Advent and Eschatology (2) The future absorbed into the present

We’re continuing with a series of posts on eschatology and Advent. The first couple or so are telling the story of the recovery of eschatology within NT studies within the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

Existential Eschatology (Bultmann)

We’re picking up the story with Rudolf Bultmann.

He drove down the Schweitzerstrasse in that he was committed to the ‘otherness’ of Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God. As a good existentialist, Bultmann believed that the preaching of the Kingdom of God presents us with a momentous decision; response to the kerygma of the Kingdom means that God’s future breaks into our present, freeing us from our inauthentic past.

This is a continual process of living an authentic faith. But it reduced eschatology to an abstract principle of value to Christians as they live life in the present. For Bultmann eschatology is reduced to metaphor and symbol, which, while powerfully transformative in the here and now, are not to be believed as speaking of actual realities.

Hence his programme of ‘demythologization’ – the actual return of Jesus, judgement, new creation and so on are mythological, to be relevant in a modern world they need to be demythologised.

And of course once you start down the route of deciding which bits of the NT are ‘myth’ and should be put aside, you may end up with some helpful ethical principles, but the result will be a very long way away from the faith of the NT writers.

Bultmann’s emphasis on the present life effectively swallows up eschatology in the present.

If by a very different routes, Bultmann, like Wrede and like Schweitzer, also ended up with a version of ‘this-worldly’ Christian faith rather than a future-orientated faith.

Realized Eschatology (C H Dodd)

Over in Britain, Charles Harold Dodd, rejected the Schweitzerstrasse in his attempt to harmonise the future and the present within his programme of ‘realized eschatology’ as developed in The Parables of the Kingdom (1935).

Dodd, like Bultmann, but for different reasons, also reinterpreted Jesus’ teaching on the Kingdom of God in terms of the present. He (rightly) saw how Jesus’ parables challenged listeners to respond to the presence of the kingdom of God in the life and teaching of Jesus; now was the time of both judgment and salvation. Those that respond with faith have eternal life now.

“This world has become the scene of a divine drama, in which the eternal issues are laid bare. It is the hour of decision. It is realized eschatology.”[1]

While Dodd acknowledged that the Kingdom is not merely present, he was reluctant to describe it as a future reality awaiting consummation, his emphasis was on its impact in the present. Apparently, later Dodd did make more space for real future events. So while his realized eschatology failed to carry the day, he did pave the way for ‘eschatology’s come back’.

We will turn to that come back in the next post(s).

All this continues to raise a question for day to day Christian life.

How does future hope shape your life in the present?

Is that future hope merely an abstract idea or example that helps us live significant lives in the present? (Bultmann, Dodd – and also in different ways Wrede, Weiss and Schweitzer).

Or is it talking of real events in God’s timetable of one day putting everything right?


[1] Dodd, Parables of the Kingdom, 198.

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