John Owen, Reformational Catholic

The history of the Christian Church can get rather complicated as you look across the ocean of traditions and faces. There are today so many sorts of camps and tribes even under the banner of Protestant and Reformed. But one figure stands out amongst his brethren as a helpful voice in service to Christ and His Church.

As the title makes it plain, the figure in view is John Owen (AD 1616-1683), one of the greatest minds of the Post-Reformation era. Church Historian Carl Trueman writes, “[John Owen] was without doubt not only the greatest theologian of the English Puritan movement but also one of the greatest European Reformed theologians of his day, and quite possibly possessed the finest theological mind that England ever produced.”

Owen was born in Stadhampton, England and was the son of an Anglican priest, Henry Owen. Owen’s father was sympathetic to the Puritan cause in England, which sought to pursue further Reformation. John and his brother William eventually studied in Oxford, where John himself would attain the Master of Arts degree at the age of nineteen.

While at Oxford, Owen was known for his self-driven proclivities. He contented himself with roughly four hours of sleep in order to further pursue his studies. Oxford’s influence upon the Owen would be evident the rest of his life. While he was training, he encountered some of the best literature of his day, and would even go on in his own private collection to contain thousands of volumes spread across various fields.

Modern Owen scholar Lee Gatiss highlights the breadth of Owen’s learning when he writes, “Owen knew his classics; in one of his books from 1669, for example, one can find allusions and quotations from Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Plautus, Juvenal, Horace, Xenophon, Plutarch, Virgil, Plato, Aristophanes, Lucian, Homer, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Lucretius, Persius, Papinius, Ovid, and Catullas.” Also Owen himself could easily function in Latin as well as he did in English. He had an excellent working knowledge of Greek & Hebrew. And expanded his own scholarship to include the very best of ancient, medieval and contemporary Jewish scholarship as evident in his magisterial multi-volume commentary on the book of Hebrews.

Yet one notices, that Owen’s proclivity to write in English reveals that Owen’s chief concern was not only enhancing the world of the academy, but empowering the proper training of the people of God so that they might be enable to live for the glory of God.

However, though Owen would go on to ordained in the Church of England as a deacon in December of 1632 and as a priest in December 1638, it was not until 1642 that Owen had his own “conversion experience.” Even as we do today, back in Owen’s time there were the some “celebrity pastors” as other scholars have noted. One such individual was Edmund Calamy. Owen had prepared himself to hear Rev. Calamy preach at Aldermanbury Chapel, yet Calamy was a no-show. And some unknown preacher entered the pulpit and preached from Matthew 8:26, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (KJV) Owen was never the same after that day. Owen had been wrestling with the same matters addressed in that sermon. And though Owen would seek to inquire who that man was that God used to assure Owen of his own salvation, God’s providence kept such information shrouded in mystery.

Owen’s spiritual invigoration was life-altering. As Owen scholar, Crawford Gribben writes, “The experience was transformative, and from it Owen was launched into the first stages of the literary and pastoral career to which he would dedicate his life.” In that very year, Owen released the very work that would put him on the literary map, “A Display of Arminianism”. Owen’s book revealed to the public his flair for doctrinal precision and his convincingly polemical soul. Owen saw himself as a man rooted in the best of Christian tradition, and critically echoed the very of best of the Patristic, Medieval, and Contemporary setting. More can be said about Owen’s abilities, but may this introduction encourage you to know more about the Prince of Puritans, John Owen.