John Owen on the Perfect Bible

Jeffrey Khoo


John Owen (1616–83) was the respected systematic theologian of the Puritan tradition. One of his greatest works—“On the Divine Original of Scriptures”—sought to vindicate the purity and integrity of the Hebrew and Greek Texts of the Old and New Testament. His writings in 23 volumes were published electronically by AGES Software in 2000. I have quoted Owen extensively below, and the page numbers are those of Volume 16 of The Works of John Owen (as found in The AGES Digital Library Series, www.ageslibrary.com).

John Owen clearly believed in the Verbal Plenary Inspiration (VPI) and Verbal Plenary Preservation (VPP) of Scripture. He wrote, “That as the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were immediately and entirely given out by God himself, his mind being in them represented unto us without the least interveniency of such mediums and ways as were capable of giving change or alteration to the least iota or syllable; so, by his good and merciful providential dispensation, in his love to his word and church, his whole word, as first given out by him, is preserved unto us entire in the original languages; where, shining in its own beauty and lustre (as also in all translations, so far as they faithfully represent the originals), it manifests and evidences unto the consciences of men, without other foreign help or assistance, its divine original and authority” (450).

Owen affirmed the VPI and VPP of the Scriptures in the “original languages” (364). He opposed Bible-deniers who said that “the original copies of the Old and New Testaments are so corrupted that they are not a certain standard and measure of all doctrines, or the touch-stone of all translations” (366). His view of the 100% inspiration and 100% preservation of the original language Scriptures as found in the Autographs and Apographs truly reflects the Reformation mind of Sola Scriptura over against the Neo-evangelical and Neo-fundamental view of Sola Autographa.

Verbal Plenary Inspiration

Owen affirmed the VPI of the Holy Scriptures as written by the apostles and prophets: “That the laws they made known, the doctrines they delivered, the instructions they gave, the stories they recorded, the promises of Christ, the prophecies of gospel times they gave out and revealed, were not their own, not conceived in their minds, not formed by their reasonings, not retained in their memories from what they heard, not by any means beforehand comprehended by them (1 Pet 1:10–11), but were all of them immediately from God” (384). “Thus, the word that came unto them was a book which they took in and gave out without any alteration of one tittle or syllable (Ezek 2:8–10, 3:3; Rev 10:9–11)” (386).

The Scripture is a product of divine and not human inspiration. Owen wrote, “the Scripture was not an issue of men’s fancied enthusiasms, not a product of their own minds and conceptions, not an interpretation of the will of God by the understanding of man—that is, of the prophets themselves. Neither their rational apprehensions, inquiries, conceptions of fancy, or imaginations of their hearts, had any place in this business; no self-afflation, no rational meditation, manned at liberty by the understanding and will of men, had place herein” (391).

The prophets and apostles were under the direct supervision of God in penning the Holy Scriptures: “God was so with them, and by the Holy Ghost so spake in them— as to their receiving of the Word from him, and their delivering of it unto others by speaking or writing—as that they were not themselves enabled, by any habitual light, knowledge, or conviction of truth, to declare his mind and will, but only acted as they were immediately moved by him. Their tongue in what they said, or their hand in what they wrote, was no more at their own disposal than the pen is in the hand of an expert writer” (384–5).

The Bible has many writers, but only one Author—God Himself. It is only truthful to conclude that a perfect God must give a perfect Bible. It goes without saying that a perfect Author must give a perfect Script.

Owen explained that the divine inspiration of the Scriptures concerns the words, not simply the doctrines. He argued for word-inspiration and not thought-inspiration. “It is the he graphe that is theopneustos (2 Tim 3:16), ‘the writing, or word written, is by inspiration from God.’ Not only the doctrine in it, but the graphe itself, or the ‘doctrine as written,’ is so from him. Hence, the providence of God hath manifested itself no less concerned in the preservation of the writings than of the doctrine contained in them; the writing itself being the product of his own eternal counsel for the preservation of the doctrine” (387).

Thus the Scriptures bind our conscience to affirm its veracity and authenticity purely by our faith in them. “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb 11:3). “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). Owen wrote, “We do so receive, embrace, believe, and submit unto it, because of the authority of God who speaks it, or gave it forth as his mind and will, evidencing itself by the Spirit in and with that Word, unto our minds and consciences: or, because that the Scripture, being brought unto us by the good providence of God, in ways of his appointment and preservation, it doth evidence itself infallibly unto our consciences to be the word of the living God” (410).

Verbal Plenary Preservation

Owen not only believed in a 100% inspired Autographa but also a 100% preserved Apographa. He wrote, “It is true, we have not the Autographa of Moses and the prophets, of the apostles and evangelists; but the Apographa or ‘copies’ which we have contain every iota that was in them” (387).

On the VPP of Scripture, Owen agreed that the Autographs have “utterly perished and lost out of the world.” However, that does not mean that the contents of the Autographs have perished and are lost also. Every one of the words of the Autographs has been preserved by the promise of God (Ps 12:6–7, Matt 5:18, 24:35). Although it is readily acknowledged that God chose not to preserve His Word miraculously but providentially, Owen believed that the care and providence ensured “the preservation of every tittle contained in them” (454).

Owen did not deny the existence of textual variants (387). Nevertheless, he clarified that “the whole Word of God, in every letter and tittle, as given from him by inspiration, is preserved without corruption” (388). There is no question from the above statement that Owen saw the 100% preservation of Scripture as a dogma and not simply a conviction.

Owen argued that if the infallible Word is not preserved wholly and intact, then the Book is useless and our faith has no sure foundation. He raised this concern: “It will assuredly be granted that the persuasion of the coming forth of the word immediately from God, in the way pleaded for, is the foundation of all faith, hope, and obedience. But what, I pray, will it advantage us that God did so once deliver his word, if we are not assured also that that word so delivered hath been, by his special care and providence, preserved entire and uncorrupt unto us, or that it doth not evidence and manifest itself to be his word, being so preserved? (Isa 59:21, Matt 5:18, 1 Pet 1:25, 1 Cor 11:23, Matt 28:20)” (450). In other words, if God’s Word is not perfect today, fully preserved, how then can we appeal to it as our sure and steadfast, final and supreme rule of faith and practice? We simply cannot! If the Scriptures be not perfect, Christians are a most miserable lot for sure (1 Cor 15:19).

Some presume that only the doctrines of Scripture are preserved but not its words. What has Owen to say about this? Are only doctrines preserved or words as well? Owen affirmed the latter, “Nor is it enough to satisfy us, that the doctrines mentioned are preserved entire; every tittle and iota in the Word of God must come under our care and consideration, as being, as such, from God” (389). Owen clearly believed in verbal and not conceptual preservation. Without the words, where the doctrines? It is not only fallacious but utterly illogical to say that only doctrines are preserved but not the words (cf. Gal 3:16).

Supreme and Final Authority

Owen argued that the absolute authority of the Holy Scriptures rests on the very fact that they are the very Word of God, breathed out (theopneustos) from heaven (2 Tim 3:16). The supreme authority of Scripture remains so today because of the special providence of God for He has promised that the Hebrew OT and Greek NT “have been transmitted to us without corruption or mutilation” (382).

The Word of God has self-evidencing power because it is Light itself. “Now, the Scripture, the Word of God, is light. Those that reject it are called (Job 24:13) ‘light’s rebels’—men resisting the authority which they cannot but be convinced of (Ps 19:8, 43:3, 119:105, 130; Prov 6:23; Isa 9:2; Hos 6:5; Matt 4:16, 5:15; John 3:20–21). It is a light so shining with the majesty of its Author, as that it manifests itself to be his (2 Pet 1:19), ‘a light shining in a dark place,’ with an eminent advantage for its own discovery, as well as unto the benefit of others … A church may bear up the light — it is not the light. It bears witness to it, but kindles not one divine beam to further its discovery. All the preaching that is in any church, its administration of ordinances, all its walking in the truth, hold up this light” (412–3).

On the basis of the self-evidencing efficacy of the Scriptures, Owen ridiculed those who with a double tongue claim to believe the Scriptures to be the very Word of God, and yet demanding human proof for it: “By saying that the Scripture is the word of God, and then commanding us to prove it so to be, they render themselves obnoxious unto every testimony that we produce from it that so it is, and that it is to be received on its own testimony” (404).

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). Unless man applies the principle of faith as expressed in Hebrews 11:6, “believe that he is” (i.e., “believe that His Word is what it claims to be, the very Revelation of God itself”), he will remain blind and lost in his pride and arrogance. Our assurance that the Holy Scriptures are the very words of God, “is in and from the Scripture itself; so that there is no other need of any further witness or testimony, nor is any, in the same kind, to be admitted” (405). Science (from Latin scientiameaning “knowledge”) must come under the microscope and scrutiny of Scripture, and not vice versa.

The Word of God shares its authority with no one. It is its own authority and sovereign in its judgements. Truth is determined by the Scriptures, and by the Scriptures alone, not the traditions of the church, nor the opinions of men, no matter how great they may be for who can be greater than God? Only God and His Word are infallible, not the Church, not man. As such, our supreme and final authority in faith and practice can only be our infallible God who has revealed Himself infallibly in His infallible Word.

Textual Criticism

Owen said that “the supernatural Scriptures must not be treated like any ordinary book.” His high view of Scripture led him to dismiss textual criticism which he averred might be useful for human literature, but certainly not divine Scripture. He wrote, “It were an easy thing to correct a mistake or corruption in the transcription of any problem or demonstration of Euclid, or any other ancient mathematician, from the consideration of the things themselves about which they treat being always the same, and in their own nature equally exposed to the knowledge and understanding of men in all ages. In things of pure revelation—whose knowledge depends solely on their revelation—it is not so” (389).

In Owen’s mind, textual criticism contravenes the doctrine of VPP. He wrote against certain scholars who tried to correct the OT, “And these are the chief heads and springs of the criticisms on the Old Testament, which, with so great a reputation of learning, men have boldly obtruded on us of late days. It is not imaginable what prejudice the sacred truth of the Scripture, preserved by the infinite love and care of God, hath already suffered hereby; and what it may further suffer, for my part I cannot but tremble to think. …The dangerous and causeless attempts of men to rectify our present copies of the Bible” (376).

Owen was against textual critical judgements that went against the Textus Receptus: “We know the vanity, curiosity, pride, and naughtiness of the heart of man; how ready we are to please ourselves with things that seem singular and remote from the observation of the many, and how ready to publish them as evidences of our learning and diligence, … Hence it is come to pass, … that whatever varying word, syllable, or tittle, could be by any observed, wherein any book, though of yesterday, varieth from the common received copy, though manifestly a mistake, superfluous or deficient, inconsistent with the sense of the place, yea, barbarous, is presently imposed on us as a various lection” (467). This certainly argues against minority and indeed spurious lections of the corrupted Alexandrian manuscripts of the Westcott and Hort Text which goes against “the common received copy.”

God has supernaturally preserved every jot and tittle of His Word by “His singular care and providence.” Insofar as copying or printing errors are concerned, Owen says that “there is no need of men’s critical abilities to rectify such mistakes” (532). No man should play textual critic. God is His own Textual Critic, and He knows how to keep His Word intact and pure.

Conjectural Emendation

Owen minced no words in denouncing the conjectural emendation of Scripture: “The conjectures of men conceited of their own abilities to correct the word of God are not to be admitted … All that yet appears impairs not in the least the truth of our assertion, that every letter and tittle of the word of God remains in the copies preserved by his merciful providence for the use of his church” (461).

Owen was decidedly against calling a corruption in the text a variant reading. He wrote, “First, then, here is professedly no choice made nor judgment used in discerning which may indeed be called various lections, but all differences whatever that could be found in any copies, printed or written, are equally given out. Hence many differences that had been formerly rejected by learned men for open corruptions are here tendered us again. … It is not every variety or difference in a copy that should presently be cried up for a various reading” (468). This surely applies to the Alexandrian manuscripts which had been cast into the waste basket and long rejected as corrupt; but textual critics today hail them as the oldest and the best, removing the inspired and preserved readings for obscure and corrupt readings.

If Owen were to be given a copy of the United Bible Societies’ (UBS) or Nestle-Aland’s (NA) Greek texts with their critical apparatuses, he would have decried their indiscriminate display of variant readings, and not only that, the actual replacement of ancient readings from the commonly received texts with corrupt ones from already rejected heretical texts. He warned of “how, by the subtlety of Satan, there are principles crept in even amongst Protestants, undermining the authority of the ‘Hebrew verity’ [i.e., the original inspired words of Scripture] as it was called of old, wherein Jerusalem hath justified Samaria, and cleared the Papists in their reproaching of the Word of God” (377). Note that the UBS and NA Critical Texts are edited by Roman Catholics and Modernists. What a shame it is that as in the days of Owen, undiscerning Protestants today clear “the Papists [and Modernists] in their reproaching of the Word of God.” The Protestants today are undermining the Reformers. These are certainly days of Deformation, not Reformation.

The indiscriminate display of textual variants and the conjectural emendations of textual criticism destroy the certainty over the identity of God’s totally inspired and entirely preserved Scripture as commonly received. Owen wrote, “If these hundreds of words were the critical conjectures and amendments … what security have we of the mind of God as truly represented unto us, seeing that it is supposed also that some of the words in the margin were sometimes in the line? And if it be supposed, as it is, that there are innumerable other places of the like nature standing in need of such amendments, what a door would be opened to curious, pragmatical wits to overturn all the certainty of the truth of the Scripture every one may see. Give once this liberty to the audacious curiosity of men priding themselves in their critical abilities, and we shall quickly find out what woeful state and condition the truth of the Scripture will be brought unto” (517).

The anti-preservationist textual critics today call “all men fools or knaves that contend for its purity [i.e., the purity of the Scriptures],” yet as Owen rightly challenged, “they are none of them able to show, out of any copies yet extant in the world, or that they can make appear ever to have been extant, that ever there were any such various lections in the originals of the Old Testament” (378). Surely, one such example is 2 Kings 8:26 and 2 Chronicles 22:2 where the Hebrew originals record the age of Ahaziah when he became king as 22 and 42 respectively, evincing no scribal error in keeping to the Lord’s promise of “jot and tittle” inspiration and preservation (Matt 5:18).

The Christian is thus no fool to believe that in the Scriptures no words are lost, and such discrepancies only apparent.

Against “Ruckmanism”

Owen was no Ruckmanite. He wrote against the “Ruckmanites” of his day, who “place themselves in the throne of God, and to make the words of a translation authentic from their stamp upon them, and not from their relation unto and agreement with the words spoken by God himself” (365).

These proto-Ruckmanites elevated the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, also known as the LXX) to a place it did not deserve, above the original Hebrew Scripture. They criticised the Hebrew text in favour of the LXX by questioning the existence of an infallible and inerrant OT in the apographs. They claimed that the existing Hebrew Scriptures cannot be trusted because the “ancient Hebrew letters are changed from the Samaritan to the Chaldean; the points or vowels, and accents, are but lately invented, of no authority; without their guidance and direction nothing is certain in the knowledge of that tongue; all that we know of it comes from the translation of the LXX; the Jews have corrupted the Old Testament; there are innumerable various lections both of the Old and New; there are other copies differing from those we now enjoy that are utterly lost” (367).

It goes without saying that a Romish or a Ruckmanite view of a doubly inspired version or translation whether ancient or modern goes directly against Jesus’ promise to preserve the original language Scripture to the jot and tittle (Matt 5:18). The denigration of the Hebrew Scriptures in favour of the LXX or any other version insults the Author of the Holy Scriptures who had appointed the Jewish people to be keepers of the oracles of God (Rom 3:2). It is well known how the Jews took religious and meticulous care in their transcription of Holy Writ. This is clearly attested by a common saying among them, “to alter one letter of the law is no less sin than to set the whole world on fire” (456).

Owen rightly saw the LXX as a corrupt version with an uncertain origin. “The Septuagint is … woefully corrupt. Its rise is uncertain. Some call the whole story of that translation into question … The circumstances that are reported about them and their works are certainly fabulous. That they should be sent for upon the advice of Demetrius Phalereus, who was dead before, that they should be put into seventy-two cells or private chambers, that there should be twelve of each tribe fit for that work, are all of them incredible. Some of the Jews say that they made the translation out of a corrupt Chaldee paraphrase; and to me this seems not unlikely. Josephus, Austin, Philo, Jerome, Zonaras, affirm that they translated the Law or Pentateuch only” (529).

In light of this, Owen wrote against a certain one who attempted to change the inspired Hebrew text by means of the LXX: “It was an unhappy attempt, … that a learned man hath of late put himself upon, viz., to prove variations in all the present Apographa the Old Testament in the Hebrew tongue from the copies used of old, merely upon uncertain conjectures and the credit of corrupt translations. … The translation especially insisted on by him is that of the LXX. That this translation either from the mistakes of its first authors … or the carelessness, or ignorance, or worse, of its transcribers—is corrupted and gone off from the original in a thousand places twice told, is acknowledged by all who know aught of these things. Strange that so corrupt a stream should be judged a fit means to cleanse the fountain” (388).

He went on to say, “To advance any, all translations concurring, into an equality with the originals,—so to set them by it as to set them up with it on even terms,—much more to propose and use them as means of castigating, amending, altering any thing in them, gathering various lections by them, is to set up an altar of our own by the altar of God, and to make equal the wisdom, care, skill, and diligence of men, with the wisdom, care, and providence of God himself” (459).

This sort of a shameful conjectural emendation of the Hebrew Scriptures is precisely what the translators of the New International Version (NIV) and New American Standard Bible (NASB) have done, using the corrupt LXX to correct the Hebrew in 2 Chronicles 22:2 (cf. 2 Kgs 8:26). There they rendered the age of Ahaziah as 22 instead of 42 contradicting the inspired and preserved text. If such fallacies are allowed, where are we to stop?

Are such employments of translations in correcting the originals valid? Owen answered thus, “for my own part, I am solicitous for the ark, or the sacred truth of the original, and that because I am fully persuaded that the remedy and relief of this evil provided in the translations is unfitted to the cure, yea, fitted to increase the disease. Some other course, then, must be taken; and seeing the remedy is notoriously insufficient to effect the cure, let us try whether the whole distemper be not a mere fancy, and so do what in us lieth to prevent that horrible and outrageous violence which will undoubtedly be offered to the sacred Hebrew verity, if every learned mountebank may be allowed to practice upon it with his conjectures from translations” (520).

It ought to be noted that Owen does not deny that in corrupt translations, a man may find the gospel and salvation, but he argued that this should not in any wise cause Christian Protestants to deny that God had indeed preserved, and will continue to preserve His infallible and inerrant Word to the jot and tittle.

Apparent Discrepancies

On things hard to be understood, Owen commented, “It is readily acknowledged that there are many difficult places in the Scripture, especially in the historical books of the Old Testament. … The industry of learned men of old, and of late Jews and Christians, has been well exercised in the interpretation and reconciliation of them: by one or other a fair and probable account is given of them all. Where we cannot reach the utmost depth of truth, it hath been thought meet that poor worms should captivate their understandings to the truth and authority of God in his word. If there be this liberty once given, that they may be looked on as corruptions, and amended at the pleasure of men, how we shall be able to stay before we come to the bottom of questioning the whole Scripture I know not. That, then, which yet we insist upon is, that according to all rules of equal procedure, men are to prove such corruptions before they entertain us with their provision of means for remedy” (533). This is sane and sound advice. “Yea, let God be true, but every man a liar” (Rom 3:4).


John Owen believed in the authority, purity and perfection of the Holy Scriptures. As it is today, so was it in his day that “Many there have been, and are, who, through the craft of Satan and the prejudice of their own hearts, lying under the power of corrupt and carnal interest, have engaged themselves to decry and disparage that excellency of the Scripture which is proper and peculiar unto it” (363). Owen called these Bible disparagers, “pretenders” and so they were, “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (363–4).

Owen was persecuted for defending the 100% preservation of the Holy Scriptures. He was unjustly accused of creating unrest, but he spoke sincerely, “When I have been for peace, others have made themselves ready for war; some of them, especially one of late, neither understanding me nor the things that he writes about,—but his mind for opposition was to be satisfied. This is the manner of not a few in their writings: they measure other men by their own ignorance, and what they know not themselves they think is hid to others also” (378).

It may be asked: Why do so many Protestants today deny the total preservation of the Scriptures when it is clearly stated in so many places that the Scriptures are forever infallible and inerrant? Owen offers this reason, “Many men who are not stark blind may have yet so abused their eyes, that when a light is brought into a dark place they may not be able to discern it. Men may be so prepossessed with innumerable prejudices—principles received by strong traditions—corrupt affections making them hate the light—that they may not behold the glory of the Word when it is brought to them” (413).

What then is the solution? It is simply to submit to the supreme authority of the infallible Word. Owen wrote, “The Word, then, makes a sufficient proposition of itself, wherever it is; and he to whom it shall come, who refuses it because it comes not so or so testified, will give an account of his atheism and infidelity. He that hath the witness of God need not stay for the witness of men, for the witness of God is greater” (414). How we need to humble ourselves not only before the Christ, but before His Word if we are truly to see the Light of Truth! This is the logic of faith (Heb 11:6).

Christians who deny the self-evidencing infallible and inerrant Word that God has perfectly inspired and preserved question their Saviour, and undermine the very Foundation of their faith. Owen wrote, “How know we that the Scripture is the word of God; how may others come to be assured thereof? The Scripture, say we, bears testimony to itself that it is the word of God; that testimony is the witness of God himself, which whoso doth not accept and believe, he doth what in him lies to make God a liar” (417).

“If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps 11:3). May the Lord grant us faith to believe in the precepts and promises of His forever infallible and inerrant Word so that we might begin to understand and appreciate the twin doctrines of 100% inspiration (VPI) and 100% preservation (VPP) of the Holy Scriptures.

Dr Jeffrey Khoo is academic dean of the Far Eastern Bible College.

– Published in The Burning Bush, Volume 10 Number 2 (July 2004)