Friday, April 10, 2015

John Owen's Theology of Atonement

Edwin E. M. Tay, The Priesthood of Christ: Atonement in the Theology of John Owen (1616-1683), Studies in Christian History and Thought (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2014). 207pp. Paperback.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

John Owen is one of the most significant British theologians of the Reformed orthodox period. His Death of Death in the Death of Christ is also one of the most significant treatments of the Reformed doctrine of the atonement, which is vital to Reformed gospel-preaching. Edwin Tay argues clearly, concisely, and convincingly that Owen’s doctrine of Christ’s oblation and intercession in relation to his priesthood “lies at the heart of his atonement theology” (23). His clear and concise analysis is very readable and will be useful for both historical and contemporary theological discussions.

In Chapter 1, Tay outlines the need for this study and sketches Owen’s teaching on the atonement from the Death of Death. However, he rightly acknowledges the need to develop Owen’s atonement theology in the context of his larger theological context. Tay chooses wisely to draw primarily from Owen’s multi-volume Hebrews commentary, which represents his most mature thinking and draws from all of his earlier major treatises. The Hebrews material has the additional advantage of demonstrating how Owen intertwined precise theology with careful exegesis. The subsequent chapters expand this theme in terms of the Triune God as the agent of redemption, what it means for Christ to be the Mediator between God and man, Christ’s priestly office, and his satisfaction for sin. Tay’s superb analysis of Owen’s theology treats a wide array of vital themes, such as the covenant of redemption, the incarnation and two natures of Christ, Christ’s active and passive obedience, and union with Christ. This book is well-written and takes careful account of the major contextual issues contributing to Owen’s theology.

Though this is an outstanding analysis of Owen’s theology in its international theological context, there is one significant drawback to the work. Tay does not cite the original text of any Latin theological works. He cites many translations of primary source literature, and he analyzes it well; but for a serious historical work of this kind, consulting the Latin originals are absolutely essential. This is both because these are the works that Owen most definitely read and influenced him, and because translations often suffer from limitations. The most glaring example is his reliance on Westcott’s translation of Owen’s Theologoumena Pantodapa, which is a very loose interpretation of the Latin text. This reviewer has noted elsewhere many places where Westcott repeatedly loses clear Trinitarian emphases found in the original text. This procedure is acceptable for a general readership, but consulting primary sources is a must for this level of scholarship. Moreover, many of the most significant works that Owen read and relied upon have not been translated into English. One of the benefits of scholarly literature on Reformed orthodox theology should be to draw from this international theological context in order to benefit those without the same skill level.

Tay’s study of Owen’s atonement theology breaks new ground in historical theology. It is precisely this kind of study that is needed in augmenting, and at times correcting, contemporary theological discussions. Though the work has some drawbacks as a scholarly work, it is a pleasure to read and will potentially benefit a broader audience.

This review was previously published in the Calvin Theological Journal.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Complex Relationship of Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Jeongmo Yoo, John Edwards (1637-1716) on Human Free Choice and Divine Necessity: The Debate on the Relation Between Divine Necessity and Human Freedom in Late Seventeenth-Century and Early Eighteenth-Century England, vol. 22 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013). 311pp. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Dr. Ryan McGraw

The relationship between human volition and God’s sovereignty has generated much theological controversy. Jeongmoo Yoo examines John Edwards’s teaching as representative of classic Reformed teaching on this subject. Edwards was an Anglican Reformed minister who was one of the few remaining Reformed orthodox theologians in a church increasingly dominated by Arminianism. Yoo explains Edwards’s teaching on the relationship between human choice and divine necessity and he challenges ably theological and historical caricatures of Reformed theology as a philosophically deterministic system. This book clarifies this complex issue, and it should prevent caricatures of Reformed teaching on the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

Yoo treats free choice in Edwards’s thought in relation to predestination, foreknowledge, providence, the origin of sin, and conversion. He sets Edwards in his seventeenth and early eighteenth century British context, though with less emphasis on the international character of Reformed orthodoxy at that time, other than giving evidence that scholastic distinctions diminished in the eighteenth century (151). However, Yoo draws from an impressive array of primary source material from both continental and British authors. His primary contention is that secondary literature has largely caricatured Reformed theology as a deterministic system. He argues instead that Reformed theologians, such as Edwards, taught that God ordained free and contingent causes freely and contingently without offering violence to the will of the creatures. Yoo proves his thesis so abundantly that the citations from Reformed authors become almost monotonous. Edwards breaks this monotony at one point with the surprising suggestion that there are possible exceptions to the divine decree infallibly and unchangeably determining all actions (131-133). It is difficult to see how such a a view is compatible with his otherwise standard Reformed theology. For these reasons, this work is useful to both systematic and historical theologians in their quest better to grasp Reformed orthodoxy.

The primary drawback of this volume relates to its style. There are a surprising number of typos and grammatical errors throughout the book. This includes frequent and obvious misspellings both of English and Latin terms, using the definite article in superfluous and awkward ways, confusing singular and plural nouns, and an inordinate number of superfluous sentences that increase the length of the book unnecessarily. The text reads as though the author is not at home expressing himself in the English language. It is more surprising that the publishers did not ensure that the author obtain help fixing these problems. While the work also expresses clearly the content of Edwards’s Reformed theology, there is very little analysis of the formulation and significance of that theology.

In short, Yoo’s work is a well-researched but simple book on a complex issue in Reformed theology. It is simple in that its arguments are clear, but perhaps too simple in its analysis. However, his research will likely help many readers better understand Reformed teaching on divine sovereignty and human freedom.

This review was previously published in the Calvin Theological Journal.