Dr Trueman, your early research interest was on salvation in the writings of the English Reformers, as indicated in the title of the published version of your doctoral dissertation, Luther’s Legacy: Salvation and English Reformers, 1525-1556 (Clarendon, 1994). Could you share with us the thrust of this work and some of the factors that led you into serious research in this area?
Initially, I was interested simply in examining the theology of a number of early English Reformers against the background of the continental Reformation. As you know, the English Reformation was much later in its development and articulation of a formal Protestant theology than, say, the members of the Schmalkaldic League or the Swiss Confederation. I wanted to find out what was going on in the minds of select intellectuals during the period from 1525, when William Tyndale made his abortive first attempt to publish the New Testament in English.
In approaching the subject, I examined very carefully the influential thesis of William A. Clebsch, who argued that Tyndale and others started as thoroughgoing Lutherans and then moved, under the impact of Reformed theology, to more Reformed positions. My reading of the primary texts quickly led me to question this: I examined very carefully how Lutheran texts were translated into English by Tyndale, and edited and modified in the process, and how this process of translation and modification, along with details of Tyndale’s biography, indicated that his Reformation theology involved the reception of Luther’s thought into a previously established Erasmian framework. This led him to significantly different theological accents from those of the Lutheran originals.
Having established this pattern in the writings of Tyndale, I extended the analysis to others treated by Clebsch – John Frith and Robert Barnes – and showed how his reading of these figures also massively overestimated the purity of their initial reception of Wittenberg theology.
The second part of the dissertation looked at the writings of John Hooper and John Bradford, again paying close attention to their reception of continental theologians. My most important insight in this area was the discovery that Hooper, often seen as simply an Anglican echo of Heinrich Bullinger, was significantly influenced by Philip Melanchthon in his anti-Calvinist view of predestination. I effectively showed that Hooper was not simply a proto-Puritan; he was arguably a proto-Arminian as well. That discovery surprised nobody more than myself!
On the whole, I think the work is flawed in the sense that I was, by and large, dependent in some sections on nineteenth century editions, which I would not use today; but I do think the basic thesis and historical findings are sound.
Since 1994, Reformed Orthodoxy in the seventeenth century seems to have been of special interest to you, especially the figure of John Owen. What led to this shift of interest from the 16th to the 17th century, and on Owen in particular?
Four factors fed into this shift.
First, my interest was never in sixteenth century theology so much as in early modern English Protestant theology. So my later research is not a break with the earlier project, merely an extension of it.
Second, my early work is really focused on the nature of reception, though I did not think of it in these terms at the time. I thought I was just doing history; what I was actually examining was the reception of continental texts and concepts in an English context. My approach to Reformed Orthodoxy has been focused on the same: the reception of continental Reformation, Catholic, Renaissance, medieval, patristic, classical, and philosophical texts and thought in a seventeenth century English Reformed context.
Third, numerous friends and colleagues challenged me in the mid-nineties to work on the connection between medieval scholasticism and Reformed Orthodoxy. John Heywood Thomas, the Tillich and Kierkegaard scholar, encouraged me to examine how Aquinas was used by the Reformed; and the work of Richard Muller and Willem Van Asselt, reinforced by personal friendship, motivated me to look at the English scene in the same way they had approached that on the continent.
Many delightful hours with Richard and Willem and the members of the seminar group at the University of Utrecht, combined with teaching the thought of Thomas Aquinas as an elective at the University of Nottingham, also helped to fuel my interest in seventeenth century reception of Catholic philosophy by Reformed theologians.
I should probably mention that the writings of Quentin Skinner also helped to clarify one or two methodologically significant points for regarding the nature of intellectual history as a discipline, though this came more after the first Owen volume when a friend, the Cambridge historian Richard Rex, brought QS to my attention when he and I were both thinking of writing a joint article refuting the notion of a strong Lollard influence on William Tyndale – which article never came to fruition, thanks mainly to my own move to the States.
Fourth, I had already had a strong personal interest in Owen for many years. J. I. Packer’s work had introduced the writings of JO to me as a young Christian (while reading Knowing God on a flea-ridden hostel mattress somewhere in the far east of Turkey in the mid-1980s!), and he seemed an obvious and highly sophisticated of exactly the kind of Reformed theologian who would be susceptible to the kind of analysis in which I wanted to engage.
To date, you have published two books on Owen: Claims of Truth: the Trinitarian Theology of John Owen (Paternoster, 1994), and the very recent John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Ashgate, 2007). What are some areas of development between them?
I would say a number of areas represent development.
First, there is a methodological advance. The development of Early English Books Online has allowed me access to more of the early books which Owen was himself reading and citing than I had in 1996 when working on The Claims of Truth. Thus, the wider literary-theological context is much broader and more satisfying in the second book.
Second, I address issues of the attributes of God, the covenant of redemption, and justification in the later volume which I did not do in the earlier. In these discussions, I have a better understanding now than in 1996 of how the Reformed Orthodox connected exegesis, theological synthesis, polemical concerns, and pastoral priorities.
Frankly, thanks to the publication of Richard’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, I came at Owen the second time around with a much better grasp both of medieval theology and of the wider seventeenth century context. I also have a decade of teaching Owen behind me, with all of the stimulating cut-and-thrust in the classroom which that brings with it and which helps to sharpen one’s wits and approach to the subject.
In your assessment, what is the standing of John Owen in the history of Protestant theology?
Until recently, he has been unjustly neglected by historians of theology: he was on the wrong side of the debates, politically and theologically, in the seventeenth century; and, when his side lost, he was consigned to oblivion. Nevertheless, he is one of the greatest Protestant theologians ever to have lived; and you do not need to trust me, or even J. I. Packer, on that point.
Two senior scholars to whom I owe much for encouraging me to research Owen also hold the same view, even though neither could be described as card-carrying sympathizers with his overall theology: John Webster and the late Colin Gunton. Owen’s grasp of the tradition, of the biblical languages, of the connection between exegesis and theological synthesis, all mark him out as an exceptional figure in the history of theology.
What relevance might Owen have for the contemporary evangelical church?
He offers a model for doing theology which connects biblical exegesis and systematic theology in a way that respects trajectories of previous theological discussion while at the same time grounding everything in pastoral concerns. He also demonstrates how the doctrine of the Trinity should permeate Christian thinking and devotion. Above all, he understands the holiness of God and shows how theological thinking should proceed in this context.
I get so tired of modern evangelical writers, whether biblical or theological, who have no grasp of the holiness of God and who treat scripture just like any old book, theology as a kind of entertaining crossword puzzle, and themselves as God’s gift to the church. God is not mocked, especially by those for whom theology seems to be little more than an idiom for self-promotion and patronizing previous generations. Owen was not a perfect theologian; but he knew the importance of that with which he was dealing, and his own comparative unimportance in the grand scheme of things.
Many thanks Dr Trueman for taking time to share your thoughts with us!
A selection of Dr Trueman's publications:
“A Small Step Towards Rationalism: The Impact of the Metaphysics of Tommaso Campanella on the Theology of Richard Baxter” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark (Paternoster, 1997).
“John Owen's Dissertation on Divine Justice: An Exercise in Christocentric Scholasticism”, Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998), 87-103.
Reformation: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Bryntirion, 2000)
“Puritan Theology as Historical Event: A Linguistic Approach to the Ecumenical Context” in Reformation and Scholasticism: An Ecumenical Enterprise, eds. Willem J. van Asselt and Eef Dekker (Baker, 2001).
“The Theology of the English Reformers” in The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, eds. David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz (CUP, 2004).
The Wages of Spin: Critical Writings on Historical and Contemporary Evangelicalism (Christian Focus, 2005)
NB: If you enjoyed this short interview, why not check out our other ones?:
- John Foxe scholar Tom Freeman
- Puritan historian Patrick Collinson