was Vice Chancellor of Oxford!
As a theologian, Owen was more of an academic institutionaliser than a pioneer like Luther. But that is not something to be ashamed of. Rather, we ought to celebrate the fact that his impressive scholastic gifts were placed at the disposal of the Protestant, Reformed, Evangelical faith.
That faith which he cherished is always in need of stout and loyal defenders willing to go to the trouble of intricately refuting the errors of false interpreters, in a dangerous world where (as Owen might put it) the devil and the antichrist are constantly trying to undermine the faith of the elect.
So Owen was a Christian statesman, a fine scholar, a thoroughgoing Protestant, and a solidly Reformed theologian. He certainly is one of the most significant and prolific theologians that Britain has ever produced. May the Lord raise up more like him for our own century!