Friday, October 27, 2006



The Liturgical season of Advent was firmly established by the sixth century; patterned on the Lenten scheme, it was a later development because the Christmas feast itself was later and less important than Easter. At an earlier date, the Feast of the Epiphany was more important than Christmas, as it still is in the Greek Orthodox Church. It seems probable that there was a period of penitential preparation for Catechumens awaiting Baptism on the day Jesus’ baptism by John was commemorated: thus this element is still found in the readings for Advent II, centered on John the Baptizer.

Emergence of the Four Sunday Season

In the sixth century, what became Advent was often called St. Martin’s Lent, beginning on November 11th, the feast of St. Martin, and lasting to the eve of Christmas, but by the eighth century, the familiar four Sundays seem to have become the norm, with festive elements appropriate for a preparation for the joy of Christmas. Even so, the penitential element did not completely disappear, and, indeed, was strengthened by the addition of apocalyptic biblical material linking the Second Coming of the Christ to the birth of the baby in Bethlehem. Massey Shepherd sums this up well in his comments on the season of Advent (The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, O.U.P. 1951, p.90):
The double emphasis, therefore, on both the first and the second advents of Christ gives to the season its unique mixture of devotional color: joy in the redemption that has come to us in the Incarnation, and awe before the Judgment that yet awaits us. Yet to the spiritually discerning believer both of these tremendous and signal events of past and future are experienced as eternally present realities.”

The Second Coming & Theological Issues

It my be my imagination, but I sense in Massey Shepherd’s final sentence a certain, shall we say, hesitancy, and that would not be at all surprising: there seems to be an effort to move to a “realized eschatology”, advocated by C. H. Dodd in his seminal book The Parables of the Kingdom, (1935). The whole issue of the second coming with its overtones of Millenarianism, Dispensationalism and prophecies of Armageddon has made some main stream theologians uneasy at least since the middle of the 19th century. The assumption that “future events” in some way or other actually exist depends on some kind of “salvation history”, or Platonic-like scheme that implies the existence of the whole sweep of history in some eternal (pre-determined?) sphere. This is the kind of overview that is given us in Apocalypses, beginning in the mid first century B.C.E., where past events and rulers are presented in symbols of a one-on-one kind – ‘the abomination of Desolation’ = Antiochus Epiphanes etc., so that if we are clever enough, we can work out who really is the Beast about to cause such havoc! Early Christians could also equate Jesus with an apocalyptic Son of Man figure and look for the inevitable signs of his return in judgment and glory.
That the N.T. has a vibrant apocalyptic component goes without saying, and since Weiss and Schweitzer it has become critical orthodoxy to consider Jesus as working within an apocalyptic frame-work; indeed, it has been fairly common to describe him as an apocalyptic figure, proclaiming an imminent end to this world order; this, of course, has the corollary that Jesus was, like every other predictor of the end of history, mistaken. In the nineteenth century, this was enough to reject out of hand such German critical scholarship. Given the predominant Christology of the time in the Church of England, the suggestion that Jesus could be wrong on so central a point produced outcries of horror and pain from the University cloisters and from the Deaneries set in every Cathedral Close (precinct), and from not a few rural Rectory studies. (See my Anglican Polity & New Knowledge on this Blog site).

Eschatological Prophet

In recent decades, however, quite other and very much more substantial reasons have been produced for revising the apocalyptic view of Jesus. This revision has resulted from careful exegetical endeavors, including, particularly, painstaking analysis of the Parables and the Rule of God sayings in the synoptic tradition by C.H.Dodd,
R. Bultmann, J. Jeremias, Eta Linnemann, Norman Perrin and Dominic Crossan, to name just a few. The message of Jesus is clearly eschatological, and can be shown to be rooted more firmly in the earlier prophetic tradition than in the apocalypticism of the period. Careful analysis by these scholars suggests that much of the apocalyptic scenario was introduced in the very early transmission and possible reshaping of Jesus’ words at the same time as the accounts of the events of his ministry (together with attempts to interpret those events) were being formed.

Rule of God in St. Paul

Central to much discussion has been the origin of the notion of Jesus’ speedy return, a doctrine of the Second Coming. Our earliest witness, St. Paul, clearly expresses a note of immediacy. A locus classicus is I Thess. 4.15ff: “we who are alive will be caught up in the clouds”, but there is a notable absence of vivid apocalyptic detail, and Jesus does not seem even to return to earth since he will be met “in the air”. Frequently noted in this respect is I Cor. 16.22 where Paul ends his letter with the prayer Marana tha (Μαρανα θα). In most translations this is read as “Our Lord come”, but it is quite possible that the Aramaic phrase should be read Maran atha which is, “Our Lord has come”. Paul’s use of the term Rule of God is never in an apocalyptic frame: (see, I Cor.4.20; I Thess. 2.12 – both of these imply the presence of God’s rule in individuals and the community; I Cor. 6.9-10; 15.50; Gal. 5.21). Romans 14.17 suggests, again, that the Christian is living already within the sphere of divine influence that the phrase Kingdom (Rule) of God implies. It also should be pointed out that the overall tenor of Paul’s Christology is subordinationist, that is, he is barely orthodox in the Nicene sense of claiming Jesus' equality with the Father. The long passage which rounds off Paul’s treatment of the resurrection in I Corinthians is strongly eschatological, but hardly apocalyptic. The “reign” mentioned in v. 25 seems to be the continuing eschatological battle between God, and the powers of evil, (elsewhere the ‘principalities’ and ‘rulers of this age’), clearly seen in the ministry of Jesus and being carried on by those who are “in Christ” until the victory is won, and, thinks Paul, that is to be very soon indeed. The end of the process is that “God may be all things in all things” (παντα εν πασιν).

The Rule of God in the Teaching of Jesus

This is a vast subject and only the barest summary can be given. The work of the scholars noted above has been responsible for putting the parables of Jesus in the very center of our understanding of his teaching. There is, of course, much else besides the parables centered on the Rule of God theme, coming from Q and found in the Gospel of Thomas in the form of isolated sayings (though often collected in groups by the Evangelists or their sources): these have been identified as wisdom sayings (‘wisdom is vindicated by her deeds), proverbial sayings (‘let the dead bury their dead’), reversal sayings (‘the first shall be last’), and different scholars suggest varying classifications. It is, however, the parables that provide our most reliable insight into that central focus of Jesus’ teaching: the Rule of God - Basileia tou Theou.

Parables & Allegories

I have found Norman Perrin’s Jesus & the Language of the Kingdom, S.C.M. Press, 1976, a masterly summary of the way in which the understanding of the parables has developed, of immense help in my studies in this field. He gives an overview of the developments of the last century beginning with the work of Johannes Weiss (1892) and the “epoch-making work” of A. Jülicher. From a very early date, the parables have been read as exemplary stories, exhorting to Christian living and the practice of behavior like repentance, generosity, and patience. Another significant feature from their very earliest retelling (and writing down) has been to treat these dramatic extended metaphors as allegories: it was this vital distinction between parable and allegory that was Jülicher’s signal contribution, and all subsequent 20th century exegesis has taken this as a starting point. It is widely accepted today that a clear distinction must be made between the two genres: the parables, in origin, are oral material, whereas an allegory is a written, literary production. It has become clear, too, that the parable does not give us information as does an allegory, but makes a single central point, often about the Kingdom of God; in an allegory, each detail has an equivalent, something like a code that must be broken: the details in one of the longer parables, on the other hand, are there because they are part of the story. The various kinds of ground in the Sower parable do not represent different kinds of human personality; it is just the way an ordinary field is, waiting for the Autumn sowing.

Gospel of Thomas

As a result of much careful work, Jeremias and others have exposed for us both
whole allegories added to a parable, and, perhaps more importantly, allegorical details embedded in the text as we have received it. It is significant that the version of the Parable of the Sower found in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying #9) does not have the allegorical addition that we find in Mark. Perrin comments on the importance of the Thomas evidence as follows: "Most parable commentators [have come] to hold the versions of the parables in Thomas to be independent of the versions in the canonical gospels and hence a valuable addition to our resources for reconstructing the text of a given parable." (JLK p.132).

Literary Genre

There is much more that can be said, but, for now, one final point before returning to the issue of the Second Coming: it concerns the literary significance of the two genres. Perrin shows that there is a clear distinction to be drawn between allegory and parable considered as a "language event". The metaphorical/symbolic language of the allegory is expendable, while that of the parable is inexhaustible. Once one has decoded an allegory, the metaphorical language is spent, but this is not the case of a parable, which can be categorized as an extended metaphor. Perhaps an analogy might be that a check once cashed is finished, that which it stood for has been delivered; an equity loan (of vast proportion) on the other hand can be drawn on again and again, and it can also meet changing needs. This represents Perrin”s technical distinction between a ‘steno’ symbol (one on one) and a ‘tensive’ symbol (open ended).

Rule of God in Parable & Saying

The parables convey Jesus’ central message that the Rule of God is upon us and demands action from us; they are not cryptic puzzles from which we may tease information about God and God’s action in the world. They are, rather, the way in which Jesus ‘pulled’ his hearers, and pulls us into sharing his total commitment to the God who holds everything in being (remember Paul’s “may be all and in all”). One might say that the parables are performative, not informative. They challenge the hearer to life decisions: sell everything and buy this pearl; to readjust deeply ingrained racist attitudes: the Samaritan is my savior; and to accept a new view of God’s grace: the three hour worker is paid for a whole day’s labor.
Although some of the parables look to the future fulfillment of the Kingdom, they all also project the Rule of God as active now, and this is an element in several crucial sayings. We may note particularly Luke 11.20, “If I by the finger of God cast out demons then the kingdom of God has come upon you”. Clearly Jesus claims that his exorcisms are evidence o God’s present, saving activity. Perrin also sees an interesting connection here between the Kaddish prayer of the Synagogue : “May he establish the Kingdom in your lifetime”, and the prayer Jesus taught, “Your Kingdom come”. Both are strongly eschatological but are not apocalyptic in tone.

The Second Coming & Advent

Did Jesus predict in apocalyptic symbolism his return in Judgment such as is enshrined in some of the liturgical texts of Advent? The evidence of the parables and sayings suggests not, and it is reasonable to suppose that in a milieu dominated by messianic and apocalyptic expectations, it would not be difficult for these ideas to be incorporated into the gospel tradition in the process of its formation. After all, there is no doubt that Jesus’ message looked to a future completing of the Rule of God, and his message could easily be interpreted in contemporary apocalyptic symbolism.
In this respect, Luke 17.20-21, compared with 17.22-23 is highly instructive: “Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, he answered them: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (entos humõn). At one time it was common to translate this as “within you”, perhaps influenced by an individualistic spirituality, but linguistically it really must be “among you”. Here again we have strong evidence for Jesus’ awareness of God’s rule active now. Perrin (JLK p. 58) points out, however, that the following verses (22 & 23) are an interpretation of this saying in apocalyptic terms. Jesus’ reference to the Kingdom of God is interpreted as a reference to the Son of Man coming on the clouds. In an earlier work Perrin wrote: “The first result of the investigation [some 200 pages] is, then, to establish major differences between Jesus and his contemporaries in that, although he spoke of the future, he gave neither specific form to his future expectation (beyond the general one of vindication and implied judgment), nor did he express it in terms of a specific time element.” (Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus, S.C.M. Press 1967, p.204).

So, What to Say in Advent

Such biblical insights do not easily overturn centuries of dogmatic and liturgical tradition, and so we are left to do what we can with the apocalyptic furniture of the earliest interpreters of Jesus' message. It is not common in Anglican preaching to use the results of critical scholarship – how often have you heard a preacher note that a saying of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is a wonderful second-generation insight into some issue? And the result is that what is common knowledge in the lecture halls of many Seminaries is a closed book to many. A corollary of this is that when someone publishes a popular book containing all the scholarly assumptions, there is an outcry: the most spectacular example of this was the publication in 1963 of John Robinson’s Honest to God, which produced the customary Church of England howls of pain, such as, “How could a Bishop write things like this?”

So far as the 1979 Episcopal Prayer Book Lectionary is concerned, it is only the first Sunday that has strongly apocalyptic material, and that might be a good opportunity to do some teaching about the ways in which the early generations of Christians interpreted, edited and in some instances transformed the teaching of Jesus. We might also emphasize the importance of the Epiphany and the clear tendency of Luke to associate the Messiahship of Jesus with his Baptism by John, (and Paul possibly with the Resurrection - Rom. 1.4), giving thanks that Advent includes the baptismal narratives. Of course, that would raise the question of the Nicene Creed, and the ‘orthodoxy’ of Luke and Paul.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Canon Mien. You bring good sense to our purpose as Christian interpreters of the scriptures, and you keep our eyes on the present as we puzzle about who Jesus really is. As I read your blog this morning, I had my eye on the date and realized that today we remember Richard Hooker in the Church calendar. Since Hooker was largely the person associated with crafting the “Via Media” as a concept for Anglicans, I chose to see your view of eschatology and apocalyptic literature through the lens of the Anglican view that the search for religious truth must include rigorous intellectual study, research, analysis, debate, and argument of the highest standards. At the same time, we understand that we are justified by our faith. For example, although Hooker agreed that Roman teachings were incorrect in not accepting the doctrine of Justification by Faith, he would not claim that being a Romanist kept you out of heaven. Many Puritans of his time were offended by his sense that salvation is God’s own providence and not a matter of our human capacity to fully comprehend eternal truth. In thinking about the end times, we must continue to think critically about what has come to us through scripture and theology, but, if we get it wrong, we must also accept, as Hooker did, that God provides for our salvation even in our shortcomings.
DPD, Nov. 3, 2006