Wednesday, April 26, 2006

John Owen: Gospel Worship

Notes on Craig A. Troxel, ““Cleansed Once for All”: John Owen on the Glory of Gospel Worship in Hebrews.” Calvin Theological Journal 32 (1997): 468-479.

Troxel contends that Owen’s central concern (and our greatest need) is “to worship God according to the supremacy of His glory” (469). A point that is indeed crucial for Owen. However, Troxel’s proposal may have been better made if nuanced to take into consideration Owen’s insistence on personal holiness and communion with God. Nevertheless, Troxel ably defends his thesis, especially in relationship to Owen’s exposition of Hebrews. Troxel states, “Owen’s thoughts on gospel worship were informed and controlled in large measure by the book of Hebrews…it is in Hebrews that the supreme glory of gospel worship is more profoundly presented” (469).

Troxel begins his discussion by considering the nature of gospel worship. For Owen, the nature of gospel or new covenant worship was rooted in a “twofold reconciliation” which existed between God and humans on one hand and between Jews and Gentiles on the other. Consequently, “gospel worship is by nature the privilege of having access to the presence of God as a unified people of God” (470).

Troxel considers Owen’s defense of the supremacy of gospel worship to old covenant worship under two headings which are supplied by Owen: 1) the absolute glory of gospel worship and 2) the comparative glory of gospel worship.

The absolute or superlative quality of new covenant worship is a result of Christ’s redemptive work on the cross and providing direct access to the throne of God. In other words, old covenant worship was veiled and restricted, but in the new covenant the ceremonial aspects of worship are abolished.

Troxel also highlights Owen’s argument for the comparative glory of gospel worship. He contrasts several aspects of old and new covenant worship such as the locations of worship (i.e. temple and heaven), the superiority of Christ’s priesthood over the Aaronic priesthood, and the finality of Christ’s sacrifice to the many sacrifices of the old covenant.

Troxel concludes by stating, “It is unmistakably clear that Owens’ views of worship were largely shaped by his presupposition that the relationship between the two covenants and their respective worship is profoundly typological. The book of Hebrews preeminently demonstrates that those institutions of worship that were peculiar to the nation of Israel were intended to prefigure gospel worship” (478).

This article provides a good introduction to one small but important aspect of Owen’s commentary. Troxel’s discussion of the superiority of gospel worship provides a window into An Exposition of Hebrews, not to mention a peek into Owen’s exercitations in a passing reference to his essay on the priestly office of Christ. Especially helpful is Troxel’s short discussion of Owen’s use of typology and his concise analysis of the comparative glory of new covenant worship. However, the complex interrelationship of the covenants with regards to gospel worship needs to be set within the wider hermeneutical and theological context of discontinuity and continuity between the Sinaitic and new covenants, a subject only briefly touched upon by Troxel. His discussion of typology also needs to be augmented by a consideration of the broader question for Owen regarding the relationship of promise and fulfillment. But these issues are far beyond the scope of his otherwise excellent article.

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