The Living Word in the New Jerusalem

'From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' (Matthew 4: 17).

'But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up' (2 Peter 3: 10-11).

The concept of the Living Word had substantial implications for the experience of time in early reformed Scotland. This juxtaposition implied more than simply that the word of the Bible was the now the sole vehicle through which God could be reached, it also brought to life the stories therein (Matheson 1998). Its contents were regenerated and given immediacy, events from its pages made current by the idea that Christians everywhere were living in the New Jerusalem (Matheson 1998, 243; Hazlett 2003, 165). Events to come were accelerated and intensified by vehement preaching about impending cosmic battles between Christ and the Devil. Many Reformers were certain that Judgement Day would come within their lifetime: the ordinary person in the pew was told the end of the world was upon them (see Matthew 4: 17 and 2 Peter 3: 10-11. Matheson 2000, 82-4; Waite 2003, 58-9). Faced with potential cataclysm, Scots had to come to terms with the loss of traditional barriers between man and the fires of hell.

Prior to the Reformation, it was widely held that most people would be required to spend time in purgatory, an intermediate hell where penance was served before admission into heaven. Time in purgatory could be reduced by observing sacraments such as penance, doing good works, and by earning or purchasing indulgences (remissions of punishment). By the 15th century, indulgences accounted for thousands of years of remission: the end of time was far away, and irrelevant (Shinners 1997, 380-5; Arnold 2005, 168). Reformers renounced purgatory, prayers for the dead becoming meaningless (Knox 1972 [1621] [1559], 88-9). Effectively, this removed the veil between man and hell.

In the absence of purgatory and, therefore, of the possibility of erasing sins after death, there existed only a single life-time to secure personal and communal eschatological fate. Witch-hunts throughout the first century-and-a-half after the Reformation confirm that the battle between good and evil was one considered ongoing, and that the end of the world had become a concern (Goodare et al. 2008). The combination of the fear of imminent judgement and the loss of purgatory prescribed a very different understanding of time to that proposed by the medieval Church: one in which immediate repentance of sin was imperative (cf. Luther in Lindberg 2000, 32-3).

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