Friday, May 13, 2016


People in the US are getting in a right tizzy about lavatories. Now the President is to issue a Decree about what the arrangements must be in public schools, to the effect that the test of which toilet you end up in should depend on what gender you choose, and not on the gender you were born with. That tizzy is likely to boil over soon.

Of course the Decree speaks volumes about the President of the United States and his ‘legacy’. And perhaps it will be indicative of the meekness of the American public. But what is concerning some people is the culture. Carl Trueman tells all and sundry that he is taking his career in a new direction in order to put his finger in this particular dyke, so as to keep the channels of the culture flowing freely. As here -

On a point of personal reflection, I find myself now in a strange position, reading, writing and speaking more on this topic than on that which I was trained to do -- sixteenth and seventeenth century history.  But historical analysis is a transferable skill, to use the jargon, and these are strange times. The question, ‘If not us, then who?’ is also powerful when we face such potent socially and morally lethal developments.

It’s not clear as yet how this transferable skill will be used. More writing? A conference? Lying down on the tracks? A picket line? What then?

Carl writes copiously about the culture and its demise, about the anti-culture and the Unholy Trinity. He writes well. I would not miss his pieces, in First Things, The Mortification of Spin, and elsewhere. Besides, it’s refreshing to have a Westminster professor write about other things than presuppositionalism and biblical theology. 

But in my view he  has a black and white, all or nothing,  view of modern culture. ‘Cultures’, modern societies, if they are anything, are complex. Whatever Philip Rieff may say (he’s the current must-read for those wishing to analyse cultures), they are not primarily identified with what they forbid, except in the sense that the maintenance of any standards involves having do’s and don’t’s. Every assertion implies a denial, in fact a multitude of them. Cultures have rites of entry, what is permitted and what not.  Totems and taboos.  Culture has many expressions, some fairly sealed off from others. So, cultures, rather than culture, perhaps.

Is not the idea that this transgender business will derail ‘the culture’ or promote an ‘anti-culture’ or  dam the flow of the multi-faceted interests and talents of men and women  rather far-fetched and…hysterical?

Cultures are subject to ebb and flow, action and reaction. Besides, as John Owen wrote somewhere, life is as tolerable as it is because sinful lusts compete, modulating each other in the process. 

Carl also writes about the pilgrim church. As Augustine put it…..
Come now,  Christians....strangers on earth who seek  city in heaven...understand that you have come here simply in order to take your departure. You are passing through the world....Don't let lovers of the world disturb you
In pursuing this,  Carl is on a rather better wicket.  Intertwined with inveighing against the ‘anti-culture’ he calls the church back to her biblical  character as a pilgrim people, a remnant, and the personal and communal  ethics that  should go with it. He strikes the right note.   This is how it should be, and not the aping of the strategies and outlook of the consumer world in which we are immersed, the god of ‘growth’, and so on. I would put Carl's rather acid remarks about Christians who dream of ‘transforming the culture' in this category, too. Yet he seems to be letting the 'lovers of the world' disturb him.
This is what I mean, brothers, the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those that mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those that buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world, as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of the world is passing sway.
The Apostle shows a refreshing unconcern about the passing world. The entire chapter is a striking contemporary ring ,does it not?

So as likely as not this business about gender will ebb, like the fusses some years ago over Oh! Calcutta and The Life of Brian, to be replaced by the next unbelievable fad. In the meantime, aiming at being people who have here no continuing city, but are seeking one to come, seems to strike the right note.

Monday, May 02, 2016

This time, in praise of John Owen

It is often said that the ‘faculty psychology’ that the Puritans endorsed, together with many of their non-Puritan contemporaries, in which the understanding, the will and the emotions look to be in tidy order, produces a one-dimensional view of the human self. 

But not so. Or, it does not need to be so.

John Owen explored the world of the fallen heart in a number of his writings, Indwelling Sin. Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, (1656), and Of Temptation, The Nature and Power of It (1658). All are together in Volume VI of Goold’s edition. In his work on indwelling sin, The Nature, Power, Deceit and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers (1668).  Owen maintains that sin indwells the soul as such, and not in a particular faculty, the understanding, say or the will, exclusively. It indwells the heart, the soul. He takes his cue from Matthew xv.19, ‘Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murder, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies…’ He emphasises that the manifestation of sin is outwards from its residence in the inner self. So the heart is not a featureless substratum, but the understanding, will, and the affections, memory and conscience, all taken together.

According to Owen, in fallen men and women, sin is comprehensively seated in the heart in this comprehensive sense. It has a hearty attachment to the goals of sin, as well as a resolve to follow the means to those goals.  So the heart ‘is the entire principle of moral operations, of doing good or evil.’ (171) 

So the heart is unsearchable, deceitful and self-deceitful. Reformed scholasticism does not have a theory of the unconscious in the modern sense, the sources of irrational weaknesses, bizarre behavior, and so forth, which a professional analyst may counsel his patient over, and attempt to uncover, and help to free him or her from. Nonetheless they have an understanding of the depths, the layers, of the human  personality. So Owen, by this time in his life something of a master of ‘experimental divinity’, stresses that a person is not fully known to himself, nor to others. God alone is the ‘searcher of hearts’.
Hath any one the perfect measure of his own light and darkness? Can any one know what actings of choosing or aversation his will will bring forth, upon the proposal of that endless variety of objects that it is to be exercised with?  Can anyone traverse the various mutability of his affections? Do the secret springs of acting and refusing in the soul lie before the eyes of any man? Doth any one know what will be the motions of the mind or will in such and such conjunctions of things, such a suiting of object. Such a pretension of reasonings,  such an appearance of things desirable? All in heaven and earth, but the infinite, all-seeing God, are utterly ignorant of these things. (171-2) 
In addition, the sinful heart is deceitful. Nothing is so deceitful as it.
There is great deceit in the dealings of men in the world; great deceit in their courses and contrivancies in reference to their affairs, private and public; great deceit in their words and actings: the world is full of deceit and fraud. But all this is nothing to the deceit that is in man’s own heart toward himself.(172) 
This involves the deceit of others, and especially self-deception. The heart’s deceitfulness is seen in the contradictoriness of the human character. ‘[I]n general, in respect of moral good and evil, duty or sin, it is so with the heart of every man,  - flaming hot, and key cold; weak, and yet stubborn; obstinate, and facile. The frame of the heart is ready to contradict itself every moment….none know what to expect from it. The rise of this is the disorder that is brought upon all its faculties by sin’. (173) And Owen proceeds to spell out these disorders  as they are expressed through the faculties of the soul.

The mind was at first subject to God, and all was orderly, harmonious. The mind being disturbed by sin, the rest of the faculties are at odds with each other.

The will chooseth not the good, which the mind discovers; the affections delight not in that which the will chooseth; but all jar and interfere, cross and rebel against each other. This we have got by our falling from God. Hence sometimes the will leads, the judgment follows. Yea, commonly the affections, that should attend upon all [i.e. be subordinate to] the understanding  get the sovereignty, and draw the whole soul captive after them.….Sometimes the mind retains its sovereignty, and the affections are in subjection, ready for its duty. This puts a good face upon things. Immediately the rebellion of the affections or the obstinacy of the will takes place and prevails, and the whole scene is changed. This, I say, makes the heart deceitful above all things. It agrees not at all in itself, is not constant to itself, hath no order that it is constant unto, is under no certain conduct that is stable; but, if I may so say, hath a rotation in itself, where ofttimes the feet lead and guide the whole. (173) 
This sort of analysis has consequences for our understanding of the character of the order which in the Fall became disorderly. For the original relationship of the understanding, will and affections has to be understood in terms of orderliness, not of metaphysical necessity.  Its pre-Fall nature and operations were not essential to the soul. The Fall was, metaphysically speaking, accidental, 'adventitious' was Calvin's word. But the fallen soul could not right itself, like someone who cannot regain his feet after slipping on the ice. Every effort he makes, he slips further. Sin was both the effect of disorder and the cause of further turmoil. The fallen walker has to be hauled up and made to stand.  The fallen soul likewise needs God's effective grace.

Did you ever hear a sermon on any of this? Or read a ‘Christian’ biography, or a biography of a Christian which took such turmoil into account? I mean, are there any such sermons or books produced nowadays? At the very least bearing these comments of Owen in mind might affect what TV programmes we watch. And what we read. Avoiding the facile and the trite, presented as the ‘realistic’,  the ‘true to life’,  the 'honest'. 

And the media, the politicians?

Friday, April 01, 2016

Did John Owen have two minds?

Dublin Castle

In this post I am interested in the mind of John Owen during the time when he was  part of Oliver Cromwell’s ‘leadership team’ as one of Cromwell’s chaplains, travelling with it as military strategy determined, to Ireland, and then to Scotland and so on. The period ends with his published sermon of 1656.

As Dean of Christ Church (1651)  and in the next year as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Owen would travel to Westminster  to preach to the Commons. He owed these positions to Cromwell. He had preached to the Commons earlier, indeed he had first come to Cromwell’s notice through a sermon preached there.  Such sermons were published at the command of the House.

Parallel with these duties Owen was also continuing the series of theological writings for which he is best known today. By the time he became part of Cromwell’s team he had put out A Display of Arminianism (1642) a critique of Arminian theolog.This shortish book, was in effect a defence of the ‘Five Points’ of the Synod of Dordt. Owen was 24. This was followed by Salus Electorum, better known to us as the Death of Death (1647), dedicated to the Earl of Warwick. 

In these books Owen took for granted what was (and is) a central aspect of the Reformed faith, the distinction between God’s secret decrees and his revealed will. In Chapter V  of A Display of Arminianism, ‘Whether the will and purpose of God may be resisted, and he be frustrate of his intentions’ Owen says that the secret will of God

is his eternal, unchangeable purpose concerning all things which he hath made, to be brought by certain means to their appointed ends….[the] eternal, constant, immutable will of God, whose order can neither be broken nor its law transgressed, so long as with him there is neither change nor shadow of turning. (X. 45. Volume and page references are to Goold) )

By contrast

The revealed will of God containeth not his purpose and decree, but our duty, - not what he will do according to his good pleasure, but what we should do if we will please him, and this, consisting in his word, his precepts and promises, belongeth to us and our children, that we may do the will of God.(X. 45)

Similarly in The Death of Death, he makes an application of the distinction to the duty and care of ministers of the gospel.

We must exactly distinguish between man’s duty and God’s purpose, there being no connection between them. The purpose and decree of God is not the rule of our duty; neither is the performance of our duty in doing what we are commanded any declaration of what is God’s purpose to do, or his decree that it should be done…A minister is not to make inquiry after, nor to trouble himself, those secrets of the eternal mind of God, namely, - whom he purposeth to save, and whom he hath sent Christ to die for in particular. (299-300)

So this is one mind of Owen, that of a budding seventeenth-century Orthodox puritan theologian.


We turn now to the evidence of the operation of Owen’s other mind; his own preaching as seen in the sermons preached before Parliament.. Of the 11 or so of Owen’s Commons sermons republished in Goold’s edition of Owen’s Works,  which are presumably all of them, I select two. The first  from Hebrews 12.27, entitled ‘The Shaking and Translating of Heaven and Earth’ was published in May 1649, having been preached for the Commons and ‘the residue of men that wait for the appearance of the Lord Jesus’.  The second sermon,  'The Steadfastness of the Promises',  was on Abraham who ‘staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief’.  There is some doubt as to when this was preached. If 1649, before Ireland, in 1650 after. I am assuming 1650. Now part of the inner circle, Owen preached as Cromwell returned from Ireland. Owen’s purpose, according to this address, was to encourage Parliament ‘to give glory to God, by steadfastness in believing, committing all your ways to him, with patience in well-doing, to the contempt of the most varnished appearances of carnal policy’. With Cromwell in Ireland, Owen had seen the ‘conquering sword of the Protector’ at first hand, had lived for some months in Dublin Castle (from where he signed off The Death of Christ) preached regularly in that city, and seen, he tells us,  the needs of the people and their hunger for the gospel. 


So there is Owen the theological writer and Owen the Commons preacher. The style of the sermons is different from that of his books, naturally. The sermons are biblical expositions based on a thorough exegesis of the chosen passage, and then with a ‘spiritual’ application, that is, (I take it) a general application to the Christian, and then usually 9as regards Commons sermons) a ‘temporal’ application to the events that were going on, the Civil War.

I shall try to justify the claim that Owen exhibits a mind in the preaching that is contradictory to or at least discordant with one important theological particular with his position in his first two books. I shall now try to establish this by looking briefly at his way of thinking about the will of God in these sermons.

The interest for us is in the applications to ‘temporals’, to what is before the House of Commons,  the conduct of the war. What do these events mean? What is going on? To start with, these further applications still fall under the meaning of the text. If in spirituals, ‘staggering’ is unbelief to be avoided and not unbelief to be cultivated, so the same text with the same meaning applies to temporals. Owen believed that the army’s feats are an expression of faith, but in the same way a prey to unbelief. In its application to temporals Owen supplements his appeal to his text with material from the Old Testament prophets, to the future of Israel and then their fulfilment in the Messianic age. So it comes about, Owen thinks,  that England, purged of popery, and of tyrannical monarchs, is the vanguard of God’s purposes for the culmination of these Messianic hopes. It is papistry that brought Ireland to spiritual darkness. Without a great deal of argument, but with a hurried parade of texts and fragments of texts from the prophets,  Owen confidently shows that he takes it for granted that this is so. His concern is that, knowing this,  the Commons should not  waver, nor rely on political chicanery. His stay in Dublin has brought him face to face with instances of need and of hunger and thirst for the gospel, and they will deliver Ireland and establish gospel ministries in it if they do not falter, staggering in unbelief. 

So we see Owen extending his understanding of the 'revealed things' to England by the way he uses this this prophetic material . He argues that these OT texts straightforwardly refer to England and to other such nations, though Owen does not mention any other, but he mentions past movements of reform that have been snuffed out by papal tyranny. So ‘nation’ in such OT prophets means - refers to - nations of the 17th century and onward, especially England, whose domestic and foreign policy is governed by Christian motives to extend Christ’s kingdom and to govern affairs non-tyrannically. He and his fellows are seeing the fulfilment of these prophecies in the English wars, and particularly in the overthrow of Papacy in Ireland, and the defeat of the Scottish Covenanters in Ireland too.  

Isn’t this surprising? Might we not have expected Owen the Independent (as he by now had become) to go in the other direction and interpret the ‘nations’ via  Peter’s description of the congregations of the early church as constituting a nation, that in the NT these words are to be understood in a metaphorical or extended sense?  He is totally silent on this side of things. So, OT in hand, Owen believes himself to offer the Commons a kind of prophetic encouragement, a picture of God's revealed will of England,  to renew its resolve for the work in hand, to fill in public details of what would conventionally have been regarded as among the secret things which belong unto the Lord our God.

For a few years, or perhaps only for a few months,  Owen thought he had received the key to God’s providence, his will for England and Ireland. He says in one place ‘Of the speedy accomplishment of all this I no way doubt.’ (VIII 268-9)

In the sermon on staggering Owen also refers to the revealed and secret will of God distinction, making the point that the promises of God ‘are not declarations of his secret purposes and intentions’ (227). Nevertheless ‘the promises of God do signify of his purposes, that the believer of them shall be the enjoyer of them’ …’The experience which we have of the mighty workings of God for the accomplishment of all his purposes gives light unto this thing.’(229) ’Look upon the affair of Ireland. The engagement of the great God of revenges against murder and treachery, the interest of the Lord Christ and his kingdom against the man of sin, furnished the undertakers with manifold promises to carry them out to a desired, a blessed end. Take now a brief view of some mountains of opposition that lie in the way against any success un that place; and hear the Lord saying to every one of them, ‘Who art thou, O great mountain? Before my people thou be made a plain.’ (Zech. iv.7).  Here he does resort to analogy, but within the framework of a literal understanding of the OT texts, and of their application to then-current events.

The Lord has promised that Ireland will be delivered, and delivered it shall be!

What happened to Owen’s theology can be explained in two phases. In the first phase  his understanding of the accepted Reformed understanding of the secret will and revealed will distinction changed shape during the Commons sermons. As we saw earlier the distinction, as Owen understood this, is between what God decrees, reserved to himself, and what he requires, his revelation. Owen extended the revealed will, the promises, from ‘generals’ to include the particular contemporary and future events in the British Isles about which he preached to the House of Commons, going beyond what he had said were secrets to include the unfolding events of the Civil war and their significance, and in particular to the military operations in Ireland.  He daringly attributed to what he said of these the character of God’s revealed purposes, long prophesied, in turn giving rise to Christian precepts.

It is likely that his relative youth, sudden promotion to Cromwell’s side, and the way of thinking exhibited in his sermons, had turned his mind. He believed he was in the cockpit of the unfolding of God’s plan for England, foretold by the prophets, and that he was their mouthpiece. The outcome was assured.

In the second phase, no doubt to his own horror and chagrin, events do not turn out as Owen was certain they would, though he never concedes as much in his Commons sermons, except perhaps in the silences in the last one, preached in 1659 following the death of His Highness the Lord Protector.

In his last Commons sermon, following Crowell's death,  England is still, according to  Owen, ‘a brand plucked out of the fire’.  The preacher is no long giving prophetic directions for the nation, but consolation to a remnant, of their temporal and spiritual preservation (VIII 458) like Israel in the wilderness. In the course of the sermon he couples godliness with prosperity, and setbacks with a loss of godliness and a popular contempt for it. ‘It was not by prudence of councils, or strength of armies above that of our enemies, that we prevailed; but faith and prayer.’ (465) There is still hope if we have Christ in our hearts, and an opposition to profaneness (467). Those who have Christ are to be encouraged, even though there are differences among them. The sermon, a very short one, closes on this note. Owen seems to be losing faith in his ability to read the mind of God.


Times changed. The last sermon of the Commonwealth period preached before the Commons was in 1659. Charles II was restored as Monarch in 1660, the Act of Uniformity passed in 1662, and John Owen, though not ejected, since he did not have a church living, became, along with thousands of others, a Dissenter. He was at this time 44. Owen’s time at the top table had come to an end.


Then followed the flow of books on which his fame chiefly rests. In none of them as far as I can see did he revisit those prophetic passages that he excitedly preached on before the Commons. Nor is there in these books any autobiographical reflections in which he admits to being self-deceived about the actings of the Lord in providence during the War. And perhaps to being knocked off balance by his sudden and unexpected promotion to Oliver’s side.  (I say nothing here about alleged events in Owen's life at this period suggesting that he had not quite lost his taste for the high life or the hope of regaining it.) Not for the first or last time did the Lord shock his people by bringing about what they did not expect. These omissions in Owen’s oeuvres are to readers of the later Owen a great pity, given that for him as much for as any other Puritan, the world had turned upside down, to use Christopher Hill’s words. More, perhaps, the world turned full circle, and Owen was again on the margins of affairs, as he was in his early years of ministry in Essex, despite his not very successful attempts with others (including with his erstwhile combatant Richard Baxter), to have Dissent unified and recognized, as the laws against dissenters were gradually relaxed. It would be fascinating to learn more about what, in his heart of hearts, he made of all this.

Among Owen’s  later works were the erudite, magisterial expositions of experimental Calvinism, of the chief doctrines of the Reformed faith on which Owen's reputation as a theologian largely rests. At work on these he was on safer ground than when he was composing sermons which claim to identify the unchangeable purpose of God with certain contemporary political and military events. What had happened?  His mind had understandably been knocked sideways first by the sudden promotion of becoming a member of the Lord Protector’s inner circle, and then a few years later knocked again by the death of Oliver, the rising clamour for the restoration of the monarchy, and by the Restoration itself and its consequences. In other respects, chastened and wiser, his mind seems to have recovered its earlier self.