New Directions in John Owen Studies: Dr John Tweeddale looks forward to the conference in June 2024.
The seventeenth-century English theologian John Owen is remembered for many things. He was an ardent defender of reformed doctrines such as limited atonement and justification by faith alone. A prolific author who penned devotional classics on mortifying sin and communing with the triune God. A nationally recognized puritan who preached before parliament on the day after the regicide of Charles I and gave shape to the religious settlement of Oliver Cromwell. And an advocate of nonconformist ideals such as religious toleration and the regulative principle of worship. He was also one of the leading reformed biblical scholars of his day.
Owen’s development as a biblical scholar was the combined result of his formal education at Oxford, involvement in theological controversies swirling around England, and personal ambition. Early in his career, while serving churches in Fordham and then in Coggeshall, his writings were both pastoral and polemical. The rhythms of ministry provided occasions for him to publish sermons on various biblical texts addressing matters of individual piety and national concern, guidelines for faithful pastors and congregants, and catechetical summaries of the Christian faith aimed at different levels of spiritual maturity. In these writings, Owen sought to apply “Scripture precepts” for “God’s people in all ages.”
The book that marked Owen’s early career more than any other was his first one, A Display of Arminianism (1643). With more rhetorical heat than exegetical light, Owen sounded an alarm warning of what he perceived to be an imminent threat to the doctrinal wellbeing of his homeland. The book set Owen on a polemical trajectory, with similar treatises against Socinian, Roman Catholic, and Quaker teachings punctuating his career. In these works, Owen casts himself as a defender of orthodoxy. In the hands of Owen, the errors of Arminians, and other false teachers, were not simply exposed but “confuted by the word of God.”
At the height of his public life, under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, Owen served in various roles, including as an army chaplain, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, member of parliament, and vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford. Deeply embedded in the scholarly world of Oxford, Owen wrote constructive dogmatic accounts on a range of biblical topics, including divine justice, perseverance of the saints, sin, the trinity, and schism. He also exhibits increasing interest in matters related to biblical studies, penning reviews of the biblical annotations of the Dutch humanist Hugo Grotius and the London Polyglot Bible by Brian Walton and a wide-ranging survey “on the nature, rise, progress, and study of true theology.” As Owen navigates the political and theological turmoil of the 1650s, he aspires to defend Scripture and help Christians read, interpret, and apply Scripture for themselves.
As Owen faced defeat and disappointment after the restoration of the monarchy, he gave more attention to writing books that would encourage beleaguered dissenters and endorsing the latest reformed biblical and theological scholarship. During the final two decades of his life, Owen achieved his most impressive literary accomplishments by producing a multi-volume series on the Holy Spirit, which includes important works on biblical interpretation, and a four-volume technical commentary on Hebrews. The two projects go hand-in-hand. In his writing on the Holy Spirit, Owen helps readers develop methods for understanding the mind of God in Scripture. In his commentary, Owen uses these interpretive methods to probe the depths of the epistle to the Hebrews. Regardless of a person’s level of education or spiritual maturity, Owen believed that the Holy Spirit is given to believers to help them enjoy fellowship with God through the study of Scripture. As he states in his exposition of Hebrews 4:7,
This is the great preparation for the soul’s admittance into the treasury of sacred truths: Go to the reading, hearing, studying of the Scripture, with hearts sensible of your own unworthiness to be taught, of your disability to learn, ready to receive, embrace, and submit unto what shall be made known unto you,—this is the way to be taught of God.
With these two projects complete, Owen’s reputation as one of the leading biblical scholars in England was firmly established. He died on black Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1683, having spent the bulk of his life mining the treasury of sacred Scripture as one taught by God.
John Tweeddale, Vice President of Academics and Professor of Theology at Reformation Bible College, is one of the organisers of the International John Owen Convention being hosted by Union in June 2024. Details of the conference and the call for papers may be found here https://www.union.ac.uk/news/10/2023/the-international-john-owen-convention