Reflections on John Owen’s “The Death of Death”

Michael Lynch
Friday, November 19th 2021

It’s been over ten years since I last read John Owen’s famous (or infamous!) treatise on the extent of Christ’s atonement, popularly called The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Since that time, I have written a dissertation on John Davenant, an English delegate to the Synod of Dordt, and his own book on the topic entitled De Morte Christ (or On the Death of Christ) (now published as John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism). My latest reading of Owen’s book elicited many different thoughts on the early modern debate and on Owen’s book more specifically. I’ll limit myself to two observations, a theological one and a methodological one.

Background to Owen’s Death of Death

Owen’s treatise is relatively late insofar as early modern discussion regarding the extent of Christ’s work is concerned. Published when he was only thirty-four in 1648, this work is some sixty years after the initial flurry of arguments over predestination and extent of the atonement had ensued among the Lutherans and Reformed near the end of the 16th century. Shortly afterwards, at the beginning of the 17th century, pugilism was renewed this time amongst the Remonstrants (or Arminians) and the Reformed, leading directly to the Synod of Dordt, and its Canons (see the Second Main Doctrine). Because Lutheranism and Arminianism—especially the latter—continued to pose a threat to Reformed theology in England, Owen’s book was a natural result of such ongoing conflict.

Two Observations

The first observation about Owen’s work is its logical coherence and precision. Although Owen later claimed that the work was intended to be popular rather than scholastic, it nevertheless is quite clearly a production of a keen mind trained by the best 17th century early modern education had to offer. Owen’s theological system is quite tight, offering few avenues of criticism inside its structure. Even so, I did have two questions Owen never seemed to answer. First (Works, 10:295–96), why does he insist that God ordained Christ to make an infinitely valuable sacrifice for sins if he grounds such value in the nature of the sacrifice itself? If something is ex natura rei infinitely valuable, what need is there for a divine ordination to say it is? To use an analogy, assuming that God has created the number one, there is no need for a divine ordination to determine that 1+1=2. Why? Because it is in the nature themselves of oneness and twoness that 1+1=2. And this leads me to the second question relative to Owen’s scheme. Why can there not be a gospel offer to fallen angels under his own scheme? John Owen grounds the indiscriminate gospel offer (or command) upon the infinite value of Christ’s death (Works, 10:297–98). That value is itself grounded on the nature of the person and work: Christ was God (in the flesh) and he bore great pain in his suffering (Works, 10:296). Owen claims that because the internal value of Christ’s work is infinite, even the reprobate can be commanded to believe the gospel, because were they to believe, they would be saved. Christ would have needed to do or suffer no more were there more elect people. But, why can’t this equally be said of the fallen angels? Of course, most would answer: because Christ did not take upon the nature of angels; he took upon human nature. But Owen clearly claims that Christ was not incarnate for the non-elect (Works, 10:174–75). Then, I ask, why would it not be lawful to offer the gospel to the fallen angels? What reason would there be for an infinitely valuable sacrifice not to be sufficient grounds to offer the gospel to the fallen angels, since it is offerable to the non-elect? Let me be clear, I am not saying Owen doesn’t have an answer, but I’m unable to discern it from his treatise.

My second observation is that Owen is much better than his foil, his chief interlocutor. No one would have known it at the time, but Owen would go on to have a huge impact on 17th century English theology. His interlocutor, on the other hand, Thomas More (not a famous More), was basically a self-educated amateur theologian. This allows Owen to eviscerate his opponent, but doesn’t make for a very even fight, as it were. This work is not the result of two heavyweight theologians going at each other, but one highly trained, albeit young, theologian cutting his theological teeth on a poor underqualified adversary; Owen is Mike Tyson at the beginning of his career—it wasn’t pretty for the other guys. This is a shame for a number of reasons. First, good foils make for better discussion. Thomas More could hardly form a syllogism. By contrast, Owen claimed to have studied the topic seven years before putting pen to paper (Works, 10:149). Second, his animadversions against More kept him from spending time on those who had a greater share of his own theological presuppositions. Owen focuses on the arguments of the “famous assertors of universal redemption, whether Lutherans or Arminians” (Works, 10:379). While he occasionally mentions the French Amyraldians, he does not spend any significant space wrestling with their arguments. As for English hypothetical universalism—the kind proffered by James Ussher or defended at the Westminster Assembly by some of the leading English Presbyterians—he shows no sign of being aware of that species of Reformed theology. Finally, time and again in early modern Reformed theology, controversial issues are seemingly never resolved precisely because the chief interlocutors never engage each other. For example, Jacob Arminius wrote a work against William Perkins’ treatise on predestination, but Perkins had died before Arminius’ work was published. Perkins and Arminius would have made for a great dialogue. Similarly, Davenant’s treatise on the death of Christ was published posthumously, neither allowing him to respond to any criticism, nor allowing interlocutors to respond, because all had by that time died. Most notably, the Synod of Dordt, which promised a face-to-face discussion between the leading Arminians and Reformed theologians of the period, turned out only to include the latter because the Arminians did not want to follow the rules laid down by the magistrate. The Arminians were kicked out of the Synod and there was only some written back-and-forth between the two parties after the Synod.

My overall impression of Owen’s Death of Death is positive. While I am not convinced of everything he argues for, I have a greater appreciation for his exegetical skills than I once did. More than anything, though, I wish it had been written after Davenant’s work had been published (which was published only two years after Owen’s book!). I would have liked to have seen how Owen would have interacted with Davenant’s arguments. Instead, we as historians are left to speculate. Such is history—where as many chance opportunities are missed as they are had.

Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism.

Friday, November 19th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology