Wednesday, April 12, 2006

John Owen: Scripture and Authority

Below are my notes on S. Gundry's essay on Owen and Scripture. For a similar overview, see K. Scott Oliphant's article, "John Owen and the Authority of Scripture."

Stanley Gundry, “John Owen on Authority and Scripture,” Inerrancy and the Church, ed. John D. Hannah (Chicago: Moody, 1984), 189-221.

Inerrancy and the Church is a collection of essays which carefully refute the infamous book co-authored by Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979). Rogers and McKim argue that the “central church tradition” affirms that the Bible’s message of salvation (its function) is authoritative but its words may be fallible (its form). In other words, the doctrine of accommodation assumes errancy and fallibility. Accordingly, the doctrine of inerrancy is an historic innovation foreign to the Scriptures. The guilty culprits for Rogers/McKim are the post-Reformation scholastics of the seventeenth century and the Princetonians of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Aquinas, Beza, Turretin, the Hodges, and Warfield are the bad guys. Contra their claims, Inerrancy and the Church asserts that the historic position of the church is the absolute authority and inerrancy of Scripture.

A hinge in the Rogers/McKim thesis is that John Owen stands as a transitional figure between the “Reformation stance of the Westminster Divines and the Protestant scholasticism of his continental contemporaries” (Rogers and Mckim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, 219-220). Stanley Gundry’s essay sets out 1) to examine Rogers/McKim’s presentation of Owen, and 2) to outline Owen’s approach to the problem of authority and Scripture.

Gundry’s article begins with a cursory review of the question of ultimate authority – particularly in regards to seventeenth century. Gundry makes the bold claim that “no other theme is more pervasive throughout the volumes that came from [Owen’s] pen” (190). While not denigrating the monumental importance of Scriptural authority in Owen’s writings, this is a slight overstatement. Perhaps it was made for the purposes of the polemic. If so, Gundry’s sentiment is appreciated, although other themes such as the divine covenants, the glory of God in Christ, communion with the Triune God are equally as prevalent in the Owenian corpus.

Before entering into his analysis of Owen, Gundry provides a brief biographical sketch of the Puritan. He makes another striking claim when he indicates that Owen’s theology remained unchanged throughout this career, “Except for the fact that he moved from Presbyterianism to Independent Congregationalism, Owen’s theological position underwent no significant change during his lifetime” (191). If his statement is merely to suggest that Owen wrote and ministered within the broader western and reformed theological tradition, then his observation is most definitely correct. Unfortunately, his assertion may give the impression that Owen’s theological development was static and immutable. Evidently, Owen’s later articulation of the absolute necessity of the atonement was merely an insignificant theological modification! Nevertheless, Gundry’s portrait of Owen is anything but static. His handling of the London Polyglott controversy later in the article reveals a confused Owen who unrelentingly held to the inspiration of the vowel pointings yet reluctantly wrestled with the findings of the emergent field of textual criticism.

The bulk of the essay expounds Owen’s doctrine of Scripture along eight lines: 1) the need for Scripture, 2) the purpose of Scripture, 3) the authority of Scripture, 4) the inspiration of Scripture, 5) the Holy Spirit in relation to Scripture, 6) the Christ of Scripture, 7) the preservation of Scripture, and 8) the interpretation of Scripture. Gundry quotes from the full range of Owen’s Works, although The Reason of Faith, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, and Chistologia are cited most frequently. His discussion of Owen’s controversy with Brian Walton over the London Polyglott (mentioned above) and of Owen’s hermeneutical principles are particularly noteworthy. Gundry ends his discussion with a critical evaluation of the Roger/McKim thesis in lieu of the eight principles delineated above.

Gundry’s essay provides a virtual index for Owen’s doctrine of Scripture. This is an excellent article for anyone wanting a quick survey of the Puritan understanding of Bible as the infallible, authoritative word of God via one of its ablest defenders.

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