SOME THOUGHT ON THE READING OF THE WORKS OF JOHN OWEN by Sinclair Ferguson

John Owen was born in 1616 and died in 1683. During the course of his life he held pastorates in Fordham and Coggeshall, in Essex, served as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, as army chaplain under Oliver Cromwell, and finally as the minister of a gathered congregation in the city of London. Little is known of his life, and biographers have never found it easy to reconstruct the details of his spiritual pilgrimage. It might seem remarkable, therefore, that his works, covering many thousands of closely argued pages, should be available as a reprint in the last decades of the twentieth century. Owen himself would have been the first to express amazement that so long after his death God’s people should continue to recognise the value and significance of his writings.

The only possible explanation and justification for this state of affairs is that Owen was one of the foremost, perhaps the foremost, theologian England has ever produced. That is not simply the view of an enthusiast expressed on the dust cover of a Banner of Truth reprint! It was recognised by Owen’s contemporaries, friends and foes alike, and it has been frequently recognised since. Thomas Boston, the scholar-pastor of Ettrick, for example, tells us in characteristic manner that he was ‘helped by Owen on the Spirit”;1 and in our own century it is possible for a scholar from the Methodist tradition to describe Owen as ‘perhaps the greatest British theologian of all time’ and ‘the greatest of Independent theologians’.2

It is unquestionably for this reason that Owen’s works ought to be purchased and read. But it is probably true, even in these inflationary times, that many find the first of these obligations [purchasing volumes of Owen] easier to fulfil than the second [reading what Owen wrote]. There are doubtless many bookcases in the English-speaking world lined with several volumes in their distinctive white and green jackets whose owners would freely confess that they have read too little of the contents, and frankly find Owen very heavy going. Let it be said that this situation is eminently understandable, and all those who have read Owen will sympathise with others who feel that the initial stages of reading him may be more of a burden than a pleasure. When such eminent Christian men and lovers of Puritan writings as Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and Dr James I. Packer are able to write respectively, ‘John Owen on the whole is difficult to read’,3 and ‘There is no denying that Owen is heavy and hard to read’,4 lesser mortals may be excused for thinking that such a task is really beyond their capacities! But this need not be the case, at least not if we approach his writings wisely and intelligently. Owen did not write simply for fellow scholars [although he knew how to do that], but for fellow Christians. His preaching, apparently, was both understandable and eminently helpful, and it would probably be the opinion of those who have found his teaching conducive to spiritual growth that much of what he wrote is well within the capacity of the serious Christian of average intelligence. While it is true that Owen is not universally easy to read, it is also true that he is not universally difficult to read. We may need some convincing on this point, and it is the function of these paragraphs to attempt to do that, and in measure provide a key which will help to open up the treasures that seem to be locked up behind the heavy door of Owen’s length and style of writing. The fact is that Owen wrote some books which nowadays would appear as paperbacks, and it is possible to be introduced to him without having to plough through endless subdivisions of material and references to long-dead and almost equally long-forgotten theologians.

Assuming that one possesses some or all [or intends to purchase!] the sixteen volumes of the Owen reprint, or perhaps the entire Goold edition of twenty-four volumes, what steps can be taken to reap the benefit of such an investment?

The first step is to employ the three tools which W. H. Goold, the editor, has so helpfully supplied, namely: (1) The division of the works into Doctrinal [volumes 1-5], Practical [volumes 6-9], and Controversial [volumes 10-16] sections. Clearly there is a good deal of overlap in all this, but these divisions give us a fundamental grasp of the nature and intention of each work. (2) The introductions to each of the books supplied by Goold, some of which contain outlines and information on the work within very brief compass. It is possible, at least in theory, to have a kind of working knowledge of Owen without ever reading a word he wrote! That is not to be recommended, but it can serve a very useful function, and it is in fact the raison d’ etre of the introductions. (3) The indices found at the end of volume 16, and particularly those on subject-matter and Scripture passages. These can be used as a map to Owen’s theology in general, and a guide to the exposition of a particular passage or theme, and have a special value for occasional study or reading and preparation. They help us to get the ‘feel’ of Owen’s thought before we turn to read him, and a few mornings or evenings spent browsing through these tools may preserve us from rushing headlong into a volume which we find too long and difficult, and on which we labour to no profit.

But then we will want to read something by Owen himself! The adventure of discovering his rich ministry of God’s Word, and his penetrating knowledge of the human heart can be begun with confidence if we know what pieces are valuable to read as introductions, and then, in general terms, what sections of his works we can turn to in the expectation of receiving help and instruction.

With Owen it is probably unwise to begin at volume one, and far better to choose something which can be read at one or two sittings, and within a matter of hours. The sense of achievement in doing so, and the thrill of discovering how clearly the teaching speaks to our needs, is something not to be discounted or despised. Once we realise he is not always heavy reading we will want to read on. Depending on personal circumstances, present needs and interests, there are a number of useful starting places. Some readers will find it helpful to begin with a sermon from the collections in volumes 8, 9, 15 and 16 – and if this is the case, the practical and pastoral sermons of volume 9 can be highly recommended, perhaps more so than the statesmanlike addresses in volume 8. But even in this latter volume, where some of the sermons run to thirty or forty pages, those with an historical interest will find much that is helpful and thought-provoking. Sermon 3, for example, on Jeremiah 15:19-20, was preached the day after the execution of Charles I. It is interesting to reflect on what one might have said oneself if summoned to preach before Parliament on such an occasion, as Owen was! Sermon 4, on Romans 4:20, was preached in connection with his visit to Ireland as an army chaplain, and in it he expresses the desire that the Irish might have peace, and ‘might enjoy Ireland as long as the moon endureth, so that Jesus Christ might possess the Irish.'[5] Sermon 5 is the one which led to Owen’s first introduction to Cromwell, while sermon 6 contains the word he gave in Edinburgh and Berwick after the Battle of Dunbar, when the fear-filled Scottish preachers refused to occupy their own pulpits. Volume 9, on the other hand, contains sermons on Worship [sermons 3 and 4]; Spiritual Barrenness [14 and 15]; the Withdrawing of God’s Presence [24] and Dying Daily [27-29]; and the Christian minister will find much help in a sermon on Christ’s Pastoral Care [22] and in a series of sermons on the Ministry in the same volume.

In this same volume also may be found examples of a form of teaching and ministry unfamiliar to some readers, but in which all Christians will find great help and blessing. Owen deals with fourteen Cases of Conscience – for example; What sense of sin and guilt is needed to cause men to look to Christ as Saviour? What are the most certain evidences of conversion? How do we recover from spiritual decline? How should we prepare for the Coming of Christ? – all of which speak for themselves as subjects of great personal and pastoral importance, and each discussed within the scope of a few pages. The study of these in private, or in small groups, would surely have helpful repercussions in any Christian fellowship.

Notes

  1. Memoirs of Thomas Boston, ed. G. H. Morrison, Edinburgh, 1899, p 301.
  2. A. F. Walls, in A Guide to Christian Reading, London, 1962, p 89; p 105.
  3. Preaching and Preachers, London, 1971. p 175.
  4. Introductory Essay to The Death of Death, London, 1959. p 25.
  5. VIII.23:15
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