Rob Sturdy: The Knowledge of God in the Christological Thought of John Owen

20 12 2011

The essay below is about the knowledge of God in the Christological thought of John Owen.  Thanks again to Colin Burch for graciously reviewing this essay!   Footnotes and bibliography are at the bottom of the paper in case you want to chase anything down.

How do we know God?  Can we have an experience of God?  Can we be in relationship with him?  These questions will no doubt be familiar to the philosopher and theologian.  But perhaps that vocation most intimately familiar with such questions is the pastor, whose responsibility it is to provide adequate and honest responses to such questions.  The 17th-century Puritan, John Owen, was a man who at one point or another found himself occupying each of the roles of philosopher, theologian, and pastor.  Yet it was the last decade of his life, which he devoted to the pastoral ministry, that he engaged the above questions with the most depth and attention.  Owen concluded that knowledge of God depended upon an infinite condescension of God towards his creatures.  This condescension in the theology of John Owen took the form of a covenant, whereby man learns who God is by virtue of his covenant relationship with God.

Owen notes that two things are necessary for a proper revelation of God to a finite creature in the context of a covenant.  First, that “all the properties of the divine nature…be expressed in it, and manifested to us,” and second that “there be, therein, the nearest approach of the divine nature made unto us, whereof it is capable, andwhich we can receive (emphasis mine).”[1]  As will be shown, a simple covenant between God and man is insufficient for the type of revelation which Owen describes in the above quote.  For a full and proper revelation of God, Owen believes that God himself must draw as near as possible, so near in fact, that he must become a man himself.  This happens in the person of Christ, whereby the divine Son of God assumes the human nature unto himself.  Christ being fully God is the nearest manifestation of God imaginable.  Christ being fully man is the nearest manifestation of God which is nevertheless fit for the human capacity.  Owen believed that it was the rational, human mind of Christ which ultimately accommodated the knowledge of God to the capacity of human comprehension.  This paper will argue that it is only through the mediation of the human mind of Christ that full communion with God is possible.  This will be done by examining the transcendence of God, his condescension in entering into covenant relationship, and the full manifestation of his glory through the Triune God’s covenant with the person of Christ.

John Owen:  A brief history and introduction to Christological works

Before the theological discussion begins in earnest, it will be useful to provide a brief sketch of the life and writings of John Owen, the Puritan theologian whose thought this essay is principally dedicated towards understanding.  John Owen was born in 1616 in Stadham near Oxford.  At the age of twelve he entered Queen’s College Oxford and studied the classics, mathematics, philosophy, theology, Hebrew, and rabinnical writings.[2]  In 1635 Owen was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Oxford.  Shortly after his ordination Owen began to study for the BD which involved him in the wide reading of English and Continental theology.[3]  Unfortunately for Owen, he was compelled to leave Oxford only three years later because he felt the liturgical observances required by students at the university were too Roman in nature and therefore offended his conscience. Only a few years later, in 1642, civil war broke out.  Owen declared for parliament.  In the same year he published his first work, A Display of Arminianismwhich he dedicated to “The Lords and Gentlemen of the Committee for Religion.”  This same committee gave him charge of his first parish in Fordham, Essex.[4]

In 1647 Owen published what was and remains to this day his most famous work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.  For the purposes of this paper The Death of Death is significant because it is the first “clear and specific assertion of Owen’s Christocentric understanding of the work of redemption.”[5]  Furthermore, it is in The Death of Death where Owen articulates the main aim of the work of redemption was to reveal the glory of God by manifesting those attributes in the person of Christ that could not be seen through general revelation.[6]  It was the Death of Death that brought Owen broad recognition in the church as an able theologian.  After the execution of Charles I, Owen was invited to preach before Parliament.  This began a regular preaching ministry to the House of Commons which eventually saw him employed in the services of Oliver Cromwell, who appointed Owen as Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, where he remained from 1652 to 1657 as the Vice-Chancellor.

Owen regretted not being able to write much during his time at Oxford.  Nevertheless during his time there he published several works pertinent to the study of his Christology.[7]  Those of interest to this inquiry are A Dissertation on Divine Justice, Biblical Theology, as well as Communion with God.  In 1657 Richard Cromwell was appointed Chancellor of Oxford.  Shortly thereafter the younger Cromwell chose to replace Owen as Vice-Chancellor.  Owen stayed in Oxford as Dean of Christ Church until 1660.  He busied himself in these years holding services in his home in Stadhampton while also working to advance the rights for Congregationalists.[8] A storm was brewing however, and in 1661 the “Cavalier Parliament” restored both regency and episcopacy to the realm.  In 1662, Parliament passed the “Act of Uniformity,” which saw Owen along with over 2,000 other Puritan clergy expelled from the Church of England.  Over the next ten years, the ejected Puritans faced various levels of persecution.  Owen’s home was raided while he was preaching but this is the most severe persecution he faced.  His status as the former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford seemed to afford him some level of protection.[9]

In 1670, Charles II passed the Declaration of Indulgence.  The act was meant to provide toleration for Roman Catholics in the realm but it had the unintended consequence of also providing protection for nonconformists as long as they applied for licenses.[10]  Owen directly benefited from this, eventually taking over a nonconformist church in London.  During this final period of his life, from 1673 to 1683, Owen published his most remarkable Christological works.  His extensive study on Hebrews was published between 1668 and 1684.  His Discourse on the Holy Spirit, a heavily Christological work, was published in 1674.  On the Person of Christ appeared in 1678 andMediations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ appeared in 1684 after his death.   Owen’s most prolific period happened not during his tenure at Oxford, but rather during the final decade of his life which he spent in pastoral ministry.  This may be what gives the writing of this period its highly devotional character.  Throughout the next several pages Owen’s Christological thinking will be examined with a particular emphasis on how God is known and communed with.  This section begins not with a discussion on the knowledge of God but rather with a discussion on the problem of the knowledge of God.

The Transcendence of God

How do we know God?  Owen begins the discussion by asking first in what way God knows himself.  Owen writes:

It is necessary to the unlimited self-sufficiency of God that He himself alone may know himself perfect (Psalm 147.5).  His understanding is perfect and has no limits.  Therefore, as that attribute of God by which He comprehends Himself and all of His perfections is an infinite attribute, it can be entered into by no other being.[11]

God being infinite, has an inexhaustible supply of power, holiness, love, justice, etc.  To truly and fully know these attributes, one must be able to comprehend them in all their infinite breadth.  But, as Owen notes above, the only being who could possibly do this is God himself because just as his attributes are infinite, so is his self-knowledge.  This is not so for the finite being, who is limited in his ability to contemplate a knowledge that is infinite.  To the extent that infinite knowledge transcends finite knowledge, God’s knowledge of himself transcends that finite knowledge his creatures have of him.  According to this claim God infinitely transcends his finite creatures since in their finiteness they lack the capacity to comprehend his infinite self-knowledge.

In order to bridge this infinite gap of God’s transcendence so that God can be known by his creatures, two things are required.  First, that “all the properties of the divine nature…be expressed in it, and manifested to us,” and second that “there be, therein, the nearest approach of the divine nature made unto us, whereof it is capable, andwhich we can receive (emphasis mine).”[12]  That is, God must fully reveal himself in all his attributes.  In addition to this, God must accommodate himself so that he can be comprehended by finite creatures.

For Owen, God accommodates himself to the finite capacity of his creatures by entering into covenant with them.  Covenant relationship is God’s bridging of the gap of transcendence.  Owen defines a covenant as a mutual agreement between two parties.  For example he describes covenant in one place as a “convention, compact, and agreement for some certain ends and purposes between the holy Creator and his poor creatures.”[13]  The aim of this compact between the “holy Creator” and his “poor creatures” is that the attributes of God might be revealed to the poor creatures that they might know him and enjoy him.  As Owen remarks:

Remember that no teaching may truly be called theology which does not rely on, and trust in, a revelation from God by which the theologian may be pleasing to God and at last enjoy Him forever.  Such a revealed pattern is necessary for all “way-farers” in order for them to know God, and to demonstrate their obedience and their acceptance of the covenantal relationship into which God has been pleased to enter with them.[14]

Thus Owen sees this as a work of unimaginable and infinite condescension on behalf of God.  “Wherefore, the infinite, essential greatness of the nature of God, with his infinite distance from the nature of all creatures thereby, causeth all his dealing with them to be in the way of condescension or humbling himself.”[15]  God’s condescension in covenant-making enables humans to begin forming true conceptions about God.  Therefore Owen concludes that “All theology is based on covenant.”[16]  God’s condescension occurs in a series of steps beginning with the first covenant which Owen calls the Covenant of Works.  It is to this first step in the revelatory process that we now turn.

The Covenant of Works

One of the most comprehensive paragraphs regarding the knowledge of God revealed in the first covenant, which Owen most typically describes as the Covenant of Works,[17]is to be found in his massive commentary on Hebrews.  He writes:

Man in his creation, with respect unto the ends of God therein, wasconstituted under a covenant.  That is, the law of his obedience was attended with promises and threatening, rewards and punishments, suited unto the goodness and holiness of God; for every law with rewards and recompenses annexed hath the nature of a covenant.[18]

Under this Covenant of Works “Mankind was created pure and placed with undefiled nature under the laws of creation.  In that situation, true theology was also nature and God given.”[19]  Thus the covenant and the theology derived from the covenant were innate.  This does not mean that man knew everything about God that he could possibly know.  Rather, man knew everything that he needed to enter into relationship with God and grow in the knowledge of God through this relationship.[20]  From this covenant, man learns of the promises of obedience and the penalties of disobedience respectively.  But more importantly from these promises of reward and threatening of punishment man comes to learn something of the nature of God.   “The light given to Adam was sufficient and beneficial for his recognition of God as Creator, Lawgiver, and Rewarder.”[21]

Though the covenant was established by God that man might gain knowledge of God, the first covenant was nevertheless limited in its capacity to convey such knowledge.  For example, Owen writes of the first covenant that “The whole fabric of heaven and earth considered in itself, as at first created, will not discover any such thing as patience and forbearance in God.”  Thus man could learn about God’s power, goodness, wisdom, and all sufficiency but man could not learn about God’s patience and forbearance.  These are not minor attributes, but rather are “eminent properties of his (God’s) nature, as himself proclaims and declares, Exod. Xxxiv.6,7.”[22]  It is not as if God’s creation and revelation are therefore deficient.  Rather, Owen remarks that they are good and a manifestation of the divine goodness.  Nevertheless, God in creation and revelation through the first covenant did not reveal himself to the “uttermost.”[23]  It is almost as if God is holding something of himself back.  Thus through the limitations of the first covenant, Adam did not know God’s “love, grace, and mercy”[24] but knew God only as “Creator, Lawgiver, and Rewarder.”[25]

God’s intention in the first covenant was for man to know God through covenant relationship.  But the covenant through which man was meant to know God was overthrown and abolished by man’s willful sin.  Thus man overthrew the means by which he was meant to gain knowledge of God.  This has catastrophic epistemological consequences as Owen observes:

All effective power in that theology had been eradicated by the apostasy of man- the theologian himself!…All theology is, as we have shown, based on a covenant.  As the first covenant had collapsed, it was but fitting that the first theology should go down with it.[26]

This presents a number of theological problems which Owen most frequently ties to the glory of God.  Owen outlines four consequences to the glory of God from the fall.[27]  First, great indignity was done to the divine honor by man’s rejection of the first covenant.  Second, there “was no way left whereby glory might redound unto God.”[28]  Because man was designed to comprehend the glory of God in creation and return unto God admiration, obedience and praise, once man fell there remained no means left in creation whereby the glory of God could be comprehended and sufficient honor returned.  Third, God’s creation was brought into disorder and decay thus further failing to adequately reflect his glory.  And finally, man is placed under the power of the devil rather than the power of God, thus overthrowing the glory of God is his regency.

An Intra-Trinitarian Solution

What would be required to regain that which was lost by the abolition of the first covenant?  First, it requires that restitution and satisfaction be made to the loss of the glory of God in the first covenant.  Restitution, according to Owen, is a mere returning of what had been lost.  Since what had been lost was obedience, a “return unto obedience would effect a restitution of all things.”[29]  But a restitution in and of itself is not sufficient because satisfaction must be made.  Satisfaction, according to Owen, is not only returning to a state of obedience but making a reparation of God’s glory.  For this to be properly done, “it was required that there should be an obedience yielded unto God, bringing more glory unto him than dishonour did arise and accrue from the disobedience of man.”[30]

According to Owen, man is incapable of either making restitution or satisfaction.  First, man is incapable of making restitution because he lacks both the power and will.  Man lacks the power because “having, therefore, lost that power which should have enabled him to live unto God in his primitive condition, he could not retain a greater power in the same kind to return thereunto.” [31]  He lacks the will because “he was fallen into that condition wherein, in the principles of all his moral operations, he was at enmity against God…and whatever did befall him, he would choose (emphasis mine) to continue in his state of apostasy.”[32]  In regards to satisfaction, man is incapable here as well mainly because he is a creature subservient to a creator.  The creature, because of his subservient position before the Creator, can never give to the Creator more than what the Creator is already due.  But proper satisfaction to the divine honor depends upon returning more than what was initially due.[33]  It is impossible for a creature to do this by mere obedience since the creature can never offer more obedience than what is already due towards his Creator.  “An old debt,” observes Owen, “cannot be discharged with ready money for new commodities; nor can past injuries be compensated by present duties.”[34]

Owen’s solution to this problem is that one must be put forward who owes God nothing and thus can give God beyond what he owes.  “He, then, that performs this obedience must be one who was not originally obliged thereunto, on his own account, or for himself.  And this must be a divine person, and none other; for every mere creature is so obliged.”[35]  According to Owen, only a divine person can offer restitution and satisfaction to God for the diminishing of his glory in the fall.

In addition to restitution and satisfaction, God’s justice, which Owen considered to be an essential attribute of God, requires that the sins of the first man as well as all subsequent sins be justly punished.  Owen does not exclude the possibility that these sins could be punished through a substitute.  However, he sees a problem in one individual substituting himself for the sins of many people, whose sins Owen describes as must be nearly infinite.[36]  The problem for Owen is a matter of proportion.

To suppose that a mere man, by his temporary suffering of external pains, should make satisfaction unto the justice of God for all the sins of all these persons…is to constitute a mediation between God and man that should consist in appearance and ostentation, and not be an effect of divine wisdom, righteousness, and holiness, nor have its foundation in the nature and equity of things themselves.[37]

That to permit a “mere man, by his temporary suffering of external pains” to make satisfaction to God would contradict God’s wisdom, righteousness and holiness because the temporary suffering of one creature is not in proportion to the sins of many.[38]  Therefore a mere man could never be a fit substitute for the sins of many.  However, the suffering of a divine person, who is infinite, would be more than enough to substitute for the finite sins of many because the suffering would have an “intrinsic worth and excellence in it, out-balancing all the evil in the sins of mankind.”[39]  Thus a divine person is required here as well.

And finally redemption must be wrought in such a way as to direct the glory of it solely back to God.  This cannot be done unless redemption is accomplished through a divine person.  If man were to be redeemed by a creature, he would render honor back to the creature for his redemption.  In this process, it is God who loses some glory to the man redeemer.  He writes:

If he (man) were redeemed and restored by one who was a mere creature, he could not be restored unto this state and dignity; for, on all grounds of right and equity, he must owe all service and obedience unto him by whom he was redeemed, restored, and recovered, as the author of the state wherein he is.[40]

Thus the redeemer must be a divine person in order to preserve the glory of God diminished in the abolition of the first covenant.

Thus the work of redemption requires an exercise of divine power by a divine person.  But this is not all that is required.  The exercising of this divine power must work through the particular medium of human nature.  “That all things required unto our restoration, the whole work wherein they consist, must be wrought in our own nature – in the nature that had sinned, and which was to be restored and brought into glory.”[41]  Owen presents three reasons why restoration had to be worked through human nature.  First, because “It belonged unto the wisdom and righteousness of God, that Satan should be conquered and subdued in and by the same nature which he had prevailed against, by his suggestion and temptation.”[42] In short, the nature that was overthrown must now overthrow.  The nature that rebelled must now be brought into obedience.  Second, that restoration had to be wrought through human nature so that there could be a proper alliance between the redeemed and their redeemer.  The redeemer, then could not simply share the same nature, but the redeemer must be:

derived from the common root or stock of the same nature, in our first parents.  It would not suffice hereunto that God should create a man, out of the dust of the earth or our out of nothing, of the same nature in general with ourselves; for there would be no cognation or alliance between him and us, so that we should be any way concerned in what he did or suffered.[43]

By “common root or stock,” Owen intends a genetic descendent of Adam.  And though Owen indicates that it is necessary that the redeemer have this alliance, through blood, with the human race it is important that the redeemer does not share everything in common with humans.  That human nature must not “be so derived from the original stock of our kind or race as to bring along with it the same taint of sin, and the same liableness unto guilt, upon its own account, as accompany every other individual person in the world.”[44]

Thus the two natures, the divine and the human, are necessary in the work of redemption.  Yet these two natures acting separately will not accomplish redemption but they must act together in a personal union.  The divine provision for the fall was an intra-Trinitarian covenant whereby the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit covenanted to provide a Mediator in whom dwelt the two natures in personal union.[45]  Owen most frequently refers to this as the Covenant of Redemption.

In the Covenant of Redemption, Owen asserts the unity of the divine will while distinguishing how this will was exercised in the different persons of the Trinity.  God’s will is expressed over sinful man by grace, which proceeded from the love of God, acting in total freedom.[46]  But the persons of the Trinity each have a distinct role in exercising this will.  Thus the Father, acting out of love in total freedom sends the Son into the world and lays the punishment due to our sin upon him.[47]  The Son is the agent in this work, voluntarily taking upon himself the office of Mediator.[48]  Owen attributes the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ’s Incarnation, his oblation (citing from Heb ix.14 that Christ offered himself “by the Eternal Spirit”) and also in Christ’s resurrection.[49]  There is then one will of God concerning sinners.  However, this will requires that the different persons of the Trinity each make a mutual agreement to establish their role in the process of redemption.  The Covenant of Redemption is therefore a work of the entire Trinity, as Owen writes:

The agent in, and chief author, of this great work of our redemption is the whole blessed Trinity; for all the works which outwardly of the Deity are undivided and belong equally to each person, their distinct manner of subsistence and order being observed.[50]

This makes Christ the visible representation of an intra-Trinitarian covenant.  As has been previously stated, Owen views covenant as the means by which we are given the knowledge for relationship with God.  Thus Christ, as a visible representation of the intra-Trinitarian covenant, is the foundation of all human relationships with the divine.  This final section explores how the person of Christ, in his constitution as divine and human in personal union and in covenant relationship with God, is able to mediate the knowledge of God in all his attributes in a manner appropriate to our human comprehension.

The Covenant of Grace

Christ is a visible representation of the will of God because the intra-Trinitarian covenant responsibility of the Son was his assumption of human nature.[51]  His manifestation in the flesh is a visible and concrete confirmation of the will of the entire Trinity towards sinners.  The dynamics of the Son’s assumption of human nature and manifestation in the flesh are quite complex and much depends on how these dynamics are articulated.  It is important to state clearly what the Son’s assumption of human nature means and does not mean.

Owen writes that human nature in and of itself is “άνuποσατος, -that which hath not a subsistence on its own, which should give it individuation and distinction from the same nature in any other person.  But it hath its subsistence in the person of the Son, which thereby is its own.”[52]  Owen is here drawing on Aristotelian theory and categories that describe the relation of the particular to the universal.[53]  Human nature is a universal and as a universal it has no concrete manifestation in reality.  Human nature manifests in reality as it is particularized, or to use classic Christological vocabularyhypostasized.[54]  Another way of saying hypostasis is “person,” but this is not to be confused with the modern definition of person but rather is a metaphysical concept referring to distinction or individuation.

In contrast to the universality of human nature the Son of God “subsisted before” and this “denotes a person pre-existing.”[55]  In other words the Son of God was already a distinct person within the Trinity before the Incarnation.  In accords with the intra-Trinitarian covenant, the distinct person of the Son assumed human nature.

He assumed, he took to himself, another nature, “of the seed of Abraham,” according to the promise.  So, continuing what he was, he became what he was not.  For, He took this to be his own nature…by taking that nature into personal subsistence with himself, in the hypostasis of the Son of God. [56]

For Owen, it is important to note that the Son of God did not assume a human person, but rather that he assumed human nature. Human nature in and of itself has no personality of its own.  Only when it is individuated does it gain personality.[57]  If the Son of God assumed a human person, that person would already have an individuated human nature of his own, thus precluding the Son of God from taking that nature truly unto himself.  As Owen notes:

The nature he assumed could no otherwise become his.  For if he had by any ways or means taken the person of a man to be united unto him, in the strictest union that two persons are capable of, a divine and a human, the nature had still be the nature of that other person and not his own.

But the Son did not assume a human person, but rather the human nature.  In doing so the Son of God continues to remain the person he was from eternity.  The Son’s divinity and personhood are intact.  However the human nature, being individuated by its assumption by the Son of God becomes a true, perfect, unique and distinguished human being.

But he took it to be his own nature; which it could no ways be but by personal union, causing it to subsist in his own person.  And he is therefore a true and perfect man:  for no more is required to make a complete and perfect man, the human nature having a subsistence communicated unto by the Son of God.[58]

It is important to notice with what care Owen articulates the direct action of the Son upon the human nature.  The Son assumes human nature by giving it subsistence in his person.  By stating that the Son assumes human nature into his person, this could indicate that the human nature of Christ was somehow borrowing the psychological experience of personhood from the Son.[59]  But this is not what Owen intends.  Rather by assuming the human nature into his person, the Son distinguished that human nature by making it his own.  It is important to note that he made the whole of the human nature his own.  That is, those attributes essential to human nature: the physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual aspects common to the human nature are all assumed by the Son.[60]

The assumption of the human nature by the divine Son did not in any way alter or confuse either the divine or human natures.  Rather Owen vigorously defends the integrity of both the divine and human natures in the person of Christ.  “The divine nature is not made temporary, finite, limited, subject to passion or alteration by this union; nor is the human nature rendered immense, infinite, omnipotent.”[61]  Owen is insistent upon defending the integrity and distinction of the two natures in the person of Christ because he is aware of the possibility of making the human nature of Christ by virtue of its union with the divinity something more than human, a bizarre human/ divine hybrid.  Thus he writes:

To ascribe unto it what is inconstant with its essence, is not an assignation of glory unto its sate and condition but a destruction of its being.  To affix unto the human nature divine properties, as ubiquity or immensity, is to deprive it of its own.[62]

Defending the integrity of the two natures has a predictable outcome for the divinity.  But Owen’s treatment of the integrity of the human nature can be quite unexpected, and it demonstrates to what extent Owen considered the integrity of the human nature in the operations of the person of Christ.  First, Owen notes that it was the “rational soul” of the human nature which was the immediate cause of all of Christ’s moral activity.

His divine nature was not unto him in the place of a soul, nor did immediately operate the things which he performed, as some of old vainly imagined; but being a perfect man, his rational soul was in him the immediate principle of all his moral operations even as ours are in us.[63]

The human nature of Christ was individuated in the assumption, but it did not borrow the psychological experience of moral decision making from the divine person.  To do so would be for the divinity to annihilate that portion of the human nature responsible for such actions common to humanity.  Rather, the human nature of Christ had this experience in a manner that was common to the rest of humanity.  Christ’s human, “rational soul” was the direct cause of all his moral actions.  And just like all humans, Owen sees the rational soul of Christ regarding moral issues in a state of constant development deepening his understanding of such issues.  “Now, in the improvement and exercise of these faculties and powers of his soul, he had and made progress after the manner of other men; for he was made like unto us ‘in all things,’ yet without sin.”[64]

Not only does Owen see Christ’s moral life, in regards to the human nature, in constant development, but he also sees the awareness of Christ in regards to his human nature in constant development.  To use Owen’s own words, he writes “The human nature of Christ was capable of having new objects proposed to its mind and understanding, whereof before it had simple nescience.”[65]  Owen is here arguing that Christ began in his human nature in the same way that all humans do.  Namely, the human nature of Christ was ignorant of many things, including his own divine sonship, and had to grow in knowledge just as all humans do

How then did Christ, according to his human nature grow, in the exercise of the moral life and in knowledge?  Owen attributes both to the direct and immediate work of the Holy Spirit.

In the representation, then, of things anew to the human nature of Christ, the wisdom and knowledge of it was objectively increased, and in new trials and temptations he experimentally learned the new exercises of grace.  And this was the constant work of the Holy Spirit in the human nature of Christ.[66]

Owen’s point is that Christ’s moral and spiritual growth occurred in the same manner that moral and spiritual growth occurs in all humans.  That is, Christ’s moral and spiritual growth occurred gradually under the power of the Holy Spirit.[67

This gradual growth in morality and spirituality resulted in a growing awareness in the human mind of Christ that he was destined for kingship, priestly ministry, and a prophetical office.[68]  This growing awareness manifested itself as Christ exercised his kingly, priestly and prophetical gifts and constantly improved in the use of them.  This growth continued through the age of thirty, where Christ was presented before John the Baptist at the Jordan River.  Here, Owen sees the decades of tutelage under the Holy Spirit as finally resulting in Christ gaining full awareness of his covenant relationship and responsibility with the Trinity.  Concerning this moment of revelation, Owen writes, “Then he did receive the visible pledge which confirmed him in and testified unto others his calling of God to the exercise of his office.”[69]

Upon receiving the “visible pledge” of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of the Sonship of God, Owen believes that Christ became fully aware of both his office as the Mediator and his knowledge of the Covenant with the Triune God.  Christ, according to his human nature, learned that he had made a “compact, and mutual agreement, between the Father” and himself for the redemption of God’s people.[70]  The compact consisted in Christ being sent to bear the punishment for sin as a proper restitution and satisfaction for the abolition of the first covenant.  In exchange the Father promised to “protect and assist him in the accomplishment and perfect fulfilling of the whole business and dispensation about which he was employed”[71] and also “success, or good issue out of all his sufferings,” which chiefly consists in the “the gathering of the sons of God together, their bringing unto God, and passing to eternal salvation.”[72]  Furthermore, the Holy Spirit had covenanted to offer Christ’s spirit as an oblation at the Cross and also to raise his body from the dead.[73]

As Christ according to his human nature gained an awareness of this covenant in a very human way, that is gradually and under the power of the Holy Spirit, he also began to conceive of a theology based upon this covenant.  So what did Christ, according to his human nature, learn of God in the Covenant of Grace?  Owen believes that from the Covenant of Grace, Christ chiefly learned the attributes of God’s love and pardoning mercy.  Regarding the attribute of God’s love, Owen writes:

The Holy Ghost says 1 John iv. 8, 16, “God is love;” that is, not only of a loving and tender nature, but one that will exercise himself in a dispensation of his love, eternal love, towards us,- one that hath purposes of love for us from old, and will fulfill them all towards us in due season.  But how is this demonstrated?  How may we attain an acquaintance with it?  He tells us, verse 9, “In this was manifested the love of God, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him.”  This is the only discovery that God hath made of any such property in his nature, or any thought of exercising it towards sinners, – in that he hath sent Jesus Christ into the world, that we might live by him.[74]

In regards to what Owen calls pardoning mercy, this too is an attribute of God revealed exclusively through the Covenant of Grace.  Owen defines “pardoning mercy” as   “God’s free, gracious acceptance of a sinner upon satisfaction made to his justice in the blood of Jesus; nor is any discovery of it, but as relating to the satisfaction of justice, consistent with the glory of God.”[75]  Pardoning mercy, an attribute of God hidden in the first covenant, is dependent upon an attribute of God which was known through the first covenant.  Owen terms this attribute “vindictive justice.”  Earlier in his theological career, Owen, along with many of his Reformed contemporaries, thought that to make vindicatory justice an essential attribute of God would impinge upon God’s sovereign freedom.[76]  But by 1653 Owen had changed course writing “sin-punishing justice to be natural, and in its exercise necessary, to God.”[77]  Owen distinguishes between the necessity of God to punish sin and the manner in which God freely chooses to do so.  “It is necessary that the glory of the divine holiness, purity, and dominion should be vindicated;” he writes, “but in what manner, at what time, or by what kind of punishment, belongs entirely to God.”[78]  God’s vindictive justice is manifested in direct and immediate punishment, such as the case with Sodom and Gomorrah.[79]  But direct and immediate punishment of this kind is finite.   And because its finiteness does not reveal the infinite holiness of God, Owen can remark that vindictive justice manifested in this manner is not a full manifestation of this attribute.[80]  In Christ however, the vindictive justice of God is demonstrated in a way that fully manifests the severity of this attribute.  He notes:

To see him who is the wisdom of God, and the power of God, always beloved of the Father; to see him, I say, fear and tremble, and bow, and sweat, and pray and die; to see him lifted up upon the cross, the earth trembling under him, as if unable to bear his weight; and the heavens darkened over him, as if shut against his cry; and himself hanging between both, as if refused by both; and all this because our sins did meet upon him;- this of all things doth most abundantly manifest the severity of God’s vindictive justice.[81]

But the prospect of a full manifestation of God’s vindictive justice also provides the opportunity for a full manifestation of his pardoning mercy.  Because it is within God’s dominion to determine in what manner, time and punishment his vindictive justice is to be satisfied, this also provides the possibility of a substitute, whereupon the principle of pardoning mercy is established.[82]  In Christ, the union of the divine and human natures is able to perfectly satisfy God’s vindictive justice.  That the Father would provide for such a union in the sending of his son is a dynamic manifestation of the attribute of both God’s love and pardoning mercy.

These two attributes are thus revealed in the Covenant of Grace, which the Triune God made with the person of Christ.  Thus Owen sees the Covenant of Grace as a full manifestation of the attributes of God.  Just as important however, is that this knowledge is mediated through the human mind of Christ.  Because Owen so carefully guards the full humanity of Christ, with especial attention paid to his human rational soul, when these attributes of God are finally revealed to Christ they are revealed in such a way as they can be contained by his human nature and conveyed to the rest of humanity.  Thus Christ mediates the knowledge of God, according to all God’s attributes in such a way as they can be comprehended by humans because the knowledge is given by a human.

Owen’s Christology holds remarkably few surprises for the student theologian.  However, one area where this does stand out is Owen’s radical commitment to the integrity of the human nature in the person of Christ.  As it was shown above, Owen perceived that the only way all the attributes of God could be revealed in such a way as could be contained by the human capacity was the mediation of these attributes through the fully human, rational mind of Christ.  While Owen’s insight is far from unique, his emphasis upon it is rare and is a powerful contribution to Christological thought in the Reformed tradition.

[1] Works, I.69

[2] Beeke, J.R. and R.J. Pederson.  Meet the Puritans (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids 2006) 455

[3] Oliver, R. “John Owen – His Life and Times” in  John Owen: The Man and his Theologyedt. by Robert Oliver (Evangelical Press:  Faverdale North, Darlington U.K. 2002) pg 12

[4] Oliver, R. pg 15

[5] Daniels, R. The Christology of John Owen (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids 2004) pg 58

[6] Works, X.201

[7] Oliver, R. pg 24

[8] Oliver, R. pg 30

[9] Oliver, R. pg 34

[10] Oliver, R. pg 34

[11] Owen, J. Biblical Theology (Soli Deo Gloria Publications: Grand Rapids 2009) pg 15

[12] Works, I.69

[13] Works, VI.470

[14] Owen, Biblical Theology pg 27

[15] Works, I.324

[16] Owen, Biblical Theology pg 28

[17] Owen also described this covenant as the first covenant, the covenant of creation, and the covenant of nature

[18] Owen, Works XVIII pg 337

[19] Owen, Biblical Theology pg 20

[20] Owen, Biblical Theology pg 20

[21] Owen, Biblical Theology pg 20

[22] Works, X.81

[23] Works, I.191

[24] Works, I.191

[25] Owen, Biblical Theology pg 20

[26] Owen, Biblical Theology pg 28

[27] Works, I.184-187

[28] Works, I.184

[29] Works, I.194

[30] Works, I.195

[31] Works, I.192

[32] Works, I.193

[33] “suppose a mere creature, such as man is, such as all men are, in what condition you please, and under all advantageous circumstances, yet, whatever he can do towards God is antecedently and absolutely due from him in that instant wherein he doth it, and that in the manner wherein it was done” (Works, I.194)

[34] Works, I.195

[35] Works, I.201

[36] Works, I.201

[37] Works, I.202

[38] “There must be a proportion between the things themselves- namely, the sufferings of one and the deliverance of all.” (Works, I.202)

[39] Works. I.202

[40] Works, I.204

[41] Works, I.197

[42] Works, I.23

[43] Works, I.198

[44] Works, I.199

[45] “These (eternal transactions) were carried on “per modum foederis,” by way of covenant,” compact, and mutual agreement, between the Father and the Son; for although it should seem that because they are single acts of the same divine understanding and will, they cannot be properly federal, yet because those properties of the divine nature are acted distinctly in the distinct persons, they have in them the nature of a covenant.” Works, XVIII.77

[46] Works, XVIII.86

[47] Works, X.163

[48] Works, X.174

[49] Works, X.178-179

[50] Works, X.163

[51] Works, I.225

[52] Works, I.233

[53] Spence, A.  Incarnation And Inspiration: John Owen and the Coherence of Christology Kindle Edition (T&T Clark:  London 2007) pg 35

[54] Spence, pg 36

[55] Works, XIX.461

[56] Works, XIX.461

[57] Works, XIX.461

[58] Works, XIX.461

[59] Spence, pg 35

[60] Spence, pg 36

[61] Works, I.234

[62] Works, I.238

[63] Works, III.169

[64] Works, III.169

[65] Works, III.170

[66] Works, III.170

[67] Works, III.168

[68] Works, III.171

[69] Works, III.172

[70] Works, XVIII.77

[71] Works, X.168

[72] Works, X.170

[73] Works, X.178-179

[74] Works, II.81-82

[75] Works, II.82

[76] Daniels, 60

[77] Works, X.496

[78] Works, X.605

[79] Works, II.84-85, Works, X.500-512

[80] Works, II.83

[81] Works, II.85

[82] Works, X.605


Primary Sources:

Owen, J. Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth in Six Books (Soli Deo Gloria Publications: Grand Rapids 2009)

The Works of John Owen (Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh 2009)

 Vol I

Christologia: or, A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ

Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ

Vol II

On Communion with God



Vol VI

Exposition on Psalm 130

Vol X

The Death of Death in the Death of Christ

A Dissertation on Divine Justice


Exposition of Hebrews


Secondary Sources:

Beeke, J.R. and R.J. Pederson.  Meet the Puritans (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids 2006)

Daniels, R. The Christology of John Owen (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids 2004)

Entwistle, F.R. “John Owen’s Doctrine of Christ” in The Puritan Papers vol II edt. by J.I. Packer (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg N.J. 2001)

Ferguson, S.  John Owen on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh 2007)

Kay, B. Trinitarian Spirituality: John Owen and the Doctrine of God in Western Devotion (Paternoster: Milton Keyes U.K. 2008)

Kapic, K. “Introduction to Communion with God” in Owen’s Communion with the Triune God Kindle Edt. (Crossway Books: Wheaton 2007)

Oliver, R. “John Owen – His Life and Times” in  John Owen: The Man and his Theologyedt. by Robert Oliver (Evangelical Press:  Faverdale North, Darlington U.K. 2002)

Payne, J.D. John Owen on the Lord’s Supper (Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh 2004)

Spence, A.  Incarnation And Inspiration: John Owen and the Coherence of ChristologyKindle Edition (T&T Clark:  London 2007)

Trueman, C.R. John Owen: Reformed Catholic Renaissance Man (Ashgate: Burlington VT 2007)



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