John Owen: Ignorance, Bliss

When I was in university, I knew a guy who was kinda interested in Christianity, but more from the angle of ‘this is how I think it should work’, rather than having any sort of personal commitment. One time he was arguing that church services should actually be focused on teaching philosophy, so that people could go away with a better understanding of the structures and systems that they’re drawing on. You turn up to church on a Sunday morning, sing your hymn, and then they teach you about Platonic dualism or something. I’m a few years late now, but I’ve been doing some reading, and it turns out John Owen would like to have a word with that guy.

As per last week, we’re working from John Owen’s The Spirit and the Church, an abridged and modernized version of some of his essays relating to the Holy Spirit. This week draws on the second part of that volume, which I believe is an adaptation of Owen’s ‘Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God.’ Owen gives us his thesis right out of the gate: “Every Christian may, if he uses the means given by God, arrive with certainty at the truth revealed in Scripture. This understanding will be sufficient to guide the believer in the life of God.” It’s a pretty simple idea. Again, as we discussed last week, Owen’s whole thing here is that the Holy Spirit directly gives us divine testimony regarding the meaning of Scripture and the identity of God. It’s divine, so it’s infallible and perfect, and even us dumb old humans can’t misunderstand it. Again, as we discussed last week, it’s a nice idea, but it also kinda implies that anyone can just say anything and claim it’s from some infallible divine testimony. Regardless, Owen would argue that our belief isn’t led by rational argument because rational argument is superseded by divine testimony. In other words, you could go round learning all the philosophical stuff, but you kinda don’t need it. Divine testimony is better. I can see the appeal of the philosophy thing to someone who comes in believing that religion is false – maybe you’ll be able to educate the masses out of their superstitious nonsense – but from a religious perspective, we’ve already got something better going on. It’s not formal philosophical inquiry, and that’s sort of the point.

Let’s roll back to Owen’s original comment – if you read the Scripture, you come to a sufficient understanding of God. I want to zoom in on that sufficiency thing for a sec. Owen explains that just reading the Bible obviously won’t make you understand all truth right across the board: “The Holy Spirit’s work is not to lead us into all historical, geographical, astronomical, and mathematical truth.” But, even more than that, he says, reading the Bible doesn’t even necessarily teach you everything about the faith:

“The Holy Spirit will lead us into all truth necessary for faith and obedience. Each believer is led into all the truth necessary to his own state and condition, to enable him to do his duty and work. Christ gives to each according to his measure and needs.”

Again, there’s that idea of sufficiency. Believers read the Bible, and the Spirit helps them understand everything that it’s saying, but it only takes them as far as they need to go – “to enable them to do their duty and work.” This is a really interesting idea – the suggestion is that there’s like a certain point that you have to reach in your understanding in order to get saved, like a minimum standard, but that after that point, you don’t technically need to know anything else. Ignorance is maybe not ideal per se, but from a brutally functionalist point of view, ignorance in some circumstances is totally fine and maybe even an intended feature. Maybe some people were made to be ignorant. They get everything they need for their state and condition, everything they need to be saved and redeemed, and maybe a little bit of teaching on the side, so they keep developing at least a little – and then they’re basically done. They don’t need any further understanding – and it might even be inappropriate to try and give them knowledge that’s not suited to their state and condition.

So, ah, look, I guess the point here is that this whole side of the blog is unnecessary. We’ve been having chat about predestination and Pentecost or whatever else, but according to Owen, none of it’s really necessary. It’s maybe a little fun, maybe there’s some value for people of a certain station, but beyond the basic entry-level info, strictly speaking, Christians don’t need further education about their faith. Guess I’ll throw in the towel? This is where I sympathise with my teach-philosophy-in-church guy. By marking out a bare minimum standard for salvation, Owen inadvertently suggests that it’s okay and maybe even intentional that some Christians go round being ignorant. That’s an issue – especially when it comes to moral behaviour. So, for instance, I know some Christians who kinda just think women are second-class citizens. They don’t think women should be allowed positions of authority, they don’t think women should be allowed to teach, and so on. They’re wrong, but their ignorance probably doesn’t compromise their salvation. They’ve got all the truth necessary for their state and condition, and gender equality is sort of a fun optional extra.

Partly the question is how we think about the sin of a Christian. Once someone is saved, it almost seems like their ongoing shit behaviour loses some sense of consequence. It’s chalked up to the cross. And we have to contend with the fact that things like gender equality are, in the absolute sense, not a core requirement for salvation. Owen’s framework isn’t necessarily the problem here. It’s probably true that most Christians don’t need to know Biblical Hebrew in order to go to heaven. They don’t need to have theology degrees, and they don’t need to live-tweet their reading of a bunch of old-ass theologians. At the same time, Owen gives us the vocabulary to articulate this weird problem in how Christianity functions. We’ve talked before about the gap between sin and salvation. The same problems are playing out here. If you’re a Christian, but you think it’s okay to hit your wife, can you go to heaven? Probably, yeah. You’ve met the very low bar of believing in Jesus. You don’t really have the moral fiber to understand that you shouldn’t hit your wife, because you’re a fucking scumbag, but you’ve also met the belief requirement, so – I mean, he gets in, right? Belief is sufficient – he’s been led to the truth necessary for his state and condition, and beyond that – well, beyond that is optional. Christ gives to each according to his measure and needs. Right?

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