John Owen’s 2022

Last year was a great year for Owen studies – maybe the busiest ever – with more scholarly work appearing in journals, in a monograph, and a major companion; with the release of the first volume of the new Crossway edition; and with the publication of a daily readings book that works through the Owen corpus chronologically and in a very effective way.

Aaron R. Prelock published his article on “Disposition: An approachable ontology” in New Blackfriars. Prelock uses the article to open up big themes in his PhD dissertation to think about faculty psychology (now there’s a first in Owen studies!). Building on recent work on Owen’s Thomism, Prelock sees Owen appropriating aspects of Aquinas’s insights in his argument that communion with God requires the development of virtuous affections. Prelock’s article anticipated one of the most important themes in last year’s Owen publications – the need to move away from devotional readings of devotional publications to see what Owen is doing in the round.

Daniel W. Burrus developed similar approaches in his essay, “The confessional journey of John Owen,” which was published in The Westminster Theological Journal. Burrus turns a sceptical eye on claims that Owen was “confessional,” and asks what that label means when Owen felt able to use so many creedal and catechetical statements. Even seventeenth-century puritans did not agree on what it meant to be “confessional,” Burrus concludes. But Owen might have been an enthusiast for the genre: subscribing to the 39 Articles at his Anglican ordination; writing two catechisms of his own in 1645; preparing summary statements of sixteen and later twenty articles when writing a confession for the Cromwellian church settlement in the early 1650s; contributing to the revision of the Westminster confession that was published by Independents in 1658; deferring repeatedly to the 39 Articles throughout the restoration; and arguing that confessions should still be re-written to reflect “new light” (Owen, Works, 11:11). Confessionalism, for Owen, did not always mean subscribing to one of the standard Reformed symbols.

These unusual approaches to Owen studies were further developed in The T&T Clark handbook on John Owen, which (product placement alert!) I co-edited with John Tweeddale (which was an enormous pleasure and great fun). The chapters – of around 12,000-15,000 words each – introduced major works in the Owen corpus and also addressed cross-cutting themes, such of which were quite new in Owen studies, including his thinking on science and education. This is a very expensive volume in hardback, but it’s coming out in paperback and (another product placement alert!) you can order it here.

But, despite all this contextual work, the high historical-theological reading of Owen is continuing, and to very good effect. Joshua D. Schendel’s The necessity of Christ’s satisfaction: A study of the Reformed scholastic theologians William Twisse (1578-1646) and John Owen (1616-1683) was published in Brill’s excellent series, Studies in Reformed Theology. This is a major intervention in Owen studies, which compares his thinking about the necessity of the atonement to that of a range of medieval and early modern theologians. As the title suggests, the book’s most important chapters deal with Twisse and Owen. I’m looking forward to talking to Joshua on the New Books Network podcast in a few weeks’ time.

And we have new texts of Owen, too. Lee Gatiss is involved in both. The most accessible, and maybe most imaginative, is John Owen: Daily Readings, published by Christian Focus. This is – as you guessed – a daily reading in Owen, sensitively updated in language and style. Gatiss takes the reader through Owen’s work chronologically – yes! – so that in addition to seeing how his thinking is developing over time we see his voice develop, too. This is a really important project, I think – we’ve had “quotable” editions of puritans before, but Owen’s reputation as a difficult writer has put people off reading his work. We don’t have that excuse any more.

And last of all – what we’ve all been waiting for – the first volume of the new Crossway edition. The edition is edited by Lee Gatiss and Shawn D. Wright. It’s slightly larger than the old Banner of Truth / Goold edition. It appears in a quarter-leather binding. This is the first of Andrew Ballitch’s editions of Owen’s writing on the Spirit. This is a Crossway book, so you know what to expect – beautiful presentation and thoughtful design. It’s very nicely edited, and very carefully updated in language, with lots of annotations to help us through the biblical, theological and classical citations that Owen offers. I’ve yet to get through this volume in detail, but already I can see the potential of the edition. It is going to collect very well indeed.

So that’s 2022 in Owen studies. I hope we have many more like it.


A review of D. G. Hart, Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Benjamin Franklin isn’t known for his religious preoccupations – so why does this exciting new account of his life fit so well into a series on “spiritual lives”? The answer, D. G. Hart suggests, is that Franklin’s many successes were made possible by New England’s puritan mind. 

Born to devout parents, Franklin was raised in a congregation that was less interested in questions of belief and behaviour than were most puritans elsewhere. Nevertheless, Franklin was destined for the ministry until a teenage conversion to deism, which he later repudiated, and to a career in printing, in which vocation he embraced the protestant work ethic and accrued considerable wealth. 

In his youth, Franklin could be intense. As an apprentice, he adopted a cost-cutting vegetarian diet in order to afford to buy books by John Locke. But he was also something of a libertine. In his late teens, during an extended stay in London, he developed a life-long habit of pursuing unscrupulous relationships with women. Somewhere along the way he fathered an illegitimate son. But he was determined to improve himself, and wrote “A Plan for Future Conduct” during his long voyage home. Newly awakened to moral seriousness, Franklin was going to save himself.

Back in Philadelphia, he married without any religious ceremony a woman who was already a victim of bigamy. As Franklin’s reputation grew, Deborah became an inconvenience and later an embarrassment. Franklin would spend twenty years apart from his wife, working for the colonies on the other side of the Atlantic, and was three thousand miles from home when she died. Yet the liturgy for private worship which he devised made no reference to sin or the need for forgiveness. 

Retiring in his early 40s, Franklin dedicated his life to doing good, while returning again and again to haunting questions of faith. He inhabited an “unsettled intellectual world” in which he needed but could not approve of the powers of the Bible’s God. Yet, for all that Franklin was sceptical of the churches’ teaching, he was preoccupied by its claims. He wrote more about Christianity than did any other layman in the eighteenth century. He became a friend and admirer of the English revivalist, George Whitefield, whose preaching tours and audiences of tens of thousands Franklin described in his Gazette. In fact, Whitefield regularly stayed in Franklin’s home. Yet the motives for Franklin’s hospitality were not entirely pious – the religious revival that Whitefield promoted drove the sales of books, not to mention Franklin’s fortune. No wonder Franklin had Whitefield advise him as to which titles he should publish next.

Always cool to denominational claims, Franklin was convinced that the “most acceptable service to God” was “doing good to man.” While he was never a member of any denomination, he did believe in God and in an afterlife in which virtue would be rewarded. Perhaps that is why he turned from owning slaves to arguing for slavery’s abolition; why he founded the American Philosophical Society and what became the University of Pennsylvania (with Whitefield preaching at a fundraiser); why he established the colonies’ first lending library, first fire insurance company, first hospital, and a private militia of 10,000 volunteers. This aspiration to do good lay behind his fascination to understanding and apply Enlightenment ideas. Franklin was the first non-member to win a medal from the Royal Society of London. But, Hart argues, even this interest in science was made possible by New England’s puritan mind. 

Franklin’s life was certainly “spiritual.” Approving of religion for its moral influence, while rejecting divisive ecclesiastical claims, and emphasising hard work, thrift and achievement, this “cultural protestant” might have invented the American faith – even if the only denomination with which he can be associated is the $100 bill.

John Owen’s “Biblicism”

“Reading the Bible: John Owen and early evangelical ‘Biblicism’,” in Ryan P. Hoselton, Jan Stievermann, Douglas A. Sweeney, and Michael A. G. Haykin (eds), The Bible in early transatlantic Pietism and Evangelicalism (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2022), pp. 73-90.

However else he might be described, John Owen was pre-eminently a student of Scripture. Biblical interpretation was at the heart of his many enterprises. Although his literary and historical interests were surprisingly diverse, as a preacher, as a teacher of theology, and as the author of the longest ever published commentary on a New Testament epistle, he worked carefully, if not consistently, to draw his religious and political commitments from biblical texts. He was, as George Whitfield later put it, “the accurate Doctor Owen,” formidably learned, and as precise in his philological and hermeneutical method as he was in his theological or ecclesiological conclusions. Owen was well qualified as a textual critic, as a translator, and as an exegete. He referred to manuscript variations, to historic and modern translations, reading the Bible in conversation with the church fathers and medieval schoolmen and with the most capable of his Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed contemporaries, as well as with the amateur theologians who sometimes did most to rouse his ire. The authors he cited represented a tiny proportion of the titles included in the catalogue of 3,000 volumes that his library may have contained, and a much smaller proportion of the contents of the Bodleian library to which he had access during his academic career. In his exegetical labours, therefore, Owen was not working de novo or reading the Bible in a vacuum. 

Read more here.

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?