We all aspire to become our heroes.
One of my favorite Puritans is John Winthrop. He was a 17th century attorney who also led the “Winthrop Fleet,” consisting of about 1,000 Puritans, across the Atlantic––from Britain to Massachusetts. This would have been a massive undertaking at that time. It’s absolutely fascinating that people back then had such a range of capabilities and sky-high potential. My favorite theologian is harder to nail down. John Cotton, John Owen, Francis Turretin and others continuously fight for first place.
A practical tension Christians often encounter is the distinction between the church of the past and the church of the present-future. On one hand, we look into the history of Christ’s bride and see a boldness, corporate piety, and personal devotion not often seen in our day and age. On the other hand, we live in the now and can’t quite stop the church from tumbling irreversibly into the future. I will never be my favorite old dead guy, which means I’ll never be a Reformer or Puritan.
But, I shouldn’t want to be a Puritan and neither should you.
Onward and Upward
If we can learn anything from the apostles, from the early church fathers, from the Medievals, from the Reformers, from the Puritans or from the post-Puritans, we can earn that they had a godly concern for the future of the church. At the same time, they were experts at using tools previously uncovered by those who lived before they did. Having a biblical worldview entails having a biblical view of time. God created time, a dimension of the universe which moves forward relatively consistently. The Bible itself presupposes this. Not only is time said to be created by God, but the Bible has been progressively revealed over the span of thousands of years.
The Old Covenant people of God looked forward to the coming of the Messiah, and the New Covenant people of God look forward to the glorification of the church in the return of Jesus. God’s people have always had an eschatology, a study of future things. A biblical worldview, therefore, entails a proper understanding and a well-balanced emphasis of the future. One of the key motivations for the church of God has been the future bodily resurrection, the first fruits of which were made manifest in Christ nearly 2,000 years ago. The apostle Paul pastorally used eschatology to encourage the church in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The future is vitally important for the Christian. Christ does not simply own the already, accomplishing work which maintains the church where it is; but He reaches forth––on behalf of His people––and secures that which is not yet. The then and now (the ‘already’) is not the end of the story. Christ has earned a future for His people (the ‘not yet’).
The church has not developed by shedding historical epochs in order to progress to the next “stage.” That would have been ecclesiological suicide. Rather, by God’s grace, the church has built upon previously established theology. There is, however, one exception to this rule. During the early Reformation, for example, Protestants shed certain doctrines altogether because they were found to be completely unbiblical.
This does not mean we cannot learn from the old Roman Catholic church, and in that sense, the bride continues to build upon that which has come before. The church has baggage, and it needs to carry this baggage responsibly. The contents of church history consist of both the good and the bad, and both the good and the bad must be allowed to influence our trajectory as believers. Solomon writes, “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future (Pro. 19:20).” Those who accept advice gained from the past gain wisdom for the future.
The future and the past must not be estranged, but seen in light of God’s all-encompassing plan, or decree.
Bringing the Past and Future Together
Declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose.’
–– Isaiah 46:10
God’s decree provides a basis for our simultaneous looking forward to the future and the grasping tightly of our history. In God’s decree, the past and future are brought into harmony. Both the already and the not yet are held together in a complimentary fashion. The Christian has no reason to prioritize the past over the future or the future over the past. Rather, we must hold both together if we are to live consistently as Christians.
We cannot become Puritans, nor can we become negligent of our past. If either of these two things occur, so does the rejection of essential aspects of the gospel. One cannot reject the historical development of the church––failing to cherish the past––nor can a person de-emphasize the future in pursuit of the past. History needs the future and the future needs history.
We must, therefore, see history and future in light of God’s eternal plan. The Second London Confession says:
God hath decreed in himself, from all eternity, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably, all things, whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as thereby is God neither the author of sin nor hath fellowship with any therein; nor is violence offered to the will of the creature, nor yet is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established; in which appears his wisdom in disposing all things, and power and faithfulness in accomplishing his decree (3.1).
God’s decree unifies the past, present, and future––giving theological significance to each. All time is included in the plan of God before creation became. Since this is the case, past, present, and future ought to have their proper place within the mind of the church. After all, we are to think God’s thoughts after Him, and this entails having an eternal perspective.
The Practicality of God’s Decree
As mentioned above, God’s eternal decree entails both the past and the future. This implies importance of both, not to varying degrees but in two different ways. The past informs the future, while the future relies on the past for its fruitful development, all this being made possible by God’s providence. The Second London Confession reads:
God the good Creator of all things, in his infinite power and wisdom doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, to the end for the which they were created, according unto his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will; to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, infinite goodness, and mercy (5.1).
The Christian operates presently within the context of God’s sovereign providence, and thus operates on the sure foundation of God’s past work while also looking forward to the future conclusion of God’s promises. Christians, therefore, must understand the importance of the past as it relates to God’s prior covenantal workings within the created order, and they must understand the future as it relates to the conclusion of God’s covenantal promises.
Here is found the basis for the consideration of church history as it gives itself to historical-theological practicality, as well as the churches proclamation of biblical future events, primarily the return of Christ and subsequent consummation of Christ’s kingdom.
The Changing of the Church
There is nothing wrong with change in Christ’s bride. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18).” The church did not come to be what it’s supposed to be at a single instant in history. It started as a proto-ecclesia, a seed-church, which God determined to grow according to His plan.
This development, however, cannot take place apart from our history. We ought to hold our history in high regard, and this history consists of both the Old and New Testaments as well as the post-canonical history of the church from the late 1st century to the present. God’s eternal decree is a complex theological truth, but it’s also highly practical with respects to how we view time-bound aspects of the created order. The church is better off knowing its history, a knowledge modern evangelicalism generally lacks. This historical enterprise is not to be seen apart from the future promises of God, the biblically-proclaimed trajectory of the bride.
The reason I shouldn’t want to be a Puritan––the reason you shouldn’t want to be a Puritan––is because the Puritans lived at a previous point in church history. God had them where He wanted them at that time. So too, God has His church where His church should be right now. Does this mean we shed the theology of the Puritans? Of course not! We keep it––most of it––because it’s orthodox. But we should also examine the possibility of further theological development based on the biblical doctrine they uncovered.
We are not the Puritans, but in many ways we ought to emulate them. This goes for every period in church history. Though we emulate historical figures, we ought to emulate them with the aim of looking forward. To the extent historical figures imitated Christ, we ought to imitate them, and this imitation has located within it the seed of future aspirations: to be conformed to the Lord of glory––the eschatological destination of God’s people. Imitating heroes of the past is a means for the future.
The Christian life is a harmony of the already and the not yet––the completed work of God, and the hope of future promises.