A Sweet Mystery: John Owen on the Trinity -- By: Paul M. Smalley

Journal: Puritan Reformed Journal
Volume: PRJ 03:1 (Jan 2011)
Article: A Sweet Mystery: John Owen on the Trinity
Author: Paul M. Smalley

A Sweet Mystery:
John Owen on the Trinity

Paul M. Smalley

The purpose of this article is to summarize John Owen’s teaching regarding the Trinity. That is a subject worthy of a book by a scholar after studying Owen for decades. Given that this is a mere article written by a beginning student of Owen, our goal is to explore but not in any way exhaust this great subject.

The article is titled “A Sweet Mystery” to indicate the way John Owen saw the Trinity as a revealed mystery with delightful applications for the Christian experience of God. It will explore the doctrine, the nature, the works, and the experience of the triune God.

The Doctrine of the Triune God

The Trinity was foundational for John Owen’s theology, as Richard Muller observed among the Reformed orthodox generally. Owen asserted that if you take away the doctrine of the Trinity “the foundation of all fruits of love and goodness is lost to the soul.”1 Sinclair Ferguson called Owen “a deeply Trinitarian theologian,”2 and Carl Trueman writes, “Throughout his works — whether those dealing with God, redemption, or justification — the doctrine of the Trinity is always foundational.”3

The Definition of the Doctrine

What did John Owen mean by the Trinity? In his lesser catechism, Owen queried, “Q. Is there but one God? A. One only, in respect of his essence and being, but one in three distinct persons, of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”4 In his greater catechism, he elaborated and provided Scripture references. He defined “person” as “a distinct manner of subsistence or being, distinguished from the other persons by its own properties.” These distinguishing properties he delineated as:

  • The Father: the “only fountain of the Godhead.
    John v. 26, 27; Eph. i. 3.”5

  • The Son: “begotten of his Father from eternity.
    Ps. ii. 7; John i. 14, iii. 16.”
  • The Spirit: “to proceed from the Father and the Son.
    John xiv. 17, xvi. 14, xv. 26,
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