Read, Read, and Re-read John Owen (Matthew Barrett)
[artwork by Zach Franzen]
Recently I had the privilege of lecturing on John Owen’s life and theology for three hours. Really, there are few better ways to spend three hours than learning about this colossal Puritan. I thoroughly enjoyed it. In my preparation I realized how little people read John Owen today, even in seminaries. This puritan, whom Roger Nicole has said is the greatest in the English language (yes, even over Edwards!), has been virtually forgotten until our recent generation. What a shame. But he is being picked up and written on and I find that very encouraging.
I love reading Owen. He is a master of theology and at the same time very pastoral. In this post I would simply like to point you in the direction of some Owen resources. Hands down, perhaps one of the best websites out there if you are looking for resources on Owen is Justin Taylor’s johnowen.org. Here you will find a timeline of Owen’s life, a bibliography of Owen’s writings with links, a bibliography of secondary literature on Owen with links, and some great quotes about Owen and by Owen. I highly recommend spending time on this site and bookmarking it for future use. In fact, much of what I am going to post here can also be found there.
So where should you begin with John Owen? First of all, before you even crack open one of Owen’s hefty tomes, I would recommend listening to a couple of lectures on Owen. Why? This will inspire you, motivate you, and bring you into John Owen’s world so that when you pick his works up for the first time you will have an idea of who this man was and what he accomplished.
Start with Carl Trueman’s five lectures on John Owen:
Also, you will want to listen to John Piper message on the life and piety of Owen: “The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness.”
Hopefully by then you will be hungry to read Owen himself. Now, when you begin reading Owen, don’t become discouraged. His writing style is much different than that of our day. At times it can be dense. But persevere! For in doing so you will find diamonds in the rough. I love what Sinclair Ferguson says, “To read John Owen is to enter a rare world. Whenever I return to one of his works I find myself asking ‘Why do I spend time reading lesser literature?’”
With that in mind, I would recommend purchasing the Banner of Truth set of Owen’s works. But there are also other translations of Owen that make him more accessible to contemporary English readers, including:
Overcoming Sin and Temptation, ed. by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006.
Communion with the Triune God, ed. by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.
These two Crossway books are an excellent place to start with Owen. Here Owen will open your mind to the world of the Trinity and how the triune God of Scripture then works within us for our sanctification.
Other works of Owen I would highly recommend include:
Display of Arminianism
Death of Christ
Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed
Vindicae Evangelicae [Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated]
Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity
Discourse on the Holy Spirit
Doctrine of Justification by Faith
Person of Christ
Church of Rome No Safe Guide
Humble Testimony unto the Goodness and Severity of God
Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer
Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ
Dominion of Sin and Grace
True Nature of the Gospel Church
Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ Applied to Sinners and Saints
Holy Spirit and His Work, as a Comforter and as the Author of Spiritual Gifts
And keep in mind you can find many of Owen’s works online these days:
Perilous Times (sermon)
If you have read Owen and desire to go deeper still, then I would recommend several resources:
Toon, Peter. God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen, Pastor, Educator, Theologian. Paternoster, 1971. (read online)
Daniels, Richard. The Christology of John Owen. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformed Heritage Books, 2004.
Ferguson, Sinclair B. John Owen on the Christian Life. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987.
Gleason, Randall C. John Calvin and John Owen on Mortification. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
Kapic, Kelly M. Communion with God: Relations Between the Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007).
Oliver, Robert W., ed. John Owen: The Man and His Theology. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R / Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2002.
Payne, Jon D. John Owen on the Lord’s Supper. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004.
Rehnman, Sebastian. Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen. Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002.
Trueman, Carl R. John Owen. Ashgate. Forthcoming.
Trueman, Carl R. The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998.
I leave you with two quotes, the first by J. I. Packer and the second by Sinclair Ferguson:
Owen was by common consent the weightiest Puritan theologian, and many would bracket him with Jonathan Edwards as one of the greatest Reformed theologians of all time. Born in 1616, he entered Queen’s College, Oxford, at the age of twelve and secured his M.A. in 1635, when he was nineteen. In his early twenties, conviction of sin threw him into such turmoil that for three months he could scarcely utter a coherent word on anything; but slowly he learned to trust Christ, and so found peace. In 1637 he became a pastor; in the 1640s he was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and in 1651 he was made Dean of Christ Church, Oxford’s largest college. In 1652 he was given the additional post of Vice-Chancellor of the University, which he then reorganized with conspicuous success. After 1660 he led the Independents through the bitter years of persecution till his death in 1683.
My personal interest in [Owen] as a teacher and theologian began in my late teenage years when I first read some of his writing. Like others, before and since, I found that they dealt with issues which contemporary evangelical literature rarely, if ever, touched. Owen’s penetrating exposition opened up areas of need in my own heart, but also correspondingly profound assurances of grace in Jesus Christ … Ever since those first encounters with his Works, I have remained in his debt … To have known the pastoral ministry of John Owen during these years (albeit in written form) has been a rich privilege; to have known Owen’s God an even greater one (see note 6).
Matthew Barrett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett has contributed book reviews and articles to various academic journals. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two daughters, Cassandra and Georgia. He is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.