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John Owen

Truly Reformed, Truly Scholastic

John Owen (1616-1683), sometimes called “The Prince of Puritan Divines” is widely recognized as one of the greatest Reformed theologians ever to have lived. Owen’s works are valued for their theological depth and insight.  Owen’s writings demonstrate both rigorous logic and profound eloquence, as he marshals a host of intellectual resources in the task of articulating the truths of the Christian faith. While Owen was very well connected politically and in public life, serving as vice-chancellor of Oxford under Oliver Cromwell from 1651 to 1657, it is the richness of his thought that brought him the most recognition and attention. [1] Carl Trueman notes, “Owen was without doubt the most significant theological intellect in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, and one of the two or three most impressive protestant theologians in Europe at the time.”[2] Owen’s profound theological insight brought him widespread recognition and a reputation for depth of thought which remains to this day.

Yet, Owen cannot be seen in isolation from the world of which he was part. Indeed, Owen is rightly seen as part of a broader movement of intellectual currents present in Western Europe at the time. It is these movements which are key to properly understanding Owen in his own intellectual development and context. Chief among these is scholasticism. John Owen may be rightly said to be a Protestant scholastic, in a very similar manner to other great theologians of the era, such as Francis Turretin (1623-1687) and Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676). It is the purpose of this essay to explain Owen’s Protestant scholasticism and how it contributed to his articulation of classic Reformed theology.


Scholasticism as a movement began in the Middle Ages as a method to teaching within the schools. It is from this that it receives its name. It was a movement of the schola, the school. As the great universities developed in Europe, they began to develop systematic methodological approaches to teaching theology, philosophy, and other subjects. At the heart of the scholastic method was the disputation, where magisters (teachers) and their students would engage in public debate over disputed points of teaching. The disputed points would be characterized in the form of a question. This method became known as the quaestio method.[3] This method was valued throughout the history of scholasticism. It can thus be seen in both the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century and the Institutes of Elenctic Theology of Francis Turretin in the seventeenth century.  Thus one of the core features of scholastic theology was its concern with working through questions of dispute and analyzing them exhaustively. One of the core features of scholastic theology was its concern with working through questions of dispute and analyzing them exhaustively. Click To Tweet

There are several points to be made about scholasticism. First, scholasticism was a method. It was not a communication of specific content. A specific doctrine or teaching would not qualify as “scholastic.” Scholasticism is a reference to the approach to teaching and assessing the content of the discipline. It is an approach which was developed in the schools as a way of handling different types of content. As Richard Muller notes, “’scholasticism,’ properly understood, indicates a method, capable of presenting and arguing a variety of theological and philosophical conclusions, and not a particular theology or philosophy.”[4]

The second point to be made about scholasticism is that it built upon formal principles of logic. Many of the debates and approaches were highly technical and focused upon logical analysis of argument. Questions in disputations often came down to discussions of whether or not a particular argument was logical or if it committed a certain type of fallacy. To this end, Aristotle’s logic was used. Aristotle’s Organon, or his logical writings, served to provide a logical foundation for the approach to theology and philosophy.[5] These writings provided theologians and philosophers with the tools necessary to analyze arguments and to judge their validity.

A third point to be made about scholasticism is that it was a method which made very fine distinctions and categories. This was an approach which allowed thinkers to work delicately and finely through each aspect of an issue, making important distinctions for each topic.[6] One example may be given of the distinction between the secret and the revealed will of God: one refers to His eternal decree, the other to his revealed law.[7] This type of distinction was made often in scholastic theology. Many theological categories and distinctions were developed through this approach.

Thus scholasticism, established in the medieval era, provided a means by which scholars could rigorously and logically work through certain subjects and handle them in a comprehensive fashion. This method was not immediately discarded in the Renaissance and the Reformation. Rather, it was adopted and utilized in new ways by Protestants.

Protestant Scholasticism

When Protestantism arose in the early 1500s, Protestantism took over many of the institutions of society, including the universities. As Protestantism developed in these contexts, Protestants began to use the tools and the training of these institutions for their use. This led to the development of Protestant scholasticism, where many of the same techniques and methods utilized in the medieval era were adopted in service of Protestantism. Protestant scholasticism was not completely identical to medieval scholasticism, but there was a commonality in that scholastic approaches were used in a university setting. These included the disputation, the use of Aristotelian logic, and the development of fine categories and distinctions in argumentation. The Reformed utilized this method particularly effectively across Europe, thus leading to the particular phenomena of Reformed scholasticism. Reformed scholasticism was the use of scholastic methods in the service of Reformed theology. Click To Tweet

Reformed scholasticism was the use of scholastic methods in the service of Reformed theology. Following the Reformed tradition and theologians such as John Calvin, Martin Bucer, and Ulrich Zwingli, Reformed scholasticism utilized these same approaches in defense of Reformed teaching. The teaching of the Reformed confessions, such as the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, and the Westminster Standards found great expression in the work of Reformed scholastic theologians.

The Reformed scholastics used methods like the quaestio method to achieve greater precision and accuracy in teaching and in developing their theology. They utilized the disputation as well, engaging in public disputations upon contested issues. The Reformation did not actually lead to a rejection of scholasticism, but a renewal of it in a new Protestant context.

Thus, scholasticism entered into the seventeenth century in a Reformed Protestant context. William Costello writes, “While historians of philosophy may disagree on the primary characteristic, all will concede that scholasticism, as received by the seventeenth century, retained three distinguishing marks: it was dialectical, Aristotelian, and highly systematized.”[8] Richard Muller gives a similar definition, minus Aristotle:

The theology of the great systems written in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, like the theology of the thirteenth-century teachers, is preeminently a school theology. It is a theology designed to develop system on a highly technical level and in an extremely precise manner by means of the careful identification of topics, division of these topics into their basic parts, definition of the parts, and doctrinal or logical argumentation concerning the divisions and definitions.[9]

Influences from Renaissance Humanism

This Reformed scholasticism was not simply a parroting of the scholastic approaches of the past. One of the major differences between the medieval era and the Reformation era was the great emphasis upon research in the original languages. The Renaissance had been greatly affected by the movement known as Renaissance humanism. Renaissance humanism, (not to be confused with secular humanism), was a focus upon the studia humanitatis, or the language arts.[10] It was devoted to reading and studying ancient texts in their original languages. The key motto of Renaissance Humanism was the cry “ad fontes” or “back to the sources.” This meant that scholars sought to study the texts of the ancient world in the original Greek or Latin, and with respect to the Christian Scriptures, the original Greek and Hebrew.

What this meant for the study of Christian theology was that theologians now learned to study the original texts of Scripture in their original languages. This was something which medieval scholasticism was incapable of doing. This greatly impacted the Protestant approach to scholasticism, as it meant that there was a greater analysis of the original texts in their original languages.  There was a philological element now included in the practice of theology, which meant that theologians had to learn what the words of Scripture meant in their original tongue. Reformed scholasticism was a much more mature and highly developed approach to Christian theology than that of its medieval forebearers. Click To Tweet

This movement also brought about a revival of classical learning. This meant that scholars were trained in the classical writings of the ancient world, such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, the writings and speeches of Cicero, and numerous others.  They were expected to have an understanding of the myths, stories, and histories of antiquity, such as those of the Trojan War, the founding of Rome, the deeds of Heracles, and many similar tales. The goal was to train individuals to possess a deep understanding of classical antiquity.

Renaissance humanism impacted the development of Reformed scholasticism by bringing a greater understanding of both the ancient world and the language of Scripture itself. Thus Reformed scholasticism was a much more mature and highly developed approach to Christian theology than that of its medieval forebearers. As Richard Muller notes,

Seventeenth-century scholasticism is characterized by a thorough use and technical mastery of the tools of linguistic, philosophical, logical, and traditional thought. The mastery of ancient languages typical of the Protestant scholastic writers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, like their use of the locus method and inclusion of elements of rhetorical as distinct from demonstrative argumentation, serves to distinguish this later scholasticism from its medieval ancestor: in each of these characteristics, Protestant scholasticism evidences itself a child of the Renaissance as well as a child of the Middle Ages.[11]

John Owen as a Reformed Scholastic Theologian

With these points having been made, it may thus be seen how John Owen was a Reformed scholastic theologian. Owen demonstrates several of the characteristics of the scholastic approach in his writings. These may be seen in a wide variety of ways.

First, Owen utilizes questions in the execution of his argumentation. While not precisely the same as the classic form of the quaestio method, Owen still uses disputed questions as points upon which to explain theological truth. One of the clearest examples of this is in his earliest work, A Display of Arminianism. In chapter five, Owen uses the question of “whether the will of God may be resisted” as a starting point for his discussion of the topic.[12] Owen explains the Biblical teaching, then examines Arminian objections, and then responds to them. This is very much a traditional scholastic approach.

Second, Owen utilizes a very logical and rigorous approach to Christian theology. This is seen brilliantly in Owen’s most well-known work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, a book defending the Reformed teaching of the definite nature of Christ’s atonement. In this work, Owen makes several points concerning the end and purpose for which Christ came, which is that He might purchase a specific people through His death and pay for their sins. One of the chief arguments which Owen makes here is that Christ in His priestly office offered sacrifice for those for whom He intercedes.  He writes,

The sum is, that the oblation [priestly sacrifice] and intercession of Jesus Christ are one entire means for the producing of the same effect, the very end of the oblation being that all those things which are bestowed by the intercession of Christ, and without whose application it should certainly fail of the end proposed in it, be effected accordingly; so that it cannot be affirmed that the death or offering of Christ concerned any one person or thing more, in respect of procuring any good, than his intercession doth for the collating of it: for, interceding there for all good purchased, and prevailing in all his intercessions (for the Father always hears his Son), it is evident that every one for whom Christ died must actually have applied unto him all the good things purchased by his death.[13]

The point here is that Owen is utilizing a strong logical argument uniting the sacrifice and intercession of Christ to note that they can never be separate, and thus Christ’s death was intended for His people, His church. Owen retrieves the classic scholastic approach of utilizing logic to develop an argument. John Owen retrieves the classic scholastic approach of utilizing logic to develop an argument. Click To Tweet

Third, Owen also extensively utilizes categories and fine distinctions in the articulation of theological arguments. One very elegant example is found in the Death of Death in the Death of Christ, where he explains all of the different ways in which the word “world” is used in Scripture.[14] Owen makes these distinctions to demonstrate that the diversity of expression indicates that the word “world” does not simply mean “all men.” Thus, he is able to disprove the idea of universal atonement based upon the use of the word “world” in Scripture.

Owen also utilizes distinctions from older authors as well, such as the Thomistic distinction between God’s simple intelligence and knowledge of vision. This distinction, found in Thomas’ Summa Theologica [15] is used by Owen in Display of Arminianism, where he argues that God “foreknoweth and seeth all things that are possible—that is, all things that can be done by his almighty power,–without any respect to their future existence.”[16] This is God’s simple intelligence, and yet, “out of this large and boundless territory of things possible, God by his decrees freely determineth what shall come to pass, and makes them future which before were but possible.”[17] The knowledge of that which He actually brings to pass is His knowledge of vision. This distinction allows Owen to defend divine sovereignty over and against Arminian and Molinist objections that foreknowledge is the foundation for how God will act towards the creature. Owen’s defense of Reformed teachings such as definite (or limited) atonement, unconditional election, and the priority of the divine decree are particularly expressed through scholastic methodology. Click To Tweet

Fourth, Owen demonstrates a linguistic and educational mastery characteristic of Protestant scholasticism. Owen possesses a detailed knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and a concern for the philological and grammatical issues of the text. This concern is seen throughout his writings. One of the most elegant examples of this is found in Owen’s Discourse on the Holy Spirit, where he discusses the nature of the person of the Holy Spirit. In chapter two of this work, Owen explains the meaning of the terms ruach and pneuma, the Hebrew and Greek terms found in Scripture for the Spirit. Here Owen looks at other passages which use these words and compares them even to the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old Testament to explain the meaning of them.[18]

Truly scholastic, truly reformed

John Owen was a Reformed scholastic theologian who utilized logic and categorization in the articulation of his thought. Much of Owen’s writing may be considered to be truly scholastic in approach and orientation, whether it is in discussion of the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, or justification. Owen’s defense of Reformed teachings such as definite (or limited) atonement, unconditional election, and the priority of the divine decree are particularly expressed through scholastic methodology. Owen provides a valuable model for those in the Reformed and Protestant tradition for how theology may be done with depth, insight, and profundity.


[1] Carl Trueman, Claims of Truth (Carlistle: Paternoster, 1998), 2.

[2] Carl Trueman John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Burlington: Ashgate, 2007), 1.

[3] For more on this subject, see William T. Costello, S.J, The Scholastic Curriculum at Early Seventeenth Century Cambridge (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1958); Brian Lawn, The Rise and Decline of the Scholastic Quaestio Disputata; With Special Emphasis on its Use in the Teaching of Medicine and Science (Leiden: Brill, 1993); Richard A. Muller, “Scholasticism and Orthodoxy in the Reformed Tradition: An Attempt at Definition” in After Calvin: Studies in the Development of the Reformed Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 25-46.

[4] Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Volume I: Prolegomena to Theology Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 35.

[5] Richard Cross, The Medieval Christian Philosophers (London: I.B. Tauris, 2014), 1-4; Costello, The Scholastic Curriculum at Early Seventeenth Century Cambridge, 9-10.

[6] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics I: Prolegomena to Theology, 34.

[7] John Owen, Works 10: The Death of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 45; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia, Q. 19, art. 11, resp.

[8] William Costello, The Scholastic Curriculum at Seventeenth Century Cambridge, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 8.

[9] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, 34.

[10] “In noncombative usage, the term humanista denoted a student or teacher of studia humanitatis, that is, a curriculum focusing on language skills.” Erika Rummel, The Humanist-Scholastic Debate In the Renaissance and Reformation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 11

[11] Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics I: Prolegomena to Theology, 35-36.

[12] John Owen, Works Volume 10: The Death of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 43-52.  See also chapter XI, p. 108-114.

[13] Owen Works 10: The Death of Christ, 181.

[14] Owen Works 10: The Death of Christ, 303-305.

[15] Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica, Ia, Q. 14, art. 9.

[16] Owen, Works 10: The Death of Christ, 23.

[17] Owen, Works 10: The Death of Christ, 23.

[18] John Owen Works Volume 3: The Holy Spirit (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 47-54.

Christopher Cleveland

Christopher Cleveland is associate professor of Christian thought at Reformation Bible College. He previously served as a humanities teacher at Veritas Academy in Savannah, Ga. He earned his M.A.R. from Westminster Theological Seminary in Dallas, Tex., and a Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is the author of Thomism in John Owen and a contributor to the Oxford Handbook of Reformed Theology.

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