King Charles II of England, so we are told, once turned to one of the most learned men he knew and asked why any intelligent man should waste his time listening to the sermons of the uneducated tinker John Bunyan. “Could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, please your majesty,” replied the scholar, “I would gladly relinquish all my learning.” The scholar’s name was John Owen, and this small story—apocryphal or not—reveals a good deal of the man’s Christian character.

Unfortunately, historians have obliged Owen’s humility by almost completely neglecting to mention him in their annals. This makes it something of a surprise to find his Puritan colleagues hailing Owen as “the Calvin of England” and “the Atlas and Patriarch” of Puritanism. And before the skeptics among us move to write off such praise to the Puritan penchant for overstatement, we should note that in our own time—some three hundred years after Owen’s death—Roger Nicole has called Owen “the greatest divine who ever wrote in English.” Historian Geoffrey Nuttall at the University of London flatly declared that no study of seventeenth-century England could be complete without Owen, while J. I. Packer observed that Owen “lived in an age of giants, and I think he overtops them all.”

The “age of giants” was the golden age of Puritan theology, from 1600 to 1688, and the high summer of Puritan political triumph under the rule of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Owen lived his life in the forefront of these times, not because he especially desired fame, but because a broad expanse of mind like Owen’s is always in demand in times of turmoil. At various stages, Owen was Cromwell’s personal chaplain, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, and the acknowledged ...

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