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John Owen and English Puritanism by Crawford Gribben

Darryl G. Hart

John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat, by Crawford Gribben. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, xvi + 401 pages, $60.94.

For most contemporary English-speaking Calvinists, John Owen is an unending source of wisdom and inspiration. In his biographical sketch of the English Puritan, John Piper justified his own admiration by quoting J. I. Packer, Roger Nicole, and Sinclair Ferguson. Packer wrote that “without Owen I might well have gone off my head or got bogged down in mystical fanaticism.” For Nicole, Owen was the greatest theologian of the English language, even superior to Jonathan Edwards, something that certainly caught Piper, the Edwards aficionado, off guard. And for Ferguson, “Owen’s penetrating exposition opened up areas of need in my own heart, but also correspondingly profound assurances of grace in Jesus Christ.” Not to be outdone, Piper could not help but be impressed by how many people wrote about Owen and praised him for his character. “When a man like this, under these circumstances,” Piper wrote, “is remembered and extolled for centuries for his personal holiness, we should listen.”

Readers will not receive the same impression from Crawford Gribben’s meticulous intellectual biography of Owen, though they may still come away singing (now in a minor key) the English Puritan’s praises. A professor of history at Queen’s University Belfast with great sympathies for Puritanism, Gribben’s purpose is to situate Owen in his cultural and political contexts. As an intellectual historian, Gribben knows that ideas have consequences, but as a social historian of ideas he also writes with the conviction that contexts have consequences for ideas. His attention to contexts extends even to book production. Gribben believes that the standard way most modern readers encounter Owen, namely, through the Banner of Truth collected works, distorts the ideas that the English theologian developed. For instance, volumes three and four of that edition produces under one title, Of Communion with God, six different treatises written at different times in Owen’s life. Such an arrangement is “misleading” (19). He writes to correct a tendency to make Owen’s theology into an abstraction.

Doing justice to the contexts of Owen’s life (1616–1683), however, is another question altogether. The theologian and pastor, born to an Anglican vicar, led anything but a remote or ivory-tower existence even if knowledge about his career comes mainly from published writings. Owen ministered and wrote at a time of great political and social upheaval in England. The fortunes of his ministerial career were bound up with the political struggles that saw Parliament go to war with Charles I and execute him for treason, and led England into its brief experiment with republicanism. Owen’s life coincided with Puritanism’s greatest success (at least politically) and its equally devastating defeat.

As a young man Owen served as chaplain to English nobility before coming to the attention of the House of Commons in the 1640s through his critique of Arminianism. Invitations to preach before Parliament led in 1646 to his meeting Oliver Cromwell who in turn enlisted Owen to serve as chaplain to English soldiers on a campaign to subdue Ireland. After the execution of the king, Owen was in regular contact with English officials whether in preaching to various political bodies or serving the Commonwealth as an advisor on its religious policy. Owen also received from Cromwell in 1651 an appointment as dean of Christ Church College at Oxford, which led to his post as vice chancellor of the university under Cromwell, arguably the crown jewel of Owen’s posts. Throughout the 1650s Owen continued to work in close proximity with the government even while publishing widely on a range of theological topics. Once Cromwell died in 1658, Owen’s fortunes shifted. Parliament restored the monarchy, and Owen was relegated to the role of a dissenting minister, and sometimes suspected of being a political troublemaker. That last phase of his career involved creating space for nonconformists in England’s new religious establishment. All the while he continued to write at a feverish pace.

Imagine if Jonathan Edwards, while pastoring, served in the government of Boston, or if Charles Hodge, while teaching at Princeton, had also worked for President James Buchanan, and you have something of a picture of Owen’s many-faceted responsibilities. Equally impressive is the way that Owen produced material on some of the most important of doctrinal subjects even while working in the context of very turbulent politics. Owen’s achievement on this score is impressive.

The social history of ideas results in some remarkable coincidences. For instance, the sermons behind Owen’s Mortification of Sin (1656) came while he was still vice-chancellor at Oxford when John Locke was a student, and while grieving the death of two sons. Six years later came A Discourse concerning Liturgies, and Their Imposition (1662), a book that Owen needed to publish anonymously because of the religious policy that was to come later that year with the Act of Uniformity. Owen’s defense of extemporaneous prayer was decidedly at odds and even a threat to political stability thanks to the return of the state church and the policy of liturgical uniformity. But at the very same time, Owen was writing in defense of the ecclesiastical establishment’s rights, which seemed to be at odds with his own interest as a dissenting Protestant. These contexts suggest that Owen was engaged in a bit of self-fashioning throughout much of his career since his ability to preach and publish depended on his political fortunes. One last example from Owen’s corpus is The Doctrine of Justification (1677)—a book written likely with a sense that the English Reformation was running out of steam and basic doctrines needed to be reaffirmed. During this time as well, Owen’s health suffered and his chief work was preaching, pastoral care, and attention to family.

Gribben’s book sometimes raises questions about how much context mattered to ideas. If Owen’s theology shows no obvious references to his personal circumstances, can a historian conclude that context matters? More often than not, however, Gribben highlights how remarkable the theologian’s accomplishments were considering how many responsibilities he had and how fragile his political standing was. The theme of defeat, as the subtitle indicates, makes Owen’s accomplishments all the more impressive since he continued to labor on even as he experienced an “enduring sense of failure” (271). The main insight that Gribben’s method yields is that Owen was “not a systematic thinker.” Instead, he treated themes individually and in great detail without necessarily keeping previous writing in mind. None of this takes away from Owen’s achievement. According to Gribben, Owen “emerges as the genius of English Puritanism—its preeminent thinker, and a formative influence on successive generations of evangelicals” (272). The author adds that Owen would likely have wanted his contribution to be a reform of the English churches, not an inspiration for contemporary evangelicalism. That said, Gribben gives even better reasons for esteeming Owen than those that prevail in Calvinist circles. Such theological insight forged in a context of political intrigue and personal adversity make Owen truly exceptional.

Darryl G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, and serves as an elder in Hillsdale Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Hillsdale, Michigan. Ordained Servant Online, August–September 2017.

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