Review: Crossway's Owen, vol. 7
Crossway’s newly published Volume 7 of Owen’s Complete Works is made up of two treatises: The Reason of Faith (p.71-208) and The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God (p. 209-349). It features an excellent Editor’s Introduction, situating John Owen and this particular volume in their historical context. The introduction by itself is already an invaluable help for students of Owen and of the Puritan tradition.
The Reason of Faith
In The Reason of Faith, Owen’s goal is to explain the nature and grounds of saving faith’s embrace of the Scriptures as the Word of God. What kind of faith is needed to believe that these are words from God? What grounds does such faith have? Owen sets out to present the answers. In doing so, he charts a classical Protestant path. Although many authorities and influences in the world can encourage us to trust in God’s Word, our ultimate reason for trust in the Bible is the Bible itself. It is the Word of God and God cannot lie. “…another reason why we should believe, the Scripture proposes none.” (p. 95) We do come to this knowledge with the help of the Holy Spirit, through his inner testimony to the truthfulness of the Scriptures, and that testimony is in and by the Word.
In dealing with this topic, there are ditches on either side of the road that Owen wants to avoid. On the one hand, mentioning the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit will seem to many like the conversation is moved onto subjective grounds. A superficial hearing might make it seem like the real reason we trust the Scriptures is because we have received some subjective revelation from the Spirit, a revelation in addition to the Scriptures that confirms the Scriptures for us. Owen repeatedly denies this charge. Our faith is not based on new revelations or enthusiasms (as he calls them). When the Spirit speaks to us with the authority of God, commanding and enabling supernatural faith, he does it in and by the written Word (p. 177). As Protestants, we affirm that “our faith is built on and resolved into the Scripture itself, which carries with it its own evidence of being a divine revelation; and therefore that faith does ultimately rest on the truth and authority of God alone…” (p. 166).
On the other hand, there is another error on the other side of the spectrum — rationalism. If the reasons for our faith are public and objective, shouldn’t anyone be able to examine them and reach saving faith by the powers of his reason? Owen says no. Although the Holy Spirit speaks by the objectively available Scriptures, apart from supernatural illumination one can only arrive at probabilistic and conjectural faith. Neither of these is the kind of faith required to receive the Scriptures as the Word of God. We see this in the example of the apostles; they did it “by preaching the word itself unto [unbelievers] in the evidence and demonstration of the Spirit…” (p. 190). Owen successfully defends the faith from the poison of rationalism while maintaining that the Christian faith is rooted in the written Word of God, a foundation available for all to examine.
The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God
In the second work, Owen’s aim is to defend the Protestant teaching with regards to the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This supernatural illumination is absolutely required for a right understanding of Holy Scripture and of God’s will revealed in it. “The principal and efficient cause of the due knowledge and understanding of the will of God in the Scripture [is] the Holy Spirit of God..” (p. 223).
In sparring with his Roman Catholic opponents, Owen doubles down on the right and duty of all believers to know the Scripture for themselves as best as they can. He is careful not to be individualistic about God’s revelation. The Scriptures are given to the church, after all, and when it comes to the means of grace the church’s ministry always comes first in Owen’s mind. And yet, knowing the will of God in Scripture is a responsibility for every individual in particular. Contra the clericalism of the Roman church, in his epistles the apostle Paul prays that the entire church would be filled with the Holy Spirit and not just its leadership. “The Holy Spirit leaves unto us, yea, requires of us, the diligent use of the Scripture and exercise of our own reason, in subserviency unto his teaching. But this Church requires us to renounce them both, in compliance with herself.” (p. 256)
What is the worst error that man can commit in seeking the will of God? Trusting in his own ability. “There is nothing that sets men at a greater distance from divine instruction than a proud conceit of their own wisdom, wit, parts, and abilities.” (p. 241) Owen defends the orthodox view from both rationalism and empiricism: neither by senses, nor by reason, can we come to the assured knowledge of the will of God in Scripture which is required for Christian living.
How does God instruct us in his will? By giving us new hearts and by shaping our character after the image of his Son. The illumination of the Holy Spirit is one of the places where we clearly see both God’s sovereign will and human responsibility. God reveals himself to all that seek after him diligently: we are in need of his sovereign work and yet we must apply ourselves to seek it. Owen repeatedly states his conviction that those who pray to know the Lord and his Word will not be left to any serious error. “None utterly miscarry in the seeking after the mind of God but those who are perverted by their own corrupt minds.” (p. 313)
“But although the ways whereby we may come unto a participation of the teaching of the Holy Ghost seem at first rough and uneasy, yet unto all that engage in them they will be found to be ways of pleasantness and paths of peace.” (p. 257)
We should thank Crossway and the editors for their hard work in preparing this volume for publication. While the language used by Owen can be technical at times, even with the editor’s improvements and explanatory footnotes, persevering readers will find much reward for their labors.
Paul Sanduleac (MDiv/MA, Reformed Theological Seminary) is a minister in the International Presbyterian Church and a church planter in Chișinău, Moldova.