Reformed Baptist Fellowship

John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 1, 2009 at 4:27 pm

John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man

Carl R. Trueman

(Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 132 pages,

reviewed by Richard C. Barcellos

Carl R. Trueman has two published monographs on John Owen: The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology (Paternoster Press, 1998) and now John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (JO), part of Ashgate Publishing’s Great Theologians Series.

Trueman opens with a brief biographical sketch of Owen. One of the ironic things about Owen is that though he ―was without doubt the most significant theological intellect in England in the third quarter of the seventeenth century (1), he remains a little known figure outside of a small circle of conservative evangelical churches and an even smaller circle of early modern intellectual historians. Happily, Trueman informs us that the literature on Owen is growing, a fact that should bring his life and thought to more readers.

The bulk of chapter one discusses the historical and theological context in which Owen was educated, thought, and wrote. Trueman asks this question: ―Owen: Puritan or Reformed?  He argues that the term ―Puritan is too limiting and opts instead for the phrase ―Reformed orthodoxy to describe the school of thought to which Owen belongs. This terminology is easier to define and less limiting than the term ―Puritan. Trueman defines ―Reformed orthodoxy as ―the tradition of Protestant thought which found its creedal expression on the continent in such documents as, among others, the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt, and in Britain in the Westminster Assembly’s Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms (6).

Trueman also views Reformed orthodoxy as one link in the chain ―of the wider ongoing Western tradition of theological and philosophical thought (6). Following Richard Muller’s lead in his monumental Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Trueman places Owen in the third phase of Reformed orthodox development, ―that of High Orthodoxy (c. 1640-1700) (7). This phase was characterized by Roman Catholic, Arminian, and Socinian polemics and was the high point of the systematic elaboration of Reformed theology prior to the onslaught of the Enlightenment and the post-Enlightenment critical era. Owen ―articulates his theology in terms of both careful exegesis and of constructive dialogue with the exegetical and theological traditions of the church (7). Unlike some scholars in previous generations, Trueman views Reformed orthodoxy in a positive light, not blindly committed to Aristotelianism, nor to a presupposed central-dogma, nor to careless proof-texting, etc. In fact, Trueman asserts that ―the seventeenth century witnessed a remarkable flourishing of linguistic and exegetical studies, driven by both the positive and the polemical exigencies of Protestantism’s commitment to scripture, in the original languages, as being the very Word–and words–of God (9).

In chapter two, ―The Knowledge of the Trinitarian God, Trueman reminds us that Owen is working within a theological tradition, i.e., the Reformed orthodox tradition which itself is a part of the Western Christian tradition. His doctrine of God ―is not his in any real sense of the word (35). Owen works within ―the established trajectories of thinking on the doctrine (35). For instance, Owen, as a Reformed orthodox theologian, ―makes a basic distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology (36). Archetypal theology is God’s perfect, exhaustive knowledge of himself. Ectypal theology is the knowledge of God that men can possess as finite creatures, ―a finite theology which co-ordinates with their finite capacity to know God… (36). Also, Owen adheres tenaciously to the Sola Scriptura principle of Reformed orthodoxy. This means that he ―identified scripture as the sole normative cognitive foundation for theology (37). This led to ―the development of highly sophisticated linguistic studies in the seventeenth century and to an exegetically based theology (37). Trueman says:

A high view of the authority and integrity of the biblical text as God’s word written was [a] major factor in fueling the development of careful attention both to the biblical languages and other cognate tongues, and to issues of textual history and criticism. The idea that the seventeenth-century Reformed were interested neither in careful exegesis nor in the literary and linguistic contexts of the Bible is simply untrue. Indeed, the linguistic and exegetical work of this century was far more elaborate than that which had marked the earlier Reformation.…the exegesis of the Reformed Orthodox is far from the dogmatically-driven Procusteanism [sic] of popular mythology. (37)

Trueman looks at divine simplicity, immensity, vindicatory justice, and the doctrines of the Trinity and creation. Each discussion is set within the context of Owen’s thought, seventeenth-century intramural and polemical discussions, and the wider Western theological and philosophical context, i.e., the post-apostolic church fathers, medieval scholastics, Reformed theologians, and Renaissance philosophers.

Chapter 3, ―Divine Covenants and Catholic Christology, discusses, among other things, the covenant of works, the development in Owen’s thought (and in light of his contribution to the continuing discussion among the Reformed orthodox) of the doctrine of the covenant of redemption, and the incarnation and ministry of the Holy Spirit. Trueman debunks the often touted claim that the Reformed orthodox viewed the concept of covenant in terms of ―contract alone. This is far from the case. In fact, based on linguistic studies and exegetical and theological considerations, the Reformed orthodox viewed covenant as a very complex concept. Trueman says of Patrick Gillespie, for instance, ―Gillespie (and he is not untypical of the Reformed Orthodox tradition at this point) shows clearly that he understands the term covenant to be both linguistically and conceptually complex (72). Gillespie wrote a five-volume work on covenant theology. Owen wrote a preface in 1677 to Gillespie’s The Ark of the Covenant Opened; or a Treatise of the Covenant of Redemption Between God and Christ as the Foundation of the Covenant of Grace. Trueman cites Gillespie, John Ball, and Thomas Blake (we can include Owen as well) as seventeenth-century examples of Reformed orthodox theologians who did not reduce the concept of covenant to contract but, instead, understood it in a highly nuanced sense.

Chapter 4 discusses the doctrine of justification. After setting the doctrine in the context of discussions prior to Owen, Trueman discusses Owen’s views on double imputation, eternal justification, and faith and works. On all three doctrinal fronts, Owen interacted/debated with Richard Baxter. Baxter did not hold Orthodox views on the doctrines of atonement or justification and he and Owen came into conflict over these issues on more than one occasion.

In the Conclusion, Trueman reveals the burden of his monograph in the following words:

Indeed, if the burden of this monograph has been to demonstrate that the analytic categories of earlier scholarship are not in themselves subtle enough to yield a truly satisfying historical explanation of Puritan theology in general, and Owen’s theology in particular, then there can be no better demonstration of this than his work on communion with God where all these strands [i.e., catholic, anti-Pelagian, Protestant, Reformed, and Puritan] come together. (124)

I recommend this book very highly. Anyone interested in John Owen, the Puritans, the confessional era of Reformed orthodoxy, and historical theology in general should view this as a must read. Trueman provides penetrating analysis of Owen and other relevant primary sources, historical, theological, philosophical, and cultural awareness, and further debunking of the Calvin v. the Calvinists myth. JO, therefore, stands as a much-needed corrective to the historical revisionism that has taken place concerning seventeenth-century Reformed theology. Trueman has gone ad fontes (as have many others in recent years) and placed the writings of the seventeenth-century Reformed orthodox in their proper historical, theological, philosophical, and cultural contexts. What results is a necessary correction to a generations of wrong-headed ideas about the theological methodology of Reformed orthodoxy and, in this case, of John Owen. For this, I thank Dr. Trueman!

On a sad note (and no fault of Dr. Trueman), this book was poorly edited for print. The book is 132 pages long, including the Index. The first formatting error/typo I found in the book was on page six; the last on page 132. There are at least 25 other pages with formatting errors or typos. It is hoped that the publisher will correct these errors before selling one more copy. This book is too important to be left as is.

Desiring to close this review on a positive note, I leave you with these words of Dr. Trueman:

It is not within the scope of this book either to go over the tired old territory of refuting the charges of systematic central dogmas, crass Aristotelianism, and lack of any exegetical sensitivity that a previous generation routinely hurled at the heads of the Reformed Orthodox. Suffice it to say at this point that Owen’s work gives no evidence of being organized around a single doctrine (whether predestination or any other); and that his use of the language associated with the language of Aristotelian commentary tradition is simply indicative of the fact that he was raised and educated in a system of education with roots in the Middle Ages and the pedagogical literature of the Renaissance—indeed, given the universal acceptance of this language in the realm of intellectual life at the time, and the fact that it was used by Protestants, Catholics, Remonstrants etc., one wonders what alternative vocabulary he might reasonably be expected to have used? As to exegetical endeavours, much debunking has already been done with regard to the ignorance of the Reformed Orthodox regarding their sensitivity to the Bible as a book containing many genres and styles, and the old clichés about proof-texting, the Bible as a manual of systematic theology just there for the blunt systematizing thereof, and so on, are dying a slow, painful, but nonetheless decisive death. In fact, the seventeenth century witnessed a remarkable flourishing of linguistic and exegetical studies, driven by both the positive and the polemical exigencies of Protestantism’s commitment to scripture, in the original languages, as being the very Word–and words–of God. (8-9)

  1. What is up with this? One post on Owen = no comments. One post on contextaulization = dozens. Conclusion? Owen is irrelevant. 🙂

  2. Rich does CT explain much of Owen’s Christology?

  3. He does in one chapter in this book and in his other book on Owen, The Claims of Truth. Richard Daniels’ book, The Christology of John Owen is the best I have read on Owen’s Christology. It has much gold to help in preaching.

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