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Horatius Bonar and Our Human Limitations on God’s Word

April 1, 2010

Horatius Bonar

Horatius Bonar

I’ve been reading Horatius Bonar’s “Prophetical Landmarks” (first published in 1847), and it is interesting to read different viewpoints to help understand the variations in premillennial and dispensational thought.  Specifically, I’ve learned that Bonar was premillennial with future for Israel, but not dispensational — and this comes up in the details such as his understanding of Daniel’s prophecies, saying that those events will happen to the Church.

Chapter 10, “Distribution of Times and Events,” especially reveals Bonar’s weaknesses and limitations in understanding.  Here he abandons the standard literal interpretation of some prophecies because, to his mid-19th century viewpoint, the literal meaning seemed impossible to him. Consider the following two observations from Bonar:

Further, there are some things foretold as taking place during the well-known period of twelve hundred and sixty days, which scarcely admit of being compressed within the space of so many days. The “wearing out” of the saints of the Most High is something which cannot be accomplished within three years and a half. It denotes a long period of trial, a gradual, continuous oppression of the Church, not the sharp and sudden infliction of calamity upon one generation of saints. It is true this expression occurs in Daniel, not in the Apocalypse, but the periods are the same, and the expressions made use of in the latter are of the very same import.

Here Bonar reflects the evolutionary thinking of the mid-19th century, unable to conceive of things happening very quickly and catastrophically.  Yet he also missed a few biblical references that perhaps could have helped:  the sudden calamity of the flood in Noah’s day (reference 2 Peter 3), and Jesus’ words that the elect would not survive except that the days (of tribulation) be cut short.

But the next part is really interesting — again, consider Bonar’s 19th century perspective:

Again, we read that the dead bodies of the witnesses are to lie unburied for three days and a half, (Rev. 11: 8-10,) that is, three and a half literal days, if the abridged scheme be correct. And then it is added, that “they of the people, and kindreds, and tongues, and nations, shall see their dead bodies, and shall not suffer them to be put in graves.” Now, is it possible, that within three days and a half, people of the different nations even of the prophetic earth should be able to come together to the street of the great city, and see these bodies lying? Or is it possible, that within that short space the intelligence of their death should be so universally diffused, that men should have time to congratulate each other, and send gifts one to the other in token of their common joy? We can hardly conceive this possible.

Though Bonar and his contemporaries could not understand this as literal, our generation — with satellite communications, cell phones, instant messaging and the Internet — has no difficulty with the idea that the literal meaning could actually be fulfilled.  It really is amazing, how God’s word should always be taken at face value.   The oft-quoted saying, “if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense” bears repeating.  The passage itself has a plain enough meaning, a narrative description of a particular event, so it definitely fits with the advice to “seek no other sense.”  If people in one age cannot see how it will happen literally, it is because future events — and technology unimagined — must yet come to pass.  We can be sure, though, that God will in the course of human history bring about what is necessary to make such prophecies — which completely befuddled Horatius Bonar — literally come to pass.

  1. Diane
    August 21, 2010 at 3:50 pm

    Hi Linda,

    Many years ago I exhausted all of Bonar’s writings, whether sermons or articles. He had a wonderful way with words. I just got back into some of his works and a reference to the twelve hundred and sixty days. I googled his name, along with the 1,260 and the three and a half days of Revelation 11 to refresh my memory on what else he had to say on the subject and came upon your site. It occurred to me years ago how wrong he had been in his conclusion that it would have been impossible to see all this transpired in such a short period of time. My first thought then was that obviously he could never have foreseen the Internet, CNN, etc. Your words reminded me of that thought.

    I too am a creationist, a believer in an actual 6-day creation, no gaps, no day-age, and I believe in a catastrophic flood that provides proper explanation for what “appears” to be a very old earth. I particularly enjoy the AiG site (Answers in Genesis) with articles written by some brilliant scientists, all of whom are creationists. Their works on the great Ice Age (following the flood) are astounding. It’s so amazing and it’s so simple. All you have to do is start with the right premise. As a wise man once said “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it!”


    • August 21, 2010 at 8:43 pm

      Hi Diane,

      Thanks for your comments — and it’s great to meet other believers here. Yes, the evidence is so clear, but we have to start with the right premise of taking God at His word and believing what He has to say, above everything the world sets forth as contrary to God’s word.

      Horatius Bonar did indeed have some great writings. Did you read all of his prophecy journals as well (online at Barry Horner’s Future Israel site)? I’ve only read a few of those so far, but it’s interesting reading.

  2. Diane
    August 22, 2010 at 8:03 am

    Hi Linda,

    Thank you for introducing me to something new, i.e. Barry Horner’s Future Israel site. I just briefly read through the first part to get an idea of its content. I shall get into it later today.

    It has just reminded me of why I lay aside the works of the Reformed preachers of old. Years ago when I was reading their sermons and articles, I was so taken with the beauty of their words, putting so many of my own thoughts into expression. However, as time went by, I saw a thread common to all, their belief that Israel was replaced by the church, what we today call “replacement theology”. There was no love for the Jewish people. The words of some of them were downright nasty. Today there is an ugly word for it – “anti-semitism”. I know one shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water, but I personally found it so distasteful. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.


  3. August 23, 2010 at 9:43 am

    Glad that this information has been helpful to you. I’m still reading through “Future Israel” and will be blogging with a few quotes from it in the near future. (By the way, as just an fyi, the comment feature has an option to subscribe by email to the comments for a blog post — so that one doesn’t have to keep checking back during the day to look for more comments.)

    Yes, the use of labels lacks precision in exactly what someone believes, though it narrows it down a bit – but then every theological position has its variations, even within amillennialism just as within premillennialism. So would you say that you are Calvinist and moderate dispensational? Or Calvinist and historic (restorationist) premillennial? As I’ve learned too, there are many believers in such a category — no longer is it true (perhaps it was a generation ago) that 95% of dispensationalists are Arminian/Calminian. We affirm Calvinist soteriology, and dispensational / futurist eschatology and ecclesiology.

  4. Diane
    August 24, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Oh I like the way that works, i.e. via email. Apart from getting myself into a mess of trouble on only one other comment I’ve ever left on a blog, this is a whole new ball game.

    Thank you for your good wishes. Isn’t it grand that there really is no retirement for the believer? We work until we go home.

    I am presently in the Open Letter chapter of Future Israel and am particularly enjoying Barry Horner’s paragraph by paragraph refutation. I cannot believe the manipulation of the Word to justify the presupposition that the land deal was repealed. There are so few people who seem to make the proper distinction between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant. The Abrahamic land covenant was NOT based on conditions.

    I was thinking that we’ve gone off the original subject, i.e. Horatius Bonar, but upon further reflection, not really. He very much believed in the FUTURE of ISRAEL.


    • August 24, 2010 at 3:21 pm

      Yes, that’s a good chapter, and you’re quickly catching up to where I am in that book. 🙂 See this link for my latest blog posting, with an excerpt from Future Israel: https://scripturethoughts.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/future-israel-the-seed-of-abraham/
      — and feel free to comment there, more to the specific topic of the future of Israel.

      You’re right, it does relate back to Horatius Bonar — one of several believers who echo Paul’s fervent passion for the salvation of the Jews. Through Barry Horner’s site I’ve come to appreciate the writings of Horatius Bonar, as well as J.C. Ryle — another great Christian that I’ve been reading a lot of lately. Gracegems.org has a good collection of Ryle’s writings, as well as more from Horatius Bonar, so I’ve started reading through those online selections. Have you read (recently or in the past) other good Christian writers / books?

  5. Diane
    August 24, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    Oh, yes, J.C. Ryle. I recall very much enjoying his writings. However it was so many years ago around the same time as my discovering Bonar. I am not familiar with Gracegems.org. I’ll check it out, thank you. I’m more focused with the links you’ve given me. I usually stumble upon things, from one link to another and then forget how I got there 🙂

    I don’t know the theology of James M. Stalker. Sometimes I don’t want to know the credentials of the author because when I come upon something that intrigues me, I might be influenced not to check it out if I think there may be an underlying, presupposition being subtly foisted upon the reader. I am very wary of this. We don’t even realize most of the time how we, as believers, are being influenced.

    That being said, I very recently read Stalker’s “The Life of St. Paul”. As a result, I got back into the Book of Acts with a greater appreciation and understanding. Of course there is a need for a certain amount of speculation on his part, with the aid of his sanctified imagination, but he absolutely sticks to Scripture to vividly portray Acts, backed-up with all of Paul’s letters. Amazing.

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