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Thursday, January 18, 2007 

Owen & Historical Theology
Topic: Theology

One of my requirements this past semester regarding historical theology was to find instances of the process done poorly. Posting some finding publicly isn't for the sake of discredit or pointing fingers, but to warn others of missteps and (re-)circulate better scholarship. Without further ado:

My example of bad historical theology is derived from Alan C. Clifford’s Atonement and Justification: English Evangelical Theology 1640 – 1790, An Evaluation.[1] His work stems from a personal reevaluation of Calvinism in light of contemporary research suggesting a discontinuity from the actual thinking of John Calvin and latter forms which would bear his moniker. Having been stimulated and confirmed by R. T. Kendall’s works,[2] his monograph deals with the issue of the nature of the atonement further down the chronological chamber than Kendall’s work. The fruit of his labors investigates the relationship between atonement, justification, and orthodoxy particularly between John Owen (1616 – 83) and John Wesley (1703 – 91), with Richard Baxter (1615 – 91) and John Tillotson (1630 – 94) filling in middling voices. His concluding observations lead the reader to understand that Calvin’s theological legacy was varied, and not always best continued by those who taught under his name.

There are a few puzzling moves Clifford makes that betray holes in his overall presentation, and we will here present three. First, Clifford thoroughly interacts with Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, but does not deal significantly with Owen’s mature work on Clifford’s locus, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith.[3] Secondly, the theological and social contexts that Owen and Wesley worked in varied significantly: different continents, denominations, contexts, and theological trends. These differences are not, however, developed by Clifford, and instead it is assumed without apology that their respective work and views can be thought of univocally.[4] Finally, Clifford anachronistically fails to account for development both philosophically and theologically: first regarding Owen’s and Wesley’s views and uses of Aristotle (part II, chapter 6) and within the Reformed tradition from Calvin to Owen to Barth. His misuse of Owen and Aristotle, and especially Clifford’s own appeal to David Hume and Bertrand Russell – which compounds the problems, has been pointed out before.[5]


[1]Clifford, Alan C. Atonement and Justification: English Evangelical Theology 1640 – 1790, An Evaluation. Oxford: Oxford & Clarendon Press, 1990. Back

[2]Trenchant among was: Kendall, R. T. Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1997. Back

[3]Mason, Mattew W. “The Significance of the Systematic and Polemical Function of Union with Christ in John Owen’s Contribution to Seventeenth Century Debates Concerning Eternal Justification” M.Th. Diss. Unpublished, May 2005. p. 34, n. 112. Back

[4]Ibid. p. 17 – 18. Clifford notes, “The fact that Wesley was not a contemporary of the others in no way affects the investigation, which is concerned primarily with their convictions rather than their careers” (ix). Back

[5]Trueman, Carl R. The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998. p. 216. Back

[Owen] | [historical theology]



Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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