Home > John Owen > Debating Owen: Jones & Beeke

Debating Owen: Jones & Beeke

Posting a response here that I made on the Puritanboard a while ago. See the thread here.

Here was the usual objection that we just don’t understand covenant theology nor Owen’s version of it:

From a couple of Puritan scholars who take a sober look at Owen’s Covenant theology:

This chapter will look specifically at John Owen’s covenant schema, with particular attention to the role of the Sinaitic or Mosaic covenant and its relation to the covenants of works and grace. By focusing specifically on Owen and the details of his thought, the hope is that he can be placed more accurately within the larger taxonomy of Reformed thinking on this issue. The evidence suggests that Owen’s covenant theology cannot be labeled by terms such as “dichotomous” and “trichotomous.” While these terms may prove helpful in other cases, Owen’s theology of the covenants is so complex that any attempt to label him in this way inevitably misses some of the nuances of his thought.

Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 294). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

Owen’s most detailed exposition of the old and new covenants flows out of his comments on Hebrews 8:6. However, in his exposition of Hebrews 7:9–10, Owen’s language may cause a great deal of confusion, especially given what has been said above. Quoting his words will make this potential problem apparent:
There were never absolutely any more than two covenants wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned. The first was the covenant of works, made with Adam, and with all in him. And what he did as the head of that covenant, as our representative therein, is imputed unto us, as if we had done it, Rom. 5:12. The other is that of grace, made originally with Christ, and through him with all the elect. And here lie the life and hope of our souls,—that what Christ did as the head of that covenant, as our representative, is all imputed unto us for righteousness and salvation.72
How should this statement be interpreted? One possibility is that Owen changed his definition of covenant as he moved from Hebrews 7:9–10 to Hebrews 8:6. Do his comments on Hebrews 8:6 reflect his more mature covenant theology? It is hard to see how a writer as theologically and intellectually sophisticated as Owen would so quickly change his opinion and understanding of what constitutes a biblical covenant. More likely, however, Owen’s observations on Hebrews 7:9–10 refer to general soteric principles rather than specific exegetical details. In other words, Owen uses “covenant” in two ways: one in a more general sense; another that is more specific and takes into account the exegetical requirements for what constitutes a biblical covenant (i.e., it must also be a testament). Speaking generally, then, Owen can say, without contradicting himself in his later comments on Hebrews 8:6, that the principle of representation (Rom. 5:12) manifest itself in the two Adams so that the only hope of salvation (for the elect) rests in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In this sense—and against Rehnman’s contention—Owen is better understood as a dichotomist rather than a trichotomist.

Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

Now, one may disagree with this conclusion but one has to do more than any of the following:

1. Simply label men as dishonest who have spent a great deal of time studying Owen but come to differing conclusions.

2. Simply rest one’s case on Owen’s commentary to the Hebrews. The note above about Owen’s exegetical fidelity is very important and there are larger Reformed methodologies at play than what appears on the surface if one simply spends all their time in Hebrews and becomes an expert on Owen’s theology of Hebrews. It is quite like “Pauline” scholars who claim that Paul has one theology in Ephesians and another in Romans or another Epistle or a totally different theology than James. One has to take into account the entire body of material as well as the methodology of the time. The point about Owen believing that a biblical covenant also had to be a testament to qualify as a biblical covenant has some nuance that needs to be unpacked and simply claiming to have Owen nailed down on Covenant theology because one knows everything he wrote in a exegetical commentary on Hebrews is not the same thing as saying they have nailed down Owen’s systematic view of the Covenant of Grace.

3. Simply point to Particular Baptists who claim they are just agreeing with the learned Owen on the matter. Look, these guys were intelligent just like studied men are on both sides of the issue today. If we are having trouble sorting out Owen on this issue then it’s not surprising if men in his own time had the same problem:

Given the complexity of Owen’s position, one may sympathize with Anthony Burgess’s statement that on this point of divinity he found “learned men … confused and perplexed.”73

Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

In other words, let us all grant that there are learned men here and confusion and perplexity about Owen is not surprising so a dose of both humility and charity is in order when trying to press him into service for a particular position.


Here is my response:

In other words, let us all grant that there are learned men here and confusion and perplexity about Owen is not surprising so a dose of both humility and charity is in order when trying to press him into service for a particular position.

Absolutely. But that’s a two way street. You need to be open to the possibility that baptist scholars have interpreted Owen correctly while others have not.

simply claiming to have Owen nailed down on Covenant theology because one knows everything he wrote in a exegetical commentary on Hebrews is not the same thing as saying they have nailed down Owen’s systematic view of the Covenant of Grace.

Note the inconsistency here. Beeke and Jones quote Owen’s exegetical commentary on Hebrews 7:9-10, treat it as systematic theology, and use it to interpret Owen’s commentary on 8:6. Let’s be consistent. Owen’s exegetical commentary includes systematic theological statements.

The evidence suggests that Owen’s covenant theology cannot be labeled by terms such as “dichotomous” and “trichotomous.” While these terms may prove helpful in other cases, Owen’s theology of the covenants is so complex that any attempt to label him in this way inevitably misses some of the nuances of his thought.

I agree! Which is why I don’t label him as dichotomous or trichotomous and have never argued for that. I agree with this conclusion:

Owen’s covenant theology must be appreciated both against the backdrop of the broader Reformed theological tradition and on its own terms if his covenant theology is to be accurately understood and assessed. In Owen’s case, the customary labels may not be helpful in describing the thought of one who produced his own “minority report” among the various interpretations of the seventeenth-century orthodox Reformed.

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11913-11916). . Kindle Edition.

I think people on this forum need to take note of that particularly.

There were never absolutely any more than two covenants wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned. The first was the covenant of works, made with Adam, and with all in him. And what he did as the head of that covenant, as our representative therein, is imputed unto us, as if we had done it, Rom. 5:12. The other is that of grace, made originally with Christ, and through him with all the elect. And here lie the life and hope of our souls,—that what Christ did as the head of that covenant, as our representative, is all imputed unto us for righteousness and salvation.72

How should this statement be interpreted? One possibility is that Owen changed his definition of covenant as he moved from Hebrews 7:9–10 to Hebrews 8:6. Do his comments on Hebrews 8:6 reflect his more mature covenant theology? It is hard to see how a writer as theologically and intellectually sophisticated as Owen would so quickly change his opinion and understanding of what constitutes a biblical covenant. More likely, however, Owen’s observations on Hebrews 7:9–10 refer to general soteric principles rather than specific exegetical details. In other words, Owen uses “covenant” in two ways: one in a more general sense; another that is more specific and takes into account the exegetical requirements for what constitutes a biblical covenant (i.e., it must also be a testament). Speaking generally, then, Owen can say, without contradicting himself in his later comments on Hebrews 8:6, that the principle of representation (Rom. 5:12) manifest itself in the two Adams so that the only hope of salvation (for the elect) rests in the second Adam, Jesus Christ. In this sense—and against Rehnman’s contention—Owen is better understood as a dichotomist rather than a trichotomist.

Beeke, J. R., & Jones, M. (2012). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (p. 302). Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books.

1. Owen does not deny that the Covenant of Works with Adam was a biblical covenant. He simply said that the specific covenant spoken of in Hebrews 8 was “a covenant and a testament” and therefore the Old Covenant was not referring to the Covenant of Works w/ Adam (which was not a testament).

Owen’s first concern is to show that the covenant made with Adam (i.e., the covenant of works), though not “expressly called a covenant,” but still containing the nature of a covenant (e.g., promises and threatening, rewards and punishments), “is not the covenant here intended [in Hebrews 8:6ff.].”25 The reason the covenant of works cannot be intended is because Hebrews 8 speaks of a “testament” (diatheke). The old in Hebrews 8 is both a covenant and a testament, and “there can be no testament, but there must be death for the confirmation of it, Heb. ix.16.”26

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11741-11746). . Kindle Edition.

He also said the Old Covenant in Hebrews 8 was not the Covenant of Works because (2) that covenant has ceased and (3) Israel never absolutely under the power of the Covenant of Works. In other words, he is making theological deductions and arguments about general soteric principles, not just “specific exegetical details”.

This is the covenant of works, absolutely the old, or first covenant that God made with men. But this is not the covenant here intended; for, —
1st. The covenant called afterwards “the first,” was diaqh>kh, a “testament.” So it is here called. It was such a covenant as was a testament also. Now there can be no testament, but there must be death for the confirmation of it, <580916>Hebrews 9:16. But in the making of the covenant with Adam, there was not the death of any thing, whence it might be called a testament…

2dly. That first covenant made with Adam, had, as unto any benefit to be expected from it, with respect unto acceptation with God, life, and salvation, ceased long before, even at the entrance of sin. It was not abolished or abrogated by any act of God, as a law, but only was made weak and insufficient unto its first end, as a covenant. God had provided a way for the salvation of sinners, declared in the first promise… as a covenant, obliging unto personal, perfect, sinless obedience, as the condition of life, to be performed by themselves, so it ceased to be, long before the introduction of the new covenant which the apostle speaks of, that was promised “in the latter days.” But the other covenant here spoken of was not removed or taken away, until this new covenant was actually established.

3dly. The church of Israel was never absolutely under the power of that covenant as a covenant of life; for from the days of Abraham, the promise was given unto them and their seed. And the apostle proves that no law could afterwards be given, or covenant made, that should disannul that promise, <480317>Galatians 3:17. But had they been brought under the old covenant of works, it would have disannulled the promise; for that covenant and the promise are diametrically opposite. (74-75)

2. There is not actually any contradiction to resolve. Owen said “There were never absolutely any more than two covenants wherein all persons indefinitely are concerned.” Since for Owen the various post-fall covenants prior to the New Covenant did not concern all persons indefinitely, there is no contradiction to resolve. (For example, Owen notes regarding the Mosaic Covenant “as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal.” It was a covenant specifically with Israel regarding life in the land of Canaan, with Moses as it’s mediator/head – not Christ, thus it was a separate covenant from the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace, but it did not concern all persons indefinitely so Owen does not have it in mind in that comment).

3. Owen spends a great deal of space in his Hebrews 8:6 exposition specifically addressing how to work out the question of how the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace relate to the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. It’s basically the whole thrust of his 150 pages

With respect hereunto it is that the Lord Christ is said to be the “mediator of a better covenant;” that is, of another distinct from it, and more excellent. It remains unto the exposition of the words, that we inquire what was this covenant, whereof our Lord Christ was the mediator, and what is here affirmed of it. This can be no other in general but that which we call “the covenant of grace.” And it is so called in opposition unto that of “works,” which was made with us in Adam; for these two, grace and works, do divide the ways of our relation unto God, being diametrically opposite, and every way inconsistent, Romans 11:6. Of this covenant the Lord Christ was the mediator from the foundation of the world, namely, from the giving of the first promise, Revelation 13:8; for it was given on his interposition, and all the benefits of it depended on his future actual mediation. But here ariseth the first difficulty of the context, and that in two things; for –

[1.] If this covenant of grace was made from the beginning, and if the LORD Christ was the mediator of it from the first, then where is the privilege of the gospel-state in opposition unto the law, by virtue of this covenant, seeing that under the law also the Lord Christ was the mediator of that covenant, which was from the beginning ?

[2.] If it be the covenant of grace which is intended, and that be opposed unto the covenant of works made with Adam, then the other covenant must be that covenant of works so made with Adam, which we have before disproved.

The answer hereunto is in the word here used by the apostle concerning this new covenant: nenomoqe>thtai, whose meaning we must inquire into. I say, therefore, that the apostle doth not here consider the new covenant absolutely, and as it was virtually administered from the foundation of the world, in the way of a promise; for as such it was consistent with that covenant made with the people in Sinai. And the apostle proves expressly, that the renovation of it made unto Abraham was no way abrogated by the giving of the law, Galatians 3:17. There was no interruption of its administration made by the introduction of the law. But he treats of such an establishment of the new covenant as wherewith the old covenant made at Sinai was absolutely inconsistent, and which was therefore to be removed out of the way. Wherefore he considers it here as it was actually completed, so as to bring along with it all the ordinances of worship which are proper unto it, the dispensation of the Spirit in them, and all the spiritual privileges wherewith they are accompanied. It is now so brought in as to become the entire rule of the church’s faith, obedience, and worship, in all things.

This is the meaning of the word nenomoqe>thtai: “established,” say we; but it is, “reduced into a fixed state of a law or ordinance.” All the obedience required in it, all the worship appointed by it, all the privileges exhibited in it, and the grace administered with them, are all given for a statute, law, and ordinance unto the church. That which before lay hid in promises, in many things obscure, the principal mysteries of it being a secret hid in God himself, was now brought to light; and that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise, put forth its efficacy under types and shadows, was now solemnly sealed, ratified, and confirmed, in the death and resurrection of Christ. It had before the confirmation of a promise, which is an oath; it had now the confirmation of a covenant, which is blood. That which before had no visible, outward worship, proper and peculiar unto it, is now made the only rule and instrument of worship unto the whole church, nothing being to be admitted therein but what belongs unto it, and is appointed by it. This the apostle intends by nenomoqe>thtai, the “legal establishment” of the new covenant, with all the ordinances of its worship. Hereon the other covenant was disannulled and removed; and not only the covenant itself, but all that system of sacred worship whereby it was administered. This was not done by the making of the covenant at first; yea, all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise, and was consistent therewith. When the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise, it did not introduce a worship and privileges expressive of it. Wherefore it was consistent with a form of worship, rites and ceremonies, and those composed into a yoke of bondage which belonged not unto it. And as these, being added after its giving, did not overthrow its nature as a promise, so they were inconsistent with it when it was completed as a covenant; for then all the worship of the church was to proceed from it, and to be conformed unto it. Then it was established. Hence it follows, in answer unto the second difficulty, that as a promise, it was opposed unto the covenant of works; as a covenant, it was opposed unto that of Sinai. This legalizing or authoritative establishment of the new covenant, and the worship thereunto belonging, did effect this alteration.
(77-78)

Thus for Owen, the solution is that the Covenant of Grace was not a covenant until Christ’s death. Beeke and Jones are incorrect when they say:

The evidence suggests that Owen does not simply equate the covenant of grace with the new covenant. For example, Owen writes, “When we speak of the ‘new covenant,’ we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely.”36…

For Owen, the covenant of grace only formally becomes a covenant through the death of Christ (Heb. 9:15–23), although this sacrifice had been decreed from before the foundation of the world. As a result, the new covenant, promised in the Old Testament, is not the promise of grace, but the actual “formal nature of a covenant” through its establishment by the death of Christ.40 The new covenant, then, is the fulfillment of the covenant of grace, but also distinguishable from it by virtue of being a testament. Hebrews 8 has, therefore, special reference not to the covenant of grace, but to the new covenant specifically.

Beeke, Joel R.; Jones, Mark (2012-10-14). A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Kindle Locations 11785-11789). . Kindle Edition.

They have misunderstood Owen’s comments. Owen does use “new covenant” and “covenant of grace” interchangeably. When he says “absolutely considered” he is not opposing the new covenant to the covenant of grace, he is opposing the covenant of grace promised vs the covenant of grace established. Nowhere does Owen say the new covenant is distinguished from the covenant of grace because the new covenant is a testament. Note how Owen uses “new covenant” and “covenant of grace” interchangeably.

that covenant which had invisibly, in the way of a promise… all this was superinduced into the covenant as given out in a promise… the new covenant was given out only in the way of a promise… Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.

Again, the distinction Owen makes is not between the covenant of grace and the new covenant, but instead between the covenant of grace (the new covenant) promised and the covenant of grace (the new covenant) established.

Owen rejects the one substance/multiple administrations view of the covenant of grace in favor of a promised/established view of the covenant of grace. And this is not simply in reference to the Mosaic Covenant but to all covenants in the bible:

2. When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though that were not before in being and efficacy, before the introduction of that which is promised in this place. For it was always the same, as to the substance of it, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and efficacy, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, do grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation unto the church, from the first entrance of sin. But for two reasons it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect unto any other things, nor was it so under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely under the old testament it consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture, Acts 2:39; Hebrews 6:14-16. The apostle indeed says, that the covenant was confirmed of God in Christ, before the giving of the law, Galatians 3:17. And so it was, not absolutely in itself, but in the promise and benefits of it. The nomoqesi>a, or full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only, and a promise under the old testament; for it wanted two things thereunto: —

(1.) It wanted its solemn confirmation and establishment, by the blood of the only sacrifice which belonged unto it. Before this was done in the death of Christ, it had not the formal nature of a covenant or a testament, as our apostle proves, Hebrews 9:15-23. For neither, as he shows in that place, would the law given at Sinai have been a covenant, had it not been confirmed with the blood of sacrifices. Wherefore the promise was not before a formal and solemn covenant.

(2.) This was wanting, that it was not the spring, rule, and measure of all the worship of the church. This doth belong unto every covenant, properly so called, that God makes with the church, that it be the entire rule of all the worship that God requires of it; which is that which they are to restipulate in their entrance into covenant with God. But so the covenant of grace was not under the old testament; for God did require of the church many duties of worship that did not belong thereunto. But now, under the new testament, this covenant, with its own seals and appointments, is the only rule and measure of all acceptable worship. Wherefore the new covenant promised in the Scripture, and here opposed unto the old, is not the promise of grace, mercy, life, and salvation by Christ, absolutely considered, but as it had the formal nature of a covenant given unto it, in its establishment by the death of Christ, the procuring cause of all its benefits, and the declaring of it to be the only rule of worship and obedience unto the church. So that although by “the covenant of grace,” we ofttimes understand no more but the way of life, grace, mercy, and salvation by Christ; yet by “the new covenant,” we intend its actual establishment in the death of Christ, with that blessed way of worship which by it is settled in the church.

3. Whilst the church enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise, wherein the substance of the covenant of grace was contained, before it was confirmed and made the sole rule of worship unto the church, it was not inconsistent with the holiness and wisdom of God to bring it under any other covenant, or prescribe unto it what forms of worship he pleased. It was not so, I say, upon these three suppositions: — …”

http://www.prayermeetings.org/files/…_8.1-10.39.pdf

Make sure to read “DOLPHINS IN THE WOODS”: A Critique of Mark Jones and Ted Van Raalte’s Presentation of Particular Baptist Covenant Theology, Samuel Renihan in the 2015 JIRBS. It deals with Owen as well. http://www.rbap.net/jirbs-2015-article-titles/

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