“This greatest work of John Owen is a work of gigantic strength as well as gigantic size; and he who has mastered it is very little short … of being an erudite and accomplished theologian.”
That is J.I. Packer quoting Thomas Chalmers on John Owen’s Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review Hebrews by John Owen. Or to be more precise the Crossway Classic Commentary abridged version of Hebrews by John Owen. The original commentary on Hebrews by John Owen spans 7 volumes at 3600 pages. The abridged version is part of the Crossway Classic Commentary series edited by Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer. In contrast, it’s a manageable 270 pages long and is a Logos Free Book for the month of December.
Who is John Owen? Born 1616 and died 1683, John Owen is an English Theologian. According to the Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals:
was without doubt not only the greatest theologian of the English Puritan movement but also one of the greatest European Reformed theologians of his day, and quite possibly possessed the finest theological mind that England ever produced.
I find it serendipitous that in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, the next entry is J.I. Packer. Packer has done much to bring Puritan writing to a modern audience, and this book is an example of that.
I have the original 7 volumes. I just have them. I can’t say I read them. The first two volumes are on the authorship (he concludes that the Apostle Paul wrote Hebrews) and other background and theological matters. The commentary proper begins in volume three.
To read the book, you have to know Greek, Hebrew and Latin. And also comfortable with reading Puritan English with its own vocabulary and ways. And it helps if you are familiar with church history.
Owen commenting on Hebrews 6:4-6 writes:
Hence Tertullian, in his book de Pœnitentia, reflects on Zephyrinus, the bishop of Rome, that he had admitted adulterers unto repentance, and thereby unto the communion of the church. But that church proceeding in her lenity, and every day enlarging her charity, Novatus and Novatianus taking offence thereat, advanced an opinion on the contrary extreme.
John Owen’s Hebrews for Mere Mortals
Let us leave behind Owen’s 7 volumes and move on to the abridged version edited by Packer. We must thank Packer because by writing this abridged version, that means he read the full 7 volumes. A heroic task in itself. And to then compress and translate John Owen’s masterpiece for us mere mortals to sip at. Oh thank you J.I. Packer! Thank you McGrath! Thank you Crossway!
Packer pre-empts our thanks by writing in his introduction:
Today’s evolutionary mind-set makes us expect Puritan Bible-work to be cruder and shallower than ours, but this classic work joins hands with Matthew Henry’s great exposition of the entire Bible to prove us wrong, even when downscaled as drastically as it is in this abridged version. To present it in this way, in a form more palatable to a modern readership, is for me a privilege indeed.
Packer. What a humble guy.
From now onwards, when I refer to Hebrews by John Owen, I am referring to the abridged version edited by Packer.
Packer has excluded the discussions on the author or date or theological themes. The book is structured as thirteen chapters corresponding to the thirteen chapters in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Each chapter is broken down into groups of verses corresponding to the outline. The outline is described in brief in the beginning of the chapter and from there Owen drills down. He expounds on the verses and then expounds the individual words.
For example, in the Bible Hebrews 1:1-2 goes like this:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
To explain ‘at many times’, Owen describes the progress of divine revelation in four principal parts. First was to Adam, then Noah, then Moses and finally through Jesus. Just to give you an idea of how much exposition to expect, Hebrews 1:1-2 consists of 45 words – depending on which translation you are using. Owen’s abridged commentary uses 2500 words or 4 pages to expound those two verses. If you like maths that’s a 50:1 ratio. 50 words to expound 1 word.
Just for fun. I checked how long was the full “director’s cut”. To copy the text from Logos into Microsoft Word, I was scrolling and scrolling, trying to reach the end of his commentary on verse 1 and 2 and it took awhile. Owen’s unabridged commentary on Hebrews 1:1-2 is 41000 words or 61 pages. That’s a 900:1 ratio. 900 words to expound 1 word.
Three Examples of Owen’s Interpretation
When reading any commentary on Hebrews, you want to give special attention to how the writer interprets Hebrews 6:4-6.
This is the controversial verse that reads, I’m reading from the ESV:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
The word impossible to restore to repentance has caused no end of controversies. Owen takes the view that the people described here are not believers. I quote his conclusion at length:
From this description of these people we can see who the apostle has in mind. It is clear that these people are not true and sincere believers, in the strict and correct sense of that name. There is no mention of faith or believing. In the following verses they are compared with the ground on which the rain often falls but which bears no useful crop. But this is not so with true believers.
It is clear that these people had been recently converted from Judaism to Christianity. They received special privileges. For they had received extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues or performing miracles. These people had found in themselves and others convincing evidence that God’s kingdom and Messiah, which they called the coming age, had come on them, and they enjoyed their glories. It must have been some horrible frame of spirit, some malicious enmity against the truth and holiness of Christ and the Gospel, that could turn people like this from the faith and blot out all that light and conviction of truth that they had received. But the least grace is a better security for heaven than the greatest gifts and privileges, wherever they may come from.
Another interesting interpretation of his is on Hebrews 5:12, where it says that the word of God is living and active. The way most of us understand it is the word of God refers to the Bible. Owen presents and defends the view that the word of God refers here to Jesus Christ. As per John 1’s the Word made flesh.
Let’s have a look at one more. In Hebrews 11, we have the famous heroes of the faith list. Verse four reads, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain”. Let me ask you the question, “Why is Abel’s sacrifice more acceptable?” My answer was, “Abel gave his best while Cain did not.”
Owen offers a surprising interpretation. Bear in mind, I have not studied the Letter to the Hebrews before so I’m easily surprised. Owen writes:
The difference between Cain and Abel was Abel’s faith. As their faith differed, so did their actions and the objects they used to sacrifice with. Cain considered God only as a creator and preserver, whom he offered the fruits of the earth. He had not thought about sin or how to be delivered from it. Abel’s faith was fixed on God, not only as a creator, but as redeemer also, as the one who, in his infinite wisdom and grace, had appointed the way of redemption through sacrifice and atonement. So Abel’s sacrifice was accompanied with a sense of sin and guilt, with its lost condition by the fall, and a trust in the way of redemption and recovery that God had provided. This is borne out by his type of sacrifice, which was by death and blood: death, which he deserved because of his sin; blood, which was the way atonement came.
I have shared three excerpts from the book which shows the gems of insight we can garner from “the finest theological mind that England ever produced”.
Credit Where Credit is Due
Call me shallow but every time I finish a Puritan book, even this abridged one, I see it as an achievement. I make much of the fact that this is 7 volumes condensed into one because I want to remind everyone that one man made a gargantuan effort to study this one letter.
He wrote this with the purpose to edify Christians. He did the hard work and we benefited. Just because Owen wrote more than 2 million words in his commentary doesn’t mean that we suspend our critical thinking and accept whatever he wrote. No commentator is authoritative in the way the Bible is authoritative. Even so, I finished in one month an abridged reading of a work that John Owen took 16 years to write. Volume 1 was published in 1668 and the work was complete in 1684.
And what Packer has done here is to make Owen’s thoughts and interpretation accessible to a wider audience. Honestly, Owen’s original volume may be too much even as a reference book. The Greek, Hebrew, Latin and presumed knowledge on the reader (Hah! That simply shows how Christian scholars have regressed!) means that the original is too dense and would almost never be read, if not for Packer’s abridged version.
A Book for Owen Fans
Which brings me to my critique of the book.
This is the Christmas season and I just realised that the Epistles to the Hebrews is as natural to Christmas as Christmas trees and decorations. Normally, for Christmas we would read Isaiah or Matthew or Luke. You can add Hebrews to the list because it explains why the incarnation is necessary. In that sense, I’m grateful to read Hebrews in this season. Mostly the Bible book and not the commentary.
The problem is Owen’s structure. For all of Packer’s genius in editing, the structure is not designed for easy reading. On the other hand, by condensing the book, Packer cuts off the scholarly nitty-gritty detailed discussions which fits the book’s structure. It’s too difficult for light reading but it’s too light for heavy reading.
When you read this commentary, you need to keep the Bible open. When Owen expounds on individual words, it’s easy to forget where those words came from. You dive deep into a word and you get lost in the deep waters. What was the sentence where this word came from?
By the way, this is a good reason to use Logos because you can link the Bible with the Commentary. On your left is the Bible, on your right is the commentary. When you scroll through the commentary, the Bible will magically scroll to the right verse and it works the other way round as well.
This is a really good feature because if you read this book without the Bible open, you will find it difficult to follow the detailed word-by-word exposition.
Then there is the quality of the exposition. Sometimes, the exposition seems redundant. For example, Hebrews 11:2 reads, “This is what the ancients were commended for.”
Owen expounds on three words: the ancients, commended and this. To explain “commended”, Owen writes:
They received this witness in the Scripture, although it was very different in the world.
I appreciate it’s difficult to make sense of what I just read. I assure you, it’s not a problem with me wrenching that sentence out of context. Owen (or more accurately Packer) gives us a sentence that forces us to read the full version to know what Owen meant.
Often times as I read this commentary, I am reminded of a conversation I heard about a seminary student. A professor asked a seminarian who was reading some commentaries, “Do you understand what you read?” The seminarian answers, “No. But when I read the Bible, the commentary makes more sense.”
Do you get it? Normally we go to a commentary to help illuminate a difficult Bible passage. Here, it’s the other way around. And I felt that many times reading this Owen book.
If you are going to spend money on this book as a reference, I would suggest getting a good Bible dictionary to do word studies. You can then use it to study other books, not just Hebrews.
If you want to study the Epistle to the Hebrews, there are options out there more suitable for devotional reading or technical reference. The original Owen commentary is fantastic as a technical reference if anyone could understand it. And I don’t see anyone picking this book for devotional reading.
The way I see it, you should only read this commentary because you want a glimpse of John Owen’s thoughts on Hebrews.
Or because you need to complete Tim Challies’s Reading Challenge. He has a box you can tick after you read a book written by a Puritan. Like I said earlier, I am more satisfied than I should be that I finished John Owen’s abridged commentary on Hebrews.
And I managed to do that thanks to the Logos Free Book of the Month programme for giving me the book for free and this Reading and Readers podcast for the motivation to finish. In fact, perhaps you might want to join me for a Reading and Readers Challenge. You can join me to read every Faithlife and/or Logos Free Book. Then drop me an email or tweet and tell me what you think.
Music to Read Hebrews By
Before I end this episode, I have a bonus for you. When I reviewed the Psalter Reclaimed by Gordon Wenham, I introduced Poor Bishop Hooper to you. Their EveryPsalm project, which releases a song based on a psalm each week, is a great companion to read the Psalms with.
For today, I want to recommend a must-listen album to go along with any reading of Hebrews. If you are reading or finished reading Hebrews, you must listen to Psallos, P-S-A-L-L-O-S, that’s the group’s name, and their album titled Hebrews.
This is simply creative genius. The album progresses through the epistle. The first song begins at Hebrews 1 and the last song ends with Hebrews 13. They don’t just take words, they convey the feeling, the theme of the letter. How can you make a song about Jesus as high priest? Listen to this. The genius is in the lyrics, so if you can’t catch the lyrics, you can go to the show notes, or readingandreaders.com or just search for Psallos Hebrews, it’s song number 10. Let me play a snippet for you:
Let me tell you ‘bout the high priests, Chosen from among men, sent to represent them, And to act on behalf of a people that have a sin problem. Let me tell you ‘bout the high priest, Once every year, there’s a day where they, Well he enters in the holiest place, To ask grace to be saved from the sin problem. Let me ask you ‘bout this high priest: Sounds like a righteous guy. Is his life spotless and sanctified? Nothin’ condemnin’ him like a sin problem? Let me tell you the sin problem, The funny thing is, as you’ll see, He has the same disease. So he must atone for his own sins first. What on earth? It’s like he’s not a very good high priest. How’s he gonna intercede when he’s got the same infirmity? Wouldn’t the Lord show anger towards him as well Cause just as sinful as the rest of Israel? I see your point but you’ve gotta see mine: These men were appointed by God’s design, Designed to die? No designed to sympathize With the lives of the Israelites. I think you might be losing your mind, there, Thom! Sympathy’s not going to save. I know but listen to what I’m saying, Kelsie. These guys are like shadows and types. Yeah, ineffectual types. Your guitar’s an ineffectual type. But what we can agree on is this: Jesus, He is better, He is infinitely better. Blameless, spotless, sinless, righteous. Able to fight this sinful-itis, Able to right these wrongs that plague us, Able to justify and save us, Able to sympathize with our weakness Cause He has taken on flesh to seek us. He is better in every way Than the Levite priests of the olden days, For His priestly reign will never ever cease, And he is of the order of an ancient priest. As said by the Lord who declared it so And appointed Him a priest by the word of an oath. Let us tell you ‘bout this great high priest
What cracked me up was when Thom, the male singer, says, “These men were appointed by God’s design.”
Kelsie, the female singer, shoots, “Designed to die?”
Thom answers, “No designed to sympathize.”
Okay, it’s not a song that you can sing along with the church. Although there are some that you can sing along. It’s a mix. Their Hebrews album, just like their other albums: Romans, Philippians and Jude, have a mix of songs that are fresh, theologically insightful and together make the album complete.
I want to explain what I mean by complete. Have you noticed when you listen to hymns as opposed to contemporary Christian music that hymns seem to tell a story. For example, Amazing Grace ends with “When we have been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun.” So there is a progression in Amazing Grace towards Heaven.
So what happens in that one song Amazing Grace is something that happens for the entire album here.
So when you listen to Hebrews or Romans, which is my favourite album from Psallos, it feels complete because it begins at the beginning of the biblical book and goes through the emotional, theological, journey in song and the album ends where the book ends. It’s beautiful. Ingenious. I think every theologian and Christian should like, follow, subscribe to Psallos.
Psallos can help you get Hebrews into your head or Hebrews will help you understand what Psallos is singing. John Owen would love it. And that’s my bonus for you.
This is a Reading and Readers review of Hebrews (The Crossway Classic Commentaries) by John Owen. Edited by J.I. Packer. Series Editor is Alister McGrath. I don’t see a Kindle version in Amazon, the paperback is selling for $10.66 as of Boxing Day 2021, and for the next 5 days it’s free from Logos.
And if you are up for the Reading and Readers Challenge, I invite you to join me in reading next month’s free book from the good folks at Faithlife. It should be out on the first of Jan and my review, if all goes well, should be released on the 10th of January. Wishing you a blessed 2022, may the Good Lord bless your family and you.