God's Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen (Toon, Peter)

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Puritan Board Freshman
Peter Toon's landmark (I call it this on the authority of two scholars I know who studied Owen academically) biography of John Owen seeks to paint a picture of the whole Owen, detailing his contributions to politics and government, his authority and work as an eminent divine, his guiding of the University of Oxford in a tumultuous time that nearly saw the end of the prestigious institution, as well as his work as a pastor and leading light among the Nonconformists and Congregationalists of his time. What emerges is a man of great ability and yet possessed of faults, but one who in all things sought the advance of the kingdom of God in the British Isles.

About the Author:
Peter Toon (1939-2009) was an Anglican priest, theologian and professor. He had been a missionary ot Guyana, but on his return held a number of teaching roles in England, one of the most notable being that of Lecturer in Church History and Historical Theology at Edge Hill College, Lancashire, in 1968. At the time of the book's publication, Toon had also been a guest lecturer at twelve North American universities and seminaries, as well as at the University of Cologne, Germany.

Peter Toon notes towards the end of his book how the picture of John Owen that became more commonplace was that of one who was "pre-eminently the Calvinist divine, the writer on theological, devotional and practical themes, and the Biblical commentator"; this view of Owen is one that places a great emphasis on his work after the Restoration. The man John Owen is hard to know as his diaries were destroyed and thus all that is left are his works, records from the many eminent institutions where he left his mark and letters that have been preserved. These are unfortunately insufficient, and the man remains veiled to us. Nevertheless, what we do have shows a man who engaged in activities in a number of spheres and dealt with many of the great men of his age without either servility or arrogance. The biography proceeds as a biography should and tells the story of Owen's life, and so this review will instead focus on aspects of John Owen's work. All quotes are from the biography.

Owen the Pastor: Owen's pastoral work was undertaken in a number of churches that he pastored. Perhaps the most notable of these is at the Meeting House at Leadenhall St. that was enlarged even more with the merging of the congregation of Joseph Caryl, a divine of the Westminster Assembly, after their pastor's death. His congregation consisted of wealthy people and leading men and women, as well as their servants and the poorer members of society. Despite believing "that the class structure was within God's permissible will for mankind", Owen believed in the true equality of believers in the church and exhorted his members to be possessed of mutual love, and to use all they had been given in loving service to one another. Owen also had three successive ministers assist him in his duties in the last decade of his life.

Owen the Preacher: Owen was called upon a number of times to preach to Parliament, and in his role as chaplain did preach to the army on occasions as well. While Owen's sermons to his congregation can be read to the edification of one's soul even now, unfortunately his sermons to Parliament and the lens through which the events of the day, Owen's eschatology and the Old Testament aligned make his sermons to Parliament and on notable occassions sermons never to be emulated. He seemed to have held to what we would call post-millenialism, and saw the Commonwealth as a major step in establishing a glorious period for the Church. When victories were won by the New Model Army, he would preach that it was a sign of divine favour that the righteous army had conquered the "rude, godless multitude". This is not to say though that Owen was some sort of propagandist and Cromwell's mouthpiece: he had periods when he was viewed favourably and when he was viewed unfavourably by those in power. He had a sincere desire for the preaching of the Gospel and always had the establishing of Christian churches as his end; it may also be that his views changed somewhat especially as the whole project failed and the Restoration occurred.

Owen the Churchman: Owen famously moved from Presbyterian to Congregational views, with John Cotton's The Keys... playing a part in convincing him, but desired that no national church should impose one form of church government and lock out Christian ministers who were sound but disagreed on such matters. His later writings have been quite important in establishing the general views of congregational churches. At the same time, Owen did maintain fellowship with nonconformists of Presbyterian views, and even declared that there were sincere Christians in the national Anglican church even though he could not in good conscience attend one. His efforts in helping Bunyan with the publication of his books is one of the more well-known acts of Owen in trying to use whatever influence he had to ease the lot of his suffering brethren. Owen was one of six lecturers who lectured in the week at a joint Presbyterian-Congregationalist lecture in London called the Ancient Merchants' Lectures.

Owen the Statesman: Owen was involved in a number of measures of the Commonwealth government, and was a proponent of limited toleration and wanted a National church that would allow cooperation among Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists, but would exclude sects that held to heretical views. This put him at odds with those who wanted a Presbyterian national church as well as with those who wanted a more catholic and minimal basis of faith for a national church. Owen also counselled Cromwell against accepting the crown, and this, perhaps permanently, dampened their once good relationship. Owen's reaction to the death of Charles I isn't clearly known, but Toon takes the fact that Owen accepted to preach after the event to indicate he was not against it. Of note among Owen's activities after the Restoration is that Owen was involved in discussions with men from Charles II before the Declaration of Indulgence was issued which gave nonconformists some breathing space before the next wave of persecution hit.

Owen the Dean and Vice-Chancellor: Owen took the helm of Oxford at a time when there were calls from the more radical for the abolition of the universities. Added to this were the pressures of running the University while ensuring that there were enough and qualified tutors to teach the students. Owen successfully navigated the University through this time before handing the reins to his successor. Toon sees Owen and his colleagues as "misfits" at the University, which was a centre of Royalist and Anglican ideas, and classifies Oxford's experience during the Commonwealth as an interlude to its history and tradition. However, there were students who "believed that God had specially blessed Oxford during the 1650s".

In conclusion, Toon's biography is worth reading and deserves the commendation it received when it was recommended to me as the starting point for getting to know John Owen. While there is some overlap in the main focal points I chose for the review and the chapters in the biography, I can assure the reader that unlike this review the biography isn't piecemeal and flows well together. The biography is balanced and fair and even sympathetic, and when the end is reached, both of the book and Owen's life, one sees a man of flesh and blood, but a man worthy of the loving place he has in the memory of the Protestant churches, and a man who in spite of all his faults can never be charged with desiring anything less than to glorify his Saviour.

I end this review with one of the best quotes from Owen in the biography, written by him in the year he died: "So much as we know of Christ, his sufferings and glory, so much do we understand the Scriptures."
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