Did John Owen Write a Biblical Theology?
February 23, 2017
Biblical theology has become a popular topic in recent years. While all theology should be biblical, this oft difficult to define discipline stresses the gradual historical unfolding of God’s self-revelation in redemptive history. People like biblical theology because they want to understand the Bible better.
In this light, would it sound too good to be true if you discovered that John Owen wrote a long-lost early modern biblical theology? As you search the Internet, you might discover a volume by him entitled, Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ. Is this what it appears to be? Unfortunately, no it is not. This is an English “interpretation” of Owen’s Latin lectures to his students at Oxford bearing the title, Theologoumena Pantodapa, sive de Natura, Ortu, Progressu, et Studio Verae Theologiae… While few agree over how to translate the main title, the subtitle tells us that the book is about the nature, rise, progress, and study of true theology. This reviewer believers that, while it is not a biblical theology, this is one of Owen’s most important books. In it, he teaches us how to know God and how to grow in godliness as we learn theology through studying the Bible
What exactly is Theologoumena Pantodapa and why did the translator give the impression that it was a biblical theology? This work comprised most of volume 17 of the nineteenth-century Goold edition of Owen’s Works. When Banner of Truth reprinted this set, they removed volume 17, since most of its contents were in Latin. Stephen Westcott rendered the book into English in the late twentieth-century. Because Owen treated his subject by tracing the teaching of Scripture related to it from Genesis to the New Testament, Westcott chose to title the work, Biblical Theology.
Determining what Owen’s subject was shows us the true character and importance of this book. The Latin title is very similar to standard books on prolegomena (or, first principles) of theology from the time. For example, the title of Franciscus Junius’ (1545-1602) prolegomena is De Theologia Vera: Ortu, Natura, Formis, Partibus, et Modo. Owen’s preface and first four chapters treat the nature and definitions of theology. Book six applies the teaching of these chapters by teaching us how to study “evangelical theology.” The eighty-percent left in the middle shows the progress of the true and false knowledge of God throughout the Bible. Though it may be hard for many readers to fathom, Owen tells us that most of his book was a preface to what he really intended to write. He aimed to teach us the principles needed to know God, to study his Word, and to produce godly theological students.
Though it is plausible for the translator to mistake this volume to be a biblical theology, the poor translation quality goes beyond the title. The translator often misses Owen’s trinitarian themes, particularly references to the Holy Spirit. At times, full sentences from the original text are omitted while new sentences are added. The biggest frustration this reviewer faces in comparing the translation to the original is that the translator has reorganized the paragraph breaks continually, making it hard to track where he is in relation to the original. The translation is easy to read and the content is edifying, but most of the time it is like reading a paraphrase of Owen rather than reading Owen himself.
In spite of the deficiencies of the translation, why should English readers read this book?
First, we should read this English “interpretation” because those who cannot read Latin do not have any other options. Even if Owen did not write a biblical theology, this book will still help you understand the Bible better. The fact that most of the book is a “preface” to its primary aim does not make its contents less profound and helpful. Owen teaches us how to know God and how to study theology in light of what the entire Bible says about these topics.
Second, we should read this volume because of Owen’s trinitarian definitions of theology. He describes theology essentially as the doctrine of living to God, through Christ, by the Spirit. This means that true theology is not merely an intellectual endeavor. It is an act of communion with the Father, through Christ as the pattern and ground of our knowledge of God, by people who are born of the Spirit and are filled with the Spirit. This trinitarian description of theology is needed today because it simultaneously places God at the heart of the gospel and promotes personal godliness in every student of the Bible. A potentially misleading translation of Owen on these themes is better than no Owen at all.
If we learn anything from the strange case of an old Latin book with a misleading title in a loosely translated form, then maybe it is that there is not such a great dichotomy between what we now call biblical theology and theology in general. Christians have always wanted to know the Bible better and they have always recognized its historical character. If you read Owen’s so-called Biblical Theology prayerfully then you will read it profitably as well. However, if you think that what Owen has to say is worthwhile, then you can also click here to help fund and promote a new translation of his work.