Monday, May 22, 2006

John Owen: Perseverance & Exegetical Methodology

Notes on Henry Knapp. “John Owen’s Interpretation of Hebrews 6:4-6: Eternal Perseverance of the Saints in Puritan Exegesis.” Sixteenth Century Journal XXXIV/1 (2003): 29-52.

This article builds upon Knapp’s previous article on Augustine and Owen. He continues his detailed analysis of Owen’s doctrine of perseverance, but focuses more on his exegetical methodology. He observes that while Roman, Arminian, Lutheran, and Reformed controversies over the doctrine of perseverance in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries have received substantial investigation, those who examine the doctrine of perseverance “frequently ignore the exegetical questions which gave rise to much of the debate.” (29-30). Knapp intends to remedy this oversight by focusing upon the seventeenth century exegetical methods of John Owen in his commentary of Hebrews 6:4-6.

Knapp begins his essay by establishing the polemical context of Owen’s writing on perseverance. He provides a brief summary of Jacob Arminius’s exegesis of Hebrews 6:4-6 and the Remonstrant articulation of the doctrine of perseverance in The Five Arminian Articles and Sententia Remonstrantium. He notes a reticence in the writings of Arminius and in The Five Arminian Articles to affirm that a true believer can completely apostatize. However, as a result of pressure by the Synod of Dort, the followers of Arminius were forced to codify their position on perseverance. For example, the belief that true believers could fall away from the faith was clearly articulated in Sententia Remonstrantium. Having set the broader historical context, Knapp proceeds to give a careful description of John Goodwin’s exegesis of Hebrews 6:4-6 in Redemption Redeemed and Owen’s rebuttal of Goodwin in The Doctrine of the Saints Perseverance – a subject which he addressed in his previous article but with less detail.

Knapp then enters into an extended analysis of the exegetical strategies of Owen in his exposition of Hebrews 6:4-6 and notes particularly Owen’s hermeneutical and scholastic methodologies. He contends that hermeneutically Owen 1) gave special attention to the grammatical and syntactical construction of the text, 2) employed the analogies of faith (analogia fidei) and Scripture (analogia Scripturae), 3) considered the historic development of the interpretation of the passage, and 4) never failed to reflect his pastoral interests. Scholastically, Knapp notes that Owen frequently utilized the categories and distinctions available to him in order to delineate the interpretive possibilities of the text.

Knapp summarizes his analysis by stating that Owen’s exposition “reveals the marks of a meticulous seventeenth-century exegete” (45). This article makes a tremendous step towards setting Owen’s commentary in its proper seventeenth century context. For those interested in a more in-depth study of Owen’s exegetical methodology, see Knapp’s outstanding doctoral dissertation, “Understanding the Mind of God: John Owen and Seventeenth Century Exegetical Methodology” (PhD, Calvin Theological Seminary, 2002), from which this article is taken.

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