Journal of the Northern Renaissance

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Martyn Calvin Cowan, John Owen and the civil war apocalypse: Preaching, prophecy and politics (Routledge, 2018). Ryan M. McGraw, John Owen: Trajectories in Reformed Orthodox theology (Palgrave, 2017)

Martyn C. Cowan, John Owen and the Civil War Apocalypse: Preaching, Prophecy and Politics (Routledge, 2018), ISBN 978-1-138-08776-7, xvi+220 pp., £105.

Ryan M. McGraw, John Owen: Trajectories in Reformed Orthodox theology (Palgrave, 2017), ISBN 978-3-319-60806-8, xii+232 pp., £69.99.

Reviewed by Crawford Gribben


[1] John Owen (1616-83) is attracting increasing attention far beyond the theological circles in which his memory was, for many years, preserved. Owen has long been recognised as having been central to the rise and fall of the English republic – preaching to MPs on the day after the execution of Charles I, accompanying Cromwell as an army chaplain in the invasions of Ireland and Scotland, overseeing educational reform as dean of Christ Church and vice-chancellor of the university of Oxford, writing the petition that persuaded Cromwell not to accept the offer of the crown, leading the army republicans in their last desperate gamble to preserve the republic, ultimately and unwittingly paving the way for the restoration of Charles II and the brutal persecution of republicans and religious dissenters that followed. Owen’s millions of words have been kept in print in reproductions of the best nineteenth-century edition, edited by William Goold in 24 closely printed volumes, and attention is increasingly being paid to the unpublished sermons notes held in Dr Williams’s Library, London, and to relevant para-texts, including the anthology of verse published in Oxford in 1654 to commemorate the end of the Dutch war, in which Owen’s opening Latin eulogy is followed by work from Christ Church students and alumni, on both sides of the civil war divide, in English, French, Old English, Welsh, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. And, just as Owen is attracting scholarly increasing attention, so that attention is coming from a broader range of disciplinary backgrounds, and is being published by a broader range of academic publishers.

[2] The two most recent contributions to Owen studies, published by Palgrave and Routledge, reflect the increasing diversity of work within this field. Martyn Cowan’s study of John Owen and the Civil War Apocalypse (2018) must be recognised as one of the most important contributions to Owen studies, and a fine addition to the excellent Routledge series in “Religious Cultures in the Early Modern World.” Expanding upon Cowan’s Cambridge PhD thesis, this book outlines Owen’s prophetic worldview and unpicks his providential readings of contemporary history. The analysis steps up a gear from the third chapter, as the account considers how Owen suggested “providential mercies” should be “improved,” and how godly magistrates should exercise responsibility in pursuing an appropriate church settlement, under the threat of impending divine judgement. Cowan’s central thesis argues that Owen’s sermons from the 1640s and 1650s are best described as a form of prophetic preaching, frequently drawing upon eschatological passages in Scripture and arguing for the eschatological character of the age in which Owen preached. In Cowan’s account, Owen retains his millennial aspiration throughout the 1650s, and, contrary to other depictions of a tendency towards conservatism in this period, pushes for an increasingly radical political agenda. Cowan takes issue with the conclusions of some earlier work. He argues that Owen adopted millennial beliefs much earlier than some others have claimed. He denies that Owen adopts a preterist reading of certain biblical passages, which would have understood them to refer to, for example, the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 (though this claim seems be qualified in pp. 56-57), instead arguing that Owen used these texts to shape his view of the present. And Cowan denies that Owen was ever a republican – a claim that will have far-reaching implications in our thinking about the mid-seventeenth century crisis and the individuals who acted at key moments in the development of the new republican regime. These claims challenge the conclusions of some recent work in the field, and Cowan’s careful and considered arguments will need to be taken very seriously, not least because they offer contexts for some important but undated sermons, a move that will pull into play a number of important new texts with enormous potential to reshape key moments in Owen’s life and the development of the republican government. Drawing on new contexts, Cowan argues that Owen, who “self-identifies as a prophet speaking in momentous times,” “cannot be treated as an abstract academic theologian” (p. 183).

[3] By contrast, Owen’s status as an academic theologian is emphasised in Ryan McGraw’s latest book. McGraw has become well-known for his earlier monograph on Owen and for his articles, which repristinate the high theological flavour of some earlier work in the field. Each of the chapters in this collection has already been published, though McGraw emphasises that he has updated and revised their content. The result is a slightly eclectic volume. The first part of the book offers three chapters on Owen’s view of the Trinity, his practise of exegesis, drawn from a case study of his work on Genesis 3:15, and his reflection on whether the preaching of salvation should also include discussion of the threats of the law. The second part of the book considers Owen’s attitude to images of Christ, his presentation of the role of the Holy Spirit, an important discussion of the genre of Owen’s Θεολογουμενα παντoδαπα (1661), and, oddly, a chapter-length review of the now slightly dated Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology (2012), which it represents as a providing “a glimpse into the current state of Owen research” (p. 5). McGraw’s introduction pulls these chapters together, arguing that the “common theme” in the volume is that “John Owen helps us better understand the development and interrelationship of theology, exegesis, and piety in Reformed orthodox theology” (p. 1). At its best, John Owen: Trajectories in Reformed Orthodox Theology does exactly what it says on the tin. McGraw subtly and effectively narratives trajectories in Owen’s thinking, and locates him within broader trajectories in early modern Reformed theology.

[4] But there are some problems with this book. McGraw reiterates his rather low view of some other work in the field: he notes the “weakness” (p. 5), “deficiencies” (p. 16), and “confusion” (p. 17) of earlier work, some of which he thinks “misses Owen’s point” (p. 143). This is a limiting strategy. The effect of this unnecessarily combative style has McGraw framing his discussion of Owen around other contributions to the field, rather than setting out his own stall upon his own terms. Additionally, it is not clear exactly how the chapters in this volume have been revised from their earlier forms. In the main text and footnotes, a number of books are described as forthcoming, despite their having been published several years ago: among the titles listed as forthcoming, Mark Jones’ book on Antinomianism appeared in 2013 (p. 193), and another title that McGraw “eagerly awaits” (p. 195) is a book that he has in fact already reviewed. This problem creeps into McGraw’s representation of his own work: another item that he describes as forthcoming (p. 64) is the article, published in 2015, that forms the basis of this volume’s first substantial chapter (p. 9). These difficulties aside, this is an important book, which gathers together some of the best of McGraw’s contributions to Owen studies. While each of these chapters is of high intellectual merit, McGraw’s discussions of the law-gospel distinction and the relationship between the role of faith and images of Christ will set new agendas in Owen research.

[5] As these monographs suggest, work on Owen is proliferating as major publishers pick up on his importance and as the disciplinary perspectives of his readers evolve. These trends are combining to produce some exciting new work on a figure central to the rise and fall of the British republic, and to the intellectual preservation of the Calvinist reformation. Cowan and McGraw have produced two fine contributions, each of which will push Owen studies in important new directions in historical theology and in the social history of ideas.

Queen’s University Belfast, October 2017

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