The Pneumatology Of The “Lost” Image In John Owen -- By: Suzanne Mcdonald

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 71:2 (Fall 2009)
Article: The Pneumatology Of The “Lost” Image In John Owen
Author: Suzanne Mcdonald


The Pneumatology Of The “Lost” Image In John Owen

Suzanne Mcdonald

Suzanne McDonald is Assistant Professor of Theology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

In recent decades there has been a relative blossoming in Owen studies, from re-appraisals of his theological method in its historical context to suggestions for the positive re-appropriation of elements of his thought for contemporary theology.1 One rich and intriguing aspect of his thought which has as yet received relatively little sustained attention is his account of the image of God.2

Without doubt this is in part because of the nature of Owen’s corpus. While he is rigorously systematic in drawing out the interconnections between the doctrines with which he deals, his is not a “systematic” enterprise. Owen offers nothing comparable to Francis Turretin’s Institutio theologiae elencticae or to Calvin’s Institutio, and nowhere offers us a treatise devoted specifically to the imago dei.3 Instead, the image, in common with his presentation of many other doctrinal loci, is discussed and clarified less for its own sake than as part of wider concerns.

Nevertheless, Owen offers a sufficiently wide-ranging account of the image for a consistent picture to emerge with considerable detail and clarity, and for the distinctiveness of his voice to be heard.4 I shall not attempt a comprehensive synthesis and survey here, but will focus upon one element of his account that is both intriguing from the perspective of historical theology and important for the wider theological issues that it raises. This element is his marked emphasis upon the loss of the image through sin, so that its presence in humanity is essentially confined to Christ, and derivatively, to the elect as they are united to him by the Spirit.

On the whole, the historic Reformed tradition attempts to eschew an absolute either/or on this question for a nuanced both/and. It does so by distinguishing between what we might term the “creational” and “soteriological” aspects of the image, representing a facultative and relational emphasis respectively. A purely facultative understanding of the image is rejected, since the essence of the image lies in the right relatedness to God which issues in the right ordering of our whole being towards God. Nevertheless, while sin corrupts every aspect of our being, it is possible to speak of the image as an abiding, albeit distorted and misdi...

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