Thursday, July 30, 2009

Imminent Eschatology?

The widely accepted view that the whole early church believed in an imminent advent of Christ is based on a superficial reading of the evidence. The advent was imminent only in the sense that it might happen at any time, not because it must happen within a given period. The decisive act of God had already happened in the death and resurrection of Christ, and from then on men must live their lives under the shadow of the end. But the end would come when God’s purposes were complete, and this was something only he could decide (Mark 13:32; Acts 1:7).[1]
[1] Caird, Paul’s Letters from Prison, pg. 107
I find it fascinating that this perspective does not seem to have taken root in scholarship. How often do I read perceptions that still think the early Christians thought the world would end within their life time.


Mark Goodacre said...

It's a great quotation, Sean; many thanks for it. I can't help wondering about those who seemed at least to expect Jesus' advent within their lifetimes, though, e.g. Paul in 1 Thess 4 and 1 Cor. 15, or those standing in Mark 9.1.

Sean said...

Thanks for that reminder Mark! I'm definitely with you on 1 Thess 4 and Mark 9:1, but not so sure about 1 Cor 15.

But even if these were granted, that would not entail (necessarily) a widespread belief that the world would end (however we want to understand that phrase!) within their lifetime. If this were a widespread problem, wouldn't our writings reflect that?

On another thought, if Galatians and 1 Thess are to be dated close to each other, why wouldn't Paul [if he thought the world would end soon - within his lifetime] use this as an argument against his opponents? He could easily have argued, this world is about to Pass away (along with the Torah, cf. Matt 5:17f.) so why adhere to it's regulations? The new age has broken in, and is taking over the old, so why bother?

Or perhaps I'm missing something...

odysseus said...

My limited thoughts would be that of the fall of Jerusalem. Too often, this view is not looked at with as much scholarship as needed (though, NT Wright and Sproul espouse it).

If the 'end of the world' is seen as the end of the OT Jewish world, then the 'problems' are more easily solved. In my humble opinion, it seems too often that some scholars are looking for ways to discredit the NT writings and this, to them, is on glaring example. However, it seems that the principle of trying to see things from the eyes of the first century kind of goes out the window when it comes to eschatology. The end of the world language in Matthew 24 (and parallels for example) is seen as literal when anyone half way familiar with the OT prophetic language knows that the language is meant to be taken poetically.

That then must be taken into account when reading the epistles. Most of the writers were Jewish. They would have been very familiar with that language. What I see in their letters (especially the letters ascribed to St Paul) is correction.

In the Grace of the Three in One,

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Sean. I think it is important to question the idea of an "end of the world" being in view for Paul and co. At least it requires some extra nuance than it has sometimes been given. Agree too that the timetable is a little different in 1 Cor. 15; my next podcast is going to be touching on that. Re. Galatians, I think it post-dates 1 Cor.

Sean said...

Thanks again Mark. I'm currently wrestling with the whole chronology field, and it's quite tricky! When do you date Philippians? I'm swinging more and more to an Ephesian imprisonment, which would thus make Philippians possibly mid 50's. But I realise this is tenuous. I see you left it open on your "Dating Early Christian Sources"... I understand why!

Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Sean. Yes, not that sure yet where to place Philippians, except that it is later.