The Claims of Truth: John Owen's Trinitarian Theology (Trueman)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Trueman, Carl R. The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1998, 2021.

The German Reformer Philip Melancthon said to know Christ is to know his benefits. This statement has been used to downplay the reality of scholastic theology, arguing that if we knew Christ’s saving work then we know more than what the scholastics tried to teach. It is doubtful such was Melancthon’s intent, given that he named his major theology after scholastic categories. In like manner, John Owen’s doctrine of God is a specifically Trinitarian doctrine of God. In Owen we see a merging of rigorous scholastic distinctions with heartfelt application. This book, long out of print, is a welcome addition to the growing renaissance of Reformed Scholasticism.

Trueman’s opening chapter, “Owen in Context,” is a tour-de-force of recent scholastic historiography. Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics is one of the most important theology sets of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it is out of print. Fortunately, Trueman offers a summary of Muller’s arguments, allowing him to rebut claims that Owen forced the biblical gospel into an Aristotelian model. Not only is Owen not a slave to an Aristotelian model, if such a thing even exists in the abstract, but it was Owen, not Richard Baxter, who modeled his theology around a biblical theme: the covenants.

“The choice of Calvin, a 16th century theologian, as the criterion for judging 17th century theology is, historically speaking, an entirely arbitrary move” (10).

"Aquinas's use of Aristotle's language in no way implies that he regards Aristotle's system as the ultimate arbiter of the truth of falsehood of his doctrine” (42).

“For Owen, God can be described using the scholastic notion of pure or simple act” (110).

The Principles of Theology

Foundational to Owen’s method is the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology (54). Because we are finite, we are incapable of infinite knowledge. As a result, such theological knowledge we do have is finite and mediated. It is the “theology of the ‘viator,’ the pilgrim on the way” (55). The object of knowledge in both cases, Trueman is quick to inform us, is God. It is not a knowing of two different things, but a difference “in their respective modes of knowledge.” In short, “theology can be seen as having its principium essendi…in the being of God Himself, and its principium cognoscendi…in God’s ectypal revelation of Himself” (56).

Holy Spirit, Aristotle, or Both?

Owen uses Aristotle–as did almost everyone else. Those who attack scholasticism’s use of Aristotle are at a loss to suggest what other model should have been used: Plato, Ramus (who only revised, not replaced Aristotle), or one of the Hermeticists? Trueman argues Owen’s use of Aristotle precluded rationalism. For example, effects are always in proportion to their causes. Therefore, as our human reason is finite, it needs a supernatural agent to reach a supernatural end (76-77).

The Doctrine of God

Owen followed the standard course on God’s attributes, although he did depart from Calvin by acknowledging a distinction between potentia absolutal and potentia ordinata (104 n11). Owen’s doctrine of God, as perhaps ours today, was fine-tuned in the debates against Socinianism. And in this battle, Owen could not be simply a rationalist. For example, “God’s freedom does not mean he is subject in His actions only to the logical restrictions demanded by the principle of noncontradiction, but refers simply to the fact that all of His external acts derive from his will, uncoerced by external factors, and, second, God’s essence, his absolute attributes, determine the nature of these external acts” (109). Owen faced a two-fold danger: he could not simply trade bible verses with the Socinians, or appeal to some noble-sounding goal of “just using the bible’s language;” nor, on the other hand, could he rest merely on logical axioms, essential though they be. Rather, he had to ground his argument, both in its logical and biblical forms, in God’s very being.

Contingency and Causality

Owen’s use of causal terms allows him to affirm both God’s unconditional election, the reality of providence, and man’s responsibility. As Trueman explains, “Contingency for Owen is rooted in the notion of secondary causality: things happen contingently with reference to their immediate causes” (115). Therefore, man’s actions have real freedom. Such freedom, however, does not mean man is free from the necessity of the First Cause, the Foreknowledge of God (WCF 5.2). All of this is standard scholastic thinking on freedom. What Owen does is remind his readers that this causal chain is hierarchical, not simply chronological. However else the chain may play out in a linear fashion, the important point is that God is the logical start of every chain of causes.

The Person of Christ

As with his doctrine of God, Owen follows the general Western and conciliar framework on Christology. In the eternal generation of the Son, “the whole essence of the Father is communicated to the Son as to a personal existence in the same essence” (155). Socinians had said that essences must divide if they are subtracted or added. That is true for finite essences, not for infinite ones (or even finite spiritual essences, maybe).


Trueman’s work concludes with Owen’s careful and nuanced discussions on the threefold office of Christ and his satisfaction. We heartily applaud Reformation Heritage Books for getting this work back into print, as it represented a landmark volume in Owen studies.
Good summary. Makes me want to read it when I find some time amongst all the books I have on my list to read.

I fear, however, of another thread going down a dark rabbit hole about contradiction.
"Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics is one of the most important theology sets of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it is out of print."

I believe they just reprinted it early this year or late last year. You can get the entire 4 volume set from CBD for $154 brand new. RHB has it in stock for $2 cheaper.
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