Protestant Profiles #12: John Owen

John Owen (1616-1683)

322px-JohnOwenFrontispiece

Born: Oxfordshire, England
Role: Chaplain; minister; theologian; Puritan/Congregationalist leader, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University
Emphases: regeneration; communion with the Triune God; person and work of Christ; person and work of Holy Spirit; mortification of sin; holiness; limited atonement
Protested Against: Arminianism; unreformed Church of England; Socinianism; Catholic inconsistency of doctrine; mass; purgatory; papacy; Roman Catholic worship

John Owen is one of the most significant figures of all time in English Christianity. He has variously been described as “Prince of Puritans,” the greatest ever English-language theologian,  the “Atlas and Patriarch of Independency” (explained below) and the “Calvin of England.” He came to prominence during a period of major political upheaval in English history – which was also the zenith of the Puritan movement in that country – and would become a notable figure in the religious and political spheres.

Owen was the son of vicar, who went to university at Oxford, with the apparent goal of following his father in the path of clerical ministry. His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the first English Civil War and he appears to have had a religious awakening around this time that established him as a practitioner of Puritan piety.

Writing ministry

Owen’s greatest impact in his own lifetime and beyond is undoubtedly his publication of theological and scholarly works. His earliest publication The Display of Arminianism demonstrated his Reformed convictions clearly and earned him some attention amongst English Calvinists. In his early ministry he published an essay “For the Practice of Church Government” and revisited this topic in his later years in his Treatise on Evangelical Churches. How the church should be organised and run was a major issue facing Protestants during the 17th century – particularly in the English context – and Owen’s contributions were important articulations of congregationalism: the independent governance of each local church.

Among Owen’s most notable works are The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (dealing with the doctrine of Christ’s atonement and again contesting the claims of Arminianism); The Mortification of Sin (a practical work on dealing with sin in the believer’s life); Communion with God (how to live the Christian life in relationship with God as Trinity); The Glory of Christ: His Office and His Grace Pneumatologia (an in-depth book on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit) and his Commentary on the Book of Hebrews.

While many readers have found Owen’s writing style to be rather dense, it is his capacity to think deeply about theological issues and treat them thoroughly that his earned him his reputation as a Puritan luminary.

Preacher, chaplain, scholar & church leader

Owen held pastoral positions in Essex in his late twenties and early thirties and began to shift his ministry context from Presbyterian to Congregationalist during this time. He preached before Parliament the day after King Charles I was executed by leading members of the faction that had seized control of England following two civil wars. He became one of the favourites preachers of the new regime and became a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and his forces when they went to subdue Ireland to English rule.

Cromwell’s patronage led to Owen becoming the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (the most prestigious academic post in the country then, as now) from 1651-1657. But in stark contrast to the academic and administrative nature of such a role in today’s universities, Owen not only ran the institution but acted as its spiritual leader – preaching God’s Word to the students in chapel services and seeking to shape the culture of the campus into one of godliness. He also used this position to continue championing the evangelical faith and attack heretical teaching that was gaining ground in the country. He did however display a considerable degree of religious toleration – allowing Anglicans at Oxford to hold their own services, rather than being forced to conform to Puritan worship.

As the leading figure in Independent or Congregationalist Christianity in England, Owen (in partnership with another notable Congregationalist named Thomas Goodwin) was heavily involved in the drafting of the Savoy Declaration: a declaration of faith based on the Westminster Confession but diverging from it on matters of church organisation. Through the denominationalisation of the Independent movement into the Congregationalism of the late 17th century and beyond, the Declaration became one of Owen’s greatest enduring influences on the faith of Christians in subsequent centuries.

The monarchy was restored in England in 1660 and Charles I’s son became King Charles II. Most of the Puritans who had supported regime change after the Civil Wars suffered greatly under the political and religious policies that occurred after the restoration. Owen was not in favour with the political establishment in these years, but he was still well-connected enough to enjoy some influence and protection from serious harassment. The King and others recognised him as a spiritual leader of the Congregationalists and he was able to act as a representative of Puritans on various occasions.

Political involvement

Owen was actually, for a short time, the Member of Parliament for Oxford University and had some involvement in that capacity in the affairs of the state. He was very closely connected with those who put the king to death in 1649, but it is unclear to what extent he himself favoured such an approach.

He suffered politically for his objections to Cromwell establishing himself as monarch – costing him the support of key members of the regime. He may have subsequently had a degree of involvement in the sequence of events that included the overthrow of Cromwell’s son Richard and the re-establishment of parliament, which eventually led to the restoration of the monarchy.

Conclusion

Owen was clearly a remarkable man with enormous personal capacity not only for engaging with ideas on a deep level, but also for advancing the gospel and biblical truths in a program of reform. He was committed to furthering the Reformation and seeing England reformed more fully by God’s Word. I’m fairly certain that no one reading these words will be the John Owen of our times – but we could all have a greater impact on church and society by learning from both his teaching and example.

Owen said that seeing people put to death their sins and Christians everywhere advancing in their personal holiness was the great goal and desire of his life. Everything he did and wrote was done with that purpose in mind. We need men and women, all over the world, in the 21st century to pursue gospel ministry with such aims “to the glory of God, so that the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.”

You can read a fuller treatment of Owen’s life and ministry here.

 

Sources

Trueman, “John Owen” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals 

“John Owen” wikipedia

William Orme, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Religious Connexions of John Owen 

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