Tuesday, August 29, 2006

John Owen

When I read Mark's reflections on his disappointment with reading Owen's Death of Death, I felt deep sympathy with him. Because--and this is probably shocking to say as a church history professor--I have a hard time reading John Owen. And I have the same sense of disappointment and it is all J. I. Packer's fault (well, I say that last line with my tongue planted in my cheek).

I first came at the Puritans through Packer's A Quest for Godliness and Martyn Lloyd-Jones' The Puritans. And both of those men felt that John Owen was the primer Puritan theologian, a Puritan's Puritan, if you will. I thought that would never truly be Reformed nor a worthwhile PhD in church history if I didn't read him. Plus, both Lloyd-Jones and Packer presented Owen as the supreme doctor of the soul, the one Puritan who would fire both mind and heart.

Well, that sounded pretty good. So, one of the first two books I bought when I arrived at Westminster Seminary was John Owen, Works, vol. 5: Faith and Its Evidences, which also had material on justification (the other book, incidentally, was D. G. Hart's Defending the Faith). As I plowed into Owen's weighty tome, I found it generally indescipherable, in terms of prose. His sentences were ponderous; his distinctions interminable. Plus, the print was small (which set me back reading the Banner of Truth version of Jonathan Edwards' Works as well). I think I made it about 80 pages in and gave up.

I've subsequently spent a lot of money on Owen--Death of Death in paperback, other volumes in the Works, even "modernized" Owen in the Puritan Paperbacks--and have had the same result with one notable exception: Works, vol. 2: Communion with God. For whatever reason, in that volume, Owen didn't write like Owen. Rather, he seems almost mystic, rapturous, delightful and delighting in his love-relationship with the Triune God. I was able to "conquer" that volume in short order, because it was so delightful to read.

The other "Owen book" that I was able to make it through was Sinclair Ferguson's John Owen on the Christian Life, which was his PhD dissertation. I once remarked to him that since I had read his book, there was no need to read Owen; to which he replied, "No, Sean, no--read Owen, not me." Well, I've tried--and have been thoroughly unsuccessful.


travis said...

apparently the english weren't all that impressed with owen either. if you go to bun hill field in london and compare the graves with john bunyan, william blake or isaac watts with owen's his seems pretty forgotten.

i'll try to email some pics when i get a chance.

Chris H said...

Sean, have you read Kris Lundgaard's book, The Enemy WIthin? It is Lundgaard's attempt of bringing Owen's Mortification of Sin into the 20th/21st centuries.

Brent said...

The abridged version of The Mortification of Sin (Puritan Paperback) is worth your time. The last two chapters are especially noteworthy. His chapter entitled Wait for the Verdict of God has forever changed my view of the Scriptures.

David said...


Try reading John Owen's "Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ".

Owen wrote this work in Latin, which ironically is much easier to read in translation than any of the works he wrote in English.