In John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ the English Puritan unfurls a dizzying number of arguments against universal redemption (the Arminian teaching that Christ died for the sins of all persons and every person without exception, not to be confused with ‘universalism’ in current parlance) and for particular redemption. One of the arguments he includes is one that perhaps most theology students encounter fairly early in the study of Christian doctrine: Christ is said in Scripture to die specifically for his own people (e.g., Eph. 5:25; Titus 2:14). This argument can then be easily brushed aside when one observes that these texts do not explicitly say that Christ died for his own people only. However, Owen fills out the argument in such a way that makes things a bit more complicated for the Arminian respondent. He notes that throughout Scripture believers in Christ, the company of the saved, and unbelievers, alienated from God and from salvation in Christ, are clearly distinguished from one another. An obvious example is supplied by the parable of the sheep and the goats:
Before [the Son of Man] will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:32-34, 41).
I received my copy of the new book Jonathan Edwards and Scotland (Dunedin Academic Press, 2011) the other day, and I wanted to talk a bit about my essay in that volume: “Jonathan Edwards’ Reformed Doctrine of the Beatific Vision.” The volume itself is a series of papers-turned-chapters from the Jonathan Edwards and Scotland conference held at Glasgow University in 2009. While most of the essays focused on Edwards and Scotland and the interchange between Edwards and the Scots, mine obviously did not. My essay, rather, focused on the beatific vision as it was being developed in Reformed high orthodoxy, particularly in the thought of John Owen, Francis Turretin and Jonathan Edwards. I peppered the footnotes with some random other Reformed thought on the beatific vision, spanning from John Calvin, Johannis Wollebius, Lewis Bayly, Thomas Watson, Bavinck on to Charles Hodge.
Without going into my essay in much detail, I want to focus on some themes I saw develop in Reformed thought on the beatific vision. First, and maybe most interestingly, there was incredible breadth and creativity in the Reformed accounts, particularly the three I focused on. At first glance, finding any similiarities seem nearly impossible. Continue reading
In one of his writings on the doctrine of the church in relation to ecclesial life in seventeenth-century England, John Owen makes what I think are a number of incisive and helpful comments on schism and unity. As a Congregationalist, Owen was susceptible to accusations of schism and divisiveness, but he suggests that a poor conception of church unity and a misguided zeal for that conception underlie the charges against the Nonconformists.
For Owen, the unity of the church is fundamentally spiritual, a function of believers being joined to Christ their head by faith. However, Owen argues, in his day many conceived of unity in terms of (humanly devised) external uniformity of order and liturgy and then sought to impose that uniformity on all churches in the land. This misconception generated charges of schism against Owen and his Puritan comrades and, intriguingly, was the principal cause of ecclesial disunity. Externalize unity and impose that external unity on others and those of a different ecclesiological persuasion will (justifiably) resist this. Hence those who are overzealous for unity are also the chief culprits in schism. Though Owen has in mind especially the Anglican leaders of the time, he mentions Rome as an egregious example of supplanting spiritual unity with an external unity ‘of their own invention’ (Works of Owen, 15:111-12):
For John Owen (who is perhaps the most famous of all my friends on Facebook, though I know not who runs his Facebook page), ‘the first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word’ (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in The Works of John Owen, 16:74). Throughout The True Nature of a Gospel Church Owen insists that pastoral work is so taxing that God appointed elders who primarily rule in the church in order to enable elders who focus especially on the ministry of the word to keep doing just that. Owen enumerates five non-negotiables that render someone fit to stand in the pulpit.
First, the preacher needs to have ‘spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel’. In fact, says Owen, it is vital that the preacher should have ‘some degree of eminency therein’, lest they be unhelpful to those who are already fairly mature in the faith (16:76). Second, the preacher should have an ‘experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls’. Put forcefully,
[A] man that preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us….The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit (ibid.).
Early on in my summer break I’ve been enjoying the writings of John Owen (a man of impeccable fashion sense). Chapter XXV of “The Greater Catechism” in volume one of his published works asks, “What is the communion of saints?” The prescribed response:
An holy conjunction between all God’s people, wrought by their participation in the same Spirit, whereby we are all made members of that one body whereof Christ is the head.
Interestingly, in a footnote attached to “conjunction,” Owen comments, “By virtue of this, we partake in all the good and evil of the people of God throughout the world.”
The statement is, I think, a compelling warning against distancing ourselves from the church in moments when we wish only to criticize it. For those of us immersed in the study of theology, it implies, among other things, that we’re not free to berate a perceived theological stupor in the church without acknowledging that we ourselves live and move in the sphere of God’s people. The real question, then, concerns how to help in the pursuit of theological maturity with and among the people to whom we are stubbornly (and blessedly!) linked.