Friday, March 26, 2010

Two Lessons from John Owen: I - The Trinity

John Owen’s short work A Brief Declaration of the Doctrine of the Trinity and also of the Person and Satisfaction of Christ, published in 1668-9, (in Works, II) at a time when Dr Owen and his wife Mary were resident in the home in Stoke Newington of the former Cromwellian General, Charles Fleetwood, and his wife Mary Hartnopp, the widow of Sir Edward Hartnopp. Owen was busy with others such as Baxter and Manton in devising ways of forming dissenting unity and presenting a united bid for toleration to the King. He had no pastorate at this time, but following the Declaration of Indulgence in 1671 limited toleration was granted, though not because the nonconformists were united, for they were not. Owen was for a short time after this the pastor of a small congregation which fairly quickly combined with the recently-deceased Joseph Caryl’s larger one. The membership of Owen’s congregation is a roll call of the upper crust of the former Puritan establishment; no doubt considering themselves a Puritan government in waiting, just in case the Lord in his providence turned the tide. But of course they waited in vain. The tide never turned. Owen died in 1683.

In the work of Owen’s that we are about to consider he has his eye on another strand of what proved to be a cause of the Puritan eclipse, on the rise of theological rationalism on the one hand, and on Biblicism on the other. Theological rationalism, in the form of Quakerism and Socinianism, with its intolerance of revealed mystery, and the Biblicism of the Socinians and of the Cambridge Platonists, which otherwise did not have much in common. The Cambridge Platonists, such as Benjamin Whichcote, the Westminster Divine Anthony Tuckney’s pupil, stressed the fallibility of human reasoning about Scripture and were contemptuous both of those who promoted unity of a confessional kind – for were not confessions mere human products? - and who also promoted doctrinal and practical preaching. For does not preaching go beyond Scripture, the preacher using his own fallible words? So the Cambridge Platonists held that Protestants should unite around the very words of Scripture alone, and the use of ‘right reason’ to establish fundamentals, such as the exisence of God and of moral obligation, and regard any interpretations of Scripture, in the form of confessions or in preaching, as necessarily secondary, inferior and fallible, the mere expression of opinion. This puts a rather different gloss on William Chillingworth’s famous saying that ‘The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible is the religion of Protestants’, though Chillingworth was not himself a Cambridge Platonist.

In this work Owen was, in effect, concerned to deny this Cambridge Platonist position, though he does not mention them by name, but there is except one reference to ‘right reason’, preferring to lambast the Socinians. He sets himself to walk a tight-rope by upholding the place of theological reasoningwhile denying the authority of human reason in religion. But the tide of anti-Puritanism that flowed as the result of the combined pull of Quakerism, Socinianism (or Unitarianism) and of Cambridge Platonism, was irresistible. Puritanism as a theological movement was swept away. Baxter’s church building in Kidderminster is Unitarian to this day, as are several of those that were not completely obliterated, and in the early eighteenth-century the Anglican Establishment became largely Unitarian and deistic, as exemplified for example by the case of William Whiston, the translator of the Works of Josephus.

In what must have been happier days for Owen, he wrote one in defence of the orthodox account of Christ’s atonement, A Dissertation on Divine Justice (1653) and then a major work against Socinianism, Vindiciae Evangelicae, (1655) . The first was written at the command of the Long Parliament, and dedicated to 'His Highness', and the second was also dedicated to the same man, ‘His Illustrious Highness, Oliver Cromwell’. And as we shall see, Owen was a Trinitarian theologian through and through By 1669, a doubtless chastened Owen wrote this short work, as he tells us on its title page, ‘accommodated to the capacity of such as may be in danger to be seduced’. Not a work of scholastic Puritan divinity, but of pastoral counsel. And, as I shall try to show, a work of value for us.

The Trinity

Owen regarded the Trinitarian character of God to be a plainly revealed mystery, and fundamental to the development of true religion. The work of redemption and reconciliation is intrinsically Trinitarian, and appreciation of this enriches our understanding and walk with God. This can be seen, inter alia, in a number of Owen’s works, most elaborately in his Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Fellowship and Consolation (1657) The emphasis is the same in this smaller work. Understanding and teaching the doctrine of the Trinity is vital so that ‘faith may be increased, strengthened, and confirmed against temptations and oppositions of Satan, and men of corrupt minds; and that we may be distinctly directed unto, and encouraged in, the obedience unto, and worship of God, that are required of us.’ (378)

The book deals with the Trinity, the Person of Christ, and Christ’s satisfaction. The whole thing comes to about 70 pages, with an Appendix. In this short talk I shall be concerned only with the first half, focussing on what I believe Owen can teach us, or remind us, about our understanding of the revelation of God the Holy Trinity.

Some have said that in the present-day the consciousness of the doctrine of the Trinity is not as great as it should be in evangelical churches; that there is a hesitancy over it in our worship, and in our theologising. It is marginalised, or at least it is not in the front of our minds. If so, this may be because it is thought that the Trinitarian character of God is something of an appendage. God is one, yes, and that is clear and straightforward to grasp, but he is also three persons, and that is more complex. We may even think that the very formulation of the doctrine is a sullying of the pure word of God by the intrusion of ‘Greek thought’. But Owen reminds us that we are called by Scripture to worship ‘the only true God’, God in three persons.

My aim is to draw attention to the two main features of how Owen understands the doctrine of the Trinity in relation to Holy Scripture, and secondly to emphasise one consequence of this.

The Trinity and Scripture

Owen’s main idea is to show that God is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, each having distinct, mutual relations, is not an imposition on Scripture, or a theory about God, a ‘model’ of God as we are fond of saying these days, but it is found plainly in Scripture. Scripture itself is both clear and sufficient in the matter. The Scriptural portrayal of God's oneness and threeness is not misty, ambiguous, or vague. Its ‘express’ data are our basic datum. So the theological formulation of the Trinity in terms of the divine essence and a trinity of persons is not a clarification, much less an explanation, of the mystery of the Trinity. So what is it?

Before attempting to answer that question, let us see how Owen treats the Scripture. We are to begin with its plain assertions. It is our ultimate source of information about the Godhead, and our last line of defence. It sets forth a Trinitarian God. In our theological thinking ‘We produce divine revelations or testimonies, wherein faith may safely rest and acquiesce, that God is one; that this one God is Father, Son and Holy Ghost; so that the Father is God, so also is the Son, and the Holy Ghost’. (380) We start with the text. We do not first engage ourselves in terms such as ‘Trinity’, ‘substance’, ‘persons’, ‘properties’ and the like. We engage with Scripture. Owen's approach is a clear affirmation of the sufficiency and especially of the clarity of Scripture on the matter. I suspect that our commitment to Scripture is nowadays more cautious.

And so Owen begins to assemble some of the biblical data which (he tells us) ‘he suddenly repeated as they came into his mind’.

First, God is one: ‘Hear, O Israel; the LORD our God is one LORD’, Deut. 6.4., (and Isa. 44, 6, 8 etc.)
Secondly, the Father is God. (Owen does not stay long on this, as this is admitted by his opponents)
Thirdly, that Jesus Christ is God, the eternal Son of God.
Owen quotes texts of two sorts. First, those Old Testament texts which are applied to Christ in the New Testament. So Ps, 45.6 ‘Thy Throne, O God, is for ever and ever’ is applied to Christ in Hebrews 1.8.; Ps. 110.1. ‘The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand’ which is applied to Christ by himself, Matt.22.44. And so on.
Secondly, New Testament assertions in their own right: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (Matt. 16.16); John 1.1-3 ‘’And the Word was God’ v.14 ‘And we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father’; John 10.30 ‘I and my Father are one’. ‘Who being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God’. (Phil. 2.6) And so on.

About these and many other such data Owen says ‘For my part, I do not see in any thing, but that the testimonies given to the Godhead of Christ, the eternal Son of God, are every way as clear and unquestionable as those are which testify to the being of God, or that there is any God at all’. (386) And in conclusion of his treatment of the biblical data for the deity of the Son he says, ‘It appeareth, then, that there is a full, sufficient revelation made in the Scripture of the eternal Deity of the Son of God; and that he is so, as is the Father also’. (397)

Finally the deity of the Holy Spirit. Such texts as ‘Baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost’ (Matt. 28.19). And Acts. 20.28, ‘over which the holy Ghost hath made you overseers’; ‘As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them' (Acts 13.2), and so on.

Owen goes on (I summarise) to conclude that the Holy Ghost is distinctly called God; he is an intelligent, voluntary, divine agent; he knows, and works, he may be resisted and trusted, so that the Holy Ghost is a distinct divine person, and not merely the power or virtue of God or of any creature. He has divine rank, he is given the names of God and the properties of God are attributed to him, and so on. (401-2)

And these three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are one. Yet they are distinct, each having properties not possessed by the others.

So ‘There is nothing more fully expressed in the Scripture than this sacred truth, that there is one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; which are divine, distincti, intelligent, voluntary omnipotent principles of operation and working: which whosoever thinks himself obliged to believe the Scripture must believe’. (406)

In establishing these conclusions from Scripture there is a process of induction used, gathering the evidence, letting it speak for itself. But this process is not, at the same time, unthinking proof-texting. For example, Owen considers the context of the texts he cites. This is most apparent where, in the case of the data proving the deity of the Son, he notes that certain expressions in the New Testament are applications of Old Testament teaching. He recognises the relationship of the Testaments, and the way in which the language of the Psalms and the prophecies is taken by Christ to apply to himself, and by others to refer to Christ. So there is induction, but it is an inductive process that itself involves interpretation and some prior understanding of the scope of Scripture.

So that is that, quite straightforward. But then what when this plain teaching of Scripture is assaulted? Then the church has employed other expressions to ‘further declare’ what is ‘necessarily included’ in the doctrine of God. God is one. In what respect is he one? Answer: in respect of his nature, being, substance or essence, ‘His eternal power and godhead’, (Rom. 1.20) (407) So this nature or substance of God is the one nature or substance of the three - Father, Son, and Spirit. (407) Each fully possesses it. So the distinctions that Scripture draws between the three cannot be distinctions between gods: otherwise we must conclude that since there are three persons there must also be three gods; and we become committed to a form of polytheism.

What then are these further expressions? We need the term ‘person’ or some equivalent term to denote the threeness. What is their weight, their value? To answer this we shall look in the next posting on what Owen says about Scripture is relation to our reason and to the explication of doctrine. Owen moves from induction to deduction.