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IV: The Problem of Eschatology (A)

IV: The Problem of Eschatology (A)
The Historicising of Eschatology in St. Paul and St. John. The Neutralising of Eschatology through Sacramentalism and the Hope of Immortality.

(1) The problem of Eschatology grew out of the fact that the expected end of the world failed to arrive that the ‘Son of Man’ did not appear in the clouds of heaven that history went on and that the eschatological community could not fail to recognise that it had become a historical phenomenon and that the Christian faith had taken on the shape of a new religion. This is made clear by two facts: (a) the historiography of the author of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles (b) the importance which tradition gained in the Christian community.

(a) Whereas Mark and Matthew wrote their Gospels not as historians but as preachers and teachers Luke as a historian undertakes in his Gospel to represent the life of Christ. He assures us in his preface that he endeavoured as a scrupulous historian to use trustworthy sources for his report. In his Gospel not only does he provide a better connection of events than he found in Mark but he also establishes a chronological connection with world-history for instance in dating the birth of Jesus and the appearance of John the Baptist. Then he adds to his Gospel a history of the earliest Christian community the beginning of its mission and the missionary voyages of Paul until his captivity in Rome. The earliest Christian community in its eschatological consciousness would not have been interested in such an account. I may simply mention the fact that Luke gives speeches of Peter and Paul at important points in the story after the pattern of ancient historians.1
(b) It is obvious that the tradition had to gain increasing importance the more the eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus and the first generation of Christians died out. An early symptom of this is the use of the words παραδιδόναι—παραλαμβάνειν (deliver—receive) in Paul and even more clearly the designation of delivered Christian doctrine as παραθήκη (deposit) in the Pastorals. The Pastorals are especially interested in the trustworthiness of the leaders of the community whose duty it is to uphold the tradition. Indeed the growth and development of the ecclesiastical office has its ground especially in the need to guarantee the safety of the tradition. The most important part of the tradition is the doctrine because the community is not constituted on a national or social basis but by the word which calls the individuals into the community. The doctrine says what the content of faith is. Therefore the tradition can be named ‘the word delivered from the beginning’ (Polyc. ad Phil. vii. 2) ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints’ (Jude iii). It is also called ‘the delivered holy commandment’ but in this case the tradition of ethical commandments may be included as they are compiled in Didache 1–5; Barn. 19. One may also add the tradition of liturgical forms and uses (Did. 7–15) which coincide partly with the doctrine in so far as they are concentrations of it. Even Paul refers to such matters of tradition and the postpauline literature much more.
(2) But now we must try to see what position the Church in becoming a world-historical phenomenon can take up with regard to eschatology in view of the failure of the parousia of Christ to take place. How is the Church to understand the relation between history and eschatology? A new understanding of eschatology which appears for the first time in Paul and is radically developed in John is the first stage in the solution of the problem.
(a) The Pauline understanding of history is determined by eschatology. When Paul looks back into the history of Israel he does not see it as the history of the nation with its alternations of divine grace and the people's obstinacy of sin and punishment of repentance and forgiveness. For him the history of Israel is a unity a unity of sin. By Adam sin came into the world and it was brought to its full development by the law of Moses. But the history into which Paul looks back is the history not of Israel only but of all mankind. Both Jews and Gentiles are sinners and handed over to the wrath of God for all the world must stand guilty before God (Rom. iii. 19). Therefore the end of history cannot be the natural result of historical development but only its breaking off accomplished by God. But sub specie Dei the end is nevertheless the goal of history because according to Paul it is the grace of God by which the end is brought about and grace will become effective just where sin is become mighty (Rom. v. 15 esp. v. 20 f.; cf. Gal. iii. 19–22). To this extent Paul recognises a meaning in history but not a meaning which is immanent in history itself. This meaning cannot be seen when history is regarded in itself; for it is not grounded in meaningful historical actions and events nor can it be discovered by the researches of a philosophy of history. The meaning is given by God according to whose will the history of sin has the paradoxical meaning of being the relevant preparation for his grace.
It is clear that this view of history does not originate in the Israelite history as it is reported in the Old Testament. It is rather the apocalyptic view of history in so far as according to Paul the history of the past is the history of the whole of humanity and as such a history of sin. The past is ‘the old Aeon’ which is ruled by the Devil and its God and which will endure only a very short time till the day of the parousia of Christ and the resurrection of the dead the Last Judgment and the final establishment of the reign of God.
The apocalyptic view of history however is altered by Paul in a decisive manner in that according to him the history of humanity under law and sin has a meaning. In other words: Paul has interpreted the apocalyptic view of history on the basis of his anthropology. The Pauline view of history is the expression of his view of man: man can receive his life only by the grace of God but he can receive the divine grace only when he knows himself annihilated before God; therefore the sin into which man is plunged is paradoxically the presupposition for the reception of grace.
Paul has interpreted history in terms of this view of man. The law which came in between Adam and Christ must carry sin to its culminating point in order that grace can become mighty (Rom. v. 20). That this view of history is derived from anthropology is indicated by the fact that Paul can present the course of history from Adam by the way of the law to Christ in the form of an autobiographical ‘I’ (Rom. vii. 7–25a).
I need give only a hint of the problem in which Paul involves himself by this view of history namely that a peculiar difficulty arises concerning fulfilment of the promises. With this problem he wrestles in Rom. ix–xi. For our context it is important to see that Paul has decisively modified the current eschatology as well as the apocalyptic view of history. Naturally he cannot regard the eschatological consummation as the completion of the history of the Jewish nation not even in the extended form depicted in Deutero-Isaiah and some later Jewish visions of the eschatological hope namely that the welfare of Israel is at the same time also the welfare of all peoples. On the contrary his conception of the eschatological time of bliss is also determined by his anthropology.
To be sure he does not abandon the apocalyptic picture of the future of the parousia of Christ of the resurrection of the dead of the Last Judgment of glory for those who believe and are justified. But the real bliss is righteousness and with it freedom. The reign of God he says is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. xiv. 17). And that means: the conception of bliss is thought of with regard to the individual: and this state of bliss is already present. The believer who has received baptism is ‘in Christ’. Therefore it is true that ‘If any one is in Christ he is a new creature’ (2 Cor. v. 17) and that ‘The old has passed away; behold the new has come’ (ibid.). The New Aeon is already reality for ‘When the fullness of the time was come God sent forth his Son’ (Gal. iv. 4). The time of bliss promised by Isaiah is present: ‘Behold now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation’ (2 Cor. vi. 2). The Gift of the Spirit which the Jews expected to come at the time of the end is now bestowed upon believers; therefore they are now already ‘sons of God’ and free men instead of servants (Gal. iv. 6 f.).
Certainly the gift of the Spirit is also called ἀπαρχή (first-fruits; Rom. viii. 23) and ἀρραβών (guarantee; 2 Cor. i 22; v. 5). And πίστις (faith) is something preliminary in so far as the way of the believer goes from faith to sight (2 Cor. v. 7) and the seeing through a glass darkly will be succeeded by the seeing face to face (1 Cor. xiii. 12). But (1) this hope is conceived in terms of the individual. Paul no longer looks into the history of peoples and the world nor into a new history. For history has reached its end since Christ is the end of the law (Rom. x. 4). And (2) for the believer who is ‘in Christ’ the decisive event has already happened. Neither death nor life nor any hostile power shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. viii. 35–9). Whether we live or die we are the Lord's (Rom. xiv. 7–9). The believer is even now free and master over all destiny:
For all things are yours…
whether the world or life or death
or the present or the future
all are yours;
and you are Christ's and Christ is God's. (1 Cor. iii. 21–3.)
But although the history of the nation and the world had lost interest for Paul he brings to light another phenomenon the historicity of man the true historical life of the human being the history which every one experiences for himself and by which he gains his real essence.
This history of the human person comes into being in the encounters which man experiences whether with other people or with events and in the decisions he takes in them. In these decisions man becomes himself whereas the life of animals does not evolve through decisions but remains in the pattern given by nature. The single animal is only a specimen of its genus whereas the single man is an individual a person. Therefore the life of a man is always one which stands before him and acquires its character as forfeited or as real by his decisions. “What a man chooses in has decisions is basically not this or that but is himself as the man he is to be and intends to be or as one who has forfeited his real life. For Paul human life is a life before God; the real life then is the life confirmed by God the forfeited life is the life condemned by God.
Man is free in his decisions from a formal point of view. Each encounter brings him into a new situation and each situation is so to speak a call a claiming of him as a free man. The question is whether he is able to hear the call—the call to be himself in free decision. It belongs to the historicity of man that he gains his essence in his decisions. But this means that he comes into every new situation as the man he has become through his previous decisions. The question is whether his new decisions are determined by his former decisions. If he is to be really free in his decisions then he must also be free from his former decisions in other words from himself as he has become in his past.
For Paul who sees man sub specie Dei the call of the situation is the call of God. And Paul is convinced that man is not able to be free from his past indeed that he does not wish to be free but prefers to remain as he is. That is the essence of sin. This fact is expressed in the Pauline fight against the law as the means of salvation. Paul has seen that Jewish piety the obedience under the law is in reality a way of escaping from the genuine call of God from decision. The pious Jew does not know that man has continually to become the one he is to be; he thinks—of course implicitly—that he is already the one he is to become. For he has anticipated all decisions by his resolution to obey the law. The commandments of law take from him the decisions required by the situation he meets. If the Jew thinks that he can be justified by God in virtue of his works then he makes the presupposition that it is not himself who is required by God but that God requires only this or that work which he can perform while himself remaining the same as he always was. It is clear that Paul speaks about typical Jewish behaviour without considering that there may be exceptions or modifications. His picture of the Jew is so to speak the picture of himself as he was before his conversion.
Paul's thought becomes still clearer in his description of Christian existence. To exist as Christian means to live in freedom a freedom into which the believer is brought by the divine grace which appeared in Christ. The one justified by faith is set free from his past from his sin from himself. And he is set free for a real historical life in free decisions. This is made clear by the fact that the demands of God are summed up in the commandment of love that is in a commandment which does not consist in formulated statements and therefore can be depicted only in a negative way as for instance I Cor. xiii: ‘Love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude; love does not insist on its own way’ and so on. When Paul says: ‘Love is patient and kind; love bears all things’ and so on then it is evident that the concrete commandments of love grow out of definite situations encounters with one's fellow-men and that obedience is rendered in decisions here and now.
The believers who are freed from law are admonished: ‘… be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God what is good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom. xii. 2). Paul prays for the Philippians: ‘that your love may abound more and more with knowledge and all discernment so that you may approve what is excellent’ (Phil. i. 9 f.). Also from Phil. iv. 11 f. it is evident that the Christian life is not regulated by fixed prescriptions. Paul says; ‘I know how to be abased and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger abundance and want’. Or he says to the Corinthians: ‘To the Jew I became as a Jew… to those under the law I became as one under the law… to those outside the law I became as one outside the law… to the weak I became weak… I have become all things to all men…’ (1 Cor. ix. 20–2).
The same freedom in responsible decision is expressed in the statement: ‘All things are lawful for me but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me but I will not be enslaved by anything’ (1 Cor. vi. 12) and again in the discussion of whether it is allowable to eat meat offered to idols 1 Cor. viii. 1–13; x. 23–31. And it can only be a matter of decision how to obey the demand: ‘Do all to the glory of God’ (1 Cor. x. 31).
The real historicity of the Christian life becomes apparent also from the fact that this life is a continuous being on the way between the ‘no longer’ and the ‘not yet’. Paul as apprehended of Christ follows after if that he may apprehend (Phil. iii. 12–14). The Christian life therefore is not static but dynamic it is a permanent overcoming of the ‘flesh’ in the power of the Spirit (Gal. v. 17; Rom. viii. 12 ff.). There is a dialectical relation between the indicative and the imperative. The imperative: ‘Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body’ is motivated by the indicative: ‘For sin will have no dominion over you since you are not under law but under grace’ (Rom. vi. 12 14). Likewise: ‘If we live by the Spirit let us also walk by the Spirit’ (Gal. v. 25).
I leave it undecided how far Paul makes explicit thoughts contained in the preaching of Jesus. At all events the Pauline conception of historicity and his unfolding of the dialectic of Christian existence contains the solution of the problem of history and eschatology as it was raised by the delay of the parousia of Christ.
(b) The conception of the eschatological event as happening in the present is still more radically unfolded in John because he gives up the expectation of future cosmic events an expectation which Paul still retains.2 For John the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment are present in the coming of Jesus. It is evident that he formulates this statement in opposition to the traditional apocalyptic eschatology when he explicitly says:
And this is the judgment
that the light has come into the world
and men loved darkness rather than light… (iii. 19.)
He interprets the κρίσις (or the κρίμα) by playing on the twofold sense of this word; he understands the κρίσις which is the judgment as the separation which happens in the hearing of the word of Jesus;
For judgment I came into this world
that those who do not see may see
and that those who see may become blind. (ix. 39.)
The believer has already passed the judgment and he who does not believe is already condemned (iii. 18). The believer is already resurrected from death:
Truly truly I say to you
he who hears my word and believes him who sent me.
has eternal life;
he does not come into judgment
but has passed from death to life.
Truly truly I say to you
the hour is coming and now is
when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God
and those who hear will live. (v. 24 f.)
Especially clear is the thought of the author in the dialogue between Jesus and Martha. Jesus assures Martha who is mourning for the death of her brother: ‘Your brother will rise again’. Martha understands this in the traditional sense: ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day’. But Jesus corrects her:
I am the resurrection and the life;
he who believes in me though he die yet shall he live
and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. (xi. 23–6.)
As for Paul so for John the life of the believer is not a static state but a dynamic movement in the dialectic of indicative and imperative. The believer must still become what he already is and he is already what he shall become. He is in the freedom into which he is brought by his faith and which shows itself in obedience. The sermon of the vine says: the condition on which the branch abides in the vine is that it bear fruit; but at the same time the condition that the branch bear fruit is that it abide in the vine (xv. 2–4).
John has expressed the dialectic of Christian existence with regard to a question which is not yet faced by Paul namely the dialectic between the freedom from sin and the necessity of constant confession of sin of constant forgiveness. On the one hand he says: ‘No one born of God (and this is the believer) commits sin’ and on the other hand: ‘If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins’ (1 John iii. 9; i. 8 f.).
Of course John also looks forward to a future perfection of the present life but not as Paul does in the sense of the apocalyptic eschatology with its expectation of a cosmic catastrophe. John looks rather to the future of the individual believer after the end of his earthly life. He gives a new interpretation of the parousia of Christ. According to him Jesus promises to his disciples that he will come again and receive them to himself into one of the many heavenly mansions (xiv. 2 f.). He asks his father that his disciples after his exaltation may be with him in glory (xvii. 24).
(3) For both Paul and John the present time is a ‘time-between’. For Paul: between the resurrection of Christ and His expected parousia at the end of the world. For John: between the glorification of Jesus through his crucifixion (which is at the same time his exaltation) and the end of the earthly life of the individual believer. But for both of them this ‘between’ has not only chronological but also essential meaning. It is the dialectical ‘between’ which characterises the Christian existence as between ‘no longer’ and ‘not yet’.
The question is whether this meaning of the ‘time-between’ could be retained; and that is at the same time the question whether the Pauline and Johannine understanding of the relation of history and eschatology could be retained. The answer is that it could not. It is true that this understanding did not completely vanish in the postpauline literature but on the whole it did and the ‘time-between’ came to have merely chronological meaning.
The forgiveness of sin in baptism was no longer understood in the Pauline sense that ‘the old man’ is delivered to death and thereby freed from his past and from the determining power of sin. It was now regarded only as forgiveness of the guilt incurred by sin before baptism; after baptism the Christian has to avoid new sins. The ‘between’ is now the limited time in which the Christian must prove true by his virtuous conduct by fulfilling the demands of God or of the Lord in face of the imminent judgment where all will be judged according to their works.
The believer stands under the imperative but the imperative no longer stands in the dialectic relation to the indicative where to stand under the imperative means at the same time to stand under grace. Obedience is no longer the self-evident fruit of the gift of salvation of justification and freedom but is action done with the intention of effecting future salvation. To be sure one still speaks of the presence of the salvation brought about by Christ. But the understanding of salvation is curtailed. Fundamentally salvation becomes simply the fact that by the forgiveness of sin in baptism a new beginning a new chance is procured and now man must fulfil the condition for justification in the future judgment by his good works. Therefore man is again left to his own powers and a striving after perfection arises and with it on the one hand the ideal of sanctification on the other hand a statutory moralism.3
How in these conditions is the relation between history and eschatology understood? How did the developing Church endure and overcome its disappointment that the parousia of Christ failed to materialise?
The first answer is that the disappointment did not take place suddenly nor everywhere at the same time. The ‘time-between’ was never reckoned by fixed months or years as it once was in the Jewish apocalyptic and often later in the history of the Church; the parousia of Christ was never expected on a fixed day; it was believed that God had fixed the day and that no man knew it. By this faith the disappointment and the doubts which awoke here and there could be stilled and it is a fact that the Christians gradually became accustomed to waiting. Certainly in times of oppression or persecution the expectation of the near end of the world and the hope of it flamed up passionately. But on the other hand the Pastoral Epistles show that the Christians gradually slid into a manner of life which was both Christian and civic at the same time and various admonitions here and there to be patient waiting and vigilant indicate the same.
But eschatology was never abandoned rather the expected end of the world was removed into an indefinite future. This happened without any great shock not only because the Christians became accustomed to waiting but also in consequence of the developing sacramentalism. Two effects of sacramentalism were: (1) The interest of the believers was directed not so much to the universal eschatology the destiny of the world as rather to the salvation of the individual soul; to it a blessed immortality is guaranteed by the sacrament; (2) The powers of the beyond which will make an end of this world are already working in the present namely in the sacraments which are administered by the Church.
This development took place as the Christian community spread in the Hellenistic world and in so doing became a community of cultic worship. In the Hellenistic Christian communities the figure of the eschatological Messiah or ‘Son of Man’ was more and more replaced by the figure of the κύριος the Lord who is present in the cult of the worshipping community and demonstrates his presence in pneumatic phenomena which occur in the worship.
The controversial question whether the title κύριος Lord was already given to Christ in the earliest community or for the first time in the Hellenistic churches may be left undiscussed. In any case the title Messiah became a proper name in Hellenistic Christianity the title Son of Man disappeared and the title Lord took the chief place.
In the presence of the Lord salvation is in a certain manner present. But this presence is no longer regarded as it was in Paul and John as working in the eschatological existence of the believers. The relation of the present eschatological existence to its future is conceived not as a dialectical one but as a real one namely as an anticipation of the future.
To worship belongs also preaching the word of truth the Gospel of salvation which has revealed the mystery of God which has brought life and immortality and which has given knowledge wisdom and understanding (Col. i. 25 f.; iv. 3; Eph. iii. 3; vi. 19; 2 Tim. i. 10 etc.). Therefore in a certain way salvation is present in this word and in the knowledge with which it endows the believers. To this extent the Pauline and Johannine conception of the presence of salvation is retained. But even that was restricted by the fact that the Lord who is present in his word came to be understood more and more as teacher as lawgiver and as example.
Primarily Christ is present in the sacraments which mediate the powers of the beyond. According to Col. i. 13 f. God ‘has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son in whom we have redemption the forgiveness of sins’. This is said with regard not to the word but to baptism and it is characteristic for the further development. It finds its clearest expression in Ignatius of Antioch. He calls the Lord's Supper ‘medicine of immortality antidote against death’ (Ign. Eph. xx. 2). In the sacramental worship occurs the eschatological event; Ignatius says: ‘If you frequently come together (namely to the Lord's Supper) the powers of Satan are destroyed’ (Eph. xiii. 1).
Now that the sacramental worship is ruled by the Church officials the office gains sacramental character. It is handed down by a sacramental act ordination and the officials who administer the sacraments receive the character of priests in contrast to laymen. So the Church is changed from a community of the saved into an institution of salvation. The Spirit is no longer a freely working power but is bound to an office and the believers are supported and surrounded by the ecclesiastical order.
The problem of sins committed after baptism was also to be solved sacramentally. This problem became urgent in the face of gross sins. For it was never in doubt that the penitent could find forgiveness for smaller sins when he asked for it or the worshipping Church asked for it on his behalf. But the gross sinner especially the apostate has lost the grace of baptism. But gradually the Church claims to be empowered to give forgiveness even to gross sinners if they repent. So arose the sacrament of penance by which so to speak the sacrament of baptism can be renewed.
In the sacramental Church eschatology is not abandoned but it is neutralised in so far as the powers of the beyond are already working in the present. The interest in eschatology diminishes. And for this there is the further peculiar reason that the cosmic drama which was expected in the future was thought of as having in a certain sense already happened. The influence of the gnostic mythology was effective here. The Gnostics believed that although there is to be an end of the world the decisive event has already happened in that the heavenly Saviour came into this world and then left it and so prepared a way to the heavenly world of light for his adherents. His descent and ascent are combat with and victory over the hostile cosmic powers which have incarcerated the heavenly sparks of light in human souls and then obstruct their way back into the heavenly home.
John used this myth of the descent and ascent of the heavenly Saviour to describe the work of Jesus but divested it of its cosmological significance. But this cosmological aspect reappears in the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians. Here the work of Christ is described as a work of cosmic reconciliation by which the cosmic disorder is restored to order for Christ has overcome the cosmic powers which revolted. In these epistles this cosmic mythology is combined with the traditional Christian understanding of the work of Christ with the mythology standing in the background. The authors of the Epistles do not use gnostic tradition generally but particular songs or liturgical texts in which the work of Christ was described in this manner. Fragments of such songs or texts are also woven into I Peter I Tim. and more especially the letters of Ignatius of Antioch.4
Whereas according to Paul the victory of Christ over the cosmic powers is yet to be awaited as the events of the coming last time (I Cor. xv. 24–6) in the other view the victory is already gained. The centre has been shifted even if the expectation that Christ will one day return as the judge over the living and the dead is not abandoned. This can be observed in the terminology. For the words ἐπιφάνεια (appearing) and παρουσία (coming) which originally denoted the future coming of Christ can now also be used to denote his earthly coming in the past.
The Church can now be conceived as the result of the cosmic victory of Christ and can therefore be evaluated as an eschatological phenomenon as is done in the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians. Speculations then arose which thought of the Church as pre-existent and later realised in history.5

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