Trinitarian Spirituality: John Owen and The Doctrine of God in Western Devotion

January 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

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Few theologians have impacted me personally more than John Owen. I stumbled upon his writings early in my time at Dallas, and probably learned more about soteriology and sanctification in reading his Glory of Christ and The Holy Spirit: His Gifts and Power than I did in my classes. That’s not to talk down about Dallas Seminary classes (may it never be!) but just to elevate the depth and density of thought in Owen’s writings.

I’ve posted a few thoughts on this book previously, (Questioning Your Spirituality and Unitarian vs. Trinitarian Worship) and now it’s time for a more formal review.

Overview

In Trinitarian Spirituality, we have an in depth examination of the devotional model in his Communion With the Triune God. After an introductory chapter setting the stage, author Brian Kay dives right in to a discussion of the historical roots of the divorce of spirituality and theology. In short, many devotional models that claim to be distinctly Christian are not sufficiently rooted in a Trinitarian doctrine of God. For these models, were the Trinity proved to be an invalid doctrine, they could proceed more or less unaffected.

Part of the problem for these models is that “both theology and spirituality [tend] to operate as overly distinct disciplines that can be pursued without reference to one another” (p. 11). While that is perhaps a larger problem concerning a lack of communication between the two disciplines, a more specific issue with the deficient models is that they aren’t rooted the the work of God in the divine drama of redemption:

 Models of spirituality that are not trinitarian in these ways fail to be specific or concrete enough to inspire sustained interest and tend toward, at best, boredom, whereas the trinitarian history of salvation is compelling drama, a true story that while executed in history, has the believer’s transformation as part of its goal and can thus sustain the believer with rich content for prayer and mediation (p. 15-16).

In chapter 3 then, the search begins for a viable model of Trinitarian spirituality. There, Kay poses two criteria (p. 30):

  1. Given the “Great Tradition” of the relatively stable doctrine of the Trinity, Christian spiritualities can be evaluated by how well they comport with this doctrinal tradition, or even better, to what extent they explicitly draw from it.
  2. The commendable recent emphasis that the Trinity is revealed most clearly through the divine acts in salvation history suggests that a thoroughly trinitarian spirituality will anchor itself in obvious ways on the historia salutis.

In short, Kay is evaluating models on (1) how explicitly the draw from a Trinitarian doctrine of God and (2) how focused the model is on the divine acts in history rather than an abstract collection of attributes. He is ultimately looking for a model of spirituality that would “come completely undone if the doctrine of the Trinity were proved untrue” (p. 31). Through the search, Kay hopes to demonstrate that “devotion must stay connected to doctrine to remain robust as well as fully Christian” (p. 44).

To set the context further, he probes three doctrinal traditions in the remainder of chapter 3: early Quakerism, the mysticism of late-middle ages realism, and 16th and 17th century popularized scholasticism (p. 45). Kay picks these schools because they help shed light on Owen’s approach, which for Kay is a “a high watermark in making practical the classic doctrine [of God as Trinity] as well as redemptive drama.”

What follows is a rather lengthy historical analysis and survey regarding these various traditions. This may be the hardest part of the book for many readers to get into. While on the surface it may seem like an arcane rabbit trail into obscure, outdated forms of spirituality, at least one of the examples, Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ, is still fairly popular. In Kay’s telling analysis though, Imitation of Christ is in the end more about moralism and trying hard enough than it is about really seeing and savoring the work of Christ already done on your behalf. Or to use his quote direct from Kempis: “Behold, in the cross is everything, and upon your dying on the cross everything depends” (p. 88). In this way, Imitation of Christ fits square within the tradition of devotio moderna that as a whole tend towards moralism.

While much more could be said about Kay’s historical survey, it could be summarized as providing a generous analysis of devotional models that pre-date Owen and from which he would have drawn.  It tries to highlight the benefits of the various schools but doesn’t pull punches to show their deficiencies.

This apporpriately sets the stage for chapter 4 which begins detailing the basic features of true Trinitarian spirituality. This, and the following chapter, are worth the price of the book. I’ve read Owen’s Communion With the Triune God already, but after reading Kay’s analysis and following him as he uncovers the architecture underlying Owen’s thought was very helpful.

After discussing the general features of a Trinitarian spirituality, Kay highlights two ways Owen breaks new ground in this area:

  1. He emphasizes the Trinity as “the foundational substructure upon which is constructed almost the entirety of Christian soteriology”
  2. He shows how the Christian’s devotional response to God takes on a distinctively trinitarian shape.

For Kay then, this makes Owen “more explicitly trinitarian than other Western theologians who might have essentially have agreed with his basic soteriology and doctrine of God” (p. 114). When he turns to an analysis of Owen’s Communion With the Triune God in chapter 5, this claim seems well validated. Over the course of 60 pages, Kay probes Owen’s understanding of communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Through it, his overall burden is to “show how a theology of God can directly program a spirituality,” and uses Owen as the quintessential case study.

Interestingly, when it comes to our understanding of God, in Owen’s mind love wins. But contra some more modern understanding’s of God’s love, Owen grounds love in the Father and sees the “great discovery of the gospel” to be a Christian coming to see God the Father “as one who delights in and cherishes her” (p. 126). As Kay summarizes:

The true depth of the love of God becomes clear only in the gift of Christ, who shows to what length God is willing to go in order to reclaim his people. Love is the first thing that should come to mind when the believer asks herself, “What does the Father think of me?” (ibid.)

And further explaining how Christ shows us the Father’s love:

The Father does not first love his people because of Christ’s mediation, rather, Christ’s mediation is the outworking of the Father’s prior love. For Owen, the love of the Father is the impetus for the whole plan of salvation, including his sending of the Son (p. 127).

Moving from this initial realization to the actual experience of Christian growth, Kay summarizes the succession of events that Owen has in mind:

The human soul, when it does not sense the love of the Father, realizes that it can find no rest. Christ has  come, though, to announce a way of rest for the soul by revealing the Father’s as supremely loving. Christ provides the soul access to the Father’s love, which has, in fact, been toward the believer for eternity and can now, for the first time, be experienced through the Son. When the soul trusts in Christ to deliver it to such love, it is brought into the very bosom of God. There the soul is soothed as it basks in the Father’s love – it has at last found its repose. Again, repose in the Father’s love becomes the experiential goal of Christian living (p. 130).

From this starting point, Kay continues throughout chapter 5 to unpack Owen’s understanding of communion with God through the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. He gives a thorough exposition that makes Owen more graspable to the average reader. But he does so in a way that stirs you to want to dig into Owen for further gems. As I was reading, it was like being reminded what kind of gold you can find in Owen, and like Sinclair Ferguson has remarked at least once somewhere, I wonder why I even read anything else.

Conclusion

As a kind of conclusion, Kay returns to his two criteria to evaluate how Owe lines up with them. As part of this, he explores briefly whether or not Owen strayed from the traditional understanding of the Trinity and how well he made devotional use of the divine drama of redemption. On both counts, Kay concludes that Owen lines up well. For the first, even though Owen goes into great detail about how one can have communion with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, he isn’t guilty of advocating tri-theism or fracturing the unity of the Godhead. For the second, Owen makes excellent use of the divine drama, even more so than other Reformed theologians and his contemporaries did.

Through all of this, Kay does an excellent job of presenting a careful study of John Owen’s devotional model and does much to help retrieve it for contemporary appropriation. If you haven’t read much of Owen, you really ought to, and if you want an in depth analysis of his devotional model in context as a gateway to further study, this is a superb place to start.


Brian M. Kay, Trinitarian Spirituality: John Owen and The Doctrine of God in Western Devotion (Studies in Christian History and Thought). Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, February, 2008. 214 pp. Paperback, $27.00.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Wipf & Stock for the review copy!

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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