Oct 1, 2004

Theologian of the Word

6 Min Read

Given John Owen’s Reformed, orthodox convictions, it should not be surprising to learn that he had a high view both of theology and biblical exegesis. Indeed, he regarded the two as intimately related: theology is the result of careful exegesis of the biblical text, and exegesis is in turn shaped by the theology that the text itself teaches. This basic unity of the two is possible because Owen regarded Scripture as the words of the one God who spoke them. Whatever the variations in language, genre, and style of the numerous books in the Bible, Owen believed that they possess a unity and coherence as a result of their divine origin in God and their divine purpose in bringing God’s words to bear upon the world, whether for blessing or for condemnation.

As is typical of Reformed Protestants, Owen regarded the words of Scripture as the very words of God (divinely inspired), as sufficient for their intended purpose and perspicuous with regard to their interpretation. These ideas perhaps need a little unpacking.

With regard to the first, divine inspiration, Owen understood Scripture to be spoken by God. This does not mean that the process of inspiration was akin to some form of dictation or automatic writing where the personalities of the human authors were bypassed in the process of production, but it does mean that God so superintended the process of writing that the words on the page are the very words that God desired to be there. Further, Scripture is not, in itself, a systematic theology or a creed; it is rather a collection of various writings united in underlying content but diverse in form (The Works of John Owen, vol. 4, p. 188).

Why was divine inspiration so important to Owen? First, of course, he understood that this view of Scripture was taught by Scripture itself in verses such as 2 Peter 1:20–21, and in the general tendency of its teaching on the nature of God speech (Works, vol. 4, p. 35). But he also saw it as connected to the nature of fallen humanity. Because he regarded human beings not only as finite and thus in need of a revelation from an infinite God accommodated to their capacity, but he also regarded human beings as sinful and thus in need of a clear guide given by God Himself — not one invented by human imagination to shape men’s thoughts about Him and their worship of Him. Indeed, this is clearly indicated in the title of one of his most significant works in this regard: The Causes, Ways and Means of Understanding the Mind of God (1678). This work opens with the robust statement: “Our belief of the scriptures to be the word of God, or a divine revelation, and our understanding of the mind and will of God revealed in them are the two springs of all our interest in Christian religion” (Works, vol. 4, p. 121). For Owen, a religion not guided and shaped by God through His Scriptures is ultimately no true religion but an idolatrous figment of the human heart.

The issue of Scripture does not end with a correct understanding of inspiration, however; interpretation is also crucially important. Indeed, Owen did not have a great deal of disagreement with Catholic opponents on the inspiration of the text of Scripture; where he differed with them is in the matter of interpretation. Catholic teaching saw the institutional church, specifically as it was embodied in the papacy as guardian and interpreter of church tradition and Christ’s vicarious representative on earth, as the means for discerning the correct meaning of Scripture and the subsequent formulation of Christian doctrine. Against this, Owen argued for both the sufficiency of Scripture as its own interpreter and the fundamental perspicuity of Scripture’s teaching. Only in Scripture is external revelation of God’s will to be found; church tradition has no revelatory function in such an ultimate sense (Works, vol. 4, p.12); Scripture is “perfect and in every way complete” as a revelation of God’s will (Works, vol. 14, p. 274).

We need to note a couple of things here. First, the sufficiency of Scripture was not used by Owen as a means of eschewing learning. No, Scripture is sufficient in that it contains all that it is necessary to know for salvation. Yet the diligent student of Scripture, particularly the one who aspired to be a deep theologian or a church leader, needs to acquire skill in theology, philosophy, the history of biblical commentary and theological disputation, relevant languages, ancient Near Eastern and classical backgrounds, and geography. Owen’s own library is an impressive witness to such learning; in addition, his guidelines for study relative to Scripture make it clear that such broad cultural learning is essential to deep understanding of the scriptural text. Perspicuity, for Owen, means that “the scripture … is intelligible unto men using the means by God appointed to come to the understanding of his mind and will therein” (Works, vol. 14, p. 276); and such means may well include careful linguistic and historical work, as well as the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit.

Second, perspicuity for Owen did not mean that every verse of the Bible is equally clear or that the meaning of any text just falls off the page into the lap of the reader. Perspicuity for Owen refers to the overall message of Scripture, not to any individual verse. The basic message of salvation in Christ was clear to all who had eyes to see or ears to hear, but the details and the finer points might only be available to those who have the necessary learning and skills to divide the Word of God (Works, vol. 14, p. 276). Also, if key doctrines are obscure in one passage, they will certainly be taught elsewhere in a clear and accessible manner (Works, vol. 4, p. 196).

In this context, Owen stressed both the objective and the subjective poles of understanding. Objectively, Owen stressed the need for careful grammatical-historical exegesis, though this was to be set within the context of the “analogy of faith” as a means for understanding any single passage within the context of the whole flow of Scripture (Works, vol. 4, p. 199). This principle placed God’s Trinitarian nature, and the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ at the center of all interpretation. For Owen, creation and the subsequent sustaining of creation through providence were Trinitarian actions, and redemption was a Trinitarian/Incarnational action; thus, all of Scripture finds its content informed by Trinitarian and Incarnational concerns and has to be understood as such.

This pans out into a more sophisticated understanding of the structure of Scripture. In his massive Latin work, Theologoumena Pantodapa (Biblical Theology), Owen saw the biblical narrative as shaped by a series of covenantal dispensations whereby God slowly but surely reveals more and more of Himself and His saving purposes to His people, culminating in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Christ that itself points forward towards the final consummation. Here, he is clearly influenced by the developing covenant theology of men like Cocceius. He exhibited a more historical, and less metaphysical, orientation with regard to such matters than their medieval predecessors.

Subjectively, Owen understood the truth of Scripture to be pressed on the believer by the Holy Spirit. While Scripture uses public language and possesses a meaning that is accessible on one level by application of linguistic and grammatical tools, the deeper existential appropriation of that meaning by the individual, in a way that involves trust in God and true belief in the personal reality and significance of doctrines that are nonsensical to the limited human mind, such as the Trinity or the Incarnation, is only available to the mind enlightened by the Holy Spirit. As believers trust that Scripture is God’s Word through the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, so they truly understand and believe the message of Scripture through the illumination of the Holy Spirit (Works, vol. 4, p. 85; see also 3, pp. 231–33).

This is significant in a number of ways. First, it roots the power of the Word itself in the action of the Spirit, reminding us that faith is a supernatural reality. Second, this emphasis upon the Word gives a distinct Trinitarian shape to faith; it is through the power of the Holy Spirit pointing us to Christ in His Word that we have knowledge of God as Father. The believer is thus the object of Trinitarian action, and his faith is shaped by the Trinity, embracing Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is developed in Owen’s major treatise on the devotional life, On Communion with God, where he discusses the theology of devotion in terms of the three members of the Trinity. In a day like ours, where there is so much confusion over whether the unitarian god of Islam is in any sense the same as the God of the Christian faith, Owen’s emphasis upon God as specifically and irreducibly Trinitarian is a healthy reminder that Christians do not worship god in general but rather this particular God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This brings us neatly to the final purpose of all biblical study for Owen: the knowledge of God and thus the praise of God. For Owen, the reading and understanding of Scripture has the purpose of teaching about God — this particular, Trinitarian, holy, and gracious God who acts to save in Jesus Christ and applies His work to us via the Holy Spirit. For Owen, Scripture is Trinitarian in origin, content, and doxological in its goal.