When the “restoration of all things” is not the restoration of all things

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Donald Hagner’s book How New is the New Testament? First Century Judaism and the Emergence of Christianity is coming to epitomise, in my view, evangelicalism’s sad failure of nerve when it comes to the interpretation of the New Testament’s outlook on the future. As a historian Hagner is fully aware of the “national-political” dimension to the story about Jesus as it is told in the Synoptic Gospels. But as an evangelical he feels obliged to divert interpretation in the direction of traditional eschatological scenarios. His treatment of Peter’s sermon in Solomon’s Portico, following the healing of the lame man in the name of the crucified Jesus, exhibits the same flaws as his attempt to frame the disciples’ question about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel in Acts 1:6 (56-57).

According to Hagner, the remarkable thing about Peter’s sermon is that he exhorts his listeners to repent so that their sins may be blotted out, and “so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Acts 3:19-21).

The key phrase in that statement is “universal restoration”.

It’s taken to be a reference to the final renewal of heaven and earth. The return of Jesus will bring the “total transformation of the created order, the full entrance into the eschaton, the experience of judgment, and the restoration of a garden-of-Eden world”. But as soon as we look beyond the tendentious translation of apokatastaseōs pantōn (literally the “restoration of all things”), the argument falls apart.

Peter says nothing about the “total transformation of the created order” or the “restoration of a garden-of-Eden world”. This seems to be an invention on Hagner’s part.

In the first place, Hagner entirely disregards the context. Peter calls the “men of Israel”, who have gathered around him in the temple, to repent so that their sins may be blotted out—in other words, that they may be forgiven for having “denied the Holy and Righteous One”, for having “killed the Author of life”. This is not a general call for the repentance of humanity but a specific call for the repentance of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who chose the murderer Barabbas in the place of God’s “servant Jesus (Acts 3:13-15).

That’s where we are. We’re in Jerusalem. It’s what the story is about.

Jesus is the prophet like Moses, Peter says, whom God will raise up, and “it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people”. He has reiterated the point made in the Pentecost sermon that this is a “crooked generation” of Jews, destined for destruction, from which people may be saved by repenting of their rejection of God’s anointed Son, Lord, Messiah (Acts 3:23; cf. 2:37-40). So before the nations can be blessed through Israel, YHWH has sought first to bless his own people by sending his servant Jesus to turn them from their wickedness.

The Christ who will be sent from heaven, after a period of time, has been “appointed for you”—that is, for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for the Jews. When he comes, he will bring about the restoration of all things (apokatastaseōs pantōn) with respect to Israel, he will restore (apokathistaneis) the kingdom to Israel. That is the force of the “for you”. It restricts the scope of “all things” (pantōn).

Peter says nothing about the “total transformation of the created order” or the “restoration of a garden-of-Eden world”. This seems to be an invention on Hagner’s part. Perhaps he is thinking of Isaiah 51:3: “For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” But this is patently an exuberant figurative description of the renewal of Jerusalem.

Likewise, when Isaiah speaks of the creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (Is. 65:17-18; 66:22), the language is not to be taken literally. It is a metaphor for the forgetfulness of God (“the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind”), and for the regeneration of Jerusalem (“I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness”). Hagner earlier classified these as “apocalyptic” texts (43), but Isaiah is only interested in the future of Jerusalem and the elevation of its standing among the nations.

Two further observations make this conclusion unassailable.

First, Josephus uses the noun apokatastasis twice, on both occasions with reference to the “restoration” of Jerusalem by Cyrus (Jos. Ant. 11:63, 98). He also uses the verbal form when he says that Hyrcanus “might have his kingdom restored (apokatastēsēi) to him by the multitude” (Jos. Ant. 14:366; cf. 13:131). Here we have precise analogies for both Lukan examples: the restoration of a kingdom by someone to someone (cf. Acts 1:6), and the restoration of a city or nation (cf. Acts 3:. All nicely coherent. All quite at home in a national-political narrative. No end-of-the-world needed.

Secondly, Jesus also speaks about the restoration of all things as he comes back down from the mount of transfiguration: ‘And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things (apokathistanei panta). … But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him”’ (Mark 9:11-13).

The allusion is to the prophesied sending of Elijah to call the wicked in Israel to repentance in order to avert a terrible destruction:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Mal. 4:5–6)

This is what John the Baptist did. The axe of God’s wrath was already laid to the root of the trees, so he urged the people of Jerusalem and Judea to repent or face being cut down and thrown into the fire (Lk. 3:7-9). John the Baptist, therefore, is Elijah who “comes first to restore all things”. This is not the restoration of all things that Peter is talking about, but it demonstrates clearly enough that the phrase is quite properly restricted to Israel’s story.

I don’t know where Hagner got his “universal restoration” from, but the translation is quite unfounded.

Samuel Conner | Wed, 04/10/2019 - 16:52 | Permalink

Thank you; this is helpful.

Re: “I don’t know where Hagner got his “universal restoration” from, but the translation is quite unfounded.”

There are multiple controversies bubbling within evangelicalism at the moment. One of the more “under the radar” ones IMO is the debate about personal eschatology, “universalism” versus “infernalism” versus “conditional immortality.” I don’t have the skill to evaluate the arguments, but Ilaria Ramelli’s first book on “apokatastasis” in church history seems to have attracted a lot of interest, at least among the universalist crowd. It’s conceivable to me that the early post-Apostolic Greek theologians’ ideas about “apokatastasis” have been retrojected onto the NT language. It wouldn’t be the first time this kind of this has happened.

[Full disclosure: while I think that many of the great theologians throughout church history have tended to over-think their theology, I see significant value in “first principles” philosophy as an “alongside” discipline. The work of David B Hart (for example, his gripping “Moral Implications of Creatio Ex Nihilo”) is an example of what IMO is a valid defense of universalism, though I think one ought not to retroject such conclusions onto biblical language that had a more restricted meaning in the authors’ minds]

@Samuel Conner:

We shall probably get a clearer idea of Hart’s understanding when his book promoting universalism — That All Shall Be Saved —  hits the shelves in September. But make sure you have a dictionary to hand.

I don’t know where Hagner got his “universal restoration” from, but the translation is quite unfounded.

Let’s tentatively follow you in your claim that Hagner’s translation of apokatastaseōs pantōn with “universal restoration” is “unfounded”, nay, even “tendentious”.

Let’s compare Hagner’s translation …

  • [Jesus], who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets (Acts 3,21 - Hagner)

… with the ESV …

  • [Jesus] whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. (Acts 3:21 — ESV)

Let’s assume that Peter is NOT speaking of the “last day” (viz. the end of history), and that he is ONLY speaking of Israel, and of Jerusalem in particular. When would this “restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” have happened? Or hasn’t it happened yet?

@Andrew Perriman:

See my response to Alex [@ post Donald Hagner’s “interpretive dilemma” that isn’t a dilemma] who asks more or less the same question.

Forgive me for insisting, but this sentence, at the end of your “response to Alex” …

  • Luke and Paul, and probably also Jesus, expected some Gentiles to participate in this restoration, as foreseen by the prophets. But no one [where? in Israel? among the Gentiles?] expected either the failure of chastened Israel to admit that it got Jesus wrong or the enthusiasm with which Gentiles took up the cause in their place. This, I think, is the only real point of discontinuity in the story: no Jews, Christian or not, predicted that Gentiles would totally displace Jews in the family of Abraham [undelining added].

… either is (a) supersessionist through and through, or (b) postpones to the future the fulfillment for Israel (NOT for Jews converted to historical Christianity) of the apokatastasis pantōn spoken of by Peter. 

(c) Tertium non datur.

@Miguel de Servet:

1. Is supersessionism an intrinsically bad thing? If so, why?

2. My statement could be construed as affirming a historical or practical supersession of Israel by the church, to all intents and purposes. It’s what happened.

3. But the statement denies a biblically anticipated supersession of Israel by the church. No one in Judaism or the church, as far as I can see, predicted or wished for the total eclipse of Jewish Christianity when Jesus was confessed by the nations as Lord.

4. I don’t think that the New Testament postpones the full salvation of Israel to a time beyond the aftermath of the War against Rome.

@Andrew Perriman:

1. No, supersessionism is not “an intrinsically bad thing”, especially if it is openly avowed by its advocates.

2. Of course as the Jews (however defeated and scattered), never abandoned their aspiration to be part of a national Israel, your “historical or practical supersession of Israel by the church” is not so much a “narrative-historical” position, as a theological position.

3. You sem to ignore how much enmity there was, almost from the start, between Judaism and (Gentile) Christianity. You seem to ignore the true and proper open anti-Judaism of the Church, once it was declared by the Roman Empire not only religio licita (313), but eventually official religion of the Roman Empire (381).

4. Are you suggesting that only the Jewish-Christians, or the Jews that occasinally converted to Christianity are “saved”? Your interpretation of Romans 11 is rather strained.

@Miguel de Servet:

2. I would say that it is narrative-historical but from the point of view of the church. It is “theological” only because that is what happened in the course of history. The historical narrative precedes the theology. If Israel had “repented” of its rejection of Jesus, our theology—and indeed history—would be very different.

3. By “the church” I meant the New Testament church. Sorry, that was misleading.

4. Saved from what? I think Paul’s argument would have been that only Jews who believed in Jesus would be saved from the “destruction” of the coming national-political catastrophe.

@Andrew Perriman:

(1.) It was wise to abandon the “supersessionism” issue, especially after my quip on Islam … (^_-)

2. Your phrase “narrative-historical but from the point of view of the church” is a roundabout way to say “the (overwhelming majority of) Jews were punished because they did not repent and did not accept Jesus as their Messiah”.

First, I agree with it, BUT it IS a theological judgment. (Just consider Luke 13:34-35)

Second, in spite of all reasonableness, the Jews are still here, after 2000 years, still waiting for their messiah …

3. The way you used the term “church” was clear enough, but the Jewish-Christian church of the beginning was only a minority among jews. The Church that “won” both on Judaism and on the religion of the Roman Empire was NOT the Jewish-Christian church of the beginning, but the by then overwhelmingly Gentile Church.

4. Please provide textual evidence that, accoprding to Paul, “only Jews who believed in Jesus would be saved from the “destruction” of the coming national-political catastrophe”.

Oh, BTW, the Basic Law of Israel affirms that it is the Nation-State of the Jewish People.

@Miguel de Servet:

It may border on hubris for me to put a toe into this turbulent pool, but if one thinks that Paul’s warnings were of substantially the same character as Jesus’ (I would prefer to believe this, and it may help to account for the urgency with which Paul sought out diaspora Jews to be the first hearers of his message in each city he visited), it leads to IMO a strong presumption that 

a “coming national-political catastrophe” is in view in his warnings. 

The “together-telos” of the age is imminent, and for some it will bring the life of the age to coming; for others, aionial destruction.

@Samuel Conner:

@ Samuel Conner

a “coming national-political catastrophe” is in view in his [Paul’s] warnings.

The question is the same for you as it is for Andrew:

  • please provide textual evidence from Paul’ s writings (or, at most, form Acts).

Besides (for you as for Andrew): what makes you read Pomans 11 as referred to the near future? If this is not the case, how do you reconcile an “open”, futuristic reading of Romans 11 with the claim about Paul’s (alleged) warnings of a “coming national-political catastrophe”.

@Miguel de Servet:

Here’s one example:

25 Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. 29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

1 Cor. 7:25-31 (NRSV), emphasis mine

@Phil L.:

Paul speaks of:

  • [v.26] “present difficulty” (enestōsan anagkēn -  “impending crisis” is a motivated translation)
  • [v.29] “shortened time” (kairos sunestalmenos — “the appointed time has grown short” is a loose and motivated translation)
  • [v. 31] “the form of this world is passing away” (paragei to schēma tou kosmaou toutou — the addition of the adjective “present” in the traslation is unnecessary)

Paul is certainly speaking of a radical transformation of the world as is. There is no evidence that he is speaking of a “coming national-political catastrophe” of Israel. He was wrong, as it were, about the time of the second coming.

@Miguel de Servet:

Those translations all seem sound to me.  Since you did not offer superior translations, I can’t compare them to yours, but I would note that there may not be much point in anyone offering you the texts you’ve demanded if your response is going to be, “I don’t think these are good translations.  *crickets*”

It seems, though, that you have no problem with the “impending” part.  We agree that what Paul was envisioning, he expected it soon, correct?  The disagreement is about the nature of what Paul was envisioning?

Andrew is arguing that Paul envisioned a transformation of the world order that occurred in concrete political terms, and he was right about it being impending, and that’s bolstered by the actual historical events that followed.

Your contention is that Paul envisioned… something else, and he was wrong about it being impending, and this thing has not yet happened in history but will happen at some point in the future very distant from Paul, his audience, and his concerns, and this is bolstered by the fact that what happened historically does not meet your expectations for what counts as a “second coming.”

I have to say, Andrew’s proposition is far more convincing than yours.

@Phil L.:

I have to say, Andrew’s proposition is far more convincing than yours.

Good for you!

How can one (claim to) believe that Jesus Christ was raised and is ruling from heaven, “sitting at the right hand of power”, yet afffirm, at the same time, that everything relevant is only happening in history, is either disingenuous, or odd.

Or is it “Hegelian”? Or is it all a “metaphor”? Maybe “Swedenborgian”?

Oh, BTW, speaking of theological claims, of course Islam is entitled to claiming that it has superseded both Judaism and Christianity ….