The Purpose of Theology in Times of Uncertainty

by Jason G. Duesing November 10, 2023

For the first time in centuries, England had no King.

What started with saber rattling led to a fractious civil war. After years of conflict during the 1640s, the anti-royalists terminated the war with a celebratory sabrage of the monarchy. Many declared the end of the world had come.

For students at Oxford University, this political instability brought anxiety. Where would they serve after graduation? In what state would they find the country? Could one find a job with any kind of financial security or projected path of safety and success?

These were uncertain times.

To address the concerns of the students, one theologian brought help and comfort by, believe it or not, teaching theology.

John Owen was an intellectual giant in the seventeenth century. As a Puritan who advocated reform within the Church of England, Owen saw his influence grow during the time when there was no King. When Oxford University needed leadership, the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, appointed Owen to serve as dean.

Owen’s role at Oxford also meant he had significant influence over the teaching of undergraduate students—and the students loved him.

Owen’s propensity to challenge formality in dress, no doubt, contributed to his large following among the students. He wore unconventional ribbons around his knees with Spanish leather boots. On top of his powdered hair, he wore a hat tilted, for effect, to one side.

Yet, it was Owen’s homiletical approach that had a lasting effect. Anthony Wood recounted that Owen’s “graceful behaviour in the pulpit” could move “the affections of his admiring auditory almost as he pleased.”1 As a regular practice during those years of country-wide instability, Owen and his fellow Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, each preached in the local university colleges on Sunday morning. Then they preached a schedule of Sunday afternoon sermons for undergraduate students in the University Church “St. Mary’s.”

These sermons were orthodox and precise, true and clear, but were more than a right ordering of facts—they were meant to ground and encourage the students to grow in their relationship with God, especially in uncertain times. Crawford Gribben notes that these university sermons “combined the theological mode with the devotional.”2 That is, in an era of tumult, Owen chose to give students theology with a fixed aim: to edify and point them to God.

This focus on edification is remarkable given the pressures Owen felt “to govern a restless and uneasy university community and to manage its affairs under a government in political turmoil.”3 As Gribben explains, Owen saw that “the scholastic bent of much mid-seventeenth century preaching and writing was not producing the godliness that [he] believed it should.”4 So, he designed his sermons to meet that need.

We know this was the case because Owen’s St. Mary’s sermons, while not extant, served as the basis for Owen’s later works including Of the Mortification of Sin (1656), Of Communion with God (1657), and Of Temptation (1658).5

Indeed, Owen’s sermons on communion with God serve as a prime example as they emphasized the believer’s relationship with the Triune God.6 As Beeke and Jones explain, in his sermons “Owen embraced the idea of enjoying the Trinity and amplified it through the concept of distinct communion with each divine person.”7 This is seen right at the start of Of Communion with God where Owen cited 1 John 1:3 to show his student audience that fellowship is with God himself.8

Owen continued to explain how “this distinct communion, then, of the saints with the Father, Son, and Spirit, is very plain in the Scripture.”9 The idea that man could have fellowship with God is remarkable given that “since the entrance of sin, no man hath any communion with God.” Yet, through the “manifestation of grace and pardoning mercy … in Christ we have boldness and access with confidence to God.”10

Naturally, two thirds of Owen’s sermons focused on communion with the Son given that communion with God is not possible without the sacrifice of the Son. Owen explained that “[b]ecause Christ was God and man in one person, he was able to suffer and to bear whatever punishment was due to us…. There was room enough in Christ’s breast to receive the points of all the swords that were sharpened by the law against us. And there was strength enough in Christ’s shoulders to bear the burden of that curse that was due us.”11

Given the work of Christ on our behalf, Owen exhorted the students to, “receive Christ in all his excellences and glories as he gives himself to us. Frequently think of him by faith, comparing him with other beloveds, such as sin, the world and legal righteousness. Then you will more and more prefer him above them all, and you will count them as all rubbish in comparison to him.”12

In tumultuous times, communion with God, then, is both “perfect and complete” and “initial and incomplete.” It is perfect and complete, Owen explained, “in the full fruition of his glory,” and initial and incomplete “in the first fruits and dawnings of that perfection which we have here in grace.”13 Thus, contemplation on fellowship with God strengthens those anxious about the earthly world seemingly turned upside down all around them.

Indeed, Owen’s sermons edified during an era of confusion and distraction for students living in Oxford. His emphasis on the relationship a believer can have with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit is just one example of how he showed how one should live, with and for God.

John Owen knew that the purpose of theology in times of uncertainty is to edify and promote communion with the living God. Jesus Christ is, after all, the light of the world, and in dark days whoever walks with him, “will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 12:12). It is good and right to ensure one’s theology is good and right, but failing to edify and point people to fellowship with God, does not produce godliness and fails to give hope.14

*This article is adapted from the forthcoming essay “Beacons from the Spire: Evangelical Theology and History in Oxford’s University Church” scheduled to appear in the December 2023 issue of Themelios.

1. Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1820), 4:741.
2. Crawford Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 130.
3. Gribben, John Owen, 172.
4. Gribben, John Owen, 173.
5. Peter Toon, ed. The Correspondence of John Owen (1616-1683): With an Account of His Life and Work (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1970), 47.
6. Philip Henry (1631–1696), father of the Presbyterian leader, Matthew Henry, was a student at this time and reflected on the helps he had “not only for learning, but for religion and piety.” Of the latter, he mentioned the sermons by Owen and Goodwin “on the Lord’s day, in the afternoon.” See Matthew Henry, Life and Times of Rev. Philip Henry, M.A. (London: Thomas Nelson Paternoster Row, 1848), 60.
7. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012), 103, 105, 111.
8. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, reprint ed. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 2:5.
9. Owen, Works, 2:11.
10. Owen, Works, 2:6–7.
11. This text taken from John Owen, Communion with God, abridged by J. K. Law (London: Banner of Truth, 1991), 66. See original in Owen, Works, 2:67.
12. This text taken from Owen, Communion with God, 60. See original in Owen, Works, 2:59.
13. Owen, Works, 2:9.
14. A wonderful example of theology preached and written for edification can be found in Jared C. Wilson’s recent book, Friendship with the Friend of Sinners: The Remarkable Possibility of Closeness with Christ (Baker Books, 2023).

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