As Useful to the Church as the Sun: John Owen on Hebrews
John Owen is one of the most beloved and widely read, if not easily digested, puritans from the seventeenth century. His rising popularity in recent years stems in part from the wide-ranging topics he addressed throughout the course of his literary career. He not only wrote on major doctrinal themes such as communion with God and justification by faith alone but also on specific pastoral issues such as religious toleration, public worship, and Christian living. As a pastor, statesman, educator, and theologian, he sought to ground his writing endeavors in the biblical text. Throughout his life, Owen was a reader of Scripture.
Locating Owen’s Commentary
Owen’s commitment to the foundational role of Scripture in shaping Christian doctrine and practice is seen perhaps most clearly in his extensive commentary on the New Testament book of Hebrews. The work stands as a remarkable testament to Owen’s persistence as a biblical scholar. Tallying over two million words, his commentary is the product of a lifetime’s reflection on Hebrews. He believed it marked the culmination of his ministry. The result was one of the longest expositions on a single book of the Bible in the history of the church. Yet Owen’s commentary has been largely neglected outside a small cadre of devote readers of the puritan.
The twentieth century Lutheran scholar Gerhard Ebeling famously said that “church history is the history of the exposition of Scripture.” Applied to Owen, his commentary serves as an important resource for understanding his life and theology. From his earliest publications in the 1640s to his last series of works in the 1680s, Owen returned to texts and themes in Hebrews throughout his ministry. It is no surprise then that when Owen was removed by parliament as dean of Christ Church at the University of Oxford in 1660, he almost immediately started writing his commentary. He wouldn’t stop working on it until just before his death in 1683.
As puritans negotiated the aftermath of political defeat at the restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660, many of them turned to producing various writings that would undergird the cause of protestant dissent. As Neil Keeble has argued in his work The Literary Culture of Nonconformity, “political defeat was the condition of cultural achievement.” From this period emerged some of the most enduring works of the seventeenth century, including John Milton’s Paradise Lost and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Against this background, Owen wrote his commentary to encourage dissenting puritans, who might be tempted to abandon the cause of nonconformity, to “run with patience the race that is set before us” by “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:1–2 KJV).
Surveying Owen’s Commentary
The portrayal of the person, office, and work of Jesus Christ found in Hebrews gave Owen ample material to support the puritan cause in the remaining years of his life. His commentary was originally published in four bulky volumes. In 1668, the first volume was released with a series
of introductory essays, called “exercitations,” and an exposition of Hebrews 1–2. These essays outline basic biblical and theological arguments that allowed Owen to demonstrate that the promised messiah of the Old Testament is the Christ of the epistle to the Hebrews. In this work Owen showcases his knowledge of rabbinical learning in the hopes of challenging both “ancient and modern Jews” in their rejection of Christ as the true messiah. These essays are especially important for Owen’s overall project because they provide foundational hermeneutical principles that inform his exegesis of the text. Owen’s exercitations are the interpretative key to understanding his exposition of Hebrews.
The next volume arrived in 1674. In his preface, Owen complains of poor health and “dangerous distempers” that seemed to slow the rate of his writing on the epistle. Once again, the volume begins with a series of essays, this time on the priesthood of Christ, followed by an extended discussion on Hebrews 3–5. Owen is especially concerned with exposing “the opinion of the Socinians,” whose rejection of the deity of Christ, Owen argued, compromised the efficacy of the priestly work of Christ. No biblical book better served Owen’s purposes in refuting Socinian modifications to Christology than the epistle to the Hebrews.
By the time his third volume was published in 1680, Owen believed the end of his life was imminent, even speaking of his “near approach unto the grave.” For Owen, there was no time to waste on preliminary matters. The tome consists entirely of an exposition on Hebrews 6–10 and contains some of his most mature thinking on topics such as “the danger of apostacy,” the nature of typology, covenant theology, especially in relation to the Mosaic covenant, and “the duty of believers in hearing the word in times of trial and persecution.” Owen lived just long enough to write his comments on the remaining chapters of Hebrews 11–13, although he died before the fourth and final volume was published in 1684. The result was that Owen’s “elaborate work,” as the title page dubs it, was now complete.
Reading Owen’s Commentary
Today Owen’s massive biblical commentary is published in seven volumes, skillfully edited by the nineteenth century historian William Goold and handsomely reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust. Yet the sheer size of the work mitigates against its usefulness for many people. Ironically, the length of the commentary is partly the result of Owen’s desire to appeal to a cross-section of readers. The structure of the work follows a standard pattern of “precritical” exegesis that moves sequentially from textual and grammatical analysis to biblical-theological exposition to practical and pastoral observations. With this literary configuration, Owen attempted to provide a resource that would appeal to scholars, pastors, and educated laity alike.
Owen intended his commentary to outlive him. He viewed his work as a tool for the church in the seventeenth century and beyond to probe the inexhaustibility of the glory of Christ in the text of Hebrews. Click To TweetBut this raises an obvious question for interested readers, where do you start? I suggest beginning with his introductory essays, especially “the oneness of the church” (exercitation 6), “the first dissertation concerning the messiah, proving him to be promised of old” (exercitation 8), “the original of the priesthood of Christ in the counsel of God” (exercitation 27), and “federal transactions between the father and the son” (exercitation 28). These essays are not only among the most important for his commentary but also reflect some of
Owen’s most creative attempts to develop themes related to his views on Christology, covenant theology, and hermeneutics. Then I would encourage you to dip into Owen’s exposition on specific passages. In particular, his commentary on Hebrews 1:1–3 sets the tone for his entire project and is a masterful exhibition of the interplay between biblical exegesis, trinitarian theology, and pastoral application. Also, Owen’s meditation on the priesthood of Christ in Hebrews 4:14–16 encapsulates the best of this thought on this subject and reveals his heart as a minister of the gospel. Then Owen’s exposition of Hebrews 11 offers probing accounts of biblical figures in order to underscore the importance of persevering faith amidst trials and tribulations.
Owen thought and wrote about the book of Hebrews for most of his life and ministry. He wanted Christians to join him in reading this wonderful New Testament epistle. His reasoning was simple. For its portrait of the excellencies of Christ, Owen believed Hebrews was “as useful to the church as the sun in the firmament is unto the world.”