Reformacja w Polsce, Reformation in Poland

Biblical Horizons Blog

James Jordan at

Biblical Horizons Feed

No. 83: Biblical Theology, by John Owen

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 83
March, 1996
Copyright 1996 Biblical Horizons

reviewed by James B. Jordan

Here for the first time in English is one of Owen’s most important Latin works, along with a short tract against the Quakers. This book has been widely publicized in Reformed circles, but because of its expense many have held off buying it. This review is meant as a guide.

First, the book is well bound in signatures, so that it lies flat. The type face is medium-sized and very pleasing. I only spotted one typographical error, a glaring one on page 769 where "fanaticism" is spelled "fanatacism."

Second, the translation is very smooth and readable. Evidently Owen’s Latin style is as clear as his English style is turgid. The six books are broken up into short chapters. Whether these are original or not I do not know, but they make for easy reading.

Third, the annotations are very good and helpful. I only wish they were not put at the back of the book. In this day of computer typesetting, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to try the reader’s patience with "end notes." Notes belong at the bottom of the page, where they can be accessed immediately.

Fourth, the price of $50.00 is not exorbitant when one considers the expenses of translating, the good binding, and the number of pages. Paper shot up in price last year, and for the present books will be more expensive than they were a couple of years ago.

Now, who wants this book? You probably don’t want it unless you are either an Owen completist or a student of Church history. Despite some of the promotional material I have seen, there is very little in this book to help the modern student deal with the Bible and theology. Pretty much everything in this book is standard fare, and is readily available elsewhere. Owen was writing to educate students, and much of this book is pretty basic.

What follows is in no way a criticism of Owen, and is in no way a criticism of Soli Deo Publications for putting out this important treatise in English. My only purpose in what follows is to let you know what is in this book so that you can decide whether you want to purchase it or not.

First, this is not a Biblical theology in the modern sense of tracing the history of the covenant. Rather, Owen is providing a history of theology, a history of views of God. Most of the book concerns the rise and development of various forms of paganism. Those parts that concern the Bible set out only very basic ideas about God, which then are contrasted with idolatry. We know a lot more about ancient idolatry now than was known in Owen’s day, so his discussion is pretty outdated.

Second, Owen’s treatise leads to a very pleasing blast against philosophy, to which we would all shout "Amen." Owen felt rightly that philosophy was the great corrupter of Christianity. He calls for us to be drunk on the Bible and nothing else. Oddly, throughout this entire book Owen makes his points by quoting ancient pagan writers far more frequently than he quotes the Bible! He would reply that he is gleaning the few threads of gold from the mass of straw. Here again, though, Christian discourse has advanced well beyond the stage of having to have a Greek or Roman writer substantiate our opinions.

Third, large parts of this book consist of excursi on interesting topics, but at this points Owen is again outdated. He argues for Hebrew as the original language from creation to Babel, and I think his arguments are sound.

He argues that Hebrew square letters have not changed from the time of Moses (after all, why would they change them; or better, how would they dare change them?). Owen’s argument is that the Hebrews used two alphabets (just as we do today: block and cursive). Engraved letters were cruder for use on coins and stone monuments, while letters written with ink were the same as modern Hebrew. This makes sense, as does the argument that the Jews would not have dared change the alphabet of the written word even if they had been inclined to do so (and it is rather hard to imagine a situation wherein a nation would change its alphabet!). So, Owen’s discussion is valuable, but is three centuries out of date. Archaeology has provided vastly more information to use in sorting out this question.

Owen argues for the antiquity of the vowel points and accents of the Hebrew text. His argument is that it makes no sense to have a written language without vowel signs. Here again, modern information will have to be taken into account in any discussion of this matter.

Fourth and finally, the last book of the treatise is basically an argument for the Puritan/sectarian notion that the Church is to be composed only of visible saints. This is an impossible ecclesiology, which requires that church leaders inspect the souls and lives of believers far beyond what the Bible allows.

So, now you know what is in this book, and you have a better idea of whether you want to lay out the expense of obtaining it.