Review of An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life by Crawford Gribben, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020, 190 pages, pbk.
Crawford Gribben is a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and is well known as a scholar of Puritanism, specializing on eschatology. He has written a previous book on John Owen which has garnered him much praise.
This work represents a modest exploration of the life and thought of the Puritan giant John Owen, and comes at the subject from a different angle than most of the biographies and studies of Owen I had encountered before. It is definitely a book by a historian, not a theologian (Sinclair Ferguson’s John Owen on the Christian Life is a good example of the latter). Gribben employs the device of the stages of life to understand Owen, and he is well-suited to the purpose. In particular, Owen’s experiences during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and then in the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy provide a good lens through which to view him and his writings.
The book consists of a chapter long Introduction followed by four chapters and the Conclusion. The main chapters deal with “Childhood,” Youth,” “Middle Age,” and “Death and Eternal Life,” as seen from Owen’s perspective. These phases of life are approached via Owen’s own thoughts, intermixed with facts about Owen’s life situations and temperament. All this is preceded by a full timeline.
Gribben’s Introduction (25-45) is very well done. He gives the reader much helpful information and sets up the four main chapters well, pulling you in to the life and times of his subject. Of particular note is the use of contemporary diaries and notebooks which make the oft romanticized figure of Owen more concrete. Owen’s career was carried on in tumultuous times and in the midst of much personal trouble, ill-health, grief, and even fear for his life. He achieved much in his lifetime, but Gribben explains that by the end he was surrounded by the scent of failure (39). Yet his impact was and is considerable, and not only as a theologian. One of the most interesting things in this book is the description later in the book of Owen’s thoughts on religious liberty (e.g. 94-103, 146-149). John Locke was a student of Owen and Gribben believes that,
Owen’s political theory – undeveloped as it was – made a very significant contribution to the emergence of the political tradition that has since been described as classical liberalism. His work anticipated by two decades Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), which would make the best-known intervention in this emerging defense of civil and political liberty. (100-101).
Returning to the main outline of the book, the chapter on “Childhood” sees Owen as a considerate minister to the capacities of the young. The chapter focuses on two topics; a Primer which I shall discuss in a moment, and Baptism, of which Owen became sympathetic to the concerns of the Baptists. This part of the book is a bit drawn out, occupying more space than one would expect in a slim volume. Gribben’s discussion of The Primer is of interest. For whatever reason, this book was not included in the reprint of Owen’s works by the Banner of Truth, but the author says it “deserves to be recovered.” (48. Although it appears that Owen’19th Century editor, William Goold, was not aware of its existence – 65 n. 40). “The Primer offers a glimpse into the simplicity he expected of childhood piety… as well as the daily routines of thankfulness that he expected parents to exemplify.” (68).
Chapter 2 on “Youth” records Owen’s regimen as an Oxford student, and how upon his return to Oxford as its vice chancellor he tried to inculcate an inward piety as well as outward academic excellence, a concern that “met with mixed success” (78). To address this Owen preached and later wrote his classic On Communion with God, which depicts the Godhead as approachable, kind, and gracious. The author’s treatment of this great book (82-90) is a highlight.
The chapter on “Middle Age” is mostly taken up with Owen’s views on religious liberty and worship. Chapter 4 addresses “Death and Eternal Life” and concentrates on Owen’s views about prophetic portents in his age (although Owen was not much interested in millennial questions – 121-122). Again, for me this section on his prophetic speculations is over-long. Better is the treatment of the Beatific Vision, which in Owen is not seeing the Father’s glory but the Son’s (136-141).
The book wraps up with an informative summary, rightly pointing out that “Owen was much more than a theological clinician,” and that, in fact,
Owen’s discussion of the spiritual life has contributed, and perhaps even shaped, some of the most important religious communities and philosophies of the last several centuries of civilization in the West. Owen was so much more than merely the most important English theologian. (146).
All in all An Introduction to John Owen succeeds in its purpose. There are some engaging and uplifting pages in the book, though there are also a few less compelling paragraphs. The author sets his subject within his troubled milieu, even if sometimes he is guilty of repetition, especially in his mentioning of the display of the heads and limbs of some of Owen’s revolutionary friends at various points of the book. This little book humanizes John Owen more than other biographies I have read. I should have liked some interaction with the great devotional treatises in Volumes 6 and 7 of Owen’s Works, and his Discourse on the Holy Spirit, which is probably my favorite, but it is only 190 pages long. One can’t have everything.
(This book was supplied to me by the publisher.)
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.