Due to a couple of writing assignments I’ve been thinking and researching quite a bit about eschatology. The word comes from the Greek eschatos (‘last’) hence eschatology = theology of the last things.
This is the first of a few posts on the intersection of future hope and the Christian life in the present.
One reason for this series is as a form of preparation for Advent, so it will take us up to Christmas.
While concentration in most churches during Advent tends to be on the first coming of Jesus, Advent, like many OT prophecies, has a double focus on the present as well as the indeterminate future.
So Advent celebrates the First Coming as told in the Gospel narratives of the incarnation and birth of the Messiah AND the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, the judge, king and risen Lord. As we will get to later, within church tradition going back centuries it is the second coming that is a major focus of Advent, not primarily the baby Jesus lying in a crib in Bethlehem.
So, let’s get going and see where we get to.
These aren’t going to be devotional posts. It is going to be a mixture of theological discussion of eschatology within New Testament studies along with exposition of some key Advent themes.
At the beginning we’ll engage a bit with my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies (SNTS) as well, later on, with Fleming Rutledge’s book of collected sermons Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.
In the first few posts, we are going to sketch of the recent ‘fortune’ of eschatology within New Testaments studies and theology.
It’s fair to say that eschatology has made a major come-back since the mid-twentieth century, and this was in no small part due to the German theologian Jurgen Moltmann who famously said that ‘Christianity is eschatology’.
Eschatology’s Come Back
It’s worth putting that famous saying in fuller context. It comes from his Theology of Hope (1964), a revolutionary book within theology if ever there was one.
“From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.” (Theology of Hope (16)
Back when I was in theological college we did an entire term on Moltmann. Like a lot of things in life as you get older, looking back now I think I would get a lot more out of those classes now than I did at the time! Youth wasted on the young and all that …
He isn’t an easy writer to pin down, he talks in big picture abstractions and imagery that is often not clearly rooted exegetically, but he is often inspiring and here on eschatology he was dead right – take eschatology out of Christianity and there is virtually nothing recognisably Christian left in terms of NT belief.
The revolutionary impact of Moltmann is hard to imagine now over 50 years later. It needs to be set in context of social unrest of the time and in reaction against the long marginalisation of eschatology in New Testament study.
This relegation of eschatology was evident in classic liberalism, but also, I argue, was also present, if in a very different way, in critical responses to liberalism’s discomfort with Jesus the apocalyptic prophet of God’s kingdom come.
Classic Liberalism – the Wredestrasse
The trajectory of classic liberalism (eg Wilhelm Wrede, Albrecht Ritchshl) was to marginalise eschatology – or perhaps more accurately, to reinterpret it only within the horizon of the present.
This has been called the Wredestrasse (a metaphor first used by T W Manson, taken up by Norman Perrin and then later by N T Wright) – a road directed into a very ‘this-worldly’ future. Christianity is reduced to being only about the present.
Albrecht Ritschl was the classic voice of a nineteenth-century German Lutheran liberalism in which the kingdom of God was typically an inward, spiritual, and already present reality, largely detached from contemporary Judaism and its apocalyptic eschatological hopes. Its motive was to demonstrate that the essential nature of Christian thought is focused on this world and current religious experience rather than some vague future realm. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.228)
Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer – the Schweitzerstrasse
Two men threw grenades and basically blew up the Wredestrasse – or at least left a crater in it the size of a truck. In probably the most famous book ever published in Jesus studies, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), Albert Schweitzer, closely following Johannes Weiss, called the bluff of liberalism.
Weiss followed an exegetical path that led him to believe in “the completely apocalyptic and eschatological character of Jesus’ idea of the Kingdom.” Similarly Schweitzer said that we may think we have Jesus neatly defined as “one of us”
“But He does not stay; He passes by our time and returns to his own.”
For Schweitzer, Jesus’s entire life and thought are shaped by eschatological thought. But for both Weiss and Schweitzer, Jesus the apocalyptic prophet died a mistaken failure.
Jesus’s task was to proclaim the imminent kingdom, not establish it. When the mission of the twelve failed to persuade many of the impending arrival of kingdom, Jesus decided to atone for the people’s guilt by his own death. He hoped to return, after death, in messianic glory, revealed at last to be the Danielic Son of Man at the coming of the kingdom. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.228)
Schweitzer saw it this way – Jesus’ apocalyptic mission led to
his heroic, yet doomed, attempt to force the hand of history through his own human agency. Schweitzer’s Jesus journeys to Jerusalem to die, giving his life as an atonement to facilitate the kingdom’s coming. (Mitchel, SNTS, p.229)
The irony was that for both Weiss and Schweitzer, their version of Jesus the failed apocalyptic prophet also marginalises eschatology: the eschaton did not arrive with the death of the Messiah.
This meant that, despite Weiss and Schweitzer’s emphasis, eschatology was, in effect, “buried” with Jesus. For both men it was only a human Jesus who died on the cross. His actions are only significant in how they model courageous world-renouncing faith. Their view of Jesus resulted in a ‘present’ orientated ethical version of Christianity not very far from the liberalism they were criticising.
In the next post we will sketch how the Wredestrasse and Schweitzerstrasse continue to be followed right up to today. There are plenty of people travelling on both roads still … (Moltmann is solidly a Schweitzer guy in his reclaiming of the central place of eschatology in Christian theology – as N. T. Wright if in a very different way).
So, how about you? What place does eschatology have in your theology of hope? How does the future shape your life and priorities in the present? Which Strasse are you walking down?
 Schweitzer, Quest for the Historical Jesus, 397.