Rob Sturdy: John Owen’s Analogia Entis in His Dissertation on Divine Justice

13 04 2012

This one is strictly for the theology nerds out there.  Click through for the full 30 pages.

John Owen, the 17th century English non-conformist, has been described as the “most significant theological intellect in England” during the seventeenth century.[1]  This makes Owen, according to some theologians, the high water mark of the expression of Reformed Theology known as Reformed Orthodoxy, which Paul Tillich described as “the abutment against which the bridge of all later Protestant theology leans.”[2]  And yet, as Trueman notes, Owen has hardly received the kind of treatment he arguably deserves, with the exception of that given to him in narrow, conservative evangelical circles.[3]  There seems to be a bit of a resurgence of interest in Owen.  This paper seeks to capitalize on that interest by bringing him into dialogue with a concept also enjoying a resurgence; namely the theological concept of participation.  This paper will demonstrate how Owen initially held a more Scotistic approach to the atonement shaped by Scotus’ voluntarism.  However, in 1652 Owen drastically changed his position adopting a Thomistic view that sought to more closely marry God’s actions with God’s essence.  The transition from Scotistic voluntarism to a more Thomistic view of participation will be examined in depth, followed briefly by an application of this shift to the concept of participation. 

John Owen was born in 1616 in Stadham, near Oxford.  By 1616 the English Reformation was barely half a century old, and much of the political, social and theological turmoil of that era was still being worked out.  Indeed, Owen was born into such turmoil.  Reflecting upon his childhood, he writes that he was “bred up from my infancy under the care of my father, who was a Noncoformist all his days and a painful labourer in the vineyard of the Lord.”[4]  Controversy was not exceptional to Owen’s youth and appears to have followed him to university life by the time of his matriculation in 1632.

England’s two major universities, Oxford and Cambridge, had played a critical role in shaping the life of the English Church, at least since the time of the Reformation.  It was at the White Horse Inn, a tavern in Cambridge, where English Reformers Cranmer, Latimer, Barnes and Bilney met to discuss Lutheran ideas.  Cranmer would later appoint Peter Martyr Vermigli to combat the Catholicism still stubbornly dug in at the University of Oxford.  In the late 16th century the outspoken Calvinist William Whitaker died, which left the Regius chair of Divinity vacant.  The anti-Calvinist John Overall succeeded him, sparking a firestorm that eventually resulted in the Lambeth Articles in 1595.  These were meant to silence Overall and those preachers influenced by his teaching.[5] Since the Reformation, the universities were strategic battlegrounds for the theological heart of the Kingdom.  Owen’s Oxford was no different.

The emergence of Arminianism added to the already tumultuous theological environment of the universities.  Arminius’ works had entered Oxford at least by 1613.  Robert Abbot, Regius professor of divinity, felt the emergence of the Arminian phenomenon to be significant enough to warrant public rebuke.  Two years later Abbot publicly identified William Laud as an Arminian.[6]  Beyond the obvious reasons for Laud’s significance concerning the greater historical narrative of the era, Laud is significant in the life of Owen because Laud was named Chancellor of Oxford in 1630.

By 1628, presumably under the influence of Laud, Charles I banned debates over controversial matters such as election and predestination.[7]  Tyack sees the appointment of Laud as Chancellor of Oxford as the death knell for Calvinism at the university.[8]  If Laud’s appointment as Chancellor was not sufficient to dethrone Calvinism from Oxford in 1630, then surely his appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 was.  Distressed at the changes occurring in the University, Owen felt compelled to leave in 1637, only midway through his B.D.[9] In 1642, civil war broke out.  Owen declared for parliament.  In the same year he published his first work, entitled A Display of Arminianism, a work he dedicated to “The Lords and Gentlemen of the Committee for Religion.”[10]

The effect of the tumultuous decade, which preceded Owen’s writing of A Display of Arminianism should not be minimized.  In the Epistle Dedicatory to A Display, Owen writes “it was not, doubtless, without divine disposition that those should be the chiefest agents in robbing men of their privileges who had nefariously attempted to spoil God of his providence.”[11]  One cannot help but feel the disappointment and perhaps anger of a young man driven from university, forced to comply with liturgical observances, adherence to which had long been held with a loose hand.  And yet Owen’s dispute was not merely a matter of non-conformity to the public worship of the Church of England, but the matter was eminently theological.  Owen writes:


The fates of our church having of late devolved the government thereof into the hands of men tainted with this poison, Arminianism, became backed with the powerful arguments of praise and preferment…it is high time, then, for lovers of the old way to oppose this innovation.[12]


Owen’s main contention with the Arminians in A Display seems to have principally revolved around two issues.  Owen first charges the Arminians with seeking to “exempt themselves from God’s jurisdiction” which in this instance means to deprive God of his providence in salvation.[13]  Second, Owen charges the Arminians with denying the eternal and unchangeable nature of God’s decrees.[14]  By 1647, Owen is offering a more refined critique against the metaphysical assumptions of the Arminians.  He describes their position as follows:


‘God,’ say they, ‘had a good mind and will to do good to human kind, but could not by reason of sin, his justice lying in the way; whereupon he sent Christ to remove that obstacle, that so he might, upon the prescribing of what condition he pleased, and its being by them fulfilled, have mercy on them.’  Now, because in this they place the chief, if not the sole, end of the oblation of Christ, I must a little show the falseness and folly of it.[15]


The key concept which Owen is taking aim at is that God wanted to do something, namely to do good to human kind, but could not on account of his essential attribute of justice, which prevented him from having mercy on sinners.  At stake for Owen in 1647 is God’s freedom.  If God wished to have mercy on human kind, but was prevented from doing so on account of his justice, then God is not truly free.  Owen argues:


If the end of the death of Christ were to acquire a right to his Father, that notwithstanding his justice he might save sinners, then did he rather die to redeem a liberty unto God than a liberty from evil unto us,- that his Father might be enlarged from that estate wherein it was impossible for him to do that which he desired, and which his nature inclined him to, and not that we might be freed form that condition wherein, without his freedom purchased, it could not be but we must perish.[16]


Without stating the terms explicitly, it is nevertheless clear from the above passages that Owen is operating under a distinction between God’s potentia absoluta and God’s potentia ordinate.[17]  According to God’s absolute power, he could forgive sin in any way that did not direct imply contradiction.  Thus Owen quotes Augustine approvingly:  “Though other ways of saving us were not wanting to his infinite wisdom, yet certainly the way which he did proceed in was the most convenient, because we find he proceeded therein.”[18]  The incarnation and atonement therefore, were not the only necessary remedy to sin but rather one of perhaps infinite possibilities.  The incarnation of the Son of God and the atonement of Christ only become necessary after they were ordained, or willed by God.

The position itself was well accepted in Western approaches to the atonement, however it had become of particular interest in the Scotist school.[19]  Heiko Oberman has argued that one of the key “attitudes” of nominalism is the “dialectics of God’s potentia absoluta and potential ordinata.[20]  The concept received mixed reception in the Reformation, being explicitly denied by Calvin who writes:


 Nothing, therefore, can be more preposterous, than to imagine that there is in God a power so supreme and absolute, (as it is termed,) as to deprive him of his righteousness. David, as soon as he recognized his affliction as coming from God, turns to his own sin as the cause of the Divine displeasure; for he had already been fully satisfied in his own mind, that he is not like a tyrant who exercises cruelty needlessly and at random, but a righteous judge, who never manifests his displeasure by inflicting judgments but when he is grievously offended.[21]


And though Calvin rejected this idea, it seems as if it was adopted by his successors.[22] As Vos has noted “Reformed Scholasticism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries followed the main path of Scotism.”[23]  It appears as if, at least in 1647, Owen is comfortable to follow a tradition of the atonement more reflective of Scotus’ voluntarism.[24]  As Trueman has argued, that “in 1647 Owen is operating with the implicit assumption that God’s revelation, in whatever form, is of his decretive will and not necessarily of his essential being.”[25]

Though the position could be said in a sense to be catholic, it is not without its problems. Hans Boersma has argued, “if God’s revelation can be divorced from his essential being then God’s actions in creation are arbitrary, deciding the “moral status of human actions simply at a whim.”[26] Calvin seems to have been sensitive to this critique, seeking to defend himself from the charge of an arbitrary deity.  Hesselink has pointed out that “Calvin not only often safeguards himself against the charge of a capricious God whose absolute power (potential absoluta) knows no bounds; he specifically repudiates this idea.”[27]  Considering Owen would change his position in 1652, why might have Owen argued it so forcefully in 1647?

One possible avenue for exploring the reasons behind Owen’s 1647 position might be the target of Owen’s polemics.  In 1647 it is clear that Owen regarded the major threat to the English Church to be Arminianism.  In 1652 however, Owen is taking more direct aim at the Socinians.  Some scholars believe that Owen’s target dictated the position he took in 1647 and 1652 respectively.[28]  In one sense Owen often conflated the differences between Arminianism and Socinianism.  In both, “human agents were regarded as having significant libertarian freedom relative to their actions.”[29] Nevertheless, it is clear that Owen perceived differences between the two.

When Owen identifies the chief problems with Arminianism, he majors on human autonomy.  In A Display of Arminianism, Owen charges the Arminians with seeking to “exempt themselves from God’s jurisdiction,- to free themselves from the supreme dominion of his all-ruling providence; not to live and move in him, but to have an absolute independent power in all their actions.”[30]  Similarly, in Owen’s “Preface” to his Death of Death, he identifies two major “pillars” of Arminianism.  The first is universal redemption.  The second is free will.  For Owen the two are logically intertwined.  Summing up how the two interact, Owen writes:

A general ransom without free-will is but ‘phantasiae inutile pondus,’ a burdensome fancy;’ the merit of the death of Christ being to them as an ointment in a box, that hath neither virtue nor power to act or reach out its own application unto particulars, being only set out in the gospel to the view of all, that those who will, by their own strength, lay hold on it and apply it to themselves may be healed.[31]

Owen’s chief target in his polemic against the Arminians would be to tear down the arguments in favor of human autonomy.

What were the arguments in favor of human autonomy that the Arminians put forth as Owen understood them?  In A Display of Arminianism Owen identifies three main arguments.  The first is that “every man in the world, reprobates and others, have in themselves power and ability of believing in Christ, of repenting and yielding due obedience to the new covenant.”[32]  Second, “men may become actual believers” without an “infused habit of grace, no spiritual vital principle, necessary for them, or bestowed upon them.”[33]  And finally, “that God sendeth the gospel, and revealeth Christ Jesus unto men, according as they well dispose themselves for such a blessing.”[34]  Owen sums up the argument of the Arminians as follows:

That every man having a native, inbred power of believing in Christ upon the revelation of the gospel, hath power of believing in Christ upon the revelation of the gospel, hath also an ability of doing so much good as shall procure of God that the gospel be preached unto him; to which, without any internal assistance of grace, he can give assent and yield obedience; the preparatory acts of his own will always proceeding so far as to make him excel others who do not perform them, and are therefore excluded from farther grace.[35]

As far as English Arminianism goes, it is unlikely that any would set up a reliance upon natural “inbred power” as opposed to an “infused habit of grace.”  As Allison has pointed out, neither Arminians nor the Reformed Orthodox would have disagreed that natural power was insufficient.  Rather, the true disagreement lay in the formal cause of justification.[36]  The English Arminians held to a position that God’s external actions must say something about his essential being.  Thus, God must punish sin because his essential being is Holy.  He is not free to forgive.  Similarly, it is repugnant that God could arbitrarily elect to save some and damn others.  Thus Richard Montagu, an English Arminian who was defended by William Laud, Owen’s chancellor at Oxford, wrote in A New Gag that the Church of England was opposed to the notion that:

Peter was saved because that God would have him saved absolutely, an resolved to save him necessarily because hee would so and no further; that Judas was damned as necessarily because that God, as absolute to decree as omnipotent to effect, did primarily so resolve concerning him and so determine touching him, without respect of anything but his owne will.[37]

Montagu, along with other English Arminians, was at pains to demonstrate that God’s justice as an essential attribute, not only binds him to punish sin but also to reward the righteous.  Not only was this important for avoiding the appearance of a capricious God, but it was essential, so the argument went, to avoid anti-nomianism.[38]

Thus if Owen were to strike at the heart of the Arminian argument, a Scotistic voluntarism would have been most appropriate. In terms of a formal cause for justification, Owen places the burden squarely upon the limited atonement of Christ in the work of redemption, which is determined on the predestination of God.[39]  This predestination, unlike the Arminian position, is not determined upon taking advantage of any infused righteousness, but is solely dependent upon the decretive will of God.  He writes ““In respect of us,” Owen writes:

the end of the oblation and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ was, not that God might if he would, but that he should, by virtue of the compact and covenant which was the foundation of the merit of Christ.[40]

Owen is not completely insensitive to the charge that this makes God capricious or arbitrary.  He does argue that Christ’s atonement is accompanied by an actual righteousness worked in the individual by the power of the Spirit.  Thus the individual not only enjoys imputed righteousness, but actually an infusion of righteousness that works towards conformity with Christ.[41]  Nevertheless, Owen only devotes a scant two paragraphs to the idea clearly seeking to avoid a major discussion on it.  Owen’s minimal treatment of an actual, infused righteousness is notable considering it was one of the main polemical defenses of his tutor, Thomas Barlow, against the charges of the Arminians.[42]  It is all the more notable considering Owen would write a major work on the Holy Spirit, much of which is devoted to the topic of the Spirit’s work in the infusion of righteousness and wisdom in individuals.[43]  It is clear, at least in his anti-Arminian writings, that he is seeking to distance the link between God’s decretive will in predestination and any actual righteousness being worked in the individual.

By 1652 Owen obviously still considered the Arminians a major threat, but he had shifted his polemical focus to the Socinians.  His answer to the Socinians, A Dissertation on Divine Justice was written to defend that “sin-punishing justice to be natural, and in its exercise necessary, to God,” the denial of which he charges explicitly to the Socinians and some of his countrymen.[44]  This represents a major shift in Owen’s thinking, and it seems to have been prompted by the object of his polemics, the Socinians.  The Socinians denied the “sin punishing justice” of God by denying the necessity of the element of satisfaction for sin in the death of Christ.  An emphasis upon God’s potential absoluta was a contributing factor in the Socinians rejection of satisfaction.  This emphasis was held in common with Owen’s “countrymen,” Twisse and Rutherford.  Just as Owen found upholding the distinction between the potentias against the Arminians expedient for his attack, here he finds it compelling to dispense with the distinction and argue against it.

Early on in Owen’s Dissertation it becomes evident that he is operating from a different epistemological framework than he had been in 1647.  Owen begins his work arguing that it is universally held that God is “infinitely just,” and that “the natural conceptions of all men demand and enforce the necessity of justice being ascribed to God.”[45]  From here, Owen follows a pattern typical of the scholastics to describe God’s justice in terms of categories that can be distinguished from one another.[46]  Citing Aristotle, Owen distinguishes God’s universal justice from his particular justice and further distinguishes justice in terms of distributive and commutative.

Universal justice, according to Owen, should be considered absolutely, or as it exists universally and in respect to how the universal is expressed in particulars.  Considered absolutely, Owen argues that universal justice is “the universal rectitude and perfection of the divine nature.”[47]  Flowing from this “universal rectitude”, justice is expressed in its particulars in two ways.  The first is in the absolute and free expression of the divine nature in association with words and the second is in the necessary expression of the divine nature in action.[48]

The first exercise, or expression of the divine nature, is considered absolute and perfectly free. It centers largely around the Divine nature’s association with words:

As for instance, in words of legislation, and is then called equity; or in words of declaration and narration, and is then called truth.  Both these I suppose for the present to take place absolutely and freely.[49]

For Owen, when God speaks his words are not predicated upon any other existing reality, but he is uttering eternal, absolute truth grounded in his essence.[50]  In the Dissertation, Owen has already described God as an “analogized being,”[51] that is, a being whose essential attributes are explained by way of analogy, or by tracing a resemblance between these attributes and something like them in creation. In the instance above, Owen is arguing that God freely associates with certain words because such words are analogous to his nature.  Thus in the process of analogy, God is expressing the truth of his eternal, absolute divine nature. In order of revelation, we come to know the words before we are led back by an analogous association to God. However, in order of creation, it is clear that the words derive their meaning ultimate meaning from God.

It is hard not to see Owen’s dependence upon Aquinas here. Owen cites Aquinas approvingly throughout the treatise.  His main argument mirrors Aquinas’ in progression as well as word usage.  Aquinas also holds that our knowledge of God begins with creatures and not the Creator.  Creation is apprehended by the intellect principally through words.  Creation may be described as good, life, just, etc., but this not because the creation is the source of such things, but rather because the creation is a sign which points towards the ultimate seat of such things, namely God.  Aquinas writes: :

Now our intellect apprehends them as they are in creatures, and as it apprehends them it signifies them by names. Therefore as to the names applied to God—viz. the perfections which they signify, such as goodness, life and the like, and their mode of signification. As regards what is signified by these names, they belong properly to God, and more properly than they belong to creatures, and are applied primarily to Him. But as regards their mode of signification, they do not properly and strictly apply to God; for their mode of signification applies to creatures.[52]

Creation then, being analogous to God, is meant to lead us back to God.  As creation is apprehended, so too is God, albeit to a limited extent.  “what is supremely knowable in itself,” writes Aquinas:

may not be knowable to a particular intellect, on account of the excess of the intelligible object above the intellect; as, for example, the sun, which is supremely visible, cannot be seen by the bat by reason of its excess of light.[53]

But the bat can know light, even if it cannot know light fully enough to know the sun. It would not be illogical to draw the conclusion that since there is light there must be a source for light. For Aquinas therefore signification presupposes a thing signified.  This is ultimately how creation is meant analogously lead us back to God.


In a similar vein, Owen uses the language of sign and thing signified to first open a general discussion on the attributes of God.  From there, he moves more specifically to the topic at hand, that being God’s vindicatory justice.  He writes:

A second act presupposes a first, and a constant manner of operating proves a habit…Yea, from the second acts the holy Scriptures sometimes teach the first; as for instance, that God is the living God, because he giveth life to all,-that he is good, because he doeth good.  Why may we not also say that he is just, endowed with that justice of which we are treating, because “God perverteth not judgment, neither doth the Almighty pervert justice,” but “the Lord is righteous, and upright are his judgments?  A constant, then, and uniform course of just operation in punishing sin proves punitory justice to be essentially inherent in God.  From his law, which is the sign of the divine will, the same is evident; for the nature of the thing signified is, that it resembles the sign appointed for the purpose of expressing it.[54]

Life, goodness, and justice are all concepts which God freely associates himself with in revelation.  However Owen is arguing that life, goodness, and justice are merely secondary causes of the first cause, which is God’s essential nature.  By virtue of creation these concepts are analogously related to his divine being.

According to Owen, there is one word above all others which God freely associates himself with in Scripture.  He writes:

But however this matter be, certain it is that God assumes no affection of our nature so often to himself in Scripture as this; and that, too, in words which for the most part, in the Old Testament, denote the greatest commotion of mind.  Wrath, fury, the heat of great anger, indignation, hot anger, smoking anger, wrathful anger, anger appearing in the countenance, inflaming the nostrils, rousing the heart, flaming, and consuming are often assigned to him, an in words, too, which among the Hebrews express the parts of the body affected by such emotions.[55]

If Owen’s logic regarding words is applied to the above excerpt, it should be clear that God associates himself with anger because it is in some manner analogous to his essential nature.  By anger, it is clear that the analogy precludes that kind of anger most common to the human experience, which Owen describes as “perturbation of mind,” “commotion of spirits,” or a “change of the bodily parts.”[56] Here Owen again shows strong similarities with Owen has some dependence upon Aquinas.  Aquinas makes a similar distinction, noting that when speaking of the anger of God, it is “not a passion of the soul but a judgment of justice, inasmuch as he wills to take vengeance on sin.”[57] God’s anger is then his eternal and unchangeable opposition to sin, which Owen describes as God’s punitive justice.  Thus God’s use of the word “anger,” leads us back not to God’s decree, but God’s nature.

According to Owen there are some attributes of God that are entirely free, in as much as they are not conditioned upon external objects.  For example, God can exercise his wisdom and power freely, and they are not subject to any external object.  One might say that God did not need to create a world at all, nor did he need to create this world in particular.  Any world could have been created (or none at all), as long as it did not contradict his nature.  On the other hand, there are some attributes of God that cannot be exercised without an external object.  In this instance, Owen is referring to God’s punitive justice.  For Owen, God’s punitive justice is subject to the presupposition that there is a “rational being and its having sinned.”[58]  Thus God’s essential attribute of punitive justice, unlike his attributes of wisdom and power, is in some sense subject to an external object.  It is subject to an external object in two senses.  First, it is subject to an external object because there is no need to exercise his punitive justice unless an external object exists.  Second, it is subject to an external object because it will not be exercised unless, as stated above, that external object has sinned.

It may appear at this point that God is no longer free if he has become subject to an external object, but Owen is careful to avoid this conclusion.  Owen first states that it is the Deity’s natural right to rule over his creation.  Likewise, it is natural to a rational creature to be morally dependent upon its creator and this moral dependence is expressed in penal law.[59]  From here, Owen remarks:

For if such a law were not made necessarily, it might be possible that God should lose his natural right and dominion over his creatures, and thus he would not be God; or, that right being established, that the creature might not be subject to him, which implies a contradiction not less than if you were to say that Abraham is the father of Isaac, but that Isaac is not the son of Abraham.[60]

Two points may be made concerning the above.  First, God’s vindictive justice is exercised only if an external object, namely a rational creature exists.  Though it is necessary for God’s vindictive justice to be exercised on a sinner, it was not necessary for God to create a rational creature in the first place.  Thus, God’s freedom is upheld in that he was free to create or not to create.  If he freely chooses to create, then his vindictive justice is subject to his creation.  Second, to presume that it is not necessary for God to exercise his vindictive justice upon a sinful creature would be to presume that God’s freedom is dependent upon him acting against his own nature, which according to Owen would impinge both upon God’s freedom and happiness.  He writes:

His intellectual will is carried towards happiness by an essential inclination antecedent to liberty, and notwithstanding it wills happiness with a concomitant liberty:  for to act freely is the very nature of the will; yet, it must necessarily act freely.[61]

That God’s sin punishing justice, ad extra, is consistent with his own freedom and happiness means that God’s sin punishing justice reveals aspects of his essential nature.  Whereas in 1647 the external acts of God such as the atonement of Christ lead us back to God’s decrees but not necessarily to God himself, in 1652 Owen is arguing that God’s external acts lead us back to God’s essential nature.  As Trueman notes, in 1652 Owen is arguing that there is an “epistemological pathway from God’s revelation to his essence.”[62]  This is seen not only in his acts of vindictive justice, but it is seen in the very fabric of the created order, which as has already been noted, is analogous to God.

Owen anticipates an objection based upon his presupposition of God as “the first analogous being” whereby individuals who are offended are free to pardon, therefore God too must be free to pardon as well since there is an analogous relationship between the two.  Not so, replies Owen.  Analogy requires a similarity while presupposing a difference.[63] Private persons, according to Owen are similar to God but more different from him than say, a public person. This is not to imply that individuals and God do not share an analogous relationship, but rather in terms of forgiveness there is a greater difference than similarity between God and private persons than God and public persons.  Owen writes:

A private person may recede from his right, which for the most part is of charity, yet it is by no means allowed to a public person to renounce his right, which is a right of government, especially if that renunciation should in any way turn out to hurt the public.[64]

A private individual does not have responsibility for upholding the public good, but the individual is free to forgive as long as it does not hurt anyone else.  A public person however, is not free to forgive because he is responsible for upholding the public good.  Here Owen’s reliance upon Aquinas is plainly evident.  Aquinas anticipates an objection where God is posited as a private person, in that sin is an evil done against God alone.  But Aquinas notes, “man, by sinning, can do nothing against God.”[65]  Aquinas upholds the principle that man, by sinning, can do nothing directly against God.  However, because of God’s relationship to creation as its King, an offense against creation upsets God’s good governance which because he is good, he is bound to uphold. Aquinas writes:


The sinner, by sinning, cannot do God any actual harm:  but so far as he himself is concerned, he acts against God in two ways.  First, in so far as he despises God in His commandments.  Secondly, in so far as he harms himself or another; which injury redounds to God, inasmuch as the person injured is an object of God’s providence and protection.[66]

Aquinas holds to this distinction elsewhere, drawing numerous analogies between God’s good governance and public persons.  For example, he likens God’s justice to a “ruler or a steward” who “gives to each what his rank deserves.”[67]  The ruler or steward, who through his justice gives proper order to what he oversees is like God who justly governs the universe.  “So the order of the universe,” writes Aquinas, “which is seen both in effects of nature and in effects of will, shows forth the justice of God.”[68]

In a similar vein Owen builds off of this distinction between sin against a private person versus a public representative concluding:

I say then, in the first place, that divine and human forgiveness are plainly of a different kind. The forgiveness of a man only respects the hurt; the forgiveness of God respects the guilt. Man pardons sins so far as any particular injury hath been done himself; God pardons sin as the good of the universe is injured.[69]


In this manner, the public person is analogous to God, who upholds the good of the universe by punishing sin.  By virtue of this analogous relationship, the public person, in exercising justice for the public good, participates in God’s justice as he upholds the good of the universe.  Similarly, there is an unnecessary, free, accommodation of God to be analogous to this public person also implying participation.

What then of God’s freedom?  If a public person is not free to forgive, but for the public good must punish sin, does this not bind God as a public person is bound to serve the public good?  It is telling that Owen ties this objection to Scotus by name.  It is also telling that this objection is raised at the high water mark of Owen’s defense of an analogia entis in the Dissertation.  Owen sums up Scotus’ objection, writing “The divine will is not so inclined towards any secondary object by anything in itself…that can oppose its being justly inclined towards its opposite in the same manner.”[70]  In other words, it is within the divine right to act for the public good, or for the opposite of the public good.  The divine will is not bound to act one way or another.  God’s actions ad extra lead us only to God’s decisions, but not to God’s essence.

Against Scotus, Owen argues “The divine will may incline to things opposite, in respect of the egresses of all those divine attributes which constitute and create objects to themselves.”[71]  That is, God may wish to express his divine attributes or he may not.  He may choose to create, or he may choose not to create.  He may choose to speak, or he may choose not to speak.  So far, Owen agrees with Scotus.  However, breaking radically with Scotus, Owen notes that God is not free “in respect of those attributes which have no egress towards their objects but upon a condition supposed.”[72]  That is, God is free to speak or not to speak.  However, upon the condition that God does speak he is free only to speak truth.  God is free to create or not to create.  However, upon the condition of creating he is free only to create good.  In other words, his actions ad extra reveal to us something about who God actually is.

Owen is effective in combating the Socinian position by adopting this line of reasoning, but it appears to have been more than an expedient line of attack. Rather, it appears as if Owen’s rejection of voluntarism and embrace of an analogia was a matter of sincere conviction.  The analogous nature of creation is stated explicitly in later works such as Vindiciae Evangelicae (1655)[73], Mortification of Sin (1656),[74] Theologovmena Pantodapa (1661),[75] Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (1657),[76] and Chirstologia (1679).[77]  Thus it is the contention of this paper, that Owen’s position adopted in 1652, as opposed to his 1647 position, lays the critical groundwork for a participatory framework expressed in his most celebrated works.





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 X


A Display of Arminianism


The Death of Death in the Death of Christ


A Dissertation on Divine Justice


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)



Other Primary Sources:


Aquinas, Summa Theologica. Trans. by D. Sullivan (William Benton: London 1952)

Calvin, John. Institutes on the Christian Religion. Ed. J.T. Mcneill (Westminster John Knox Press, 1980)


Calvin, John. Commentaries trans by William Pringle (Baker Books:  Grand Rapids 2005)




Secondary Sources:


Allison, F.  The Rise of Moralism:  The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (Regent College Publishing:  Vancouver 2003)


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


Billings, J.T. Calvin, Participation, and the Gift (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2009)


Boersma, H.  Heavenly Participation:  the Weaving of a Sacramental Gift (Erdmans:  Grand Rapids 2011)


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


Dever, M.  Richard Sibbes:  Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Mercer University Press:  Macon 2000)


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)


Hampton, Stephen William Peter. Anti-Arminians:  The Anglican Reformed Tradition from Charles II to George I (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2008 )


Hesselink, I. John.  Calvin’s Concept of Law (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1992)


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)


Muller, R. “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth Century British Puritanism (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht:  Gottingen 2011)


Oliver, R. “John Owen – His Life and Times” in  John Owen: The Man and his Theology edt. 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 Christology Kindle Edition (T&T Clark:  London 2007)


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


Trueman, C.  “John Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice: An Excersice in Christocentric Scholasticism” in Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998)


Tyacke, N.  Aspects of English Protestantism, c. 1530-1700  (Manchester University Press:  Manchester and New York 2001)


Van Asselt, W.  Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Reformation Heritage Books:  Grand Rapids 2011)


Vos, Antonie, The Philosohpy of John Duns Scotus, (Endiburgh University Press:  Edinburgh 2006)





[1] Trueman, C.  John Owen:  Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Ashgate: Burlington 2007) pg 1

[2] Tillich, P.  Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Theology ( ) pg 11

[3] Trueman, pg 1

[4] Owen XIII.224

[5] Dever, M.  Richard Sibbes:  Puritanism and Calvinism in Late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England (Mercer University Press:  Macon 2000) pg 18-20

[6] Tyacke, N.  Aspects of English Protestantism, c. 1530-1700  (Manchester University Press:  Manchester and New York 2001)  pg 170-171

[7] Ferguson, S.  John Owen on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth Trust:  Carlisle PA 2001) pg 2

[8] Tyack pg 274

[9] Payne, J.  John Owen on the Lord’s Supper (Banner of Truth Trust:  Carlisle PA 2004) pg 5

[10] Oliver, R. “John Owen – His Life and Times” in  John Owen: The Man and his Theology edt. by Robert Oliver (Evangelical Press:  Faverdale North, Darlington U.K. 2002) pg 24

[11] Owen X.5

[12] Owen X.8

[13] Owen X.12

[14] Owen X.12

[15] Owen X.205

[16] Owen X.206

[17] Trueman, C.  “John Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice: An Excersice in Christocentric Scholasticism” in Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998): pg 90

[18] Owen X.205

[19] Trueman (1998) pg 90

[20] Billings, J.T. Calvin, Participation, and the Gift (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2009) pg 33.

[21] Calvin’s Commentaries Psalm 38.1-5 vs. 3

[22] Though Calvin explicitly denied the distinction between the potentias, it remains a topic of debate whether or not there was not an implicit acceptance of the doctrine.  see “Calvin and the Absolute Power of God,” in Calvin in Context, ed. D. C. Steinmetz (Oxford, 1995)

[23] Vos, Antonie, The Philosohpy of John Duns Scotus, (Endiburgh University Press:  Edinburgh 2006) pg 541

[24] Muller, R. “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition” in Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth Century British Puritanism (Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht:  Gottingen 2011) pg 26

[25] Trueman (1998) pg 91

[26] Boersma, H.  Heavenly Participation:  the Weaving of a Sacramental Gift (Erdmans:  Grand Rapids 2011) pg 77

[27] Hesselink, I. John.  Calvin’s Concept of Law (Pickwick Publications: Allison Park 1992) pg 23

[28] Daniels, R.  The Christology of John Owen (Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids 2004) pg 60-61

[29] Trueman (1998) pg 28

[30] Owen X.12

[31] Owen X.150

[32] Owen X.123

[33] Owen X.124

[34] Owen X.125

[35] Owen X.126

[36] Allison, F.  The Rise of Moralism:  The Proclamation of the Gospel from Hooker to Baxter (Regent College Publishing:  Vancouver 2003) pg X

[37] Tyacke,  pg 165

[38] Hampton, Stephen William Peter. Anti-Arminians:  The Anglican Reformed Tradition from Charles II to George I (Oxford University Press: Oxford 2008 ) pg 95

[39] Owen, X.250

[40] Owen, X.208

[41] Owen, X.253

[42] Hampton, pg 98

[43] See Owen’s Pneumatologia

[44] Owen X.496

[45] Owen, X.496

[46] see Van Asselt, W.  Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism (Reformation Heritage Books:  Grand Rapids 2011) pg 33

[47] Owen, X.498

[48] Owen, X.499

[49] Owen, X.499

[50] Trueman (1998) pg 93

[51] Owen, X.498

[52] Summa 1a 13.3

[53] Summa 1a 12.1

[54] Owen, X.558-559

[55] Owen, X.542

[56] Owen, X.542

[57] Summa 1a2ae 47.1

[58] Owen, X.508

[59] Owen, X.509

[60] Owen, X.509

[61] Owen.X.510

[62] Trueman, (1998) pg 100

[63] Trueman, (1998) pg 103

[64] Owen, X.588

[65] Summa 1a2ae 47.1

[66] Summa 1a2ae 47.1

[67] Summa 1a 21.1

[68] Summa 1a 21.1

[69] Owen, X.588

[70] Owen,  X.588

[71] Owen, X.588

[72] Owen, X.588

[73] Rehnman pg 34

[74] Owen’s works VI.20

[75] 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) pg 27-28

[76] Owen’s Works II.18

[77] Owen’s Works I.180



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