New Directions in John Owen Studies: Prof Crawford Gribben looks forward to the conference in June 2024.
There aren’t many early modern literary figures - never mind theologians - who are getting as much attention as John Owen. Long regarded as difficult, Owen is the subject of a rapidly growing array of doctoral theses, scholarly articles, popular introductions, monographs, and handbooks. Long regarded as obscure, he is becoming ever more popular as a devotional writer, a trend that carefully edited daily reading books and the impressive 40-volume Crossway edition, now coming into print, will do much to consolidate. The excitement around Owen reflects the fact that, even after decades of high-quality publications, we are only beginning to explore his 8 million or so published words. It’s only in the last few years that scholars have really begun to push past his dogmatic statements to think about his interest in other fields of knowledge. And the Owen corpus isn’t even complete. One of the most extraordinary developments in the last few years has been the discovery of new source material, notes on sermons taken by auditors that will form part of the edition of previously unpublished material that is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. For, as this discovery suggests, we are only in the earliest stages of think about Owen as preacher and exegete. Doctoral theses, a recently published article and a monograph have called attention to Owen’s commentary on Hebrews – and suggesting how he might be the source of one of the most significant and widely accepted contextual readings of that epistle.
So how can we read Owen’s work? Well, we’d need a strong grasp of the subjects that he himself had mastered. We need to think about classical and other antique texts: Owen was a grammar school boy, whose delight in Homer and other ancient writers is reflected in his frequent quotation from their works. Who will help us understand what his displays of classical learning might mean? Owen’s interest in patristic and medieval theology is perhaps easier to understand: we’d want to know about his interest in figures such as Athanasius and Thomas Aquinas, of course, but we’d need to know about his reading of Augustine and a score of other worthies. Who can help us towards that end? Owen was reading contemporary theology, too: and so we’d want to know about the extent of that reading and to carefully consider the possibility that he used short-cuts where he could; but we’d also want to know whether he was engaging at first hand with the Jewish, Hebrew and other near eastern language sources. And we’d also need to know how Owen put these various materials together to form one of the most rounded and analytical theological systems of any theologian in the seventeenth century. We’d want to know how his ideas were received, among dissenters and adherents of the Church of England, in New England, and elsewhere. And we’d want to know how these arguments could be picked up by modern theologians as we keep thinking about the fundamental question: to whom should Owen still matter?
This conference sets out to think about what we have already achieved in our study of Owen, and what might be the most fruitful new lines of enquiry. Paying attention to Owen’s status in the academy and in the church, it will create opportunities for new thinking about the formation, contextualisation, and reception of Owen’s ideas. Please come and join the conversation.
Crawford Gribben, Professor of Early Modern British History at Queen’s University Belfast, 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