John Owen, the Old Testament and the Covenant of Grace



We have been discussing the Particular Baptist theological views on the Puritanboard and it is very apparent that the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith is very different than the views confessed by those who hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith.  Both sides have a deep reverence for the Independent Puritan John Owen who held to a Confessional statement known as the Savoy Declaration.  The Reformed Baptist use Owen to say that the Covenant of Grace was not established until the New Covenant fulfilled the Old Covenant and the Promises found in the Old Testament.  But that has been a debated topic for years.  John Owen may be very confusing to some and he has written a lot.  It is hard to understand him sometimes so he must be read and understood in the full context of his whole writing.


Anyways, one of the Elders on the board put together a response that I have found to be very informative.  So has another Scholar I respect from years past.  I will post both replies from the Puritanboard here.  I believe both of them are in response to a Baptist who holds to a rather newer understanding of Reformed Baptist Theology.  It is called 1689 Federalism.  It is a newer view only in the fact that much of its theology is rediscovered theology from the 17th Century.

I will post Paul Korte’s observations first. Then I will post Rich Leino’s observations.

Paul Korte

If one’s goal is to attain an understanding of Owen’s covenant position*, forward progress, no matter the strength or subtlety of your mental gymnastics, will be crippled so long as the intellectual wrestling takes place within the narrow confines of his commentary on the eighth chapter of Hebrews. It is the equivalent of trying to learn the definition of “antidisestablishmentarianism” by only reading the definitions of “anti-” and “establish” over and over again. The problem is made worse by attempting to read Owen through the lens of current discussions and debates. While we sit and debate Owen’s stance on matters with which Owen, quite frankly, wasn’t concerned, he might be standing ahead assuming the form of Whitman, saying “missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.” The simple fact is, he’s already ahead of you just waiting for you to catch up to him.

After reading through the whole of Owen, I was faced with the inescapable conclusion – all these discussions get him completely wrong. Not only that, but he’s probably more thoroughly in keeping with the Westminster Confession than most people who are arguing about what to do with Owen’s embarrassingly wide departure from the confession. The reason for the mental disconnect, I would suggest, lies with the fact that Owen is thinking of the historical manifestation of salvation within the framework of a term I never see brought into the discussion: the “church-state.” The discussion board nature severely limits what can reasonably be posted, so I will be highly selective and limit commentary, hoping the selection and arrangement of quotations can allow enough of Owen to shine through to make his thought a bit more clear.

To begin, consider the following passage from his The True Nature of a Gospel Church, roughly contemporaneous to material normally discussed from his commentary:

Thus under the old testament, when God would take the posterity of Abraham into a new, peculiar church-state, he did it by a solemn covenant. Herein, as he prescribed all the duties of his worship to them, and made them many blessed promises of his presence, with powers and privileges innumerable, so the people solemnly covenanted and engaged with him that they would do and observe all that he had commanded them; whereby they coalesced into that church-state which abode unto the time of reformation. This covenant is at large declared, Exodus 24: for the covenant which God made there with the people, and they with him, was not the covenant of grace under a legal dispensation, for that was established unto the seed of Abraham four hundred years before, in the promise with the seal of circumcision; nor was it the covenant of works under a gospel dispensation, for God never renewed that covenant under any consideration whatever; but it was a peculiar covenant which God then made with them, and had not made with their fathers, Deuteronomy 5:2,3, whereby they were raised and erected into a church-state, wherein they were intrusted with all the privileges and enjoined all the duties which God had annexed thereunto. This covenant was the sole formal cause of their church-state, which they are charged so often to have broken, and which they so often solemnly renewed unto God. (Ch. 2, paragraph 18**, bold emphasis mine)​

Note that “the Abrahamic Covenant” is referred to here as the legal administration of the covenant of grace. The Sinai covenant is the taking of the people who are under this legal administration of the covenant of grace and formally enacting a particular and specific church-state which will govern them. It is not something contrary to the Abrahamic covenant, but rather a “particularization” of it: accordingly, Owen can elsewhere (Exercitation 21, paragraph 7) that the promises of the Sinai covenant are “annexed to the then present administration of the covenant of grace.”

These “annexed promises,” this formal enacting of a specific church-state, is also sometimes referred to by Owen as an “administration” of the covenant. For example, in Exercitation 19 (paragraph 34), he writes:

That which God, on the other hand, requires of them is, that they keep his covenant, Exodus 19:5. Now, this covenant of God with them had a double expression; – first, In the giving of it unto Abraham, and its confirmation by the sign of circumcision. But this is not that which is here especially intended; for it was the administration of the covenant, wherein the whole people became the peculiar treasure and inheritance of God upon a new account, which is respected.​

This passage is important for understanding Owen’s framework. This language of the Sinai Covenant “administering” the covenant (under its “legal” or “Abrahamic” dispensation) situates Owen with the mainstream of Westminster theology, and accounts for his ability to write things such as the following without contradiction:

After the fall he entered into another covenant with mankind, which, from the principle, nature and ends of it, is commonly called the covenant of grace. This, under several forms of external administration, hath continued ever since in force, and shall do so to the consummation of all things.(Exercitation 28, paragraph 2)​

This helps to contextualize what he means, for example, when he states in the tenth chapter of his Christologia:
All the promises that God gave afterwards [that is, after the promise to Adam] unto the church under the Old Testament, before and after giving the law — all the covenants that he entered into with particular persons, or the whole congregation of believers — were all of them declarations and confirmations of the first promise, or the way of salvation by the mediation of his Son, becoming the seed of the woman, to break the head of the serpent, and to work out the deliverance of mankind.[/indent]

Throughout his Hebrews commentary, Owen argues that the purpose of the covenant at Sinai was to formally establish a visible church-state (with all its terms and obedience) with his covenanted people so as to preserve a separate people who hold forth visible tokens and signs of the coming Messiah and what he will enact when he comes. Thus it is, as he says, “not a mere dispensation of the covenant of grace”, though it did administer the legal dispensation of the covenant, but a “particular, temporary covenant.” This doesn’t change the fact that, by its very nature as a covenant “whereby that people walked with God,” it administered the terms of the covenant of grace.

With this basic framework in mind, I wish to present material on two related topics: 1.) Owen’s conception of what “the Law” referred to in its Sinaitic context; and 2.) In what way the Sinai Covenant was inadequate, and how this relates to his discussion of the word “established,” as pertains to the New Covenant.

For the first, the rule was (plainly) the Moral Law. But Owen does not mean by “The Law” the law considered nakedly. For example, in his Christologia (ch. 11), he states: “Howbeit, as the Church of Israel, as such, was not obliged unto obedience unto the moral law absolutely considered, but as it was given unto them peculiarly in the hand of a mediator.” Also, in the fourteenth chapter of his Doctrine of Justification:

That this law, this rule of obedience, as it was ordained of God to be the instrument of his rule of the church, and by virtue of the covenant made with Abraham, unto whose administration it was adapted, and which its introduction on Sinai did not disannul, was accompanied with a power and efficacy enabling unto obedience. The law itself, as merely receptive and commanding, administered no power or ability unto those that were under its authority to yield obedience unto it; no more do the mere commands of the gospel. Moreover, under the Old Testament it enforced obedience on the minds and consciences of men by the manner of its first delivery, and the severity of its sanction, so as to fill them with fear and bondage; and was, besides, accompanied with such burdensome rules of outward worship, as made it a heavy yoke unto the people. But as it was God’s doctrine, teaching, instruction in all acceptable obedience unto himself, and was adapted unto the covenant of Abraham, it was accompanied with an administration of effectual grace, procuring and promoting obedience in the church. And the law is not to be looked on as separated from those aids unto obedience which God administered under the Old Testament; whose effects are therefore ascribed unto the law itself See Psalm 1,19,119.​

Finally, note that in Exercitation 21, he again writes that the Law or the rule of the Covenant was “the law” considered in itself, but the law “accommodated” to (the legal dispensation of) the covenant of grace:

In that it [the law] had a dispensation added unto the commands of obedience, and interpretation, kat’ epeikeian, by condescension, given by God himself, as to the perfection of its observance and manner of its performance in reference unto this new end. It required not absolutely perfect obedience, but perfectness of heart, integrity, and uprightness, in them that obeyed.​

This is pure Burroughs, pure Boston. In short, pure, plain-vanilla Westminster understanding of the law as accommodated to the covenant of grace. So long as “law” is understood to mean “command” and “gospel,” “promise,” Owen will be unintelligible. He as to be understood in his own, Westminster context wherein the covenant of grace itself contains commands and even threatenings which “are annexed to the dispensation of the covenant of grace, as an instituted means to reader it effectual, and to accomplish the ends of it” (Hebrews, ch. 4, vv.1-2, emphasis original).

As to the second topic, I direct the reader first back to the opening quotation from The True Nature of the Gospel Church.With that in mind, I wish to offer two further passages from his Hebrews commentary. Much of the confusion regarding Owen’s understanding, I think, results from his comparisons of what “The Law” and “The New Covenant” respectively accomplish/ed. His repeated statements that “The Law” or “Sinai” could not perfect the people cause readers to believe Owen is saying something far different from what he intends. Let’s let Owen set the record straight:

Now, it is not the rest of heaven that, in this antithesis between the law and the gospel, is opposed hereunto, but the rest that believers have in Christ, with that church-state and worship which by him, as the great prophet of the church, in answer unto Moses, was erected, and into the possession whereof he powerfully leads them, as did Joshua the people of old into the rest of Canaan. (Ch. 4, vv.1-2 – the whole section ought to be read; emphasis original)​

Further, from chapter 9:

He doth not in this place compare together and oppose the future state of glory which we shall have by Christ with and unto the state of the church in this world under the old testament….But he compares the present state of the church, the privileges, advantages, and grace which it enjoyed by the priesthood of Christ, with what it had by the Aaronical priesthood; for the fundamental principle which he confirms is, that the teleiosin, or present “perfection” of the church, is the effect of the priesthood of Christ.​

And finally, see especially his comments on ch. 7 v.11, where he details at length how the ability to perfect which is denied to “The Law” is not the “perfection” or “salvation” of the individual, but to the perfection of the “church-state.” It is in this context that Owen’s famous discussion of the word “established” in chapter 8 is to be understood. It is only when the blood of the covenant has been shed that the testamentary grant can truly be enacted; and, accordingly, it is only then that the substance of the covenant can become the sole “rule” of the covenant and the church “perfected” or brought into its full, covenant church-state.

I realize the discussion board format is inadequate to advance these ideas in a truly meaningful or useful way – what I have presented is far too long for a discussion board, but far too short and “ad hoc” to interact meaningfully on the topic. But I hope that it can help at least point readers to the context in which they should be reading Owen. If one reads portions of Owen, the “baby Owen” created thereby will, indeed, diverge from the Westminster tradition; if one reads all of Owen, I think they will find he instead illuminates much of the tradition and exposes us to the current blind spots in our own self-understanding.

I think Matthew Winzer’s comments on the material which others have quoted in this thread need to be considered carefully. He is fairly and correctly placing Owen within his proper tradition.

I do apologize for not being able to stick around and discuss this further – but participating in the board is not currently practical. Nevertheless, I saw this discussion a few days ago, and wanted to at least be able to offer a suggestion for direction, and then allow those better qualified to make what they will of it.

*Please, if anything in this post duplicates material presented in the recent paper or monograph referenced earlier in the thread, accept my deepest apologies. I will delete this post so as not to give people a substitute for someone’s published research. I have not been able to keep up on the literature.

**I’ve tried to adopt a “generic” reference system for this post so people with various editions of his work can easily locate the texts in question.

Rather than post another reply to a long thread, I just want to post a bit of information that provides some information for those who keep getting referred to see how Owen refers to the OC as not belonging to the CoG. I actually think Owen makes some good points but I also think there is some nuance that allows for those who want to appropriate him for reasons that I don’t believe he would want to be appropriated.

Here’s what Beeke and Jones write about him here:

Here’s what Owen writes: