Owen’s career was carried on in tumultuous times and in the midst of much personal trouble, ill-health, grief, and even fear for his life. He achieved much in his lifetime, but Gribben explains that by the end he was surrounded by the scent of failure.
Crawford Gribben is a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and is well known as a scholar of Puritanism, specializing on eschatology. He has written a previous book on John Owen which has garnered him much praise.
This work represents a modest exploration of the life and thought of the Puritan giant John Owen, and comes at the subject from a different angle than most of the biographies and studies of Owen I had encountered before. It is definitely a book by a historian, not a theologian (Sinclair Ferguson’s John Owen on the Christian Life is a good example of the latter). Gribben employs the device of the stages of life to understand Owen, and he is well-suited to the purpose. In particular, Owen’s experiences during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and then in the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy provide a good lens through which to view him and his writings.
The book consists of a chapter long Introduction followed by four chapters and the Conclusion. The main chapters deal with “Childhood,” Youth,” “Middle Age,” and “Death and Eternal Life,” as seen from Owen’s perspective. These phases of life are approached via Owen’s own thoughts, intermixed with facts about Owen’s life situations and temperament. All this is preceded by a full timeline.
Gribben’s Introduction (25-45) is very well done. He gives the reader much helpful information and sets up the four main chapters well, pulling you in to the life and times of his subject. Of particular note is the use of contemporary diaries and notebooks which make the oft romanticized figure of Owen more concrete. Owen’s career was carried on in tumultuous times and in the midst of much personal trouble, ill-health, grief, and even fear for his life. He achieved much in his lifetime, but Gribben explains that by the end he was surrounded by the scent of failure (39). Yet his impact was and is considerable, and not only as a theologian. One of the most interesting things in this book is the description later in the book of Owen’s thoughts on religious liberty (e.g. 94-103, 146-149). John Locke was a student of Owen and Gribben believes that,
Owen’s political theory – undeveloped as it was – made a very significant contribution to the emergence of the political tradition that has since been described as classical liberalism. His work anticipated by two decades Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689), which would make the best-known intervention in this emerging defense of civil and political liberty. (100-101).