Sunday, July 24, 2016

On Reading John Owen

I guess I must have been in my early 20's when I bought the sixteen volume set of the Works of John Owen published by the Banner of Truth Trust. There they sit in all their splendour on the top shelf of a book case in my study. White and green with Banner's little 'George Whitefield' logo neatly printed at the bottom of each volume. Together they take up over two 2' worth of shelf space. 

Full of the flush of youthful enthusiasm I started with volumes 1 & 2. Some of his best stuff there, On the Person of Christ, Meditations and Discourses on the Person of Christ, On Communion with God, etc. These treatises are rich in theological depth and spiritual insight. Owen invites his readers to revel in the riches of Christ and draw them into fuller communion with the triune God. He shows himself to be biblically literate, steeped in the theological heritage of the church, and have the stamp of a man who knew what it was to draw near to God in Christ by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Great stuff. If you are in possession of  Owen's Works and are wondering where to begin, well, you can do little better than to begin at the beginning.

Then, if memory serves, I think I read some of his great works on the Christian life contained in Volumes 6 & 7, On the Mortification of Sin, On Temptation and On Spiritual Mindedness. Here we see Owen as a physician of souls, accurately diagnosing the sin-caused maladies of the life of faith and prescribing their cure in the gospel, "Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and thou wilt die a conqueror; yea, thou wilt, through the good providence of God, live to see thy lust dead at thy feet." Owen is both deeply searching in exposing the 'exceeding sinfulness of sin' and deeply encouraging in directing his readers to Christ as the all-sufficient Saviour and Sanctifier of sinners. 

His Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Volume 10), introduced so helpfully by J. I. Packer in Banner's stand-alone edition helped convince me not only of the biblical validity of definite atonement, but also to see its glory. Here was no limiting of the atonement, but a wondrous expansion of its sufficiency and effectiveness for the redemption of a vast multitude of elect sinners. 

I must have got through that lot in the course of a few years, or so.

Then other authors grabbed my attention and I quite neglected Owen. The white and green tomes began to gather dust. Thick dust. Years when by before I picked a volume off the shelf. Then I was asked to give a paper on Puritan Attitudes Towards Rome at the 2010 Westminster Conference. Rather than trying to draw upon a wide range of Puritan attitudes towards Roman Catholicism, I thought it would be better to 'go deep' and explore the views of one representative figure against the background of their times and see what could be learned from them for our situation today. That was John Owen, necessitating that I study Volume 14, the divine's major anti-Catholic writings. 

Owen's stance was not that of a bitter, sectarian hot-head. He carefully scrutinised Roman doctrine in the light of Scripture. But also he endeavoured to out-Catholic the Roman Catholics by appealing to the church fathers in order to show that  distinctive Roman doctrines such as the universal authority of the pope were not in fact Catholic teachings, that is doctrines that Christians everywhere and at all times had believed. He argued that the Roman Catholic Church was divisive and schismatic in its attempt to foist its distinctive dogmas on all Christian churches. Contemporary Evangelicals have a lot to learn from Owen's exposure of the key differences between the evangelical faith of Scripture and the distinctive tenets of the Roman  Catholic Church.  

And now it's a matter of getting stuck into Volumes 13-16 for the Evangelical Library's Reading John Owen conference to mark the 400th anniversary of his birth in 1616. I won't steal my own thunder by saying too much about the contents, but I offer some thoughts on reading John Owen for those who might like to try, but feel intimidated by the sheer weight of material, or others who have made a stab at reading him, but have given up too quickly.

Knowing where to start: Volumes 1 & 2 and then 6 & 7. 

Keeping on: Owen was one of the great scholars of his day. His English prose is heavily Latinised in form and structure. Sentences can sometimes go on for line upon line. By the time you've reached the end, you may not be able to remember how he began. Get used to it. You can't skim though Owen like you would your daily paper, an 'easy reading' Christian book, or a blog. Reading Owen demands the cultivation of good intellectual habits. Concentrate. Think. Absorb. Persevere. 

Another virtue worth cultivating is patience. Owen can sometimes be very prolix, taking pages and pages to say something that could have been put more succinctly. He seemed to want to explore an issue from all angles before leaving it alone. But just when you find yourself thinking, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just get on with it, man', he comes up with a dazzling spiritual insight that will blow you away. Owen will make you do some heavy digging before you strike gold. But it's 22 carat gold, not easily obtainable 'fools gold' that he has in store for you. 

One thing that will strike you on reading Owen is his intellectual honesty. He was always willing to follow the biblical evidence wherever it led, even if that meant changing his mind. As he did when shifting from Presbyterian to Independent views on reading John Cotton's The Keys of the Kingdom. A critic, Daniel Cawdrey charged him with inconsistency because his Presbyterian convictions as set out in an earlier work The Duty of  Pastors and People Distinguished had been modified in favour of Independency in the divine's later writings. Owen made no attempt at hiding his change of mind, or pretending consistency where there was none. With guileless honesty he admitted that he had only read Cotton with a view to 'confuting' his work, a classic statement of Independent polity. Owen confessed, "In the pursuit and management of this work, quite beside and contrary to my expectation...I was prevailed upon to receive that and those principles which I had set myself in an opposition unto. And, indeed this way of impartial examining all things by the word...is a course that I would admonish all to beware of who would avoid the danger of being made Independents." (Vol. 13, p. 223-224). A perhaps unexpected element that stands out in that quote is the old Puritan's penchant for dry wit. OK. He won't have you rolling around hysterically on your study floor, but he can raise a knowing smile. Occasionally. 

Above all, Owen is worth reading because while he ranges far and wide in his thinking, he always brings us back to the central truths of the gospel. That can be seen most clearly on Volumes 1 & 2, 6 & 7. But in his argument with Rome, it is the gospel that is at stake, His doctrine of the church is not some dry disquisition on the finer points of church order, but is framed in terms of a Discourse concerning Evangelical Love, Peace, and Unity (Vol. 15) and The True Nature of a Gospel Church (Vol. 16). Whether his subject is doctrinal, devotional, controversial, or practical, you can be sure that Owen will relate the matter in hand to what God has done by his Son and through his Spirit to secure the salvation and future glory of his people. 

Thomas Watson's style is more racy and engaging. Bunyan is more imaginative and direct. But with Owen what you get is Paul-like profundity. Reading him will make you cry out together with the apostle, 'O the depth!' (Romans 11:33). That's why you should get about reading John Owen. 

1 comment:

David Gallie said...

This is a really helpful encouragement for a layman to give him another try. I have tried before, got distracted and given up. Thanks for the impetus to try again.