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The Truth in Jesus
Introducing a daily John Owen devotional newsletter
This week I started a separate Substack newsletter called John Owen Daily Devotional. There is a separate introduction for that Substack, so hopefully without repeating myself, I wanted to use today’s Theology & Therapy post for a John Owen reflection that I have been meaning to write for some time. When I finally had my collected manuscript of 365 John Owen readings (actually around 700, since most days include a long quote paired with a shorter quote from another work), I decided on this title for the book: The Truth In Jesus: Daily Readings from John Owen. Why that title, you ask? Well, let me tell you!
A repeated theme throughout Owen’s works is “learning the truth as it is in Jesus.” This is a reference to Ephesians 4:20-24, specifically 4:21:
“assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus”
By my current count there are 38 different occasions across 15 works where Owen explains this passage.1 The first instance I see comes from 1648 in Eschol: a Cluster of the Fruit of Canaan, and he referenced this passage/idea across the span of his career up to the last volume of his Hebrews commentary published in 1684. “The truth as it is in Jesus” thus appears to be a key scriptural doctrine for Owen in understanding both the nature of truth and the nature of understanding truth.
Theological Reflections & Anthropological Concerns
Kelly Kapic has argued that Owen was an “anthroposensitive theologian”. Kapic coined that phrase to describe how Owen refused “to divorce theological considerations from practical human application, since theological reflections are always interwoven with anthropological concerns.”2 Here’s how Owen put it in The Nature and Causes of Apostasy:
“This it is to learn the truth as it is in Jesus, — namely, together with the knowledge of it, to have an experience of its power and efficacy in the mortification of sin, in the renovation of our nature, and transforming of the whole soul into the image of God in righteousness and the holiness of truth.”3
In light of this emphasis, any compilation of selections from John Owen should align with this fundamental facet of his work.
If we were only relying on specific citations of Ephesians 4:20-24, my point here might be a stretch. Bu one finds this emphasis in Owen time and time again. And given the experiential nature of this Scripture, Owen did not merely aim for intellectual assent to God’s intention for truth. If we can take him at his word, he sought to live out that intention. For example, in the introduction to The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded Owen explains his philosophy of teaching:
“leaving others unto the choice of their own methods and designs, I acknowledge that these are the two things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry. To impart those truths of whose power I hope I have had in some measure a real experience, and to press those duties which present occasions, temptations, and other circumstances, do render necessary to be attended unto in a peculiar manner, are the things which I would principally apply myself unto in the work of teaching others.”4
When discussing theological method, theologians don’t typically emphasize the role that personal application of truth plays in the exposition of divine revelation. But one could say this is the—or at least one of the—main thesis of Owen’s massive Theologoumena Pantodapa (published in English translation as Biblical Theology). Space does not allow me to go deep into this work (and I am certainly not qualified to write a scholarly review5), so I will limit myself to just two quotes from the beginning and end of the book:
“Let us proclaim it boldly—the man who is not inflamed with divine love is an outsider to all theology! Let him toil long and hard in airing of thorny questons; let him be the most avid devourer of theological books in existence; if he has this and nothing else, it is but the stronger proof that the natural beauty of God's truth has never penetrated through even the smallest chink into his mind. He is not on fire with love of divine truth, nor carried away with admiration of her beauty.”6
“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 then be the steadfast aim of any gospel student.”7
Seeing the Forest
If I have accurately seen the forest which is made up of the trees of Owen’s vast writings, any attempt to learn Christian truth from Owen must be aligned with his governing aim to “learn the truth as it is in Jesus”. Indeed, Jesus said that he himself is Truth. As Owen writes in his exposition of Hebrews 3:3-6,
“all spiritual truths are knit up and centred in him who is "the truth;" and they who have "learned him," as the apostle speaks, Eph. 4:20, have with him received the seeds of all truth: which being watered and attended as they ought, will in due time flourish into all their proper branches and fruits; for all things are gathered into one head in him, Eph. 1:10.”8
So far I have simply demonstrated that “the truth in Jesus” was a key way Owen framed the work of theology and biblical instruction. It is worth asking why he believed that, but space only allows for a short answer. This purpose, learning the truth as it is in Jesus, is the purpose of Scripture itself:
“the grand immediate tendency of the whole Scripture is to work them to whom the revelation is made into a conformity to himself, and to mould them into his own image.”9
Thus, this notion of “the truth in Jesus” is a biblical, redemptive-historical hermeneutic:
Owen did theology through the lens of God the Father renewing humanity after the image of the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps this has made you curious to see Owen’s theological design in action; but, where to begin? Why not subscribe to the John Owen Daily Devotional and spend the rest of 2023 hearing from Owen in order to learn the truth as it is in Jesus?
17 works if we count each volume of his Hebrews commentary separately. And there are possibly more instances; I found one use of the phrase “the truth as it is in Jesus” in Theologoumena Pantodapa where Owen doesn’t actually cite Eph 4:21, so it wouldn’t show up in a Scripture index.
Kapic, Kelly M. Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen. Baker Academic, 2007, p. 33.
The Works of John Owen. Edited by William Henry Goold, Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, vol. 7:113-114.
The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded, emphasis in original (Works 7:263).
For a shorter overview, see “The Nature and Task of Theology in John Owen’s Forgotten Work” by John Kegley. For a longer book-length treatment, see Sebastian Rehnman’s Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John Owen (and email me if you find this in print. I’ve only borrowed it from the library because the few online sellers list it for over $100!)
Biblical Theology: or The Nature, Origin, Development, and Study of Theological Truth, ed. Stephen P. Wetcott (Morgan, PA, 1994), epistle to the reader, p. xlvi.
Biblical Theology, p. 694.
Exposition of Hebrews, 3:524.
The Doctrine of the Saints' Perseverance Explained and Confirmed (Works, 11:381).