«THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SYSTEMATIC AND POLEMICAL FUNCTION OF UNION WITH CHRIST IN JOHN OWEN’S CONTRIBUTION TO SEVENTEENTH CENTURY DEBATES ...»
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE SYSTEMATIC AND POLEMICAL FUNCTION OF UNION
WITH CHRIST IN JOHN OWEN’S CONTRIBUTION TO SEVENTEENTH CENTURY
DEBATES CONCERNING ETERNAL JUSTIFICATION
MATTHEW W. MASON
M.TH. LONG DISSERTATION (LD6.1)
John Owen’s Theological Context
OAK HILL COLLEGE
Preface iii Introduction 1 Chapter 1. Methodology 3 Chapter 2. John Owen’s Theological Context 9 Chapter 3. Broad Contours: Owen on Justification and Union with Christ 23 Chapter 4. Union with Christ and Eternal Justification 33 Conclusion 52 Bibliography 59 John Owen’s Theological Context PREFACE I wish to thank my supervisor, Dr. Garry Williams, for his generous encouragement and thorough, constructive criticism. During Garry’s sabbatical, Dr. David Field helped me to formulate a proposal, and asked lots of stimulating questions. Oak Hill’s librarian Wendy Bell was a model of efficiency in securing various inter-library loans.
I could not have carried out this extra year of study without the generous financial support of the Evangelical Alliance, the Milne Trust, the Olford Trust, and the Sola Trust. My work for the Kairos Journal has provided rich intellectual stimulation, great Christian fellowship, and a delightful avenue in which to serve the Church, in addition to the welcome pay-cheques!
Finally, it is a joy to thank my wife, Annabel. She has endured more than her fair share of aimless wittering about John Owen with great grace, patience, and even apparent interest. She has encouraged me to keep at it, and with our daughter, Tabitha, has provided a wonderful reason to take as many breaks as possible from the desk and the computer.
John Owen’s Theological Context
INTRODUCTIONUnion with Christ and justification are both central themes in the work of the Puritan pastor-theologian John Owen (1616-83). His most complete account of justification is found in The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677).1 Although he wrote no comparable work on union with Christ, Owen discusses it throughout his corpus.2 C.F. Allison explains the link between these two doctrines in Owen’s
A sinner in justification becomes truly righteous as he becomes a member of Christ whose righteousness is thereupon imputed to him in such union.
A justified person is truly righteous, then, because he is in Christ. Owen places more explicit emphasis on this union with Christ than even Downame does, and perhaps more than anyone of the period with the
In this, Owen saw himself as a faithful representative of mainstream Reformed Orthodox theology.4 However, he is not without detractors. In this dissertation, I shall consider three specific criticisms of his teaching on justification. First, advocates of the ‘Calvin against the Calvinists’ thesis accuse Owen, and others like him, of betraying the Reformation. They charge that Reformed Orthodox theologians – under the malign influence of Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, and, in England, of William Perkins – deviated markedly from Calvin’s own theology. They assert that the later Reformed theologians start with the divine decrees and work deductively from there, in Owen 1850-55: V.1-400.
E.g., Owen 1850-55: I.355-74; III.463-67, 478, 513-27; IV.383-86; V.175-80, 196, 208-217; X.468-71;
XI.336-41; XIII.22-25; XXI.142-60.
3 Allison 1966: 175.
4 Cf. Owen 1850-55: V.208f.
John Owen’s Theological Context the process losing Calvin’s Christ-centred, biblical approach; this accusation is levelled against Owen by Alan Clifford. 5 The second criticism comes from Owen’s great Puritan contemporary Richard Baxter. In 1649 Baxter accused Owen of teaching the doctrine of eternal justification,6 whereby the elect are justified in Christ from eternity, not, as in the standard Reformed view, from the moment they believe in Christ. 7 Finally, Hans Boersma, in his discussion of Owen’s response to Baxter’s accusations, 8 accuses Owen of expounding an incoherent ordo salutis, and in particular of failing adequately to account for the place and timing of union with Christ in relation to faith and to the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In a review of Carl Trueman’s monograph on Owen,9 Boersma repeats his accusation, and goes so far as to say that, ‘It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that with Owen history is in danger of being swallowed up by eternity.’10 Through a careful exposition of Owen’s teaching on union with Christ and eternal justification, based on fresh research on a variety of sixteenth and seventeenth century primary texts, I shall examine whether or not these criticism are fair. I shall argue that Owen faithfully teaches the Reformed doctrine of justification, although the precise manner in which he does so is sensitive to theological developments among Reformed theologians in mid-seventeenth century England. However, before considering Owen’s position, it is important to outline the methodology that this dissertation will employ in seeking to understand his teaching.
The classic statements are found in Hall 1966 and Armstrong 1969: 31-33. Their assumptions are uncritically picked up and repeated by McGrath in his discussion of Reformed Orthodox formulations of justification (1998: 227), and by Clifford in his assessment of Owen on justification (1990: 69f).
6 On eternal justification, see chapter 2, below.
7 Baxter 1649: II.146ff.
8 Boersma 1993: 104-108.
9 Trueman 1998a.
10 Boersma 2001: 269.
John Owen’s Theological Context
The study of seventeenth century Reformed Orthodoxy has undergone a sea change in the past thirty years. In an overview of the history of such scholarship, Richard Muller identifies five approaches, in roughly chronological order.11 First, the ‘nineteenth century dogmatic approach’ that focused on the development of predestination as a ‘central dogma’.12 Secondly, those who regard differences between Calvin and the later Reformed as stemming from differences between Calvin and Bullinger.13 Thirdly, the ‘Calvin against the Calvinists’ thesis, which argues that the later development of Reformed theology as a deductive, decretal, predestinarian system is a departure from Calvin’s inductive, Christocentric biblical theology. This approach is often linked with neoorthodox dogmatic assumptions, and is generally hostile to ‘scholasticism’.14 Fourthly, research based in a limited way on Heppe et al, which looks to Beza and Vermigli as founders of Reformed scholasticism and sees Christology and predestination as the ‘central dogmas’, and which in some ways serves as a transition to the fifth group.15 Fifthly, the group of contemporary scholars who reject the ‘central dogma’ theory and neoorthodox theological premises of previous research, who examine more closely the medieval background of the Reformation, and who are particularly Muller 2003d: 63-65. He does, however, note that the range of scholarly opinions and approaches is more diverse than this somewhat simplified paradigm suggests.
12 Without citing any specific texts, Muller names Alexander Schweitzer, Heinrich Heppe, Paul Althaus, Hans Emil Weber, and Ernest Bizer as representatives of this approach, with Schweitzer viewing the development as positive, the others viewing it as problematic.
13 E.g., Leonard Trinterud, Jens Moeller, Charles McCoy, and J. Wayne Baker.
14 Muller cites scholars such as Walter Kickel, Brian Armstrong, Basil Hall, Thomas F. Torrance, Cornelis Graafland, Philip Holtrop, and Cornelius van Sliedregt.
15 E.g., John Bray, Joseph McClelland, John Patrick Donnelly, Robert Godfrey, Ian McPhee, and Robert Letham.
John Owen’s Theological Context interested in issues of continuity and discontinuity between the medieval period, the Reformation, and later Reformed thought. 16 The main change is a shift from dogmatically driven studies of seventeenth century theology (the first three groups) to more narrowly focussed historical expositions (the fifth group).17 In John Owen research18 this last group is represented particularly by Carl Trueman19 and Sebastian Rehnman.20 The aim of Muller, Trueman, et al is to provide balanced historical expositions that take particular account of the contextual setting of their subjects. They are generally hostile to dogmatic approaches to church history, placing a high value on ‘objectivity’ and regarding the role of the historian as one simply of exposition, not evaluation. Thus,
Trueman prefaces his monograph on Owen with this caveat:
systematic theologian. My interest is not to discover whether Owen was right or wrong, but to see what he said, why he said it, whether it was coherent by the standards of his day, and how he fits into the theological context of his own times and of the western tradition as a whole. Of course, I do have personal intellectual convictions about the theological value of Owen’s writings, but I have tried to be aware of my own theological commitments and to keep them as separate as humanly possible from my analysis. 21 Muller is, if anything, even stronger: ‘The insertion of one’s own theological premises into a historical analysis – often with polemical intention – only muddies the waters and Most prominently, Willem van Asselt, Olivier Fatio, Eef Dekker, Anton Vos, Carl Trueman, Martin Klauber, Lyle Bierma, and Muller himself.
17 Muller 2003a: 3.
18 For an extensive review of research on John Owen up to and including 1999, see Kapic 2001: 12-48.
19 Trueman 1998a; 1998b; 2001; 2002.
20 Rehnman 2001; 2002.
21 Trueman 1998a: ix.
John Owen’s Theological Context obscures the meaning of the past.’22 These scholars are also critical of earlier models of scholarship for failing to account for context, literary genre, and development and legitimate variety within a tradition.23 In an article on Puritan theology as an historical event, Trueman builds on Quentin Skinner’s approach to the history of ideas.24 Observing that sentences are ‘historical acts which both partake of the forms of their age and are intended to fulfil a particular purpose’, Trueman argues that history should primarily be a linguistic enterprise, ‘which focuses on establishing authorial intention by analysing the range of plausible intentions that underlie any given text.’25 This requires reading the text in its historical context, both synchronic and diachronic. In the case of Owen, this means examining his thought within the diachronic setting of the western catholic tradition (patristic, medieval, renaissance and Reformed), and the synchronic setting not simply of English Christianity of the seventeenth century, but also the broader international setting.26 It also entails particular awareness of Owen’s theological opponents, since his writings and theology often developed in the midst of controversy, and so a proper understanding of this polemical context is vital for understanding the questions Owen is seeking to answer, and the arguments he is seeking to refute.27 Thus, to compare Owen directly with, say, Calvin or Barth, without accounting for their different historical, and so intellectual and theological, contexts, would be hopelessly anachronistic. It may well fail to account for theological development 22 Muller2003e: 93.
23 E.g.Muller 2003a: 8.
24 Trueman 2001; cf. Skinner 1969.
25 Trueman 2001: 258, italics his.
26 Trueman 1998: 9-46; 2001: 259f.; Rehnman 2002: 21-47. I shall consider some of the details of Owen’s context in chapter 2.
27 Trueman 1998: 19.
John Owen’s Theological Context between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, different opponents, and different purposes for writing. It may also foist on Owen questions he never faced, and so should not be expected to answer.28 In contrast to this New Perspective on the Puritans, lie two different, but theologically motivated, approaches to Puritan theology. The first approach corresponds broadly to the third group of scholars detailed above. Broadly speaking, the Puritans can be regarded as a subset of the wider grouping of Reformed Orthodoxy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.29 Thus, this approach to Puritanism is essentially a subset of the third scholarly grouping listed above. Scholars who take this approach posit a sharp contrast between Calvin and later Calvinism, arguing that the roots of Calvinism lie in the theology of Beza, subsequently mediated into English theology by William Perkins.30 Their assessment of the Puritans is generally negative, and with reference to Owen is represented most obviously by Alan Clifford, who intends his study of justification as ‘a reply to John Owen’.31 He focuses on Owen and John Wesley as the leading English representatives of Calvinism and Arminianism, but also looks at Calvin, and Owen’s contemporaries Tillotson and Baxter. Clifford asserts that, ‘The fact that Wesley was not a contemporary of the others in no way affects the investigation, which is concerned primarily with their convictions rather than their careers.’32 However, this is naïve; as we have seen, theologians’ views are necessarily influenced by their careers. Wesley See e.g., Trueman’s trenchant criticisms of Alan Clifford for attacking Owen’s Aristotelianism without grasping the changes between Aristotle’s own philosophy and the subsequent development and application of his thought in the Christian tradition, and of Clifford’s use of David Hume (eighteenth century) and Bertrand Russell (twentieth century) to support his case (Trueman 1998a: 216).
29 On the problem of defining Puritanism, see e.g., Haller 1932; Knappen 1939; Hall 1965; Collinson 1967;
Hill 1967; Duston and Eales 1996; Spurr 1998; Kapic and Gleason 2004a. On Puritanism as a subset of Reformed Orthodoxy, see Trueman 1998a: 13-19. Clearly not all Puritans were Reformed; for example, John Goodwin was Arminian; nevertheless, generally speaking, Puritanism can be regarded as Reformed in outlook.
30 E.g., Hall 1966; Kendall 1997.
31 Clifford 1990: viii.
32 Clifford 1990: ix.