John Owen represents one of Puritan theology’s great pinnacles. Owen was steeped in the tradition but showed a creativity befitting a great theologian. He had a spiritual and pastoral inclination that permeates his work, culminating, perhaps, in his great work of spiritual theology Communion with God. Throughout his life he engaged in polemics over the doctrine of the Trinity, justification by faith, and the nature and task of the church. He also found time to write the most expansive commentary on Hebrews in church history (an incredible work of theology in its own right). Throughout this last work as well as his more systematic accounts, Owen embodies the Puritan ability to move from text to systematics to spiritual formation effortlessly, never ceasing to show the spiritual realities of the theologian’s work.
With a theologian of such stature, it is not surprising that there is a growing interest in recovering his work. Nevertheless, the secondary literature on Owen’s theology remains relatively sparse. To address this lacuna, Kapic and Jones began with essays from a 2008 conference on Owen held at Cambridge University. The present volume grew out of those essays and evolved into a much-developed and expanded work on Owen’s theology and life.
The chapters are divided into three sections: (1) Method; (2) Theology; and (3) Practice. The overall tenor of the volume follows Ashgate’s focus in its “Research Companions” series, following the direction of similar lines by other publishers (e.g., The Cambridge Companion series). The goal is to provide scholars and graduate students a comprehensive and “state-of-the-art” review of the most current research in a specific area. Each author focuses, some more specifically than others, on one side of the historical or theological line. While each essay seeks to do justice to both history and theology (for the most part), each clearly leans to one side or the other. Since it would be too cumbersome to survey the volume in its entirety, I will focus my attention on two of the essays that touched on theological/philosophical and pastoral/spiritual themes.
Of the several high-quality essays focusing on Owen’s theology, I note two here: Sebastian Rehnmen’s “John Owen on Faith and Reason” and Suzanne McDonald’s “Beholding the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ: John Owen and the ‘Reforming’ of the Beatific Vision.” Both essays explore key historical issues and assess Owen’s constructive theology for its possible use today. Rehnmen’s essay is particularly interesting in light of the recent work by analytic theologians. In walking through key issues of faith and reason, Rehnmen provides touch-points, particularly in the footnotes, on key contemporary philosophical literature. This is particularly important in the discussion of whether or not faith requires reason for epistemic justification. In working through the relevant moments in Owen’s corpus, Rehnmen shows Owen to be an astute philosophical theologian often misunderstood by commentators because of their failure to assess how careful he actually is. In the end, Rehnmen shows that Owen’s epistemology does not fit neatly into contemporary categorizations, nor do his views fit obviously within Protestant orthodoxy. In other words, here is a place where we see Owen’s ability to creatively engage a long-standing issue and bring original thought to a problem.
In a similar way, Suzanne McDonald unveils Owen’s creative mind at work, engaging a long-standing theological issue. While it won’t surprise many that Owen focused on the issue of faith and reason, it might surprise some that he had so much to say about the beatific vision—the focus of McDonald’s essay. But this assumption would be misguided and would evidence an undue prejudice against Puritan theology. In fact, in this era of Reformed theology, the beatific vision appeared in at least two, if not three, distinct locations in a systematic theology. First, it was treated in the prolegomena, which would highlight that knowledge of God changed depending upon one’s placement in redemption history (developed under “ectypal theology”). Here and now, prior to our glorification, we know by faith. But the knowledge believers have in glorification is beatific knowledge. Therefore the beatific form of knowledge, in some way, orients knowledge by faith. The doctrine of God is the second place where the beatific vision was discussed. God is the God of beatific (“happifying”) self-knowing. This idea is eventually picked up by Jonathan Edwards, another great pinnacle of Puritan theology. Third, the doctrine of the beatific vision would appear in sections addressing the knowledge of God in glory (where we most often expect it). Therefore, in the Christian tradition, this era is probably the most theologically vibrant period for thinking about the beatific vision.
McDonald’s essay focuses on Owen’s creative reworking of the beatific vision. In doing so, she compares his work with the great Francis Turretin’s position on the topic in his Elenctic Theology, keeping Aquinas’ development always in the background. Owen, she argues, is able to pull off what Turretin cannot: a christological recasting of the beatific vision. This recasting leans heavily on Christ’s claim, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” While McDonald appreciates and affirms this christological refocusing of the beatific vision, she is left to wonder why Owen fails to bring in his normally robust pneumatology. This is even more curious considering Owen developed a Spirit-Christology that certainly could have been utilized in a christologically focused doctrine of the beatific vision. Furthermore, she questions why Owen did not follow through on hints toward more corporate and ethical dimensions of the doctrine.
Both essays serve as good examples of the breadth and depth of this volume. In my mind, this is one of the most important places to start when studying John Owen, and it should be read alongside some of the great introductions to Owen’s theology, such as Carl Trueman’s volume in the Great Theologians Series, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (2007) also by Ashgate, Kelly Kapic’s Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker, 2007), and Sebastian Rehnmen’s Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen in Baker Academic’s Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post Reformation Thought series. Alongside the books noted above, this will serve those interested in Owen well, providing needed access to a wide-ranging set of issues.