An Explanation of the Role and Meaning of the Final Chapter:
"On the Study of Theology"
of John Owen's Treatise Titled:
Biblical Theology
The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth, In Six Books. In which are examined the origins and progress of both true and false religious worship, and the most notable declensions and revivals of the church, from the very beginning of the world.
With additional discussions on Universal Grace, the Rise of the Sciences, Bellarmine's Roman "Notes of the Church," the Origin of Writing, the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language, and its Vowel-Pointing, Translations of Sacred Scripture, Jewish Rites, and Other Matters.

The Thought of John Owen
CH 672/872
Dr. Carl Trueman
Winter 2002
Tim Black

  1. Introduction

The last chapter of John Owen's Biblical Theology is Owen's prophetic call to the church to continue in the faith once delivered to all the saints, by diligently committing ourselves to the study and practice of the gospel as Christ has revealed it through His Spirit speaking to us the words of scripture. It is Owen's final plea for the whole of the teaching of scripture to be allowed its full effect in the edification and sanctification of believers in the church, to the end of the age, and into eternity, to the final glory of God. It is his plea for the church to maintain the study of theology.

At the same time, this closing chapter to Owen's work stands as his implicit promise that God's word will not return void, but will accomplish what God has purposed. It is Owen's promise that in the end, the philosophy and empty deceit which is according to human tradition and according to the elemental spirits of the world will not prevail, but rather, the philosophy which is according to Christ--the gospel--that true theology will prevail unto the end. The gospel is triumphing over the ages-old traditions of unbelief, and the long run of human depravity, idolatry, corruption, and apostasy which even yet continues to threaten the church will be utterly and finally eradicated by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, implementing the revelation of Christ, to the glory of God the Father.

It is the certainty of this sovereign accomplishment of God's eternal purposes and the necessity of its accomplishment through the responsible activity of believers which gives Owen reason to conclude his work with a discussion "On the Study of Theology."

  1. John Owen's Epistle to the Reader

Owen gives a hint that this is his aim on the first pages of the work. (xxii-xxiii) He writes,

"Of course, when there is serious consideration of those truths whose spiritual light grows daily more towards the perfect day, that enemy will find the more ways of displaying his ferocity. Nevertheless, the blinding prejudices which, for so many ages, clouded the minds of men and held them back from such an enterprise, have at last been dissipated in our generation so that we can hold out the highest hope that, relying as we do upon Divine strength and enabling to illuminate holy subjects, we shall not be cheated of our desired aim....We can rest assured that infinite wisdom, which controls all things, will always check-mate the vices of mortal men so that their puny efforts can never interrupt the onflowing of the ages and wonderful interactions of Providence in its predetermined paths. I can see no reason, therefore, why anyone who has begun this enterprise should abandon it through fear of opposition or surrender to malice."

Owen has in view the progressive revelation of "those truths whose spiritual light grows daily more toward the perfect day"--that is, the progressive revelation of theology, truth about God. Owen describes this progressive revelation as God's activity, the working of Providence, and he makes it clear that God carries out this activity sovereignly, such that His revelatory activity will not be thwarted. Owen also has in view the work of the "enemy," whose goal is to thwart God's revelatory activity, and who achieves some relative success in blinding and clouding men's minds. It would appear from his comments later in the work that what Owen means by "our generation" is twofold: on the one hand, the deceptions of the evil one are defeated in the age of the gospel under the New Covenant in Christ, because in Christ the veil that was over the hearts of the Old Covenant community is lifted, and as such, "our generation" refers to all Christians in the time since Christ's first coming. On the other hand, in Owen's view, the accretions of pagan philosophy since Christ's time had finally been cast aside more fully and completely than before, and the pure gospel had once again begun to be preached from scripture, in the days of the Reformation, and as such, "our generation" refers to the time since the Reformation. For these two reasons--the New Covenant's triumphant power of the gospel and the Reformation's restoration of its pure preaching--Owen holds that the church has every hope for the continued revelation and reception of theology "daily more towards the perfect day." Owen's hope for "our generation," conceived in New Covenantal and Reformational terms, is specifically an eschatological hope. The New Covenant shines the light of the gospel more brightly than ever before, as does the Reformation, and both are tools in the hand of God as He progressively reveals the gospel-truth which Owen terms "theology." But not only are they mere tools; they are new stages in God's activity, such that with each new stage, our hope in the triumph of the gospel grows even greater. Because of the New Covenant, we know that the perfect day will come. Because of the Reformation, we know even more today that the final revelation and reception of the gospel--to the end of history--will come.

Owen's work, now titled Biblical Theology, has at the center of its concern God's own revelatory activity. But equally central to its concern is man's responsible activity of receiving God's revelation. Man not merely receives the sovereign work of the Spirit, but is actively engaged in pursuing that knowledge, light, illumination, revelation, and truth which God reveals to man's mind and implements in his life. This responsible activity is precisely what Owen has in mind in his phrase "the study of theology." The study of theology is man's active, responsible reception of God's sovereignly-administered revelation. Owen speaks of this in the quote above as "serious consideration of those truths," "such an enterprise," and "our aim," and in view of the progress of God's sovereign revelatory activity Owen exhorts "anyone who has begun this enterprise" not to "abandon it through fear of opposition or surrender to malice." That is to say, man is by no means passive in the reception of God's activity. Most interestingly, Owen seems to equate God's activity with man's; he switches almost seamlessly from speaking of God's activity to speaking of man's activity; they are for him the two sides of the one coin of the revelation and reception of true theology.

The implications of this are quite interesting. Owen is arguing that no summary of the history of revelation is complete without a full discussion of the reception of that revelation. It is for this reason that Owen goes into such great detail in the body of the work describing the extensive suppression, rejection of, and rebellion against true theology. It is not enough to summarize the content of the theology revealed. God's dealings with man involve and include man's dealings with God. They are the two sides of one coin. If man does not receive God's revelation, then God has not revealed. Owen is constantly concerned about the implementation of theology in the life of the believer. Unless the truths contained in the divine mind which are revealed through Christ are fully implemented by the Spirit in the sanctification of God's people, the whole process of revelation is not complete. God's word will have returned void. It will have failed to accomplish its purpose.

But in Owen's eschatology, God declares the end from the beginning, and His word will not fail. He will be exalted in the earth, in the lives of His people. "We can rest assured that infinite wisdom, which controls all things, will always check-mate the vices of mortal men so that their puny efforts can never interrupt the onflowing of the ages and wonderful interactions of Providence in its predetermined paths." On the basis of this certainty that God will reach His final goal of implementing His truth and wisdom in the lives of His people, Owen declares that we have both a motivation and an obligation to diligently carry out the study of theology. We have the most pressing of motivations to work out our theology, because God will not fail in His work in us. And, at the same time, we have the most pressing of obligations, because God's goal of revealing His glory must take place through our responsible activity. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling, because it is God who is at work in us to will and to act according to His good pleasure. "...we can hold out the highest hope that, relying as we do upon Divine strength and enabling to illuminate holy subjects, we shall not be cheated of our desired aim." This is to say, the perfect day will only come through both the sovereign activity of God, and the responsible activity of man. Owen's eschatology not only provides the ground of man's obligations and motivations in the study of theology, but further draws up within itself man's responsible activity as a necessary component and dynamic through which its progress runs on to completion, and without which the consummation of history and the goal of God's glory will not be accomplished. The study of theology is the means to the end of history. The study of theology is absolutely essential to Owen's eschatology.

This is why Owen's Biblical Theology ends with a discussion "On the Study of Theology."

  1. The Body of the Work

    1. In Summary

Owen's work is divided into six books. Owen explains:

"When I first set myself to writing this work, I had no other plan than to expound, for your Christian consideration, some themes concerning the nature of gospel theology. What I had prepared for this purpose you will find consigned to the last part of this volume [Book VI, Evangelical Theology]. But what I found necessary to preface to their exposition which in the beginning I had expected to be done with briefly, has grown into the size you see. In fact, this is not at all out of keeping with our great subject, although it was never planned for." (xlix)

He goes on to summarize the contents of books I-V,1 then explains book VI:

"In the final section, I attempt an exposition of gospel theology itself. I have explained from the Scriptures what gospel theology is, wherein its nature lies, who alone are fitted for the study of it, how and by what method they might achieve it, what are their most likely stumbling blocks, and all this together with a consideration of the nature, establishment, and progress of true churches founded upon true theology." (xlix-l)

And he concludes with a mention of the chapter we are considering:

"A dissertation on the methodology of theological study concludes the work. Learned reader, it is up to you whether you deal with this work summarily, or fairly-and-squarely, with the effort it requires. To me, it matters not if only you will keep in mind the gospel instruction, Matthew 7:21. It is the substance of the Gospel that you must study, not catch-phrases or fine words." (l)

It "matters not" to Owen whether we read the whole treatise carefully--though that is what it requires of us--so long as we study and learn "the substance of the Gospel." This is Owen's opposition to the philosophical systems of theology which amount to unbiblical theology, or, better, no true theology at all. Owen does not want us to memorize his book, else his whole argument would be in vain. Rather, he wants us to learn and live out the gospel, to "do the will of My Father." (Matt. 7:21) From the outset, the goal of Owen's whole argument, the goal of the revelation in scripture, and the goal of the history of God's revelatory activity, has been that the gospel would be implemented in the lives of God's people, bringing about a holy life of union and communion with God in Christ. It is precisely the kind of theology and philosophy--any system of reasoned truth--which is devoid of this holy communion with God through the gospel, which Owen has portrayed as the absolute enemy of the gospel. Owen wants at all costs to prevent his treatise from creating another technically proficient pagan. Rather, Owen wants his treatise to drive us to the gospel of Christ, and as a result, to help maintain the church's faithfulness to God to the end of the age.

    1. Explained Just A Little

The simple explanation of what goes on in the body of Owen's treatise is that he describes the origin of true theology at creation, its perversion in the fall, its reinstatement after the fall, and then the successive departures from it and reinstatements of it throughout the course of history leading up to the New Covenant in Christ. Owen describes the progressive development of two lines in human history, especially, in the thought and worship of man. The first line is the line of faithfulness. The second line, which seems to receive more emphasis throughout the treatise, is the line of unfaithfulness. This second line is variously described. It is first called the fall, and total depravity. Natural theology, the knowledge of God which was instated at creation and which continued after the fall under the regime of total depravity, was insufficient to bring man salvation and thereby restoration to communion with God. Yet, fallen man's tendency has always been to attempt to construct his own gospel, his own theology, his own means of salvation, to bring about the restoration of the knowledge of God in communion with Him. This is the origin of the long history of pagan philosophy: it is a failed attempt on the basis of this lingering natural theology to restore man's state at creation.

"As conscience is so wavering and uncertain a guide, the better class of philosophers were stirred by the external revelations of God which witness to all thinking minds to attempt an advance from these basics towards a better understanding of God and the human condition. From their results, we can at once see that they themselves were, to a large degree, ignorant of the driving force impelling them to do this. Being equipped with carefully worked out techniques of reasoning, it was natural that they would use this type of intellectual activity for their theology, as it were, by a disciplined mental groping after God. This is the true origin of philosophy.

To put it another way, philosophy is an off-shoot from the true inborn theology of our first ancestor before the fall, amplified by the revelation proclaimed by the works of God, refined by deep intellectual speculation, but always lacking the elements needed to deal with the fatal handicap of sin. If true philosophy is to know God and worship Him aright, then we can say that Adam, the first man, had a perfect philosophy before his fall." (85)

"Our conclusion is thus, that philosophy had at first no other end but an attempted restoration of primeval theology from its collapsed and ruined state through the overwhelming onset of sin. This was the road on which the thinking part of humanity embarked in its attempt to repair the breach." (87)

Owen clearly makes allowance for a good kind of philosophy, and says that this good philosophy is none other than true theology. But his emphasis here, and throughout the treatise, is that the evil systems of unbelieving thought are absolutely opposed to the gospel, and to true theology, and that we may appropriately consider the term "philosophy" to refer to them more than to anything else. Owen holds, then, that since the fall, the progress of God's revelation of true theology has always been opposed by a growing line of unfaithfulness, which is well summarized as unbelieving philosophy.

This unbelieving philosophy was at first described as the fall, and total depravity, in the period from Adam to Noah. (Book I, ch.'s 5-9) In the period from Noah to Abraham, this unbelieving philosophy is described as "idolatry." Owen spends 12 chapters (!!!) discussing idolatry, all titled "The Origin and Progress of Idolatry." (Book III, ch.'s 3-14) In the period from Moses to Christ, this unfaithful line is described as "corruption," in 10 chapters (!) titled "The Corruption and Solemn Restoration of Mosaic Theology." (Book V, ch.'s 1-10) Lastly, at the end of this period, the unfaithful line is termed "apostacy," in 3 chapters titled "The Final Apostacy of the Jewish Church." (Book V, ch.'s 14-16) These discussions of the unfaithful line are interspersed with periodic revivals of true theology, and true religion.

But as Owen indicated in his Epistle to the Reader, this treatise only comes into its own as it begins to discuss the gospel in Book VI, titled "Evangelical Theology" (which is also the title of each of that book's first 8 chapters; all but the last, "On the Study of Theology.") In Christ a watershed change has occurred. Owen "would utterly reject the implication that their [the Jews'] faithlessness could in any way negate the faithfulness of God Himself, even when Jewish apostasy was driving that people out from the ranks of the true followers of God." (597) Christ brings the perfection of God's revelation, and the perfect reception of that revelation. "...that only may be said to be evangelical theology which the Son of God brought in and taught in His own person when He came forth from the bosom of the Father. He alone was the true and unique Author of this theology, and He made it what is it--the final and perfect revelation from God." (593) Yet the line of apostasy continues. It sought to reject Christ, it was combated by the apostles and prophets of the New Covenant, and it crept into the church throughout the successive ages following Christ. It remains a real and present danger today. It is for this reason that theology must be studied in the right way, with the right method. Owen cries,

"Oh, may God open the eyes of scholars to see that the issues of theology are totally different from the aims of philosophy, and that its study necessitates a different attitude of mind, another disposition of character, an new heart, than those with which they have been accustomed to approach the whole round of human learning!" (592)

In true theology, "all of its propositions are set out in a phraseology which is plain and open to human reasoning," (605) and "has nothing at all in it which exceeds the purely intellectual capability of natural men," and

"...the entirety of divine truth has been revealed in Scripture by our Lord Jesus Christ, and such is theology, if we take the term in its very widest signification. It contains propositions which are capable of systematic arrangement, and its content is open to human intellects. These revealed propositions, along with such conclusions as may legitimately be drawn from them, may be reduced to a written system and made the source material for a discipline of study. But all of this is Christian philosophy, and still lacks the hallmarks of theology in its narrower and inner signification." (607)

"Such theology I deny to be Christian theology properly so called, and men so trained, even though they attain the ultimate peak of subtlety in their craft, are still but Christian-philosophers and are by no means gospel theologians. I shall show at greater length later on that I have not pronounced this verdict lightly. Let it suffice at this point, as it were in passing, to point out the heads of reasoning by which I prove that the learning I have described is not true theology, and that the reasonings of those who are trained to it alone, but are devoid of the sanctification of the Holy Spirit, have shown them not to be true theologians." (608-609)

The line of unfaithfulness has stretched even into the theologians of the church, and threatens to destroy the church. For Owen, only the regenerate,

"...only the saved have any share in, or are capable of, true gospel theology, and all others who boast of its study may be relegated to the other, unsaved, philosophico-theological class. All that has gone before in this work was intended to underpin this truth...." (613)

"...the purpose of all true theology" is "doing, the things commanded by Christ," and "Another end of all true theology is the cultivation of a most holy and sweet communion with God, wherein lies the true happiness of mankind." "The ultimate end of true theology is the celebration of the praise of God, and His glory and grace in the eternal salvation of sinners." (618) "...that theology a spiritual grace, or rather a combination of spiritual graces." (636) "To know Him that is true--that is theology; and, if it is not, then I here declare my total ignorance of what it is!" (638)

Owen's discussion of the true nature of evangelical theology has now brought us to the close of Book VI, chapter 8. What remains is for Owen to briefly recount the history of God's revelatory work following the first coming of Christ leading up to Owen's present day, and to plot the course for the ages to come leading up to Christ's return.

Owen treats the progress of the revelation and reception of true theology subsequent to Christ's coming by inserting a "Digression on the Mingling of Philosophy with Theology." He traces the outlines of the church's and humanity's sinful apostatizing from the truth, and the continuing encroachment of pagan philosophy upon that truth even as it is found in the church and the halls of theological academia, even in Reformed churches and theologians. He concludes with some praise for the Reformation, and a call for a revival of faithfulness to the pure gospel-theology in the present day:

"In the last century, it pleased God to bring in a reformation of the churches in several European nations, and they in turn began to radiate the light and truth of Christ by preaching the gospel in its power and simplicity. At the same time, it became an abomination and an object of hatred to many good an pious men to see the hold that the schools and academies of philosophy had over the minds of men. But now, with the passing of the years, whether the learned men and the teachers of the Reformed churches have remained free from the contagion is something that each must decide for himself." (677-678)

"And, with this, agrees Erasmus, 'All of the signs seem to indicate a new and most prosperous phase for the church. One thing alone grips my soul, which is this, that pagan literature, under the guise of ancient wisdom, may again raise its head in the church.'

And thus it has been since the beginning of the Reformation. A philosophical method of teaching spiritual matters is alien to the gospel! Christians were quite strangers to philosophy in the days of the Apostles. Let the surviving writings of the earlier Christians be consulted and they will be seen to have handled their theology in a quite different manner to our recent theologians. In this the ancient way is the far better way." (679)

"Can we not acknowledge that it is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit which alone can free men's minds from the bondage of inherited prejudices and the meshes of philosophy, and pluck up by the roots that 'science falsely so called' which has hithertofore played so great a part in their education? Will men learn to turn their backs on the theorems of the crowds of would-be teachers, and look again to the sole aid of the Holy Spirit? Let us pray for an outpouring of the Spirit in this matter!" (684)

With this final plea for the church to flee back to a sole reliance on the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit in revealing true gospel theology to the minds of men, Owen turns to his final chapter, a discussion of man's responsible reception of God's sovereign revelation: "On the Study of Theology."

  1. On the Study of Theology

In this final chapter Owen first declares his project: he seeks to "consider briefly what are the true principles for the study of theology and, in a word, how a man my [sic] become a gospel student." (685) Owen's intent is not "to attack...the usually established course of theological studies,....the schools and the theological academies,....teaching methods and systems," or "supply...a book list or...scheme of reading." (685-686) Rather, he says,

"I have elsewhere displayed at length and refuted that false scholarship which aims at hacking and hewing spiritual truths to make them fit the capricious rules laid out for man's arts and sciences, and displayed, I trust satisfactorily, how this subject is a divine and extra-human one and so cannot be confined to such narrow academic limits. All true theology demands from its students a totally different kind of mental light, and other frames of mind and principles of intellect than those required for the pursuit of all secular arts, sciences, and philosophies. If you wish to be adept in this spiritual wisdom, you must daily cultivate a holy communion with God in the mystery of His gospel through the merits of Jesus Christ, and you must know by experience the power and efficiency of saving truths. These are not matters which are planted in the mind by nature or which can be gained by any amount of intellectual effort or activity! Illumination of heart, the infusion of spiritual discernment and wisdom, the revelation of the mysteries of the kingdom of Christ by the means of the Holy Spirit, the passage from outer darkness into the most wondrous light of Christ, a right to share in the wonders of wisdom and knowledge which are hidden in the Savior; what are these but empty and abhorrent words to human philosophy? Yet they are the very origin and mainstay, the pith and the marrow, of our subject!" (686)

Theology must only be learned by the diligent cultivation of "a holy communion with God," and this must be combined with knowing "by experience the power and efficiency of saving truths." It must be received responsibly by the student, through diligent activity. Yet at the same time, it is only the effect of the powerful and efficient working of the Spirit on the student's mind. God's sovereignty and man's responsibility remain perfectly at home with one another, and Owen recognizes that for the errors of sinful philosophy to be purged from the church, he must exhort theological students to diligently and responsibly cling to the means of grace, to grow in their sanctification. Else the perfect day will not come.

After describing the general project he is after, Owen makes some preliminary remarks, going on to define what he means by a "theologian," and what true "theology" is:

"He in whom these gifts are found--the light of salvation illuminating his mind and preparing it for perception of Gospel truths, and the indwelling of the Holy spirit to fan and nourish that light into a warm blaze, clarifying to his understanding the verities of the Bible and above all preparing him for a career of preaching to others that salvation which he himself has experienced by race-this and this alone is the theologian which I would discuss.

True theology, therefore is nothing but the disciplined efforts of the student's intellect (directed according to the rule of Scripture) to enhance and improve those inner spiritual gifts and saving light which constitute true, heavenly wisdom." (688)

It is significant to note that this concern to define what theology is, and what a true theologian is, was Owen's concern at the beginning of the whole treatise, in its first chapter, on pages 2 and following. That is to say, the final chapter truly is the conclusion of the work as a whole; this discussion of the study of theology is the end toward which the whole treatise has been aiming. Apostate and apostatizing philosophy must be banished from the church, by means of the faithful and diligent reception of God's true theology by true theologians. This alone is the means God has appointed for sovereignly bringing about the final goal of the whole history of His revelation.

He continues, stating that his concern is specifically the use of theology in the ministry of the gospel. Theology must be studied especially by those who have a solemn vocation and call from God to do so, and who are elected and appointed by the church to use their gifts in ministry to the members of the church.

Owen goes on to give a "summary overview of the necessary qualifications for making worthwhile progress in the study of theology." "Preparatory studies in the arts and sciences," especially "Grammatical" (including "familiarity with the Scriptural languages"), "Logical and Rhetorical," are certainly helpful, but not Owen's concern. "Other fields of learning" (690) falling under the categories of history and language are helpful, resulting in "mental training," "powers of conceptual thought," and "intellectual discernment." (691) The things which can cause the student to gain "An ill-formed and partial knowledge of these principles" are an "innate laziness," "lacking any real vocation or ultimate objective," a "lack of skilled oversight and direction," fear of the "difficulties" and "obscurities" surrounding "truly useful knowledge," and "simple ignorance of the true nature and true object of all the arts and sciences" (not salvation; only the gospel can achieve that) (692). Owen recommends that the student should constantly guide his studies with his ultimate end and objective in view. He warns against learning and absorbing systematic theologies "without thinking out truth for himself," and studying the "fathers," "scholastic theologians," or "modern divines," or "philosophically-based systems of theology." (693) The student should always keep the end of true theology in mind:

"What is it that true theology aims at? To gain understanding and wisdom in gospel mysteries by experience of personal knowledge of God in Christ, to gain an insight into the marvels of God's plans and covenants through the ages, and to experience and partake of spiritual worship and obedient faith. These things should them be the steadfast aim of any gospel student as he considers the choices of means and materials at his disposal."

"Let a man appoint himself this goal, experiencing communion with the Holy Spirit and steadily rejecting all reliance on his own strength and nature, and strictly allow himself the use of no helps but such as are truly in keeping with his goal, and in all proceed with due reverence and awe, and that man's studies will certainly receive the Lord's blessing and prosper." (694)

To this end, recalling what he has demonstrated, "that all spiritual truth which God has revealed is contained in the Scriptures, and that our true wisdom is based upon spiritual understanding of these Biblical truths," (694) Owen exhorts the student of theology that "...diligent reading of the scriptures, and holy meditation upon them, is of absolute necessity for all aspirants to theology." (694-695)

He digresses for a moment to treat some "factors which have a tendency to frighten off and discourage some minds from the serious study of the Scriptures:"

"Many think that it is impossible for them to gain a right and clear understanding of the Scriptures, and consider them to be full of great difficulties and impenetrable mysteries, beyond the wit of man to unravel. This is simply the result of one thing--a lack of faith." (696)

"Some seem to be offended by the style, others offended by the content." (697)

"Next, there are those who find it hard to believe that the knowledge which they desire to be filled with, and which they dig so hard for in the writings of the scholars, might be had at first hand from the Scriptures." (697-698)

"Further, those who do not fix their gaze on God, and will not flee to Him for His help, really and truly deprive themselves of the very aid and support without which no one can study the Scriptures aright; for Christ had promised the aid of His Spirit only to those who sincerely worship the Father." (698)

"Many men experience a determined reluctance of soul to the cultivation of a personal relationship with God. This is a result of indwelling sin." "...this will affect all human writings on the subject of theology...." "This tendency should always be contrasted to the content of the Scriptures themselves in which the soul is brought directly into contact with the Almighty, who is ever their concern." "For this reason, we see so many who emerge from a period of study of theology as mere worldly philosophers and not true gospel theologians wise in the things of Christ." (698-699)

May it never be!

Owen continues with some "...further details of the type of theology which alone I insist on." First, the student should bear in mind that

"...the all-holy God is, in an special manner, close to him as he works." "Thus...the gospel student will be overcome with due humility...and will conduct his studies with proper reverence...." (699)

"Second, it is in the student's own interest that he carefully weigh up and monitor what progress he is making both (a) in all the truth which he is busy digging out of the Word, and (b) in acceptable worship of God....Their study should always be conducted in order to learn from them our duty and, understanding that, let it proceed to practice holy communion with God as we experience to the depths of our souls the power of the Spirit mightily manifesting in us His grace and light. Our studies are useless if they do not teach us about our own standing before God and our Lord Jesus Christ as it is revealed in the light of the Spirit and the Scriptures." (700)

"Third, the student of theology must demonstrate by his life the absolute authority of the Scriptures, and show himself devoutly submitting his own will and judgment to the authority of the Bible in all matters." (700)

"Fourth, a great help for the investigation of truth is the diligent study of the Holy Scriptures in those languages in which they were written by the Holy Spirit."

"Fifth, all of these activities, and any others of similar nature, are always to be preceded, accompanied, and closed by continuous and heart-felt prayer." (701)

Owen concludes with some final considerations:

"In all things, we should keep in mind that any true wisdom which we gain comes by God's own gift." (701)

He warns that faithless students remain ignorant, don't pray, lack the Spirit, and have turned their backs on Him, crudely joking about godliness. On the other hand, faithful souls enjoy communion with God, understanding of the things of the gospel, in prayer and fellowship with the saints, growing into the image of Christ. And as a final means to his growth in understanding the mind of God as revealed in the scriptures,

"In addition to his studies, let the student keep up a regular and godly connection with those who practice holiness and true religion as demonstrated by gospel standards....Living interaction with saints and believers is essential to the student. It will sharpen, by exercise and practice, those spiritual gifts on which true gospel wisdom is founded, and that wisdom itself will be strengthened and increased by the holy practice." (703)

The final goal of all theology is its practice in a life of growing sanctification, in the body of believers. For this reason, Owen had stated at the very beginning of this treatise, "I would, therefore, with Eusebius, prefer to call the subject with which I am to deal 'Ecclesiastical Theology.'" (6) We do well to recall the ethical emphasis of Owen's "Ecclesiastical" means to understanding the mind of God revealed in the Scripture;2 here again, Owen prefers to understand the goal of all theology to be its ethical implementation in the lives of believers. Only thus will God's eternal purpose redounding to His own glory be accomplished. Christ will sanctify His bride to Himself, and the Holy Spirit will make a holy dwelling for Himself among us. God will bring about the end of history, both its telos and its eschatos, through the responsible holy activity of His people, in the church.

Owen concludes the treatise with two one-sentence paragraphs. They summarize the focus of the whole treatise:

"Such service is the essential inner nature of theology itself.

It is also ordained by the gracious will and decree of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself!" (703)

That is to say, the practice of holiness and true religion in the life of the church "is the essential nature of theology itself." In His self-revelation, what God is revealing and implementing in His people is His own worship. Theology is nothing if it is not doxology, bringing glory to God the Father, through the person, work and revelation of Christ as conveyed to us through Scripture, and the direct implementation of God's worship in His people by the Spirit. This was the essence and the goal of the first theology revealed before the fall, and even more than that, it was the eternal "will and decree of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself!"

  1. Conclusion

This, then, is John Owen's Biblical Theology, from beginning to end, arche to telos, protos to eschatos. Its goal, but also its beginning and even essential nature, is the study of theology, which in the end, is nothing other than the pure worship of God, according to His word. It is this worshipful study which God Himself ordained, and which He himself sovereignly accomplishes, through our responsible reception of the gospel-theology He reveals in His word. May we study to show ourselves approved unto God, rightly handling the word of truth, that until the end of the age, and on into eternity, we may forever behold the glorious revelation of God the Father in the face of Christ.


Ferguson, Sinclair B. John Owen on the Christian Life. (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987).

Owen, John. The Works of John Owen. Vol. 4 Ed. William H. Goold. (Original: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-53; Reprint: Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967).

Owen, John. Biblical Theology, or, The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth, In Six Books. In which are examined the origins and progress of both true and false religious worship, and the most notable declensions and revivals of the church, from the very beginning of the world. With additional discussions on Universal Grace, the Rise of the Sciences, Bellarmine's Roman "Notes of the Church," the Origin of Writing, the Antiquity of the Hebrew Language, and its Vowel-Pointing, Translations of Sacred Scripture, Jewish Rites, and Other Matters. An English interpretation from the Latin text of William Goold, D.D., by Stephen P. Westcott. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994). First published 1661.

Trueman, Carl R. The Claims of Truth: John Owen's Trinitarian Theology. (Carlisle, Cumbria, U.K.: Paternoster Press, 1998).

1"I do not think it necessary here to review at any length the whole order and arrangement of the work point by point. I will simply sum it all up. I decided, after a preliminary statement concerning the name and nature of theology, to record the advances made in various ways by divine revelation, paying particular attention to the historical order of events, splitting it into its important phases since the first appearance of true theology and, also, recording the defections of many from the truth and the errors resulting therefrom, the various corruptions in the worship of the Church, judged by the standard set by revelation, the many falls of the ancient church, and its restorations by grace. This would conclude with the last and final rejecting of Judaism.

After I had embarked on tis plan, many points requiring consideration emerged, particularly the famous Reformation of the Jewish Church by Ezra after the Captivity. This led to a full discussion of the antiquities and rites of that ancient church." (xlix)

2Found in John Owen, SUNESIS PNEUMATIKH, or, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein; and A Declaration of the Perspicuity of the Scriptures, with the External Means of the Interpretation of Them, The Works of John Owen. Vol. 4 Ed. William H. Goold. (Original: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-53; Reprint: Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967).