Communion with the Triune God by John Owen

tsslogo.jpgBook review
Communion with the Triune God
by John Owen
edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic

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Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) is an important Christian author. But he makes me angry!

It’s happened several times. I’ve got Owen cornered and caught. After weeks of study I’ve traced his footsteps, mapped his argument, and now I’ve got him within range! I pat myself on the back. I’ve followed his complex thoughts, written out comprehensive notes, and it’s all finally coming together. With the smug grin of a hunter when the game walks close, I think to myself, ‘Owen is not so tough.’

Just when I’m satisfied I have Owen apprehended and comprehended, he throws out some new subpoint, some new unforeseen argument, and darts past and escapes. Now I’m back after him, chasing off in a forest of subpoints heavily wooded by a thicket of complex 17th century prose. After coming so close after weeks of careful study, I take off in chase, refusing to concede my victory. But soon I realize he’s gone, disappearing out of range, deep into digressions. It will take several hours to track and corner him again. I kick the dirt, raise the flag of surrender, and order abridgements.

If this is your experience in reading unabridged versions of John Owen, pull up a seat. There’s room for you in the Elmer Fudd club.

We are told Owen is great. But Owen is hard. Everyone who has tried to capture Owen knows this. The solution is to find a travel guide who has mastered Owen, knows his movements, and spots his trails.9781581348316.jpg

Last year, travel guides Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic successfully edited and published the first Owen volume, Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway: 2006). This work is perhaps the most valuable book on battling indwelling sin. The newest Owen volume, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007), is due out October 12th. It, too, is a masterpiece of Christian literature.

Communion?

So what is communion? Are we talking wafers and wine?

The full original title is revealing: “Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace and Consolation.” By grace alone, reconciled sinners are invited to enjoy communion with God, sharing personal communion individually with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We enjoy the Father’s love, the Son’s grace, and the Spirit’s consolation. This is a book about knowing God better.

Let’s move in closer for a few highlights.

A. Mutual affections. Owen gets interesting because communion is a relationship of shared (or mutual) affection. Kapic writes, “To experience communion there needs to be fellowship and communication — e.g., shared affections, response, delight, and satisfaction. In other words, when Owen speaks of our communion with God, he really means active communion, and not merely a state of passivity. ‘Communion consists in giving and receiving’” (p. 21).

It is no stretch to say Owen’s work is a classic work on the Triunity of God. But Owen focuses on an applied Triunity presented within the context of experiencing shared affections, responses, delights and satisfaction. The only way we can experience God is to know God! By expounding the believer’s specific relationship with each Person of the Trinity and dissecting these relationships, we get to know and enjoy God. It’s here Owen’s work finds great relevance today.

B. Loving Father.
If I may speak to personal benefits, this work has most helped me comprehend the love of the Father. Even after my conversion eight years ago, it was common for me to think the Father was always simmering on the brink of anger towards me. This false theology (rooted in self-righteous legalism) is dismantled by Owen in Communion. The Father loves His children deeply! But until we grasp the love of the Father, Owen argues, we will never experience communion with Him.

In a favorite quote, Owen calls us remember the wrath of God has been appeased in Christ. We can now come and drink and delight in the fountain of the Father’s love! After writing, “Flesh and blood is apt to have very hard thoughts of him — to think he is always angry, yea, implacable; that it is not for poor creatures to draw nigh to him” (p. 126), Owen writes:

“Many saints have no greater burden in their lives than that their hearts do not come clearly and fully up, constantly to delight and rejoice in God [the Father] — that there is still an indisposedness [unwillingness] of spirit unto close walking with him. What is at the bottom of this distemper? Is it not their unskillfulness in or neglect of this duty, even of holding communion with the Father in love? So much as we see of the love of God, so much shall we delight in him, and no more. Every other discovery of God, without this, will but make the soul fly from him; but if the heart be once much taken up with this the eminency of the Father’s love, it cannot choose but be overpowered, conquered, and endeared unto him. This, if anything, will work upon us to make our abode with him. If the love of a father will not make a child delight in him, what will? Put, then, this to the venture: exercise your thoughts upon this very thing, the eternal, free, and fruitful love of the Father, and see if your hearts be not wrought upon to delight in him. I dare boldly say: believers will find it as thriving a course as ever they pitched on in their lives. Sit down a little at the fountain, and you will quickly have a further discovery of the sweetness of the streams. You who have run from him, will not be able, after a while, to keep at a distance for a moment” (p. 128).

To be sure, the Cross brings a radical change. God the Father as holy wrath-bearer becomes God the Father, my adoptive Father! Leave it to a 17th century Puritan to bring me to my knees in conviction, praise and delight.

C. The theology of relational theology. For Owen, until our theology is straight, our communion with God will be stunted. Far from being a cheap ‘how-to experience warm divine fuzziness,’ Owen pursues the experience of God within serious theological study. He has really given us a detailed “relational theology.” In the introduction, Kevin Vanhooser writes, “Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is indispensable reading for all those who want to go deeper into the meaning of relationality than one typically goes in the pop-theology boats that float only on the psychological surface of the matter” (p. 12). Well said.

D. The language of relational theology. The robust language of Owen is beautiful. For example, in our communion with God the Son, Owen frequently employs words like sweetness, delight, honor, safety, comfort, tenderness, purity, glory, beauty, and rejoicing (see p. 36, note 80). These words glimpse into the language of Owen’s relational theology.

And when Owen speaks of communion, he says things like: “the saints are sweetly wrapped up in the bosom of their Father’s love” (p. 131); and “having at length come once more to an enjoyment of sweet communion with Christ, the soul lays fast hold on him by faith, refuses to part with him any more … and so uses all means for the confirming of the mutual love between Christ and her: all the expressions, all the allusions used, evidencing delight to the utmost capacity of the soul” (p. 244). Our justification before God is no legal fiction!

E. Discovered self-identity. As a further benefit, if we understand God in His Triunity — and our communion with this Triune God — we begin to understand our identities as children of God. Seeing ourselves in relation with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit we learn who we are. And from this self-identity we have a basis for pursuing holiness and living the Christian life well. (The Derek Thomas interview unfolds this further).

Communion with the Triune God is securely positioned as a great Christian masterpiece. There are many other highlights, and we invite you to join TSS in our month-long study of them.

Features of 2007 edition

Those familiar with Overcoming Sin will notice a similar size (almost exactly the same pages in length), the same fonts and familiar layout. Here are some of the more important features.

1. Introductions. The helpful forward by Kevin Vanhoozer is an apologetic on why the Church needs to hear from Owen on this subject. This is followed by an excellent essay, “Worshiping the Triune God: The Shape of John Owen’s Trinitarian Spirituality” by Kelly Kapic. Kapic is the author of the book Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker Academic: 2007). This essay is an excellent overview, a topographical map of the terrain covered by Owen.

2. Updated text. The text has been completely retypeset, and is clean and sharp. Only minor editorial changes like archaic spellings (‘hath’ to ‘have’ and ‘thou’ to ‘you’) have been made. Hacking out some of the unnecessary obstructions makes our view of Owen a bit clearer.

3. Complex outline. The most useful character of these edited volumes are the detailed outlines that track Owen’s every footstep. Let’s call it a GPS system for Owen. No matter how deep in digression you find yourself (and you may be surprised how lost you get), a simple check of the clear outline will locate where you stand in the overall argument of Owen. The present volume contains a 32-page outline! One noticeable improvement from Overcoming Sin to Communion is the placement. In last year’s edition the outline was placed at the end of the volume, but in Communion the outline is placed early and before Owen’s text. This is an improvement, because an outline of Owen is essential preparation for the journey.

4. Glossary. Once again the difficult words are defined in footnotes and cumulated in a glossary at the end of the book. I use this glossary frequently when reading other Puritans like Bunyan and Goodwin.

5. Indexes. I’m a stickler for indexes. With the rise in Puritan literature has been a rise in retypeset editions, which make the original indexes useless. These retypeset editions are often being printed without topical or Scriptural indexes of their own, and this is most unhelpful. (Publishers, please remember a retypeset book needs a fresh index.) The excellent topical index in the Crossway volume is a detailed and priceless tool for the reader and preacher. Also helpful is the editors’ care to mark every Scriptural reference in the text and provide a comprehensive Scriptural text index in the back (most helpful for expositors). Combined, the detailed topical and Scriptural indexes make Owen more accessible and useful than ever.

Conclusion

In Communion with the Triune God, Taylor and Kapic have given the Church a resource to help us and future generations track and catch that wascally wabbit, John Owen. And being positioned to capture John Owen, we will better capture the preciousness of Christ’s blood, to better enjoy the throbbing love of our Heavenly Father and experience the empowering comfort of the Holy Spirit. And in our search to understand God’s manifold expressions of love, we learn to delight and commune with Him and better discover our self-identity as His children. One of the great publishing highlights of 2007.

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Related: Read our interview with Dr. Derek Thomas about Communion with the Triune God here.

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Title: Communion with the Triune God
Primary author: John Owen (1616-1683)
Secondary authors: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Kelly M. Kapic
Editors: Kelly M. Kapic, Justin Taylor
Reading level: 3.5/5.0 > heavy but manageable because of excellent editing
Boards: paperback
Pages: 448
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type, re-typeset
Publisher: Crossway
Year: 2007
Price USD: $22.00 from Crossway (w/ free PDF edition)
ISBNs: 9781581348316

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