Unfulfilled Prophecy and Christian Piety
An extract from Chapter 5, ‘The Hope and Puritan Piety’ in Iain Murray’s The Puritan Hope,1 due to be reprinted (2014) in a new, larger format.
At the outset it has to be admitted that an interest in unfulfilled prophecy is not always conducive to Christian piety. The Christians at Thessalonica were only the first among many in the course of church history whose witness was marred by a feverish and misguided expectation upon this subject. In 1620 Elnathan Parr complained of ‘certain foolish prophecies dispersed that the world shall end within these twenty years,’ while two centuries and a half later C. H. Spurgeon had still to bewail the influence of ‘twopenny-halfpenny prophets all crying out as one man that He will come in 1866 or 1867.’ It is plain that attention to prophecy, instead of producing a moral and sanctifying effect, can merely promote speculative curiosities and intellectual pride. Towards the end of his life Richard Baxter made the pithy observation:
We find it so easy to possess men with a fervent zeal for the Millenary Opinion, and so hard to make them zealous in holy love to God and man, and in heavenly conversation, as may make us suspicious that both sorts of zeal have not the same original.
Puritan pastors were alive to this danger and took steps to prevent aberrations developing in their own congregations. When they dealt with unfulfilled prophecy it was not as a ‘special subject’ of peculiar importance — as became the fashion in the nineteenth century — rather, their treatment almost invariably occurred in the ordinary course of expository preaching, and both by this example and by precept the people were warned of the danger of giving to prophecy a place disproportionate to its importance. Thus Peter Martyr says:
It is a miserable thing, that whereas we have so many clear and manifest things in the holy scriptures, concerning faith, hope, charity, and the bonds of other virtues, wherein there is nothing obscure, we will leave those utterly neglected and with so great superstition follow other things which are uncertain and serve less unto salvation. This doth the devil endeavour, that we should earnestly occupy ourselves in questions which be infinite and unprofitable; laying aside other things, which should be necessarily kept.
In the same vein of warning John Howe taught his people to observe:
That to have our minds and hearts more set upon the best state of things that it is possible the church should ever arrive to on earth, than upon the state of perfect felicity above, is a very great distemper, and which we ought to reckon intolerable by any means to indulge ourselves in. We know none of us can live in this world but a little while, and that there is a state of perfect rest, and tranquillity, and glory remaining for the people of God. We have, therefore, no pretence for being curious in our inquiries about what time such or such good things may fall out to the church of God in this world. It is a great piece of fondness to cast in our own thoughts, Is it possible that I may live to see it? For ought we know, there may be but a hand’s breadth between us and glory, if we belong to God; tomorrow may be the time of our translation. We ought to live in the continual expectation of dying, and of coming to a better state than the church can ever be in here. It argues a great infirmity, a distemper in our spirits, that we should reflect upon with severity, if we should be more curious to see a good state of things in this world, than to see the best that can ever be, and infinitely better than we can think, in heaven.
By such cautions as these the Puritans checked the kind of unbalanced spiritual character which prophetical interest has too often encouraged. At the same time their general view of unfulfilled prophecy was conveyed sufficiently to give a distinct tone to the spiritual character and outlook of the church three hundred years ago. Their beliefs on this subject were not speculative areas of thought, disconnected from the everyday fundamentals of the Christian faith; on the contrary they were connected with that faith at some of its most vital points, as, for instance, with the Person of Christ, with the church, and with prayer . . . Puritan piety, in its essentials, was of course no different from true Christian piety of all ages, yet in some respects it was distinctive; it possessed certain pronounced features which, in turn, gave to Puritan Christianity not a little of the force which it exercised upon the course of history. There can be no question that belief in regard to unfulfilled prophecy contributed significantly to this distinctiveness and . . . it was the way in which that belief combined with fundamentals that made it so influential.
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