T&T Clark Handbook of John Owen

Written by Crawford Gribben and John W. Tweeddale, eds Reviewed By Thomas Haviland-Pabst

This handbook reflects the increase of scholarly interest in the Puritan divine John Owen. The editors have both authored notable monographs on Owen and have contributed significantly to Owenian scholarship. Gribben and Tweeddale distinguish this handbook from the earlier Ashgate companion (Kelly M. Kapic and Mark Jones, eds., The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology [Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012]) since its aim is “to become the most obvious reference for teachers and general readers of [Owen’s] work” (p. 4). This is accomplished by “combining introductions to some of Owen’s most significant publications with considerations of new scholarly themes in his work” (p. 4).

A comparison of the table of contents for the Ashgate companion and the T&T Clark Handbook does, in fact, support their claim. The introductions to major works of Owen is a distinctive feature of the T&T Clark Handbook. The two volumes feature some of the same authors (including Gribben, Tweeddale, and Kapic) but address different aspects of Owen’s life and work.

The handbook is divided into three parts. The first part, consisting of eleven chapters, addresses various contexts which inform our understanding of Owen. Ryan M. McGraw’s discussion of Owen as a theologian (ch. 3) stands out in this first part as he describes how Owen moved from his earlier position, in which he affirmed that divine justice was merely hypothetical and thus “relative to creation” (p. 30), to his more developed view in Dissertation on Divine Justice (1653), which argues that justice was an absolute attribute of God and as such the atonement of Christ was “an absolute necessity” (p. 30). Additionally, McGraw helpfully discerns occasions when Owen is more beholden to scholastic categories (Dissertation on Divine Justice and Christologia [1679]) and times when he resists the use of such categories (e.g., Theologoumena Pantodapa [1661]).

Crawford Gribben, in chapter five, offers a trenchant discussion of Owen’s relationship to the politics of his day. He writes that, while there was some truth to the charge that Owen frequently changed his mind, “he did not change his mind on the underlying commitment … [to] the toleration of orthodox Protestants” (p. 116). What Owen had in view, according to Gribben, is the protection of religion freedom for the orthodox, whatever “forms of government” (p. 116) would assure this protection. Lee Gatiss (ch. 8) makes the intriguing case that, based on Owen’s own writings, he was “far more Anglican than anything else” (p. 188).

The second part, consisting of eight chapters, provides “contextual expositions of specific works” (p. 7). While each chapter in this section provides a summary exposition of the works in question, there is an unevenness of presentation. Some chapters (e.g., Christopher Cleveland’s discussion of Theomachia Autexousiastike, or, A Display of Arminianisme [1643] in ch. 12) display the level of thoroughness one would expect from a scholarly treatment of a historical writing (i.e., historical context, use of sources) whereas others almost amount to a brief summary of the writing in question without the historical work that one would expect (e.g., the chapter by Andrew M. Leslie on Pneumatologia, or, A Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit [1674]). However, despite the uneven of presentation, a number of the chapters do move forward our understanding of Owen’s writings.

Kelly Kapic offers the sole chapter for the third part. This is likely one of the most important chapters in the volume as Kapic suggests avenues for further historical research. Among these include the need for more work on how “a former chaplain of Cromwell” was ingratiated to “Charles II in the 1660s” (p. 496) as well as more detail on the last two decades of Owen’s life in which he seemed to pass his time in “relative ease” (p. 496). Turning to theological concerns, Kapic argues that “it is legitimate to debate Owen’s ideas themselves” without becoming tangled up “in seventeenth-century politics or historical debates about continuity” (p. 505).

There are a number of strengths that attend this work. Part 1 alone is worth the purchase of the book as both expected (e.g., intellectual context) and unexpected (e.g., scientific revolution) contextual explorations are offered. Also, the abbreviation section lists every work of Owen in chronological order, which will be a significant aid to orient the unfamiliar student to such a large corpus, and the bibliography displays all the Owenian scholarship achieved thus far and the gaps that still exist. Additionally, Kelly Kapic discusses more ways that Owen studies can continue than some may have thought possible. One minor criticism we can offer is that it would have been helpful if the editors gave their rationale for the choice of writings covered in Part 2.

Overall, the editors and the contributors have succeeded in making this Handbook a resource that will be accessible, yet thorough enough, for scholars and students alike to turn to and gain insight into the complex man who lived in complex times, serving as a prolific writer, formidable and persistent polemicist, and churchman through and through. Highly recommended.

Thomas Haviland-Pabst

Thomas Haviland-Pabst
One Family Ministries
Asheville, North Carolina, USA

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