John Owen on the Incomprehensibility of God

mortificationofsinJohn Owen (1616-1683) is often referred to as “the Prince of the Puritans.” The more I read of his considerable works, the more I wish he had put together a volume(s) of systematic theology. In reading through his various writings, though, one could nearly cobble one together. (Perhaps a new book idea for one of the accomplished Puritan scholars of our day?)

For instance, in one of his most well-known works, The Mortification of Sin, he touches on the subject of the incomprehensibility of God. I dare say that if one wanted to know Owen’s view on that great and humbling subject, The Mortification of Sin would probably not be the first volume of his writings that would spring to mind.

There he writes,

“First, we know so little of God because it is God we are seeking to know. God Himself has revealed Himself as one who cannot be known. He calls Himself invisible, incomprehensible, and the like. We cannot fully know Him as He is. Our progress often consists more in knowing what He is not, than what He is. He is immortal and infinite and we are only mortal, finite, and limited.” (p.92)

Now when he says that God “cannot be known,” he is not saying that we cannot know God truly, or that God is completely unknowable. After all, note that he says that “God Himself has revealed Himself” as such. So we can most certainly know God as He has revealed Himself, but we can never fully or comprehensively know God, primarily because He is infinite, and we (as mere creatures) are finite.

It is surely no accident that this quote is found in a chapter on “Humility.” And, considering the subject matter of the book as a whole (i.e. mortifying sin, per Romans 8:13), we can see how eminently practical even the biblical view of the incomprehensibility of God can be! Who says that theology isn’t practical!

Note: While there may not be a volume available (yet?) on the systematic theology of John Owen in particular, there is a truly outstanding book available that pieces together something of a systematic theology of the Puritans in general. That book is A Puritan Theology, by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones.

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