How to Read John Owen: Part 1

John Owen is ranked not only among the most significant Puritan theologians, but also among Reformed theologians generally in the seventeenth-century. He is one of the greatest Reformed thinkers of all time and he always ministers to both our hearts and minds. However, it is also well-known that Owen has a reputation for being hard to read. People can leave conferences excited to start reading him, only to get discouraged when they begin.
Owen did a lot of writing. The twenty-three volumes of the Banner of Truth edition of his Works (16 "Works" + 7 "Hebrews") look large and imposing. They are actually even larger than they look. The small print and the dense content mean few will ever read and master his works in their entirety. The volumes of the Works do not contain all that he wrote. The Banner of Truth edition excludes the material he wrote in Latin, which made of most of volume 17 of the nineteenth-century William Goold collection. Stephen Westcott has loosely “translated” this material under the title Biblical Theology. Several decades ago, Peter Toon also published a translation of Owen’s Oxford Orations and a collection of his surviving Letters. The question is where to begin reading and which books to prioritize.
Why Is Owen Hard to Read?
In order to answer the question where to start reading Owen, it is helpful to ask first why his writings are difficult to read. Some have blamed Owen’s difficult style on his Latinized grammar. This is plausible, since he spent all of his education and a large part of his adult life speaking, teaching, and writing in Latin, which was virtually his first language. A proposed remedy to this problem has been to read Owen out loud. This is good advice, and it does help readers’ comprehension by increasing their concentration and keeping them moving through the text. However, there are other reasons Owen’s works are hard to read, and why some of his books are harder to read than others.
As with many modern authors, Owen did not always write for the same audience. His writing aimed at audiences as wide and varied as students at Oxford, members of Parliament, fellow pastor/scholars, heretics, people in the pews, and teenage university students. Typically, a work bearing a Latin or Greek title offers a clue that it will be harder to read than others. William Goold has provided useful introductions to each volume of Owen’s Works in which he outlines the historical context and purpose of each book. These are included in the Banner of Truth reprint of this edition. Make good use of this material. As an illustration of the diverse character of his books, Owen wrote the Mortification of Sin for teenagers at Oxford, and he preached the sermons in volume 9 for his congregation. However, he preached the sermons in volume 8 to Parliament, and Adminadversions on Fiat Lux to refute a modern threat from Roman Catholicism. The latter works are more demanding than the earlier ones listed here.
The character of his books differ widely as well. A few volumes in his Works represent massive-scale book reviews. For example, Vindiciae Evangelicae (volume 12) was a roughly five-hundred page line-by-line refutation of the Socinian Raccovian Catechism as well as John Biddle’s anti-trinitarian catechisms in English. In addition, his work on the perseverance of the saints (volume 11) responded to Redemption Redeemed by the English Arminian John Goodwin (1594–1665). Even the well-known Death of Death in the Death of Christ (volume 10) resulted from responding to someone else’s teaching. Other books, such as Justification by Faith, are mixed in this regard. He had planned to write this book for some time, but when he finally did, he did so largely in response to the false teaching of another author that had come to his attention in the process. Such works can give readers the sense they are jumping into the middle of a tense theological conversation as third-party observers. This does not mean that these books are not profitable. I have gleaned some of my most valuable theological and pastoral insights from reading them. However, knowing the nature of what you are reading may help you know what to expect and to narrow down where you want to start reading.
In the next post, I will walk through some of his Works to help readers navigate them.
[This post is edited and adapted from the Appendix to my The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen, Reformation Heritage Books, 2014. Used with permission]