Ty Kieser on the Holy Spirit and the humanity of Christ in John Owen

Kieser’s article is published in the International Journal of Systematic Theology (2021).

In my last post I noted Kieser’s thoughtful and thought-provoking article on Owen as porto-social trinitarian. I even appealed at the end for a more historicised version of his argument, which might outline change and development in Owen’s thinking, rather than representing Owen as formulating a basically static theological bloc. Well, Kieser’s latest article – which would have been written many, many months before my comment – does just that. In his latest, Kieser is still working to make Owen ordinary again – and this time by addressing one of the big questions that troubles systematicians who read Owen’s work – the question of Owen’s argument about the relationship between the incarnate Word and the Spirit.

This argument began, Kieser reminds us, with Alan Spence’s work on “incarnation and inspiration.” Kieser argues that both those who agree with Spence and those who have contested his claims have taken his reading of Pneumatologia (1676) at face value. Kieser doesn’t, and argues instead that the debate has been framed in a manner that misunderstands this key section of Owen’s argument. I’m definitely not best equipped to moderate this debate, but I’ll just say that Kieser’s work seems to me to be some of the most important material on Owen to have been published in the last decade or more, and it will need to be reckoned with. I look forward to seeing more!

However … I’ll stick to my guns regarding the need for better historicised work. Kieser includes in this latest article a section that puts Owen’s Spirit-Christology arguments in context. Kieser supports his re-reading of this section of Pneumatologia with reference to the structure of this part of Owen’s work. He notes that this section contains “structural clues” that, if properly considered, would seem to confirm his argument. The clues are the Roman numerals that he finds in the 19th century Goold edition of Owen’s works, which his article cites. But there is one major problem withthis argument. Those Roman numerals were inserted into the text by Goold, and do not appear in the 17th century edition, the printing of which Owen oversaw.

Does that matter to the integrity of Kieser’s argument? Maybe not. But it’s a good reminder that a properly historicised argument will be working from original sources, rather than Goold’s edition, which does sometimes take liberties with the text (including removing entire sentences – but that is for another day).

[John Tweeddale and the contributors to the forthcoming T&T Clark Handbook propose a new method of citing Owen’s work that pays attention to the differences between the 17th and 19th century editions. More on that later.]

Ty Kieser on “John Owen as proto-social trinitarian”

Kieser’s article is published in Scottish Journal of Theology (2021).

Much of the recent work on Owen’s trinitarianism has emphasised his stretching of the Augustinian tradition almost to breaking point in his account of the believer’s fellowship with individual persons – a claim made most notably, perhaps, by Robert Letham, Alan Spence, and Brian Kay. Ty Kieser’s new article challenges this argument by showing that Owen’s trinitarianism was rooted within the Augustinian tradition. Kieser worries that modern reconstructions of Owen’s doctrine of the covenant of redemption “may indicate that there are at least two wills and even two independent actors in the triune God. If this is the case, then the covenant of redemption not only pushes Owen in a proto-social direction, but it also may lead to tritheistic accusations.” Responding to this problem, Kieser reads Owen as arguing that “the triunity of God is not to be conceived of primarily as a ‘unity of three’ distinct persons, but instead as three subsistent relations ‘in the same essence.'” In other words, the persons do not subsist in but as relations. Arguing from the doctrine of divine simplicity, Kieser suggests, Owen argues that a divine person is “nothing but the divine essence upon the account of an especial Property, subsisting in an especial manner” (2:407). While Owen scholars often refer to perichoresis to explain the relationship of the persons, Owen, Kieser claims, rejects this explanation to insist instead upon “the subsistence of the three persons in the one divine essence as the unifying feature of the three persons.” In fact, Owen describes the language of perichoresis as “barbarous” (12:73). Kieser argues that “Owen is able to distinguish the communion that believers have with each divine person not on the basis of discrete actions of distinct persons toward the Christian, but by virtue of actions that are appropriated to that person.” Owen is not advocating an early social trinitarianism, therefore, but might provide “an example of an Augustinian accounting of trinitarian personal distinctions applied toward biblical, theological and devotional ends.”

There is a lot in Kieser’s article, and it warrants very careful reading as one of the most substantive and potentially significant recent publications in Owen studies. If he is right, Owen might be much less significant as a trinitarian theologian that we have assumed. But I would like to see this argument developed at greater length, and with reference to Owen’s own intellectual development. Owen does sometimes make unexpected moves, and the danger of “static” readings of his work is that we don’t see when those moves are being made – for intellectual ripples tend to be smoothed out on the historical-theological canvas. To what extent, for example, is this dismissal of perichoresis typical of Owen’s work, and to what extent does this dismissal reflect his move away from the scholastic categories that he once adopted? I look forward to seeing how Kieser develops this important argument in other publications.

A curious Latin tag

Here’s a curiosity that has come out of annotating an unpublished sermon from 1679, in which Owen makes the following observation: “Vox Naturae Clamantis ad Deum Naturae” [“the voice of nature calls to the God of nature” – more or less].

Owen may have discovered a version of this expression in Lancelot Andrewes, The pattern of catechistical doctrine at large, or, A learned and pious exposition of the Ten Commandments (1650), p. 32: “vox naturae clamantis ad Dominum naturae.”

Owen used two versions of it in Theologoumena (1661), p. 25, Works 17:49: “vox naturae erat ad Deum naturae clamantis,” and Theologoumena (1661), p. 225, Works 17:219: “naturae voci clamantis ad Dominum naturae.”

He used a third version of it in this sermon (1679): “Vox Naturae Clamantis ad Deum Naturae.

He then used Andrewes’s version in Pneumatologia (1674), p. 164, Works 3:200, and in The Grace and Duty of being Spiritually Minded (1681), Works 7: 366: “vox naturae clamantis ad Dominum naturae.”

And he later alluded to the tag in English in The Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer (1682), p. 53, Works 4:273: “There is, indeed, a voice of nature crying in its distress unto the God of nature, but that is not the duty of evangelical prayer that we inquire after.”

But where did the idea come from?

John Owen, Christian politics, and the “empire of conscience”

We don’t tend to think of John Owen, the most famous and most celebrated of the seventeenth-century English puritans, as a political activist or thinker. But, as I show in An introduction to John Owen, recently published by Crossway, Owen did make significant interventions in the sequence of crises that led to the formation of the short-lived English republic, as well as to its demise. In the final months of the English civil wars, Owen’s influence grew as a consequence of his relationship with the army that had been fighting against the king. The published version of his sermon to commemorate the execution of Charles I (1649) became his only best-seller. In the early years of the new republic, Owen was committed to the Cromwellian regime. In 1654, he was elected as a Member of Parliament, and served in several committees that sought to flesh out the religious requirements of the new constitution. In the later years of the Republic, Owen grew increasingly critical of Oliver Cromwell, and worried that the government was backsliding from its earlier godly principles. Conspiring with a number of high-ranking army officers, Owen took part in a high-stakes gamble that sought to return the government of Richard Cromwell to the earliest ideals of the revolution. The gamble failed, and Owen watched in horror as his political miscalculation facilitated the collapse of the republic and the return of the king (1660). In the dangerous years that followed the Restoration, Owen, like many other religious dissidents, lived as inconspicuously as he could, evaded arrest, not always successfully, and did his best to rethink the religious politics that had led to the deaths of tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen, and many thousands more of the inhabitants of Ireland and Scotland. In defeat, and as a persecuted dissenter, Owen developed new ways of thinking about the relationship between politics and faith – including a set of assumptions about economic freedom and liberty of conscience that would be taken up by John Locke, his former student, to become the foundation of the classical liberal order. Owen’s new convictions were chastened by the realities of defeat – but also tempered by his realisation that the kingdom of God could never be extended by political means.

In the very different context of the Restoration, Owen recognised that a great deal of the problems of the previous two decades had been caused by careless religious politics. He accepted that government, in itself, was a good thing. In fact, he explained in 1668, the “greatest mercies and blessings that in this world we are made partakers of, next to them of the gospel and covenant of grace,” come by means of good government (Works, 6: 270). “All authority is originally in God,” he continued in a different context, who lends that authority to “kings and rulers of the earth” – and even to wicked rulers. For that reason, Owen argued that the authority of secular rules did not depend upon their spiritual state. The duty of Christians to obey their rulers “doth not arise from the authority vested in themselves, but from the immediate command of God, that in such things they ought to be obeyed” (Works, 15: 43). Of course, if governments kept to their role, as the Bible outlined it, believers should not expect any trouble. The purpose of government was merely to “keep the rational world in bounds and order, to draw circles about the sons of men, and to keep them from passing their allotted bounds and limits, to the mutual disturbance and destruction of each other” (Works, 2: 115). But Christians should pay attention to their “allotted bounds and limits,” too. Believers should give up on utopian plans to change the world by political means, and focus instead on fulfilling the responsibilities that the New Testament laid upon them. “They are no great things which we desire for ourselves,” he explained. The “utmost of our aim” was to “pass the remainder of the few days of our pilgrimage in the land of our nativity, serving the Lord according to what he hath been pleased to reveal of his mind and will unto us” (Works, 13: 555). Christians should submit to the authority of hostile governments, while remembering that the “empire of conscience belongs unto God alone” (Works, 13: 565). Recognising that political agitation was antithetical to the responsibilities of the church, Christians should not be jockeying for worldly influence. Politics was bad for believers’ spiritual health. Owen lamented that “our churches have never been able to sufficiently disengage themselves from their involvement with peoples, states, nations, and the demands of politics,” and so they had not been able to avoid the “influence, morals, corruptions, and defilements of the world” (Works, 17: 318; translated in Biblical theology, p. 440). Political projects had done the churches harm. 

Despite the clarity of his thinking about politics through much of the 1660s and 1670s, it is possible that Owen began to re-think his commitment to passive resistance and peaceful endurance. In the early 1680s, as it became clear that the reign of Charles II would be followed by that of his openly Catholic brother, James, duke of York, it seemed to Owen and to many other dissenters that the English reformation was coming to an end. Facing the prospect of a Catholic royal succession, Owen recognised that the “protestant interest” in politics was now “beyond hopes of a revival” (Works, 14: 540). Others shared his fears. In 1683, just months before his death, many of his closest associates – including his brother, Henry Owen; his former pastoral assistant, Robert Ferguson; and several of the younger members of his church – were implicated in a plot to assassinate the king and his brother. In the aftermath of the Rye House Plot, Owen was arrested on suspicion of being involved in the conspiracy, but took an oath to testify to his own innocence. 

As the national crisis deepened, Owen advised his congregation to be prepared to “suffer … even unto death” in defence of their faith (Works, 14: 555). But he also encouraged his listeners to remember that God raised up wicked rulers for purposes that only he could understand – and sometimes, in his providential judgements, to set against each other those governments that were at enmity with his people. After all, God had raised up Cyrus “to do great and wonderful things … to ruin and destroy the great, ancient Babylonian monarchy” (Works, 3: 103). Hostile politicians might well over-step the “circles” that kept government and people from “mutual disturbance and destruction” (Works, 2: 115). But believers should suffer whatever was necessary to show that the “empire of conscience” belongs to God alone. 

You can read the first chapter of An introduction to John Owen here.