The Puritans were not completely aligned on all aspects of theology, and their views of eschatology demonstrate this well. The different perspectives reflect the diversity of interpretations and the complexity of understanding eschatological passages in the Bible, as well as the variety in theological perspectives amongst the Puritans themselves. The takeaway for Christians today is that despite our disagreements over certain points of theology we can remain devoted Reformed Christians.
Were the Puritans aligned in their eschatological views? Not quite. This article examines various Puritan theologies of eschatology that emerged between the 17th and 18th centuries, focusing on seven prominent Puritan writers and their unique perspectives. We’re going to look at Owen, Goodwin, the Mathers (father and son), Edwards, Turreting and Wittsius.
Each of these Puritan writers offers unique interpretations of eschatology that draw on specific passages from the Bible, particularly the book of Revelation. Their arguments, however, were not without their weaknesses. For example, premillennialists like Cotton Mather faced the challenge of reconciling their beliefs with passages that suggest a more spiritual interpretation of the end times, while postmillennialists such as Jonathan Edwards grappled with the problem of evil in a world where Christ’s reign was believed to be imminent.
Consider this article an opportunity to reflect on the diversity of positions within a group of Christians often thought of by some as homogenous; within the Puritan movement, there was substantial variety even as these men agreed on the central tenets of the gospel.
John Owen’s Progressive Revelation
John Owen (1616-1683) believed in the progressive revelation of God’s truth. In his work “The Advantage of Christ’s Kingdom” (John Owen, “The Advantage of Christ’s Kingdom,” in Shaking of the Kingdoms of the World (1651) in Works, 8:312-39.), Owen posited that the Second Coming of Christ would be preceded by the triumph of the gospel, which would occur through the gradual conversion of people around the world. This understanding of eschatology is rooted in the idea that God’s purpose and plan for humanity are revealed incrementally throughout history, culminating in the full realization of God’s kingdom on earth.
Owen’s eschatological perspective can be seen as a response to the pessimistic outlook of many of his contemporaries, who believed that the world was in a state of irreversible moral decline. By contrast, Owen emphasized the transformative power of the gospel and the potential for spiritual renewal in the hearts of individuals. He argued that as more people embraced the message of Christ, the world would gradually be transformed and prepared for Christ’s return.
One of the main strengths of John Owen’s progressive revelation is its emphasis on the unfolding nature of God’s plan for humanity. This view aligns with the broader biblical narrative, which demonstrates a pattern of God revealing His intentions and purposes over time through various covenants, prophetic messages, and ultimately, through the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Owen’s approach to eschatology is rooted in the understanding that God’s truth is gradually disclosed, which is consistent with the structure of Scripture.
Despite the optimism of Owen’s eschatology, critics have noted that his reliance on the progressive revelation of God’s truth leaves room for ambiguity and uncertainty. For example, some have questioned how the triumph of the gospel can be measured and when it will be sufficient to usher in the Second Coming of Christ. Additionally, Owen’s interpretation can be challenged by biblical passages that suggest a more sudden and cataclysmic end to human history, such as the descriptions of the “day of the Lord” found in both the Old and New Testaments (see Isa 2:12; 13:6, 9; Ezek 13:5, 30:3; Joel 1:15, 2:1,11,31; 3:14; Amos 5:18,20; Oba 15; Zeph 1:7,14; Zech 14:1; Mal 4:5; Acts 2:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; 1 Thess 5:2; 2 Thess 2:2; 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 6:17; 16:14).
Thomas Goodwin’s Premillennialism
Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) focused on the millennial reign of Christ. He argued for a literal interpretation of the 1,000-year reign described in Revelation 20:1-6, positing a physical resurrection of some saints and a spiritual reign of Christ as a precursor to the millennium and then Christ’s physical return and the final judgment (Works, 1:521). In The World to Come (1655), he detailed his arguments in favor of this interpretation, which is commonly known as premillennialism.
Goodwin’s understanding of the millennium is rooted in a belief in the literal fulfillment of biblical prophecy, particularly the visions described in the book of Revelation. He contended that the 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth was a crucial component of God’s plan for humanity, during which time believers would enjoy a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity (Goodwin, 1672). By adhering closely to the text, Goodwin’s view provides a straightforward understanding of the end times, which can be appealing to those who seek a concrete and unambiguous eschatological timeline (Goodwin 1672). Goodwin’s eschatology emphasized the future vindication of the faithful and the ultimate establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.
However, critics of Goodwin’s premillennialism have noted that his interpretation relies on a mostly literal reading of Revelation, which is a highly symbolic and apocalyptic text. Although Goodwin acknowledged that many things in Revelation were symbolic of events, places, or people in church history, his was a historicist reading that leaned heavily literal. Some argue that the 1,000-year reign should be understood metaphorically, representing a spiritual reality rather than a physical one. By interpreting the 1,000-year reign in a strictly literal sense, Goodwin’s view may struggle to account for the broader context and purpose of the book of Revelation, which is intended to convey spiritual truths through symbolic imagery. Additionally, critics argue that Goodwin’s interpretation overlooks other passages in Scripture that suggest a more spiritual or metaphorical understanding of the end times.
Increase Mather’s Postmillenialism
Increase Mather (1639-1723) was known for his postmillennialist beliefs. He argued that the millennial reign of Christ would be a spiritual reign characterized by the conversion of the Jews and the triumph of the gospel. In The Mystery of Israel’s Salvation (Mather, 1669), he detailed his interpretation of the end times and the significance of the Jewish people in the unfolding of God’s eschatological plan.