Book: Barnes. Prophecy and Gnosis

Review of Robin Bruce Barnes, Prophecy and Gnosis: Apocalypticism in the Wake of the Lutheran Reformation (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988). BT 819.5 .B35 1988

Under the rubric of apocalypticism, this book weaves together a story about views of time and history, eschatology, astrology, magic and secret societies in Lutheran Germany in the century following the Reformation.

Prof. Barnes (of Davidson College) defines apocalypticism as a view of the future combining prophecy and “gnosis” or secret knowledge. Belief that the end-times were near, and concrete predictions of its time and circumstances grew to frenzied proportions following Luther’s death, peaking in the 1610-1620 time-frame; it then fell off in conjunction with the Thirty Years War (1618-48). Leading up to the high-point of this arc, there was wide-spread use of astrology, culminating in magic; the Rosicrucian manifestos were published and created an instant following. Finally, orthodox Lutheranism counter-attacked; this along with the sociological forces of the War led to its rapid decline. But the frenetic decades of its ascendancy were by no means confined to those outside the church. Quite the contrary.

Let’s back up and unpack some of the detail of this amazing story.

The early setting: Luther

There were some aspects of Luther’s eschatology that greased the skids for some of the excesses that broke out later, even if Luther cannot be blamed directly.

Luther’s view of the “intermediate state” was that there was no such thing. The soul upon death “fell asleep” and woke again just in time for the great Day of Judgment (37). Luther’s model gave the Final Judgment more of a sense of existential immediacy, in contrast to the traditional view of the intermediate state, in which the Final Judgment could almost be modeled as an ex post facto ratifying of what has already happened. In the larger context, Luther’s view gave the Final Judgment a dynamic status, something that both the individual and (consequently) all of human history was rushing toward: a true historical telos.

Second was Luther’s acceptance of the 6 x 1000 or 3 age model (50-51). The 6 x 1000 model had ancient Jewish and Christian pedigree, hypothesizing that the span of human history from Adam until the end would be 6,000 years—a thousand years for each day of creation.

Finally, Luther adopted aspects of what today would be called the historicist school of interpreting Revelation and Daniel. The pope was revealed as the Antichrist; the Turk was the little horn; the four kingdoms of Daniel were identifiable, the last being the Roman, which continued under German auspices.

The ferment

For Luther, the keynote was always to penetrate to the spiritual kernel of a subject. The apocalyptic elements in Luther’s teaching were for warning the ungodly and giving comfort to the righteous (44-5). He pooh-poohed astrology in the sense that the godly could be indifferent to it: but if the ungodly took omens as a warning, that could be a good thing. Thus, Luther’s view, though negative, left a backdoor open that was a bit ambiguous.

However, the transition to the intense interest in apocalypticism and finally, magic, came via several mediating influences after Luther passed.

First, Melancthon had a much more favorable attitude toward humanistic science, including astrology. Speculation on the latter led Melancthon so far as to insist that Luther must have been born in 1484 (147).

Second, there was in general a rise in literacy and a huge expansion of the commercial press, leading to a proliferation of books. Authors and publishers could more or less publish anything; this and the fact that there was a natural tendency to believe what one reads in print, led to a certain assumption of authority: each book tends to become part of the stock one needs to build upon.

Third, the inter-kingdom wars, and the setbacks suffered by Lutheran domains, made it look as though the Lutheran revival of the gospel was a one-generation phenomenon; coupled with the identification of Antichrist, it was plausible to think that the end was near. There was a natural comfort in seeing this feeling apparently confirmed via “prophecy and gnosis.”

Chronology and Prophecy

Out of this brew of background impulses, there was an explosion of works in the two-fold direction of apocalyptic prediction, and historical chronology. This is a curious phenomenon: one genre looks forward, the other back. Was there a connection between these?

Yes, there are two: astrology and the Bible. Moreover, these two seemed to point to a third impulse, namely modeling history as about to move into a “third age.”

1. Astrology

The link was astrology in the widest sense of taking into account both planetary conjunctions and comets. If there is a correlation between the heavenly lights and events on earth, this will be evident in looking backward through history; the insights obtained will then aid in projecting events into the future. It is very logical.

One particular planetary conjunction was deduced to occur every 795 years; Kreuzheim observed that this had happened only six times before, at the times of Enoch, Noah, Moses, Elijah, Christ, Charlemagne (158). The next one would soon happen again, completing a sabbath, and thus indicating the end.

So, when new comets were seen, in 1556, 1577, 1596, 1607, and 1618, they set off a rash of speculation as to import. Even more so, when new stars appeared, in 1572 and 1604. For Heylandt, this new star pointed to the imminent conversion of the Jews. The comets generally were the launch pad for dire warnings of judgment, with immediate penance urged. Sometimes, a comet pointed to something directly relevant to the current situation, like the death of Charles V, or the restoration of John Frederick. At various times, other strange phenomena were reported, such as multiple suns; the birth of “freaks of nature,” whether man or beast, were also given due significance.

Even the famous astronomer Tycho Brahe declared that the new star of 1572 represented direct words of God (173).

2. The Bible

If observation of the heavens is a reading of the book of nature, this by no means entailed a rejection of the prophecies revealed in the Bible. This too provided data for correlating with both history and the future.

The day/year correlation in conjunction with the study of Daniel led to 1,260 years playing a role. Winckler (119) identified 1,260 years between 328 (Nicea) and 1588; then, the Turk and Pope would rise higher than ever prior to being defeated; a 45 years golden age would ensue.

The number 666, of course, played a role. If you added 666 to the rise of the papacy as Antichrist, AD 885, you get 1551. Others suggested using the numeric value of Hebrew letters to add up to 666, and got the Hebrew for “Roman.” Michael Stifel suggested 666 = Pope Leo X, derived from the numerics of Leo X Decimus, provided you take out the “M” for “Mysterium.”

The numerology went in other directions as well. G. Walther found a line in the Te Deum whose numerical equivalent predicted the arrival of Luther (194).

An idea that a hundred years earlier had been suggested by Nicholas of Cusa was that each year of Christ’s earthly life should correspond to a subsequent “jubilee” cycle, or 50 years. 33 times 50 is 1650. Others noted that the time from Adam to Noah was 1656 years, and the time from Christ to the end should be the same: thus, 1656.

Barnes observes that the passing of each year for which great things if not the end were predicted did not lead to an abatement of prophetic interest.

3. Third Age

The so-called Prophesy of Elias varied the 6 x 1000 scheme by bundling pair of millennia, so that there would be three epochs of 2,000 years each. For the Elias prophecy, each epoch had a characteristic which was identified as pre-law, law, and Messianic.

The “prophecy of Elias” was not canonical of course, but yet was sort of deuteron-canonical; at least, it could easily slip into regard as something of an authority. Then, the three-fold epochal scheme easily morphs into Joachim of Flora’s alternative three-fold scheme, the age of the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Ghost.

Likewise, a three-epoch schema was preserved but naturalized by Martin Mirus (115): there was the age of reason and wisdom, to Abraham, characterized by peace; that of the heart, honor and glory, to Augustus, characterized by wars; and since then that of the belly, characterized by man as beast.

The shift to magic

With astrology accepted by just about everyone, both ortho- and heterodox, the stage was set for expanding to additional sources: the “ancient wisdom.”

Already starting in 1586 the magician Giordano Bruno joined the faculty at Wittenberg. Barnes suggests that the apocalyptic ferment made such speculations congenial (184). There was a desire to find more correlations.

To be sure, a distinction needs to be made between “magic” as a quasi-scientific endeavor to unlock the key to the cosmos, to seek multi-layered connections between all phenomena; and black magic, that seeks an alliance with illicit spirits. Yet the fact that the Faust legend arose for the first time during this period shows that a deeper connection between the two was intuited at least by some.

In any case, an integration with the ancient wisdom was sought. Caspar Füger, citing Lactantius, opened the door to the Sibyls, the Hermetic literature, Jewish apocalyptic, and even Zoroastrianism. “Hermes, Moses, and other eminent ancients were supposed to have possessed profound and godly insight, anticipating Christian as well as classical wisdom” (108). There was an increased interest in the Cabala (both a bastard indigenous form and the genuine Jewish article). Helisaeus Roeslin warned, “What is opposed to the Holy Scripture and to faith is neither Astrology nor Magic, nor true Cabala, but rather sheer fictions, against which arts, as against vain and empty philosophy and loose sophistical prattle, Saint Paul has warned us” (109). [Note that even while appearing to endorse Scripture as the ultimate authority, the door is opened to some sort of true Astrology, Magic, and Cabala—since an alternative type is rejected as not being the “true” kind.]

In popular lore, alchemy has only to do with combining metals, but Barnes correctly notes:

[Alchemy] was concerned with far more than the transmutation of metals; it wrought the “moral and spiritual rebirth of mankind.” Such high ideals meant that alchemical secrets were not to be broadcast wholesale (208).

In 1614 and 1615 the Rosicrucian manifestos (Fama fraternitatis and Confessio fraternitatis respectively) were published in Kassel (219). Here, a kind of “golden age” is proffered, that looks a bit like post-millennialism, but is actually Platonic. “God has certainly and actually resolved to show the world, before its destruction, which will soon ensue, such truth, light, life, and glory as the first man, namely Adam, lost and forfeited, so that his descendants were cast and driven with him into misery” (221) — as if the way of redemption has not already been shown!

Later, J. Hörner wrote (214) of the superiority of symbolic theology or cabala; his work included illustrative Rusicrucian dialogues (222).

In Paul Nagel (212-4), the shift in perspective is complete. the ancients, including Moses, Solomon, Hermes, Egyptians, and Babylonians had much to offer. Scripture was added, but then revelation ceased. Now is time to “open up the book again.”

The “Empire Strikes Back”

At length, the orthodox Lutherans came to realize the theological disaster that had brewed on their watch, and a rising tide struck back and finally defeated it.

Georg Rost led the way (241- 245) with his 1620 Prognosticon attacking exactitude in prediction. He struck down the hopeful theme of many with a strong dose of amillennial pessimism: neither Pope nor Turk would fall before end, and the Jew would not be converted. The bulk of his book expounded the traditional personal eschatology. There would (of course) not be any “third age,” but rather believers could expect continuous persecution to the end.

The war itself probably caused a shift in popular emphasis to more of the mundane and political. This was the age when newpapers appeared. Barnes suggests “news began to replace prophecy as the effort to fit current events into a transcendent scheme of meaning was gradually abandoned” (253). The war saw the strengthening of pacifistic teaching of Felgenhauer as well as the Mennonites. Barnes makes the interesting (if debatable) comment that pacifism can only appeal when war is not [or no longer] seen as judgment (256). Another interesting comment is that the shift to an individualized, rationalized eschatology led to a fork in the road as the prophetic/Gnostic element lost its apocalyptic coupling: the prophetic motive tended to quietism and inner spiritualism; the Gnostic element became the quests of modern science.

History is never “all or nothing.” There were occasional new flare-ups, as when a new comet appeared in 1664, and as 1666 approached with its embedded 666.


The book is a tour de force, stuffed with an astonishing level of detailed documentation, and bristling with interesting insights.

The analysis of the motives (of preachers and teachers) and susceptibility (of the Christian public) to apocalyptic themes may be lacking a spiritual and thus figurative aspect. The motives or susceptibilities are identified as pessimism (e.g. pp. 1, 49) and the quest for certainty (e.g. 99, 114, 128, 154-5, 209, 242).

Pessimism, whether in respect to declining social circumstances or man’s corrupt nature, will always be one theme that the preacher must bring home as prolegomena to the gospel. Thus, we find godly preachers “harping” on the decline of morals and so forth even during periods that look, from our perspective, as virtual golden periods. I suggest that this is not necessarily due to either self-deception or manipulation on the part of the preachers (though of course it could be such, in a particular case). Rather, it is the nature of the human situation as it is when confronted by the gospel, regardless of the outward circumstances. In modern times this has been clarified as the already/not-yet duality of the history of redemption.

The same dynamic accounts for much appropriation of symbolic and hence also apocalyptic language. It can be expressive of an inner warfare and resolution. So, when a Lutheran preacher mentioned Luther as “Elias” (54, 60), I would first look at a figurative rather than literal sense.

In reflecting on the need for certainty, distinctions need to be made. The first is between assent to the Christian metaphysical scheme, versus assurance of personal salvation. However, it is hard to see how either of these themes of uncertainty would be satisfied by apocalyptic interest. Instead, therefore, Barnes must be using it in the sense of comfort in times of personal difficulty. A characteristically Lutheran response to trying times is contrasted with that of Calvinism:

But whereas Calvinism developed an aggressive creed and adopted prophecies that encouraged worldly confidence, Lutherans, increasingly on the defensive, tended to cultivate prophetic methods that assumed a fixed divine scheme and that assured believers of final triumph (153).

The definition of apocalypticism in a dual aspect of prophecy and gnosis fails to draw an adequately sharp distinction in each case for prophecy or knowledge that is speculative vs. revealed.

The use of the term chilialism is sometimes confusing, alternating between a view (such as modern pre-millennialism’s) of a golden age ensuing upon Christ’s physical return to earth, and just any “new age” or hoped-for golden future. For example, on p. 221, Rosicrucian’s cyclical return to paradise is identified as chiliastic; then this is corrected p. 223.

Some discussion of just how wide-spread the apocalyptic frenzy was would be helpful. We know, for example, that Protestant scholasticism took its rise during this same period, with its dry, academic distinctions. Think of our own dispensationalists with their prognostications, and multi-million copy novelizations: will a future archaeologist suppose that most Americans were pre-occupied with this kind of thinking?


In view of the end-times prophecy mania that dominated American fundamentalism for a thirty year period ending only quite recently (if indeed it has ended yet), it is comforting to know that this is not just some “crazy” gene in our tribe: the intellectual, orderly Germans fell for it for a time as well. There are differences of course: our fundamentalists did not fall for astrology, nor for the microcosm/macrocosm mysticism. But there are formal similarities as well, particularly as to exegesis. Gog and Magog morphed from Turk and Tartar to Soviet Russia. Then the wall fell.

One thing we learn from this period of history is that the “four views of eschatology” approach that is currently popular is inadequate. For example, there are views of a future golden age that are quite different from each other, ranging from a “third age” concept that denies the centrality of Christ in history, to the hypothesis of a brief period of belief after persecution prior to the Second Coming, to a period after the Second Coming, to the post-millennial position. And practically any of those options can be coupled or not coupled to an historicist overlay.

A warning might be taken by us from the ease by which thinkers slipped into a “third age” kind of thinking in which the “latter days” were different from that inaugurated by God the Son. The Christo-centric interpretation of history is instantly lost. There were versions with a ring of piosity, and even a call to repentance, but where Christ was noticeably absent. A merely abstract repentance is counterfeit.

Those of us that tend to the post-millennial position can heed a warning that is nested here. If ever a temptation to reify the progress of history sets in to our thinking, making it autonomous, then it is magic, it is Rusicrucianism. Prof. Gaffin’s critique, though unsound, needs to be heeded. Even Boetner falls into this a bit, in my opinion, when he points to the (merely) material and technological progress of history as evidence of postmillennialism.

Professor Barnes has done us a great service to provide this massively-documented source for this period so important both for subsequent history and concepts that stick to us still.

2 thoughts on “Book: Barnes. Prophecy and Gnosis

  1. I wonder how we could apply the historical lessons of this book to the Harold Camping debacle in our own time.


  2. Yes I thought about that too. Similarities: (1) the passing of the “date” didn’t slow him down (at least at 1994). 2. The freelance nature of much of the speculation, i.e. it was outside of a confessional and presbyterial control.

    Yet the apparent coupling of his project to his rejection of the visible church is a difference between him and all but the most extreme and heretical of the Germans of that period, putting him in the company of Paul Nagel much more so than say Melancthon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *