John Owen and English Puritanism

Experiences of Defeat

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Crawford Gribben
Oxford Studies in Historical Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     424 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This latest entry in the Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series re-introduces John Owen to us in a chronological, contextual fashion. The subtitle of this book differs from other recent studies of note, focusing neither only on Owen’s devotional or mystical focus nor on his Reformed, Catholic, or Renaissance identity but upon his experiences of defeat. His demise occurred such that “Owen looked back on a life of ‘service and duty,’ in which religious faith had been pitted against political doubt, and in which every success had been undone in defeat” (262). To depict this tumult of faith and doubt, success and defeat, chapters address phases of Owen’s journey as “Apprentice Puritan,” “Emerging Theologian,” “Frustrated Pastor,” “Army Preacher,” “Oxford Reformer,” “Cromwellian Courtier,” “Defeated Revolutionary,” “Restoration Politique,” and “Nonconformist Divine.” The study moves chronologically, and seeks to locate Owen’s thought within its varied settings and struggles.

Gribben shows the ways in which Owen was a man on the move, not only vocationally and politically, but also theologically. For instance, this most famous congegationalist nonconformist had previously held to Presbyterian principles, although he later stated that such was a rather unreflective posture following his familial ties and relative ignorance (171-172). Owen also shifted with regard to his doctrine of God as applied to the doctrine of the atonement; his famed “Death of Death in the Death of Christ” stated that God could forgive without demanding any atoning work, while his later Dissertation on Divine Justice argued to the contrary on properly theological grounds (88-89). He shifted from what we would today deem amillenialism toward a straightforward postmillennialism (241-242), possibly egged on by his “experiences of defeat” in his later years. His tactics also changed at times: ironically, for instance, it was only after the loss of Cromwell as benefactor that Owen shifted gears into his “most ambitious effort to settle the structure of the national church” via the proposed “Savoy Declaration” (196-197). Even his posture—purportedly principled in its terms—toward the propriety of extra-biblical confessional instruments varied within a decade, seemingly for strategic reasons (221-223).

Owen was a lion of contradictions: an exegete and a theologian; an administrator and a pastor; politically influential, then an exiled loser; a Catholic, and later a Reformed Puritan of the most extreme order. Owen’s deportment was such that he would “occlude himself in plain view” (211), yet “his high connections did not prevent his being attacked as a representative of a certain kind of Restoration nonconformity” (268). Further Gribben’s chronologically-ordered study shows what the material structure of the still published works of John Owen elides (with its non-chronological, theme-based organization), namely, that Owen was not a synthetic thinker but, time after time, burrowed deeply into one topic and then another (270). Gribben may not make good on some of his claims, for instance, that “Owen made no distinctive and enduring contribution to English or Reformed theology” (270). Indeed, perhaps the most glaring deficiency of this book is its failure to come around and truly assess the degree to which Owen’s Christology was distinctive (though this is alluded to briefly in chapter 7). But Gribben himself admits that Owen’s approach to specific and unique communion with each triune person was a development not only within Reformed trinitarianism but also within Catholic Christianity (172-174).

Any weaknesses notwithstanding, Gribben’s book shows the interrelations and movements amongst varied characteristics of Owen’s life and thought, and is to be commended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Crawford Gribben has held positions in early modern studies at the University of Manchester, Trinity College Dublin, and Queen's University Belfast, where he is currently professor of early modern British history. He is the author of several books on the print cultures of Puritanism and evangelicalism.



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