One of the great but difficult things about study is the way in which preconceived ideas get knocked over so easily! Consider one aspect of John Owen’s thinking about faith.
Some scholarly opinion would suggest that Owen, becuase he is what is known as a 'reformed scholastic', would first want to define faith. This is so that he could then break it down into its different parts and examine it, much like engineer taking a machine apart so that he might find out exactly how it works.
Owen, however, takes the opposite position, preferring descriptions over definitions:
…receiving on Christ, leaning on him, rolling ourselves or our burden on him, tasting how gracious the Lord is, and the like, […] convey a better understanding of the nature, work, and object of justifying faith, […] than the most accurate definitions that many pretend unto; some whereof are destructive and exclusive of them all. (John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, 107).
He said this in a sermon which he preached on Romans 4:20:
And whereas the general way, in treating of faith, is, for the most part, to use strictness of expression, that so it may be delivered in a philosophical exactness; the constant way of the Holy Ghost is, by metaphorical expressions, accommodations of it to things of sense and daily usage in the meanest, to give a relish and perception of it to all that are interested in it. (John Owen, Sermon: The Strength of Faith, 20-21)
Owen wants to first define faith for, I think, two reasons. First, Owen recognises that in the Bible the Holy Spirit has chosen to give us ‘metaphorical expressions’ of things rather than exact definitions. Owen doesn’t want to, in his words, ‘…embrace such senses of things [faith] as are inconsistent with them [the metaphorical expressions], and opposite unto them.’ Owen’s primary concern is to be faithful to the biblical articulation of faith.
Second, Owen first defines faith because at its heart faith is active. To draw a somewhat arbitrary distinction, what faith does is of more significance than what faith is. Because faith is what the believer does towards God, and is therefore experiential, it is better described than defined. This is because, at its very core, faith is relational. Faith for Owen is always in the person of God, specifically in the person of Christ, ‘the first and principal object of faith’.
Here is a great lesson for us who are of a more conservative evangelical bent, especially those who are involved in the academic study of theology. While we rightly want to understand our faith and to be able to describe how it works, Owen reminds us that this is of secondary importance. The wonder of faith is not what it is, but what it does - it unites us to Christ, draws us into Communion with God, and brings to us all the blessings of God in Christ.