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.