John Owen

Trajectories in Reformed Orthodox Theology

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Ryan M. McGraw
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , September
     2017.
     231 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9783319608068.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book is a collection of essays on John Owen that Ryan M. McGraw has previously published in various journals, including Westminster Theological JournalCalvin Theological JournalJournal of Reformed TheologyThe Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and Mid-America Journal of Theology. As McGraw states in the acknowledgements page of the book, the previously published essays underwent revision and updates before they were put together into this volume. 

The topics of this one-author collection of essays are arranged into two main parts. The first part deals with Owen’s doctrine of the Trinity, his exegetical methodology, and his view on the Law and Gospel. The second part is on practical issues that arose from Owen’s writings as well as on systematic reflection. McGraw indicates that the material in the book is generally divided by theme and genre (2). The first part contains three chapters, namely on Trinitarian doxology, Owen’s exegesis of Genesis 3:15 as a window to look at the way Reformed Orthodoxy performed Old Testament exegesis, and on the issue of Law / Gospel distinctions. The second part has four chapters, namely on faith versus sight, Owen’s view of the Holy Spirit, a discussion on Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodap, and an analysis of The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology (Routledge 2015).

McGraw’s scholarship has been revolved around John Owen and his theology. Currently a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and an adjunct professor of Doctoral Studies at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in the US, he earned his PhD from the University of the Free State, Jonathan Edwards Centre in Africa. His dissertation focuses on John Owen’s theology of the Trinity as it related to his view of public worship. The dissertation was published as a book by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht in 2014, under the title A Heavenly Directory: Trinitarian Piety, Public Worship, and a Reassessment of John Owen’s Theology.

Because this book is essentially a collection of essays, it does not have a single thesis that the author develops throughout the chapters. The only unifying theme that the chapters have is the author’s exploration of various theological topics in John Owen’s works in their historical contexts. The chapters are useful for theologians and church historians who want to study Owen’s theology and its milieu. In these chapters, McGraw carefully puts Owen’s theology in the context of 17th-century Reformed orthodoxy. One characteristic that these chapters share is McGraw’s careful effort to show how Owen’s theology was similar to or at odds with other scholastic thinkers of the 17th century, both on the European continent and the British Isles. Such discussion is necessary in any historical study. However, given the fact that this volume is a collection of essays and not a monograph with a thesis to develop and defend, the author does not have room to provide backgrounds, or even the most basic information, on Owen and his contemporaries. He just assumes that his readers know all the Reformed scholastics of the 16th and 17th centuries with whom Owen had interactions in his theological writings. In many parts of the book, McGraw just brings in particular views of these Reformed scholastics either to compare or to contrast with Owen’s position. For readers who are not familiar with Reformed scholasticism and its key players, reading the chapters of this volume may feel very tedious. 

For this book to be more readable to scholars without familiarity with Reformed scholasticism, the author needs to provide a chapter that provides a good introduction to Owen and his theological, historical, and cultural contexts. Next, he also needs to write a brief overview of Reformed scholasticism in the 17th century, with some discussion on key players in the tradition with whom Owen interacted. Because of their frequent mentions in the chapters of this volume, names such as Johannes Hoornbeeck, Wolfgang Musculus, Johann Gerhard, Bernardinus De Moor, Amandus Polanus, William Perkins, and the like should receive adequate introduction in the book, so that readers can get a good orientation of who they are and why they are important in the discussion of Owen’s theology in its context. I understand that this volume is a collection of previously published essays. However, in order for this volume to be able to stand on its own, as any published book should, some extra work is necessary on the part of the author to ensure that this book is more readable.

The organization of the chapters in this volume also needs some more thought. As I have mentioned above, the volume is organized into two larger parts: the first one on the Trinity, the second one on practical issues coming from Owen’s theology. This organization is very loose. In the first part, the third chapter on the Law / Gospel distinction in Owen’s theology has nothing to do with the Trinity. Interestingly, chapter 6 (in the second part of the book) deals with the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. I am wondering why this chapter was not placed in the first part and why chapter 3 was not included in the second part of the volume.

Chapter 8 of this volume is one that has a different approach. While the other chapters (except for chapter 1, which is a brief introduction of the general outline of this volume) are research articles previously published in academic journals, chapter 8 reads more as an extended book review of the 2015 Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology (Routledge). McGraw takes time to comment on each chapter of this book and offers his critique whenever he deems necessary. As the final chapter of this volume, it stands as an awkward ending. The volume does not have a conclusion that can help readers gain a good overview of the study of Owen and his significance.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yudha Thianto is Professor of Theology at Trinity Christian College in Palo Heights, IL.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ryan M. McGraw is professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and adjunct professor of doctoral studies at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.

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