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Some Thoughts on Reading the Works of John Owen

Category Book Excerpts
Date October 10, 2023

The following is excerpted from Sinclair B. Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be

JOHN OWEN was born in 1616 and died in 1683. During the course of his life he held pastorates in Fordham and Coggeshall, in Essex, served as vice-chancellor of Oxford University, as army chaplain under Oliver Cromwell, and finally as the minister of a gathered congregation in the city of London. Little is known of his inner life, and biographers have never found it easy to reconstruct the details of his spiritual pilgrimage. It might seem remarkable, therefore, that his works, covering many thousands of closely argued pages, should be kept in print four hundred years after his birth. Owen himself would have been the first to express amazement that so long after his death God’s people should continue to discover the value and significance of his writings. The only possible explanation and justification for this state of affairs is that Owen was one of the foremost, perhaps the foremost, theologian England has ever produced. That is not simply the view of an enthusiast. It was recognized by Owen’s contemporaries, friends and foes alike, and it has been frequently recognized since. From Thomas Boston, the scholar-pastor of Ettrick, telling us in characteristic manner that he was ‘helped by Owen on the Spirit’;1 to a leading modern missiologist describing him as ‘perhaps the greatest British theologian of all time’ and ‘the greatest of Independent theologians’2, testimonies to his significance abound.

It is unquestionably for this reason that Owen’s works ought to be purchased and read. But it is probably true that many find the first of these obligations (purchasing volumes of Owen) easier to fulfil than the second (reading what Owen wrote). There are doubtless many bookcases in the English-speaking world lined with several volumes in their distinctive white and green jackets whose owners would freely confess that they have read too little of the contents, and frankly find Owen very heavy-going. Let it be said that this situation is eminently understandable, and all those who have read Owen will sympathize with others who feel that the initial stages of reading him may be more of a burden than a pleasure. When such eminent Christian men and lovers of Puritan writings as Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Dr J. I. Packer have written respectively, ‘John Owen on the whole is difficult to read’,3 and ‘There is no denying that Owen is heavy and hard to read’,4 lesser mortals may be excused for thinking that such a task is really beyond their capacities. But this need not be the case, if we approach his writings wisely and intelligently. Owen did not write simply for fellow scholars (although he knew how to do that), but for fellow Christians. His preaching, apparently, was both understandable and eminently helpful, and it would probably be the opinion of those who have found his teaching conducive to spiritual growth, that much of what he wrote is well within the capacity of the serious Christian of average intelligence. While it is a fact that Owen is not universally easy to read, it is also true that he is not universally difficult to read. We may need some convincing on this point, and it is the function of these paragraphs to attempt to do that, and in measure provide a key which will help to open up the treasures that seem to be locked up behind the heavy door of Owen’s length and style of writing. The fact is that Owen wrote some books which nowadays would appear as paperbacks, and it is possible to be introduced to him without having to plough through endless subdivisions of material and references to long-dead and almost equally long-forgotten theologians.

Assuming that one possesses some or all (or intends to purchase!) the republished volumes of Owen, what steps can be taken to reap the benefit of such an investment? The first step is to employ the three tools which W. H. Goold, the editor, helpfully supplied, namely:

(1) The division of the works into Doctrinal (volumes I-V), Practical (volumes VI-IX), Controversial (volumes X-XVI) and Exegetical (volumes XVII-XXIII, the Commentary on Hebrews) sections. These divisions give us a fundamental grasp of the nature and intention of each work.

(2) The introductions to each of the books supplied by Goold, some of which contain outlines and information on the work within very brief compass. It is possible, at least in theory, to have a kind of working knowledge of where Owen will lead you even before you begin the journey. That can serve a very useful function, and it is in fact the raison d’être of the introductions.

(3) The indices found at the end of volumes XVI and XXIII, and particularly those on subject matter and Scripture passages. These can be used as a map to Owen’s theology in general, and a guide to the exposition of a particular passage or theme. They have a special value for occasional study or reading and preparation. These three tools will help us to get the ‘feel’ of Owen’s thought before we turn to read him, and a few mornings or evenings spent using them may preserve us from rushing headlong into a volume which we find too long and difficult, and on which we labour to no profit.

But then we will want to read something by Owen himself! The adventure of discovering his rich ministry of God’s word and his penetrating knowledge of the human heart can be begun with confidence if we know what pieces are valuable to read as introductions, and then, in general terms, what sections of his works we can turn to in the expectation of receiving help and instruction. With Owen it is probably wise to begin with a work that can be read at one or two sittings, and within a matter of hours. The sense of achievement in doing so, and the thrill of discovering how clearly the teaching speaks to our needs, is something not to be discounted or despised. Once we realize he is not always heavy reading we will want to read on. Depending on personal circumstances, present needs and interests, there are a number of useful starting places.

Sermons

Some readers will find it helpful to begin with a sermon from the collections in volumes VIII, IX, XV, and XVI—and if this is the case, the practical and pastoral sermons in volume IX can be highly recommended, perhaps more so than the statesmanlike addresses in volume VIII. But even in this latter volume, where some of the sermons run to thirty or forty pages, those with an historical interest will find much that is helpful and thought-provoking. Sermon 3, for example, on Jeremiah 15:19-20, was preached the day after the execution of Charles I. It is interesting to reflect on what one might have said oneself if summoned to preach before Parliament on such an occasion, as Owen was! Sermon 4, on Romans 4:20, was preached in connection with his visit to Ireland as an army chaplain, and in it he expresses the desire that the Irish might have peace, and ‘might enjoy Ireland as long as the moon endureth, so that Jesus Christ might possess the Irish’.5 Sermon 5 is the one which led to Owen’s first introduction to Cromwell, while sermon 6 was preached in 1650 in Edinburgh and Berwick after the Battle of Dunbar, when the fear-filled Scottish preachers refused to occupy their own pulpits. Volume IX, on the other hand, contains sermons on worship (sermons 3 and 4); spiritual barrenness (14 and 15); the withdrawing of God’s presence (24) and dying daily (27-29). Christian ministers will find much help in a sermon on Christ’s pastoral care (22), and also series of sermons on the ministry and on the Lord’s Supper in the same volume.

Cases of conscience

In volume IX we also find fine examples of a form of teaching and ministry unfamiliar to some readers, but in which all Christians will find great help and blessing. Owen deals with fourteen cases of conscience—for example: What sense of sin and guilt is needed to cause men to look to Christ as Saviour? What are the most certain evidences of conversion? How do we recover from spiritual decline? How should we prepare for the coming of Christ?—all of which speak for themselves as subjects of great personal and pastoral importance. Each is discussed within the scope of a few pages. The study of these in private, or in small groups, would surely have helpful repercussions in any Christian fellowship.

Short books

Others may prefer to begin by reading a whole book, and there are several which can be read without undue weariness to the mind—although it is always wise to read with paper and pencil at hand. Owen’s divisions can be perplexing (Goold tells us in volume I, p. xiv, that they are denoted by the numerals I, 1, (1), [1], first and first!), and readers will note with some amusement and even relief that the editor indicates in some footnotes that Owen seems to have lost the place. Needless to say such places are few and far between!

The works on temptation and mortification, in volume 6, come within this general category of short works, although both are of outstanding value and probably unsurpassed in their treatment of these respective themes of Christian experience. Each work is less than ninety pages in length. No doubt some difficult passages may be encountered even here, but if so J. I. Packer’s suggestion still holds good, that ‘the hard places in Owen usually come out as soon as one reads them out loud’.6 Alternative books might be The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in volume XVI, or The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished, in volume XIII. It need hardly be said that such reading should be an exercise in prayerfulness as well as thoughtfulness, for it will be recognized that, however unusual it may be for Christians to read this kind of literature, there can still be a certain carnal kudos in having done so. Owen’s teaching should be read with the same spirit of humility we would commend to those who listen to the regular ministry of the word, since we are but servants looking to the Master’s hand for mercy and for grace to help in times of need.

Spreading our wings

When we have come thus far, we will want to spread our wings a little, and turn to works of special interest, or that deal with some aspect of Christian living in which we sense our need for further instruction. Owen covers a very wide range of themes, as we would expect: The doctrine of God and the Trinity is discussed in volume 2, where, in A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity, Owen gave a matter of hours to provide ordinary Christians with a reliable guide to the teaching of Scripture. Earlier in the same volume may be found his work Of Communion with the Trinity. In this he describes the particular fellowship which the believer enjoys with each person of the Trinity, and thus opens up what may be a fresh avenue of thought for many readers. The section on communion with Christ contains a quite comprehensive, if incomplete, allegorical exposition of the Song of Solomon, with many valuable and spiritual insights. Owen takes the main characters to represent Christ and the believer (sometimes the church); the daughters of Jerusalem represent ‘all sorts of professors’; the watchmen are the office-bearers, and the city is the visible church. Even those who do not share Owen’s allegorical view can find benefit in his comments. The Person and Work of Christ is covered in volume 1 and elsewhere. Owen’s Christologia, esteemed by the elder Thomas M‘Crie to be second only to Calvin’s Institutes, is of great value, as is his exposition of John 17:24, on The Glory of Christ. The nature and extent of the atonement is dealt with in what is currently Owen’s best-known work, in volume 10, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ—written when he was only thirty.

While historical circumstances have drawn attention to this last area of his thought, it would be true to say of Owen (as Warfield claimed of Calvin) that he was pre-eminently a theologian of the Holy Spirit. It is clear both from his own statements and the extent of his writing on the theme, that The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, expounded in volumes 3 and 4, and in nine books, lay very close to his heart. It probably remains, in Goold’s words, ‘The most complete exhibition of the doctrine of Scripture on the person and agency of the Holy Spirit to be found in any language’. It is still claimed that the Reformers and Puritans gave little attention to the Holy Spirit, and many critics have indicated that the Westminster Confession of Faith lacks any separate treatment of the doctrine. It is, however, muddle-headed to suggest that the Spirit has been restored from a position of oblivion as ‘the forgotten person of the Godhead’ only in the present century. Owen’s work was but one of a number of massive treatments of the Spirit in seventeenth century writings. Its contemporary value is out of all proportion to the investment any Christian might make in obtaining volumes III and IV. Owen provides basic teaching on the Spirit and guides the reader through his work, in the old creation, in the person and work of Christ and his witness to him, in his work in regeneration and conversion, and then in sanctification and holiness. His work in the inspiration of Scripture, as the Comforter, in prayer, and in the exercise of spiritual gifts are all treated at length. Here is wholesome and edifying food for every Christian, and the kind of help and stimulus which serves as a handmaid to the pastor and teacher in public ministry and private counselling. Indeed some may well find that the time spent becoming familiar with the contents of these two volumes will often be repaid by the time saved and the help given to believers in need of counsel simply by commending the reading of some short section which meets their need. In this connection the short works on Temptation and Mortification should also be mentioned as well as the Cases of Conscience. These prepare the way for the teaching in volume VII on The Dominion of Sin and Grace, and The Nature and Power of Indwelling Sin, and also for the encouragement of the treatment of forgiveness and assurance from Psalm 130, in volume VI. Students of later expositions of the Reformed doctrine of sanctification may possibly sense a lack of clarity here and there in Owen’s definitions of expressions such as ‘the old man’ (Rom. 6:6), but this does not greatly impair the value of the work, and there are probably few more realistic and pastoral treatments of these themes available today. All in all, it is doubtful whether a young minister could adopt a better study plan than, after working through Calvin’s Institutes, to turn to volumes III and IV, and VI and VII in Owen’s Works.

Attention ought also to be drawn to the treatment of Justification in volume V. This provides not only a rich exposition of a central biblical doctrine, but also a healthy corrective to aberrations that have recurred at various times since Owen’s day, including our own. In volumes IV and XVI Owen briefly gives his understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, and affirms the necessity of faith in it as ‘divine, supernatural and infallible’ because based upon the testimony of God himself. The reading of volume XI might seem to demand the grace it expounds—Perseverance. It is virtually an extended review of the Arminian teaching found in John Goodwin’s Redemption Redeemed. Even so, Owen admits that his six hundred-plus pages only deal with a part of Goodwin’s book! It was against this same work of Goodwin’s that Robert Baillie, a member of the Westminster Assembly and later Principal of Glasgow University, wrote his Scottish Antidote against the English Infection of Arminianism! Despite Owen’s prolixity there is much valuable exposition here for those with the time and will to find it. It should be said, however, that this is probably not the gate for any young or new reader to enter the city of Oweniana!

Extensive treatment is given to the doctrine of the Church in volumes XIII-XVI, where material sometimes overlaps. From a number of important books here perhaps The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished (written when Owen was still Presbyterian), Eshcol (scriptural rules for church fellowship), both in volume XIII, and The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in volume XVI, may be singled out as specially helpful. Readers who belong to the more or less ‘established’ churches will find that the careful perusal of these writings will enable them to understand the mind and stance of ‘independent’ churches in greater measure, and indeed in a heart-searching fashion. The study and discussion of works like these, along with Owen’s Union among Protestants, in volume XIV, might do much towards a mutual understanding and sympathy amongst evangelical people today.

Attention has already been drawn to Owen’s works on the ministry, but mention should also be made of his sermons on The Lord’s Supper. Volume IX contains twenty-five of these, including five on 1 Corinthians 11:23ff., and volume XVI has three more, published long after Owen’s death, but attributed to him on internal grounds. As with other extant sermons preached by Owen at the Lord’s Supper, they indicate that he frequently administered the Supper midweek rather than only on the Lord’s day. In these short pieces he draws attention to some of the distinctive features of the Lord’s Supper, in the way the believer’s concentration is drawn to Christ’s body as sacrificed and his blood as shed rather than to the person or presence of Christ in more general terms. He also shows that in the Supper it is not the Father or the Spirit, but Christ himself who invites us to come to him in faith. Volume XVI also contains an interesting treatment Of Infant Baptism and Dipping, both of which Owen discusses in the course of a dozen pages.

Finally, the massive Commentary on Hebrews in seven volumes ought to be mentioned. Owen had a special love for Hebrews and this work lay close to his heart. It is marked by great erudition balanced by spiritual insight and theological and practical wisdom. A number of lengthy essays preface the whole work, of which those on The Sacerdotal Office of Christ, and the Day of Sacred Rest (both in volume XIX) may be singled out as of special value. The words of Thomas Chalmers are adequate commendation of the Hebrews commentary: ‘We regard it—as Owen himself did—as his “greatest work”: A work of gigantic strength as well as gigantic size; and he who hath mastered it is very little short, both in respect to the doctrinal and practical of Christianity, of being an erudite and accomplished theologian.’7

Concluding thoughts

These, then, are some of the riches of Owen’s Works.8 They contain the fruit of a lifetime’s study of Scripture, and the reader will often find himself thinking that Owen weighed up almost every possible nuance of meaning and application of every verse of the Bible. As with others, it is in his almost incidental use of a verse or passage that the fruit of long and deep meditation comes to the surface. That can be overwhelming and almost depressing, but it will be an encouragement as well as a rebuke to us as we read. What is important, however, is not to read much but to profit much. That is why regular and regulated study is of value, and leads to a developing ability to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the great spiritual lessons Owen expounds. To pastors and teachers there will be a certain value in using the whole set of the Works as a constant companion and help, using the Owen corpus as a library of pastoral theology. To others the greatest help may come from the specifically practical or doctrinal volumes. But, as W. H. Goold once wrote, all Owen’s work is marked by the spiritual application of divine truth to human character generally, and to the experience of the saints in particular. It is this experimental dimension in all Owen’s teaching that is of universal and permanent value, and brings us nearer to the great goal of his ministry, which was, quite simply, to help his fellow Christians to live according to Scripture.

 

Footnotes:

 

1 Memoirs of Thomas Boston, ed. G. H. Morrison (Edinburgh, 1899), p. 301.

2 A. F. Walls, A Guide to Christian Reading (London: Tyndale Press, 1962), pp. 89, 105.

3 D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (London: Hodder and Stoughton,
1971), p. 175.

4 J. I. Packer, Introductory Essay to John Owen, The Death of Death (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959), p. 25.

5Works, VIII:235.

6 J. I. Packer, Introductory Essay to The Death of Death, p. 25.

7 Quoted in Works, XVII:xi.

8 A version of the Latin material published in the original Goold edition has now been published as Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ, edited by Stephen J. Westcott (Pittsburgh: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994).

 

Buy Sinclair Ferguson’s book Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be, from which the extract above has been taken.

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