A version of this article first appeared in the Forum section of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Vol 14, No. 4 (Winter 2010).
In many ways, the great Puritan theologian John Owen (1616-1683) was not unique for his day. This is not simply playing the contrarian. It is important to emphasize that he was one of many “hotter sort of Protestants;” one of many who bemoaned that the church in England was still “halfly reformed.” Owen’s theology was certainly not unique, but was one representative within the broader movement of Reformed orthodoxy. Many of his contemporaries had similar influence, some with even more political clout and others with seemingly more effective preaching. It is also necessary to note that Owen had his critics. Many of these critics, not surprisingly, strongly disagreed with his theology. But he also faced some disparagement for his persona: some thought he was too overbearing, too stern; and many more thought his knee-high leather boots and cocked hat were far too ostentatious for a university vice chancellor. Even today, he’s as famous (or infamous) for his long and lumbering writing style as much as almost anything else—a reputation that Owen seems to have garnered even in his own day.
All of that being said, I do think there are at least three ways in which Owen was particularly important for his time and in the church since.
Great Literary Output
His literary output was unique for its volume, diversity, and importance. The sheer magnitude of material Owen produced is staggering, especially when we today consider that it was under candlelight, with quill pen, and alongside many competitions for time and concentration (e.g., civil war, poor health, family deaths, persecution, ecclesiastical-political leadership, running an almost decimated Oxford University, etc.). His Works stretch 23 volumes in the still-in-print Banner of Truth edition, 24 volumes in the 1850-55 edition. A few of Owen’s contemporaries produced a similar amount of writing, such as Thomas Manton, whose works reach 22 volumes. But in the case of Manton, the majority of his works are published sermons. Owen’s Works contain two volumes of Parliamentary sermons, but ten-fold are the significant works of polemics, doctrinal treatise, practical theology, and one massive commentary on Hebrews with more than 1,000 pages of prefatory material and 2,500 pages of commentary (Vols. 17-23 in the Banner edition).
This and several other works have proven to be unique contributions to the church. His several works on Reformed spirituality have become somewhat movement-defining (Vols. 1, 2, and 4). Abraham Kuyper thought that Owen’s massive work on the Holy Spirit (Vol. 3) was unparalleled. Of course, even those who disagree with Owen’s view of particular redemption know that it is unavoidable to interact with the standard-bearer, The Death of Death (Vol. 10). Owen attempted at least one work on the nature and structure of theology. This Latin work, Theologoumena Pantadapa (1661), is sadly not included in the Banner edition of Works, though there is a paraphrastic English translation (Biblical Theology [Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994]). There are certainly some forgettable sections (one that defends the inspiration of the Masoretic vowel points); but it is nevertheless an important and often overlooked representative of 17th-century “Federal Theology”—a biblical-historical model of theological organization. In short, the enormity, variety, and effect of Owen’s work stands out in his day—or any day for that matter.
Leader in His Day
Owen was a prominent figure in the very “Puritan-esque” times of England’s Revolution and Restoration. He preached to Parliament the day after the king was executed for treason. With the king out of the way, the army and Parliament leaned heavily in the Puritan direction; thus, the 1650s looked to be an unprecedented time to implement many Puritan ideals. Owen enjoyed a unique relationship with Oliver Cromwell, functioning as a leading adviser to the Lord Protector on the complex and ever-changing ecclesiastical-political climate. Indeed, Owen was one of only a handful to construct several legislative proposals for settling a state church during the Protectorate—one that would be healthy, godly, effective, and uncoercive.
All the while, Owen was both vice chancellor of Oxford University and dean of one of its leading colleges, Christ Church. For almost a decade, Owen had the charge of restoring order and glory to England’s oldest university. He was also increasingly a leading figure of the growing movement of Congregational churches in England (and America). This leadership became more apparent and more needed when in 1662 the Independents were ejected from their churches and forbidden to preach publically. Many Puritans, like John Bunyan, suffered years of imprisonment. Though Owen preached and conducted house meetings during these days, he did not face similar persecution (likely because of the already well-established respect he had broadly earned). But Owen did not take such freedom for granted: he constantly pleaded for the release of his imprisoned brethren, wrote many defenses of Reformed non-conformity, repeatedly appealed to the king for liberty, and gave financial aid to many persecuted Puritans and their families.
In these latter days, he was offered the presidency of Harvard and the pastorate of the highly esteemed First Congregational Church of Boston, but he turned them down to remain in his diverse, needed work in England. Therefore, it is an understatement to say that Owen had his fingers in many pies. Whether literary, pastoral, theological, political, academic/educational, or social, his efforts were indeed diverse and he held a prominent place in each. He was not just a “jack of all trades,” but more like a “master of many.” And, whether the Puritans were “in season” (Revolution) or “out of season” (Restoration), he was not only faithful but prominent.
Long and Lasting Influence
The influence of Owen’s life and writing is also quite telling. He has not enjoyed the notoriety of a Luther, Calvin, or Edwards, but it is difficult to think of any contemporary of Owen’s who has had a broader and longer-lasting influence. A few, such as Thomas Goodwin, were indeed very significant in the mid-17th century, but they have not had the same effect on the centuries to follow. Conversely, Owen has been the focus of approximately 30 books and dissertations over the last 20 years. Four significant scholarly works on Owen were published in 2008 alone. More than a few scholars have a major academic work on Owen in process. And, of course, he’s not just of interest to scholars. His practical writings are as widely enjoyed as ever, thanks in part to the modern, unabridged versions edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor (Overcoming Sin and Temptation [Wheaton: Crossway, 2006] and Communion with the Triune God [Wheaton: Crossway, 2007]). Owen’s stock seems to be rightly on the rise, further confirming Charles Spurgeon’s commendation of more than a century ago: “It is unnecessary to say that he is the prince of divines.”