John Owen: How Faith Works

Alright, let’s bounce back to Owen for a bit. I’ve had a couple more books arrive in the mail, and I don’t really have that much more to say about Zuboff. This week, we’ve got an abridged version of John Owen’s work, titled The Spirit and the Church. It actually gets a little complicated explaining what this thing is – so there’s The Complete Works of John Owen, published in 16 volumes by Banner of Truth, a religious publisher that mostly republishes old-timey Calvinist or Reformed stuff. From that, The Spirit and the Church offers abridged versions of the essays contained in Volume 4, which I believe are 1) The Reason of Faith, 2) Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God, 3) The Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer, 4) A Discourse on the Holy Spirit as a Comforter, and 5) A Discourse of Spiritual Gifts. This week, we’re exploring parts of that first essay, The Reason of Faith.

In this essay, Owen talks about how faith is one of three types of knowledge. He calls these types the ways in which we assent to truth. First, there are the “inborn principles of natural light,” which are basically kinda instincts, but also our moral instinct, so-called, which he sees as natural and inherent (if occasionally unreliable). There’s our reasoning ability, which is what it says on the tin, and then there’s faith, which Owen specifically calls “assent on testimony.” Faith, for Owen, is actually quite broad – it’s any time you assent to the truth based on the testimony of someone else. I’ve been told the Earth is round, and I’ve never gone and checked the numbers, but I trust the people who told me that it’s round, and I distrust the people who reckon it’s flat. Seen ’em talking, and they don’t look like trustworthy people. So I ignore their testimony. Within that framework, then, we can understand belief in God as a type of faith, as it hinges on testimony. Christians assent to the truth that God exists because we have heard reliable testimony on that point. And, crucially, Owens argues that this reliable testimony comes not from people, but from the Holy Spirit.

So this is actually a fun little maneuver from Owen – it interrupts some of the most common arguments you hear against the knowledge claims of Christianity. One of the things people say is, you know, you might think God exists, but maybe it’s just in your head. Maybe it’s just you being a bit overexcited. Owen would say no, there’s no subjectivity involved, no possible human error – because it’s not human knowledge. It’s not something we figured out, it’s something we were given. It’s divine knowledge, divine testimony, and therefore infallible. That’s the fun thing about the testimony idea – when you’ve got a testimony, you’ve got to have someone testifying, and when that someone is a Someone – well.

Things start to fall apart pretty quickly for Owen, unfortunately. He extends his idea of testimony back up through his first two types of knowledge, saying that God also reveals Himself through the inborn principles of natural light, and through our reason. First, our consciences and moral compass and so on supposedly point to God’s identity in an absolutely infallible way (“notwithstanding what a few atheistic sceptics have said”). Second, we should be able to reason that God exists, given “His works of creation and providence” – again, both “infallible evidence”. However, he says, “when men do not come to the right conclusion from the facts of creation,” it’s their own fault for being evil and stupid. There’s a conflict here – God’s testimony is infallible, meaning never wrong, never failing, and always effective, but also it sometimes doesn’t work. Some people just don’t become Christian, and we can’t explain why. Maybe – I mean, you know, there are some ideas – maybe it’s because the Holy Spirit is only broadcasting that testimony to a select few. Or like maybe it’s broadcasting to everyone but only some people receive the power to respond in any meaningful way. This is how we end up at Calvin’s idea that free will doesn’t exist – because if God’s testimony is all-powerful, but some people still aren’t Christian, then those fuckers probably aren’t receiving the message, and there’s probably nothing they can do about it.

Owen himself doesn’t say those things in so many words. He focuses on practical advice for talking with non-believers, although the underlying sentiment still sounds much the same. “If I say to a man that the sun is risen and shines on the earth, if he questions or denies it, and asks me to prove it, it is sufficient for me to say ‘It proves itself by its own light.'” Similarly, he says, if someone asks how the universe or Creation infallibly proves the existence of God, “it is a sufficient answer to say that these things in and by themselves prove the existence of the infinitely wise and powerful Creator, and that he ought to be able to reason that out for himself.” And, if somebody says that the Bible doesn’t appear to them to be the Word of God, “it would be a sufficient reply … to say ‘All men have not faith.'” There’s no interest in argument or debate here – as far as Owen’s concerned, the truth is obvious and clear, and there’s actually no point arguing with people who don’t get it. Because the truth comes direct from God, if someone doesn’t get it, there’s actually no point in explaining it to them – because you’re not going to be able to impart that supernatural testimony. It’s outside of your power to enlighten anyone.

I guess it sounds kinda shitty, Owen’s approach, although it makes sense in a time where atheism is probably more of a fringe phenomenon. It does have this other problem where it kinda cuts off rational dialogue, because – you know – the whole kinda concept is that you actually can’t prove or justify faith to anyone who’s not a believer. That has implications for how evangelism might work. At the same time, it does feel like it reflects some of our experience of faith. If people don’t have that basic experience of God, it is hard to explain yourself beyond a certain point. So maybe Owen’s correct. Maybe there’s something in there for how we think about the private, intimate parts of faith – the things you barely want to explain to believers, let alone non-believers. The idea of faith as based on divine testimony slants us towards an understanding of Christianity as relational, as built on our experience of the personal and direct testimony of God. It’s pretty cool.

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