I learned that John Owen’s brutal study regime ruined his health. One thing I do not is know how many sets of theological writings are bought in sold in the quantities that John Owen’s are, but I doubt many theologians regularly have sets of that size sold (which is not to say, of course, they’re read). Of course, there are a few factors in that, including the fact that somebody went to the trouble to edit them in a more-or-less complete set and then the Banner of Truth settled on them and deals can be had. But intrinsic merit is still one of those factors. And that, in turn, has to do with his diligence.
For me John Owen is notoriously tedious. Great writing style? No. Swift, lucid progress? No. Difficult distinctions that you have to go back to Scotus to figure out? Yes, amazingly. And his life is set in that peculiar portion of English History that I am finding harder to untangle than the knots of medieval theology. He argues against the anti-metaphysical Socinians, displaying how wrong they are, but no intelligent person (including John Owen, I have to believe) expected them to read his work and put away their beliefs. He had another audience in view. His object was not to win the Socinians over, nor to entertain persons with lively writing, though his Socinian catechism is pretty amusing. His object was carefully to expose error and be as thorough as possible; and it is because that was usually his object, I think, that the impact of reading Owen is not sudden, it is cumulative.
Because Owen was relentlessly serious, relentlessly thorough. You may start, for example, Mortification of Sin wondering how this will ever help anybody, you will end with a mindset for life that will last. It is all function. There is nothing to draw the eye, nothing aside from the solid, durable armor he forges. The positive effect of Owen is the cumulative effect of what he is doing, where he is going. I think that is why he is still being read and considered. Once you understand, by other means perhaps, why he is going after something, you appreciate, if not how he goes after it, that he goes after it as thoroughly as he does.
I think there’s a better way to go after those being swayed by anti-metaphysical notions; it is called The Silver Chair. But if you were looking for arguments against Socinian inroads, then John Owen has the compendium. I’m thinking of him as the Irenaeus of Lyons of his day since he was rather compendious and entire, and proceeding through him is like chewing sawdust—or what I imagine that to be. Perhaps the advantage of Owen is that he is more coherent than Irenaeus of old. But comparing him with Irenaeus I remember the bishop of Lyons’ work was commissioned by the bishop of Rome, for pastoral use. So Owen’s works are pastor’s reading, reading for those who are serious and to some degree trained (which doesn’t just have to be pastors). I think the Reformed Baptists’ ethos (among whom I’ve been and whose convictions I have come to share) was formed by Owen; the Mortification of Sin approach to ministry is what I most get from them. I remember thinking in Colombia how hard it would be to produce the same kind of approach because they did not have the works of John Owen, and I could not imagine what a Reformed Baptist pastor would look like who did not read and use Owen (of course, there are many reformedish Baptists, but we do not speak of them).
So it endures. John Owen’s brutal study regime ruined his health, and what we have are his works.
Interesting note: asked about lessons drawn from John Owen at the conclusion of the class, the great man first of all listed the importance of a metaphysic.