Thursday, November 13, 2008

John Owen's Decalogue

Dr Carl Trueman, a youngish Brit from Westminster Seminary, presented the next paper on the English nonconformist John Owen. Among a number of interesting facts Trueman gave by way of background, he said that it is generally believed that Owen was a tutor to John Locke, the influential thinker and writer of the 17th century. In fact, Locke dedicates a poem of his to one “J.O.” whom many suppose to be John Owen.

Trueman argued that the social and political turmoil that served as Owen’s context was important background to understand in order to rightly interpret Owen’s writing and though.

For Owen, the Decalogue and the Torah are rooted in God’s nature, and are revelations of that divine nature. As such, they are nonnegotiable absolutes to be followed. This Law defines the structure of the relationship between Creator and creature, but the Law does not serve as the mechanism by which men come to God. Like others, Owen believed that the Natural Law is intuitively grasped by human nature, but was obscured to one degree or another by sin. Owen extended this reasoning to argue that all people are obligated to abide by the precepts of the Decalogue by virtue of their being creatures within the law of creation, or law of nature. The law is relevant to all by virtue of its structure with Creation, so the moral laws explicated in the Decalogue are binding for all people.

Owen’s “covenant of works” on the other hand was the Law given at Sinai, and it established a covenant community, which abided by this Law. This expressly given law was a result of grace, where a broken creation vaguely grasps the universal law. Breaking the “covenant of works” did not break the law of creation; it was still binding for all, including God’s covenant people. I’m not sure, but the Decalogue seems to be a sort of crux connecting the Natural Law, or law of creation/nature written on the human heart, and the Sinai Covenant. Thus, the “covenant of works” is still rooted in the law of nature, but is a outgrowth of it in a specific context.

The Decalogue thus served both to inform and to remind. It informed sin-broken hearts of the law that was programmed into them at their creation. It reminded God’s covenant people that the law of nature remained in tact even in the “covenant of works” was broken, and thus still binding.

In regards to uses of the Law, Owen seems to disagree with Luther and agree with Calvin that the Law does serve as moral guide. For the believer, the Decalogue has a primarily positive significance, outlining the moral response to God in matters of sanctification; this also seems to align with Calvin’s thought. It also served to “terrify sinners” and point them to Christ, not the Law, and reveal to them their need for a mediator between them and God.

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