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John Owen

Congregational theologian

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Biography

 John Owen
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Born at Stadhampton, Oxfordshire, Owen was educated at Queen's College, Oxford, where he studied classics and theology and was ordained. Because of the "high-church" innovations introduced by Archbishop William Laud, he left the university to be a chaplain to the family of a noble lord. His first parish was at Fordham in Essex, to which he went while the nation was involved in civil war. Here he became convinced that the Congregational way was the scriptural form of church government. In his next charge, the parish of Coggeshall. in Essex, he acted both as the pastor of a gathered church and as the minister of the parish. This was possible because the parliament, at war with the king, had removed bishops. In practice, this meant that the parishes could go their own way in worship and organization.

Oliver Cromwell liked Owen and took him as his chaplain on his expeditions both to Ireland and Scotland (1649-1651). Owen's fame was at its height from 1651 to 1660 when he played a prominent part in the religious, political, and academic life of the nation. Appointed dean of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1651, he became also vice-chancellor of the university in 1652, a post he held for five years with great distinction and with a marked impartiality not often found in Puritan divines. This led him also to disagreement, even with Cromwell, over the latter's assumption of the protectorship. Owen retained his deanery until 1659. Shortly after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he moved to London, where he was active in preaching and writing until his death. He declined invitations to the ministry in Boston (1663) and the presidency of Harvard (1670) and chided New England Congregationalists for intolerance. He turned aside also from high preferment when his influence was acknowledged by governmental attempts to persuade him to relinquish Nonconformity in favor of the established church.

His numerous works include The Display of Arminianism (1642); Eshcol, or Rules of Direction for the Walking of the Saints in Fellowship (1648), an exposition of Congregational principles; Saius Electorum, Sanguis Jesu (1648), another anti-Arminian polemic; Diatriba de Divina Justitia (1658), an attack on Socinianism; Of the Divine Original Authority of the Scriptures (1659); Theologoumena Pantodapa (1661), a history from creation to Reformation; Animadversions to Fiat Lux (1662), replying to a Roman Catholic treatise; Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677); and Exercitationes on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1668-1684).

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Works by John Owen

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In this focused and enlightening treatise, John Owen defends the truth and coherency of the doctrine of the Trinity. Owen responds most explicitly to the heresy of "Socinianism." Socinianism holds that Christ did not pre-exist before being a man. Working with both Scripture and tradition, Owen vigorously argues for a traditional account of the Trinity. Owen doesn’t just defend this doctrine, however; he also calls for faith in it as well. To indicate the importance of the Trinity, Owen ends his treatise with an explanation of the satisfaction of Christ. For without the Trinity, Owen argues, there can be no doctrine of satisfaction of sins through Christ. Unlike some of Owen’s other work, Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity is highly focused, lacking long treatments of secondary points. This tightly argued work will remind readers of the importance and power of the doctrine of the Trinity.

In A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God, which came to be known as The Independents’ Catechism, Owen outlines the constitution and ordinances of a Christian Church, and explains the duties of office-bearers and members. Scarcely fifty questions, this short catechism gives insight into one of the greatest Puritan theologians and provides rich spiritual nourishment.

John Owen, Christologia The object of John Owen in this treatise is to illustrate the mystery of divine grace in the person of Christ. It bears the title Christologia, but it differs considerably from many works of the same title. Owen is not occupied with a formal proof from Scripture of the Godhood of Christ. Instead, he assumes the truth of this doctrine, and applies all his efforts and resources to show its bearing on Christian duty and experience. The Christology of Owen has always been highly valued, and will be useful to members of the church of all ages together with its continuation, Meditations of the Glory of Christ. Christologia is considered one of the most important post-Reformation works beside Calvin's Institutes.

The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is John Owen's definitive work on the extent of the atonement. As J.I. Packer has written, it is a "polemical work," designed to show among other things that "the doctrine of universal redemption is unscriptural and destructive of the gospel." It was called forth by the progress in England of Arminianism and the half-way house of Amyraldianism adopted by Baxter, Davenant and Usher. But the book is more than a polemic work. It has, at its center, a love of Christ and a conviction that Christ's work on the cross actually saved people from the deadly nature of sin. Anyone interested in the atonement should examine this work carefully--it will not disappoint!

Evangelical Love, Church Peace and Unity was written at a time when John Owen found it necessary to speak of a sinful decay of love among professors of the gospel in this nation. It deals with the importance of these virtues at all levels of church life. Owen believed the Church needed more love, because without it, more and more arguments and schisms would occur and unity would be dissolved. Schisms were almost impossible to overcome, Owen said, because neither side was willing to sacrifice its pride. Disunity in the church also created more dissenters and nonconformists. The lessons Owen teaches here also need to be heard in the modern church, and this book will offer several strategies for remedying broken churches today.

This pamphlet contains the judgment of Owen author in regard to measures which gave rise to most important events in the ecclesiastical history of England. It is an argument against the liturgy, the imposition of which obliged nearly two thousand clergy of the Church of England to resign their livings rather than sacrifice a good conscience.

In March 1642 John Owen’s first literary production was published; it dealt with the atonement, a subject to which he was to return in several of his later works. This first treatise, entitled A Display of Arminianism, is a simple comparison of the tenets of that system with the teaching of Scripture. This was by no means an academic task for when Owen wrote the Reformed character of the English church was seriously in jeopardy through the activity of Laud.

In A Dissertation on Divine Justice, John Owen provides his refutation of the teaching that God could pardon sin by a mere act of will, and without any satisfaction to his justice, that is, without any atonement. Owen has written extensively on the atonement before and, once again, his keen intellect and impressive argumentation can be seen here. Although A Dissertation on Divine Justice was originally a response to a theological movement called "Socinianism," it remains interesting today for its fascinating treatment of divine justice and the atonement.

Owen's book, Doctrine of Justification by Faith, is a Puritan account of the doctrine of justification. Owen relies on biblical teaching and historical dialogue to expound the doctrine of justification. This volume opens with a comprehensive look at the historical status of the doctrine of justification stemming back to the early church. In the following sections of the book, Owen explores the nature, object, and causes of faith. This provides the foundations for his later discussion on the important role faith plays in justification. Owen argues for the imputation of Christ's righteousness as the ground of justification and refutes objections to his position. Finally, Owen draws upon several passages from the Bible which support his interpretation of justification. Owen's exposition on the topic of justification is unique in that his pastoral experience is evident in his treatment of the text; as a result, his style of presentation is appreciated by a wide variety of readers, not just scholars in the field.

Written to answer Redemption Redeemed by the Arminian, John Goodwin, this book is a refutation of Goodwin's views. Owen believes the more Calvinist view of perseverance of the saints, that once an individual is saved, he or she will always be saved -- that is, cannot regress back into unbelief. Some readers find Owen's arguing with Goodwin distracting -- in the words of Andrew Thompson, the book would "be almost as complete were every part of it that refers Goodwin expunged, and undeniably forms the most masterly vindication of the perseverance of the saints in the English tongue." But the work is a proficient explanation and argument for perseverance of the saints, and readers interested in the issue would do well to read Goodwin's Redemption Redeemed as well.

The design of this tractate is to describe the means to be used by the people of God, distinct from church officers, to increase divine knowledge in themselves and others, and to show how the sacred calling to the ministry may retain its ancient dignity, whilst not depriving the people of God of their Christian liberty.

What role does faith play in our relationship with God? How does genuine faith influence a Christian's life? John Owen dedicates this collection of treatises to the study of faith--its nature and effects. The central focus of Owen's treatises is the "Trial of Faith," by which Owen understands genuine faith to imply four things. First, genuine faith implies that God saves us from sin. Second, genuine faith implies that the Christian accepts God's command for holiness and obedience. Third, genuine faith is preserved through worship and devotion. And finally, genuine faith incites repentance and other spiritual habits in the Christian. Owen relies on the Word of the Lord to guide his exploration of faith, citing numerous Bible passages on the subject. Owen challenges Christians to examine their faith and offers them tangible tools to strengthen their faith in places it might be lacking.

Thomas Chalmers wrote that Owen’s book on Spiritual-Mindedness holds ‘a distinguished rank among the voluminous writings of this celebrated author.’ For him three features made it very special: the force with which it applies truth to the conscience; the way Owen plumbs the depths of Christian experience as a skilful physician of the soul; the uncovering of the secrets of the mind and heart so that the true spiritual state of the reader is discovered. This book began life as a collection of meditations on Romans viii. 6, which were written for the author’s own benefit during a time of illness. Alarmed by the subtle power the world exercises over the mind, Owen shows us how to really live by raising our thoughts above all earthly objects and setting them on ‘things above, where Christ is.’ A favorite book of William Wilberforce, it contains some passages which are not surpassed in all of Owen’s writings. It comes from the pen of a tender-hearted pastor whose only purpose is to encourage the believer in the ongoing battle against sin.

The Inquiry Concerning Evangelical Churches displays Owen’s erudition and his practical concern to establish the work of God in a truly biblical manner. Here he argues for a form of congregationalism, and answers some criticisms of nonconformity, defending the Puritans against the charge of schism.

Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ is a collection of discourses in which John Owen proclaims the glory of the Lord as it is revealed in Scripture. Owen states that because we are human, Christ's glory is, in a sense, incomprehensible to us--we can never fully grasp it. Fortunately, the Bible provides us with ample information to help us appreciate the glory of Christ and to guide us in our worship. Owen uses these discourses to expound upon the different types of glory that Christ exhibits: the glory of His love, the glory of His mystery, His glory as mediator, His glory in the church, and the glory of His eternal being. It is through Christ that our lowly nature is sanctified and our relationship with God is ultimately secured. Owen teaches Christians that nothing they do has any meaning outside of that which Christ anoints with His glory.

Few subjects have received less attention from contemporary Christian writers than that of apostasy. The idea that professing Christians may prove not to be true Christians is, in many respects, too serious a prospect for our facile age. But, for John Owen, such avoidance of the issue was itself a pressing reason for writing on it at length and in great depth of spiritual analysis. His exposition is a masterpiece of penetration and discernment.

John Owen was essentially a pastoral theologian, and in his best writings, his pastoral concern and acute doctrinal instinct are inseparable. Indwelling Sin is based on Romans vii. 21. Owen unravels the deceitfulness of the nature of sin, especially in the mind and affections, and traces its terrible power through conception, birth and growth.

In 1657, John Owen produced one of his finest devotional treatises, probably the substance of a series of sermons. He examines the Christian's communion with God as it relates to all three members of the Holy Trinity. Owen directs Christians towards green pastures and still waters, and lays open the exhaustless springs of the Christian's hidden life with God. Yet, twenty years after its publication, Of Communion with God provoked the heavy criticism from another theologian. This work brings together not only Owen's original work, but also his response to this heavy criticism. In his reply, Owen vindicates himself from the various mystical sentiments that were ascribed to him. This wonderful book illustrates health Christian dialogue, and is a wonder to read.

The charge of schism was repeatedly brought against those who sought to reform the Church according to Scripture. Owen refrains from all recrimination, and instead examines the scriptural import of the term ‘schism’, proving that it denotes, not a rupture of ecclesiastical communion, but causeless divisions with the pale of the church.

"Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matt. 26:41). These words, which Jesus spoke to his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, serve as the foundation for John Owen's treatise Of Temptation. Owen preached on the subject of temptation frequently during his many years of service as the dean and vice chancellor of Christ Church in Oxford--Of Temptation is the culmination of his discourses on the subject. In his treatise, Owen addresses the nature and power of temptation, the risk of entering into it, and the means of avoiding its danger. Owen defines temptation as anything with the ability to entice the Christian's mind or heart away from obedience to God and redirect it towards sin. Owen warns us that our power is not strong enough to protect us from temptation; rather, it is by God's power of preservation that we are saved. As Christians, we can guard ourselves against temptation in part by praying for God's power to help us resist it. His treatise teaches Christians how to recognize the threat of temptation and protect themselves against it.

John Owen was essentially a pastoral theologian, and in his best work, his pastoral concern and acute doctrinal instinct are inseparable. Of the Mortification of Sin is such a work. In this work--the substance of which is a series of addresses on Romans 8--Owen provides teaching in a vital but neglected aspect of Christianity. Owen takes up many of the questions that occur to every believer in the battle against sin. All of his direction is directly grounded in various Biblical passages. He provides keen exegesis and sound advice. This classic work has been reprinted countless times--a testimony to its lasting power!

Pneumatologia--or, 'Owen on the Holy Spirit,' as the work has generally been called--is perhaps one of the best known, and most highly esteemed of John Owen's treatises. Pneumatologia is divided into five parts. The first part contains a general and preliminary account of the Holy Spirit. The second part addresses the operations of the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments. The third part discusses the doctrine of regeneration. The fourth part addresses the doctrine of sanctification, and the role of the Holy Spirit in it. The final part contains arguments extolling the reader to holiness. This is a beloved treatise, as John Newton once wrote to a correspondent: "We are favoured with many excellent books in our tongue, but I with you agree in assigning one of the first places as a teacher to Dr. Owen. I have just finished his discourse on the Holy Spirit which is an epitome, if not the masterpiece of his writings."

A poem in Latin dedicated to Oliver Cromwell on the occasion of his concluding peace with the Dutch in 1654.

Owen’s massive Exposition of Psalm 130, contains some two hundred pages devoted to forgiveness and assurance. He writes here as one who, himself, has longed to know these privileges. This section is, in the words of one of his biographers, ‘As full of Christian experience as of rich theology … to a great extent the unconscious transcript of his personal wanderings and perplexities, and final deliverance.’ Possibly no better work exists on this area of Christian experience.

Towards the end of his life, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius wrote and published annotations on the Bible. John Owen in his Vindiciæ Evangelicæ traced the correspondance between the Socinians and Grotius, in their exegesis of passages of scripture relating to person of Christ. Henry Hammond defended Grotius; Owen continues the debate here.

John Owen believed that many Christians during his time failed to benefit from the sacrament of communion because they misunderstood the nature of the special union with Christ. Often, Christians have a tendency to become preoccupied with novelties while practicing the sacrament. It was Owen's aim to help reorient Christians towards the Bible as the standard of truth. Through communion, we as Christians are called to first represent Christ to ourselves and then to profess his greatness to others. Owen offers advice for Christians on how to prepare for communion highlighting the importance of confession and self-examination. He also considers the practical concerns of both the individual and the church institution with regards to the act of communion itself. The series of discourses is intended to be used by Christians of all denominations in meditation as they approach the Lord's Table.

As a preacher, the value of John Owen--the renowned Puritan theologian--has not been appreciated to a sufficient degree. Well respected in his day for his preaching, Owen's renown has dwindled since then. (Perhaps the importance of his other impressive works has diverted attention away from his Sermons.) Nevertheless, this is a shame since Owen's Sermons are wonderfully crafted and quite powerful. Further, the style of his sermons provides a nice complement to his many theological treatises. They clearly display the ability Owen had to capture the attention of an audience in order to teach them the great truths of the gospel. This particular volume brings together not only sermons Owen delivered during his life, but a series of posthumously published sermons as well. John Owen's Sermons should reestablish Owen as an impressive preacher; they will not disappoint!

Several Practical Cases of Conscience Resolved is a series of discourses answering questions about sin, grace, faith, prayer, God's providence, and the preparation for Christ's second coming. Published in 1721, this series of short discourses was included amongst a collection of John Owen's sermons. This style of discourse falls under the category of study called casuistry, a system of resolving specific cases of morality by appealing to general principles. For centuries casuistry was considered a controversial area of study, and in the 15th and 16th centuries it was denounced as "the art of quibbling with God." Owen was admittedly aware of the dangers of casuistic thought. But he encourages his readers not to devalue the practice of asking questions about the duties we face as Christians. Indeed, though casuistry remains a questionable method of inquiry, the questions Owen raises are central to the Christian faith.

This treatise by John Owen is founded on Romans 6:14. Owen, an English Congregationalist, assumes three facts are true before the writing of his piece. First, that sin dwells in believers; second, that it seeks to renew its dominion over them; and third, that it endeavors to accomplish its goal by deceit and force. He then explores the nature of sin's power over humanity, explains how to tell when sin is in one's life, and then assures believers that sin does not have the ultimate power in their lives. Owen's work is a perfect blend of recognition of sin and the influence it has on all humans, and comforting assurance that it does not have the last word. It reiterates the basic knowledge Christians find in the Bible about sin, but Owen's sharp mind is able to glean implied meanings and give more body to the information found in Scripture. Readers who want an honest yet hopeful account of sin need look no further than Owen's Treatise.

In his “Discourse of Ecclesiastical Polity” Samuel Parker decried religious toleration as unfriendly to social order, and attempted to blacken the character of the Nonconformists. Owen was chosen to reply to Parker, which he did in one of the noblest controversial treatises that were ever penned by him. The mind of Owen seems to have been whetted by his deep sense of wrong, and he writes with a remarkable clearness and force of argument; while he indulges at times in a style of irony that is perhaps justified by the baseness and wickedness of Parker’s sentiments.

These two catechisms function as two levels of explanation of the theology John Owen taught to his church. The lesser catechism is intended for the children of his congregation. It is in a question and answer format, with questions ranging from "Is there but one God?" to "What is the Lord's Supper?" The greater catechism is also in Q and A form, but goes into much more depth on a larger range of topics. Owen discusses the Trinity, incarnation of Christ, justification, vocation, the sacraments, and many other doctrines, all with extensive Scripture references. Owen, a product of the nonconformist, Congregationalist movement of England, was a staunch professor of faith and a proponent of tolerance and sincerity. These catechisms are the foundation of his theology and are a wonderful source for study.

In the 1650s, historic Christianity in England was challenged by Socinianism. This heretical system was to a large extent based on Arianism, which had plagued the ancient church. Owen wrote his Vindiciæ Evangelicæ after being commissioned by the Council of State to refute Socinianism. In it he deals with the writings of John Biddle, ‘the father of English Socinianism,’ Hugo Grotius, the famous Dutch statesman and philosopher (who was not an avowed Socinian) and the Racovian Catechism, which was associated with Socinus himself.

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