A Tractarian Advent I - A Reserved Apocalypse
Restraint in Tractarian Eschatology
The following is a lightly edited version of my article from Forward in Christ magazine of a year ago. But, whereas most readers of that publication from Forward in Faith, North America would be familiar with the Tractarians, perhaps most readers of my substack understandably are not. So who are the Tractarians?
Thanks for reading Mark Marshall! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Silly answers are welcome in the comments within reason and decorum. I will give an oversimplified one instead.
The Tractarians were the leaders of the Oxford Movement, which sought to return the Church of England to more small “c” catholic doctrine and practice in the 19th Century. Part of that effort was a revival of study of the church Fathers and of reverent liturgical worship. The Tractarians often did battle with liberal Latitudinarians and more Protestant Evangelicals, resulting in rather vehement pamphlet wars.
The 1833 “National Apostasy” sermon of John Keble at the University Church of Oxford is commonly thought to have begun the movement. And Oxford continued to be the centre of it.
The moniker “Tractarian” is derived from the Tracts of the Times, which commented on theological issues from 1833 to 1841, when controversy over John Henry Newman’s Tract 90 brought that series to a sudden end.
The three most prominent Tractarians were the Oxford fellows Keble, Newman, and Edward Pusey (the middle three of the accompanying illustration). After Newman defected to Rome in the aftermath of Tract 90 and Keble left Oxford to become a devoted parish parson for Hursley in Hampshire, leadership fell to Pusey until his death in 1882. Pusey House Oxford was soon after founded as a memorial to him, to store his library, and to follow his good example in furthering piety and learning. It continues to excel in so doing under the leadership of the Principal, Dr. George Westhaver. (And Pusey House has influenced my co-founding of the much smaller Henry VI House here in Texas.)
Anglo-Catholicism descends from the Oxford Movement but with many changes and variations.
With that I hope you gain both enjoyment and edification from my Tractarian Advent series. Should my brain recover from a recent illness quickly enough, I intend two or three more posts before Christmas. Now my article from Forward in Christ last year.
When I first made it a priority to search out and study Tractarian views on the end times, I soon found out the hard way I might had chosen a frustrating endeavor. For rarely do the Tractarians say much about details of the end of this age.
I hesitate to be dogmatic about that, for I certainly have not read everything the Oxford Fathers have written. (Who has?) But it is hard to miss that even when one would expect them to teach on what to expect near The End, such as during Advent sermons, they are usually more restrained than revealing.
One such sermon is “The terror of the Day of Judgement, as arising from its justice,” which E. B. Pusey delivered before the University of Oxford on Advent Sunday 1870. He did mention “the sun being darkened and the moon not giving her light.” He did state, “All this creation must come to an end. For it is finite.”
But in this, a sermon for Advent Sunday itself, he says little about Christ’s Second Advent though he says much about the importance of preparing for the Judgement. As he winds up his sermon, Dr. Pusey mentions the Second Coming explicitly only once, preaching Christ “announces that Coming in glorious Majesty, which He must needs show justice to those who would not here have His mercy.” Then he returns immediately to the task of exhorting his audience to get ready for the Second Advent while being restrained in saying much about the details of the Second Advent itself.
In another Advent sermon, “The End of All Things”, Pusey makes some profound observations about eternity. And he echoes the Fathers in saying “the tokens thicken of the world’s decay, the closing strife, the Coming of our God.” But again, he refrains from much detail about the Second Advent.
This restraint is typical of the Oxford Fathers. Keble particularly emphasized preparation for Second Advent more than the events of it. Two of his more well known sermons are “Conscience, an Earnest of the Last Judgement” and “Our Lord among Us, though We Know Him Not.” Both were preached in Advent, yet neither focuses much on the details of events surrounding the return of Christ. Instead the first emphasizes preparing for the Judgement by judging and guiding ourselves through conscience guided by the Holy Spirit. The second exhorts to live as if Christ were already present, since he is present and knows all.
Even Tract 83 exercises and encourages restraint on apocalyptic speculation. This neglected tract consists of four Advent sermons by Newman focusing on the Antichrist and goes into much more detail on events of the end times than other Tractarian writings. He gives a hint on why he chose his subject when he notes “the interpretation of prophecy has become in these times a matter of controversy and party. And passion and prejudice have so interfered with soundness of judgment, that it is difficult to say who is to be trusted in it.”
To discourage fevered apocalyptic assertions so frequent in the 19th century, Newman asserts that reserve is what is appropriate in interpreting unfulfilled prophecy.
…it is not ordinarily the course of Divine Providence to interpret prophecy before the event.
…on so difficult a subject as unfulfilled prophecy, I really can have no opinion of my own, nor indeed is it desirable I should have…
We know not what is to come…
Further, he notes that a number of unfulfilled prophecies indicated that The End is not as close as many were claiming, and that claiming to know is presumption. With the rest of the Tractarians, he instead encourages a mindset of readiness for both the persecutions and the glories of the end whenever they may come. So if Tract 83 is exceptional in going into some detail about eschatology, it is an exception that proves the rule of Tractarian restraint.
This attitude is in marked contrast to the English church from Elizabeth I through the Restoration. Volumes were written on the details of the Apocalypse with Foxe, Bale, Mede, and Brightman being among the more prominent authors. There was much date setting and much confidence in the importance of England in the defeat of Antichrist and Babylon, which Establishmentarians, Puritans, and Separatists agreed was the Church of Rome, of course.
Tractarian restraint also contrasts with the 19th century in which apocalyptic expectation was rife, from the Irvingites and Millerites to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and to still influential Dispensationalism, along with a number of infamous failed attempts to date the Second Coming. Perhaps the Tractarians saw errors of that century and of pre-1700 Anglicans and thought restraint was needful.
But I have come to think that the Oxford fathers would have been restrained in their eschatology no matter in what century the Lord would have placed them. I now see their restraint not as an accident of the times or as a mere trait of temperament, but as a feature. For an important Tractarian principle is that of reserve as put forth in Tract 80, “On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge,” written by Isaac Williams.
Tract 80 was controversial and understandably so. Nonetheless it excels in pointing out from scripture that God time and again conceals himself and conceals knowledge. Often the reason is mercy, for our own good and protection. God warned the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai and praised them for realizing the danger in knowing too much of him too soon. (Exodus 19:21, Deut. 18: 15-19) He then told Moses that He would raise up a prophet like Moses as a great act of mercy because we mortals cannot take in the glory of God unfiltered and live. This is part of the necessity of the Incarnation.
And in the Incarnation, Jesus often concealed his identity and his truth as Tract 80 notes repeatedly. He taught in parables with the intent that many would misunderstand them. He often told people to be quiet about his miracles and told demons to shut up about his identity. Even after his resurrection, he revealed himself to hundreds instead of thousands. As the tract puts it, “the great pledge and seal of the truth of the Gospel, the Resurrection itself, seems in such a striking manner to have been kept back, if I may so speak, from the gaze of the multitude, from the broad light of the common day.”
So the Tractarians considered God’s reserve in revealing himself and in turn respected and even revered that there are “secret things which belong unto God” which we would be foolish to delve hastily into. For knowing more — or presuming to know more — than we are able to handle well can be “injurious” to us.
Surely the Oxford Fathers saw that much of the coming Apocalypse is among these “secret things” which we should not presume to know. Did not Jesus say the time of His Second Coming is not for us to know? Indeed history is replete with those who presumed to unveil what God has concealed and to know what is not for us to know and have harmed the witness of the church and the faith of many. Even in the apostles’ time, there were those who were irresponsible and excused their lazy sin, either by claiming Jesus was returning almost immediately (2 Thess. 3:6-12) or that His return was far, far off or not going to happen at all. (2 Peter 3:3-10).
Fast forwarding to 17th Century England, there was abundance of interest as mentioned, both scholarly and popular, in details of The End. Overconfidence both concerning dates and concerning England’s role included Thomas Brightman writing, among other dubious details, that the seventh trumpet of Revelation began sounding in 1558, the angel at the altar was Thomas Cranmer, and the angel with the sickle was Thomas Cromwell!
The speculative eschatology of the 1600’s was not without harm as it egged on the Civil War and any number of excesses during the Commonwealth as well as some rebellion after the Restoration. That even though several of the more prominent writers, particularly Joseph Mede, were hardly hotheads and not Puritans or Separatists and supported the episcopal establishment. John Bale was briefly a bishop himself. Apocalyptic speculation can be a fire hard to contain.
Finally in the 19th Century, the Oxford Fathers saw apocalyptic fervor heat up again and fuel sectarianism, most of which did not end well. The Catholic Apostolic Church (Irvingites) began just before the Oxford Movement but barely survived the century. Perhaps when Newman wrote that “passion and prejudice have so interfered with soundness of judgment” he was thinking about them among others.
The time since confirms the wisdom of Tractarian reserve. What contributes more to piety and right living — a sober realization that our time, both for us personally and for the world, is limited, and we do not presume to know when that limit will appear? Or presumptuous certainty that results in dates of the Second Coming on billboards, books that say Jesus is returning in 1988, much about blood moons, being “left behind” and more, all inviting deserved mockery upon the church?
Better to follow the wisdom of the Tractarians and of Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Virgins, to be ready and “watch therefore, for you neither know the day nor the hour.” The day and the hour and any number of other details of The End are God’s business. Getting ready is ours.
Thanks for reading Mark Marshall! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.