Volume 46 - Issue 1

The Nature and Task of Theology in John Owen’s Forgotten Work

By John Kegley


Theologoumena Pantodapa may be John Owen’s most comprehensive theological work and his greatest contribution to the Reformed tradition. However, this work was not translated into English until 1994. Since its translation, it has received a noticeable lack of scholarly attention. This essay seeks to fill a part of the void in scholarship by examining Theologoumena Pantodapa’s historical context, structure, and key themes. This examination is profitable and pertinent for pastors, students of theology, and all Christians as it includes an analysis of Owen’s hermeneutical method, understanding of the relationship between theology and practice, and comments on the character of the gospel theologian.

John Owen was one of the most prolific and theologically sophisticated writers of Puritanism. The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, called Owen the “prince of divines” and said that anyone who mastered his works was a “profound theologian.”1 Contemporary pastors and theologians may be familiar with John Owen and some of his works such as the Mortification of Sin and The Glory of Christ. However, most are likely unacquainted with what Owen considered his most significant theological work, Theologoumena Pantodapa. An examination of this work will therefore greatly benefit pastors and students of theology as it provides a window into how one of the greatest theological minds of Puritanism, perhaps even of Reformed Protestantism, approached and engaged in the discipline of theology.

1. Historical Background and Introduction

Before engaging with the contents of Theologoumena Pantodapa, it is first necessary to understand the historical context in which Owen produced this work, how this work has been received and evaluated since its original publication, and finally, how Owen decided to structure and arrange this work.

1.1. Owen’s Historical Context

In the summer of 1657, Oliver Cromwell resigned from his position as Chancellor of Oxford University and recommended his son, Richard, to succeed him. John Owen who served as vice chancellor of Oxford University alongside Oliver was dismissed six weeks later.2 Only months earlier, Owen drafted a petition against the House of Commons’s proposal to make Oliver king. This petition likely contributed to Owen’s dismissal as vice chancellor. The following year on 3 September 3 1658 Oliver Cromwell died, and a month after his death Owen participated in the development of the Savoy Declaration, an amended version of the Westminster Confession of Faith that included provisions for congregational polity. In this same year, John Owen wrote his magnum opus, Theologoumena Pantodapa, which he finished at home in Stadham only months before the Restoration of the monarchy.3 Stephen Westcott argues that if Owen did not have this year of “retirement” before the Restoration of the monarchy and the “Act of Uniformity” thrust him back into political and public life, then “this volume would probably never have seen the light of day, and his insights might have passed away with the voice that uttered them.”4

By God’s grace and providence, Owen wrote Theologoumena Pantodapa and I believe modern pastors and students of theology can benefit from an examination of its contents in at least three ways. First, pastors often struggle to interpret the Old Testament in light of Christ. They struggle to preach sermons from the Old Testament which do not devolve into moralism. An examination of Theologoumena Pantodapa’s covenantal structure reveals a hermeneutical method for pastors to interpret the Old Testament in a way that is eminently Christo-centric. Second, pastors and students of theology often feel a divide between theology and practice in the church. Sometimes pastors feel pressured to spend less time in the study and more time visiting members of the congregation. Owen pushes back against the simplistic division between theology and practice in Theologoumena Pantodapa. Finally, Owen’s remarks in Theologoumena Pantodapa on the character of the gospel theologian offer significant encouragement to the many pastors and students of theology who find it hard to maintain a devotional life amidst their theological reflection. Owen challenges gospel theologians to be fervent not just in their reading of systematic theologies, but also in their reading of Scripture—the source of all theology—and in prayer.

1.2. Theologoumena Pantodapa’s History of Reception

Theologoumena Pantodapa is arguably one of Owen’s most significant works as it contains the most exhaustive exhibition of his unique theological emphases and contributions. Carl Trueman calls this work “Owen’s most comprehensive statement of theology.”5 William Goold notes that an international audience received Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa with great eagerness. It was reprinted in 1684 at Bremen and in 1700 at Franeker.6 Sebastian Rehnman also points out that the covenantal Dutch theologian Herman Wistius also strongly commended this work.7 In the “General Preface” to The Works of John Owen, Goold also notes the strong commendation of Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa by John Ryland, the founder of the Baptist missionary society. His approbation indicates how highly many regarded this work:

This book bears the same rank, and has the same relation to the study of divinity, which the “Principia” of Sir Isaac Newton bears to the true system of the world, in the study of natural philosophy; and it is of equal importance to all young divines which that great man’s work is to young philosophers…. I am ashamed of my countrymen for their ignorance of this incomparable work,—perhaps the very greatest of the kind that ever was written by a British divine; and it now lies buried in dust, amidst the lumber of a book-seller’s garret, whilst a thousand volumes of wretched trash in divinity, with their pompous bindings, stand as monuments of human folly in our book-cases and libraries.8

While Goold indicates that Ryland’s appraisal of the work is obviously exaggerated, he himself gives great praise to the Theologoumena Pantodapa. He states “no work of Dr. Owen, in his native tongues, leaves such an impression of the extent and variety of its erudition; and, to judge from it, no contemporary name bears away the palm of decided superiority to our author, either in respect of spiritual wisdom or general learning.”9 In his sketch of Owen’s life, Thomson also comments on the significance of this work: “There is no book in the English language that occupies the wide field over which Owen travels with his usual power, and scatters around him his learned stones.”10 Finally, Stephen Westcott claims that Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa is “the most erudite work of Britain’s greatest ever theologian” and he argues that Owen himself considered it “his greatest and most enduring contribution to the advancement of Reformational theology.”11

Despite the aforementioned praise of Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa by many learned scholars, it was not translated into English until 1994 by Stephen Westcott under the title Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ. John Ryland would have certainly been dismayed that Owen’s great and monumental work lay dormant and unavailable to a popular audience for so long. From 1850 to 1855 Goold edited the works of Owen in a definitive 24-volume set. At this time, Goold and his publishers contemplated translating the Theologoumena Pantodapa into English. However, they opted against this translation because they lived in a time when Latin was still the language of scholarship and the academy. They assumed anyone who wanted to read this type of book would more than likely be well versed in Latin. Nevertheless, because they chose not to translate this work into English, it was unavailable to an English audience since its original publication in 1661. Westcott aptly summarizes the neglect of Owen’s work when he writes, “Like a stranded treasure ship, it has been beached and left high and dry by the receding tide of Classical scholarship.”12

1.3. Theologoumena Pantodapa’s Structure and Method

Before analyzing the specific contents of Theologoumena Pantodapa, it is necessary first to reflect on the structure and method of the book as a whole. Westcott’s decision to alter the title of Owen’s work in his English edition to Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ reveals his opinions about the structure of the work. Although the category of biblical theology did not develop until after Owen’s time, along with J. I. Packer I think it is appropriate to call this book a “proto-Biblical Theology” because it does attempt to trace a common theme (theology) throughout the distinct historical stages of biblical history.13 However, while Theologoumena Pantodapa roughly fits into the modern category of biblical theology, “Biblical Theology” is still not the best title for the book. Packer argues that the name biblical theology is not actually helpful because one “cannot tell from the name that the study has a distinctive historical focus, and second because it seems to imply that other disciplines within the organism of theology are not biblical.”14

If I were to alter Westcott’s title, I would title it Covenant Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ. The Puritans strongly embraced a covenantal reading of Scripture. Their embrace of the covenantal schema is most clearly seen in their chief confessional document, the Westminster Confession, which is itself organized around the biblical covenants. With this covenantal structure Scripture is understood and interpreted in light of God’s covenants with humanity. These covenants include the Adamic covenant, the covenant of grace, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the new covenant. These covenants do not nullify each other as they progress, but they add to and expand upon one another and find their ultimate fulfillment in Christ. Owen’s embrace of a covenantal reading of Scripture is evident in one of his most significant projects, the Savoy Declaration of 1658, which is essentially a congregational version of the Westminster Confession of Faith from 1649. Owen’s indebtedness to the covenantal tradition of the Westminster Confession likely influenced him to organize the Theologoumena Pantodapa around the covenantal schema.

Additionally, Owen was likely influenced by Augustine’s The City of God, in his arrangement of the Theologoumena Pantodapa. In his works, he references Augustine more than any other author, and his personal library contained Augustine’s complete works.15 Like Augustine, Owen writes extensively about the history and development of idolatry in the world. Also, just as Augustine traces the development of a central theme—the city of God—through sequential books of Scripture, Owen also traces a central theme, evangelical theology, through the sequential covenants of Scripture. Finally, Owen discloses his debt to Augustine’s De Civitate Dei as he refers to it frequently throughout the Theologoumena Pantodapa.16

In the Theologoumena Pantodapa, he traces the development of theology through the Adamic covenant, Noahic covenant, Mosaic covenant, and new covenant. Interestingly, Owen excludes the Davidic covenant in the discussion. He likely omits it because of his historical situation. Before publishing this work in 1661, Owen not only refused to support the move to make Cromwell king in 1658, but the monarchy was restored in 1660 under Charles II to his dismay. Thus, Owen may intentionally exclude this covenant because it could have been used as a justification for the restored monarchy.17

Despite the fact that many puritans like Owen championed the covenantal reading of Scripture and method of theology, some chose to follow the scholastic method which was prominent among the continental Reformed theologians like Francis Turretin. The scholastic methodology seeks to arrange the truths of Scripture under certain loci or headings instead of arranging them in a covenantal framework. Richard Baxter’s Methodus Theologiae and William Perkins’s A Golden Chain reveal the influence of the scholastic method of the continental Reformed theologians upon the English puritans. Furthermore, in some of his works, Owen himself appears to have adopted scholastic methodology. For instance, Toon comments that Owen’s Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu: Or the Death of Death in the Death of Christ contains a “heavy style and Aristotelian methodology.”18 Carl Trueman also asserts that “Owen’s theology exhibits some distinctly scholastic traits: for example, a passion for topical subdivision, and the use of questions and objections as a way of refuting his opponents and drawing out the full implications of his theology.”19 Owen also would have been very well trained in the scholastic model by his tutor Thomas Barlow, who was regarded as prominent Aristotelian scholar at Oxford. He would have read Lombard’s Sententiae and Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae among other medieval scholastic works. According to Sebastian Rehnman, Barlow “would evidently have provided Owen with a formidable instruction in the revived Aristotelianism of the Renaissance.”20

Despite Owen’s obvious training in, familiarity with, and use of the scholastic method, he chooses to write his magnum opus, Theologoumena Pantodapa, using a covenantal framework instead of the scholastic framework. Trueman argues that Owen chooses to write in this framework because of his “fundamental belief that theology is relational.”21 To Owen, Scripture describes the relationship between God and humanity throughout history. The covenantal model is therefore an appropriate method of theology because the covenants highlight the moments within biblical history where God most clearly and explicitly elucidated his relationship with mankind.22 Thus, Owen believes that “all theology … is based on a covenant.”23

Finally, Owen utilizes the covenantal framework because he believes Scripture not only normatively determines the content of theology but also the method of theology. The form of theology should conform to the form by which theology is revealed in Scripture. Just as biblical truth “has absolutely nothing in common with secular philosophy” so too “the method of expounding and interpreting it is also through and by the Holy Spirit, making it quite unique and divine, a different species from and, therefore, in total disagreement with all merely human teaching and transmission of knowledge.”24 To arrange the truths of Scripture using human methods and not the method revealed in Scripture is to mix theology and philosophy. Owen bewails the mixture of philosophical methods and biblical methods and comments upon the negative result of their union. He asserts,

To this is owed almost all of the theological systems—farragoes of odd theological propositions strung together with generalized arguments, sections lifted out of divine truth and context, plausible statements and propositions derived from them, all well mixed with philosophical terms and notions, cemented with overall and rigid formulas, and dished up as Christian theology!25

Not only does the mixture of philosophical methods and biblical truth produce aberrant theological systems, it also turns the perspicuity of Scripture into the obscurity of Scripture.26

2. The Study of Theology: Preliminary Considerations

Owen does not think that the study of theology can be divorced from the character of the theologian himself. On the contrary, he believes that the specific motivations of the theologian greatly impact how he will engage in the task of theology. Additionally, although Owen does not address many of the questions of scholastic prolegomena, he provides some preliminary remarks about the etymology of the word “theology,” the difference between archetypal and ectypal theology, and the definition of theology.

2.1. Hinderances to the Study of Theology

Before discussing the development of theology through the divine covenants, Owen explores various hinderances to the study of theology. This reveals Owen’s understanding that theology is an essentially practical discipline. The theologian does not study theology abstractly like a scientist examining a specimen under a microscope. To Owen, the study of theology cannot be divorced from the personality and experience of the theologian himself.

The first hinderance to the study of theology is studying it for the wrong reasons. Many study theology as a means to wealth or other worldly ends. They use theology as a cloak and a guise so that they might pursue other activities which interest them more. Of course, these people do not seriously study Scripture or pursue theology with the necessary diligence and care.27

Sloth also hinders the study of theology. According to Owen, sloth finds its origin in indwelling sin. Indwelling sin distracts the mind from the study of theology with various other pleasures. The enslaved mind prevents a man from studying theology with zeal. As a result, many who set out to study theology “finally grow weary and fall into the ways of negligence and sloth.”28 Factions and sects also hinder the study of theology. Students devote themselves to a certain group with great zeal and spend their lives condemning other groups for matters of secondary importance. Owen believes nothing hinders the study of theology more than for the student “to be ensnared into a vigorous sect before he has had the chance to develop independent, candid, and mature judgment of his own.”29 Finally, Owen also finds that teaching Classical literature to students beginning in theology is a great danger. He was not anti-Classical learning as his extensive references to the Classical authors indicate, but he did think exposing young students to the immorality espoused in Classical literature was not a good foundation for the study of theology.30

2.2. Prolegomena: Theology Defined

While the Theologoumena Pantodapa is not organized around the scholastic loci method, it does contain certain characteristics of scholasticism, particularly in the first three chapters. Here Owen devotes significant attention to matters of theological prolegomena, beyond what was typical for his English Puritan contemporaries.31

In the first chapter, Owen surveys the etymology of the word “theology.” In doing this Owen stands in the tradition of both the Reformed scholastics and their medieval antecedents, who often opened their theological works by defining certain terms.32 Owen urges caution to those who use theological nomenclature foreign to the language of Scripture because “much of the confusion which is evident in the teaching of the Christian religion is due to the introduction of alien terms into theological use.”33 The use of terms not found in Scripture should primarily be for purpose of refuting heretics. However, there are certain terms not found within Scripture such as “theology” that are commonly accepted and which must be allowed.34

Owen first examines how the Hebrews understood the word “theology.” While there is no Hebrew word which can be translated as “theology,” the Jews understood theology as the study of the Torah. The Greeks used the word theology to refer to instruction about the gods and understood the theologian as someone who talks about the gods. Many Greek authors wrote “theologoumena” or written works which discussed the gods. They also wrote “theogonies” or stories about the birth and origin of the gods. Hesiod’s Theogony was the most popular of these. Owen traces the use of the term “theologian” in Christianity to the Montanus fragment’s reference to the apostle John as “the theologian.” In sum, while the terms “theology” and “theologian” themselves are foreign to Scripture, Owen accepts the use of these words cautiously, and he prefers to call the topic of theology “Ecclesiastical Theology” following the lead of the early church historian, Eusebius.35

In chapter two, Owen decisively distances himself from scholastic prolegomena by avoiding “the disputes in which many scholars indulge over the so-called abstract and technical notion of theology.”36 Owen argues that the consideration of these questions are frivolous and amount to nothing more than the mixing of Aristotelian philosophy with Christian revelation.37 It is irrelevant to discuss whether theology is a “science” or “art” because these categories are arbitrary and humanly constructed. To categorize theology as a “science” is especially fatal because whereas science rests upon common natural truths, theology rests upon divine revelation with God as the subject matter. Subsequently, theology is “as infinitely far removed from the methodology of science as the sciences themselves are from nonexistence.”38

Despite the fact that he intentionally avoids the common scholastic conversation of whether theology is a science or an art, Owen reverts to positively employing distinctions common among scholastic prolegomena in his third chapter. He utilizes the scholastic distinction between archetypal knowledge and ectypal knowledge, following Fransiscus Junius’s De theologia vera.39 His work was the first work which separated archetypal theology from ectypal theology.40 Archetypal knowledge is the infinite knowledge by which God knows himself perfectly. God alone possesses this knowledge because God alone can know himself infinitely.41 Ectypal knowledge then is the knowledge of God which humanity possesses. This knowledge is mediated and dependent upon God’s “own intervention in power and grace and the free exercise of His own will and design.”42 Owen asserts that ectypal knowledge finds its supreme expression in the revelation of Jesus Christ in the gospel.

Finally, Owen concludes his prolegomena with a summative definition of theology. To Owen, theology is “the doctrine of God with regard to Himself, His works, His will, His worship, as well as our required obedience, our future rewards and punishments, all as revealed by God Himself to the glory of his name.”43

3. The Development of Theology through the Divine Covenants

John Owen’s primary aim in Theologoumena Pantodapa is to trace the development of theology through the biblical covenants. He considers the extent of Adam’s natural and supernatural theology before the fall and then explains the supernatural theology revealed to Adam after the fall in the covenant of grace. All of the subsequent biblical covenants expand upon the supernatural theology of the covenant of grace until theology is fully revealed in the evangelical theology of the new covenant.

3.1. Natural Theology vs. Supernatural Theology

After three chapters of introductory matters, Owen focuses the body of his work on tracing the development of theology throughout the biblical covenants. Owen argues that before the fall Adam possessed natural theology which was true and pure. By this natural knowledge, Adam could know God as Creator, Lawgiver, and Rewarder. Even though Adam possessed this knowledge naturally, he could increase this knowledge by “following the precepts of the divine will, and by prayerful meditation upon the works of the Creator.”44 Further, Adam’s knowledge was natural in so far as he was created with inborn knowledge of God and his character, yet it was supernatural in so far as it contained matters which could only be revealed by God such as the knowledge of God’s will for Adam and the requirements of his obedience. The purpose of Adam’s natural knowledge was “to render him wise and qualified to demonstrate obedience to God in accord with the covenant of works under which he had been placed.”45 By obeying God’s revealed law in the covenant of works, Adam would have arrived at the eternal enjoyment of God.

When Adam fell, his natural theology was corrupted and vitiated by sin. In Owen’s words, “the health-giving light of the first theology was extinguished through sin, and that creation-theology suffered annihilation.”46 With the loss of knowledge, man also lost the ability to obey God’s commands. After the fall, man still possesses a shadow and vestige of Adam’s pure natural knowledge and can still glean knowledge about God through creation, yet this knowledge is not profitable for salvation and cannot lead to the eternal enjoyment of God. Man recognizes God as a Creator, Ruler, and Judge, retains a conscience by which he discerns good from evil, and is aware of his need for moral obedience. He also retains a sensus divinitatis—an innate sense by which he is compelled to know God and to please him through worship. 47 Owen marshals a host of examples from pagan authors to support these statements and concludes that “so much of natural theology remains despite our fallen and corrupted state, that no one who would stay human can help being a theologian deep within himself.”48 Yet again, this natural knowledge is insufficient for salvation which can only come through the revelation of Christ. It is “but a tiny particle of knowledge enjoyed by the newly created man in his first state of innocence.”49

When natural theology was corrupted by sin, it continued to spiral downward throughout subsequent ages of mankind. Owen argues that philosophy arose as men attempted to build upon the remains of their defective natural theology. They sought to regain the primeval natural knowledge of Adam by using reason to rid the mind of its corruption and sin.50

Next, Owen considers the rise and content of supernatural theology after the fall. According to Owen, supernatural theology began with the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:16. Because this was a development in theology, it must have been rooted in a divine covenant. While Scripture does not use the language of covenant, Owen argues that God instituted the covenant of grace with Adam and contends that it can properly be called a covenant because it contains both divine promises and requirements for obedience. In the protoevangelium, Owen locates the source of all subsequent supernatural revelation. God’s covenant of grace with Adam was “the very marrow and core of the new theology…. From this time onward, it was revealed that righteousness and, in righteousness, gracious acceptance with God could never be sought at home by acceptable performance or inborn strength, but must be received from another who alone could overcome the danger of eternal death.”51

While the covenant of grace held forth the promise of the forgiveness of sins in Christ, it also maintained the need for moral obedience. Though God had yet to give the written law, those who embraced the promise of the covenant by faith were empowered to obey God’s moral commands. Finally, Owen claims that at this time God instituted sacrifice as a means by which man might exercise and test his faith in the divine promises.52 The covenant of grace therefore consists of three parts: (1) the promise of the forgiveness of sins through the coming Mediator, (2) requirements of obedience, and (3) instructions for the true worship of God.53 All successive Old Testament covenants develop and expand upon these three principles of theology until they are fulfilled in Christ and the new covenant. Pastors can therefore confidently read and interpret the Old Testament in light of the covenants and the complete development and fulfillment of their principles in the gospel.

3.2. Evangelical Theology: The Complete Revelation of Theology in the New Covenant

From simply observing the “Contents” of Owen’s book, it is obvious that he believes the period from the fall of Adam to the advent of Christ as a period largely characterized by idolatrous corruption and decline. Of course, the covenants were high moments in the development of theology as they further revealed and expanded upon the three principles of theology given in the covenant of grace. However, Owen writes relatively little about the development of theology within the covenants themselves. On the contrary, he focuses more about Israel’s failure to keep the covenants and their long decline into idolatry. For instance, whereas he considers the theology of the Noahic covenant in twenty-five pages, he maps “The Origin and Progress of Idolatry” in one hundred and fourteen pages. Additionally, he gives twelve pages to the theology of the Abrahamic covenant and sixteen pages to the theology of the Mosaic covenant. He writes about “The Corruption and Solemn Restoration of Mosaic Theology” in forty-five pages. It is not until Owen arrives at the new covenant and the culmination of theology in Christ that he focuses more on the content of theology than the aberration and corruption of that theology.

Owen distinctly calls the theology of the new covenant “evangelical theology.” Importantly, Owen does not think the theology of the new covenant nullifies the theology of the divine previous covenants. On the contrary, he sees new covenant theology as the perfection and culmination of the theology of the previous covenants.54 Christ is the supreme author and subject of evangelical theology. He chose to reveal this theology at a time when both idolatry and philosophy had reached their highest pitches. He reiterates that by virtue of his divine nature Christ possessed an infinite knowledge of all things, but when he assumed human nature in his role as mediator, he only knew what was revealed to him by the Father. Thus,

[Christ] was perfectly endued with knowledge of all that pertains to the obedience required by God from men, and, by His presence, He brought to light those things hidden in the Divine mind from eternity concerning the revelation of the glory of God, the setting up of the kingdom, the institutions of worship, the gathering of the church, the calling, training and the consoling of the elect. In all this, He was the medium for the revelation of God’s will to mankind.55

According to Owen the existential reality necessary for the evangelical theologian is “the rebirth of the human personality by the operation of the Holy Spirit.”56 Only those who have been reborn by the Holy Spirit can receive and obey evangelical theology. Having been reborn by the Holy Spirit, believers receive evangelical theology as a spiritual gift from the ascended Christ. Once they have received this evangelical theology, they are “made wise, prudent, and capable of understanding the mystery of holiness, of God and His will as revealed in Christ through the gospel.”57 Owen also writes about evangelical theology as spiritual wisdom. This wisdom consists of a saving knowledge of Christ and transforms believers into the image of Christ. It does this by kindling spiritual emotions commensurate with evangelical theology which then propels believers to long for communion with Christ.58 Spiritual wisdom also produces godliness so that in a dialectical relationship they “mutually and lovingly foster, promote, increase and strengthen each other continually.”59 There is no distinction between spiritual wisdom and practice. Spiritual wisdom always and necessarily produces godliness in the person to whom it is gifted. Finally, following the Westminster Confession, Owen argues that the chief end of all theology is the enjoyment of God and “the celebration of the praise of God, and His glory and grace in the eternal salvation of sinners.”60

4. Further Considerations on Theology and the Theologian

Owen ends Theologoumena Pantodapa by discussing two other matters related to the study of theology. First, Owen examines the mixture of philosophy and theology throughout church history and the relationship between philosophy and theology in the study of theology. Second, Owen practically describes what it means to be a gospel theologian seriously engaged in the study of theology.

4.1. The Relationship between Philosophy and Theology

Once he concludes the development of theology from Adam to Christ, Owen traces the development of the mixture of philosophy and theology. Shortly after the apostles proclaimed the simple truths of evangelical theology, the mixture of philosophy and theology led to errors concerning the person of Christ so that some believed he did not actually assume human flesh, but only appeared to do so. When these errors were expelled from evangelical theology, many Christian apologists began to fight the continued mixture of philosophy and theology by refuting their opponents with borrowed terms and concepts from philosophy. However, over time these terms and concepts were considered to be essential aspects of evangelical theology.61

When philosophy firmly established itself within the theology of the church, the scholastic theologians adopted Aristotelian philosophy and effectually “replaced the norm and faith of evangelical theology with a barbarous and philosophical pseudo-scientific ‘learning.’”62 By this mixture simple evangelical truth became so obscure and convoluted that “the Apostle Paul himself would struggle in vain to grasp or understand it—unless, that is he was given the clue by Aristotelian learning.”63 At the time of the Reformation, philosophy was expelled from evangelical theology and the purity and simplicity of the gospel was preached once again. Yet Owen argues that since the Reformation Aristotelian philosophy again began to infiltrate the theology of the Reformed churches.64 This infiltration generates a multitude of unnecessary disputes and controversies and causes theology to “become a thorny and confused subject of study which men think to pursue exactly as they would any other art or science; that is, without any spiritual light or the assistance of the Holy Spirit.”65 Rhenman provides a helpful summary of Owen’s understanding of reason and philosophy in the Theologoumena Pantodapa:

It is exceedingly difficult to find the distinction between the excessive and insubordinate use and the ordered and subordinate use of reason in theology in this work. The constructive activity of sound and restored reason in pursuing the logical implications of the teaching of Scripture and in inventing theological terms is gone, and the relationship between faith and reason is disharmonious. One of the central concepts of the Theologoumena is thus the distortion of Christianity by philosophy, and the latter is virtually reduced to one very negative sense.66

Owen’s negative comments on philosophy and Aristotle come as a surprise. As noted earlier, Owen was tutored by Thomas Barlow, a recognized Aristotelian scholar at Oxford. Owen himself uses Aristotelian categories and concepts in many of his works like The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Rhenman argues that Owen’s negative comments on philosophy in the Theologoumena Pantodapa do not accurately reflect his understanding of the instrumental use of philosophy in theology.67 According to Rehnman, Owen’s comments are a reaction against “a prevailing rationalistic and naturalistic tendency” in Reformed theology and are especially negative because of his “personal disaster of becoming a persona non grata in the Cromwellian establishment” and “the defeat of his ideals in the Restoration.”68

4.2. The Character of the Gospel Theologian

Throughout the Theologoumena Pantodapa Owen considers what it means to be a gospel theologian. His consideration remains profitable for modern pastors and students of theology. Owen asserts that the theologian must not simply comprehend the mysteries of the gospel, but he must also be affected by them with passionate love. He bluntly exclaims “the man who is not inflamed with divine love is an outsider to all theology.”69 Owen also claims that just as “a keen study of Cicero’s Laws and Plato’s Republic [does not] automatically produce good citizens,” so too a knowledge of the truths of Scripture does not make someone a theologian.70 On the contrary, the gospel theologian is someone who both has been deeply instructed by the Holy Spirit in the mysteries of Scripture and also practices the truths in which he has been instructed.

Owen also urges the gospel theologian to be diligent in the reading of and meditation upon the Scriptures knowing that “in His Holy Scriptures God speaks to the sinner no less directly than if He chose to employ a voice resounding from the heavens.”71 Owen then advises that the gospel theologian be diligent in prayer throughout all of his studies as it “is the most effectual means ordained of God for discovering that heavenly wisdom for which we are seeking, and for meeting with Himself who is that Wisdom.”72 Finally, Owen instructs the gospel theologian to be in fellowship with others who study evangelical theology and seek to live in holiness. Through fellowship, the gospel theologian is encouraged to put into practice the gift of wisdom which he has received.73

Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa is largely unknown to an English-speaking audience. However, this work is extremely important not only within Owen’s own corpus but also within the tradition of Reformed theology as a whole. While Owen entertains many scholastic discussions, especially in the first three chapters, he does so within a covenantal framework. Moreover, his covenantal method is unique because he does not simply expound each of the divine covenants in succession, but traces a single theme—theology—throughout each of these covenants. In this way, Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa can be understood as a proto-Biblical Theology.

Moreover, Owen’s discussion of theology throughout this book is eminently practical and informative for all Christians, especially pastors and students of theology. Owen provides a framework for interpreting the Old Testament which places the person and work of Christ, his worship, and his requirements for obedience at the center. He also pushes back against the false dichotomy between theology and practice, explaining how the Holy Spirit has graced all Christians with a renewed mind and the gift of evangelical theology, which inevitably leads to their growth in godliness, holiness, and communion with God. Additionally, Owen’s description of the gospel theologian reminds modern pastors and students of theology to study theology devotionally, not merely intellectually. Finally, Thomson’s remark on the entirety of Owen’s works especially applies to Theologoumena Pantodapa. It is like “like a soil which is literally impregnated with gold, and in which burnished masses of the virgin ore are sure to reward him who patiently labours in it.”74 May modern pastors and students of theology heed Thomson’s remark and labor over Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa, for they will be richly rewarded.

[1] Charles H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1876), 151.

[2] Peter Toon, God’s Statesman (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 77.

[3] Andrew Thomson, “Life of Dr Owen,” in The Glory of Christ, ed. William H. Goold, The Works of John Owen 1 (1850–1853; repr., East Peoria, IL: Vera Press, 1965), lxxvii. The full title of this work in Latin is Theologoumena Pantodapa, sive, De Natura, Ortu, Progressu, et Studio, Verae Theologiae; in English, the title is Theological Affirmation of All Sorts, Or, Of the Nature, Rise, Progress, and Study, of True Theology … with Digressions on Universal Grace, the Rise of the Sciences, Marks of the Roman Church, the Origin of Writing, Ancient Hebrew Script, Hebrew Punctuation, Jewish Versions and Forms of Worship, and Other Things.

[4] John Owen, Biblical Theology, trans. Stephen P. Westcott (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 725.

[5] Trueman, The Claims of Truth, 49.

[6] William Goold, “General Preface,” in The Glory of Christ, ed. William H. Goold, The Works of John Owen 1 (1850–1853; repr., East Peoria, IL: Vera Press, 1965), x.

[7] Sebastian Rehnman, Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 17.

[8] Goold, “General Preface,” x (n. 1).

[9] Owen, Biblical Theology, xv.

[10] Thomson, “Life of Dr Owen,” lxxviii.

[11] Owen, Biblical Theology, xvii.

[12] Owen, Biblical Theology, xvii.

[13] Owen, Biblical Theology, xiii. J. I. Packer points out in his “Foreword” to the work that the discipline of biblical theology did not develop until the eighteenth century, when J. P. Gabler distinguished it from dogmatic theology.

[14] Owen, Biblical Theology, xi.

[15] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 41.

[16] Owen, Biblical Theology, 4, 45, 126,183, 185, 201, 240, 380, 385, 541.

[17] This insight comes from Gerald Bray, personal correspondence.

[18] Toon, God’s Statesman, 26.

[19] Trueman, The Claims of Truth, 32.

[20] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 32, 38.

[21] Trueman, The Claims of Truth, 49.

[22] Trueman, The Claims of Truth, 49.

[23] Owen, Biblical Theology, 28.

[24] Owen, Biblical Theology, 670.

[25] Owen, Biblical Theology, 671.

[26] Owen, Biblical Theology, 12.

[27] Owen, Biblical Theology, xxv–xxvi.

[28] Owen, Biblical Theology, xxvii–xxviii.

[29] Owen, Biblical Theology, xxxi.

[30] Owen, Biblical Theology, xxxiii–xxxviii.

[31] Trueman, The Claims of Truth, 48–49.

[32] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 50, 52.

[33] Owen, Biblical Theology, 1–2.

[34] Owen, Biblical Theology, 3.

[35] Owen, Biblical Theology, 3–6.

[36] Owen, Biblical Theology, 7.

[37] Owen, Biblical Theology, 7.

[38] Owen, Biblical Theology, 8.

[39] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 57. Rehnman recognizes that in applying this distinction Owen is in company with Reformed scholastic theologians like Polanus, Turretin, Mastricht, Coffejus, and Braunius.

[40] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 57.

[41] Owen, Biblical Theology, 15.

[42] Owen, Biblical Theology, 15.

[43] Owen, Biblical Theology, 17.

[44] Owen, Biblical Theology, 20.

[45] Owen, Biblical Theology, 20–21.

[46] Owen, Biblical Theology, 27.

[47] Owen, Biblical Theology, 30–33.

[48] Owen, Biblical Theology, 38.

[49] Owen, Biblical Theology, 45.

[50] Owen, Biblical Theology, 85.

[51] Owen, Biblical Theology, 170–71.

[52] Owen, Biblical Theology, 176–77.

[53] Owen, Biblical Theology, 183, 185.

[54] Owen, Biblical Theology, 593.

[55] Owen, Biblical Theology, 600–2.

[56] Owen, Biblical Theology, 636.

[57] Owen, Biblical Theology, 640.

[58] Owen, Biblical Theology, 643–46.

[59] Owen, Biblical Theology, 648.

[60] Owen, Biblical Theology, 176, 617–18.

[61] Owen, Biblical Theology, 673–74.

[62] Owen, Biblical Theology, 676.

[63] Owen, Biblical Theology, 672.

[64] Owen, Biblical Theology, 678–79.

[65] Owen, Biblical Theology, 684.

[66] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 123.

[67] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 116–23.

[68] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 182–83.

[69] Owen, Biblical Theology, xlvi.

[70] Owen, Biblical Theology, 619.

[71] Owen, Biblical Theology, 699.

[72] Owen, Biblical Theology, 701.

[73] Owen, Biblical Theology, 702.

[74] Thomson, “Life of Dr Owen,” cxi.

John Kegley

John Kegley serves as the pastoral assistant at Shades Valley Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

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