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The Purpose of Theology in Times of Uncertainty

Written by Jason G. Duesing |
Monday, November 20, 2023

In tumultuous times, communion with God, is both “perfect and complete” and “initial and incomplete.” It is perfect and complete, Owen explained, “in the full fruition of his glory,” and initial and incomplete “in the first fruits and dawnings of that perfection which we have here in grace.” Thus, contemplation on fellowship with God strengthens those anxious about the earthly world seemingly turned upside down all around them.

For the first time in centuries, England had no King.

What started with saber rattling led to a fractious civil war. After years of conflict during the 1640s, the anti-royalists terminated the war with a celebratory sabrage of the monarchy. Many declared the end of the world had come.

For students at Oxford University, this political instability brought anxiety. Where would they serve after graduation? In what state would they find the country? Could one find a job with any kind of financial security or projected path of safety and success?

These were uncertain times.

To address the concerns of the students, one theologian brought help and comfort by, believe it or not, teaching theology.

John Owen was an intellectual giant in the seventeenth century. As a Puritan who advocated reform within the Church of England, Owen saw his influence grow during the time when there was no King. When Oxford University needed leadership, the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, appointed Owen to serve as dean.

Owen’s role at Oxford also meant he had significant influence over the teaching of undergraduate students—and the students loved him.

Owen’s propensity to challenge formality in dress, no doubt, contributed to his large following among the students. He wore unconventional ribbons around his knees with Spanish leather boots. On top of his powdered hair, he wore a hat tilted, for effect, to one side.

Yet, it was Owen’s homiletical approach that had a lasting effect. Anthony Wood recounted that Owen’s “graceful behaviour in the pulpit” could move “the affections of his admiring auditory almost as he pleased.”1 As a regular practice during those years of country-wide instability, Owen and his fellow Puritan, Thomas Goodwin, each preached in the local university colleges on Sunday morning. Then they preached a schedule of Sunday afternoon sermons for undergraduate students in the University Church “St. Mary’s.”

These sermons were orthodox and precise, true and clear, but were more than a right ordering of facts—they were meant to ground and encourage the students to grow in their relationship with God, especially in uncertain times. Crawford Gribben notes that these university sermons “combined the theological mode with the devotional.”2 That is, in an era of tumult, Owen chose to give students theology with a fixed aim: to edify and point them to God.

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