No, it's not all about AD 70

Fri, 24/04/2009 - 12:45

I’ve just been listening to what strikes me as an excellent introductory podcast on eschatology by Martin Scott - a nice example of how a rethinking of eschatology along narrative-historical lines has the potential for generating good new theological syntheses. It caught my eye because Martin lists The Coming of the Son of Man as a ‘provocative’ influence on his thinking alongside NT Wright and Open Theology. But he rather spoils the effect, from my point of view, by concluding that I have presented ‘such a strong fulfilment in the events of AD 70 that you’re left wondering if he proposes an actual parousia at all’.

I have come across this misunderstanding - or at least, misrepresentation - a number of times. I’m not sure how it comes about, unless people are only reading the first two or three chapters; but I will take this opportunity to clarify my argument. It seems to me - and I think the point is made clearly enough in the book - that the New Testament has three quite distinct future horizons.

The first horizon is the foreseen war against Rome, interpreted as the final historical outworking of God’s wrath against a disobedient people. This is basically Jesus’ horizon. As Martin says, following Wright, Jesus is the eschatological prophet to Israel, calling the people to a renewed faithfulness - but also warning them that they are otherwise walking a broad political-religious path that within a generation will lead to the destruction of the nation. Jesus looked to this event as the concrete vindication of his prophetic stance.

The second horizon comes into view as the church moves beyond the borders of national Israel into the pagan world and finds itself opposed by a vast, powerful, and at times virulently hostile belief system, at the pinnacle of which sits the divinized emperor - the king who thinks equality with God a thing to be grasped. Rome is the ‘beast’ that will be the instrument of judgment against Israel, but God will not allow the empire to have ultimate victory over his people. So Paul, in particular, foresees a historical triumph of Jesus as Lord over the lordship of Caesar, and the eventual vindication of the ‘saints’ who suffer at the hands of the blasphemous oppressor. This is how he restates or re-applies the parousia motif - it is the ‘coming’ of Jesus, on the one hand, to deliver his followers from their enemies and, on the other, to receive the ‘kingdom’ that has been taken away from the fourth beast.

The third horizon emerges on the outer edge of New Testament expectation as a corollary of the resurrection of Jesus. I think that Jesus’ resurrection has its conceptual origins - if we can put it that way - in the hope of Israel’s restoration; but a real victory over injustice and death raises the possibility that the whole of creation might be made new. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is seen to entail not only the mundane renewal of the microcosm but also the ultra-mundane renewal of heaven and earth and the final abolition of injustice and defeat of the last enemy of creation, death. The important point to note is that this final horizon is not associated with the language and imagery of the parousia motif, which has to do fundamentally with the historical vindication of the people of God.

So where are we now? We have moved beyond the first two horizons, which have become part of our story, integral to our identity, definitive moments in the the transformation of the historical people of God. But we derive a fundamental hope in the Creator from the vision of a new creation, and we allow that hope to shape our life and mission.

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