Owen has been the subject of a number of excellent studies in recent years, most notably in the writings of Carl Trueman and Tim Cooper. Perhaps one of the reasons why interest in Owen shows no sign of abating is because he has been, as Geoffrey Nuttall observed, ‘strangely elusive’ and therefore generations of very diverse evangelical readers have ‘reinvented his legacy’ and found in him ‘a tool for their self-fashioning’ (p. 272). Crawford Gribben, professor of early modern British history at Queen’s University Belfast, writes as a cultural historian of religious ideas with a keen historiographical awareness of the importance of social, political, literary and material contexts. This is the second volume that he has contributed to the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series. Believing that too much of the scholarship has been guilty of a ‘static’ reading of Owen’s millions of words, Gribben’s chronological account takes the reader on a journey across the decades of Laudian, Revolutionary and Restoration Britain to show both continuity and change in his thought. Consequently, in this intellectual, religious and theological biography a ‘more complex, subtle, and this-worldly’ figure emerges (p. 17): a pragmatist whose theology evolved, sometimes in a manner that undermined the very Reformed orthodoxy that he was assumed to champion. In light of Gribben’s consistent application of a rigorous historical method it is hard to maintain the objection that his approach is any way speculative. Rather, Gribben’s commanding treatment provides a fluent, judicious and compelling account of this imposing figure.
The evolution in Owen’s thought is charted through what the subtitle of the book describes as Owen’s experiences of defeat; Gribben argues that Owen’s whole life was one ‘in which every success had been undone in defeat’ (p. 262) and which, despite all his significant achievements, ended with him feeling an ‘enduring sense of failure’ (p. 271). This adapts a motif from the Marxist historian, Christopher Hill, who used it to explore how John Milton and other revolutionaries came to terms with the crushing failure of the English Revolution.
The chapters present nine diachronic portraits of Owen: (1) the ‘Apprentice Puritan’ from Laudian Oxford coming to assurance of salvation amongst the godly in London; (2) the ‘Emerging Theologian’ vying for attention whilst still developing his ecclesiology in an England at civil war; (3) the ‘Frustrated Pastor’ battling apathy in the flock and heresy from the wolves; (4) the apocalyptic ‘Army Preacher’ standing before Parliament and serving as an expeditionary force chaplain; (5) the belligerent and at times underhand ‘Oxford Reformer’; (6) the increasingly marginalised ‘Cromwellian Courtier’ with ambitious plans for a national church settlement; (7) the shocked and ‘Defeated Revolutionary’; (8) the ‘Restoration Politique’ whose writings ‘simultaneously concealed and revealed his intentions’ (p. 233); and (9) the ‘Nonconformist Divine’ producing literary works like his massive Hebrews commentary whilst ministering illegally to a small congregation of saints.
Generally, the references in the endnotes are taken from the readily available mid-Victorian twenty-four volume edition of Owen’s works edited by William Goold, but it is clear throughout that the research has been conducted in the original print sources and the unpublished manuscripts held in Dr Williams’s Library, London. In the Goold edition Owen’s corpus is arranged thematically, but in this study Owen’s works are dealt with chronologically, with each treatise being carefully located in its various contexts and, where possible, viewed in light of modern research, e.g., the renewed scholarly interest in Socinianism. This approach allows Gribben to highlight some of the significant changes and developments that took place in Owen’s theology, e.g., his move from presbyterianism to congregationalism (p. 65), his change of position on the question of the necessity of the atonement (pp. 88–89), his expansion of the Western Trinitarian consensus (p. 173), and the refinements that he made to his eschatology (pp. 241–42). Perhaps one of Gribben’s most significant claims is that in the last decade of his life this great Puritan theologian actually subverted the Reformed tradition by ‘an increasing tendency to prioritise the subjective over the objective’ thus failing ‘to root the Christian life within the church’s means of grace’ (p. 271). This claim, and the legacy that surely would have flowed from it, invites further examination.
This critical biography will be of immense value to anyone seeking to develop their skills in historical theology because it provides an excellent model of an experienced scholar grappling with the development of ideas by a careful reconstruction of the varied contexts in which they were ‘produced, disseminated, and received’ (p. 19). What is so exceptional is twofold: first, Gribben does this in a manner that is both sympathetic and charitable whilst avoiding the potential dangers of a hagiographical approach; and, secondly, this is drawn from an archive that, at first glance, seems so sparse in biographical details. Furthermore, this accessible and stimulating biography will reward any student of the seventeenth century because it is clear throughout the narrative that Owen’s ‘changing fortunes reflected boarder changes in the political landscape’ (p. 169). Those with a particular interest in Owen now have a significantly fuller portrait of the theologian than that possessed by earlier generations of scholars (and not simply in the form of the recently rediscovered painting of him that adorns the dustjacket). Without doubt, this sophisticated work has consolidated the new turn in Owen studies and raises numerous research questions (doctrinal, historical and literary) that can be addressed by those still captivated by this most controversial and compelling of theologians.