John Owen: Natural Theologian

Despite noise to the contrary, natural theology isn’t the sole possession of the Roman Catholic tradition; it is also part of the Reformed tradition. Consider John Owen.  In his Dissertation on Divine Justice, Owen (1616-1683) describes an “innate conception [of divine justice] implanted by God in the minds of men.”  For example,

…that celebrated response of the Delphic oracle, recorded by Ælian:—

“But divine Justice pursues those who are guilty of crimes,

Nor can it be avoided even by the descendants of Jupiter;

But it hangs over the heads of the wicked themselves, and over the heads of their Children; and one disaster to their race is followed by another.”

Then he quotes Horace:

“Seldom hath Punishment, through lameness of foot, left off pursuit of the wicked man, though he hath had the start of her.” –

Owen continues:

…”mankind must cease to exist before they can altogether lose this innate sense of divine right and judgment. Hence the barbarians concluded against Paul, then a prisoner and in bonds, seeing the viper hanging on one of his hands, that “no doubt he was a murderer, whom, though he had escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffered not to live.”

…Also, Orpheus in the hymns, —

“I sing the eye of Justice, who looketh behind her, and is fair,

Who likewise sits upon the sacred throne of sovereign Jupiter

As the avenger of the unjust.”

On this first point, Owen concludes:

… This, then, as Plutarch says, is the “ancient faith of mankind;” or, in the words of Aristotle, “opinion concerning God,” which Dion Prusæensis calls “a very strong and eternal persuasion, from time immemorial received, and still remaining among all nations.”

In his second argument, Owen continues:

…The consciences of all mankind concur to corroborate this truth; but the cause which has numberless witnesses to support it cannot fail. Hence, not only the flight, hiding-place, and fig-leaf aprons of our primogenitors, but every word of dire meaning and evil omen, as terror, horror, tremor, and whatever else harasses guilty mortals, have derived their origin.

…… Hence the famous verses of Adrian, the Roman emperor, spoken on his death-bed:— “Alas! my soul, thou pleasing companion of this body, thou fleeting thing, that art now deserting it! whither art thou flying? to what unknown scene? All trembling, fearful, and pensive! What now is become of thy former wit and humour? Thou shalt jest and be gay no more.”

…“That which is truly evil,” says Tertullian, “not even those who are under its influence dare defend as good. All evil fills nature with fear or shame. Evil doers are glad to lie concealed; they avoid making their appearance; they tremble when apprehended.”

… Hence, too, mankind have a dread awe of every thing in nature that is grand, unusual, and strange, as thunders, lightnings, or eclipses of the heavenly bodies, and tremble at every prodigy, spectre, or comet, nay, even at the hobgoblins of the night, exclaiming, like the woman of Zarephath upon the death of her son, “What have I to do with thee? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance?” Hence, even the most abandoned of men, when vengeance for their sins hangs over their heads, have confessed their sins and acknowledged the divine justice.

… Hence the guilty trembling mob is imposed upon and cheated by impostors, by vagrant fortune-tellers and astrologers. If any illiterate juggler shall have foretold a year of darkness, alluding, namely, to the night-season of the year, the consternation is as great as if Hannibal were at the gates of the city. The stings of conscience vex and goad them, and their minds have such presentiments of divine justice that they look upon every new prodigy as final, or portentous of the final consummation.

For his third argument, Owen considers “the public consent of all nations”:

… nobody, even by report, hath heard that there exist any who have acknowledged the being of a God, and who have not, at the same time, declared him to be just, to be displeased with sinners and sin, and that it is the duty of mankind to propitiate him if they would enjoy his favour.

…because all mankind, from the works of God and from the natural power of conscience, acknowledge God to be good and bountiful, we may, without hesitation, conclude goodness and bounty to be essential attributes of God: so likewise, because, from the natural power of conscience and the consideration of God’s works of providence, they conclude and agree that God is just, we contend that justice is natural to God.

… But as mankind have testified this consent by other methods, so they have especially done it by sacrifices; concerning which Pliny says, “That all the world have agreed in them, although enemies or strangers to one another.” But since these are plainly of a divine origin, and instituted to prefigure, so to speak, the true atonement by the blood of Christ, in which he hath been the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,

… Hence these verses on that undertaking of the Greeks, in the exordium of Homer:—

“But let some prophet or some sacred sage

Explore the cause of great Apollo’s rage:

Or learn the wasteful vengeance to remove

By mystic dreams; for dreams descend from Jove.

If broken vows this heavy curse have laid,

Let altars smoke and hecatombs be paid:

So Heaven atoned shall dying Greece restore,

And Phœbus dart his burning shafts no more.”

This obviously doesn’t settle the matter of whether we ought to do natural theology, but it does tend to deflate the idea that it’s a novelty in Reformed theology.  As a frame of reference, John Owen was thirty when the Westminster Confession of Faith was completed.


Filed under Epistemology, Presuppositionalism

6 responses to “John Owen: Natural Theologian

  1. sean

    This is such a universal truth that in interrogation, after relaying that we have the ‘goods’ on you, the next move is always an appeal to ‘what they know to be right’ immediately followed with an ‘out’ for why they may have behaved in such and such a way. It’s the very basis for ‘good cop, bad cop’-It must have been tough for you growing up without a father, responsible for your mother and brothers and sisters……… When they don’t respond accordingly, denial is within the spectrum of normal, you immediately start looking at socio-pathic categorization. You actually have a category of sociopath because of the universality of conscience and judgement.

  2. MM,

    The presence of Natural Theology (NT) goes back to Beza (especially) and Calvin as well. While the early Reformers were not offering NT as an alternate means to attain to a genuine knowledge of God, they understood it’s value in establishing certain fundamental theological concepts regarding God, man, and the created order that served to buttress revelational theology in Scripture against would be skeptics.

    James Barr, in his book derived from his Gifford Lectures, Biblical Faith and Natural Law, argues quite convincingly that concepts that comport with what we would call Natural Theology are prevalent in Scripture as well. While he holds to a looser understanding of the doctrines of inspiration than we Reformed folk do, it shouldn’t detract from the fact that in certain respects the human authors of Scripture were accessing truth about God and his world that was available and knowable to all men. For example, Wisdom literature bears striking similarity to modern (or even Thomistic) NT. The fact that portions of Proverbs are near verbatim quotations of Egyptian wisdom lit (e.g. The Wisdom of Amenemope), and the similarities between the Mosaic Law and Hammurabi only strengthens the concept that the ANE cultures as a whole were doing NT before and during the time the OT was being written.

  3. MM,

    If we set aside the mode of discovery, both types of theology are revelatory, with special revelation revealing in detail what general revelation hints at, it is not much of a leap to move from revelation to inspiration. I’d highly recommend Barr, in fact, I’d send you the book if you wanted me to.

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