John Owen (1616–1683)

A Brief Biographical Sketch


John Owen, “the prince of English divines” was a man of high prestige amongst not only his fellow Puritans, but in all of Christian theology. John Webster once said that “Owen was the most brilliant English speaking theologian the world had ever produced.”[1] Others do not shy away from giving likewise praises to Owen. J.I. Packer says that Owen was “the greatest among Puritan theologians.”[2] Further, Carl Trueman says that “John Owen was probably the most significant theologian of the 17th century.”[3] One of the reasons pastors and theologians will say such great things about Owen is simply because of the works Owen produced.

Owen’s Works

Owen produced an ocean of pages of academic and practical theology. Many today highly esteem the 16 volume Works of John Owen, which contains his sermons, and many of his notable books such as: The Death of Death and the Death of ChristA Display of Arminianism, and Of Mortification of Sin in Believers. John Owen also produced a biblical theology called, Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ. His magnum opus was perhaps his 7 volume Commentary on Hebrews.

Now all these works add up to approximately 14,000 pages! However, a theologian is not considered reputable simply by the amount of pages he or she wrote, but rather by what he or she wrote. And in Owen’s instance, the content of his works shows he was a stunning theologian, for it was incredibly deep, practical, acute, and refreshing.

While we know that John Owen was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime theologian, we still might ask, “Who was John Owen?”

Academia

In 1616, Owen was born to Puritan parents in Stadhampton, England (near Oxford). Growing up in such a family, he was raised in the Christian faith and convictions. From his young days to his late teens, he had an elite, academic upbringing. At age 10, he went to grammar school. At age 12 (1628), he entered Oxford University, and at age 16 (1632), he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree. At age 19 (1635), he earned his Master of Arts degree. Even at a young age, Owen quickly succeeded in the academic circle.

Owen didn’t merely “succeed,”he rigorously studied that he might excel. He was known to study anywhere from 18–20 hours a day, which meant he only slept around 4 hours a night. However, lest you think this is something to model and follow, according to Peter Toon’s work on Owen, Owen’s“health was affected, and later in life, when he was often on a sick-bed, he regretted these hours of rest he had missed as a youth.”[4]Owen would later be granted a Doctorate of Divinity and would be appointed to be the Vice-Chancellor (i.e., President) of Oxford University (1651).

Assurance of Faith

Though raised by Christian parents and studied theology, Owen struggled with assurance of faith. After years of study and chaplain work, Owen did not have assurance of faith until the age of 26. In 1642, Owen and a friend visited a church, ready to hear a well-known preacher. However, this preacher was gone, and a meager substitute filled his place. Desiring to go hear a more famous preacher, Owen’s friend urged him to leave, but Owen did not oblige. He stayed and listened to a simple, yet piercing sermon on the text, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?”This sermon from a meager substitute brought Owen to assurance of faith. Owen, the great academic, was assured not by eloquence or a famous man, but by the word preached by a substitute—God’s word has power.

National Scene and Pastoral Work

After publishing a stunning first book, A Display of Arminianism, Owen took up pastoral work. Preaching often, he touched the hearts of many. His preaching was so well received that he was invited to preach before Parliament numerous times—even perhaps the most needed time: within 24 hours of King Charles I being publicly executed (1649). Oliver Cromwell, the Protector of the Commonwealth, was so astonished with Owen’s preaching that he made him his assistant and chaplain and would later appoint him as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University and Dean of Christ Church. But after political strife and Puritan persecution, Owen left Oxford and went back to pastoral work in which he served his congregation, faithfully preaching the word. And in 1683, the great pastor-theologian passed away.

A Man Who Knew Pain

In my brief research, what I found perhaps most interesting was this: John Owen was not simply an academic, renowned pastor, who sat in the ivory tower of professorship and Parliament. John had a wife and much of his life with his wife had much pain. Owen and his wife, Mary, had eleven children. Only one survived past childhood, and even that child died as a young adult. Further, his wife died eight years earlier than he did. In much of his work, in much of his teaching and preaching, this man knew pain, and therefore could help the hurting.

Theology

There are three important, primary points of Owen’s theology I will list here. To say that these three points are his theology would be very reductionistic and, in my opinion, a bit too simple. Owen spilled a massive amount of ink on pages and much of that ink is not puddles or lakes, but deep oceans of difficult waters. But here are three points I took away from Owen:

- Trinity is the most fundamental doctrine and reality in all of theology.

- Calvinistic theology of salvation

- Mortification of sin in the pursuit of holiness. 

A common theme running through all of these is communion with the triune God.

Introductory Resources

Books:

Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ– Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin

The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen– Sinclair B. Ferguson

Short Articles:

 “The Prince of English Divines” – Heritage Book Talk

He Killed Sin with Love” – John Piper

 


[1] Carl Trueman quoting Webster,

 [2] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life(Wheaton, IL.: Crossway, 1990), 81, quoted in John Piper “The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness.”

[3] Carl Trueman, (youtube link in footnote 1).

[4] Peter Toon, God’s Statesman, 16.