Book Review: John Owen and English Puritanism

A while back, I published a relatively critical review of Crawford Gribben’s biography on John Owen. Gribben’s Owen was initially jarring to me. In my previous assessment of his work, I noted that the book was a mixture of “scholarly brilliance and conjecture.” I also noted, “Gribben’s work makes a gripping and interesting narrative.” However, the impression of that review leaned more in the direction of highlighting perceived conjectures than scholarly brilliance. While I still hold some methodological concerns about the book, I want to take a second opportunity to let its excellent qualities shine more clearly. This second review is less a retraction of the previous review than it is a supplement to it, aiming to present readers with a fairer and more appreciative picture of the work.

My methodological concerns relate partly to Gribben’s goal and method. I argued in my previous review that Gribben’s Owen is possible, but not necessary. The crux of the matter is his contention that “the key question is that of motive” (Gribben, John Owen, 11). This reviewer agrees with other historians who argue that motives are not the proper object of historical study. Beyond what a writer tells us in the available documentary evidence, their motives are lost to history. Yet Gribben notes rightly that a speculation free biography is nearly impossible (17). Writing the life of someone who died over three hundred years ago is challenging at best and can be, nonetheless, highly valuable. I am still convinced that he goes too far by suggesting things like the idea that Owen “seems to peer from the canvass disdainfully on the viewer – or, perhaps, upon the artist, whose increasingly dissolute lifestyle would lead to an alcohol-related death less than a decade later” (232). Other comments that reach too far into hidden motives include: “Always a schemer… Owen may have spent his last years developing a series of conspiracies” (258). With regard to the implication of Owen’s brother and assistant pastor in the Rye House Plot to assassinate the king, Gribben wrote, “Owen may have supported them.” Similarly, “Owen may have been evasive to the end of his complex career” (261). Even if some of these surmises are likely, there are still too many “mays,” “seems’,” and “perhaps’” in some places of this work. To this extent, my original concerns stand.

Yet I find Gribben’s possible Owen increasingly compelling for two reasons primarily. The first is the author’s chronological treatment of Owen’s writings. Mastering the entire scope of Owen’s roughly eight million published words is daunting (1), and yet Gribben has likely come closer to doing so than almost all other Owen scholars. Though I do not agree with Gribben at every point of his assessment (and what two scholars agree on everything?), this reviewer finds Gribben’s narrative to be indispensible for research that he is currently doing on the development of Owen’s theology. I do agree with most of his assessments as well. Owen rarely noted changes in his thought over the years and it takes an astute reader to trace and detect such areas. Gribben has done so masterfully, particularly in relation to Owen’s fluctuating views in support of the king and, perhaps, of confessions of faith in the 1660’s (220-223). Regardless of what Owen scholars do with this evidence, Gribben contends rightly that they need to do something with it. Studying Owen’s writings chronologically gives a substantially different perspective on his thought than following Goold’s thematic organization in his Works does.

The second reason why Gribben’s Owen is compelling is that he draws so heavily from the surrounding context at multiple levels. His Owen fits into the political and social setting seamlessly. While this does not remove the problem of partial conjecture throughout the narrative, it prevents readers from treating Owen like a detached theological machine than a life and blood person who affected and was affected by other people. Gribben’s biography is an insightful foray into seventeenth-century English culture from the perspective of a marginalized Independent. Most Owen scholars try to do this, but Gribben has likely surpassed us all.

In sum, my reservations about Gribben’s depiction of John Owen still stand, but the benefits that I have received from the book far outweigh them. It is still a bit jarring to read the conclusion that “Owen made no distinctive and enduring contribution to English or Reformed theology” (270). Yet Gribben notes that Owen was fighting for a dying cause when he died. His greatest theological impact came in the next century and later. He does not deny Owen’s brilliance as a theologian, but he does not illustrate it adequately, in my view. The liabilities of this book are likely inherent to this genre of writing. Perhaps my greatest praise for Gribben’s work is that I can no longer escape him. He has forever changed how I read and see Owen. Agree or disagree with him, no Owen scholar can afford to neglect him. On my second reading, Gribben has persuaded me that we are better off for his work as well.

Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

Related Links

An Introduction to the Death of Death in the Death of Christ by J.I. Packer [ Booklet  |  Download  ]

John Owen's Communion With God: A Study Guide by Ryan McGraw [ Booklet  |  Download  ]

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw

The Mortification of Sin by John Owen

Ryan McGraw