Results tagged “John Owen” from Reformation21 Blog

I've been working of late on the doctrine of the pactum salutis, i.e., the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son concerning the redemption of elect sinners. Here, as in so many places, John Owen is instructive. Although it is not central to my own project, Owen's discussion of the particular delight that God takes in the eternal covenant of redemption strikes me as a particularly wonderful topic for contemplation. 

In chapter four of his Christologia (Works, vol. 1, pp. 54-64), Owen addresses a question that received quite a bit of attention in his day, namely, the question of what it means to say that Jesus Christ is the "foundation" of God's decree regarding the salvation of his people. Owen's answer to this question is clear. To say that Jesus Christ is the "foundation" of God's saving decree is to say that God's eternal plan of salvation was laid in Christ to be accomplished by Christ. God chose us "in him" to redeem us "through him" (Eph 1.4-5), and this sovereign decree is the foundation of all God's saving counsels regarding his children.

In discussing Christ's status as the foundation of God's saving decree, Owen makes the remarkable claim that God takes more delight in making his eternal decree of salvation than in executing said decree. Such a claim is not only hard to understand. On the surface at least, it is also hard to swallow. Is Owen saying that God delights more in the idea of us than in our actual existence as redeemed siblings of Jesus Christ? Is Owen's God perhaps like the person who loves the idea of marriage more than his or her actual spouse? Certainly not. What, then, does Owen mean in saying that God's "principal delight and complacency ... is in his eternal counsels"?  

Fully unpacking Owen's point would require setting it within the broader context of seventeenth century Reformed orthodox discussions of the divine decree, to which we may have opportunity to return at a later time. For now, we may put the matter this way: According to Owen, God takes more delight in his eternal counsels than in the temporal execution of those counsels for the simple reason that God takes more delight in himself than he takes in his creatures. God's works only manifest "the outskirts" of his sublime nature (Job 26.14). However, God's decree, because it is God's decree, is the occasion wherein God rejoices in the unfathomable depths of his triune perfection. According to Owen, God's decree is the principle expression of his infinite wisdom, goodness, love and grace, and the eternal occasion whereby the Father and the Son engage in mutual, ineffable delight through the Spirit. Owen takes Proverbs 8.30-31 as a description of the intratrinitarian delight that characterizes God's eternal decree of salvation: "then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man."

Reflecting upon Owen's discussion of this topic reminds me of the oft-quoted statement from Geerhardus Vos: "The best proof that [God] will never cease to love us lies in that he never began." Translating this statement in an Owenian register, we might say: The best proof that God will never stop loving us lies in that he has always loved the idea of loving us. And this too helps us see that Owen's remarkable point is not misanthropic. God's eternal plan to save us in and through Jesus Christ is not a plan that he engages reluctantly or as the result of external compulsion. It is a plan directed by infinite divine wisdom, whose fountain is the infinite goodness of God and whose womb is the eternal, ineffable delight of the Father and the Son in the fellowship of the Spirit. God's eternal delight in the eternal covenant of redemption is a source of comfort to poor sinners because it reminds us not only that the eternal plan of salvation is God's idea. It also reminds us that God loves his idea with a love whose spring is utterly and wholly divine. 

Call Me Maybe

How do we deal with the tricky matter of pastors moving from one congregation to another? 

Some time ago I was in a session meeting with my elders, discussing my salary, and the phone rang (a long distance call). Within a minute of the phone conversation, I was asked about becoming the pastor at another congregation. The thought of putting the gentleman on speakerphone never occurred to me until well after my salary had been decided!

The topic of pastors receiving calls, searching for calls, and transferring from one church to another is exceedingly complex. The Early Church addressed this issue, and made provisions against the practice of pastors carelessly and selfishly hopping from one church to another. 

John Owen also addressed this issue. As he reflected back on the Early Church, he writes: 

"For when some churches were increased in members, reputation, privileges, and wealth, above others, it grew an ordinary practice for the bishops to design and endeavor their own removal from a less unto a greater benefice."

Owen also explains how the councils of Nicea and Chalcedon were strongly against the practice of pastors moving from one church to another due to the aforementioned reasons. These councils "would not allow that a man might be a bishop or presbyter in any other place but only in the church wherein he was originally ordained; and, therefore, if any did so remove themselves, decreed that they should be sent home again, and there abide, or cease to be church-officers" (Conc. Nicea. can. 15,16; Chalced., can. 5, 20).

The concept of "open contending for ecclesiastical promotions, benefices, and dignities, were then either unknown or openly condemned."

While appreciating many of the practices of the early church on this particular matter, Owen admits that there are "just causes" for the removal of a Pastor from one congregation to another.  In the case of a "removal" it should be with the "free consent of the churches concerned" and with the advice of other churches, with whom they walk in communion. Owen cites the example of Gregory Nazianzen who was removed from Casima to Constantinople, though with little success.
Owen asks another question: "May a Pastor voluntarily, or of his own accord, resign and lay down his office, and remain in a private capacity?"

Again, this was judged as undesirable, "if not unlawful, by the first synod of Ephesus, in the case of Eustathius." Eustathius was aged and wanted to retire and enjoy peace. He was tired of the opposition he faced from the church where he ministered. So, on his own judgment, and without advice, he removed himself from his office in the church so that they could choose a good man to replace him." The synod, however, condemned his decision.

Nonetheless, Owen argues that "no general rule can be established in this case; nor was the judgment or practice of the primitive church precise herein."  Clemens, for example, suggested that ministers should resign their office in the event of divisions in the church. Owen recounts the story of Nazian who "did the same at Constantinople; and protested openly that although he were himself innocent and free from blame, as he truly was, and one of the greatest men of his age, yet he would depart ... rather than they should not have peace among them; which he did accordingly."

It is not permissible, according to Owen, to voluntarily resign on account of 1) weakness for work; and 2) weariness of and despondency under opposition and reproaches.  It is lawful, however, "in such an incurable decay of intellectual abilities and in the event of incurable divisions in the church, even when the Pastor is not the cause of them." Moreover, a Pastor can remove himself if the church is "wholly negligent in its duty" to provide for him and his family.

James Durham also has some interesting thoughts on this in his commentary on Revelation. He makes the claim that God has gifted his ministers differently. So, for example, a particularly gifted minister may be in a "lesser Congregation" and yet be "more qualified" to be in a larger congregation. He perhaps should leave for the good of the larger church because of his "larger" gifting compared to other less gifted men.   

While Durham's point ought to be carefully considered, I think there are many other factors that should cause us to exercise caution regarding the principle of the "greater good." For example, the "greater good" may require a gifted young pastor to remain in a smaller church for many years before he is ready for the demands of a larger body of believers. 

Whatever our views on this important issue - and I think this topic requires a great deal more thought than I am able to give in a blog post - it seems to me that this is an area that requires greater theological reflection in our present thinking on "calling." Not only pastors, but also Christ's sheep may be damaged by unwise, careless "processes" where "pastoral calls" have more in common with high-school dating - apologies to home-schoolers who can't relate - than with biblical principles. 

The Early Church and many Post-Reformation Reformed theologians wrestled intensely with these issues. And, I believe, so should we.

Pastor Mark Jones is happy where he is in Vancouver, where, due to the rain, the grass is always green on this side!

Concessions and contentions

I may have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is, "Never get involved in a land war in Asia," but only slightly less well known is this: "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!" Then further down the pecking order comes this one: "Never quote Owen in response to Trueman if you do not want a trampling."

Ah, well, if I may quote the great doctor (Trueman, of course), "Fools rush in where monkeys fear to tread." At least taking aim at everyone includes me - thank you, Carl, for making me a part of this . . .

I must admit I come to this with my admiration for Carl marred somewhat by the unsettling notion of a Pentecostal phase. It is like being told that, prior to discovering Led Zeppelin, he flirted with Showaddywaddy or had a brief Diana Ross period. Nevertheless, I care for him enough not to allow his life to become too boring, and so I offer the following concessions and contentions.


Naturally, one reads Owen in his own context, and the issue of state imposition of a specific liturgical form is part of that. To simply lift a statement and drop it on someone else without nuance would be unhelpful, and I did not intend to do that. I am glad that Carl has given me an occasion to clarify the issue.

I am not dismissing all "formal liturgy" as necessarily ritualistic and formalistic (although the fact that the words formal and formalistic have the merest smidgin of something in common should suggest a potential connection to our minds).

I am not in the least seeking to dismiss the Reformers as s/Spiritually insubstantial men. However, surely we must apply the same criteria as to Owen and others, that they too were (as we are) of their time, subject to certain influences, thinking in certain categories, reacting against certain issues.

I accept that formalism and fanaticism are not mutually exclusive categories. I think - and this is part of the point, as I shall suggest below - that this may be a horseshoe spectrum (similar to the political example in which both fascism and communism are both actually manifestations of totalitarianism). A person could be fanatically formal or formally fanatical.

I am not dismissing the value of worship informed by the best that the past has to offer. I believe that to divorce ourselves from the past is as much a folly as our enslavement to it - I do not accuse Carl of either the former or the latter, although I imagine that as a church historian he is probably particularly concerned about the historical myopia characteristic of too much of the modern church.


The fact that Owen is deriving his principle out of and applying his principle into a specific set of historical circumstances does not render that basic principle necessarily flawed or its present application necessarily inappropriate. Even if we do not see the arrival of liturgy in Colorado Springs as "necessarily representing some kind of formalist dust inevitably filling a vacuum left by the departure of megachurch evangelicalism," I think it is legitimate to ask whether or not it may possibly be typical or representative of the kind of shifts that take place under such circumstances.

Here we might return to the idea of the horseshoe spectrum and the underlying point that I wish to make. Owen - in various places, and not just when addressing liturgy specifically - is concerned that where Christ is not worshipped in spirit and truth then that absence (and all that is lost with it) will be supplied, at least in wish, by recourse to the senses and appetites of men. In that sense, both formalism and fanaticism, properly understood, pander to carnality, and there is enough of it remaining in every saint for us to be constantly on guard against either.

The original article by Gene Veith suggested that the congregation in question was trying to "find its place in historic Christianity" by "bringing in liturgy, every-Sunday communion, the church year, and pastoral care. Its new statement of faith is the Nicene Creed." The parent article in Christianity Today puts some flesh on those bones. However, there's not much doubt that those elements that Veith identified are not inherently united. For example, the church year and pastoral care are no more necessarily bound together than they are necessarily separated. That said, there are elements of the package described that do tend and have often historically tended toward formality, even where they do not impose it.

My concern is that, moving further away from the specifics of this example (and making no accusations), it would not be at all surprising to find that a church that had discovered the emptiness of megachurch evangelicalism and charismatic excesses might very well, rather than turn to the fullness of Christ, simply find a different emptiness that at least had the virtue of novelty without actually solving the problem. So, yes, it may not be inevitable to see a formalist procession sweeping into the vacuum left by fanatical activity, but it is not altogether unlikely.

In this regard, might it not be time to drop this 'everyone has a liturgy' weapon, especially when employed as a catch-all dismission of any dissenting opinion with regard to worship? It has become de rigeur, especially among some Presbyterians, to employ this as a screen not so much to prevent any charges of formalism as to give a blanket defence of their own modes of worship. I recognise that there is a set of definitions of liturgy. Taking a simple line, we acknowledge that almost every church has a liturgy in the limited sense that almost every church conducts its public worship in accordance with a prescribed form (from the highest of Roman or Anglican or Orthodox worship to the broadest of megachurch evangelicalism, as the fairly well-known "Contemporvant" video makes clear).

In responding to Carl, I am not crassly suggesting that the alternative to all this proto-Catholicism is the four hymn sandwich. So, for example, the church I serve has a fairly well established format which allows for a number of variations but follows the same basic outline. It involves reading and singing psalms each Lord's day, morning and evening, as well as portions from the Old and New Testaments, together with a sermon, other hymns, and praying (always extempore, though we do address particular topics). We celebrate the Lord's supper as part of our worship on a regular basis. I hope it is clear that I have no appetite for chaotic, irreverent, man-centred worship-as-performance. At the same time, I steer clear of the deliberately dramatic and theatrical, the scripted, the heavily symbolic (except where biblically mandated), the overtly clerical. In that sense, I do not think that many people would wander into one of our services of worship and immediately suggest that we have a very 'liturgical' approach to things in the popular sense of the word.

I think that Carl and I would both contend that - taking the basic definition of liturgy, and echoing Carl's language - we desire and promote an intelligent pattern of worship that is theologically informed, which we and the churches we serve acknowledge and upon which they reflect, something that is grounded in the Word of God. Doubtless, in pursuing this, we come to the matter burdened by our own experiences and informed by our own convictions, and needing to take account of our own errors and imbalances.

I have not visited the church which Carl serves, so I don't know about their forms of worship, and I will not presume that they have a high and ornate liturgy any more than Carl will (I hope) be presuming that the church where I worship enjoys a four hymn sandwich (for the record, we usually sing three times in each worship service, at least once a psalm). But I am concerned that there are two extremes to avoid, and I see some of my Presbyterian and Baptist brethren reacting to and over-reacting against one or the other extreme. Given the general tendency in much broader evangelicalism toward fanaticism, I am concerned that those who wish to establish or even boast of their Reformed credentials do not swing to the other end of the spectrum, and find themselves in a very different environment, but really not that far away from the errors that they sought to avoid. I am prone to the same reactions and over-reactions, and so I wrestle with the same issues.

I do not deride or ignore the light of the centuries in which men have been living as new covenant believers. I live in it and I love it. But it is not the language of radicalism or shallowness - a sort of aggressive solo Scriptura or Scriptura nuda notion - to say that I pursue the simplicity and sublimity of scriptural worship. I desire something that does not pander overmuch to the senses if the Spirit is not enlivening us, either by way of forms and rituals or excesses and abandonment. I would rather that it all fell to the ground than that we went away imagining that we had worshipped when there had been nothing of any spiritual substance in our exercises, but we had managed to cover it over with something merely carnal, whether of imposed form or seeming freedom. I do not believe that such a desire is mysticism, Welsh or otherwise.

"Formalism is a matter of the heart, not of the written page," writes Carl. That is true, but an over-reliance on forms provides a particular opportunity for formalism just as the abandonment of order opens a door for fanaticism. At the same time, we must all be careful not to portray this simplistically as a fight between incipient radicalism and incipient ritualism. I think that Owen's principle holds good. The discussion for Reformed believers, with our different expectations and traditions, is how to walk the fine line without falling into the pit on the one side or the swamp on the other.

Not so unlikely?

Though Carl reports that the arrival of a formal liturgy at the New Life Church in Colorado Springs is considered a surprise, if I remember John Owen correctly, he would probably be expecting it.

I cannot recall the precise place (I may try to track it down, or someone might recall it - I vaguely remember having this conversation before!). Nevertheless, Owen somewhere suggests that, in the absence of spiritually (perhaps better, Spiritually) substantial religion, men will run to two extremes in an attempt to fill the void with practices that they hope will replicate or shadow something of the sense and weight that they feel ought to be there. Those two extremes are fanaticism (excess, 'enthusiasm', wildness) and formalism (mere ritual and performance).

While I don't know what David Wells surmises or demonstrates in the book Carl mentions, the suggestion that "forms of worship and content of theology are not neatly and cleanly separable" seems to be at least in measure supported by Owen's assertion.

So where we find an alleged evangelicalism that is not grounded in Scripture but is seeking some kind of religious or spiritual substance, we should not be surprised to see those two extremes being offered as potential alternatives, or people and churches swinging back and forth between formalism and fanaticism. Frankly, I find the current appetite for charismatic excesses and carnal excitements on the one hand, and the growing cultivation of a high and ornate liturgy on the other, mapping pretty accurately across the landscape that Owen suggests. (By the way, if he doesn't suggest it, someone else probably does. If no-one else does, I will gladly take the credit!)

The only thing that arrests the swing is when the anchor drops in the Word of God and simple, unaffected worship enlivened by the Holy Spirit is known and felt by saints who are satisfied with pursuing and enjoying God's promised ends by God's appointed means.

Results tagged “John Owen” from Through the Westminster Confession

Chapter 2.3, Part Two

iii. In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.

To limit the Confession's commitment to Trinitarianism to the two sentences that conclude Chapter two would be a serious mistake. Though simplistic revisionists have seen fit to add a chapter on the Holy Spirit, the entire Confession is viewed from a Trinitarian perspective, including the Confession's robust portrayal of the work of the Spirit in the Application of Redemption that comprises the bulk of the central sections of the Confession. 

Of practical import, to neglect the Father will make us soft and lazy, folk of dull consciences inclined to antinomianism and prone to complain at what we view as a lack of parental care for our most urgent needs. Ignoring the Son will lead us to make little of our need for a blood-bought redemption or of giving praise and glory to another, encouraging us in the default of every Adamic heir - a treadmill of works righteousness as we endeavor to make idols of ourselves. Neglecting the Spirit will encourage worldliness of the worst kind, ignoring what he provides in on-going transformational holiness in fruit-bearing, Christ-like lives. 

To get a grasp of how Trinitarianly robust seventeenth century Reformed theology can be, read John Owen's, Of Communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation; or, The Saint's Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Unfolded (1658), otherwise known as Volume 2 of the 16-volumed set of Owen's Works. He will make us appear as theological Lilliputians.