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John OwenJohn Owen and Old Testament Christophanies

by Andrew S. Malone


The value of the thinking of John Owen (1616–1683) has been rediscovered in the twentieth century. His prolific writings leave few subjects untouched. Such detailed dissertations, along with his commitment to scriptural revelation and the trinitarian God disclosed therein, has great appeal to a resurgent, scholastic evangelicalism. One need not look far to find him acclaimed as “the great systematic thinker in the Puritan theological tradition” and seventeenth-century England’s “foremost bastion and champion of Reformed evangelical orthodoxy.”[i]

Thus when his reputation is introduced concerning as crucial a topic as christology, evangelicals pay attention.

Such is the case in the opening years of our twenty-first century. Owen’s reputation has been enlisted in support of the ‘rediscovery’ of an active and visible pre‑incarnate Son in the Old Testament. His position on such matters has earned a hearing among evangelicals in the UK and Australia through the work of Paul Blackham, Associate Minister of Theology at All Souls, Langham Place, London. Although generally through the less formal channels of speaking and church-based ministry, Blackham has created a noticeable wave on the issue in several countries and among a number of denominations.[ii] {p139}

John Owen is said to support both the activity and the visibility of the pre‑incarnate Son. There is nothing novel about the notion of Old Testament ‘christophanies’; some theophanies have been attributed specifically to the second person of the Trinity since the earliest Christian writings.[iii] However, the significance of such christophanies continues to be debated. The debate pivots on the revelatory value of such christophanies, and how these contribute to the progress of revelation and the veracity of faith. More enthusiastic advocates—the more extreme ‘christophanists’—build upon the Son’s presence and activity to claim that Old Testament figures were aware of him and all his christological implications. We find scholars suggesting that “Christ spoke in OT times to Moses, to David, and to Isaiah, proclaiming a gospel of faith in himself, and commissioning them to preach this faith . . . and that Israel could have recognized Christ at certain points in OT history, and even that certain individuals did recognize him.”[iv]

These more extreme claims certainly deserve further scrutiny. But the concern of this article is with the weight placed upon Owen. To him is ascribed all such claims. He is painted as a resolute christophanist, keen to show both that the Son was active in Old Testament times and that he was understood as such. He is presented as insisting that salvation has always been through faith in Christ, and that such faith is as conscious and explicit in the Old Testament as in the New.

His is a testimony which radiates both antiquity and reliability, one bright light of at least a century of scholasticism, and contributor to the shape of many of today’s denominations. Owen’s opinions on these matters must be regarded as influential. {p140}

It can be shown that all the relevant claims under consideration reduce to two key foci, both of which are alleged for Owen. First, he is said to derive his conclusions directly from the text of the Old Testament. Second, he is said to minimise any discontinuity between the testaments. The Old Testament is, apparently, a source which teaches that Abraham and Moses et al met, knew and trusted the One who was to become incarnate and die for their sin. These two foci are clearly presented when Blackham builds his argument upon Owen:

"Did Adam know Christ? Of course, who else was it that walked in the Garden and spoke to him? In saying that I am in no way trying to impose the NT onto the OT. John Owen, the great 17th century Puritan theologian, in his 10th introductory essay to his commentary on Hebrews, argues precisely this point from an examination of the Hebrew text of Genesis 3."[v]

Indeed, elsewhere in that introductory essay, Owen does seem to support these points:

The other way [of revealing the Messiah], which concerns his divine person, was by those visions and appearances of the Son of God, as the head of the church, which were granted unto the fathers under the old testament. And these, as they are directly suited unto our purpose, in our inquiry after the prognostics of the advent of the Messiah, so are they eminently useful for the conviction of the Jews; for in them we shall manifest that a revelation was made of a distinct person in the Deity, who in a peculiar manner did manage all the concernments of the church after the entrance of sin.[vi]

Again, it is not my purpose to address here the current debate. Rather, it is to investigate whether Owen does, as it appears, subscribe to such a consequence-laden view. Although his writings are abundantly christological, in no place does Owen discourse in a sustained manner on the question of how thoroughly any pre-incarnate revelations of the Son were received and understood. Nor has the last century’s renewed interest in him produced much to {p141} summarise his views on the matter. This article begins to redress the lacuna and provides a catalyst to further discussion and analysis.[vii]

In synthesising Owen’s opinions, we shall find that he has, indeed, been misrepresented. He neither works primarily from the Old Testament text, nor minimises discontinuity in the issues of knowledge and faith. Rather, the opposite is true for each matter. We shall see that he concedes the interpretative primacy—indeed, necessity—of the New Testament, and insists on significant discontinuity between the soteriology of the two halves of the canon. He is far less christophanist than might be supposed.[viii]


Old Testament Revelation

The first of the two foci concerns the independence of the Old Testament. We have seen it suggested that Owen reaches his christocentric conclusions from the Hebrew text alone.[ix] Yet this is an unfair claim. A closer reading of Owen reveals that he not only employs the further revelation of the New Testament to understand the Old, but that he also insists that one must grasp this greater revelation and be regenerate before the Old Testament relinquishes its christological value.

This evaluation of Owen is not always easy to reach. On many occasions he does claim to be working with the plain meaning of the Old Testament. We must synthesise a deal of his writing in order to achieve an accurate picture of his views.

Owen, of course, finds promises of the coming Messiah, none more foundational than the protevangelium. He appears to find therein a great deal of information concerning the Christ “who, from the first promise of him, or intimation of relief by him, was the hope, desire, comfort, and expectation of all that aimed at reconciliation and peace with God,—upon whom all their religion, faith, and worship was founded, and in whom it centred.”[x] This was {p142} the foundational promise for the patriarchs, and was indeed the foundation of all subsequent promises and covenants.[xi]

But christophanies are not merely about the promised incarnation. Owen does appear to move beyond such promises to find the Son active and visible within Old Testament times and evidenced in Old Testament texts. In his discourse on the Glory of Christ, Owen speaks of the reality and purpose of these christophanies:

It was so represented and made known under the Old Testament, in his personal appearances on various occasions unto several eminent persons, leaders of the church in their generations. This he did as a præludium to his incarnation. He was as yet God only; but appeared in the assumed shape of a man, to signify what he would be. He did not create a human nature, and unite it unto himself for such a season; only by his divine power he acted the shape of a man composed of what ethereal substance he pleased, immediately to be dissolved. So he appeared to Abraham, to Jacob, to Moses, to Joshua, and others; as I have at large elsewhere proved and confirmed. And hereon, also, because he was the divine person who dwelt in and dwelt with the church, under the Old Testament, from first to last, in so doing he constantly assumes unto himself human affections, to intimate that a season would come when he would immediately act in that nature. And, indeed, after the fall there is nothing spoken of God in the Old Testament, nothing of his institutions, nothing of the way and manner of dealing with the church, but what hath respect unto the future incarnation of Christ.[xii]

Yet Owen does not pursue the consequences of this position as far as do other christophanists. Owen does not use the occurrence of christophanies to reduce the discontinuity between the testament or to raise the level of knowledge from which progressive revelation develops. In such citations as the one just given, we must not emphasise the language of the Son’s ‘appearances’ at the expense of Owen’s qualification that these were only ‘intimations’. Any pre-incarnate interactions of the second person of the Trinity with humanity are not of the same revelatory calibre as those of the incarnate Christ. Christophanist thinking inclines to overlook this distinction, as well as the fact that {p143} Owen’s pivotal arguments in the introductory essays to Hebrews are absolutely riddled with the language of ‘intimation’.[xiii]

Put simply, unless we wish to accuse him of a fluctuating theology, passages where Owen sounds (over)confident in the Old Testament’s revelation of the Son need to balanced against other comments of his. For in these other comments, Owen makes it clear that no revelation is complete without the incarnation. Promises and prophecies are not all transparent; they cover a spectrum and many are quite obscure. Even the contentious question of typology is, in Owen’s opinion, settled in favour of its value as a tool for retrospective identification of patterns rather than as a prospective form of prophecy.[xiv] Though not denying that typological connections are deliberately and providentially arranged in advance, Owen is adamant that any connection cannot be clarified prior to its fulfilment. Typology relies on some degree of figurative or allegorical link, and this link cannot be accurately determined in advance of the antitype:

At least, they cannot make them [figures and types], in the strict literal sense of the words, the object of their faith and expectation, unless they can by some infallible rule declare what is figuratively to be understood in them, what properly, or which promises are expressed allegorically, which not; and this they can never do. The event, therefore, is the only infallible interpreter of the meaning of such prophetical predictions; whatever precedes that is but conjecture.[xv] {p144}

Owen determines that this is especially true of the maze of Old Testament referents to the coming Messiah. Complaining of Jewish speculations from the Old Testament alone, Owen avers that one can only certify which of these is truly a prefigurement in the light of the messianic event:

That which, above all things, manifests the folly and irreligion of the imagination of the Jews about the person and work of the Messiah is the event. The true Messiah is long since come, hath accomplished the work assigned unto him, and made known the nature of the first and consequent promises, with the salvation that he was to effect.[xvi]

Indeed, beginning any investigation with the New Testament’s perspective is Owen’s resolution to all problems, obscurities, typologies and (supposed) inconsistencies found in the Old Testament’s preparation for the coming Messiah, “All which, with sundry others of the like nature concerning his office and work, are clearly reconciled in the New Testament, and their concurrence in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ openly and fully declared.”[xvii]

Owen’s theory is certainly exemplified in his practice; he is frequently reliant on this New Testament clarity. For example, on those occasions when he sees the Angel of Yahweh as a christophany, his Old Testament exegesis is at most successful in demonstrating that “it must be some distinct person in the Deity condescending unto that office.”[xviii] But it is his New Testament knowledge which supplies the idea of the Son as the one sent, the Son as the one who takes on human form, and the Son as the subject of certain Old Testament passages. None of this data is drawn from the Angel passages themselves; on their own, we might be excused for positing that it was the Spirit who was the “distinct person in the Deity” at work.

In fact, one of the major reasons for Owen’s extensive writings is precisely that the Old Testament is not perspicuous on these matters. Owen concedes that Christians are faced with big questions in the light of some New Testament statements about the christological content of the Old. 1 Peter 1:10–12 shows Old Testament prophets engaged in a christological search, and Jesus himself commands his followers to “search the scriptures . . . which testify {p145} about me.”[xix]

Owen admits in many places that such New Testament statements can be distressing; the referents claimed by Jesus and his apostles are often not readily apparent in the Hebrew canon.[xx] Consequently, much of Owen’s work is to supply Christian readers with answers to such dilemmas. He himself claims that the whole purpose of his chapter on ‘Representations of the Glory of Christ under the Old Testament’ is “to give a little light unto the words of the evangelist, that he opened unto his disciples out of Moses and all the Prophets the things which concerned himself; and to stir up our own souls unto a contemplation of them as contained therein.”[xxi]

As noted already, Owen goes even further than demanding that the New Testament’s revelation must supplement the Old’s. He insists that “It is faith alone, discovering the glory of Christ, that can remove that veil of darkness which covers the minds of men in reading the Old Testament, as the apostle declares, 2 Cor. iii. 14–16.”[xxii] Such complete faith requires the revelation of New Testament events. Owen neatly captures a number of important thoughts when he argues that

The writings of the evangelists are full unto their proper ends and purposes. . . . “these are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” John xx. 30, 31. Unto this end every thing is recorded by them that is needful unto the ingenerating and establishing of faith. Upon this confirmation, all things declared in the Old Testament concerning him—all that was taught in types and sacrifices—became the object of faith, in that sense wherein they were interpreted in the accomplishment. [xxiii]

It is clear that Owen finds the revelation of the New Testament to be a significant advance on that of the Old. We find that a great deal of Owen’s christological understanding of the Old Testament is either explicitly or implicitly reliant upon this further revelation. {p146}


Old Testament Soteriology

What, then, does this entail for the knowledge and faith of Old Testament ‘believers’? What did one believe in when the final and definitive revelation was not yet offered? Did one even have sufficient knowledge of “the glory of Christ” to escape the veil and appreciate the content of the Old Testament writings?

Many evangelicals will be comfortable with Owen’s demand that biblical revelation is incomplete without the final word through the incarnate Son. Most moderate christophanists also recognise the value of his superior revelation. If so, then it starts to challenge the whole possibility of Old Testament figures knowing the Son. If the full revelation of the incarnate Christ is necessary, then—by definition—the pre-incarnate Son could not be known.

We are in danger here of a circular argument; in order to know Christ, one must know Christ. The question, then, is how central is the incarnation as a prerequisite of revelation? Owen appears in danger of treading this cycle. But he ultimately takes a stand: in order to recognise the Son in the Old Testament, you need to be familiar with the Son of the New. This lays down an order of proceedings which is prescriptively linear, breaking the cycle.

The consequences of this are significant. It challenges those christophanists who argue for an Old Testament soteriology based on a conscious knowledge of and faith in the (coming) Son.[xxiv] To Owen, at least, it is clear that Abraham and Moses and David did not share so great a salvation as do New Testament believers.

As such, Owen is a completely unreliable foundation for any who would insist that knowledge, faith, salvation, etc, are all but continuous between the two testaments. Owen judges all of these to be seriously discontinuous.[xxv]

Owen finds that the promises, prophecies and predictions of the coming Messiah gave some idea of his person and a little of his work. Faith amounted to a belief that this Messiah would be God, come to earth incarnate to somehow {p147} save his people. The person of Christ is grounded in Owen’s optimistic, NT-driven understanding of the protevangelium, whilst the work of Christ is obscured under the various institutions of Old Testament worship. Neither is as perspicuous nor complete as it is with New Testament revelation.

The result is that Owen holds a diminished soteriology for those who believed under the old covenant. Their limited knowledge led to a limited faith, with the concomitant salvation also incomplete until the full knowledge and work of Christ was made manifest. An extended citation deserves our attention:

And in the continuance of this holy worship in the sanctuary above, God doth manifest his glory on many accounts, and resteth thereto. First, he doth it in and unto the saints who departed this life under the Old Testament. They came short in glory of what they now enter into who die in the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. For—not to dispute about nor determine positively, what was their state and condition before the ascension of Christ into heaven, or what was the nature of the blessed receptacle of their souls—it is manifest that they did not, they could not, behold the glory of God, and the accomplishment of the mystery of his wisdom and will, in Jesus Christ; nor was it perfectly made known unto them. Whatever were their rest, refreshment, and blessedness,— were their enjoyments of the presence of God; yet was there no throne of grace erected in heaven,—no High Priest appearing before it,—no Lamb as it had been slain,—no joint ascription of glory unto him that sits on the throne, and the Lamb, for ever; God “having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.” See Eph. iii. 9, 10.

This was that, and this was that alone, so far as in the Scripture it is revealed, wherein they came short of that glory which is now enjoyed in heaven. And herein consists the advantage of the saints above them, who now die in faith. Their state in heaven was suited unto their faith and worship on the earth. They had no clear, distinct knowledge of the incarnation and mediatory office of Christ by their revelations and services; only they believed that the promise of deliverance, of grace and mercy, should be in and by him accomplished. Their reception into heaven—that which they were made meet and prepared for by their faith and worship—was suited thereunto. . . . Neither they nor the angels knew clearly either the sufferings of Christ or the glory that should ensue. But they saw and knew that there was yet something farther to be done in heaven and earth, as yet hid in God and the counsels of his will, for the exaltation of his glory in the complete salvation of the church. This they continued waiting for in the holy place of their refreshment above. Faith gave them, and it gives us, an entrance into the presence of God, and makes us meet for it. But what they immediately enjoyed did not in its whole kind exceed what their faith directed unto. No more doth ours. Wherefore they were not prepared for a view of the present glory of heaven; nor did {p148} enjoy it. But the saints under the New Testament, who are clearly instructed by the Gospel in the mysteries of the incarnation and mediation of Christ, are, by their faith and worship, made meet for an immediate entrance into this glory. This they long for, this they expect and are secured of, from the prayer of our Saviour,—that they be, when they leave this world, where he is, to behold his glory.

But now, upon the entrance of Christ into the heavenly sanctuary, all those holy ones were admitted into the same glory with what the saints under the New Testament do enjoy. Hereon with open face they behold the use and end of those typical services and ordinances wherein these things were shadowed out unto them. No heart can conceive that ineffable addition of glory which they received hereby. The mystery of the wisdom and grace of God in their redemption and salvation by Christ was now fully represented unto them; what they had prayed for, longed for, and desired to see in the days of their flesh on the earth, and waited for so long in heaven, was now gloriously made manifest unto them. Hereon did glorious light and blessed satisfaction come into and upon all those blessed souls, who died in the faith, but had not received the promise,—only beheld it afar off. And hereby did God greatly manifest his own glory in them and unto them; which is the first end of the continuation of this state of things in heaven. This makes me judge that the season of Christ’s entrance into heaven, as the holy sanctuary of God, was the greatest instance of created glory that ever was or ever shall be, unto the consummation of all things. And this as for other reasons, so because all the holy souls who had departed in the faith from the foundation of the world, were then received into the glorious light of the counsels of God, and knowledge of the effects of his grace by Jesus Christ.[xxvi]

Many of the elements of such a detailed explanation by Owen can be appreciated in a more succinct statement:

Hence this communion and fellowship with God is not in express terms mentioned in the Old Testament. The thing itself is found there; but the clear light of it, and the boldness of faith in it, is discovered in the gospel, and by the Spirit administered therein. . . . But the way into the holiest was not yet made manifest whilst the first tabernacle was standing, Heb. ix. 8. Though they had communion with God, yet they had not parrēsian,—a boldness and confidence in that communion. This follows the entrance of our High Priest into the most holy place. . . . This boldness and access with confidence the saints of old were not acquainted with.[xxvii] {p149}

It is thus clear that Owen does not demand a great continuity between the testaments. To be sure, there are times where he can sound as if biblical faith is entirely monochrome:

There are some who deny that faith in Christ was required from the beginning, or was necessary unto the worship of God, or the justification and salvation of them that did obey him. For, whereas it must be granted that “without faith it is impossible to please God,” which the apostle proves by instances from the foundation of the world, Heb. xi.—they suppose it is faith in God under the general notion of it, without any respect unto Christ, that is intended. It is not my design to contend with any, not expressly to confute such ungrateful opinions—such pernicious errors. Such this is, which—being pursued in its proper tendency—strikes at the very foundation of Christian religion; for it at once deprives us of all contribution of light and truth from the Old Testament. Somewhat I have spoken before of the faith of the saints of old concerning him.[xxviii]

Such claims appear to contradict those we have already surveyed. Unless we wish to excuse Owen as inconsistent or ill-defined, and hence surrender our new-found delight in his theology, we ought to understand these statements as a kind of shorthand and not allow them to be interpreted without the ‘canonical context’ of the rest of his writings. Owen does not understand “faith in Christ” and its consequent salvation to be identical in each testament. This can be sufficiently demonstrated in two steps.

The first is that Owen is ultimately concerned with trusting in the whole Trinity. He adjures Christians to have distinct faith in each person. This is clear in his affirmations of the Holy Spirit: “The same regard is had to him in faith, worship, and obedience, as unto the other persons of the Father and the Son.”[xxix] And faith in Christ is to lead to faith in the Father: “In and through Christ we do believe in God, 1 Pet. i. 21. This is the life of our souls. God himself, in the infinite perfections of his divine nature, is the ultimate object of our faith.”[xxx] All three persons constitute a whole, tripartite object of faith, {p150} “one God, jointly to be worshipped, feared, adored, believed in, and obeyed, in order unto eternal life.”[xxxi]

The second step develops the first. Owen accepts that an object of faith may be beheld indirectly. We have already seen that one has faith in the Father via faith in the Son. The same is true of this faith in Christ. “God, even the Father, . . . invites us to the acceptation of Christ in the promises.”[xxxii] In contrast with the specific object of faith in the Lord’s Supper, “The divine veracity, or the truth of God, that is the formal object of faith, as faith. . . . The special object of faith, as justifying, is the promise, and Christ in the promise, in general.”[xxxiii]

We can thus comprehend Owen’s occasional shorthand. In more detailed discourse, he explains that “faith in God” is not independent of “faith in Christ”. Similarly, “faith in Christ” may not be independent of some mechanism, most notably various promises made in scripture. Owen himself explains this, as he wrestles with the various objects of justifying faith proposed by scripture; do we believe in God’s grace (the cause of justification), the promises (the means), our pardon from sin (the effect), or in Christ himself? While retaining an evangelical focus on Christ and his work, Owen recognises that these are all bound together, and that one may be more accessible to us than another:

And all these things are so united, so intermixed in their mutual relations and respects, so concatenated in the purpose of God, and the declaration made of his will in the gospel, as that the believing of any one of them doth virtually include the belief of the rest.[xxxiv]

Thus, with respect to Old Testament ‘believers’, Owen’s phrase “faith in Christ” need not entail a direct and conscious faith in the second person of the Trinity. Without abandoning the centrality of Christ in salvation, Owen admits {p151} that Old Testament believers need not have enjoyed the clarity which we now do. “Some fix their faith and trust principally on the grace, love, and mercy of God; especially they did so under the Old Testament, before the clear revelation of Christ and his mediation.”[xxxv] 


Old Testament Christophanies

So far we have seen that Owen is guilty of neither of the two foci with which we are concerned. He accepts neither the textual premise nor its theological corollary. Christophanist conclusions, from Owen’s perspective, cannot be defended from Old Testament texts on their own nor on the expectation that soteriology is continuous throughout the canon.

What role, then, does he see for Old Testament christophanies? Having neither rejected them outright nor exalted them to the exclusion of other forms of revelation, how does John Owen hold christophanies in tension with progressive revelation?

It must be said again that Owen does not give a clear synthesis to which we can turn. Rather, he supplies only parts of his position in any given discourse. We must thus be wary of relying on a single, curt citation to summarise his views. Rather, we can develop a reasonable picture as we piece together some of our gleanings:

(1.) Owen arguably finds fewer christophanies than do some christophanist scholars. As with others both before and after him, these tend to revolve around the Angel. Yet Owen does not even insist that every (capital) Angelophany is a christophany. While he is at pains to flag many such appearances, like that in Joshua 5, he treats the encounter of Samson’s parents in Judges 13 as involving {p152} merely a created angel.[xxxvi] Similarly, though Owen regularly interprets the theophany of Isaiah 6 as a christophany due to the testimony of John 12:41, he does not pursue this interpretation for the theophany of Ezekiel 1.[xxxvii]

(2.) Being reliant on Angelophanies, he anticipates the studies of other christophanists whose coverage of christophanies wind down in the early years of the former prophets. Owen often claims that there are many christophanies upon which he has not elaborated: “many other instances of the like nature may be added out of the former and later Prophets; which, because in most important circumstances they are coincident with these, need not here particularly be insisted on.”[xxxviii] Yet, without further evidence or discussion of these, we must be cautious to correctly interpret his earlier claim concerning “personal appearances on various occasions unto several eminent persons.” I suspect that the limited number of christophanies that he surveys represents a far more exhaustive sample than we might infer from his broad generalisations.

(3.) Not only does Owen describe few actual christophanies, he disqualifies any additional potential christophanies. Owen is entirely orthodox in decrying any authoritative source outside of scripture; he would not speculate about additional theophanies of any sort.[xxxix] But neither is he comfortable speculating about biblical events without sufficient warrant; if it is not recorded explicitly in the text, it did not occur.[xl] This methodology is in stark contrast {p153} with other christophanists, who are usually keen to exploit those places where scripture is silent or ambiguous.[xli]

(4.) There are myriad other places where Owen describes the obscurity inherent in the shadows and types of the Old Testament. He describes “those ways and means whereby the glory of Christ was represented unto believers under the Old Testament” as “a shadow,” “foresignified and represented” in the institutions of worship, amounting only to “dark apprehensions.”[xlii] There is a clear distinction between the clarity of the revelation of the two testaments:

The sight which they had of the glory of Christ—for they also saw his glory through the obscurity of its revelation, and its being veiled with types and shadows—was weak and imperfect in the most illuminated believers; much inferior unto what we now have by faith, through the Gospel.[xliii]

This is particularly true concerning the saving work of the Messiah:

God gave them, indeed, representations and prefigurations of his office and work also. . . . And although they are now to us full of light and instruction, evidently expressing the principal works of Christ’s mediation, yet were they not so unto them. For the veil is now taken off from them in their accomplishment, and a declaration is made of the counsels of God in them by the Gospel. The meanest believer may now find out more of the work of Christ in the types of the Old Testament, than any prophets or wise men could have done of old.[xliv]

(5.) Ultimately, Old Testament christophanies are one of these many prospective intimations of how God’s future for his people would unfold. Just as any type or promise made a specific contribution to the final solution, so it was with christophanies. Though they offered a “pledge” of his coming incarnation, they were not somehow a more perspicuous or superior or complete {p154} addition to revelation. They offered as narrow and partial a contribution as any other hint.[xlv]



John Owen’s opinion is worth seeking on any matter. Concerning manifestations of the pre-incarnate Son in the Old Testament, he appears to affirm both such christophanies and their soteriological significance. It can also appear that he reaches these conclusions from a study of the Old Testament texts on their own.

A closer inspection of suitable depth and breadth suggests that such a reading of Owen is either wishful thinking, simplistic proof-texting or wilful misrepresentation. While Owen attests Old Testament christophanies, he judges that they play a surprisingly limited role in overall revelation. His interpretation of these is highly reliant on the clarity afforded by the New Testament. The clarity of the New Testament’s revelation is matched by a marked leap in the quality of salvation.

In a single sentence, it is Owen’s opinion that “The clear revelation of the person of Christ, so as to render him the direct object of our love, with the causes and reasons of it, is one of the most eminent privileges of the New Testament.”[xlvi]


This article is reproduced with permission from Reformed Theological Review 63/3 (2004), pp.138–154 (page numbers given in brackets {above} refer to this original).


[i] Respectively: Ian Breward, ‘Puritan Theology’, New Dictionary of Theology (Leicester: IVP, 1988), p.552; J. I. Packer, Among God’s Giants: Aspects of Puritan Christianity (Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1991), p.107; cf. p.251. Other accolades from past and present are collated by Peter Toon, God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen (Exeter: Paternoster, 1971), 173–174.

[ii] Blackham’s exposure is available through a number of channels. Many of his views are available in essays and sermons from his own website <>. Such material has been revised in various forms, e.g. for his September 2001 tour of Australia at the behest of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (presentations available at <>). A debate with Graeme Goldsworthy at Oak Hill in March 2001 gave added prominence to the issue; primarily hosted at <>; the debate is mirrored at a number of sites, and Blackham’s opening contribution has been reproduced in internet journals such as Contact OnLine 7/6 (June 2003; archives available via <‑>). Blackham also contributed frequently to an extensive post-debate discussion group, archived at <>. Further exposure continues to be gained through Blackham’s contributions to the multi­media Book By Book series produced by All Souls, especially the video and booklet on Genesis (Cumbria: Authentic Lifestyle, 2003). In addition to printed sermons, audio versions are available courtesy of the All Souls tape ministry <>. It is a significant commentary on the role of modern communication that Blackham has had such a wide impact on evangelicals without yet committing his (relevant) thoughts to academic print.

[iii] A recent survey and echo of historical arguments is offered by James A. Borland, Christ in the Old Testament: Old Testament Appearances of Christ in Human Form (rev. ed.; Fearn: Mentor, 21999). Borland claims a great heritage for his position: “that all these particular [human-form] theophanic manifestations were performed by God the Son . . . has the support of most orthodox scholars” and is “the usual conservative biblical position” (pp.55, 59).

[iv] Anthony T. Hanson, Jesus Christ in the Old Testament (London: SPCK, 1965), p.46.

[v] Blackham, opening contribution to debate, reproduced as ‘The Bible Speaks: Faith in Christ in the Old Testament’, Contact OnLine 7/6 (2003). He makes similar claims for Owen in his paper, ‘Christ the Object of Our Faith’.

[vi] Exercitation X: ‘Appearances of the Son of God under the old testament’ (1668), Hebrews vol.1 = Works vol.18, p.216, italics original. (References to Works are from the original 24-volume set edited by Goold [1850–1853]. Newer reprints [1965–1968] renumber Hebrews 1–7 as Works 17–23.) In the various forms of his debate contribution, Blackham eagerly cites the latter part of this quote. Owen both affirms the classic doctrine that external operations of the Trinity are indivisible (opera ad extra Trinitatis indivisa sunt) and distinguishes between the persons in—and because of—their distinct operations; Alan Spence, ‘John Owen and Trinitar­ian Agency’, Scottish Journal of Theology 43/2 (1990), pp.157–173.

[vii] Throughout the 2001 debate, both Blackham and Goldsworthy recognise the need for further analysis of John Owen’s position before either interlocutor can claim his support.

[viii] I would suggest that it is Owen’s general orthodoxy on these points which has occasioned the aforementioned lacuna.

[ix] Owen’s absolute reliance on the MT against all other versions is particularly prominent in his 1659 defences The Divine Original of the Scripture and Of the Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of the Scripture (respectively Works 16, pp.295–343, 345–421).

[x] Exercitation IX: ‘Promises of the Messiah vindicated’ (1668), Hebrews 1 = Works 18, p.214, italics original.

[xi] e.g. Works 1.120–125; 5.27; 18.176. So Person of Christ (1679), Works 1, p.124, italics original: “All the promises that God gave afterward unto the church under the Old Testament, before and after the giving of the law—all the covenants that he entered into with particular persons, or the whole congregation of believers—were all of them declarations and confirmations of this first promise, or the way of salvation by the mediation of his Son, becoming the seed of the woman, to break the head of the serpent, and to work out the deliverance of mankind.”

[xii] Glory of Christ (1684), Works 1, pp.349–350, italics original; cf. 18.222.

[xiii] This is particularly true of Owen’s treatment of the protevangelium. Though he finds therein the first clear claim for the Messiah’s unique combination of divine and human natures, yet his major study of the passage is littered from start to finish with such language cautious about its clarity (Exercitation VIII: ‘The first dissertation concerning the Messiah, proving him to be promised of old’ [1668], §§23–28, Hebrews 1 = Works 18, pp.170–177). His reliance upon and unshakeable confidence in this first promise is given further perspective when he recognises it as still “that obscure promise under the Old Testament” (Sermon: ‘The Beauty and Strength of Zion’ [1675], Works 9, p.317).

[xiv] For a recent survey of historical approaches to typology, including a call to return to such recognition of its prospective value, see Richard M. Davidson, Typology In Scripture: A study of hermeneutical typos structures (AUSDDS 2; Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1981). e.g. “Although the precise nature of the fulfillment is further clarified in the light of the Christ-event, yet Paul insists that the movement with reference to the typoi is basically prospective and not retro­spective. It does not merely involve the retrospective recognition of an historical correspondence but consists of an OT pro­spect­ive/predictive prefiguration of a specific NT fulfillment” (p.285; cf. p.296).

[xv] Exercitation XI: ‘Faith of the ancient church of the Jews concerning the Messiah’ (1668), Hebrews 1 = Works 18, p.260, italics added.

[xvi] Exercitation XI, Hebrews 1 = Works 18, p.262, italics original. Goold’s introduction to Owen’s commentary on Hebrews makes this even more explicit. He suggests that OT typology could hardly have been interpreted until this letter was penned: “If the Epistle to the Hebrews had not been given us, we would have had little direct and explicit ratification of the princi­ple by which type and antitype are connected.” (Hebrews 1 = Works 18, p.viii)

[xvii] Exercitation XI, Hebrews 1 = Works 18, p.240.

[xviii] e.g. Exercitation X, Hebrews 1 = Works 18, pp.224–225.

[xix] Glory of Christ, Works 1, pp.314–315; cf. pp.348–349. Some of Owen’s directive force is dependent on his rendering of John 5:39 (eraunate [or ereunate] tas graphas) as an imperative rather than an indicative. As such, Owen follows a long tradition, but virtually all modern commentators have abandoned this reading.

[xx] cf. Graeme Goldsworthy, ‘Relationship of Old Testament and New Testament’, New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000), p.89: “The heart of the issue lies in the fact that the historical Jesus who is at the centre of the NT’s message is absent from the events of the OT. Yet he claims that the OT witnesses to him.”

[xxi] Glory of Christ, Works 1, p.352, referring to Luke 24.

[xxii] Glory of Christ, Works 1, p.348.

[xxiii] Justification by Faith (1677), Works 5, p.60.

[xxiv] For a recent example of such see Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998, 22002), ch.14, especially pp.528–535.

[xxv] Modern arguments for carefully-defined discontinuities between Old and New Testament soteriologies are cogently presented by John S. Feinberg, ‘Salvation in the Old Testament’, in Tradition and Testament (eds. Feinberg and Feinberg; Chicago: Moody, 1981), pp.39–77 and Allen P. Ross, ‘The Biblical Method of Salvation: A Case for Discontinuity’, in Continuity and Discontinuity (ed. Feinberg; Westchester: Crossway, 1988), pp.161–178.

[xxvi] Person of Christ, Works 1, pp.262–264, italics original.

[xxvii] Communion with God (1657), Works 2, pp.6–7. Such discontinuity also surfaces, for example, in Owen’s discussion of the parrēsia exhorted in Hebrews 4:16 (Works 21, pp.429–430) and 10:19 (Works 23, pp.500–503). At these points, the role of the Spirit in regeneration is also seen as discontinuous, such as where Owen investigates “the liberty that is given by the Holy Spirit under the new testament unto believers, which those who were kept under bondage by the letter of the old had no interest in” (21.429, italics added). For more such contrasts, as evidenced in the differences between OT and NT worship, compare A. Craig Troxel, ‘“Cleansed Once for All”: John Owen on the Glory of Gospel Worship in ‘Hebrews’’, Calvin Theological Journal 32/2 (1997), pp.468–479.

[xxviii] Person of Christ, Works 1, p.120, italics original.

[xxix] Doctrine of the Trinity (1669), Works 2, p.403, italics original. cf. p.401: “it is revealed that he is peculiarly to be believed in,” and p.398: “he is revealed and declared in Scripture as the object of our faith, worship, and obedience.”

[xxx] Glory of Christ, Works 1, p.308, italics original. Owen proceeds to insist that God (i.e. the Father) cannot be the immediate object of faith, and that faith in him is attained only through faith in Christ. cf. 2.22–24.

[xxxi] Doctrine of the Trinity, Works 2, pp.404–405. The triune focus of Owen is concluded also by the studies of Packer (pp.268–272) and Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edin­burgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), ch.4.

[xxxii] Sermon: ‘The Strength of Faith, Part II’ (no date), Works 9, p.45.

[xxxiii] Sermon: ‘Sacramental Discourse, Part II’ (1669), Works 9, p.523, italics original. These two passages were originally identified by Lee Gatiss, editor of The Theologian website, in Message 10 of the Blackham–Goldsworthy discussion forum, posted 9 May 2001.

[xxxiv] Justification by FaithWorks 5, p.87. It is untangling these various components that makes the essays of Feinberg and Ross (see n.25 above) so helpful.

[xxxv] Justification by FaithWorks 5, p.88, italics original. I am indebted, for these passages, to Gary L. Smith, ‘John Owen on Justification by Faith’ (ThM thesis; Dallas Theological Seminary, 1993), pp.31–32.

    It should be evident that my concern is with human components of knowledge and belief. Hamilton’s recent survey of the role of the Holy Spirit in OT believers asserts that Owen finds complete continuity of regeneration and indwelling between the two testaments (pp.38–39). I do not attempt here to evaluate Hamilton’s presentation of Owen. Yet, in the light of Owen’s views on discontinuity in revelation and in soteriology, perhaps his pneumatology is also prone to the obfuscation of occasional shorthand comments. This would certainly accord better with Hamilton’s own critique of complete continuity (e.g. pp.41–46, esp. n.18); James M. Hamilton Jr, ‘Old Covenant Believers and the Indwelling Spirit: A Survey of the Spectrum of Opinion’, Trinity Journal ns24/1 (2003), pp.37–54.

[xxxvi] e.g. Person of Christ, Works 1, p.67.

[xxxvii] Indeed, Owen argues against Jewish opponents who want to treat the theophanies of Isaiah and Ezekiel as too similar. His line of argu­ments should likely be taken to conclude that Ezekiel’s theophany is not a christophany; Exercitation XXII: ‘Of the tabernacle and ark’ (1668), Hebrews 1 = Works 18, pp.519–520.

[xxxviii] Exercitation X, Hebrews 1 = Works 18, p.229; cf. Glory of Christ, Works 1, pp.349–350 (at n.12 above).

[xxxix] See for example his praise for the security of written revelation—“In this way theology was removed from the respons­ibil­ity of mortal men and was protected from the results of human defilement or corruption”—and his lambasting of those (Jews) who “pretend that, in addition to the theology of the writings which we have briefly mentioned, God also handed down a second oral theology, and that this contained mystical interpretations of those writings” (Theologoumena Pantodapa [1661], Works 17.IV.2 [Latin]; ET = Biblical Theology [trans. Westcott; Morgan: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994/1996], pp.374, 376).

[xl] e.g. one reason Owen packs so much christological detail into the protevangelium is because there would be no further recorded mention of the promise of salvation “at least unto the flood, if not unto the days of Abraham” (Works 18, p.172). Similarly, he argues that the qôl of Yahweh Elohim in Gen. 3:8 cannot be God’s voice (or any other verbal sound) because scripture does not record an act of speech until the following verse (pp.217, 219). Owen even goes so far as to insist that, because Gen. 18:1–2 records no description of the approach of the three visitors, Abraham knew that they had a supernatural origin (p.220).

[xli] e.g. Borland, Christ in the Old Testament, p.80. He suggests that, because Gen. 15:1 takes trouble to describe the word of Yahweh coming to Abram in a vision (which Borland takes to be an anthropomorphic representation), the silence of surrounding sections “where no such visionary indications are given” should be interpreted similarly (as actual christo­phanies), even “though no form is mentioned.”

[xlii] Glory of ChristWorks 1, pp.348–349; cf. e.g. 1.90, 93–94, 100–101, 126, 148, 268, 298, 351–352, 459; 2.6–7, 292; 3.132; 8.121; 18.430.

[xliii] Glory of ChristWorks 1, p.386.

[xliv] Person of Christ, Works 1, p.101, italics original; cf. pp.120–121.

[xlv] The language of “pledge” is found on nearly every page of the crucial Exercitation X, Hebrews 1 = Works 18, pp.215–233.

[xlvi] Person of Christ, Works 1, p.148, italics added.

Andrew MaloneAbout the Author

Andrew Malone is Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Ridley Melbourne, Australia. He is engaged in postgraduate research to evaluate the claims that can be made for christophanies and other hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament.