Search This Blog

Friday, August 6, 2010

John Owen on the Atonement

John Owen (1616-1683), a Puritan and a Professor at Oxford University, was one of the most prolific defenders of the Penal Substitutionary Theory (PST) of the Atonement.  His book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, written when he was only 31 years old (1647) is still in print and is widely read in Reformed theological schools. In 1653, he wrote a treatise specifically against the Socinians entitled, A Dissertation on Divine Justice. In it he argues that retributive (or corrective) justice is a principle universally recognized by men and thus must originate from natural revelation. He puts his argument this way:

What common opinion and the innate conceptions of all assign to God, that is natural to God; but this corrective justice is so assigned to God: therefore, this justice is natural to God.

He continues: But nobody, even by report, hath heard that there exist any who have acknowledged the being of a God, and who have not, at the same time, declared him to be just, to be displeased with sinners and sin, and that it is the duty of mankind to propitiate him if they would enjoy his favour (ch. III).

Furthermore, Owen argues that mankind has universally agreed that one way to propitiate the god(s) is through offering sacrifices. But as mankind have testified this consent by other methods, so they have especially done it by sacrifices; concerning which Pliny says, "That all the world have agreed in them, although enemies or strangers to one another" (ch. III).

Owen holds that this universal belief in the necessity of a sacrifice to appease the deity can only be explained as a result of divine revelation. He writes:
But since these are plainly of a divine origin, and instituted to prefigure, so to speak, the true atonement by the blood of Christ, in which he hath been the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, -- that is, from the promise made of the seed of the woman, and from the sacrifice of Abel which followed, -- the use of them descended to all the posterity of Adam: therefore, though afterward the whole plan and purpose of the institution was lost among by far the greatest part of mankind, and even the true God himself, to whom alone they were due, was unknown, and though no traces of the thing signified, -- namely, the promised seed, -- remained, yet still the thing itself, and the general notion of appeasing the Deity by sacrifices, hath survived all the darkness, impieties, dreadful wickedness, punishments, migrations of nations, downfalls and destructions of cities, states, and people, in which the world for these many ages hath been involved; for a consciousness of sin, and a sense of divine and avenging justice, have taken deeper root in the heart of man than that they can by any means be eradicated (ch. III).

Owen then goes on to detail many examples of human sacrifices among the Pagans as well as among the Jews (he considers Jepthah an example). He believes that this practice of human sacrifice was a perversion instigated and motivated by the devil. He believes it may be traceable to a misunderstanding of Yahweh's command to Abraham to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice.
The fame of this transaction, no doubt, was spread in ancient times over many of the eastern nations. But that those who were altogether ignorant of the communion and friendship which Abraham cultivated with the Lord, and yet were convinced in their consciences that a more noble sacrifice than all cattle, and a more precious victim, was necessary to be offered to God (for if this persuasion had not been deeply impressed on their minds, the devil could not have induced them to that dreadful worship), assumed the courage of practising the same thing from that event, there is not any room to doubt (ch. IV).
Owen continues:
Thus the prophecies concerning the oblation of Christ being but badly understood, mankind were seduced, through the instigation of the devil, to pollute themselves with these inhuman and accursed sacrifices. Perhaps, too, that most artful seducer had it in view, by such sacrifices, to prejudice the more acute and intelligent part of mankind against that life-giving sacrifice that was to be destructive of his kingdom; for such now hold these atrocious sacrifices and detestable rites in abhorrence (ch. IV).
So, according to Owen, the devil inspired man to misunderstand the natural revelation that he had received and pervert it into the offering of human sacrifices. By doing this, the devil accomplished two things: 1) He caused man to sin in an especially vile manner; and 2) He caused the more "acute" to revolt in horror at the whole notion of a human sacrifice, so that when the perfect and ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ took place, the more "intelligent" would reject it.

Owen rejects the idea of Samuel Rutherford that the concept of sacrifices was revealed in the Mosaic law and then spread among Gentiles and became perverted. He writes:
But he must be a mere novice in the knowledge of these matters into whose mind even the slightest thought of that kind could enter; for I believe there is no one who doubts the custom and ceremony of sacrificing among the Gentile nations to be much more ancient than the Mosaic institutions. Nor can any one imagine that this universal custom among all nations, tribes, and people, civilized and barbarous, unknown to one another, differently situated and scattered all over the world, could have first arisen and proceeded from the institutions of the Jews (ch. IV)
Owen, on the other hand, believes that man's idea of guilt before  God and the need to offer a sacrifice to propitiate God is a result of natural revelation which God has given to all men. Man misunderstood and misapplied the revelation, thinking that he could offer something that would actually propitiate God instead of realizing his own bankruptness and depending upon God to provide the necessary sacrifice. He states:
Yea, I say, that a sinful creature could perform this [make propitiation to God] is false, and a presumption only, arising from that darkness which we are in by nature. But, notwithstanding, it is true that God must be appeased by a propitiatory sacrifice, if we would that our sins should be forgiven us; and this much he hath pointed out to all mankind by that light of nature, obscure indeed, but not dark (ch. IV)
Thus, Owen argues that the universal notion of mankind that a sacrifice is needed to appease God's wrath with regard to sin is proof that this notion is true because it is universally believed. He cites several Greek philosophers to bolster his point. Aristotle: "What is admitted by all, we also admit; but he who would destroy such faith can himself advance nothing more credible," and "it is a very strong proof, if all shall agree in what we shall say." Hesiod: "That sentiment cannot be altogether groundless which many people agree in publishing." Seneca: "When we discourse of the eternity of the soul, the consent of mankind is considered as a weighty argument; I content myself with this public persuasion" (ch. IV).

I come to a different conclusion than the distinguised Puritan. I believe that man's sense of the need to appease the god(s) through sacrifice is an evolutionary development in the history of religion and can be better explained through a study of the anthropology of religion (see David Eller, Introducing Anthropology of Religion, pp. 230-34). This belief in the need to offer a sacrifice was the fertile soil in which the in the idea that the death of Jesus was the ultimate and final sacrifice developed. When Jesus died, the disciples were dumbfounded because they thought Jesus was to be the Messiah. As they pondered what happened, they reverted back to this concept of a sacrifice appeasing God and making atonement for the soul. The Hebrew Bible was of course filled with that notion (e.g., Lev. 17:11). There was also the concept that the highest or most valuable offering that one could present to God was one's only son. The story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22 indictates that idea and in Micah 6:17, the prophet asks: Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul (NIV)?

So, my point is that it is understandable how the early Christians came to explain the death of Jesus as a propitiatiory sacrifice because the concept was prevalent in the Jewish mind as well as all of the Graeco-Roman world. The Jewish concepts were taken and then interpreted for a Hellenistic world by Paul. Thus, I see no reason to think that Evangelical Christianity is divinely revealed truth. It can be explained on a purely naturalistic basis.


  1. When Jesus died, the disciples were dumbfounded because they thought Jesus was to be the Messiah. As they pondered what happened, they reverted back to this concept of a sacrifice appeasing God and making atonement for the soul. The Hebrew Bible was of course filled with that notion (e.g., Lev. 17:11). There was also the concept that the highest or most valuable offering that one could present to God was one's only son.

    That's a brilliant thought.

    I've been working on a little project about the development of Christian thought in the Byzantine Empire. Like any good historian I went back to the beginning of time in order to get an appropriate perspective on the whole thing. One of the big things that struck me when I started looking at the period of Constantine the Great was that Christianity was far from settled even then. There wasn't even a Biblical canon until after the Council of Nicaea.

    The history of religion is often taught as a straight line, set from one thinker to the next. But if you look at it in historical context it becomes quite clear that Augustine had a very different understanding of what Christianity is than, say, Eusebius or Lactantius. On principle this shouldn't be too hard to understand, as Mark Driscoll has a very different understanding of what Christianity is than Joel Osteen or the Pope.

    But it was much, much more confused then, because they were all working from different source documents. They were also using things that aren't canon now and did not necessarily have access to all of the canonical documents.

    In short, the idea that someone looked at the situation and said, "Well this totally doesn't fit our Messiah scheme...let's see what else we can come up with," is completely believable. The Christian story didn't pop fully formed out of the head of Paul and it was several centuries before there was even a consensus as to what made up the Christian story. That's an awful lot of time in which ideas and theologies can be swapped out and rearranged. And we have little to no documentation for how those things happened. We just know that there was a massively confused period in the development of the Christian theology.

  2. Geds,

    You are right and I don't even think the canonical writers were in unision. There were a lot of different ideas floating about among the early Christians but they all agreed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God (not necessarily equal with God)and that he had been executed and was raised from the dead (although I think there was disagreement over whether it was a physical or spiritual resurrection). The biggest initial obstacle was to explain why the Messiah, the Son of God had been killed. I think they mixed the concept of the martyrs with the concept of sacrifice, added the notion of the only son as being the ultimate and perfect sacrifice (which also explained in their minds why Jerusalem was destroyed and the temple sacrifices were over)and came up with the doctrine of the atonement. Purgation of sins, redemption (as in the case of the Passover lamb), and propitiation of a deity were the main components of the earliest theory of the atonement. Paul added some ideas about the payment of a penalty which pretty much laid dormant until Calvin and the Reformers developed it.

  3. But why would the disciples and Paul push the theme of resurrection. Surely, schemers of a Messiah would have enough evidence to prove Jesus' ultimate-sacrifice-ability through the works they claim he accomplished in his life -leagues above even the teachers of the Law (eg. miracles, exorcisms, proficiency in the Laws and Torah, the possibility for claiming a miraculous virgin birth, etc).
    Is there greater legitimacy formed in the story of the ultimate sacrifice under the claim of resurrection? Surely not. If anything, a bold scheme of a Messiah come in the context of the prophetic words of the Torah is undermined by such a claim. How many more people would succumb to a belief in Jesus without such a bold claim.
    There seems to be no 'naturalistic basis' in telling of a resurrection.
    -Now I will read the blog on resurrection. Your thoughts are much appreciated in dealing with my question!

  4. I think some people had visions of Jesus after his death and this came to be understood as his resurrection. His death was seen as that of a martyr and then his resurrection as God's vindication of him. As more theologizing took place, his death was seen as a sacrifice which purges sin and which propitiates God