An Analysis and Clarification of John Owen's Treatise Titled:
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 Thought of John Owen
CH 672/872
Dr. Carl Trueman
Winter 2002
Tim Black

  1. Introduction

In his treatise titled 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, John Owen summarizes his understanding of biblical hermeneutics. The title is a distillation of the key points of Owen's hermeneutical system: Owen divides his system into 3 parts: causes, ways, and means. The goal to which each of these 3 parts leads is spiritual understanding. Owen aims his discussion as a polemic against Rome's elevation of the church over scripture, and Quakerism's elevation of the "inner light" over scripture, by declaring that scripture is perspicuous so long as the external means of its interpretation are properly employed.

In what follows I will summarize and clarify Owen's hermeneutical method as outlined in this title, by arguing that Owen's system is structured throughout by the threefold pattern of a biblical metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

  1. Heuristic Foil: Henry Krabbendam's Hermeneutics

I first read Owen's treatise in 1998 as an assignment in a hermeneutics course under Dr. Henry Krabbendam at Covenant College. Krabbendam considered Owen's treatise to be the best treatment of what Krabbendam considers to be the last of the three systematic loci of hermeneutics: the understanding of scripture. The three loci of hermeneutics, in Krabbendam's perspective, are the phenomenon of scripture, the interpretation of scripture, and the understanding of scripture. Krabbendam's threefold distinction itself is structured by the pattern of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, in that relative to the Christian as the subject who interprets God's revelation in scripture, scripture as a phenomenon--as well as the revelation conveyed through it, and the God and His knowledge which are communicated through that revelation--is an object of study, and in that regard is a metaphysical entity. Further, the interpretation of scripture takes place in an epistemological manner. Lastly, the understanding of scripture is an ethical activity, involving the whole life of the interpreter.

Early on I noticed some similarities between Krabbendam's metaphysics-epistemology-ethics structure and Owen's hermeneutics, but initially the similarities did not seem great enough to claim that Owen was systematically concerned with the issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics to any great extent. However, upon further analysis and reflection, this structure has become more plainly apparent throughout the whole of Owen's hermeneutics. The present paper can only demonstrate this structure's pervasive presence in Owen's hermeneutics; later projects could seek to determine the extent to which Krabbendam's use of the structure, and his system of hermeneutics, is derived from Owen's hermeneutics.

  1. Point of Entry: Means

The first place where I noticed a similarity was in Owen's third area of discussion: the 3 means conducive to reading and understanding scripture, and thereby understanding the mind of God revealed therein. He discusses these means in the last 3 chapters of the treatise. He has used the term "means" to describe scripture already, but here he describes those means "which are prescribed in a way of duty" (ed.'s note, 199), or "the especial duties required of us in compliance with" "the especial ways of the teaching of the Holy Spirit" in the scriptures (Owen, 152). These are the primary means Owen has in view when he speaks of "means." Owen categorizes these means under 3 heads: spiritual, disciplinary, and ecclesiastical. Before discussing the means under these 3 heads, he discusses the "general and absolutely necessary" means: "diligent reading of the Scripture, with a sedate, rational consideration of what we read." (199) Then, under the 3 heads, he discusses the means which "consist in the due improvement thereof." (199)

    1. Spiritual, Disciplinary, Ecclesiastical

The spiritual means are: "fervent and earnest prayer for the assistance of the Spirit of God revealing the mind of God," (201) "Readiness to receive impressions from divine truths," (205) "Practical obedience," "A constant design for growth and a progress in knowledge," (206) and "ordinances of spiritual worship." (207)

The disciplinary means, "as consisting in the due use and improvement of common arts and the application of them unto the interpretation of the Scripture" (209) are: "knowledge of and skill in the languages wherein the Scripture was originally written," (210) "An acquaintance with the history and geography of the world and with chronology," (219) and "skill in the ways and methods of reasoning." (223)

The ecclesiastical means, " the ministry of the church in all ages," are: "1. Catholic or universal tradition; 2. Consent of the fathers; 3. The endeavours of any persons holy and learned who have gone before us in the investigation of the truth, and expressed their minds in writing, for the edification of others, whether of old or of late." (226) At the beginning of his discussion, Owen declares these three ecclesiastical means as if each of them should be used, but then in his discussion of each of the means, he argues against the use of the first two, and argues for the use of the third means alone.1

    1. Reflection

      1. Owen's 3 Means Compared with the Means of Grace

Note that these 3 means are parallel to the traditional Reformed understanding of the 3 "means of grace:" prayer, the preaching and hearing of the word, and the administration and reception of the sacraments. The connection with the first two means of grace is more obvious: the spiritual means are headed up by prayer, and have to do quite directly with our spiritual dependence upon God, and His S/spiritual work in us. And the disciplinary means center around the technical study of scripture. But what is the connection between the ecclesiastical means and the sacraments? The answer lies in the first two ecclesiastical means the use of which Owen argues against: universal church tradition, and the consent of the fathers. Each of these two have been considered authoritative at times by those in the Catholic tradition in connection with the sacerdotal view of the church, that the church and its ministry is a necessary mediator, even an agent, that indispensably controls the dispensation of God's grace and the work of the Spirit. As such, the (supposedly) universal tradition of the church, especially as expressed in its ecumenical councils, but also as expressed in the common consent of the fathers, and in the continued declarations of the Pope, has been considered to be the final earthly authority in controlling the interpretation of Scripture. The conclusion of sacerdotalism is that the (universal) church's interpretation of scripture is the authoritative interpretation; the church is in authority over scripture; scripture is not in authority over the church. The Reformers generally rejected the sacerdotal view, but even by Owen's time it is understandable that the Reformed would continue to perceive a connection between the teaching of the church and the sacraments of the church, as means of grace. Owen clearly rejects the sacerdotal view, but in doing so he retains this connection: specifically, he considers the benefit of the endeavors of other holy and learned persons to be as much a real application or implementation of the Holy Spirit's work in and through the life of His church as are the sacraments. To draw on the insights of other theologians is to benefit from the Spirit's work in His church; in Owen's perspective, what is most significant about other theologians in this context is not that they draw upon the spiritual means of communion with God, or the technical disciplines of interpreting scripture, but that they are the product of the Holy Spirit's work in the church.

      1. Expanding the Scope of Our Inquiry

        1. Distinguishing the Means

This observation begins to bring into focus the whole scope of Owen's hermeneutics as discussed in this treatise, but even further, the whole scope of Owen's theology. We are drawn to ask what distinguishes the ecclesiastical character of this third means from the disciplinary and spiritual character of the first two means. It appears fairly apparent that in Owen's perspective, the distinctive contribution of other theologians cannot be that they provide certain technical skill, methodologies, or even knowledge of the sense and meaning of particular passages of scripture; this is what Owen generally associates with the disciplinary means. Likewise, the distinctive contribution of other theologians cannot be that they provide a certain spiritual connection to God, or even that they have themselves drawn upon this spiritual connection with God. Yet, we must grant that Owen certainly does believe the spiritual connection with God and the disciplinary skill and knowledge of those theologians is of the greatest benefit to the student who studies the writings of those theologians.

        1. Foiled Again

So what, then, is the distinctive contribution of other theologians? What is at the heart of the ecclesiastical means? Before answering that question, first let us remember the heuristic foil mentioned above: Krabbendam holds that the three loci of hermeneutics are centered around the (metaphysical) phenomenon, the (epistemological) interpretation, and the (ethical) understanding of scripture. Could this pattern be involved in Owen's thought, too? Second, let us recall that Owen's title for this treatise emphasizes that the final goal toward which all he discusses is what he terms "understanding." Because Krabbendam views understanding to be an ethical activity, we should consider whether or not Owen does as well. The first part of Owen's title is "Spiritual understanding," highlighting his emphasis that the Holy Spirit, through our spiritual connection with God, is the cause, working in several ways, utilizing certain means, to the final end of implementing in us a "Spiritual understanding." But here we anticipate already some of what will be discussed below.

        1. The Ecclesiastical Is Ethical

Taking into consideration the title of the work, and remembering Owen's constant emphasis on the goal of the implementation of a Spirit-worked "understanding," we are led to recognize that the distinctive contribution of other theologians to which Owen points us in this third "ecclesiastical" means is that by virtue of their exercise of the first two (spiritual and disciplinary) means, the Holy Spirit has implemented in such theologians the kind of understanding to which end these means are intended to lead. The Holy Spirit has effected a change in these theologians' lives, holistically considered. Not only are these theologians spiritual men (holy), not only are they disciplinarian scholars (learned), but they are men of sanctified lives. Their sanctification of life, worked by the Holy Spirit, binds together and is the ultimate fruit of their exercise of the spiritual and disciplinarian means of coming to understand the mind of God as revealed in the scriptures. This is what is of chief concern in the ecclesiastical means: the Holy Spirit-sanctified life of other members of the church, on which fruitful effect of the work of the Spirit we draw when we read the books of other theologians. In the context of Owen's thought, which we are just beginning to unfold, the ecclesiastical means, because of the centrality of sanctification of life to the understanding which is at its heart, is distinctively ethical in nature.

        1. The Means Reconsidered

We are led to ask, then, if the first two means themselves are respectively metaphysical and epistemological in character. Indeed, they are. This is more readily apparent in regard to the disciplinary means: they have to do with the methods, manners, modes, and content of thought, of thinking, as that thinking is directed toward coming to understand what God reveals in scripture. The spiritual means are less obviously metaphysical in character, but in the context of Owen's thought, described below, their metaphysical character will become more apparent. For the present, let it suffice to note that the spiritual means seek to find and depend upon God as the divine source from which the truth revealed in scripture originates. As such, the spiritual means seeks to find what lies behind or prior to the epistemological revelation: God Himself.

  1. Unfolding the Systematic Structure: Causes, Ways, and Means

    1. General threefold structure

Our discussion, then, is pressing on toward the broader scope of Owen's theology. The beginnings of the pattern of metaphysics-epistemology-ethics have begun to become apparent in Owen's discussion of the means by which we may come to understand the mind of God as revealed in Scripture. But it is the thesis of this paper that this pattern is not confined merely to Owen's discussion of the means utilized in his understanding of hermeneutics, but rather, as will become apparent, this pattern is found throughout the whole of Owen's hermeneutical system, and even throughout the whole of his system of theology. But let us first discuss his hermeneutics.

    1. Question: What Are the Causes, Ways, and Means?

For some time the title of Owen's treatise puzzled me. It states that the treatise discusses the causes, ways, and means of understanding the mind of God as revealed in Scripture. But what are the causes, ways, and means? Owen is quite clear about what he believes the cause to be; on p. 124 he introduces the main outlines of his treatise:

"In answer unto the inquiry proposed concerning the knowledge and understanding of believers in the mind of God as revealed in the Scriptures, I shall consider,--

First, The principal efficient cause; and, secondly, All the means, internal and external, which are appointed of God thereunto.

As to the first of these, or the principal efficient cause of the due knowledge and understanding of the will of God in the Scripture, it is the Holy Spirit of God himself alone;...."

So, it is very clear what the "cause" is which Owen has in view. But, we may ask, what is his answer to the second of these? What are the "means?" Out of character for him in this treatise, Owen doesn't explicitly specify what the means are which he has in view. He gives a "First," but not a "Second!" He does, however, go on in the following two paragraphs to describe the work of the Spirit, and the manner we understand and "way" the Spirit teaches: through our reason, and through our minds. We might ask further, if Owen is mentioning the "ways" here, why does he not specify what the "means" are as well? If he is speaking of the "means" which he mentioned just previously ("secondly"), is he also discussing the "ways?" This is all a bit confusing (...but won't be at the end of this paper!) Will the outline of his treatise be twofold, as he says here, or threefold, as his title "causes, ways, and means" would indicate?

We might confer with the outline of the treatise: the treatise is divided into 9 chapters. The (editor's?) outline of the treatise at the beginning of the volume does not mention the word "ways," but does mention that the Spirit is the principal efficient cause, and while it uses the word "means" in reference to chapter VI, it indicates quite clearly that chapters VII - IX are the ones that specifically speak of the "means" which Owen has in view.

We should further confer with the editor's outline or "Analysis" of the treatise given as part of the "Prefatory Note" at the beginning of the treatise. (118) Following Owen's statement we quoted above, the editor groups the chapters into two main sections, the first dealing with the Holy Spirit as the "EFFICIENT CAUSE," and the second with "the MEANS for the understanding of Scripture...."

Owen's statements introducing the chapters and indicating the major divisions of the text also might seem to follow this outline. The most obvious and striking transition in the treatise is between ch. VI and ch. VII. What rises most obviously is the distinction between the "Holy Spirit" and the "means." Ch. VI ends with:

"And these are the heads of the work of the Holy Spirit....There yet remains the consideration of what he doth, or what help he affords unto us, in the actual application of our minds unto the understanding and interpretation of the word; and this respecteth the means which we are to make use of unto that end and purpose; and these also shall be briefly declared." (199)

Ch. VII begins with:

"The means to be used...." (199)

We might note that several times in the treatise, Owen distinguishes between the "cause" on the one hand, and the "ways and means" grouped together on the other. (123, 146, 187) Does Owen mean to say that ways and means are not so distinct from one another, but rather are simply another way of referring to the "means" employed by the Spirit?

Ferguson does not clearly indicate what the "ways" are, but does clearly outline the means. (196-199) He does speak of the Spirit as the cause of understanding, though he does not employ the term "cause," (196-197) and does speak of the "way," "manner," and "method" used by the Spirit in revelation and working illumination in men's minds, but does not make it clear he is describing the "ways" of Owen's title. (198) He does more pointedly speak of "the means by which the word is understood" in his discussion of Owen's means. (198) One comes away with the same impression one can get from Owen's treatise: that Owen speaks of the Holy Spirit as the cause, continues to describe the work of the Holy Spirit, then describes the means man must employ, but does not clearly and separately treat the "ways" which he mentions in his title.

Trueman's main discussion of this treatise, on pp. 84-90, outlines the means but does not discuss in detail the causes and ways.

Perhaps the best of scholarship on Owen, then, and even Owen himself, would outline Owen's hermeneutics following this twofold division between causes and means.

But is this truly Owen's outline? It is not. He declares at the beginning that he will speak also of the "ways" of understanding the mind of God revealed in the Scripture, and that is what he sets out to do. He speaks of the causes, ways, and means, each clearly, and each distinctly. Once the reader begins to see the threefold structure of causes, ways, and means which Owen lays out in this treatise, and the underlying structure of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, the pattern begins to appear on nearly every page of Owen's treatise. It is absolutely pervasive.

    1. The Outline of the Treatise

We should pay closer attention to the outline of the whole treatise. It clearly does evidence the threefold structure of causes, ways, and means. It is not adequate to say that it evidences only a twofold structure of causes and means, with the primary division falling between chapter VI and chapter VII. Let's examine that division again.

      1. The Central 3 Chapters

As was mentioned earlier, that division clearly functions to transition into the last three chapters' discussion of the means of understanding the mind of God as revealed in the scriptures. But notice its reference to what has just transpired: what has just been described is not in fact the Spirit as the cause of the understanding under consideration, but rather, it is the work of the Spirit which has just been discussed. That work is divided into two parts: "the work of the Holy Spirit on our minds and on the Scriptures," and note that they were "considered distinctly and apart...." (199) What Owen is doing here is stating the outline of chapters IV - VI. They deal with the work of the Spirit 1) on our minds, and 2) on the Scriptures. As such, he is distinguishing those central 3 chapters from the 3 chapters that precede them and from the 3 that follow them. What then is the central concern in the central 3 chapters? The answer is that they concern the Holy Spirit's epistemological work as that centers around the interpretation of scripture.

This is apparent in the introductions and conclusions of those chapters. Owen introduces chapter VI by saying:

"We have, as I suppose, sufficiently confirmed our first general assertion, concerning the necessity of an especial work of the Holy Ghost....That which we proceed unto is, to show the especial nature of his work herein...." (161)

Here Owen states that in the first 3 chapters, he has confirmed from scripture the necessity of the Holy Spirit as the principal efficient cause of the understanding of God's mind revealed in the scripture. He then says that what will ensue is a discussion of the nature of that work. Later on the same page he states that the Spirit's work is to "render all our use of proper means for the right interpretation of the Scripture in a way of duty indispensably necessary...." (Emphasis his) His concern in this is the ways to the interpretation of scripture. At the end of the chapter, he adds that he treated "what are the effects of it [that work] on our minds." (173)

In chapter V, then, Owen goes on to discuss the "causes and reasons of that ignorance and those misapprehensions of the mind of God as revealed [in the scripture]..., and how our minds are delivered from them." (174) The concern is still the mind of man in relation to the Scripture, and the nature and manner of the Holy Spirit's work upon the mind of man through and in regard to the Scripture. The concern remains epistemological.

At the beginning of chapter VI, Owen states that "There is yet another part of the work of the Holy Spirit with respect to the illumination of our minds...and this concerneth the Scripture itself; for this he hath so given out and so disposed of as that it should be a moral way or means for the communication of divine revelations unto the minds of men...." (187) Here, finally, Owen describes this central section of his treatise as having to do with "ways." Specifically, they are "ways...for...communication." They are epistemological manners, modes, means, pathways, ways, because they are for communication. They accomplish a transmission of epistemological content from an origin to a goal, from a communicator to a recipient of communication, from God to man. From the Cause, through the way, into the means, unto the end. The Cause is God or the Spirit, the way is His revelation in all its forms, the means are the means of grace, the end is understanding, the sanctification of life.

Owen states further on the same page that "the Holy Spirit of God hath prepared and disposed of the Scripture so as it might be a most sufficient and absolutely perfect way and means of communicating unto our minds that saving knowledge of God and his will which is needful that we may live unto him, and come unto the enjoyment of him in his glory." Again, scripture is a way. It is an epistemological way.

      1. The First and Last Sets of 3 Chapters

What remains is for us to recognize the metaphysical character of the causes, and the ethical character of the means.

        1. Means

Let us treat the means first, since we began with them in this paper. The means are "the actual application of our minds unto the understanding and interpretation of the word; and this respecteth the means which we are to make use of unto that end and purpose...." (199) As such they are the activity of man. They are the means of grace, hermeneutically considered. They are not the enlightening of the mind, or the communicative vehicle of the scriptures. They are man's activity, which are man's duty to perform. As such they are ethical.

Note also the clear ethical tones on p. 122:

"My principle design is, to manifest that every believer may, in the due use of the means appointed of God for that end, attain unto such a full assurance of understanding in the truth, or all that knowledge of the mind and will of God revealed in the Scripture, which is sufficient to direct him in the life of God, to deliver him from the dangers of ignorance, darkness, and error, and to conduct him unto blessedness."

Note Owen's words, "...understanding in the truth...which is sufficient to direct him in the life of God...." We see that it is either understanding or the truth which is sufficient to direct the believer in life. It is best to understand this to mean that the truth is what directs the believer in life, and that "understanding in the truth" is equivalent to the truth directing the believer in life. That is to say, understanding and (truth-directed) life are effectively equivalent in this sentence. This is the understanding of life. Note that this understanding of life is distinguished from knowledge, and from truth, for the truth is specified as "all that knowledge of the mind and will of God revealed in the Scripture." This is to say, the understanding in view is something other than mere ideas, factual or cognitive content; in other words, it is something more than merely epistemological in nature. It has to do with the way the truth "is sufficient to direct [the believer] in the life of God...." This understanding is equivalent to being "directed in life" by the truth. It has in view not cognitive content, or even the mental act of grasping or otherwise receiving that cognitive content, but rather, it has in view the impact the truth has on one's life. What is implicit here is that the truth directs the believer's actions, his ethical activity; his ethically-active life which is the believer's actions which are capable of being directed by the truth revealed to him in scripture.

In support of this conclusion, Ferguson, p. 184 notes:

"John Owen's theology was carved out of a tradition which employed the philosophical categories of means and ends to describe the work of salvation: 'The end is the first, principal, moving cause of the whole'; 'the means are all those things which are used for the attaining of the end proposed'."

And, "As God has employed means for our justification, so he employs means for our sanctification. These are the 'means of grace.'"

To me, this answers some of my initial questions. The end is the understanding of life. The means are the means listed in the text. They are the means of grace, means to the end of a sanctified life. This further highlights the ethical character of the understanding of life which Owen has in view: it is "understanding" in the sense of sanctification; it is an understanding of God's revealed truth not just by a human mind, but by a whole human life. It is the full-orbed application and reception of God's revelation, of His mind, and even, of God Himself, in the life of the believer.

Clearly, then, the means have ethical activity in view.

        1. Causes

Next, let us consider the causes. Owen states quite clearly in his title that what is primarily to be understood in any hermeneutical endeavor is "the mind of God." He repeats this throughout the treatise. In his discussion of the Holy Spirit as the principal efficient cause of this understanding, Owen is quite clear that while what is communicated is the truth or the "wonderful things" revealed in God's word (127-142), the object which is understood is first and foremost the "mind of God." Owen means this quite literally in an ontological sense; it is not just that we come to understand God's knowledge, but we come to understand God's very being itself. Owen states this point succinctly on p. 140: "He is a 'Spirit of wisdom' essentially in himself, and causally or efficiently unto others; and these things do mutually demonstrate each other." The wisdom the Spirit conveys, is the wisdom the Spirit is. It is the being of God Himself which we come to understand, nothing less. Owen is intent to make this connection; this is the connection that must be made for his whole hermeneutical system to accomplish its task; GOD must reveal Himself to man; man must be made to understand GOD, throughout the whole scope of man's life. As such, we see that Owen's emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the principal efficient cause of understanding the mind of God as revealed in the scripture is eminently metaphysical in focus; its concern is the very being of God, God's ontology; even--as we will see briefly later--even the ontological trinity.

      1. The Outline

We come, then, to see the whole outline of the treatise. It is divided into three sections, each containing three chapters. The first three chapters discuss the causes, the second three chapters the ways, and the last three chapters the means. The causes are metaphysical, the ways epistemological, the means ethical. Here, then, is the outline of the treatise:

        1. Causes: The Holy Spirit as the metaphysical cause of spiritual understanding:

          • I: The treatise summarized

          • II: The Holy Spirit as principal efficient cause confirmed from scripture

          • III: The Holy Spirit as principal efficient cause confirmed from scripture

        2. Ways: Epistemological work of the Holy Spirit: the ways of giving spiritual understanding, regarding the interpretation of Scripture:

          • IV: Work of the Holy Spirit on our minds: Its nature in particular: Enlightening the the eyes of our understandings. Its effect: understanding.

          • V: Work of the Holy Spirit on our minds: Ignorance of Scripture, and the removal of such ignorance

          • VI: Work of the Holy Spirit on the Scriptures

        3. Means: Ethical implementation of the work of the Holy Spirit: the means of giving spiritual understanding:

          • VII: Spiritual means

          • VIII: Disciplinary means

          • IX: Ecclesiastical means

What becomes apparent in this is that the basic structure of metaphysics-epistemology-ethics, which first appeared in Owen's discussion of the means, now is clearly the basic structure which governs the whole of Owen's hermeneutics as he outlines it in this treatise.

  1. The Inner Workings of the Structure

Now that the basic outline of this metaphysics-epistemology-ethics structure in Owen's hermeneutics has been revealed, many questions could arise about its details. A basic question that strikes me is, why does Owen emphasize so strongly that there is one principal efficient Cause with which he is concerned, namely, the Holy Spirit, but yet Owen titles his treatise using the plural form "Causes?" Are there more Causes than one? Similarly, why does he speak of plural ways and means?

The answer lies in the fact that Owen sees more than one way of using this threefold structure. The structure is a theoretical framework that can be filled with the content of different parts of Owen's system. It is relative; what is a cause in one perspective is a way or means in another perspective. So, there are plural causes, ways, and means. Let me explain.

    1. A Relative Structure

There is a sense in which the causes are first the Spirit, and then the ways and means employed by the Spirit are also themselves causes relative to further-more-subordinate ways and means. And it is further true in Owen's view that the ways are both ways and means. In fact, each of these terms could just as well apply to the content discussed under each of the other terms, so long as their order (causes, ways, means) is maintained. For example, if we take the perspective of the trinitarian vision in Owen's thought, such that the Father is active through the Son and the both of them are active by the Spirit, we see that the Son is the Father's way of coming into a mediated union and communion with man (or the other way around--man's way of gaining access to the Father), and the Spirit is the Father and the Son's means to that same end. Likewise, taking the perspective where the Son is considered to be the cause, the Spirit is the Son's way of granting understanding, and the scripture or the other means listed by Owen as such (spiritual, disciplinary, ecclesiastical) are the means to that same end.

So Owen says on p. 145, "It is true that the doctrine of the gospel, in the preaching of it, is the means or instrumental cause of this teaching by the Holy Ghost; and on that account what is spoken of the teaching of the Spirit of God may be spoken, in its place, of the doctrine of the gospel, because he teacheth us thereby." In the context Owen is arguing over against the Socinians that the Spirit is the principal and efficient cause of His own teaching. In order to distinguish the Spirit as the principal and efficient cause, Owen concedes that the teaching of the Spirit as it is contained and conveyed in the doctrine of the gospel, in its preaching (and in context, its inscripturation), can properly be spoken of as a "cause" so long as it is understood as an instrumental cause, where the scripture-teaching of the Spirit is the instrument of the Spirit's own activity, such that the Spirit remains the primary agent involved in the activity; the principal and efficient cause. But as such, as an instrumental cause, Owen is also willing to call scripture ('s teaching) a "means!" This is the definition of an instrumental cause; it is a means employed by an agent as the principal cause relative to the causal character of that means. What is a way or means from one perspective is a cause from another perspective. We are drawn to admit that the structure of causes, ways, and means appears to be relative; a cause is relative to its ways and means, ways are relative to their causes and means, means are relative to their causes and ways.

Owen says on p. 149, while explaining "how or by what means [believers] have an assurance that they have a right understanding of the things which they are so taught"--that is to say, here, under a discussion of the means to understanding, Owen states that "The manner and way of his teaching us in and by the Scripture evidenceth unto us that what we are taught 'is truth, and is no lie.'" In other words, the Spirit's revelation through Scripture is the way to understanding, and as such, it also becomes a means to that same understanding.2 What is a way from one perspective is a means from another perspective.

    1. Nesting Structure

This is all to say that the structure does not only evidence an aspect of being a relative order that can be laid over different threefold groupings of the same content, but it is also to say that the structure evidences a certain nesting characteristic, such that everything that flows from a cause can be conceived of as a cause in itself in relation to the effects flowing from that original cause, and everything leading up to or flowing from a way can be conceived of as a way itself in relation to that original way (a way to or from that original way), and everything leading up to a means can be conceived of as a means itself to the final means. Everything subordinate (e.g., a way) to one element (e.g., a cause) takes on the character (causality) of that element, and everything superior (e.g., a cause) to one element (e.g., a way) can be conceived of as granting to the original element (e.g., the way) its originally-conceived character (e.g., way-ness, epistemological transmission or modality). This is why Owen is so willing to call the ways "ways and means," and the means "ways and means;" this is why he is willing to apply these terms in a diverse and sometimes surprising manner.

    1. The Structure Is Grounded, Rooted, Not Arbitrary

This all would seem to make Owen's application of the terms "Causes, ways, and means" somewhat more arbitrary than it seemed at first. But it is not arbitrary, for Owen has a definite set of referents in mind to which alone this relative and nested structure may be applied. It is just that there are more than 3 referents, and though their relations all follow the pattern of "causes, ways, and means," there are more than 3 elements to relate, necessitating a more complex usage of these categories. The referents Owen has in mind are arranged along a direct line stretching between its two ends--the first end of the line of referents is God, the second end of the line of referents is man. More specifically, the first end of the referents is God in His transcendence, beyond all revelation, His mind, but even beyond that, as is brought to view by Owen's understanding of the economic trinity, the beginning of the first end of the line of referents could easily be understood to be the Father (as opposed to the other two members of the trinity), but as the economic trinity remains secondary to the ontological trinity in Owen, it is the ontological trinity, the being of God, which is in the end the most ultimate and final pole at the head of this line of referents. From this origin in the being of God, especially construed as the "mind" of God in this treatise, runs a long chain of referents that extends down to man. And, at the very end of the line of referents is the ethical activity of man. The many elements that lay between these two extreme poles constitute the contents to which Owen alternatively selects to apply these 3 categories. Owen selects many combinations of these elements as the referents of these 3 categories, and has more referents in mind than I can list here. But here is a representative list: God, mind, truth, Father-Son-Spirit, revelation, scripture, interpretation, understanding: belief, duty: suffer cheerfully, honourably, peacefully, with comfort, joy, assurance, confidence. Again, many other referents could be listed, from nearly every page of this treatise. Again, the pattern is pervasive.

In view is that the line of referents has much to do with the process of revelation which lies at its center. God is revealing Himself to man. That is to say, epistemology is of central concern in this line of referents. Trueman notes: "These, the opening lines of Owen's treatise...point directly to the heart of his theology in terms of its principle of knowing: the Scriptures." (64) But while epistemology is of central concern, the two ends of the line are equally as important to Owen; the metaphysical being of God, and the ethical activity of man. It is only if GOD is revealed that understanding can occur. And it is only if God is understood in the whole breadth and depth of all the ethical activity of man, in man's sanctification, in man's life; it is only if man's perfect and complete holiness of life is the final result of this revelation process that the revelation has occurred properly, that man lives as he should before God, and that God in the end is fully glorified and enjoyed.

The relative character of Owen's use of these systematic categories is in no way a weakness in his system. In fact, it is precisely the strength of his system; it is directly conjoined to what enables Owen to be so systematic. It is the very pervasiveness of the pattern of causes, ways, and means, or more broadly, of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, that is at the heart of the systematic structure of Owen's thought. But, there is one structure, perhaps, which is more central. It is to that structure we now turn.

  1. The Foundational Structure: God the Father, God the Son in Revelation, God the Spirit in Man's Understanding/Sanctification/Life

    1. Doctrinal Content: God, Revelation, Man's Understanding/Sanctification/Life

As becomes apparent in the line of referents utilized in Owen's treatise, the central doctrinal content to which the treatise points is first God as the source and cause of all His revelation, second, God's revelation as the revelation of His mind and its truth to man through scripture as it focuses on Christ, and third, man's understanding of God's mind as it is revealed in scripture, an understanding which is equivalent to man's sanctification, or man's ethical life.

    1. Theoretical Framework: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics

The more abstract structure which permeates this doctrinal content is that of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. What is of chief concern regarding God is His being, God as the being who is truth and wisdom essentially, and only as such can be the source and cause of all truth and wisdom that is revealed. What is of chief concern regarding God's revelation through Scripture is that it is an epistemological revelation; it involves the communication of this truth and wisdom in a mentally-comprehensible, cognitive fashion, and can be appropriated by man by the full and normal use of his (Spirit-sanctified and enabled) rational faculties. And, what is of chief concern regarding God's working understanding in man through the means to which man ought to responsibly, diligently, dutifully apply his fullest efforts, is the ethical character (implicitly of God's activity, and explicitly) of man's activity, and man's life. The cause is metaphysical, the ways are epistemological, and the means, and the ends, are ethical.

    1. The Trinity Is The Basis of This Structure in Owen

Trueman argues that at the very heart of Owen's theology is his doctrine of the trinity. Everything Owen taught was an attempt to trace out the implications of the trinity throughout the whole scope of Christian theology. "Owen's teaching on Scripture should be understood as an attempt to work out the implications of a number of other doctrines, such as Trinity, Christology, and providence, for the cognitive foundations of the Christian faith." (Trueman, 65) Owen himself explicitly relates his discussion of the Holy Spirit's work in this treatise to the broader work of the Spirit, and to his whole trinitarian structure, on p. 139: "That the Holy Spirit is the immediate author of all supernatural effects and operations in us hath been elsewhere proved at large." Note that then he goes on to mention that the "grant" of the Spirit to us "proceeds from his [the Father's] relation unto us in Christ...." The broader trinitarian structure is in view as the background for the hermeneutical structure found within this treatise.

This is to say, Owen conceives of the Father's role in hermeneutics, and more broadly in theology, as having a relatively metaphysical character. He is God, over all, transcendent and fully sufficient unto and within Himself. The Father is immanent in the creation, don't mistake Owen on this, but He is only immanent through the revelatory work of Christ the Mediator. And, Christ the Mediator is only immanent in the creation through the direct activity of the Spirit as the direct agent of all divine activity in creation. As such, the Son's role is to reveal the Father; the Son has a relatively epistemological role to play. And likewise, the Spirit actively, directly, and morally implements the ethical activity of God immanent in creation, certainly in bringing about the metaphysical construction of the creation, and the epistemological revelation of God in it, but especially by carrying out God's "most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all God's creatures, and all their actions,"3 as that comes to its most prominent, important, and vivid expression in the ethical activity of man. The Father is associated with metaphysics, the Son with epistemology, the Spirit with ethics.

Let us remember here that in Owen's view, it is only because all three persons of the Godhead are fully and equally God, and because they mutually indwell one another, that they can carry out these economic functions. In other words, the Father is not the only person in the trinity who is truly God over all, transcendent, and self-sufficient. In regard to the ontological trinity, each person is equally in that same position. Yet in regard to the roles and functions of the economic trinity, the Father carries that role more than the other persons. What these last observations bring to light, however, is of the utmost importance: For Owen, the ontological trinity is the final ground upon which the economic trinity, and the whole of Christian theology is built. It is the source, the root, the foundation of Owen's whole theological system, and we might well admit, of truly Christian theology as a whole.

    1. This Pattern Is The Sum of Owen's Theology

With these considerations in view, Ferguson's comment on p. 198 are most appropriate: "In this way, the process of coming to understand the mind of God in Scripture is a miniature of the whole Christian experience." We might add to that, not only is it a miniature, a summary, of the whole Christian life, but further it is the pattern which is reflected throughout even the most minute details of Christianity, at least as expressed in Owen's treatise under consideration. Nearly every summary statement in Owen's treatise follows this threefold pattern, and nearly every paragraph either details one element of the threefold pattern or mentions some or all of its elements. Owen's treatise is like one giant fractal, or a well-cut gem; you can see the whole at any magnification. Just consider a few examples from the text bracketed numbers are mine, indicating which element is in view, with [1] standing for Owen's biblical metaphysics, [2] standing for his biblical epistemology, and [3] standing for his biblical ethics):

From the first lines of the treatise: "[3] Our belief [2] of the Scriptures [1] to be the word of God...and [3] our understanding [1] of the mind and will of God [2] as revealed in them...." (121)

"[1] That which now lieth before us is, the vindication of the right of all believers unto the other spring also, or [3] a right understanding [1] of the mind and will of God [2] as revealed in the Scripture, [3] suitably unto the duty that [1] God [2] requireth of them in their several capacities and conditions." (122)

"[2] What is necessary unto the interpretation of difficult places and passages in the Scripture...." (122)

"[3] And there is not any truth of greater importance for men to be established in; for unless they have a full assurance of understanding in themselves, unless they hold to a full persuasion...undergo any suffering...perform any duty...assured,...infallible way and" (123)

"[1] There is an especial work of the Spirit of God on the minds of men, [1/2] communicating spiritual wisdom, light, and understanding unto them, [2/3] necessary unto their discerning and apprehending aright [1] the mind of God [2] in his word, and the understanding of [1/2] the mysteries of [1/2] heavenly truth [2] contained therein." (124-125)

"[3] The assured knowledge of [1] the truths of the gospel [2] as they are revealed therein." (146)

Once the pervasiveness of this structure is recognized, Owen's scattered uses of the term "way" begin to take on their systematic significance:

"[3] And an assurance hereof ariseth in our minds partly from [2] the manner of his teachings, and partly from [1/2/3] the evidence of the things themselves that we are taught. [2] The manner and way of his teaching us in and by the scripture [3] evidenceth unto us that [1] what we are taught 'is truth, and is no lie.'" (149)


"But although [2] the ways whereby [3] we may come unto a participation of [1] the teaching of the Holy Ghost [3] seem at first [2/3] rough and uneasy, yet unto [3] all that engage in [2] them they will [3] be found to be '[2] ways of [3] pleasantness and [2] paths [3] of peace.'" (155)

The pattern shows up elsewhere in Owen's thought, as well, however. This structure is reflected again in Owen's view of the inspiration of scripture. Ferguson mentions on p. 187:4

"Three elements are involved in inspiration: [1] the minds of the writers were inspired with the knowledge of the things communicated to them; [2] words were provided to express these apprehensions of God's revelation; [3] and their tongues or pens were guided in the setting down or telling forth of what had thus been revealed. By these means the Scriptures were kept from human imperfection."

  1. Conclusion

It should be apparent, then, that Owen's hermeneutical system is clearly patterned after the structure of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. By virtue of this, but beyond this, Owen's hermeneutics evidences the clear marks of his broader trinitarian theology. Krabbendam considers hermeneutics to provide an outline that integrates and relates all of the theological disciplines. At the very least, we can say that Owen's discussion of his hermeneutics of spiritual understanding provides a window into the whole of his theology; even into its source, method, and practical outworking: its causes, ways, and means. Let us then take the insight of this learned and holy man to our study of scripture, in order that we too may come to understand the incredible riches of wisdom and knowledge of God the Father, through the power of the Spirit, in the face of Christ Jesus our Lord. To Him be the glory, forever!


Works Cited

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).

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

1"3. We say, therefore, that the sole use of ecclesiastical means in the interpretation of the Scripture is in the due consideration and improvement of that light, knowledge, and understanding in, and those gifts for the declaration of, the mind of God i the Scripture, which he hath granted unto and furnished them withal who have gone before us in the ministry and work of the gospel; for as God in an especial manner, in all ages, took care that the doctrine of the gospel should be preached vivā voce, to the present edification of the body of the church, so likewise, almost from the beginning of its propagation in the world, presently after the decease of the apostles and that whole divinely-inspired society of preachers and writers, he stirred up and enabled sundry persons to declare by writing what their apprehensions were, and what understanding God had given them in and about the sense of the Scripture." (228)

2In this case, it is not considered a means of the Spirit's work, but rather a means of the believer's assurance; here it is the believer whose ends the means is considered to serve.

3In the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q & A 11.

4Note the purpose of pointing out the source, way, and means: the preservation of the knowledge of God from beginning to end of the revelation process.