Crossway, 2020, 190pp
Crawford Gribben has written a full scale biography of John Owen entitled, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat. This is something different. Here Owen's story is interwoven with his teachings on how the Christian faith casts light on every stage of life, from childhood to death and eternal life. Novices will find this a useful way of getting into Owen and will be stimulated to dive deeper. Seasoned Owen readers will discover fresh insights into some of his key writings.
John Owen was a particular favourite among early Particular Baptists such as Nehemiah Cox. They valued his account of the relationship between the old and new covenants, which they saw as tending in a Baptist direction. Owen was an Independent and a paedobaptist, however. He wrote in defence of infant baptism, but he had a cordial relationship with the Particular Baptists. Unlike other contemporaries he did not accuse them of being schismatic Donatists because they insisted on baptising believers who had been 'baptised' as babies.
Owen's advocacy of infant baptism made for tensions in his ecclesiology. He acknowledged that in the apostolic church "all baptized initiated persons, ingrafted into the church" were recognised as "sanctified persons" (p. 57). Further, "the proper subjects of baptism" are "professed believers... and their infant seed" (p. 58). But this did not mean children of believers should be admitted to church membership, at least not until they had made a credible profession of faith. Admitting unconverted people into the church would have compromised the Independent's vision of churches as a gatherings of visible saints. 'Well, quite', Owen's Baptist friends may have been tempted to say.
Issues of baptism aside, Owen firmly believed that the children of believers needed careful instruction in the faith. To that end he penned The Primer and The Principles of the Doctrine of Christ, Unfolded in Two Short Catechisms. These texts were intended to supplement the teaching children will have received in church meetings.
The rise of William Laud not only made church life difficult for Puritan-minded types. It also made things rather challenging for godly students at Oxford and Cambridge. Certainly for Owen, whose dreams of pursuing an academic career at Oxford were dashed.
Owen's university days had given him a good grounding in theology, but it was through the ministry of an unknown preacher in London that he was converted. Now he had an experiential knowledge of the truths he had studied so diligently at Oxford.
Owen returned to the city in 1651, where he was appointed dean of Christ Church and then vice-chancellor of the university. He took the opportunity to preach to the young people in his charge. Knowing the danger of having only an intellectual knowledge of the truth, the laid great emphasis on practical godliness. John Locke was among Owen's students, but he didn't take kindly to the Puritan's attempts at fostering reformation among the student body.
Two of Owen's sermon series preached to students at Oxford later became the basis of some of his most celebrated works, On the Mortification of Sin and Of Communion with God. In the second title, Owen sought to show how the believer may enjoy distinct communion with each person of the Holy Trinity. He wanted his students not only to have a clear understanding of orthodox theology, but also to deep delight in the one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 spelled the end of Owen's role as a prominent public figure. He was dismissed from Oxford and had to keep a low profile, giving himself to pastoral ministry among Independent congregations. Owen now had to plead with the authorities to grant toleration to Puritans who would not conform to the Church of England. He argued that Nonconformists were law abiding citizens who sought to contribute to the common good of England. They were no threat to the established order and should therefore be accorded liberty to practice their faith free from persecution. Owen's ideas were later taken up by his old student, John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Toleration, which is often regarded as a key text in the development of classic liberalism.
For Owen, middle age involved an experience of painful defeat that followed the collapse of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth. But if this world often meant suffering for the godly, Owen consoled himself, "It is but yet a little while before it will be no grief of heart unto us for to have done or suffered any thing for the name of the Lord Jesus." (p. 116).
Death and Eternal Life
John Owen looked forward to better days for Christ's 'peaceable kingdom' on earth. Jesus would not, he believed, "leave the world in this state, and set up his kingdom on a molehill." (p. 128). But in later life he lost confidence in his ability to understand what God was doing in history. Gone was the old certainty that the Lord was on the side of Parliament, showing his approval by granting the Ironsides victory over the Royalists at Naseby and Marston Moor. After all, the Charles II was now King, and those identified with the Good Old Cause found themselves on the losing side. He reflected, "I do not know... a greater rebuke, in the whole course of my ministry, than that I have been labouring in the fire to discover the causes of God's withdrawing from us without any success." (p. 130).
John Owen died on 24 August 1683. He knew that death is not a kindly friend, but an unnatural rending of body and soul due to sin. But death could be welcomed, none the less. For the believer death means the end of a lifelong struggle with sin and a departure from this world to be with Christ. Despite the disappointments and reversals he experienced of his earthly life, Owen did not die a broken, disillusioned man. One of his final works was Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, in which he sought to set forth his view of the supreme glory of the Lord Jesus. The believing soul, which has glimpsed the glory of Christ by faith will at last see him by sight. "the sight of God in Christ, which is intellectual, not corporeal; finite, not absolutely comprehensive of the divine essence, is the sum of our future blessedness." (p. 139).
In his conclusion the author reflects on Owen's lasting impact on society and the the church. The old Puritan's ideas on religious toleration helped to sow the seeds of classic liberalism. His theological writings are the subject of renewed attention in the contemporary Evangelical world.
Crawford Gribben has ably opened up John Owen's Christian vision for every stage of life. An excellent read.
* I am grateful to the author for kindly sending me a free copy.