'The foundation of this whole assertion seems to me to be false and erroneous – namely that God could not have mercy on mankind unless satisfaction were made by his Son.'
- Owen, The Death of Death, (1647), (Works, 10, 205).
John Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice (1653) was the beginning of his response to the onset of Unitarianism in England, represented by the person of John Biddle (1615-1662) and the appearance of an English translation of the Racovian Catechism. The Dissertation was written while Owen was Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and dedicated to the Lord Protector , Oliver Cromwell. We must in such cases (as Carl Trueman reminds us, (Minority Report, Mentor Books, 2008, 18-9)) have regard not only to what a man is saying, but also to what he is doing, in this case to Owen’s contribution not to Puritan theology but to strengthening or solidifying certain elements in the Cromwellian Protectorate, or to doing the same for his position in Oxford, or both. Here we restrict ourselves to what Owen is saying. Note however that Owen's Dissertation was followed the next year by the command of Parliament for him, by now Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, to write more fully against Socinianism. Owen complied, and wrote Vindiciae Evangelicae (1655) dedicated to 'His Highness' the Lord Protector.
Justice and mercy in God
Owen's view of the atonement is that it is necessary if sin is to be pardoned, because justice is essential to God . The pardon of sin requires the satisfaction (or vindication) of divine justice, and only atonement by God himself (in the person of the God-man) could be sufficient. The justice that is essential to God is the same justice as that which is contingent to a just person, or a just king. In 1653 he finds it amazing that an orthodox theologian might suppose that God could have saved us by a word. Owen must thus be amazed at his earlier self, who in The Death of Death had taken the position respecting the atonement which he now argues against, as we can see from the quotation at the head of this Analysis. We cannot hold this against Owen of course; a man is entitled to change his mind. Here we shall be concerned not with the necessity of the atonement but the view of divine sovereignty, and especially the relation between the will of God and the justice of God that it implies.
The later Owen counters that 'vindicatory justice' (not to be confused with vindictive justice) is an exercise of 'the universal and essential rectitude of the divine nature'. (505) Justice is not a separate attribute of God, much less are there attributes of different kinds of justice. God’s acting justly is one exercise of the one God. It is an aspect of his government of the creation, God being not a 'private' but a 'public' person.
For Owen God is free, and his actions are free, and yet necessary. Free because they are the exercise of his will, necessary because his justice is a necessary or essential feature of his character. That is, God is not constrained from outside to exercise justice since it is part of his nature. In exercising justice God is simply being himself. So God exercises justices willingly. God is free in respect of extrinsic matters, (whether or not to create the world, say) but not similarly free with respect to the exercise of his own nature. That is, if he freely decrees to pardon mankind, then there is only one way, consistent with his justice, of providing for such pardon, namely, by atonement through the penal satisfaction of the God-man. That alone satisfies divine justice which is essential to the pardon of sinners.
It is necessary that God should speak truly, but he doth not speak from an absolute necessity; but it being supposed that he wills to speak, it is impossible that he should not speak truly. We say, therefore, that God cannot but punish sin, or that he necessarily punishes sin; not however, from an absolute necessity of nature, as the Father begets the Son, but upon the suppositions before mentioned , - by a necessity which excludes an antecedent indifference but not a concomitant liberty in the agent, for in punishing sin he acts by volition and with understanding. (589)
But whereas the exercise of justice is necessary, the exercise of mercy is free, discretionary
So whereas justice is necessary, mercy arises from the divine decree......These natural egresses (of justice) are the consequences, not of an absolute but of a conditional necessity, - namely, a rational creature and its sin being supposed, and both existing freely in respect of God, but the necessary suppositions being made (regarding the divine attributes), the exercise of other perfections is also necessary. (511-2)
So the exercise of mercy is necessarily subject to God's discretion, justice necessarily is not .
The difference may be put thus. For Twisse, the external exercise of God’s nature is freely decreeable. Although he is necessarily displeased by sin, nevertheless he may decree to pardon sin by a word, or by an atonement, as he sees fit. For Owen, once pardon is decreed, certain means are necessary for that end. So it is up to God whether or not he pardons sin, but if he decrees to pardon sin this must be in a way consistent with his nature and, Owen avers, it must be by atonement. Hence, in this subordinate, conditional sense, the atonement is necessary.
So the difference between Owen and Twisse starts not from consideration of the atonement, nor even of God's relation to justice, but from God's freedom. Owen and Twisse have a different understanding of how justice and mercy operate in God. Owen believes that there are asymmetries that Twisse fails to acknowledge, in particular the asymmetry between God's justice and his mercy. Owen argues at the start of the Dissertation that the logic of the two is different, and that even God must respect this logic. For Owen, divine justice, 'the power and readiness of God to do all things rightly and becomingly, according to the rule of his wisdom, goodness, truth, mercy and clemency' (503) 'presides' over all God's decrees and actions.
In a word, whatsoever, by reason of his right, he doeth or worketh "according to the counsel of his will", whatever proceeds from his faithfulness, mercy, grace, love, clemency, anger, and even from his fury, is said to be done by, through, and because of his justice, as the perfection inducing to, or the cause effecting and procuring, such operations. It is evident, then, that justice, universally taken, denotes the highest rectitude of the divine nature, and a power and promptitude of doing all things in a manner becoming and agreeable to his wisdom, goodness and right. (503)
So it follows, for Owen, that given the occurrence of sin, it is necessary that God punishes it. So when Samuel Rutherford, taking Twisse’s line, claims 'punitive justice to be a free act of the divine will', Owen is astonished, (507) denying that 'supposing a sinful creature, the will of God can be indifferent (by virtue of the punitive justice inherent in it) to inflict or not inflict punishment upon that creature, or to the volition of punishment or its opposite.' (509-10)
If for Owen divine justice is inexorable, divine sparing mercy behaves differently.
The nature of mercy and justice are different in respect of their exercise: for between the act of mercy and its object no natural obligation intervenes; for God is not bound to any one to exercise any act of mercy, neither is he bound to reward obedience, for this is a debt due from his natural right, and from the moral dependence of the rational creature, and indispensably thence arising. But between the act of justice and its object a natural obligation intervenes, arising from the indispensable subordination of the creature to God; which, supposing disobedience or sin, could no otherwise be secured than by punishment. (511)
God is thus subject to the ‘natural obligation’ which justice, and being a just God, requires.
Which is it to be, John?
Towards the end of the Dissertation, writing in defence of the Reformed theologian Johannes Piscator (1546-1625), Owen rather surprisingly offers some comments which might which may in fact be inconsistent with it.
It is necessary, sin being supposed to exist, that he (viz. God) should inflict punishment, - not the greatest that he is able to inflict, but as great as his right and justice require; for in inflicting punishment, he proceeds freely, according to the rule of these. It is necessary that the glory of the divine holiness, purity, and dominion should be vindicated; but in what manner, at what time, in what degree, or by what kind of punishment, belongs entirely to God, and we are not of his counsels. (604-5, italics in the original translation)
So because the justice of God is executed in accordance with his wisdom, Owen allows that it is possible for him to vary the 'degrees, modes, duration, and extension of punishment, according to the degrees of the demerit or circumstances of the sin, or even to transfer it upon the surety, who has voluntarily, and with his own approbation, substituted himself in the room of sinners'. (605) Again (against Rutherford on this occasion) Owen states 'Neither, however, do we think ourselves bound to teach that God could not forbid sin but under the penalty of eternal death'. (613) Owen argues that a punishment is determined by its end, the vindication of justice, and provided that end is met then the means to that end may vary. (614)
Here Owen appears to waver. On the one hand he allows that punishments may vary provided that the end of satisfying justice is met. On the other hand he seems to make an exception of the atonement, arguing or rather implying that there could not be another mode of satisfaction for sin than atonement by the God-man, the surety who has substituted himself in the room of sinners. Yet he seems to allow the possibility (though one that we are not in a position to know about) that the manner, time etc. of punishment belongs entirely to God, whose counsel we do not know. Which raises the question of why, if punishments in general, in respect of the their nature and circumstances, are in the hand of God, why the punishment for sin may not similarly be. And if it may similarly be, even if we have not a clue about what an alternative mode of punishment may be in this case, then the atonement by Christ is not necessary in even the restricted sense that Owen has argued for earlier. For there may be, for all we know, a possible world in which God exists, decrees sin, and ordains a mode of satisfaction that is a punishment different in kind from the one he has in fact ordained in the priestly work of Christ.
It’s not my idea to attempt at this point to adjudicate between Owen and Twisse, except to say that besides the possible inconsistency just noticed, Owen’s view is much more complex than Twisse’s and the character of this complexity takes away some of the force of some of his own criticism of Twisse. For Owen God is necessarily (though freely) just, and not necessarily (though freely, in a different sense of ‘free’) merciful. This second sense of freedom , the sense in which God is free to exercise mercy or not, seems not a hairsbreadth away from Twisse’s view that God is indifferently free to pardon without atonement or not. If God, according to Owen, and in virtue of Christ’s atonement, is free show mercy to X and not to Y, how does this differ from an appeal to the freedom of indifference that he criticises Twisse for? Owen is not in a good position to critique Twisse’s view of freedom since he uses it, or something very like it, himself.
Logic chopping? Yes, logic chopping. (But remember that logic chopping is when the logic is doing the chopping and not when the logic is being chopped). And the way the logic chops often has significant consequences for central theological issues, in this case, the necessity or otherwise of the atonement.