As one who has ploughed postmodern fields and cleared deconstructive hermeneutical thickets, it gives me particular pleasure to introduce and commend the work of a 17th-century theologian who takes us to the very heart of Puritan faith, hope, and love. Despite my extended forays into various kinds of postliberal and postconservative theology—-or perhaps because of them—-John Owen’s study of communion with the triune God strikes me as especially significant, even contemporary, and this for three, maybe four, reasons.
Owen Balances God’s Oneness and Threeness
In the first place, much has been made of late concerning the “renaissance” of Trinitarian theology that began with Karl Barth and picked up steam throughout the 20th century until it achieved “bandwagon” status around 1980. One of the most important present-day litmus tests for theologians pertains to how far one accepts (or understands!) Rahner’s Rule: “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity and vice versa.”
Read against the backdrop of the current discussion, Owen’s approach to the doctrine of the Trinity is impressive indeed. Owen walks a fine line that balances the oneness and the threeness, emphasizing our communion “with each person distinctly” while at the same time insisting that to commune with each person is to commune with the one God. Perhaps one advantage of Owen’s approach over more than a few contemporary approaches is that he is able to preserve the distinctness of the Father’s love while simultaneously focusing on Christ as the one alone who makes it known.
Owen Helps Us Connect Union and Communion with God
A second point. Christianity, it has been said, is not a religion but a personal relation. Owen agrees that theology is relational, but his account of our relation with God bears little resemblance either to the casual way in which it sometimes gets played out in dumbed-down theology and worship or to the reductionistic way it gets worked out in wised-up theology that defines persons as “nothing but” relations and which views the God-humanity relation in terms of a flattened out mutuality. Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is indispensable reading for all those who want to go deeper into the meaning of relationality than one typically goes in the pop-theology boats that float only on the psychological surface of the matter.
The gospel is the good news that in Christ there is union and communion with God. According to Owen, communion involves “mutual relations” between God and humankind—-a giving and receiving—-but it does not follow that God and humankind are equal partners. Only God can bring about the union that establishes and enables the subsequent communion. Humans enjoy fellowship with God, therefore, only by actively participating in what God has unilaterally done for them in Christ through the Spirit. Owen may here have something to teach contemporary theology concerning the nature of human participation in God’s triune life, namely, that participation, like communion itself, is neither a legal fiction nor idle piety but rather the meat and drink of the Christian life. We appropriate the friendship God offers through the workings of his Word and Spirit in and through our natural human faculties.
Owen Sees that Theology Is Crucial for Worship and Living
The third significant feature is Owen’s emphasis on theology for right worship and faithful practice. Here too, 21st century theology is playing catch-up with the Puritans as it seeks ways of coordinating theory and practice, both informally, in everyday life, and formally, in theological education. Owen’s work provides just the right balance, tempering spiritual experience with biblical exegesis, and argumentative rigor with pastoral application. “I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of every thing else but converse and communion with him” (letter to Sir John Hartopp).
Owen Understands the Relationship of Communion and Communication
This prayer signals for me a fourth way in which Owen’s Communion with the Triune God has something to contribute, in this case to my own work in progress. As one who has seen great potential in the notion of Scripture as made up of God’s speech acts, I am encouraged and intrigued by Owen’s way of relating communion and communication: “Our communion . . . with God consisteth in his communication of himself unto us, with our return unto him of that which he requireth and accepteth, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him.” To be sure, by “communication” Owen has in mind every kind of divine self-giving, not only the verbal and the cognitive. In this regard, Owen’s emphasis, some 300 years before Barth, on Christ as the “medium of all communication” between God and us is particularly noteworthy.
Though Owen was born the year Shakespeare died, his writing is somewhat less accessible. Yet what we have in Owen is ultimately a holy sonnet with an extended introduction and a protracted analysis: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.” Communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit begins with God’s love for us and ends in our love to God. Communion with the triune God is sweeter yet more profound than human friendship or any human relationship.
In sum: Owen’s work anticipates key modern and postmodern developments without falling into some of the traps to which these later movements are prone. While John Bunyan probably did not have John Owen in mind when he wrote about the House of the Interpreter in Pilgrim’s Progress, Christians today may nevertheless find Owen to be a reliable guide to the triune way of the Word.