Autographa & Apographa: John Owen on Inspiration and Preservation

Here’s an item from a couple of years ago which I’m including to change the pace a little.  I’ve left the combox open. 



The greatest British theologian of the 17th Century was, in the opinion of many, John Owen.  Owen made distinctive contributions in a number of theological loci.  His book on the mutual relationship within the Trinity and our communion with each of the Divine Persons is still the best work on the subject.[1] Likewise, his manifesto for congregational-independency[2] offers some of the best arguments for Pastor-led congregational form of church government, and his The Death of Death in the Death of Christ[3] is considered the book on the Reformed view of particular redemption.  Owen’s teaching on the subject of the inspiration of the Bible is also most instructive, especially in view of what has been and is being taught in some evangelical seminaries and books.

The Importance of Divine Inspiration


Owen’s views on the crucial matter of the relationship of the Bible as we have it and the autographs are worth pondering.  He, like all solid evangelicals, rests the authority of the Bibles we have, not upon some inner impression of its validity, but upon its original theopneustic character.  In his, The Divine Original of the Scripture he asserted, “That the whole authority of the scripture in itself depends solely on its divine original, is confessed by all who acknowledge its authority.”[4] Thus the autographs were from God and delivered to men.  We possess “the words of truth from God Himself.”[5]

Inspiration he defined as “an indwelling and organizing power in the chosen penmen.” [6] Thus, “they invented not words themselves…but only expressed the words they received.”[7] Indeed, “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. ii 8-10, iii 3; Rev. x 9-11).”[8] As Owen writes in his great work on the Holy Spirit:

He did not speak in them or by them, and leave it unto their natural faculties, their minds, or memories, to understand and remember the things spoken by him, and so declare them to others; but he himself acted their faculties, making use of them to express his words, not their own conceptions.[9]

It is because of its divine provenance that the Scripture gains “the power and to require obedience, in the name of God.”[10] The Scriptures “being what they are, they declare whose they are.”[11] Even so, being as the Bible is the Word of God, every man is bound to believe it.[12]

All this notwithstanding, Owen refuses to ground his doctrine of Scripture solely on the internal testimony of the Spirit.  As he says in his The Reason of Faith, “If anyone…shall now ask us wherefore we believe the Scripture to be the word of God; we do not answer, ‘It is because the Holy Spirit hath enlightened our minds, wrought faith in us, and enabled us to believe it.’”[13] Such a declaration may at first seem to be a deviation from the tradition inherited from the Reformation.  But Owen demonstrates that there has to be an external reason for the credibility of our faith in Scripture as the Word of God.[14] Divine revelation must have the character of truth through and through, and it is this character which the Spirit causes us recognize through faith.[15]

The Role of Apographa


Where John Owen, together with many of his contemporaries, differed from modern expressions of inspiration was in the close connection he saw between the Scriptures as originally given and the Scriptures as we now have them.  For example, he wrote:

Sacred Scripture claims this name for itself.  It has its origin from God…[s]o that what God once said to the Church through the medium of Prophets, Apostles, and other inspired writers was still spoken directly by God, and that not only in the primary sense to those whom He delegated this task of reducing His revealed will to written form, but also, no less so in a secondary sense, He speaks to us now in His written word…, as in days past He spoke through the mouths of His holy prophets.[16]


In contrast to the way inspiration and (if at all) preservation is taught nowadays, men like Owen saw a real continuity between the autographs and what were often termed the “apographs,” or copies of the originals.  “It is true”, Owen said, “we have not the Autographa …but the apographa or “copies” which we have contain every iota that was in them.[17]

As we have already inferred, in saying this Owen was not alone.  Francis Turretin of the Genevan Academy also held this view:

By original texts, we do not mean the autographs…, which certainly do not now exist.  We mean their “apographs” which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”[18]

Did this show a pre-Enlightenment naiveté?  Not at all.  Owen was well aware that the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts available in his day contained variant readings, transpositions, corrections, and other glosses.  But he saw the supervening hand of God in transmission of the texts.  For example, he wrote, “For the first transcribers of the original copies, and those who… have done the like work from them…[i]t is known, it is granted, that failings have been amongst them, and that various lections are from thence risen.”[19]

It is of interest to note that Owen’s recent translator contrasts the view of the Puritan with that of BB Warfield, especially in the areas of the extent of the understanding of inerrancy and the identity of the Text.  Stephen Westcott says that,

Owen saw inerrant as not meaning just that all “between the boards of the Bible” was inspired and without error…, but rather that inerrant necessarily meant plenary inspiration, and plenary inspiration that the Bible lacks nothing, and is thus a full and perfect rule and guide for all of life –not just for “religion”, and he saw inspiration as involving three essential factors: content inspiration, verbal inspiration, and divine preservation.[20]

Summarizing Owen’s View


From the above quotations the following three points can be drawn:

  1. The Divine authority of the Bible rests in itself.  It is self-attesting:

“That God, who is prima Veritas, ‘the first and sovereign Truth,’…should write a book, or at least immediately indite it, commanding us to receive it as his under the penalty of his eternal displeasure, and yet that book not make a sufficient discovery of itself to be his, to be from him, is past all belief.”[21]

  1. This authority rested in the first instance in Scripture’s inherent status as God-given, and not in the inner testimony of the Spirit to His Word.
  1. Although He allowed the human authors to remain individual personalities, the Holy Spirit nevertheless “acted their faculties” in order to produce His words in written form.  Owen taught that the nature of the Spirit presupposed this kind of inspiration,[22] even if, strictly speaking, “It is the graphe that is theopneustos.”[23]
  1. Although we no longer possess the original manuscripts of the Bible, the apographa or copies do communicate to us what the Holy Spirit said in the autographs.[24] Owen, unlike some Evangelicals today, held to a strong doctrine of Preservation.[25]

This assertion gives the lie to the thesis of people like Sandeen and Rogers and McKim[26] who have claimed that the belief that Scripture’s authority extends to all aspects of life is due to the influence of the Enlightenment. [27] But it also reminds us that God has not just set His Word in the world and then left it up to frail men to preserve it unsupervised.  In a very real sense the Bible through which God actively communicates today is foremost His Word, not our attempt to reproduce it.

[1] John Owen, On Communion with God, Works II, (London: Banner of Truth, 1966).


[2] Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church, Works XVI, (London: Banner of Truth, 1968).


[3] The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Works X, (London: Banner of Truth, 1968).

[4] The Divine Original of the Scripture, Works XVI, (London: Banner of Truth, 1968), 297.

[5] Ibid., 305

[6] A Defense of Sacred Scripture.  Appended to his Biblical Theology, (Pittsburgh, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 789.

[7] Divine Original, 305

[8] DivineOriginal, 299.

[9] A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit.  Works III, (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 132-133.

[10] Divine Original, 308

[11] Ibid., 311

[12] Ibid., 335

[13] The Reason of Faith, Works IV, (London: Banner of Truth, 1967), 60

[14] Ibid., 61-69

[15] Ibid., 68

[16] Defense, 788. (cf. also Works XVI, 357).

[17] Divine Original, 300-301.

[18] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1992), 1.106.

[19] John Owen, Of the Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of the Scripture. Works XVI, 355.

[20] Stephen Westcott, “Editors Introduction,” – John Owen, Defense, 772-773.

[21] Cf. also, Works XVI, 317-318, and, 335.  Calvin said, “We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our judgment, but we subject our intellect and judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate.” – John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.5. (1.72).

[22] Owen, A Discourse Concerning The Holy Spirit, Works III, 131.

[23] Divine Original, 300.

[24] Likewise, see the opinion of William Whitaker recorded by John Woodbridge in his rebuttal of Rogers and McKim in Douglas Moo (ed.), Biblical Authority and Conservative Perspectives, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 46.

[25] See Owen, Divine Original of the Scripture, 354-355.

[26] See also the attacks on men like Carl F.H. Henry by the likes of Donald Bloesch.

[27] We are aware of the fact that men like Owen, Voetius, Turretin, and Thomas Boston believed that the Masoretic punctuation marks were divinely inspired.  They were mistaken.  But this does not mean that they were wrong in the matter before us. Furthermore, it may not be out of place to add that in the debate about the Majority Text versus the minority Critical Text.  For what it is worth, Stephen Westcott believes that Owen, were he alive, would side with the MT.  “For Owen, the Reformation, and the Puritans [to even put it in those terms] …would be to settle the dispute!” – “Editor’s Introduction,” to John Owen, A Defense of Sacred Scripture, 773.



    1. Thank you brother, for supplying the interesting essay on Turretin. I think the article all but bolsters what I said above (Cf. FN 18). I’m afraid I have to qualify you (and the author of the article) regarding Turretin’s procedure on TC. While you are correct to say he “addressed variants in a similar way” to modern TC, it is important to acknowledge key differences within this apparent similarity, namely,

      1. His view of God’s ongoing providential supervision of the text:

      – He is one with Owen on this as both my article and the quotations in the linked article show. Thus, a doctrinal presupposition was allowed entrance into his method which would have been anathema to modern reasoned eclecticism. (Owen’s Commentary on Hebrews demonstrates a procedure close to Turretin). This understanding of providential oversight fits better with the view of Burgon.

      2. His belief that it was possible to restore the complete original through the copies.

      – While this would be echoed by many (not all) modern TC’s, Turretin’s and Owen’s views of the “apographa” are connected with the doctrine of preservation which most TC’s reject today.

      When commenting on individual passages scholars have usually adopted a method closer to that of, e.g., J.K. Elliott and not paid overmuch attention to “text-types.” This must be kept in mind when trying to identify their textual procedures.

      It is the doctrinal assumption of the apographa AS God’s Word which sets off these men from modern approaches. Given this, neither, I hasten to say, would have been “Textus Receptus” only men! But their approach would have affected their method in allowing doctrine a seat at the table in adjudicating textual decisions in a way that would be totally unacceptable to modern “neutral” textual criticism. Owen and Turretin agree on their procedure. The linked article questions Turretin’s proficiency (as Walton did Owen’s), but not his appeal to theology in his methodology.

      Thank you for an insightful comment.


    2. Thanks, Paul. I agree that viewing the apographa in terms of preservation, and allowing doctrine a seat at the table are important. And I believe many of the translators of modern conservative Bible versions would be closer to Owen and Turretin in their thoughts on TC and preservation, than the critical text editors and textual critical scholars.

  1. Dr. Henebury, do you agree with Stephen Westcott’s assertion that Owen and the other puritans would be majority text people?

  2. Phil,

    In the Puritan period there was no such discipline as Textual Criticism. This was beginning to be developed in the first part of the 18th Century (with the likes of Richard Bentley). Before that there were just “manuscripts,” so we can’t say whether the Puritans would have been MT on that score.
    However, as I have tried to show above, the fact that they introduced theology as an important part of their method would mean they would not have much liked the preponderant view of “reasoned eclecticism” practiced since the 1880’s by men like Hort, Gregory and Nestle, and which most modern textual critics employ today. They would have had far more sympathy for Burgon or Scrivener’s views based on treating the Bible as a sacred trust.

    Modern Textual Criticism is in a bit of a muddle (the same as the issue of the Canon)because the liberal guys from Claremont and other places are abandoning the search for the originals and looking instead for the “living text” of the early church. This is to be expected once the “neutral” approach to TC and Canon are fully assimilated.

    Thanks for the question.

  3. Your response shows a little irritation with me. But understand I am under no obligation to answer questions I am NOT asked!

    By “living text” the more liberal text critics mean the text adapted, edited and embellished by the early church (so they think). This is where the work of Bart Erhman gets its fodder from. It comes as a result of leaving theological issues aside in TC and Canon.

    As a matter of fact I hold to a Majority Text view of the NT. But you did not ask me about that in your first question.

  4. Dr. Henebury,
    I apoligize for my abrupt response. I was not intending to come off as irritated. The “living text” term struck me as wierd though. I probably should have worded it in a whole sentence like “What does the term ‘living text’ mean?”
    When I asked what your textual view was and if it mattered I was wandering if you had an indifferentism towards what one textual view was. With my first question I was kind of hoping to see if i could see what your textual view was with your answer. Thank you for answering my qustions and for being charitable in your responses.The “living text” term still blows my mind.

  5. No problem Phil. Yes this “living text” stuff is a bit scary. I plan to write a couple of posts on this in the not-too-distant future (DV).

    God bless you and yours


  6. What do you think about Owen’s Digression of the Origin of The Hebrew Vowel Points where he uses things Jerome said to proves the Hebrew Massorets did not invent the points.
    He uses Jerome’s comments on Genesis 47:31 with the translation of bed instead of staff because the word is indiscernable without the vowel points(pg530)? He also uses a quote by Jerome from his commentary on Jonah where he mentions accents(pg529). Owen puts emphasis on the accents to prove the vowel points. If what Jerome was talking about was not vowel points what do you think he(Jerome) was talking about?

  7. Well, I hadn’t read this digression before, preferring to read the main text of the “Biblical Theology” itself (I do have a note to myself on p. 544 to do with the central paragraph on that page, regarding the LXX. I wrote “O judicious Owen!”).

    Owen’s comments on “mittah” at Gen. 47:31 on p. 530 don’t prove there was pointing; only certain pronunciation. The standard explanation of the vowel points is that they are those found in the Ben Asher text of the Tiberian Masoretes c. 10th century. The actual pointings supposedly predate Ben Asher by about two hundred years more or less. It is these vowel markings which have become standard, rather than those developed in Babylon (which place the accents above rather than below the letters). The Masoretes flourished from c. 600 to c.1000 A.D., so whoever Jerome was referring to it wasn’t them (I suppose there could have been remnants of the sopherim in Jerome’s day?).

    Anyway, the stuff on Jerome’s Commentary on Jonah is interesting isn’t it? I really have nothing else I can say. I haven’t read enough on the vowel points to give a useful opinion. Thank you for pointing this out to me! My only mention of the points in my article was about their presumed inspiration, which is a separate matter.

    God bless


  8. This article and following discussion is interesting although somewhat over my head. I wonder if you could comment on how this impacts the reliability of the various English translations in your view.

  9. Paul,

    I can only hazard a few thoughts. First, because Owen had a strong sense of the MSS. being from God he would want a robust translation policy. Two, I doubt very much that he would have got as carried away over Vaticanus & Sinaiticus as Hort did. Probably he would have been like Scrivener; open but conservatively cautious. Third, he would certainly not have liked the dumbing-down of many modern translations!


  10. Thank you for your response. I hope you will touch on this issue further at a more opportune time. Really enjoy your website.

  11. Dr. Henebury,

    I’ve noticed that recently you have been quoting from the NASB of late yet you state above that you hold to a “Majority Text” view of the NT. Are there any particular reasons you’ve been quoting from the NASB instead of the NKJV?

    1. Chris,

      I’m using BibleWorks and have it set to NAS and NKJ in that order. I often choose the former in dialog with guys like Hays so long as there is nothing hanging on the selection. Very alert of you:-)

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