Friday, April 17, 2015

The Puritan Files: John Owen

From the January 2012 E-Block.


Our next subject in the Puritan Files series is John Owen, a prolific generalist writer who was apparently quite comfortable in an age when writers felt free to say in 5000 words what could have been said in 500. Not that this is a criticism, as it often is when I say it: Such fecundity in exposition was quite the norm for 

Owen's lifetime (1616-1683), and it would be for many years to come.
What it does mean for our purposes, though, is that I was sorely limited by time in terms of how much of Owen's work I could read. I ended up reading two shorter works (one on faith, one on the Trinity) and half of a larger one (entitled Two Treatises) before my time for this issue ran out. With the Puritan Files series, though, this may not be too serious a shortcoming: We're not expecting a great many theological flaws (for the Puritans were far from unorthodox), but we are looking for anything which may be of interest to the current situation of Western Christianity. And this indeed is what we found -- just a bit of it.
99.5% of Owen's work reads as uncontroversial. But here and there we find spots which ring true to modern shortcomings. In his essay on faith, Owen properly describes faith in terms of loyalty (although he never uses the word "loyalty") and puts a stress closer to obedience than many modern writers, even some who make obedience their watchword. However, apparently concerned to finely tune faith, Owen says:

And this, as was said, is the greatest and the most difficult work of faith; for we suppose, concerning the person who is to believe, — [1.] That he is really and effectually convinced of the sin of [our] nature, of our apostasy from God therein, the loss of his image, and the direful effects that ensue thereon. [2.] That he has due apprehensions of the holiness and severity of God, of the sanction and curse of the law, with a right understanding of the nature of sin and its demerit. [3.] That he have a full conviction of his own actual sins, with all their aggravations, from their greatness, their number, and all sorts of circumstances. [4.] That he has a sense of the guilt of secret or unknown sins, which have been multiplied by that continual proneness unto sin which he finds working in him. [5.] That he seriously consider what it is to appear before the judgment seat of God, to receive a sentence for eternity, with all other things of the like nature, inseparable from him as a sinner.

There are two things that incite uneasiness in this analysis. The first is the way in which Owen finds it necessary to enumerate these steps towards faith, such that takes on the appearance of a legalistic process. Much of this reflects things that a first century Christian would not have had to think about; it would have been taken for granted as the way to be loyal to God. These are things that should flow naturally from loyalty -- not have to be laid out as a grocery list.
Second, Owen here places undue emphasis on the emotional involvement of the sinner in conversion. All 5 of these steps, to some extent, emphasize depth contemplation and thus serious emotional investment. This is seen to where Owen says:

The second way whereby true faith does evidence itself in the souls and consciences of believers, unto their supportment and comfort under all their conflicts with sin, in all their trials and temptations, is by a constant approbation of the revelation of the will of God in the Scripture concerning our holiness, and the obedience unto himself which he requires of us.

This inward frame of trouble, mourning, and contriteness, will express itself on all just occasions by the outward signs of sighs, tears, and mournful complaints, Ps. xxxi. 10. So David continually mentions his tears on the like account; and Peter, on the review of his sin, wept bitterly; and Mary washed the feet of Christ with her tears; — as we should all do. A soul filled with sorrow will run over and express its inward frame by these outward signs.

Owen here sets a rule that effectually says that if you do not show the proper emotional response, you may rightly question your loyalty (faith). But the problem here is twofold. The first is, as we have said in other contexts, that in an agonistic society, emotional displays are frequently artificial (yet honorable) responses; Owen would need to argue that the displays of David, and Peter, and Mary, are indeed coordinated inwardly and outwardly. Second, Owen takes as prescriptive passages that are merely descriptive. There is nothing which designates the reactions of David, Peter, and Mary as solely and uniquely appropriate for all persons. In this, though, we can perhaps see seeds of modern ideas that "worship" must involve the whole person, and be an emotional, heartfelt experience, rather than simply a practical outworking of agape love (which, in turn, can be invested with emotional involvement, but is hardly integral to it).

In terms of Owen's work on the Trinity -- which also goes into the doctrine of the atonement -- there were (as expected) no problems found, but some rather interesting points of note. For one, it is interesting to see Owen taking on heresies that have long since been consigned to the dustin (in particular, Socianism, though some say this does live on in the Jehovah's Witnesses, as a subset of Arianism). On the other hand, he also takes on more than a few objections we still see thrown in the ring, such as denying the personhood of the Holy Spirit, and objections that God could just forgive sin without needing Jesus' death. Owen also connects Jesus to the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs 8, as we do, but makes no use of Jewish Wisdom literature -- rather a curiosity, since he makes extended use of secular (e.g., pagan) source material to explain ancient ideas about sacrifice.

Finally, his "Two Treatises," in addition to containing some of the same points noted above, contain other points of interest. Owen wrestles with Catholic claims regarding Peter as the "rock" in Matthew; we're still discussing that one today. There is also a brief anti-intellectual sentiment expressed when he says:

The more sublime and glorious, the more inaccessible unto sense and reason, are the things which we believe, the more we are changed into the image of God, in the exercise of faith upon them.

Owen later refers to reason as "corrupted and depraved," although like most who make this objection, he does not explain why his own reason -- used to arrive at this conclusion -- is not so corrupt that his conclusion cannot be trusted. However, to be fair, such sentiments are mild and infrequent by Owen.
In addition, we find that:
  • Owen shows a degree more understanding of the relevance of honor to the Biblical text than most modern commentators.
  • The undercurrent of overintimacy with God continues: The Song of Solomon is supposed to be a parable of the love of Jesus for the church, which I take to be a rather questionable attempt to explain its presence in the canon.
In sum, we find no unusual or serious problems in Owen, which is what we expected. Nevertheless it is interesting to observe what are perhaps the seeds of modern problems with overfamiliarity with God, in his work.

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