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The year 1674 saw issuing from the press some of the most elaborate productions of our author. Besides his own share in the Communion controversy, he published in the course of that year the second volume of his Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and another folio of equal extent and importance, the first part of his work on the Holy Spirit; for what is generally known under the title of “Owen on the Holy Spirit,” is but the first half of a treatise on that subject. The treatise was completed in successive publications:— “The Reason of Faith,” in 1677; “The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God,” etc., in 1678; “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer,” in 1682; and, in 1693, two posthumous discourses appeared, “On the Work of the Spirit as a Comforter, and as he is the Author of Spiritual Gifts.” From the statements of Owen himself, in various parts of these works, as well as on the authority of Nathaniel Mather, who wrote the preface to the last of them, we learn that they were all included in one design, and must be regarded as one entire and uniform work. In Owen’s preface to the “Reason of Faith,” he expressly states, “About three years since I published a book about the dispensation and operations of the Spirit of God. That book was one part only of what I designed on that subject. The consideration of the work of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of illumination, of supplication, of consolation, and as the immediate author of all spiritual offices and gifts, extraordinary and ordinary, is designed unto the second part of it.” Uncertain, as he advanced in years, whether he should be spared to finish it, Owen was induced to issue separately the treatises belonging to the second part, according as he was able, under the pressure of other duties, to overtake the preparation and completion of them. They are now for the first time collected, and arranged into the order which, it is believed, the author would have made them assume, had he lived to publish an edition comprehending all his treatises on the Holy Spirit in the form and under the title of one work. No other liberty, however, is taken with the treatises than simply to number the four of them which were published separately, and which are contained in the next volume, as so many additional books, continuing and completing the discussion of the subject which had been begun and so far prosecuted in the five previous books embraced in this volume. To all of them the general designation πνευματολογια is equally applicable. Thus arranged and seen in its full proportions, the work amply vindicates the commendation bestowed on it, as the most complete exhibition of the doctrine of Scripture on the person and agency of the Spirit “to be found in any language.” As no author had previously attempted to treat “of the whole economy of the Holy Spirit, with all his adjuncts, operations, and effects,” Owen urges the circumstance in extenuation of any want of system and lucid order in his work. If such an attempt had never previously been made, it is equally true that no successor has been found in this walk of theology who has ventured to compete with Owen in the fall and systematic discussion of this great theme. Treatises of eminent ability and value have appeared on separate departments of it; but in the wide range embraced in this work of Owen, as well as in the power, depth, and resources conspicuous in every chapter, it is not merely first, but single and alone in all our religious literature.
The work, as we may gather from various allusions in it, was written in opposition to the rationalism of the early Socinians, especially as represented by Crellius; to the mysticism of the Quakers, a sect which had grown into notoriety within thirty years before the publication of this work; and to the irreligion of a time when the derision of all true piety was the passport to royal favour. That, during the religious fervours of the commonwealth, fanaticism of various kinds should appear, is no more strange than that when genuine coin is in circulation, attempts should be made to utter what is counterfeit and base. Against such fanaticism it was natural that a reaction should ensue, and certain divines pandered to the blind prejudice of the times succeeding the Restoration, by sarcastic invective against all that was evangelical in the creed of the Puritans and vital in personal godliness. Samuel Parker, in his infamous subserviency to the malice of the Court against dissent, and even against the common interests of Protestantism, distinguished himself in this assault upon the doctrines of grace and the distinctive principles of the Christian faith. Owen accordingly administers to him a rebuke in terms as severe as the calm dignity of his temper ever allowed him to employ in controversy; but the prominent aim in his whole work is to discriminate the gracious operations of the Spirit in the hearts of believers from the excesses 3of fanaticism on the one hand, whether as it appeared in the ruder sects of the age, or in the more genial mysticism of the Quaker, elevating his subjective experience of a spiritual light to co-ordinate authority with the objective revelation of God in the word; and, on the other hand, from the morality which, springing from no gracious principle, scarcely brooked an appeal to the only divine code for the regulation of human conduct.
This comprehensive treatise abounds in more than Owen’s usual prolixity; — a feature of the work which may, perhaps, be explained by the consciousness under which the author seems always to labour that he is prosecuting an argument with opponents, rather than dealing with the conscience in a treatise on practical religion. He moves heavily, as if he were panoplied for conflict rather than girt for useful work. As he proceeds, however, the interest deepens; weighty questions receive clear elucidation; practical difficulties are judiciously resolved; and momentous distinctions, such as those between gospel holiness and common morality, and between natural and moral inability, are skilfully given. Indeed, many points which he brings out with sufficient precision, when stripped of the wordiness which encumbers them, are found to be identical with certain modes in the presentation of divine truth which have been deemed the discoveries and improvements of a later theology. No work of the author supplies better evidence of his pre-eminent skill in what may be termed spiritual ethics, — in tracing the effect of religious truth on the conscience, and the varied phases of human feeling as modified by divine grace and tested by the divine word; and his reasonings would have been reputed highly philosophical if they had not been so very scriptural.
It is in reference to the following work that Cecil, an acute and rather severe judge of books and authors, has observed, “Owen stands at the head of his class of divines. His scholars will be more profound and enlarged, and better furnished, than those of most other writers. His work on the Spirit has been my treasure-house, and one of my very first-rate books.” A good abridgment of it by the Rev. G. Burder has appeared in more than one edition.
In 1678, Dr Clagett, preacher to the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, and one of his Majesty’s chaplains in ordinary, in “A Discourse concerning the Operation of the Holy Spirit,” etc., attempted “a confutation of some part of Dr Owen’s work on that subject.” Mr John Humfrey, in his “Peaceable Disquisitions,” having animadverted on the spirit in which Clagett had dealt with Owen, Clagett published another volume, and promised a third on the opinions of the Fathers respecting the points at issue. The manuscript of this last volume was lost in a fire which consumed the house of a friend with whom it had been lodged. Henry Stebbing published, in 1719, an abridgment of the first two volumes. The principles of the work are not evangelical; a tone of cold pedantry pervades it; and the author seems as much influenced by a desire to differ from Owen as to discover the truth in regard to the points on which they differed.
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