Robbie Crouse

Professor Westblade

REL 319

February 13, 2006

John Owen: The Greatest English Theologian

“To read John Owen is to enter a rare world. Whenever I return to one of his works I find myself asking “Why do I spend time reading lesser literature?”  –Sinclair B. Ferguson

            John Owen has been called “greatest English Theologian.”  His other epitaphs include “The Calvin of England,” “The Puritan Scholastic,” “The Physician of the Soul,” and “The Doctor of Sin.”  This paper will give a biographical sketch of John Owen in the context of his time and also portray his legacy in the Christian thought, especially on Jonathan Edwards. 

            First, it should be noted that there is very little information on John Owen the man.  His diaries were never found, perhaps because he destroyed them before dying, a common Puritan practice.  Scholars have very few of his letters and correspondence as well.  The majority of his written did not survive history.  Most of the information on his life, character, and personality is written of by his contemporaries such as Richard Baxter, John Bunyan, and Thomas Goodwin.  The glimpse into John Owen will mostly come from a cursory look at his theological works. 

            John Owen was born in 1616 of a Welsh father who was a pastor of a Nonconformist Presbyterian congregation.  Very little is known about his father, except that when John turned ten years old in 1626, his father sent him to be personally tutored at an Oxford grammar school.  Owen entered Queens College in Oxford officially at age 12 (one year younger than Jonathan Edwards would enter Yale).  Even during this time, his early entrance to college would have been considered extraordinary.[1]  He finished his B.A. in four years and his M.A. three years later at age 19.  Several biographies recount how “for several years of his university curriculum, he allowed himself only four hours of sleep each night.”  During this time, the acquisition of knowledge consumed him.  He was trained in a rigorous classical education at Oxford.  His most loved and passionately-studied disciplines were classical languages (Greek, Latin, and Hebrew), ancient and medieval philosophy (particularly Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas), patristics (Athanasius and Augustine primarily), and classical rhetoric (especially Cicero).  After receiving ordination as a deacon at Oxford, Owen began his work on his doctorate but could not finish because of his disagreements with the high-church Arminianism of Oxford.  Archbishop Laud instituted several Roman Catholic statutes especially increasing the formalism of the church.  A Calvinistic Puritan by upbringing, Owen refused to continue his education with such “Romish innovations” as he called them.[2] 

            Owen looked back on his college education later with much regret.  He recounted that he was convinced about the truth of his faith, yet he was not passionate about the reality of it: “A tear dropped over my university sins.”[3]  His intellectual capacity was evident to all, but his pride in his learning grew great as well.  It was not until one Sunday morning in 1642 that Owen felt personally invigorated by the renewal of the Holy Spirit.  At twenty-six years old, he went with his cousin to hear a famous Presbyterian preacher, only to realize once they got there that the pastor could not preach that day.  An anonymous country preacher substituted and expounded on the text of Matthew 8:26, “Why are you fearful, O ye of little faith?”  At this church service, his soul felt liberated and his eyes were opened to the beauty of the truths that he already had known for years.  Owen recounted that this ‘turning of the will’ made his college years seem like a dry desert, knowing the living water, but not drinking from it.[4]  It is obvious that his academic prowess had for the most part already been bred at Oxford College, but it was beginning here that Owen developed his keen insight into the practical and personal aspects of spiritual living.

            After leaving Oxford, Owen became a personal tutor and chaplain in private homes.  During this time, he read extensively in theology and also kept up on the latest the ecclesiastic struggles in England and on the continent.  Unlike many of his English contemporaries in theology, Owen was intensely concerned about the church’s affairs in Europe and the New World.  He followed thoroughly the controversy in Holland between the Remonstrants (Arminian followers) and Calvinists.  The Arminian Articles of Remonstrance were written in 1610, and the Calvinist response was the Synod of Dordt in 1618.  Many of the arguments of the Remonstrants were made against Theodore Beza, one of Owen’s favorite authors.  After reading this controversy, Owen became convinced that the high-church reforms of Archbishop Laud were following the same pattern of the Dutch Remonstrants and this sparked his fiery response in The Display of Arminianism (and its subtitle “being a discovery of the old Pelagian idol, free-will, with the new goddess, contingency, advancing themselves into the throne of God in heaven to the prejudice of His grace, providence and supreme dominion over the children of men”).  It is important to note that Owen saw every new wind of doctrine of his time as merely a reoccurrence of some earlier heresy in church history.  He was very aware that “there is nothing new under the sun,” and he played his role as historian to point that out to his opponents.  In the theological conversation of the 21st century, it is common to associate Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism, but Owen was one of the first to make this connection. 

            This stance on the Particular Atonement, though, was important because it showed where he would side in these controversies.  Because the Arminians were associated with the royalists, his choice found him in the camp of Parliament  in the struggle against the king.  From this time on, Owen would be engulfed in the English theological struggles and now political struggles as well.  His writings and sermons would almost always be considered controversial to one side or the other.

            In the same year he published his first book (1643), Owen took his first official pastorate position at a small parish in Fordham, Essex.  His stay was not long at the church, but it is important because it set the course of his life as a pastor, not merely as an academic or writer.  That same year, John Owen married Mary Rooke.  They were married for thirty-one years, from 1644 to 1675.  There is hardly any information or records about her.  One stunning fact that is extremely important in understanding Owen is this: she bore him eleven children, all but one died as a child, and she died presumably in childbirth.[5]  To quote John Piper: “Owen experienced the death of eleven children and the death of his wife!– that’s one child born and lost on average every three years of Owen’s adult life.”[6]  Almost all the children died during pregnancy or by two years old.  One daughter of his lived until teenage years before she died of consumption.  Some died during birth troubles, but many of them died of a plague that swept through England during the 1650's.  Piper also writes, “knowing that the man walked in the valley of the shadow of death of most of his life gives me a clue to the depth of dealing with God that we find in his works.”[7]  It is amazing to think of the several famous treatises that Owen produced on contentment, joy, and spiritual delight when confronted with these facts.  It also shows his extremely personal life that influenced his writing and thinking.  It is no wonder that one of his greatest works touched on the theme of The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

            This personal touch is an important aspect that must be considered whenever one thinks of Owen.  Though he was called a “Protestant Scholastic,” he never divorced his theology from a pastoral mindset.  All of his complex treatises dealt with the implications of the doctrine he expounded upon.  He does, though, often have different audiences in mind when he wrote.  The Death of Death in the Death of Christ was written in Latin with some of the most complex prose and tight logical reasoning.  Others however, like On Temptation and Sin, have a very personal and warm tone about them.  Almost all of his works, whether deeply theological or pastorally-driven, were written during times of intense political struggle or family tragedy.  He was anything but a cloistered academic.  There are points where this seems utterly amazing– that he could keep on studying and writing with the kind of involvements and burdens he carried. 

            One of the only major shifts in Owen’s theological commitments was his change from a Presbyterian to an Congregationalist (were referred to as “Independent”) Puritan.  After reading John Cotton’s literature on the Congregational church as the Biblical model, Owen switched his allegiance to a different side of church polity.  The Presbyterians and Congregationalists both opposed the high-church royalists but differed in their conceptions of how a Reformed Church of England would look.  His aim became to purify the national church by the Word of God alone and encourage independent gathered churches. 

            The event that would drive Owen into England’s politics came in 1646 when he was directed by Parliament to give a sermon address.  He spoke on the nation of Israel and how the Church can learn from its sin and rebellion.  His powerful preaching got him the attention of Oliver Cromwell, who would later request his services from him.  With that acquaintance, Owen was thrown into the turmoil of civil war.  Cromwell made him a chaplain and brought him along on his campaigns to preach to the soldiers and help decide governing policies for the church and politics.  After that duty, Cromwell then appointed him to Vice Chancellor of Oxford.  Owen became responsible as dean for the student academics, as preacher for the services of worship, as administrator for the appointment of professors and chaplains, and as overseer for the student discipline.  In spite of all his administrative pressure, he continued his constant study and writing, probably during long sleepless hours of the night.  He published the majority of his works during this period. 

            In 1660, the Puritans found themselves on the losing side of Charles II’s return.  The royalist administration relieved Owen of his deanship responsibilities.  For the remainder of his life, Owen would become a fugitive pastor in London, moving from one church to another and often times meeting in secret.  A key aspect of Owen that must be noted is his defense of toleration.  Though a Congregationalist, he had seen both sides of the polity issue, and he tried to reconcile Puritan Nonconformists under one banner.  Richard Baxter, who sometimes disagreed with Owen’s complex doctrines, commented that if every Congregationalist was like Owen, there would be peace enough to bring England to perfect unity.[8]  Even while acting as Cromwell’s advisor and as Vice Chancellor of Oxford, Owen did not banish Anglican worship where it existed.  Owen also wrote to several Congregationalist ministers in New England pleading with them to not persecute the Baptists. 

            This background gives a great context to understand the legacy of John Owen.  First, Owen must be understood as a “Theologian’s Theologian.”[9]   Regrettably Owen never gained that position in literature to which his learning and abilities entitle him.  In comparison with other, less able, seventeenth-century writers, he has been neglected.  This is because his style, in contrast to the lively style of Richard Baxter and John Bunyan, is extremely heavy and not easy to follow.   Thus he has become very much the theologian’s theologian rather than a theologian of the people.  His sermons were directed to the common laity, but we have less of his sermons than his treatises (we have less of his personal records and copies of his sermons than we have of someone like Jonathan Edwards.  Another factor is that he was a fugitive pastor working in secret so it was harder and safer not to keep as many records).  Many of his treatises were written in Latin and were therefore directed only at academics and learned clergy.  For those works that were written in English, the Greek and Hebrew quotations in Scripture were never translated.  This, combined with his tortorous prose and complex reasoning, made his literature a read only for the stout of heart.  Owen even warned the reader in the introduction to The Death of Death “if thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatre, to go out again– thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!”[10]  This should not deter one from reading Owen but only to understand that all treasures come with difficulty.  Edwards definitely thought this of one of his most quoted authors.

            The legacy of John Owen, the area he is most revered and most praised for, is his theological and devotional work on sin, holiness, grace, and temptation.  From this point his other theological arguments all return.  Few writers have matched his insight on the Christian spiritual life.  Many have called him a “Psychologist of the Soul” because of his keen awareness of the inner workings of the human heart.  He understood the depravity of man’s mind but also the spiritual struggle of the Christian to eradicate sin.  One of his famous works, and rightly so, is The Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656).  It is from this work is his most quoted passage on the task of holiness: “Do you mortify sin in the old man?  Do you make it your daily work?  Be always at it whilest you live; cease not a day nay even an hour from this arduous task; be killing sin or it will be killing you.” 

            Owen’s view on sin was that it was not only an offense to an infinitely righteous God, but that it was the most destructive force in the world.  Its sole purpose is to destroy and swallow up man’s soul in death.  This subjective and personal aspect of sin was taken up by Jonathan Edwards in his woks on holiness.  Owen left his legacy in understanding the seriousness of sin and the whole-hearted task of the Christian to crucify the flesh.  He centered much of his argument on sin’s destructiveness around one of his most favorite and quoted verses, Ephesians 5:16, “redeem the time for the days are evil.”  (An entire book has been written called Redeem the Time: Sin in the Writings of John Owen about Owen’s view on time and holiness).[11]  He argued that sin’s greatest consequence is the way that it saps life, time, and energy away from the glorious communion with the Triune God.  One cannot understand Owen’s view of sin without understanding his view on communion with God (“On Communion with God” was published in 1657).  Sin’s power comes from its distraction from time and full energy and joy spent with God.  From this, Owen took an extremely practical look at how sin targets each believer in a different way.  In his smaller essay “On Temptation and Sin,” he exhorted his readers to “know thyself” because in doing so they will know in what fashion or form sin will take in tempting the believer away from communion with God.  With his emphasis on time and choices of the will, Owen argued that wisdom in temptation is knowing that “good is the enemy of best.”  Even a good action can be unwise if it is not the best in enjoying and experiencing communion with God.  He set the standard high and showed his readers the “opportunity cost” of not following the best God has to offer.  John Piper argues that Owen’s legacy in the entirety of the Christian church is his literature on sin, holiness, and communion with God, especially in the light of Owen’s polemic contentions with heterodox theolgoy.

            Owen did not merely offer a method or “Ten step guide” to mortifying sin in the believer.  He focuses squarely on the heart, no on external actions or duties.  Edwards indebted much of his thought on the will to Owen, though Edwards expanded and amplified Owen’s original thoughts.  Unlike some of his contemporaries, Owen also showed the complete dependence of the believer on the Holy Spirit in sanctification.  For him, there is no divide between Spirit and Law in sanctification.  John Owen probably more than any other writer of his time developed a strong doctrine on the role of the Spirit in the Christian life of holiness.  All of the Owen’s theology is profoundly Trinitarian.  (An entire book has been on Owen’s view on the Trinity, The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology).  Edwards’ thought is very influenced by Owen’s theology of the Trinity. 

            Another aspect that Edwards received as an inheritance from Owen is the Aristotilian teleology of his thought.  Owen uses this extensively in the Death of Death as he discussed the causes, ends, and means of Christ’s atonement.  Edwards would later use this in The End for Which God Created the World.  Owen also used Aristotilian ethics on the significance of habit for virtue.  Owen demonstrates sin to be habit of a hardened heart to communion with God.  Owen’s “Scholasticism” shaped the mold into which Edwards later stepped.  Yet also the legacy of Owen’s personal life impacted many Puritans of his time and even to Edwards’ time.  Owen’s joyous contentment in the Lord amidst such family tragedy, such theological debates, and such political turmoil was a testament to all of the personal holiness about which he wrote.  The phrase which is so often associated with him, “Communing with God in the Things for which we Contend,” which John Piper adds “How John Owen killed his own sin while contending for the Truth” and argues is his central theme,  is a quote from On Communion with God:  

More important than all is a diligent endeavor to have the power of the truths professed and contended for abiding upon our hearts, that we may not contend for notions, but that we have a practical acquaintance within our own souls.  When the heart is cast indeed the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us– when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts– when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for– then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against the assaults of men.



            [1]Works of Owen, xxiii. 

            [2]Works of Owen, xxvi. 

            [3]Works of Owen, xxiv. “... his poor daydreams of a mere earthly ambition.”

            [4]Contending for Our All.

            [5]Historians are not sure exactly how Mary died, but there is evidence from other sources that she died while in labor.  The child she was carrying died as well. 

            [6]Contending for Our All, 87.

            [7]Contending for Our All, 87. 

            [8]Oxford Dictionary of Biographies, 228.

            [9]Great Leaders of the Christian Church, 263.

            [10]Death of Death, 149. 

            [11]One can see the influence on Edwards especially in his “Resolutions” about glorifying God with every moment.