John Owen (1616-1683) is regarded highly by those who are classically or confessionally Reformed, such as those who subscribe, whether strictly or essentially, to the Westminster Standards or the Three Forms of Unity. He was clearly a theological genius, who, while devoted to the life and health of the church, was a man of deep knowledge, logical precision, and a master of nuance. Yet, among those who are less-than-classically Reformed or otherwise theologically persuaded, his theology gives off a repugnant, offensive stench.
This is in large part due to his treaty entitled, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. This volume has garnered the praise of some (confessionally Reformed) and the infamy of others (broadly Reformed and otherwise inclined/persuaded). This is due to the fact that it was one of the most in-depth pre-Enlightenment defenses of the doctrine called, by proponents, definite redemption, and, by opponents, limited atonement (i.e., the idea that Christ died to secure the salvation for a particular people rather than for every person; hence, the words ‘definite’ and ‘limited’). Unfortunately, the notoriety of this specific treatise of Owen’s has had a negative effect which originates from both the confessional and more broadly Reformed, namely, that the high point of Owen’s theological contribution is centered on a theological concept as controversial as definite redemption/limited atonement.
It is not our purpose to argue for or against Owen’s explication of this particular doctrine. Rather, our purpose is to, however briefly, counter the common charge against the confessional Reformed that they were not thorough enough in how they related the person and work of Christ to the rest of theology.
Before we begin with something outside of the above noted and contested treatise, it is important to note at this point that the Death of Death is a treatise which is thoroughly Trinitarian and Christological in its explication. Owen begins the volume with detailed discussion of the role of each person of the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—in the plan of redemption. This shouldn’t be something easily overlooked or minimized. In other word, if one wants to take serious objection to Owen’s articulation of definite redemption, one must address his Trinitarian starting point. And, as a warning, whatever else one wants to believe about Owen, he was a profound Trinitarian theologian who was aware of the many nuances that characterize the same; and, he maturely incorporated this into his explication of many a doctrine.
In addition, the next two “books” of Owen’s Death of Death are, for all intents and purposes, a Christocentric explication of redemption, dealing with his life, death, resurrection and ascension. The crux of the work of Christ, for Owen, is this: Christ making satisfaction for our sins as our great High Priest; that is, by the sacrifice of himself once and for all, removing the need for any further sacrifice. Again, as with our warning regarding his Trinitarianism, if one is to refute Owen’s understanding of definite redemption, one must address his thorough and mature Christology. A brief survey of the vast corpus of Owen will demonstrate his concern for and emphasis of the Triunity of God and the central role of Christ for us. In other words, Owen does not admit of ‘cheap shots.’ Rather, one must refute his Trinitarian-Christological logic to refute his, perhaps monstrous, explication of definite atonement.
Moving on from this rather long introduction, we will look at (again, only briefly—this is a blog post after all) a connection that Owen makes between Christ’s person and work and God’s revelation of himself. In Owen’s Christologia, he argues for the centrality of Christ’s person and work in God’s revelation of himself. In fact, he arguably anticipates a known antagonist to that most (un)popular aspect of Owen’s theology noted above. This antagonist is Karl Barth, the famous 20th-century Swiss theologian who walked away from liberalism and walked against, so to speak, some main aspects of confessional Reformed theology.
According to Owen, God determined that a representative was necessary for humans to know him. The fundamental reason for this is that God, in his transcendent and holy (ontological and moral, respectively) separateness from man, was unable to be known by a broken, sinful humanity. Moreover, pre-Christ revelations of God were not sufficient in themselves; that is, God’s revelation of himself in creation (i.e., general revelation) and in the Old Testament did not, so to speak, encapsulate and fully express who God is. Additionally, true apprehension of God’s nature is determined and limited by God making himself known in us. Looming largest is Owen’s contention that our never-ceasing drive toward idolatry and sinful rebellion is the strongest reason for the need of a “representation” of God who displays God’s immanence in the face of our radical separation from God (both ontologically and morally).
This representative is Jesus Christ, the God-man, or, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, incarnate (i.e., assuming a human nature). Why? Because Christ is the “complete and perfect representation of the Divine Being and excellencies” (Works, I:69). This expands, as one might expect, given our prolonged introduction to this rather short body, to Trinitarian concerns. Christ is, first, autotheos; that is, very God in his essence, and, thus, co-equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in every way. Christ is, with regard to his person, eternally generated from the Father; thus, he receives the divine attributes and his sonship from God the Father. In this connection, Christ is, for Owen, the essential image of God. Distinct from yet dependent on this, Christ, as God in the flesh (incarnated), is the sole “representative image” of God, which speaks most particular of his mediatorial role as the High Priest par excellence between God and man (Works I:70-73).
This means for Owen that Scripture, as the word of God, cannot be equivalent to the essential and representative image of God (with the latter being dependent on the former), namely, Christ. Rather, Scripture is God’s revelation and declaration of Christ, the one in whom God is near to us, which makes Christ, in turn, the end and the object of it and the faith in God which it solicits. It is in the true object of faith, Christ, who is God assuming human flesh (i.e., Christ’s person and work), that the two means of God—Scripture and the illumination of the Holy Spirit—proceed and find their effectualness. It is therefore impossible to effectively and thus truly know God apart from Christ; therefore, even Scripture is rendered useless, never mind all other ways in which God reveals himself, apart from Christ. Christ is the totality of the revelation of God; he is the sum, the beginning, and the end of it (Works I:74-78).