Eyes of the Soul: Puritan Faith and Imagining the World to Come

This post continues my explication of the Puritan rejection of the world (see here). Here I outline the Reformed view of faith using the works of John Bunyan and others.

In the philosophy of religion, the term “faith” often denotes a belief apart or above reason. The conversation centers on the relationship of faith to reason, faith to irrationality, and faith to knowledge. And many theologians have entered this conversation having abandoned their theological starting points for those of the philosophers. Faith has become an issue in religious epistemology, not a matter of biblical exegesis. The result is that faith, as a theological concept, is largely absent from the conversation. As with much of the discussion in philosophy of religion, theological particularities give way to ecumenical universals.[1] And since particular theological conceptions of faith are fundamental to many theological systems, these systems are widely misunderstood.

The Roman Catholic concept of “sacred assent” or the “assent of faith” as an “act of the intellect” toward the “obedience of faith” only adds to this confusion, being a fides theoretica without fides fiducialis; such a faith is merely an assent to the “revealed truths” that can theoretically save you. It is not trusting in the revealed truths that have already saved you. Thus the Roman Catholics see faith as a principled epistemological means of identifying the “deposit of faith,” but not as a means of recognizing the finality of redemption deposited within. This notion is far more philosophical than theological, and the text of Scripture does not support it.

In this post I argue that Puritan theology is a victim of this confusion, especially with regards to their denial of the world. As cited in my previous post, Gregory Wolfe wrote that the “gnosticism of the Puritans…posited nature as an evil, hostile force.” He criticizes the Puritans for “putting evil in the natural sphere [and] miss the evil in themselves.”[2] This is a fairly common criticism: the Puritans and the “Calvinists” despise everything natural, especially their own faculty of desire. According to this view, their religious fervor was more than world-denying. It was earth-denying; it was desire-denying; it was sense-denying; and it was eros-denying. Primarily using the works of John Bunyan, I hope to make clear that this simplistic understanding of Puritan theology is rooted in a misunderstanding of the Reformed conception of faith.

To start, we should recognize that the Reformed tradition has always held that Scripture alone, being the special means by which God continually discloses the meaning and divine interpretation of his salvific acts in history, is the sole rule of faith for the Church. This means that the full content of the salvific promises of God are contained in the canon of Scripture.[3] It should be no surprise then that the Puritans defined faith not according to the philosophers but according to Scripture[4]. I will provide a nuanced definition of faith later in this post. I begin with this: faith is believing in the promises of God despite appearances. This is not a belief in the irrational or anything supra-rational. Faith is a confident trusting (fides fiducialis) in the mercies contained in the promises of God. Commenting on Romans 4:14-15, John Calvin writes, “Faith then is not a naked knowledge either of God or of his truth; nor is it a simple persuasion that God is, that his word is the truth; but a sure knowledge of God’s mercy, which is received from the gospel, and brings peace of conscience with regard to God, and rest to the mind.”[5] God speaks his promises in Christ and these promises, being invisibly realized yet physically unseen, are the object of faith. And since it is God who has spoken, there is good reason to believe what he says. Faith is not belief in the absence of good reasons to believe. Faith is confident belief that this promised unseen reality is the world to come that has broken into the present. Thus faith in Christ is an assurance of his work that has both invisibly established and will visibly establish one’s place in the world to come.

Bunyan expands on this idea by making faith an act of imagining or seeing the promises of God. Throughout his Grace Abounding,[6] for instance, he is reminded of Scripture and then “sees” the associated promise. After considering being “converted to Jesus Christ,” he is able to “see…such glory in a converted state” (73). Later he claimed that he “saw by faith the Son of God as suffering for [his] sins” (143). When his “Understanding was so enlightened…[he] had seen the Lord Jesus look down from Heaven” (206). After he came to understand the doctrine of imputation (discussed below), he said that “Christ…was before my eyes” (231). The object of this spiritual sight is God’s “Promise.”[7] God’s special communication is a promise to be fulfilled in the eschatological future. One cannot see it but dimly in natural sight. Bunyan calls this promise “large and glorious” (147), being the “promise of forgiveness” (188) and the “Promise of Life” (195). Over time he came to find more spiritual ease in contemplating the content of the promises (“a Word to lean a weary Soul upon” (250)) than earnestly seeking comfort apart from the content. We can conclude then that Bunyan views faith as a type of seeing: faith sees in the mind the realization of the promises that God has communicated. Faith is the eye of the mind renewed by grace seeing redemption accomplished and redemption applied.

This faith by sight is crucial to understand the climax and resolution of Bunyan’s Grace Abounding. For two-thirds of the book he describes a spiritual roller-coaster. Multiple times he goes from spiritual peace to spiritual depression. He constantly searches for external evidence or “tokens” of his election in his external works. He worries that he had committed the “unpardonable sin.” He knew that his sins against the Law of Moses were covered by Christ, since Christ fulfilled the Law. But Bunyan thought that he had sinned “against the Saviour” directly apart from the Law, and being against Christ himself Bunyan thought that there was no remedy for such a sin. But he came to believe in the doctrine of “alien righteousness” or the “imputation of righteousness.” After placing his faith in the content of this doctrine, Bunyan’s “chains [fell] off” (230). This is what he came to believe (229, 231):

This sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; and methought withal, I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand; there, I say, as my righteousness; so that wherever I was, or whatever I was a doing, God could not say of me, He wants my righteousness, for that was just before him. I also saw, moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse; for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever (Heb 13:8)…. I saw that the man Christ Jesus, as he is distinct from us, as touching his bodily presence, so he is our righteousness and sanctification before God.

Bunyan with the “eyes” of his soul came to see Christ’s righteousness imputed (or reckoned) to his account such that his possession of perfect righteousness is foreign or alien to him, but nonetheless considered his own. Of course, this cannot be seen in the normal sense of seeing. Only the eyes of faith can see this. Since the believer’s good standing before God is solely due to the imputed righteousness of Christ, one’s working or accumulation of merit (even if possible) contributes nothing to one’s ultimate standing before God. And this is a good thing: for one’s “righteousness is filthy and insufficient to do [one] any good” (37). As any good Calvinist would say, to view one’s merit or “good” deeds as deserving no reward at all is simply to be honest with oneself. Those with faith to see should take comfort in this: one’s place in the world to come is due only to the righteousness of Christ unconditioned on any cooperation of man.[8] As Hopeful said in Pilgrim’s Progress, “God be merciful to me a sinner, and make me to know and believe in Jesus Christ; for I see, that if His righteousness had not been, or I have not faith in that righteousness, I am utterly cast away.”[9]

We can conclude that Bunyan’s view of faith is this: faith is seeing oneself situated within the promises of God, communicated verbally in Scripture, through an active imagining of the world to come.

In light of this theological understanding of faith, we can now proceed to analyze why the Puritans so often seemed hostile to human desire and earthly satisfaction. We should first notice that the Puritans sought to live eschatologically, meaning that the promises concerning the world to come had to be brought to bear upon every experience in creation now. The Puritan poet Richard Steere said it well:

How frequent may we find in Sacred Writ
Metaphors, Similes, Comparison,
Drawn from those Temp’ral Things that are in sight,
To signify to us Heav’ns unseen Glory,
As Riches, Honours, Pleasures, Kingdoms, Crowns,
Speaks to our sense the Highest State of Glory,
By such known Language Heav’n conveys to us,
High Apprehensions of Eternal Bliss.

Faith Exercis’d on these is of such force,
As to present our minds with future things,
Faith Soars aloft, and thence (preventing time)
Descends with Samples of those Joys to come.[10]

Steere writes that by faith we can image “future things” that serve as foretastes of the “joys to come.” Our experience in creation requires faith in the promises of God to taste the future glory. When tasting in faith, our “minds” are able to experience some glimmer of the future. Our mind are taken above, not to experience the transcendent in itself, but to taste the joys of the world to come already established but not yet descended fully in history.

When we understand the Puritan theology of faith it becomes clear that they did not reject human desire, creation, and joy per se, but feared that enjoyment in the world without considering it in light of the world to come is to lose faith in the promises of God. Comfort in this world can lead sinners to think that they are ultimately at home in this world, and if they are home, then the promise of God for a better home is not a promise at all. In effect, by feeling at home in this world one is calling God a liar. Thus the fear is that one’s enjoyment will nullify the promises of God, and, in effect, cause one to lose faith. If the promises are null, faith has no object. Faith is then lost. And to lose faith is to fall. This distrust of one’s relationship to the current state of creation is not due to a gnostic-like rejection of creation or the physical[11] but due to the importance of keeping the mind’s eye on the world to come, the “new creation” where the invisible, seen now by the eye of faith, becomes visible. If faith’s object is the promises of God, then anything that could interfere with seeing those promises must be considered with caution. All of this is not due to some inherent deficiency with creation or the non-human natural world, but due only to the fallen nature of each human person.[12] In the world to come, humans will experience creation to its fullest. In the world to come humans will be, according to Bunyan, the “same in nature, though not in corruption.”[13] And with humans, the rest of creation is renewed and brought to perfection.[14]

We see here that what explains the Puritan’s wariness of earthly satisfaction, human desire, and enjoyment is not a simplistic rejection of creation as some lower order of being in relation to humankind’s higher, more divine, potential. They did not consider enjoyments and pleasures to be below them or necessary evils. Even now, these enjoyments and pleasures experienced by faith are foretastes of the world to come. And in that world to come, when sin is removed and humans are restored and brought to creaturely perfection, every creaturely need is perfectly satisfied. For the Puritans, Bunyan included, the purpose of faith is to live in that world to come now, to live eschatologically. This is possible only when the eyes of faith are focused on the realized yet invisible promises of God.

[1] One example is the prevalent use of the barebones, omni-package god of the philosophers (i.e., omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence and, maybe, omnibenevolence) that lacks any other theological attributes. This often leads philosophers into question-begging.

[2] Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age (Wilmington: ISI, 2011), 133.

[3] This is “special” revelation. “General” revelation is the “light of nature, and the works of creation and providence [that] do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God.” (Westminster Confession, I.I). The Belgic Confession states, “by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe, since that universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God God’s eternal power and divinity, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 1:20. All these things are enough to convict humans and to leave them without excuse.” General revelation is a sufficient divine self-disclosure meant to communicate the demands of righteousness, but it does not, nor was ever intended to, disclose the means of the salvation of sinners. The means of salvation is disclosed in special revelation alone.

[4] The classic texts are Romans 4:13-25, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, Ephesians 3:11-12 and Hebrews 11:1-40

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on Romans, accessed at Christian Classics Ethereal Library http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom38.viii.vii.html

[6] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding. Edited by John Stachniewski and Anit Pacheco. Oxford: Oxfod University Press. Citations to this text are parenthetical and the numbers refer to paragraph numbers as they appear in edition 5.

[7] Bunyan often capitalizes this in Grace Abounding.

[8] This does not permit believers to do any amount and any sort of evil and still be justified. Bunyan states, “Faith without works justifies us before God: yet that Faith that is alone, will be found to leave us sinner in the sight of both God and man…. To be so careless as to say, what care I for being righteous to profit others [is evidence] that the love of God is not in thee.” (36)

[9] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, [1688]), 133.

[10] From his “Earth Felicities, Heavens Allowances” (Lines 450-457, emphasis mine). For more on Puritan poetry, see my blog post found here: http://reformation500.com/2014/02/08/purtian-poetry-creation-delight-and-weaning-from-the-world/  (Notice the unintentional misspelling (“purtian”) in the address).

[11] Richard Steere writes, that we “…aught / Freely Enjoy Earths good in its good use.”

[12] The ultimate problem is the sinful human unwillingness to “sing-along” with nature. Consider the Puritan poetry of Anne Bradstreet:

Silent alone, where none or saw, or heard,
In pathless parths I lead my wand’ring feet,
My humble eyes to lofty skies I reared
To sing some song, my mazed Muse thought meet.
My great Creator I would magnify,
That nature had thus decked liberally;
But Ah, and Ah, again, my imbecility!
.           .           .           .           .           .
I heard the merry grasshopper then sing.
The black-clad cricket bear a second part;
They kept one tune and played on the same string,
Seeming to glory in their little art.
Shall creatures abject thus their voices raise
And in their kind resound their Maker’s praise,
Whilst I, as mute, can warble forth no higher lays?

[13] Pilgrim’s Progress, 218.

[14] Still, creation remains radically inferior to the perfection of God.

One reply on “Eyes of the Soul: Puritan Faith and Imagining the World to Come”

  1. Children in bed, wife at a workout, and I’m finally able to finish this set of articles. (That’s of course, if you are finished, Stephen?)

    I’ve often thought of Luther’s famous quote, about even the town milkmaid being able to milk to the glory of God. Always wanted to look into Luther’s thoughts further. But it seems you’ve tapped into that well here, and it’s refreshed me immensely.

    Aside from some of the poets you’ve mentioned (which I will be looking further into now), are there any other first hand writings you’d recommend, so that I too can enjoy listening in a little closer?


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