Eschatology and Advent (4) “Already and Not Yet”

Continuing our sketch of eschatology in recent NT studies in doing so telling the story of ‘eschatology’s come back’ to a (rightly) central place in NT theology.

A couple of key figures here are Werner Georg Kümmel (Germany) and Oscar Cullmann (Switzerland).

Focusing first on Jesus but later extending analysis to Paul and John, Kümmel argued the first Christians believed in Jesus, the bearer of salvation of the end time “already now as the heavenly Lord rules his eschatological community” and believers in that community are “already experiencing together the reality of the final salvation that is promised to them.”[1]

It was Oscar Cullmann who developed a famous eschatological image of the overlap of the ages [2]. See the map for a clue

What’s D-Day got to do with eschatology? Cullmann’s point was that D-Day marked the decisive turning point in the war. After the Allied invasion it was only a matter of time until final victory (V-Day). So it is with the first and second coming of Jesus.

Christians now live in the inbetween times of the first and second coming. This is the eschatological tension of an “already fulfilled” and “not yet consummated” aspects that exist within a redemptive-historical framework. Christ has come in history and will do so again.

The Christian faith is determinedly historical, awaiting that which has not yet happened in the light of that which has. The future is really future. New events are yet to happen: the parousia, the resurrection and the new creation. Eschatology is not an existential abstract concept, it talks of events still to unfold within a temporal framework … this integration of the present reality of the kingdom (Dodd) and a future expectation awaiting consummation (Weiss-Schweitzer) was also reflected in various ways in scholars like Joachim Jeremias, Günther Bornkamm, G. E. Ladd, and George R. Beasley-Murray.

(Mitchel, The State of New Testament Studies)

You can see how Cullmann’s heilsgeschichtliche (salvation history) theology confronts Bultmann’s de-eschatologizing and de-historizing of the New Testament as well as Weiss-Schweitzer’s conclusion that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet.

Cullmann roots eschatology in the real world, and he argued that this reflects the “innermost character” of New Testament faith.

This takes the faith of the first Christians, as expressed in the NT, seriously, and has been hugely influential in NT Studies ever since. That is not to say, of course, that the Wredestrasse is not still well travelled, or that the actual historical events of resurrection past (Jesus) and future (general for all) are accepted as ‘real facts’ by much academic scholarship. But it does mean that eschatology is now front and centre in understanding the experience, theology and hopes of the Christians who wrote the New Testament.

The idea of the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’ or ‘inaugurated eschatology’ of the kingdom come and yet to be fulfilled in the future is, I think it fair to say, a widely accepted paradigm among scholars and in the church for understanding the eschatology of the New Testament.

And if so, then Christians live in the overlaps of two co-existing ages. BOTH ages mesh with each other. The old age that is passing away (Gal 1:4) and the new age that has arrived in the present.

And this makes sense of the ethical imperatives of Jesus, Paul, John, Peter and elsewhere in the NT – to live according the age to come (kingdom, Spirit, new creation, eternal life) and not according to the age that is temporary and will be judged (sin, evil, flesh, the powers).

If you are a Christian, your mission (if you choose to accept it) is ‘be who you already are in Christ’. Live now according to your true identity and purpose as a citizen of God’s kingdom, right here in the present.

[1] W. G. Kümmel, The Theology of the New Testament According to its Major Witnesses – Jesus – Paul – John, (trans. John E. Steely: London: SCM Press, 1976), 330-31.

[2] Two works stand out. Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: the primitive Christian conception of time and history, (trans. Floyd V. Filson: London: SCM Press, 1951); Salvation in History, (trans. Sidney G. Sowers: London: SCM Press, 1967).

6 thoughts on “Eschatology and Advent (4) “Already and Not Yet”

  1. The “now” but “not yet” paradigm is illogical and meaningless–they cancel each other out. If it’s “not yet” it can’t be “now.” If it’s “now” then it is not in the future. The witness of the New Testament is that it is “now.” “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has already come in power.” (Mark) “This is eternal life: that they know you the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent…;” “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die…” (John) Call it anything but “now” and “not yet.”

    • Take out the not yet and you’ve excised much of the NT. The weight of NT scholarship is against you here – the consensus is ‘now and not yet’ accurately captures the NT’s eschatological framework and is neither meaningless nor illogical.

  2. Patrick, the weight of “scholarship” would be against the virgin conception and Jesus walking on water and feeding five thousand and turning water into wine and rising bodily from the grave, etc. So I don’t put too much store by academic theology. Now take that verse from Mark ch 9 that I quoted: “There are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has ALREADY come in power” (I’m sure you’re aware of the significance of the original Greek here). This doesn’t of course mean that salvation history is over, as clearly we await the resurrection and a new heavens and a new earth, etc. However the terminology “now” but “not yet” nullifies, or at least weakens the eschatological force of passages like the one in Mark 9. Moreover it attempts to highlight a paradox where none exists. It is not a “paradox” to suggest that the kingdom of God has already come in power, even though there’s a future dimension of it yet to be revealed. Equally, it’s not a “paradox” to suggest that the smallest seed when planted can give rise to a large tree (see several of Jesus’s parables). This isn’t a “paradox.” That’s the wrong word. The kingdom has already come in power–but it requires faith and patience to await its full disclosure. The fact that we have to wait is not a paradox, anomaly or contradiction of any kind. My argument is simply one of terminology. “Now” but “not yet” is an unsatisfactory, and unbiblical description of Christian eschatology.

    • Joe, you obviously find ‘now and not yet’ unsatisfactory – fine, although i can’t see the point at issue here. You also talk of ‘already come in power’ and ‘full disclosure’ which is what ‘now and not yet’ is trying to convey. The post did not talk of paradox so I don’t know what you are referring to. Let’s agree to disagree and move on …

      • Okay Patrick, I’ll move on! But just a couple of points. I didn’t say you said there was paradox. But “now and not yet” is a paradox. Better would be something like: “now, and more to come!” The use of “not” in the previous example is hugely problematic.

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