Life is filled with disappointments and difficulties. It doesn’t matter if one is religious or not. Many struggle to make ends meet. Even if one avoids financial woes, cancer can strike out of the blue. Tensions strain relationships. Dreams go unfulfilled. And the list can go on.
Such trials are an old problem—as old as the human race. But while trials are no respecter of persons, Scripture teaches that Christians can view them in redemptive ways. Thus the apostle James wrote, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2–4 ESV).
John Owen (1616–1683) knew his share of trials, living through the English Civil Wars (1642–1651) and the religious roller coaster of seventeenth-century England as power shifted from Anglicans to Puritans to Anglicans and nearly to Roman Catholics. Not until shortly after his death did things settle down a bit with the religious toleration of William and Mary (r. 1689–1702; Mary d. 1694).
While he didn’t suffer as much as many of his Puritan peers, Owen did endure difficulties, and he understood what the apostle James was saying. Owen compared the Christian in trial to a tree in a storm, and his description helps us understand Christian views of suffering as illuminated in Scripture and refracted in church history (I have broken up what appears as a single paragraph in Owen’s work into several paragraphs—a bit better for online reading):
The Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs (1600–1646) is well-known for his treatment of Christian contentment, especially for being content when one has very little. His book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment explores that question at length. Burroughs himself experienced both times of poverty and times of plenty, and he appended a series of sermons to his Rare Jewel that focused on the second of these circumstances, a state that is applicable to many Western Christians today. This brief sermon series has been published by Reformation Heritage Books as Contentment, Prosperity, and God’s Glory.
In this book, after describing what it means to be content when one is “full,” or prosperous, Burroughs warned readers that while a prosperous condition is desirable, it often has unexpected, negative effects on one’s spiritual state:
When thinking of The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the best-selling books of all time, you might not immediately think of this allegory as a work of theology. Some scholars, like Gordon Campbell, even suggest that “The Pilgrim’s Progress is a religious work rather than a theological work.” To make this bifurcation, however, mistakenly suggests that the Christian life is somehow separate and distinct from the Christian mind. In fact, while John Bunyan (1628–1688) focused this renowned work on the journey of the Christian, he weaved his theology—sometimes subtly—throughout the narrative.
One way that theology shines through the story is in the conversation that the characters have with each other. The importance of Christian discourse to the volume even leads Michael Mullett to note that “the book is a dialogue at least as much as it is a travelogue.” To give a taste of how Bunyan incorporates his theology into the story’s conversations, we’ll explore a section from The Pilgrim’s Progress on discerning a true “work of grace.”
Some people refer to the Holy Spirit as the “neglected” member of the Trinity. Certainly, all three persons in the Godhead have been given short shrift at different times and among different groups in the church. But in their history, Protestants can find many who explored the nature and work of the Spirit, though perhaps none more thoroughly than the seventeenth-century Reformed theologian John Owen (1616–1683).
In his later years, Owen penned several treatises beginning in 1674 that were later drawn together in one volume under the title Pneumatologia, or Pneumatology. Some have called this book the best work on the Holy Spirit in the history of the church.