John Owen (1613-1683) is rightly regarded as one of the greatest theologians Britain ever produced. A.F Mitchell said that he was a genius and learning only second to Calvin’s. In him we see the not atypical combination of fervent puritan piety and reformed orthodoxy that uses scholastic termino-logy to clarify the message of the gospel.
The last decennia we have seen a revival in Owen studies. The past years quite a number of doctoral dissertations have been defended in which attention was drawn to one of the aspects of Owen’s theology. Ashgate Publishing can be congratulated that she published a companion to Owen’s theology. The articles are written by an international group of leading Owen scholars. This much needed volume explores key questions related to Owen’s method, theology and pastoral practice.
The first article is written by Ryan Kelly. He explores Owen’s contribution to theological codification during the Protectorate. During these years Owen stood in very close contact to highest governors of the country and especially Oliver Cromwel, the Protector himself. Because of the connecting between church and government theological codification had always political aspects. John Coffey asks attention for Owen’s view on toleration. Owen cannot be seen as a defender of toleration in the modern sense, but in the British context of the middle of the seventeenth century his ideas were quite progressive.
Owen wanted a national Reformed church, but everyone who could not join for sake of conscience this church ought to be given reli-gious freedom when he agreed to the fundamentals of the Reformed faith. Unitarians and Socianians were excluded from toleration because of their heterodox views. The reason that Roman Catholics were not allowed to take profit of toleration was not only religious but also political. They were seen as a danger for the freedom of Britain from papal Rome which claimed sovereignty over the princes of Europe.
Especially helpful I found the article by Susan McDonald on Owen’s view on the beatific vision of God in eternal glory. She shows that Owen paid more attention to beatific vision than generally was done in Reformed theology. He differs significantly from the leading medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. Owen speaks much more Christ-centered than Thomas. Owen states in Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ that the blessed and blessing sight of God which we have in eternal glory will be always in the face of Jesus Christ.
Without denying the value of the other articles I finally point to the article of Robert Letham on Owen’s doctrine of the trinity in its Catholic context. In his unfolding the doctrine of the trinity Owen closely followed Augustine, the greatest church father of the West. Just as Augustine he can define the Holy Spirit as the band of love between Father and the Son. In agreement with Western theologian Owen has defended the filioque. The Spirit not only proceeds from the Father but also from the Son. We can never separated the work of the Spirit from the work of the Son. The filioque secures the Christ centered character of Owen’s theology.
Letham rightly says that differences between Owen and the church fathers of the East and especially the Cappadocians are quite often exaggerated. Having said that, we must still admit that Augustine emphasized more the unity within the trinity and the Cappadocians more the trinity in the unity. Owen is in his focus on the three persons more characteristic of the East. In Of Communion with God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost he states that we have distinctly communion with each of the three divine persons. Owen is very important here making clear for us the great relevance of the doctrine of the trinity for Christian piety.
For everyone interested in Owen I can heartily recommend The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s theology. This collection of well-informed interpretative essays provides an excellent guide to the range of his thought.
Kelly M. Kapic and Mark Jones, The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s theology (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2012), hardcover 334 pp,. £25,– ISBN 9781409434887)