Writing on John Owen is like building an iPad (sorry in advance to non-Apple fans). The R&D department must work hard to engineer a product using terms that the average person does not understand, but without which there could be no iPad. After long hours of research, planning, meetings, tests, and trips to China, the iPads begin rolling off of the assembly line. The end product must be useable and someone then tries to show people why they need one.
I wrote a very expensive book on Owen and a very inexpensive book on Owen. The very expensive book has hundreds of footnotes and takes great pains to argue from primary sources, set Owen in his historical context, and interact with other scholars. It is very expensive partly because some of these scholars need a paycheck for combing through such works in order to make them better. My very inexpensive book on Owen represents what happens when church members ask, “Why have you spent so much time writing about John Owen?” My primary answer is that Owen is the best author in English to teach us how to enjoy fellowship with all three persons in the Trinity. This article aims to sell you an “Owen iPad” by helping you understanding why he is important and how he can help you know the triune God better. This article explains how Owen developed his Trinitarian theology and its practical use for believers.
How to Build an Owen iPad: The Context of Owen’s Trinitarian Piety
Some scholars have called Owen the greatest theologian that England ever produced. Yet he is old and dead, so why should you care? He neither wrote blog posts nor did have Facebook or Twitter accounts. The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 4:11-16,
And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.
Paul included “pastors and teachers” among the offices listed here. Christ’s positive purposes in giving such men to the church are to equip the saints, and to promote unity in the faith and spiritual maturity. His negative purposes are to protect believers from theological and practical instability as well as from false teachers. Christ’s plan for your life is for you to read your Bibles daily and to sit under sound preaching (Acts 17:10-11). We are not obligated to read theologians from the past in the same way that we are obligated to belong to local churches and to sit under a local ministry. Yet can we not benefit from those men who are among Christ’s greatest “gifts” to the church in her history?
In order to profit from Owen’s theology you need some history. Owen was born in 1616. He studied at Oxford University in his early teens, which was the time to go university, if you went at all. After completing his BA and MA, he began his seven-year bachelor of divinity degree (for those interested in seminary, do not try this at home unless accompanied by an adult, and for students, your work load is not too bad). Owen dropped out of his divinity degree early due to persecution from William Laud, who required “Puritans” to practice things in worship that were against their consciences, such as bowing to crucifixes and wearing funny bright colored robes known as “vestments.” However, he eventually earned the title of doctor of divinity for his writing skills, became a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and vice-chancellor of Oxford University where he taught for a decade. After the monarchy was restored, Owen used the exorbitant salary he earned previously at Oxford (about ten times that of the average minister) to help support Puritan ministers who were forbidden from preaching. He went from preaching to thousands in Ireland and mentoring students at Oxford, to pastoring a small church of about thirty members. He wrote many important books. He died in 1683, being comforted that the last book he saw coming to print aimed to teach believers how to meditate on the glory of Christ. His life-long battle with the Socinians, who denied the Trinity, the atonement, and almost every essential doctrine of the Christian faith except the doctrine of Scripture, provided the background for his practical development of Trinitarian theology.
The two following posts will draw from Owen's Of Communion with God, which was his primary practical work on the Trinity.