John Owen and Intellectual Idolatry

“Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

Today I want to delve into a concept from John Owen’s book A Display of Arminianism. John Owen lived from 1616-1683 in England. He was a non-conformist Reformed puritan known primarily for his engaging and thick prose. The book is thick, technical, wordy, and deep like most of his writings. The book is a polemic, which is to say it is an argument against something. More particularly, it is a polemic against the Theology of Arminianism. In the section I’m quoting from here today, Owen is responding to two of the central-concepts of Arminianism: contingency and free-will. These he regards as intellectual idols. Here is the quote: 

“First, they (Arminians) deny the eternity and unchangeableness of God’s decrees; for these being established, they fear they should be kept within bounds from doing any thing but what his counsel hath determined should be done. If the purposes of the Strength of Israel be eternal and immutable, their idol free-will must be limited, their interdependency prejudiced…if he certainly foreknew all things that shall hereafter come to pass, it seems to cast an infallibility of event upon all their actions, which encroaches upon the large territory of their new goddess, contingency…” (Pg 12). 

Contingency and free-will both have their place in Christian Theology. What Owen rejects is applying contingency to God because of the free-will of man. In other words, what Owen rejects is a belief that God ultimately desires to save a man, but chooses not to do so because of that man’s “free-will.” In Arminianism, man’s freedom overcomes God’s desire, in other words. Owen maintains that anything God ultimately wants, God ultimately gets.  The only thing that determines God is God. No-one can stay His hand (Psalm 115:3).

Yet what interests me today is not simply the salvation Theology (Soteriology) of Owen here, but the particular way he communicates an aspect of his Theology of sin (Hamartiology). Owen refers to these erroneous ideas about God, man, their works and their ways as idols. These are not the idols of bricks and stone, but are to some degree abstracted; i.e. they are mental. These are not the Dagons, Baals, and golden calves of old. They are, in a phrase, intellectual idols

In my view, intellectual idols are pernicious constructions of our sinful hearts. Being abstracted from the more easily measured material world, they are all the harder for us to detect and deconstruct. Intellectual idols may appear more sophisticated to our secular age, but they are no less sinful, no less dangerous, and no less useless. They manifest themselves in our churches, our socio-political discourse, and most certainly in our own hearts. Though the idols outwardly change, the inward idol factory – our hearts – does not.

The Pharisees are the prime biblical example of intellectual idolaters. They took their contra-biblical traditions and elevated them to the status of the Word of God. They twisted the Word of God to fit their traditions and manipulated their own interpretations of the Word of God in order to fleece the sheep of God. In our own political discourse, persons adopt abstract notions of “equality” and “freedom” in an absolute and binding sense that should be reserved for the doctrine of the Word of God alone.

These ideas are from one perspective good (just as stone and brick are good). God gives life in Christ through doctrine.  The doctrine in the Word of God is to lead us to the Christ of God (John 5:39). The system of thought contained in the Bible, is to lead us, ultimately, to the Triune God. In a word, ideas serve persons; Philosophy is the handmaiden of Theology. Any idea or system of thought, when taken from it’s place within the cosmic matrix of reality, and made absolute, is, in the final analysis, an expression of intellectual idolatry.

Intellectual idolatry consists in the worship of a value, idea, principle, or system in the place of the Triune God; these can manifest themselves as traditions, doctrines, ideas, systems of thought, and even values. Intellectual idols are utilized as instruments by manipulators in order to exact goods from weak sheep. Intellectual grace is utilized by the righteous in order to serve sheep in need of strength. May you be the latter.

Brothers and sisters, keep yourselves from intellectual idols. Regard your freedom of the soul as befits the children of the living God. Grace and peace.

PC: Photo by Zan on Unsplash


John Owen. A Display of Arminianism. Old Paths Gospel Press.

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