How John Owen Might Have Responded to the Modern Charismatic Movement


In an essay on “John Owen on Spiritual Gifts” in A Quest for Godliness, J. I. Packer points that spiritual gifts were not much debated in Puritan theology and that Owen’s Discourse on Spiritual Gifts (published posthumously) is the only full-scale treatment of the subject by a major writer. Some of the questions we are asking today were not even raised at this time. For example, Packer writes, “Seventeenth-century England did not, to my knowledge, produce anyone who claimed the gift of tongues. . . .”

So how would the great John Owen have interacted with our contemporary debates? Packer writes: “it may be supposed (though this, in the the nature of the case, can only be a guess) that were Owen confronted with modern Pentecostal phenomena he would judge each case a posteriori, on its own merit, according to these four principles:”

1. Since the presumption against any such renewal is strong, and liability to ‘enthusiasm’ is part of the infirmity of every regenerate man, any extra-rational manifestation like glossolalia needs to be watched and tested most narrowly, over a considerable period of time, before one can, even provisionally, venture to ascribe it to God.

2. Since the use of a person’s gifts is intended by God to further the work of grace in his own soul (we shall see Owen arguing this later), the possibility that (for instance) a man’s glossolalia is from God can only be entertained at all as long as it is accompanied by a discernible ripening of the fruit of the Spirit in his life.

3. To be more interested in extraordinary gifts of lesser worth than in ordinary ones of greater value; to be more absorbed in seeking one’s own spiritual enrichment than in seeking the edifying of the church; and to have one’s attention centred on the Holy Spirit, whereas the Spirit himself is concerned to centre our attention on Jesus Christ—these traits are sure signs of ‘enthusiasm’ wherever they are found, even in those whom seem most saintly.

4. Since one can never conclusively prove that any charismatic manifestation is identical with what is claimed as its New Testament counterpart, one can never in any particular case have more than a tentative and provisional opinion, open to constant reconsideration as time and life go on. Owen was deeply concerned to bring out the supernaturalness of the Christian life, and to do justice to the Spirit’s work in it, but whether he could have felt close sympathy with any form of modern Pentecostalism is a question about which opinions might differ.

(HT: Justin Taylor)

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

3 thoughts on “How John Owen Might Have Responded to the Modern Charismatic Movement

  1. Perhaps we should beware of characterising and judging Pentecostal or Charismatic Christianity by the one feature of “speaking in tongues”?
    No doubt John Owen would have approved of:
    – love poured out fervently to God in worship
    – confidence in the reality and truth of the Faith
    – the growth in the number of new Christian churches in UK when many denominations see reductions in adherents
    – the amazing spread of Christianity in South America and Africa ( see my review of Kim S and Kim K. 2008, Christianity as a World Religion, in Transformation 2010)
    – participation and commitment in church activities.

    • It seems to me that we are on shaky ground here. Firstly there is an assumption that this is how Owen would have judged the movement, we don’t know. If its just maybe or perhaps then what value is the discussion? Secondly Packer is guilty of taking a part for the whole in using the example of tongues. Thirdly why is the presumption against any such renewal strong unless you are a priori a cessationist? Something of a red herring I think.

      • I have sympathy with your observations Nigel. But, I do think the informed speculations of Owen are helpful in regard to the overall impact of the Spirit upon a person That is, we should expect a deepening awareness of sin coupled with a joyful expectant growth in holiness.

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