Owen’s Polemical, Trinitarian Spirituality

communion with GodHistorian Richard Muller points out that if Reformed Orthodox theology had a “central-dogma”, contrary to most popular perceptions it wasn’t the doctrine of election, but that of the Trinity. That made intuitive sense to me when I read it. Even though I haven’t always been Reformed, the charge that it’s a sub-trinitarian tradition has never made sense to me.

Maybe that’s because one of the first books I read when I started getting into Reformed theology was John Owen’s Communion with the Triune God. In it, the Puritan giant’s main aim is to present his readers with an understanding of how we are called to communion and union with the Triune God. And not just the Trinity as “God in general.” Owen shows that we are also called to appreciate and commune with and worship each person distinctly in a manner appropriate them as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It’s really a phenomenally warm piece of Trinitarian devotional spirituality derived from sermons he preached to his congregation. I can tell you that it had a great impact on my spiritual life when I read it and I would recommend it highly.

What I didn’t know early on was that this wasn’t Owen’s only piece of Trinitarian theology. In fact, he’d written numerous volumes on it one way or another, including a number of heavily apologetic defenses like his lengthy Vindiciae Evangelicae, or the Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined  in which he refutes the Unitarians and Socinians as well as his later A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Trinity. These are far more technical and polemical (at least the former is) pieces aimed at dispelling error and refuting heretics carried out with great passion and meticulous care.

The thing that’s key for us to see, though, is that these two kinds of works are just two sides of the same coin.

Nowadays, it’s very common to distinguish between writers of “spirituality” and “pastoral theology” and those who care about defending doctrine and carrying out polemics. But this was far from the case for the Puritan writers like Owen and his contemporaries.

For them, the polemics protected the spirituality and the spirituality drove the polemics.

In fact, some historians like Paul Lim suggest it’s at least partially because of his polemical context that Owen was driven to pursue and lay out such a rich Trinitarian spirituality. At the time there was a tendency on the part of the Socinians (and even some Arminians) to downplay or denigrate the Trinity as useless, false, or not of fundamental importance, since it was spiritually impractical. And so authors like Owen pressed to give a counter-response and left us with rich treasures of devotional trinitarianism. You can see the same thing in Herman Witsius, for instance.

Of course, when you stop to take in the broad sweep of Church history, that can’t be too surprising. Doctrine is often clarified, developed, and re-appropriated best at precisely those times when it comes under pressure from skeptics. Without them we wouldn’t have the polemics or devotional spirituality of Athanasius on the deity of the Son, Basil on the Holy Spirit, Augustine on Grace, and on down the line we could go.

In the history of the Church and even in the Scriptures (Paul, John, Jesus, the OT prophets…), those who care most passionately for the true worship of God often end up being those who argue for it most forcefully, looking to cut off idolatry and protect true worship. Those theologians of the Church deeply invested in the spirituality of the Church have been the most passionate in her defense. In the long run, then, spirituality and polemics are not at odds.

Indeed, they actually fuel one another. Knowing the good defenses of the faith and key doctrines can often serve to make them more secure in our minds and hearts moving us to worship. At other times, worshiping in Spirit leads us to pursue a deeper knowledge of the truth, which includes its defense.

And this is why I think we should not always be dismayed or discouraged beyond comfort when doctrinal fights break out. Nor should we always avoid it for the sake of a false peace. Yes, there is something distressing about it. But we should take comfort in knowing that God can (and often will) bring great fruit from these episodes.

That said, I think there is an order which should be maintained in the long run. Polemics are conducted for the sake of worship, not the other way around. That should be obvious, and I doubt any would deny that explicitly. All the same, I think the distaste some people have for reading clear, polemical theology comes from encountering those who have made the argument the point.

Thankfully, John Owen doesn’t seem to have been one of them.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

3 thoughts on “Owen’s Polemical, Trinitarian Spirituality

  1. I read, and loved, this book at the beginning of the year. It was a great book to “cut your teeth” on, especially because the Puritans are considered so dull and intellectual. I have since found them extremely warm and experiential.

  2. Great article. I’ve found Owen’s comment in his preface to Vindiciae Evangelicae useful to see the link in Owen’s mind between polemical and practical theology:
    “That direction, in this kind, which with me is instar omnium, is for a diligent endeavour to have the power of the truths professed and contended for abiding upon our hearts, that we may not contend for notions, but what we have a practical acquaintance with in our own souls. When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth; when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us; when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for, – then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, against all the assaults of men. And without this all our contending is, as to ourselves, of no value. What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense of sweetness in my heart from hence that he is a God in covenant with my soul? What will it avail me to evince, by testimonies and arguments, that he hath made satisfaction for sin, if, through my unbelief, the wrath of God abideth on me, and I have no experience of my own being made the righteousness of God in him, – if I find not, in my standing before God, the excellency of having my sins imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to me? Will it be any advantage to me, in the issue, to profess and dispute that God works the conversion of a sinner by the irresistible grace of his Spirit, if I was never acquainted experimentally with the deadness and utter impotency to good, that opposition to the law of God, which is in my own soul by nature, with the efficacy of the exceeding greatness of the power of God in quickening, enlightening, and bringing forth the fruits of obedience in me? It is the power of truth in the heart alone that will make us cleave unto it indeed in an hour of temptation. Let us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel, for which we contend with these men, unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him.”
    John Owen, “The Preface to the Reader” in Vindiciae Evangelicae, The Works of John Owen, Ed. William H. Goold. Reprint. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 12:52.

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