Tom Wright’s History and Eschatology— Part Six

Tom Wright’s History and Eschatology— Part Six November 6, 2019

Despite all the good that came out of the Enlightenment including the recovery of ancient sources of all kinds, and an interest in their historical substance (see my lecture on The Bible and the Reformation in JETS), there was, as Wright notes “Enlightenment’s radical split of cosmology and history are bound to produce false readings….if we think of a closed continuum of Epicurean world-development then anything to do with ‘God’ must by definition be entirely separate….This is one reason why Bultmann turned ‘eschatology’ into a metaphor for private spiritual experience.” (p. 130).

Wright continues to promote the perspectives of his teacher, G.B. Caird, and his famous book The Language and Imagery of the Bible. He thinks it helps to deal with the imagery and metaphors in apocalyptic literature, and he is quite right about that. The Jewish two ages notion (this age and the age to come) takes a particular twist in the teachings of Jesus and Paul, namely that the age to come has already broken into this age, inaugurated by the death of Jesus, if not by his earlier ministry itself. Wright points to Qumran which also seems to have thought that some eschatological events had already transpired.

The burden of chapter 4 is to critique false views of eschatology and apocalyptic, having already found the imminentist view of Schweizter and others defective (i.e. the end is coming soon to a theater near you), as well as ‘konsequent’ eschatology which over-emphasized the already aspect of the already-not yet schema of eschatology. His particular target is several false notions: 1) that apocalyptic means what Schweitzer said– namely it refers to the near end of the world. No says Wright, apocalyptic is a literary genre (see below), not a particular point of view on the timing of the last things; but also 2) Wright wishes to critique Lou Martyn and his whole approach to apocalyptic that wants to argue for an incursion model (see pp. 133ff.), divine invasion from above. Divine disclosure or victory with no historical antecedents. And Martyn tags this to the death of Jesus, whereas his teacher E. Kasemann links it to the future end things, particularly the victory brought about by the parousia.

Wright’s own view, based on Caird’s, is that the apocalyptic language has to be decoded, not demythologized, and this involving seeing that apocalyptic is a socio-political critique of empire, where the cosmic battles are actually transpiring (p. 134). My problem with this is not that there is not critique of empire in Revelation, for example, because there is, but that there is also much said about what is going on in the non-material realm as well, in particular in heaven. Apocalyptic can’t be reduced to political critique in theological clothing, though it certainly involves such a critique. And while we are at it— Rev. 6-19 certainly suggests action in heaven that brings judgments to earth. Apocalyptic is not merely a this worldly critique of historical forces and processes. And if the book is talking about Christ returning, the proper question is— where did he go in the meanwhile?? In other words, apocalyptic is also about the heavenly realm.

Here is what Wright says “Apocalyptic literature…uses the language of cosmic catastrophe to refer to actual political events. Isaiah spoke of sun and moon being darkened to refer to the fall of Babylon, and to give that event its cosmic significance. Jeremiah referring to the fall of Jerusalem, warned that the world was heading for its chaotic pre-creation state.” (p. 136). While there is some truth in this, it is not the whole story. In Mark 13 Jesus associates the cosmic signs with his return from heaven as the Son of Man, where as ‘these things’ refers clearly to earthly events, signs on the earth leading up to and including the fall of Jerusalem. In other words, Jesus distinguishes between the two sorts of signs and only associates the cosmic ones with the return from heaven with the angels. In other words, apocalyptic is not merely scary language about mundane events.

And then there is Wright’s exegesis of Dan. 7 as about the ascension and exaltation of Christ, which simply doesn’t work (nor is Mt. 28. 18-20 simply a rerun of Dan. 7.13-14 p. 148). Dan. 7 is about the coming of God’s kingdom on earth to eclipse the previous human kingdoms. In particular it’s about the Son of Man coming from heaven to judge the world, to fulfill the Yom Yahweh. Where Wright’s exegesis of Dan. 7 completely falls apart is when we are told that the nations will worship the Son of Man and he will reign forever. This clearly has not happened yet, and is associated in Revelation 21-22 with the final stages of the new creation. In other words, while there is plenty of political critique of beastly empires in both Daniel and Revelation, in neither case is that all that the apocalyptic language refers to. It also refers to the future breaking into human history of God’s just judgments through the person of the Son of Man. On the other hand, a text like Mk. 9.1 certainly could refer to the Transfiguration being a resurrection of Christ preview if it is not a parousia preview. There are also problems with Wright’s take on Rom. 9-11, because there it is made clear that by Israel Paul doesn’t mean Jew and Gentile united in Christ, indeed he means Jews temporarily broken off from the people of God while Gentiles are brought into God’s people, but that at the return of Christ ‘all Israel will be saved’, by which Paul means a large number of Jews at the return of Christ. In other words, there are some issues with reducing apocalyptic to just socio-political critique in the present.


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