John Owen on Inspiration & Preservation


The greatest British theologian of the 17th Century was, in the opinion of many, John Owen. Owen made distinctive contributions in a number of theological loci. His book on the mutual relationship within the Trinity and our communion with each of the Divine Persons is still the best work on the subject.1 Likewise, his manifesto for congregational-independency2 offers some of the best arguments for a Pastor-led congregational form of church government, and his The Death of Death in the Death of Christ3 is considered the book on the Reformed view of particular redemption. Owen’s teaching on the subject of the inspiration of the Bible is also most instructive, especially in view of what has been and is being taught in some evangelical seminaries and books.

The Importance of Divine Inspiration

Owen’s views on the crucial matter of the relationship of the Bible as we have it and the autographs are worth pondering. He, like all solid evangelicals, rests the authority of the Bibles we have, not upon some inner impression of its validity, but upon its original theopneustic character. In his, The Divine Original of the Scripture he asserted, “That the whole authority of the scripture in itself depends solely on its divine original, is confessed by all who acknowledge its authority.”4 Thus the autographs were from God and delivered to men. We possess “the words of truth from God Himself.”5

Inspiration he defined as “an indwelling and organizing power in the chosen penmen.”6 Thus, “they invented not words themselves…but only expressed the words they received.”7 Indeed, “the word that came unto them was a book which they took in and gave out without any alteration of one tittle or syllable (Ezek. ii 8-10, iii 3; Rev. x 9-11).”8 As Owen writes in his great work on the Holy Spirit:

He did not speak in them or by them, and leave it unto their natural faculties, their minds, or memories, to understand and remember the things spoken by him, and so declare them to others; but he himself acted their faculties, making use of them to express his words, not their own conceptions.9

It is because of its divine provenance that the Scripture gains “the power and to require obedience, in the name of God.”10 The Scriptures “being what they are, they declare whose they are.”11 Even so, being as the Bible is the Word of God, every man is bound to believe it.12

All this notwithstanding, Owen refuses to ground his doctrine of Scripture solely on the internal testimony of the Spirit. As he says in his The Reason of Faith,

If anyone … shall now ask us wherefore we believe the Scripture to be the word of God; we do not answer, “It is because the Holy Spirit hath enlightened our minds, wrought faith in us, and enabled us to believe it.”13

Such a declaration may at first seem to be a deviation from the tradition inherited from the Reformation. But Owen demonstrates that there has to be an external reason for the credibility of our faith in Scripture as the Word of God.14 Divine revelation must have the character of truth through and through, and it is this character which the Spirit causes us to recognize through faith.15

The Role of Apographa

Where John Owen, together with many of his contemporaries, differed from modern expressions of inspiration was in the close connection he saw between the Scriptures as originally given and the Scriptures as we now have them. For example, he wrote:

Sacred Scripture claims this name for itself. It has its origin from God … [s]o that what God once said to the Church through the medium of Prophets, Apostles, and other inspired writers was still spoken directly by God, and that not only in the primary sense to those whom He delegated this task of reducing His revealed will to written form, but also, no less so in a secondary sense, He speaks to us now in His written word … as in days past He spoke through the mouths of His holy prophets.16

In contrast to the way inspiration and (if at all) preservation is taught nowadays, men like Owen saw a real continuity between the autographs and what were often termed the “apographs,” or copies of the originals. “It is true,” Owen said, “we have not the Autographa … but the apographa or ‘copies’ which we have contain every iota that was in them.”17

As we have already inferred, in saying this Owen was not alone. Francis Turretin of the Genevan Academy also held this view:

By original texts, we do not mean the autographs … which certainly do not now exist. We mean their “apographs” which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”18

Did this show a pre-Enlightenment naiveté? Not at all. Owen was well aware that the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available in his day contained variant readings, transpositions, corrections, and other glosses. But he saw the supervening hand of God in transmission of the texts. For example, he wrote, “For the first transcribers of the original copies, and those who … have done the like work from them … [i]t is known, it is granted, that failings have been amongst them, and that various lections are from thence risen.”19

It is of interest to note that Owen’s recent translator contrasts the view of the Puritan with that of BB Warfield, especially in the areas of the extent of the understanding of inerrancy and the identity of the Text. Stephen Westcott says that,

Owen saw inerrant as not meaning just that all “between the boards of the Bible” was inspired and without error, but rather that inerrant necessarily meant plenary inspiration, and plenary inspiration that the Bible lacks nothing, and is thus a full and perfect rule and guide for all of life—not just for “religion.” He saw inspiration as involving three essential factors: content inspiration, verbal inspiration, and divine preservation.20

Summarizing Owen’s View

From the above quotations the following three points can be drawn:

  1. The Divine authority of the Bible rests in itself. It is self-attesting:

That God, who is prima Veritas, ‘the first and sovereign Truth,’…should write a book, or at least immediately indite it, commanding us to receive it as his under the penalty of his eternal displeasure, and yet that book not make a sufficient discovery of itself to be his, to be from him, is past all belief.21

This authority rested in the first instance in Scripture’s inherent status as God-given, and not in the inner testimony of the Spirit to His Word.

  1. Although He allowed the human authors to remain individual personalities, the Holy Spirit nevertheless “acted their faculties” in order to produce His words in written form. Owen taught that the nature of the Spirit presupposed this kind of inspiration,22 even if, strictly speaking, “It is the graphe that is theopneustos.”23
  2. Although we no longer possess the original manuscripts of the Bible, the apographa or copies do communicate to us what the Holy Spirit said in the autographs.24 Owen, unlike some Evangelicals today, held to a strong doctrine of Preservation.25

This assertion gives the lie to the thesis of people like Sandeen and Rogers and McKim26 who have claimed that the belief that Scripture’s authority extends to all aspects of life is due to the influence of the Enlightenment.27 But it also reminds us that God has not just set His Word in the world and then left it up to frail men to preserve it unsupervised. In a very real sense the Bible through which God actively communicates today is foremost His Word, not our attempt to reproduce it.


1 John Owen, On Communion with God, Works II, (London: Banner of Truth, 1966).

2 Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church, Works XVI, (London: Banner of Truth, 1968).

3 The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Works X, (London: Banner of Truth, 1968).

4 The Divine Original of the Scripture, Works XVI, (London: Banner of Truth, 1968), 297.

5 Ibid., 305

6 A Defense of Sacred Scripture. Appended to his Biblical Theology, (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 789.

7 Divine Original, 305

8 DivineOriginal, 299.

9 A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit. Works III, (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 132-133.

10 Divine Original, 308

11 Ibid., 311

12 Ibid., 335

13 The Reason of Faith, Works IV, (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 60

14 Ibid., 61-69

15 Ibid., 68

16 Defense, 788. (cf. also Works XVI, 357).

17 Divine Original, 300-301.

18 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 1.106.

19 John Owen, Of the Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of the Scripture. Works XVI, 355.

20 Stephen Westcott, “Editors Introduction,” (John Owen, Defense, 772-773).

21 Cf. also, Works XVI, 317-318, and, 335. Calvin said, “We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our judgment, but we subject our intellect and judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.5. (1.72)).

22 Owen, A Discourse Concerning The Holy Spirit, Works III, 131.

23 Divine Original, 300.

24 Likewise, see the opinion of William Whitaker recorded by John Woodbridge in his rebuttal of Rogers and McKim in Douglas Moo (ed.), Biblical Authority and Conservative Perspectives, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 46.

25 See Owen, Divine Original of the Scripture, 354-355.

26 See also the attacks on men like Carl F.H. Henry by the likes of Donald Bloesch.

27 We are aware of the fact that men like Owen, Voetius, Turretin, and Thomas Boston believed that the Masoretic punctuation marks were divinely inspired. They were mistaken. But this does not mean that they were wrong in the matter before us. Furthermore, it may not be out of place to add that in the debate about the Majority Text versus the minority Critical Text. For what it is worth, Stephen Westcott believes that Owen, were he alive, would side with the MT. “For Owen, the Reformation, and the Puritans [to even put it in those terms] … would be to settle the dispute!” (“Editor’s Introduction,” to John Owen, A Defense of Sacred Scripture, 773).

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