Sure foundation: Christology, covenant theology and hermeneutics in John Owen’s discourses on Hebrews


John Owen’s (1616–1683) four-volume commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews represents the apex of his literary career and exemplifies many of the exegetical methods of the post-Reformation. This thesis is the first detailed analysis of his introductory discourses, or “exercitations,” on Hebrews. Owen’s exercitations on the Messiah in particular are an ideal source for this examination, since they serve as the prolegomena for his exposition proper. More specifically, this thesis evaluates the hermeneutical function of Christological and covenantal patterns that arise from Owen’s argument concerning the fulfilment of the messianic promise in the person and work of Christ. Therefore, this study is a descriptive analysis of the text and context of Owen’s discourses on the Messiah. The topics considered in each chapter are based upon hermeneutical questions that are pertinent to Owen’s promise-fulfilment scheme in general and to the relationship of Christology and covenant theology in particular. Chapter 1 examines scholarship on Owen’s commentary and suggests possible reasons for its neglect. Chapter 2 places Owen’s exercitations and exposition within the context of his life and times, and explains the central argument of his work. Chapters 3 and 4 provide the conceptual basis for this study, as they introduce two essential components of Owen’s discourses on the Messiah. Chapter 3 establishes the importance of federal theology for Owen by examining his exegesis of Genesis 3:15, and its relationship to the covenant of redemption and covenant of grace. Chapter 4 considers the problem posed by a Christological reading of the Old Testament for those like Owen who are committed to the literal sense of Scripture. Chapters 5 and 6 consider aspects of continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, and seek to illustrate the connection between Owen’s exercitations and exposition. Chapter 5 considers the nature of faith in the Old Testament, noting especially the importance of the Abrahamic covenant for what Owen calls “the oneness of the church.” In contrast, chapter 6 provides an extended analysis of the role of the law in the Mosaic covenant, considering in particular the highly problematic question of the recapitulation of the covenant of works and the nature of the old and new covenants. The conclusion summarises the findings of this study

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This paper was published in Edinburgh Research Archive.

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