A Puritan Approach to History: Christopher Ness (1621-1705)
Sep 29, 2016
Christians with even a little knowledge of church history are likely aware of Augustine’s famous work, The City of God. In it, he presents his philosophy of history as he views God moving everything from creation to consummation while in cosmic warfare with Satan. Within this universal history exist two kingdoms, of God and this world. The City of God exists as the Christ’s kingdom driven by the love of God. The City of this World comprises the remainder of the world under the rule of Satan and driven by the love of self. This society of pilgrims from all peoples exists side–by–side with the multitudes until the end of the world when Christ returns.
Less well known, if at all, is the writing of English Nonconformist Christopher Ness (1621-1705) who published a Compleat and Compendius Church History (1680). Like Augustine, he conveys the same sense of universal history and cosmic conflict fought between God and Satan. In his dedication to the Lord Mayor Robert Clayton of London, Ness presents his thesis as he seeks to unfold a treatise of:
GOD wageing War against the DEVIL, from the Beginning of the World to the End thereof, and God all along (as is meet) Obtaining the VICTORY: ‘Tis a pleasant Spectacle to behold Christ and Antichrist contending for Mastery: To be an Universal HISTORIAN, (as I presume your Lordship to be) is the most Effectual Means to make Wise for both Worlds.
The full title of the work explains much about its contents, as lengthy Puritan titles often did: A Compleat and Compendious Church-History: Shewing how it hath been from the beginning of the world to this present day: being an historical-narrative how the power and providence of God, according to his promise, hath hitherto confounded all the damnable plots of the Devil.
Ness tells us that the evil plotting in this world stems from the inward cause of enmity promised in Genesis 3:15 and the outward cause of the devil, “the Malignant Adversary of Mankind” and father of all the wicked. Such continual and wrathful enmity cannot thwart the triumph of the church, which “hath lost (now and then) a Battel, but never a War.” Of all the weapons possessed by the wicked, none “shall prosper” and the gates of Hell “though in a Combination of all its power and pollicy” shall not prevail against the church which “is Invincible, and can never be Demolished either by Angry Men or Enraged Devils.”
Ness unfolds the work setting forth the devil’s schemes against the church and how God providentially from Adam to the “Popish-plot” against the sixteenth-century Reformation gained the victory faithful to biblical prophecies and promises. In this manner, he conveys agreement with Marian exile, John Foxe (1516–1587), whose philosophy of history manifests itself in Christus Triumphans (1556) and Actes and Monuments (1579). Foxe reflects the historiography of fellow Marian exile, John Bale (1495–1563) and Lutheran Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520–75). Similarities to Ness are also seen in French Catholic Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) who published his Discourse on Universal History the year after him (French, 1681; English, 1686).
Ness ends his Church History with a prophecy from the book of Revelation “shewing how the Church shall be Preserved to the End of the World.” In it, he does not identify a personal Antichrist but a multinational and conglomerate one. This included all that is politically and ecclesiastically antichristian including the church of Rome as the Western Antichrist and Islam as the Eastern Antichrist. With hope in the millennium to come, Ness maintains the gradual rise and overthrow of Antichrist, the latter of which will occur at the hands of kings and according to the vial judgments of Revelation 16. Such thinking reinforces A Discovery of the Person and Period of Antichrist, published the previous year (1679) by Ness.
Ness knew the universal conflict of which he wrote personally. A Cambridge grad and preacher (at Yorkshire then Leeds), he was eventually removed under the Great Ejection of 1662, was later excommunicated on several occasions, and once faced a warrant for his arrest for illegal printing. He was able to continue preaching in different contexts but not without difficulty and at times even in hiding. Yet, he remained faithful in his own battle to the end, eventually buried (1705) in Bunhill fields alongside notable fellow Puritans as Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, and John Bunyan.
The church today needs a sense of universal history and of fighting within a cosmic conflict. Let us take hope that God moves all things to their final end, that no scheme of Satan will stop Christ from building his church, and that we may lose some battles but win the war triumphant in Christ.