A comparison of John Calvin and John Owen’s Theology of the Discipline of the Christian life.
Discipline is almost a dirty word in twenty-first century Western culture. In today’s hedonistic Western world, you would be hard-pressed to find a book outlining the discipline of the Christian life in the top-selling section of your local Christian bookstore. For John Calvin, a sixteenth century Reformer, and John Owen, a seventeenth century Puritan, however the discipline of the Christian life was at the heart of their theology.
There are some significant differences between John Calvin’s (1509-1564) and John Owen’s (1616-1683) theology of the discipline of the Christian life. They lived and worked in different times and were faced with distinctive theological challenges.
Owen was influenced by Covenant theology and developed a unique theology of communion with God. Some Scholars have analysed Calvin and Owen’s theology and drawn a stark contrast between Calvin’s unilateral and Owen’s bilateral understanding of the covenantal relationship between God and the believer. This paper will demonstrate that such a polarisation is unfounded. By examining the theology of Calvin and Owen, it is evident that both Calvin and Owen understand the relationship between God and believers as unilaterally made possible by God. God in His sovereign power and grace; predestines, justifies, regenerates, sanctifies and brings His people to glory. Both however also illustrate how a bilateral and mutual fellowship results as the fruit rather than a condition of this relationship. For both Calvin and Owen, the doctrine of union with Christ provides resolution for the dichotomy between man’s response and God’s work within the discipline of the Christian life. It will be seen therefore that there is great continuity between Calvin’s and Owen’s theology of the Christian life. Owen’s introduction of additional theological constructs however results in a capacious theology of the Christian life which is at times ambiguous regarding the tension between grace and anthropological action. In contrast, Calvin never separates his discussion of the believer’s response from his theology of the sovereign power and grace of God. Although Calvin’s and Owen’s theology are far from paradoxical, Calvin’s concise exposition of the Christian life is superior to Owen’s commodious theology.