John Owen and English Spirituality (Gribben)

by Crawford Gribben.

Crawford Gribben suggests, perhaps ironically, that John Owen’s life is shaped around a series of “defeats.” The major moments and triumphs of Owen’s life appear to have been frustrated: the godly republic, the vision of a godly university, and the failure of Independency.   Although this text is part of Oxford’s series on historical theology, is weighted more towards biography than to theology, though Gribben is capable of skillfully surveying Owen’s theological developments.  

Gribben writes: ““Owen looked back on a life of ‘service and duty,’ in which religious faith had been pitted against political doubt, and in which every success had been undone in defeat” (Gribben 262). Gribben gives considerable detail to Owen’s life in the Cromwellian era, both as a chaplain for the Irish invasion and as a courtier under Cromwell’s reign.  On Gribben’s reading Owen isn’t necessarily opposed to Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland, merely grieved at some of the (inevitable?) excesses of a shock-and-awe campaign.

What is even more shocking, though, is Owen’s hostility to Presbyterianism. He fully supported Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland (Granted, the Presbyterian’s decision to back the debauched pervert Charles II is fairly high on the stupidity list). Owen’s specific criticism of Scotland should be seen in the larger context of “exporting England’s revolution” (cited in Gribben 106). 

Much of Owen’s hostility to Scottish Presbyterianism owes to the latter’s view of a “National Religion.” He minces no words. “An unjust usurper had taken possession of this house, and kept it in bondage; —Satan had seized on it, and brought it, through the wrath of God, under his power” (Owen 8:298). 

The rest of Gribben’s narrative matches conventional accounts of Owen’s life.  Now to the theology.  One of the criticisms of the Goold edition of Owen’s works is that they are arranged topically rather than chronologically.  For example, “A Display of Arminianism,” one of Owen’s earliest works, is in the same volume as Death of Death.  

This is a fine volume that deals with many nuances of Owen’s life in a judicial and sensitive manner.  Gribben, perhaps unlike his topic, writes with an easy and engaging prose style.


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