Re: [asa] A theology question (imminent return of Christ)

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Fri Oct 17 2008 - 13:28:10 EDT

The fact that Jesus didn't know the timing of the parousia (Mk.13:32) is simply an explicit indication of what a fully incarnational understanding of the Incarnation (!) already implies. D.h., the 2d person of the Trinity really lived the life of a 1st century Jewish male. Nor is the verse in Mark the only one that suggests that his knowledge was limited. As C.S. Lewis says somewhere, when the woman touched his garment and Jesus asked, "Who was it that touched me?" it was probably because he really wanted to know.

It's worth relating this to discussions we've had here about scripture & particulary Enns' Inspiration and Incarnation. His argument there (& it's not unique to Enns) is that the ancient parallel that's been drawn between the Incarnation of the Word and the inspiration of the written word suggests that we shouldn't be surprised that the Holy Spirit respected the cultural limitations of the human writers of scripture. But that argument falls apart if we claim that the incarnate Word wasn't subject to human limitations.

Does that mean that Jesus actually was "wrong" about the timing of the parousia? No, but it does suggest that he wasn't in a position to correct beliefs that his disciples already had that the Kingdom of God would be fully established at any minute.

& in fact it's quite clear in the NT that the 1st generation of Christians did expect an early parousia. Paul's language in I Thess.4:15 really has to be forced to make "we who are alive" refer to anyone other than Paul's contemporaries (if not Paul himself). The "scoffers " in II Peter 3:3-4 are ridiculing a widely accepted belief among Christians. But to say this is not to accept what Wright (below) calls "the old scholarly consensus" which implies that catholic Christianity came into being only after the hope of an imminent return of Christ had been disappointed. There was such a hope but at the same time that it was held, elements of early catholicism (please note the small c) - belief in the divinity & pre-existence of Christ, development of church structure & offices, &c - were being formulated. & when it gradually became clear that the parousia might be a good deal farther away, the church managed to make sense of the fact & moved on.

  ----- Original Message -----
  From: David Opderbeck
  To: Dehler, Bernie
  Sent: Friday, October 17, 2008 12:31 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] A theology question (imminent return of Christ)

  Bernie said: Isn't it a possibility that Jesus was wrong? Can that be possible, and still not detract from the nature of the trinity, which no one understands fully anyway? Jesus did not know everything.

  I respond: I will quickly get in over my head here, because I'm not expert on all the nuances of the theology of the trinity. My sense, however, is that it's quite dangerous to say starkly "Jesus was wrong" about the timing of his return.

  Yes, Jesus certainly had to grow in knowledge like any other human being; the Gospels indicate this expressly (Luke 2:52: "And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature....") Since getting things "wrong" is an important part of learning, it would seem that in the ordinary course of his life Jesus would have gotten things "wrong" at times (e.g., mis-hitting a nail as a carpenter).

  But at the same time he was from conception fully human and fully divine in a union of those two natures. The "human" does not somehow trump the "divine." Moreover, when we talk about Jesus' knowledge and teaching about things concerning Jesus' divine nature as a person of the triune God, we have to tread carefully (IMHO) so that we don't fall into some kind of modalism. (Modalism means that God is not really a trinity -- God is rather one person who acts in different "modes" at different times in history. When Jesus was alive before his crucifixion, modalism asserts, God manifested himself only in the "mode" of the son).

  Jesus himself said that his knowledge as a person of the Godhead was limited as to the timing of the parousia (Mark 13: Matt 24) and that the Father has the authority to fix the timing of redemption history (Acts 1:7). If you say that Jesus gave the disciples "wrong" teaching about his return, you're basically saying that Jesus acted somehow independently of the Father. It isn't simply a matter of Jesus in his human nature reflecting the normal limitations of a human being living in first-century Palestine. It is rather a matter of Jesus rejecting the authority of the Father in giving "wrong" information about the eschaton, and/or a matter of denying the unity of Jesus' human-divine nature and the unity of the Trinity altogether. And the waters get even deeper when you start basing your position on some "secret" teaching of Jesus that isn't recorded in the Gospels.

  It should be clear that this isn't at heart a question about Biblical inerrancy. I think it's important to realize that folks like Ehrmann have an agenda that involves exploding trinitarian Christianity altogether. This agenda, IMHO, taints their views about Jesus and the early Christian community. I think NT Wright is essentially correct: "the old scholarly warhorse of the 'delay of the parousia' has had its day at last, and can be put out to grass once and for all . . . . The usual scholarly construct, in which the early church waited for Jesus' return, lived only for that future and without though for anything past (such as memories of Jesus himself), only to be grievously disappointed and to take up history-writing as a displacement activity, a failure of hope -- this picture is without historical basis." (The New Testament and the People of God, p. 463).

  On Fri, Oct 17, 2008 at 11:27 AM, Dehler, Bernie <> wrote:

    David Opderbeck said:
    "Bernie: can I gently suggest that you take a break from reading the unbalanced, puerile, hyper-skeptical trash on sites like internet infidels? Read Richard Bauckham, NT Wright, Jaroslav Pelikan, Scot McKnight, Richard Hays -- and many, many others like them who are neither fundamentalist inerrantists nor fundamentalist skeptics."

    Hi David-

    I read them all as time allows. I read Ken Ham, Richard Dawkins, CS Lewis, … the whole gamut from unbelief to belief. I heard one podcast where a preacher detailed how evil CS Lewis was, and another where the teacher sang the praises of CS Lewis.

    Here's my idea. Pastor Murray (someone you likely agree with) and I agree that the disciples thought Christ would return in their lifetime, and these disciples were wrong. My hypothesis for consideration: Isn't it a possibility that Jesus was wrong? Can that be possible, and still not detract from the nature of the trinity, which no one understands fully anyway? Jesus did not know everything. I think we can all agree to that. He had to learn how to walk, speak, and get potty-trained just like every other human, right? When he was learning math, he probably got some questions wrong (oops, 2+2=4, not 3, when in grade school, if there was such a thing). And somehow that doesn't detract from His Godhood. In the same way, could he have simply taught his imminent return and had been wrong? I know the consequences of that may feel scary, but that hasn't stopped before as some of us ignored the consequences to our Biblical understanding when we studied and rejected YEC.



    From: David Opderbeck []
    Sent: Thursday, October 16, 2008 8:03 PM
    Cc:; Dehler, Bernie;;;;;;;;;;;

    Subject: Re: [asa] A theology question (imminent return of Christ)

    Thank you, Ed, for giving references to actual scholars: Tabor and Ehrmann (and their forebears among the skeptical Enlightenment rationalists). These are exactly the references I expected, as they are committed to the view that the New Testament is essentially nothing but a confused set of polemics compiled by the "winning" faction among a number of equally viable "christianities" in the first to third centuries.

    As I've said several times, it does seem clear that there was some expectation in the early Christian community of an immediate return of Christ. The thesis that the NT is a collection of mistaken millennial texts promoted by one christian faction, however, is not sustainable based either on the actual message of the texts or a reasonable reading of early church history. Your method of proof is, indeed, a kind of reverse fundamentalist proof-texting. The overall eschatological theme of the NT isn't "withdraw from the world for Christ is returning right now"; it seems clearly to be "persevere and be filled with hope for Christ will surely complete the fullfillment of his kingdom."

    I should note that I'm neither a dispensationalist nor a preterist, and that I have no interest in this discussion in arguing for any particular notion of inerrancy.

    Bernie: can I gently suggest that you take a break from reading the unbalanced, puerile, hyper-skeptical trash on sites like internet infidels? Read Richard Bauckham, NT Wright, Jaroslav Pelikan, Scot McKnight, Richard Hays -- and many, many others like them who are neither fundamentalist inerrantists nor fundamentalist skeptics.

    On Thu, Oct 16, 2008 at 9:45 PM, Edward T. Babinski <> wrote:

    Hi Everyone,

    I've read all of your comments on the topic of the N.T.'s predictions of the imminent return of Christ.

    Someone mentioned believing in the resurrection, and how that makes every other question seem of less consequence, so why bother with studying this particular question and subject? I would like to note however that philosopher Paul Nelson is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a YEC who uses his faith in the resurrection of Jesus in a similar manner, stating that any God capable of making a man rise from the dead is capable of creating the world in six-days only a couple thousand years ago, and that He alone knows all the flaws in modern science that lead people into falsely believing the cosmos is billions of years old.

    Dave Opderbeck seems to feel the most strongly that my listing of all the verses predicting an imminent return -- as cited in "The Lowdown on God's Showdown" -- are simply examples of reverse proof texting, fundamentalism in reverse.

    However, the problematical plain sense of each verse has stood out to many theologians since the Enlightenment from Voltaire and Reimarus to British deists who all mentioned them, and later Strauss who wrote two chapters on this topic in his Life of Jesus, and later still, Schweitzer, and later still, the moderate/liberal Evangelical Christian and historical Jesus scholar/author (and friend of N.T. Wright) James D. G. Dunn, all admit errors were made and can be plainly seen in the N.T. C. S. Lewis admitted such errors were visible, as did Paul Johnson (a less well known British Christian apologist/author).

    N.T. scholar James D. Tabor lists "New Testament Texts on the Imminence of the End" on his website, "The Jewish Roman World of Jesus":

    See also Tabor's article, "Dead Messiahs Who Don't Return: Millennial Hope and Disappointment in the Dead Sea Scroll Community" in which he concludes, "Based on this model of the demise/departure of the Teacher, we can see the same kind of apocalyptic hope and disappointment reflected in our early Gospel materials; this is especially evident in Mark, which seems to cluster traditions from the 70 CE period of the 1st Jewish Roman revolt. It is clear that the community of Jesus followers expect his return within a generation (40 years?), so the decade of the 70's CE must have brought on a real crisis."

    To sum up what Tabor and Ehrmann and others have written on the topic, we know today that imminent predictions of the world's final judgment were made prior to the first century by those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, and by John the Baptist (who certainly seems to have preached an imminent final judgment based on N.T. verses about his mission), and then later on after Jesus we read about imminent predictions made by Paul and other N.T. writers. Keeping in mind that Jesus lived after the DSS and after John the the Baptist but before Paul, and that the three earliest Gospel stories about Jesus feature "little apocalypses" that echo similar end times expectations/predictions, it's difficult not to notice the theological difficulties this information creates, especially for inerrantist Christians of either the Preterist or Dispensationalist variety. (Also, we know that both Paul and the early church fathers themselves believed that by the first and early
     second century the Gospel HAD already been preached to the "whole world" as they knew and defined it. Preterists likewise point that out. See my article for the exact verses from Paul and the early church fathers I am talking about.)

    So it is the subtle theological art of attempting to explain away or ignore all such imminent predictions of soon judgment of the world that strikes me as being disingenuous.

    Below are my favorite books on the topic:

    Jesus of Nazareth: Millenarian Prophet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998)

    Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

    The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Debate (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2001)

    Audio series on The Historical Jesus that covers this topic in one of the CDs:

    The Stars Will Fall from Heaven: Cosmic Catastrophe in the New Testament and Its World -- (Library of New Testament Studies 347, 2007) delves into conclusive evidence for a belief in the end of the created world in works written either just before or during the N.T. period.

    In God's Time - The most moderate Evangelical book on the topic, attempts a reconciliation perhaps like Murray's. But the other books which present a bit more radical view also should not be overlooked.

    The video for the above book is even sold along with N.T. Wright's videos at this website:

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    David W. Opderbeck
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  David W. Opderbeck
  Associate Professor of Law
  Seton Hall University Law School
  Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

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Received on Fri Oct 17 13:29:32 2008

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