How to Read John Owen: Part 1

It is well-known that Owen has a reputation for being hard to read

In order to answer the question where to start reading Owen, it is helpful to ask first why his writings are difficult to read. Some have blamed Owen’s difficult style on his Latinized grammar. This is plausible, since he spent all of his education and a large part of his adult life speaking, teaching, and writing in Latin, which was virtually his first language. A proposed remedy to this problem has been to read Owen out loud. This is good advice, and it does help readers’ comprehension by increasing their concentration and keeping them moving through the text. However, there are other reasons Owen’s works are hard to read, and why some of his books are harder to read than others.

 
John Owen is ranked not only among the most significant Puritan theologians, but also among Reformed theologians generally in the seventeenth-century. He is one of the greatest Reformed thinkers of all time and he always ministers to both our hearts and minds. However, it is also well-known that Owen has a reputation for being hard to read. People can leave conferences excited to start reading him, only to get discouraged when they begin.

Owen did a lot of writing. The twenty-three volumes of the Banner of Truth edition of his Works (16 “Works” + 7 “Hebrews”) look large and imposing. They are actually even larger than they look. The small print and the dense content mean few will ever read and master his works in their entirety. The volumes of the Works do not contain all that he wrote. The Banner of Truth edition excludes the material he wrote in Latin, which made of most of volume 17 of the nineteenth-century William Goold collection. Stephen Westcott has loosely “translated” this material under the titleBiblical Theology. Several decades ago, Peter Toon also published a translation of Owen’s Oxford Orations and a collection of his surviving Letters. The question is where to begin reading and which books to prioritize.

Why Is Owen Hard to Read?
In order to answer the question where to start reading Owen, it is helpful to ask first why his writings are difficult to read. Some have blamed Owen’s difficult style on his Latinized grammar. This is plausible, since he spent all of his education and a large part of his adult life speaking, teaching, and writing in Latin, which was virtually his first language. A proposed remedy to this problem has been to read Owen out loud. This is good advice, and it does help readers’ comprehension by increasing their concentration and keeping them moving through the text. However, there are other reasons Owen’s works are hard to read, and why some of his books are harder to read than others.

As with many modern authors, Owen did not always write for the same audience. His writing aimed at audiences as wide and varied as students at Oxford, members of Parliament, fellow pastor/scholars, heretics, people in the pews, and teenage university students. Typically, a work bearing a Latin or Greek title offers a clue that it will be harder to read than others. William Goold has provided useful introductions to each volume of Owen’s Works in which he outlines the historical context and purpose of each book. These are included in the Banner of Truth reprint of this edition. Make good use of this material. As an illustration of the diverse character of his books, Owen wrote the Mortification of Sinfor teenagers at Oxford, and he preached the sermons in volume 9 for his congregation. However, he preached the sermons in volume 8 to Parliament, and Adminadversions on Fiat Lux to refute a modern threat from Roman Catholicism. The latter works are more demanding than the earlier ones listed here.

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