Owen was by common consent the weightiest Puritan theologian, and many would bracket him with Jonathan Edwards as one of the greatest Reformed theologians of all time. Born in 1616, he entered Queen's College, Oxford, at the age of twelve and secured his M.A. in 1635, when he was nineteen. In his early twenties, conviction of sin threw him into such turmoil that for three months he could scarcely utter a coherent word on anything; but slowly he learned to trust Christ, and so found peace. In 1637 he became a pastor; in the 1640s he was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and in 1651 he was made Dean of Christ Church, Oxford's largest college. In 1652 he was given the additional post of Vice-Chancellor of the University, which he then reorganized with conspicuous success. After 1660 he led the Independents through the bitter years of persecution till his death in 1683.
In a prior post, I discussed John Owen's (1616-1683) position regarding retributive justice and sacrifices. In this post, I want to deal with his position regarding how man's sins are imputed to Jesus. He discusses the matter in his series of essays on the doctrine of Justification (The Works of John Owen, vol. 5, ed. William Goold; recently published in a volume entitled, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith).
The principal foundation hereof is, that Christ and the church, in this design, were one mystical person; which state they do actually coalesce into, through the uniting efficacy of the Holy Spirit He is the head, and believers are the members of that one person, as the apostle declares, 1 Cor. xii. 12, 13. Hence, as what he did is imputed unto them, as if done by them; so what they deserved on the account of sin was charged upon him (p. 176).
Owen argues that due to a "mystical union" between Christ and the church, they somehow become one "mystical person." Apparently this is a "spiritual union" and a "spiritual person," since, according to him, it is brought about by the Holy Spirit.
I have several problems with this idea of a "mystical person." First, the word "mystical" means:
1. Of or having a spiritual reality or import not apparent to the intelligence or senses.
2. Of, relating to, or stemming from direct communion with ultimate reality or God: a mystical religion.
3. Enigmatic; obscure: mystical theories about the securities market.
4. Of or relating to mystic rites or practices.
5. Unintelligible; cryptic.
I guess Owen is using the word "mystical" according to gloss #1 above. This would mean that the "mystical union" is not apparent to the intelligence or sense or as #5 says, "unintelligible." If that is correct, then one is wasting his or her time trying to understand it because it is unintelligible.
Second, the "mystical person" created by this "mystical union" seems to be a creation of Paul's mind. It is at best an abstract entity that really has no parallel. Thus, I fail to see how it can explain how the guilt of man's sin of man could be transferred to Jesus.
Third, even if one plays along with Paul's and Owen's imaginary "mystical person," the problem of how the guilt of man's sin could be seen as belonging to Jesus is still not resolved. According to Owen and other defenders of the PST, only the guilt of man's sin is transferred to Jesus not the actual demerit or sin itself. In this way, they protect the sinlessness of Jesus while finding some way for him to justly bear the punishment that man's sins are said to deserve. However, if the guilt is shared due to the "mystical union," why isn't the demerit or the sin itself also shared? How is it that only the guilt or liability to punishment is shared? This is also an artificial distinction because guilt cannot be separated from the actual crime. Guilt only makes sense if there is something of which to be guilty. In addition, if for some reason the demerit of sin is not shared by this "mystical union," then how is the merit of Jesus' righteousness shared by the believer? It seems that Owen and others are merely making up the rules as they go. What they claim can be shared and what cannot be shared are merely their own dictates based on the imaginary "mystical union" their creative imaginations have invented.
How then did he make our sins to be his own, and how did he bear our iniquities? Is it not from thence, that we are said to be his body? as the apostle speaks, "You are the body of Christ, and members for your part, or of one another." And as when one member suffers, all the members do suffer; so the many members sinning and suffering, he, according unto the laws of sympathy in the same body (seeing that, being the Word of God, he would take the form of a servant, and be joined unto the common habitation of us all in the same nature), took the sorrows or labours of the suffering members on him, and made all their infirmities his own; and, according to the laws of humanity (in the same body), bare our sorrow and labour for us. And the Lamb of God did not only these things for us, but he underwent torments, and was punished for us; that which he was no ways exposed unto for himself, but we were so by the multitude of our sins: and thereby he became the cause of the pardon of our sins, namely, because he underwent death, stripes, reproaches, translating the thing which we had deserved unto himself, and was made a curse for us, taking unto himself the curse that was due to us; for what was he but (a substitute for us) a price of redemption for our souls (pp. 177-78)?
Once again Owen's imagination is running wild. He is saying that since Christ and believers are really one body, then when one part suffers the other suffers, etc. Okay, but in a body all parts are organically connected and that is why when one part suffers the whole body suffers. For the analogy to hold true and accomplish what Owen wants it to accomplish, then one would have to say that the whole body of Christ (the "mystical person" created by the "mystical union") is corrupted by the guilt of sin and thus one part of the body (i.e., the head, Christ) can somehow suffer the penalty that the whole body deserves. I fail to see how this can keep Jesus from becoming corrupt himself through his attachment with the other corrupt parts of the body. I also fail to see how the undiseased part of a body could be punished (or removed) in order to heal the diseased part. For example, if I have gangrene in my leg, it will do no good to amputate my arm.
This, then, I say, is the foundation of the imputation of the sins of the church unto Christ, namely, that he and it are one person; the grounds whereof we must inquire into.... But hereon sundry discourses do ensue, and various inquiries are made, What a person is? in what sense, and in how many senses, that word may be used? what is the true notion of it? what is a natural person? what a legal, civil, or political person? in the explication whereof some have fallen into mistakes. And if we should enter into this field, we need not fear matter enough of debate and altercation. But I must needs say, that these things belong not unto our present occasion; nor is the union of Christ and the church illustrated, but obscured by them. For Christ and believers are neither one natural person, nor a legal or political person, nor any such person as the laws, customs, or usages of men do know or allow of [emphasis mine]. They are one mystical person; whereof although there may be some imperfect resemblances found in natural or political unions, yet the union from whence that denomination is taken between him and us is of that nature, and ariseth from such reasons and causes, as no personal union among men (or the union of many persons) hath any concernment in. (And therefore, as to the representation of it unto our weak understandings, unable to comprehend the depth of heavenly mysteries, it is compared unto unions of divers kinds and natures. So is it represented by that of man and wife; not as unto those mutual affections which give them only a moral union, but from the extraction of the first woman from the flesh and bone of the first man, and the institution of God for the individual society of life thereon. This the apostle at large declares, Eph. v. 25-32: whence he concludes, that from the union thus represented, "We are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones," verse 30; or have such a relation unto him as Eve had to Adam, when she was made of his flesh and bone, and so was one flesh with him. So, also, it is compared unto the union of the head and members of the same natural body, 1 Cor. xii. 12; and unto a political union also, between a ruling or political head and its political members; but never exclusively unto the union of a natural head and its members comprised in the same expression, Eph. iv. 15; Col. ii. 19. And so also unto sundry things in nature, as a vine and its branches, John xv. 1, 2. And it is declared by the relation that was between Adam and his posterity, by God's institution and the law of creation, Rom. v. 12, etc. And the Holy Ghost, by representing the union that is between Christ and believers by such a variety of resemblances, in things agreeing only in the common or general notion of union, on various grounds, doth sufficiently manifest that it is not of, nor can be reduced unto, any one kind of them. (pp.178-179).
Okay, so according to Owen, there is nothing in human experience or reason that corresponds to the "mystical union" of Christ and believers. It is a unique case. That seems to be the cop-out that theologians give when their doctrines make no sense. We see it with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity. How can three be one and one be three? They reply that no human illustration accurately captures the truth of the doctrine. All analogies ultimately fail and thus it is beyond human understanding. However, we know that it contradicts reason for something or someone to be simultaneously three and one. In the same way, it contradicts reason for a "mystical union" to exist in which Jesus shares in the guilt of man's sin and man shares in his righteousness. If something contradicts reason, are we supposed to just sacrifice our intellect, swallow real hard, and believe it anyway (since it is taught in a book which is thought by some to be a divine revelation)? That seems to be what one is required to do.