Jörg Frey, in the “New Testament Eschatology—an Introduction: Classical Issues, Disputed Themes, and Current Perspectives”, describes the past 200 years of eschatological discussion and its academic difficulties within critical scholarship. His description is four-fold: 1. The Term ‘Eschatology’ and the confusion of theological Language; 2. The Deconstruction of Eschatology in the Modern Debate: From Reimarus to Schweiter and Bultmann; 3. Crucial Issues and Questionable Categories, and; 4. Concluding Perspectives.
Frey provides a history of interpretation, though brief, of how scholars (liberal and conservative) have understood eschatology and the issues associated with this discipline. Providing a historical context is so important to see “where we’ve been” and will most likely provide some sort of trajectory of “where we should go.” Pertinent to this history is how eschatology has morphed into two categories of prophetic and apocalyptic-like literature and how Luke 17.21 was, initially, the lens to view the kingdom (“kingdom of God is in your midst”) solely as a present reality.
The Term ‘Eschatology’ and the Confusion of Theological Language
The systematic title of “Eschatology” is not as ancient as some might initially think. The simplistic division of the word is logos of the “last things” and first appeared within Lutheran 17th century dogmatism. Philipp Heinrich Friedlieb, in 1644, published a work with the Eschatologia as part of a book title. Explained in his book, Escatologia introduced the collective ideas of death, the resurrection from the dead, the last judgment, the dissolution of the world, eternal death, and eternal life.
Within a 150 years, it then appeared as a theological-exegetical category in German scholarship. Under the influence of “consequent eschatology”, Johann Weiss, Albert Schweitzer, and others provided the impetus to move eschatology from a peripheral doctrine to the center of exegetical and theological debate. With some of these quasi-liberal reactions, Dispensationalism was beginning to wax within American fundamentalism.
During the early parts of the 20th century, scholarship attempted to crystallize the meaning of “Eschatology.” Bultmann and Barth provided definitions contrary to their contemporary counterparts and thus provided the need to bi-furcate subsequent eschatological discussions. Their discussions surrounded two different items of bi-furcation; it was time to distinguish ‘future-oriented’ and ‘present-oriented’ eschatology; it was time to distinguish between prophetic (within history) and apocalyptic elements of eschatological descriptions.
Therefore, the expression of eschatological thought now needs various contextual definitions and referent points. Because of the already/not yet tension of New Testament Eschatology and the expression of the Kingdom of God, time referents need to be distinguished between present eschatology and future eschatology. “Eschatology” should not exclusively refer to future events, but should include present dimensions as well.
The Deconstruction of Eschatology in the Modern Debate
Enlightenment scholarship, especially within New Testament studies, is not a pretty picture. Bible criticisms, extreme skepticism, some canonical rejection, etc. led to the demise of Jesus research and historiography. Bible critics had a basic separation of history and theology; historical events could be used to construct theology, not vice versa. Reimarus, in his extreme skepticism, declares the parousia a fraud and fabrication of early church communities.
In reacting to these fraudulent claims by Reimarus, Johann Semler, according to Akkobmodationstherorie, argued for the eschatological theories of Jesus to be moral and spiritual pedagogy, as opposed to the future unfolding of historical events. Rather than being influenced by Jewish thought or apocalyptic literature, Jesus conceived of the Kingdom of God as inward, spiritual, and present realities, as opposed to external, political, and immanent expressions.
Consequently, German Protestantism continued to express the present kingdom and, ultimately, the social gospel. Apocalyptic and future language was ignored and the present expression of eschatology was emphasized. Within this theological milieu, Johann Weiss and Albert Schweitzer enter the eschatological discussion. Both provide a counter to this over-realized eschatology and suggest a future referent for New Testament eschatology, especially the Kingdom of God.
A plethora of discussions ensued with Barth, Bultmann, Perrin, Ladd, Borg, and others. The eschatological conversation does not appear to revert back to primarily present-eschatological discussions. The New Testament brought about interpretive and fulfillment structure to the Old Testament as recognized by eschatological positions across the board; so much so an Already/Not Yet framework appears in almost every eschatological potion.
Crucial Issues and Questionable Categories
Present-Oriented or Future-Oriented Eschatology. According to Frey, the eschatological framework involves the tension between present and future elements of eschatology. Ultimately, the problem centers around what is considered present (or present to biblical authors) and future?
Take for example the idea of resurrection. In Jewish literature, it appeared, primarily, to have a future orient.
Daniel 12.1–2—But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
But Christ, in 1 Cor 15, has become the first fruits of this resurrection. Therefore, something that was once future-oriented now, by means of Paul, becomes partially inaugurated in the present, awaiting a final culmination.
Other elements in the New Testament, undergoing a similar change in referent, are the rule and reign of the Messiah (Acts 2; Eph 1), the gift of the Holy Spirit, judgments, etc. Because some happen now (or atleast at the time of Jesus and other biblical authors), it prohibits a completely future-oriented eschatology.
Eschatology and Apocalypticism. As discussed above, the term “Eschatology” is a relatively late word. “Apocalyptic” is an even later term. Both terms are found together in New Testament scholarship by Friedrich Lücke (1791–1855), a student of Friedrich Schleiermacher. With the rise of Qumranic and 2nd temple Judaism, apocalypticism rose as a necessary genre for portions of Daniel and Revelation that could or could not have a historical referent and, by and large, have symbolic interpretation. “The opposition between eschatology and apocalypticism,” concludes Frey, “appears to be an impasse of scholarship.” The synonymous relationship, in scholarship, between these words is disappointing. There are differences between prophetic literature (Rev 1.3, 22.18), apocalyptic literature, eschatological literature, etc. It is unfortunate that scholarship seems to be at an impasse.
The History-of-Religions Issue: Jewish or Non-Jewish? And which Judaism? Is New Testament Eschatology a continuous line of thought from some strand of thinking? There is a 400–450 year gap between Old and New Testament canonical literature. The question is, how did eschatology continue during this period and what is the New Testament’s relationship to this literature, if any?
The Delay of the Parousia and the Development of Early Christianity. Frey discusses the relationship between immanency and the prolonged coming of Christ. Both appear in the New Testament and what is their relationship to one another?
Placing Eschatology in the Context of Future Research: Helpful Eschatological Distinctions (Not part of the chapter)
Analyzing patterns of thought within their historical discussion are helpful. In reflecting on this chapter, of which comes highly recommended, I offer the following areas of topics for further reflection and future research.
Time. Distinguishing between various time elements will be helpful. Is eschatology always future? If it is not always involving future elements, than a change in definitions is needed. Two categories, already provided by Frey, are Present-Eschatology and Future-Eschatology. As briefly discussed above, how is the concept of resurrection associated within eschatological framework. I would suggest the Old Testament would suggest a future-eschatological referent, but Paul provides a current dimension. Therefore, resurrection concepts contain both a future- and present-eschatological time referent. The present dimensions can be in seminal form of what will be later fully and completely realized.
Locale of the Kingdom. Under the Already/Not Yet eschatological tension, where is the presence of the kingdom located? Is the Kingdom here, at all? Is it primarily future? If it is here, where is it located? I’d like to pursue the relationships between 2 Sam 7, House and Temple motifs, and structure language in Ephesians. If there is continuity expressed between these three elements, than Eph 2 could have the new People God as a partial expression of the kingdom.
Placement of Judgments. Judgments are typically pushed towards the end-time cosmic realities prior to the New Heavens and New Earth. However, how does this coincide with the current judgment of believers? It appears to have present implications with persecution (Acts 14.22; 2 Thess 1.5) and decreed sufferings (1 Pet 4.16–18). These judgments are described as eschatological judgments, but are currently happening to believers.
Messianic Rule. What is the function of Ps. 110 throughout the New Testament? How are OT passages functioning in a New Testament context? E.g. Acts 2 only quotes part of Ps. 110. Is the quotation only being brought forward by Peter or are other parts of Ps. 110 assumed?
Even if kingdom elements find partial expressions now, they will find full realization at the end of time/space in the new created order.
Jörg Frey, “New Testament Eschatology—an Introduction: Classical Issues, Disputed Themes, and Current Perspectives,” in Eschatology of the New Testament and Some Related Documents, ed. Jan G. Van Der Watt (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2011), 1–32.
The concept of the Kingdom of God, implications of the Son of Man, and a Pauline worldview are displayed through a now/not yet idea of eschatology. Cf. Matt12.28//Matt 26.29; Matt 25.34//Matt 13.47–50; Acts 2.14–36;
Frey, “Introduction,” 9.
Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1914: Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971).
The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus’ Messiahship and Passion, trans. Walter Lowrie (1914: New York: Schocken Books, 1970).
Wendell Wills, “The Discovery of the Eschatological Kingdom: Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer,” in The Kingdom of God in 20th-Century Interpretation, ed. Wendell Willis (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 1–14.
The problem with this “sweep” of the hand is the now/not yet language. Each position defines the “present” and “future” elements differently.
It is interesting how Jer. 31 (and other New Covenant passages) involves the Spirit and return to exile, only to see it fulfilled in Gentiles and a new people of God in the New Testament. Hebrews may provide a Gentile/People of God exile to our “Rest.”
Frey, “Introduction,” 20–21.