Monday, 26 January 2015

Salvation & Eschatology (1): Salvation is for this earth and coming in history

God's goal for us is not that we go to heaven. Our purpose and eternal destiny is on earth. God's salvation, then, is not about souls going to heaven, as in some timeless, spiritual concept of "being saved". Instead, salvation is all about this earth, and it is unfolding in God's history with the world.

In a few blogs, I'll be exploring salvation in eschatological perspective (eschatology = study of the "last things" or "the end of time"), drawing from Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg.

[Part 8 in a series on New Wine and systematic theology, drawn from my research master thesis Life to the Full. From Creation to Re-Creation, VU University 2014]

In Protestant theology “salvation” has often been understood as primarily a spiritual category, referring to eternal life for the individual soul. Protestantism has often found it difficult to relate the substance of salvation to the creaturely reality, as we have seen in parts 1-7 in this blog series. For various reasons, salvation has largely been disconnected from events within human history (and the course of it) - at least human history after the time of the Bible.
The twentieth century has seen much debate on the broadening of this narrowed understanding of salvation, in no small part fuelled by the bold proposals of Jürgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg from the 1960s and 1970s on. I'll be making the point that an eschatological perspective is needed to understand the nature of salvation, and to arrive at a theological framework for the charismatic renewal of New Wine.

To put it briefly, both Moltmann and Pannenberg are refuting any narrowed, spiritualized concept of salvation, arguing that salvation is not about our souls going to heaven when we die, as some timeless concept of “being saved”. People were not created to go to heaven. Instead, we are created for this earth, and our purpose and eternal destiny is on earth. Salvation is all about God’s history with the world. It cannot be reduced, boiled down, or distilled to some essential core of “eternal salvation for the human soul”, for that would be a flawed and incomplete, and unbiblical understanding of the core of God’s salvation.
In other words, the core of salvation is not merely spiritual but material as well (comprising all aspects of creaturely existence), it is for this earth, and it is a dynamic concept: it is coming in history. It can only be understood from an eschatological perspective: God is realizing his future in our present.

An Eschatological Perspective on Salvation: The World is Going Somewhere

In order to theologically ground this understanding of salvation - both spiritual and material, for this earth, and coming in history - we need a theological framework that is profoundly eschatological. This eschatology must not only be future in character, but impinge on the present as well. This is the point that Moltmann and Pannenberg have been making since the 1960s, over against (the early) Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann, but also over against strands in traditional Evangelical and Reformed theology.

1. Moltmann: Messianic Hope and Promise

Already in Theology of Hope, Moltmann makes his case that eschatology should not be the appendage to theology as it has been too often. Instead, the whole of Christian theology should be eschatologically oriented, since

“from first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present.”[1]

Christian faith has “banished from its life”  the future hope by which it is upheld, and “relegated the future to a beyond, or to eternity”, whereas the biblical testimonies “are yet full to the brim with future hope of a messianic kingdom for the world.” Eschatology should be the “key in which (...) everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.”
But it must be an eschatology that impinges on history, Moltmann stresses. If eschatology is merely thought “to deal with the end, the last day, the last word, the last act”, then “it would be better to turn one’s back on it altogether”, as the last things “spoil one’s taste for the penultimate ones” and “the person who presses forward to the end of life misses life itself.”[1] History must not be left behind. On the contrary, eschatology is all about our history, and re-establishing eschatology at the heart of theology should lead to our engagement in history.
As Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz aptly phrased it,

“Moltmann draws eschatology from the periphery to the centre, from the end of time to the middle of time, from beyond death to life in this world.”[2]

Moltmann criticizes the timeless or transcendental eschatology that he finds with modern Protestant theology, including Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann. If all times are equally immediate to God and indifferent before eternity, then it is no longer possible to speak of expectation and memory, promise and penitence, and history loses the open character of a process.
Moltmann breaks away from Barth in his understanding of revelation. While Barth understands revelation to be exclusively “from above” (senkrecht von oben), Moltmann seeks a more dynamic understanding. When revelation is exclusively “from above”, it is an epiphany event that is disconnected from the course of history. The revealed “salvation history” then merely offers the interpretation of a course of history which is intrinsically meaningless. But when revelation comes towards us in history - and history is “recognized as the place of the real action of God”, as Gerhard von Rad puts it[3] - then revelation is a “promise event” that itself “originates, drives and directs the course of history.”[4]
Moltmann thus stresses the promise of history: The revelation of God’s salvation opens up history, liberating it from sheer causal determinism - history appears as an open sphere full of unsuspected possibilities which are not yet realized but can be seized.
In this way, Moltmann criticizes both the “transposition of eschatology into time”, which led to the forfeit of future eschatology with Albert Schweitzer and C.H. Dodd, and to the “transposition of eschatology into eternity” in Barthian dialectical theology.[5] Instead, Moltmann takes as his basis an “advent concept of the future”. The future is understood as the “origin and source of time”, forming all world time.[6] All possibilities also flow from this source – God frees creation from sheer causal determinism by opening up history and creating new possibilities. God’s eschatological advent thus takes form in the historical category novum.

Messianic perspective: The world is going somewhere

In his second series of “Systematic Contributions to Theology”, Moltmann takes  the Jewish context even more serious than he already did in his early trilogy, seeking to anchor his theology deeply in the messianic thinking in Judaism. We see this in The Coming of God (in comparison to Theology of Hope), but also in a determinative way in the third volume, on Christology and soteriology, The Way of Jesus Christ (in comparison to The Crucified God).[7] In The Crucified God Moltmann focused on the past of Jesus - mainly his suffering and death at the cross. The messianic perspective in The Way of Jesus Christ leads to a stronger emphasis on the future of Jesus as the Messiah who will bring about future salvation for the people of God, enhancing the eschatological thrust of his Christology. While the earlier works focused on the way the resurrection of Jesus opened up the eschatological future for the world but did not elaborate on the parousia of Jesus himself, Moltmann now extends his Christology to the “second coming of Christ” - his way towards his messianic future.[8] However, though Moltmann uses traditional phrases to speak of this parousia, he does not necessarily refer to an actual coming of Christ as Protestant tradition would have it. His loading of the term is more idealistic in thrust, pointing at the completion of history. The parousia of Christ is,

“first and foremost the completion of the way of Jesus: ‘the Christ on the way’ arrives at his goal. His saving work is completed.”[9]

At the same time he pays much more attention to the earthly life and ministry of Jesus - his way on earth. To understand Jesus as the messianic prophet he claimed to be - and to understand the nature of the salvation he came to bring about - we shouldn’t merely focus on the cross and resurrection, but give full weight to his life and ministry too. Moltmann also pays much attention to Jesus’ ethical teachings to his disciples, stressing the interrelatedness of Christology and Christopraxis: true knowledge of Christ involves “living the life”- knowing Jesus means being his disciple and following his way.
The subtitle for The way of Jesus Christ is: Christology in Messianic Dimensions. What then is the messianic? Prior to all it could well be maintained – as Müller-Fahrenholz does[10] – that it springs from unrest which cannot be content with the world as it is. Confronted with the shortcomings and failures of this world, with harsh realities of social injustice, violence, diseases and death, a deep conviction might linger that this can’t be it – a deep conviction that ‘it’ still has to come.
The messianic therefore is aimed at the future. It anticipates a future when wrongs will be put right, all will be restored and healed and blossom, and life will come to completion and fulfilment. According to the Gospels, Moltmann states, Jesus understands his own ministry in the light of this cosmic messianic hope. The salvation that he is to bring about, will have to address this unrest and these experiences of injustice, suffering, failure and wrongdoings.

Unfolding in history

Traditional Christology often is too static, Moltmann argues, as it elaborates on Christ as ‘one person in two natures’ or as a historic personality. Moltmann wants to try grasping him “dynamically, in the forward movement of God’s history with the world.”
As the story of God’s involvement with the world unfolds, culminating in the first coming of the Messiah (Jesus of Nazareth) but definitely not ending there, new perspectives and possibilities come into view around each corner. People on their wandering ways through the harsh realities of life, seeking fulfilment of life, need “a theology for the wandering”. They need a christologia viae, “a Christology of the way, which points beyond itself and draws people towards the future of Christ”.[11]
This must be an eschatological Christology – not a Christology “from above” or “from below”, but a Christology “nach vorn”, pointing forwards, in order not to separate eschatology from Christology like in traditional theology.[12] The world is going somewhere.

Critique on Moltmann

These are valuable notions that can be read from a Reformed or Evangelical perspective, though it should be critically kept in mind that Moltmann loads them from a frame of reference that is heavily influenced by Hegel’s absolute idealism, in which the forward-thrust is understood as the self-realization of the Spirit in history, becoming Absolute Spirit[13], and even more obviously by the utopian philosophy of Ernst Bloch (Das Prinzip Hoffnung, 1954-1959), blending Christian eschatology and Marxist social analysis. Bloch perceived hope for a perfect “homeland” where the individual overcomes all alienation and is at one with oneself, as a fundamental human instinct, that drives history through revolutionary change towards utopia. He developed an ontology of “not-yet-being” in which the as-yet-unrealized utopia exerts power over the present and past, giving rise to human “transcending without transcendence.”[14]

2. Pannenberg: Divine Self-Revelation through Acts in History

Wolfhart Pannenberg likewise re-introduces the connection between salvation and history, placing eschatology at the heart of theology, but from a different starting point. His incentive lies in epistemology and the quest for objective, universal truth.
First of all, Pannenberg holds that theology ought to be a public discipline, remaining to be in dialogue with a surrounding culture that has become predominantly secular and pluralistic. Therefore, theology should not start from fideistic presuppositions and neither be grounded on subjective religions experiences (Schleiermacher[1]) nor on exclusive claims about divine revelation (Barth[2]). Faith is not a way of knowing in addition to reason, but should be grounded on public, historical knowledge.[3]
Pannenberg agrees with Barth (and Reformed theology) that any knowledge about God can only flow from God’s self-revelation, for “if there is only one God there can only be a single and unique revelation in which God is at the same time author and medium of revelation” (and therefore Pannenberg’s dogmatics must flow from the doctrine of God).[4]
But truth, Pannenberg asserts against Barth and traditional views, is not to be found in the constant and unchanging essences lying behind the flow of time (as in classical Greek thinking), but is essentially historical and ultimately eschatological (as in Hebrew understanding, says Pannenberg).
Why is truth historical? Since theology has to be public theology, no direct or “special” revelation can be claimed (e.g., in his “Word”). Therefore, God’s self-revelation must be indirect, through his acts in history (contra Barth).
Why is it eschatological? Because the interpretation of the course of history is ambiguous. Only at the end of history, at the eschaton, will God’s self-revelation in history become evident. Until then, truth will by its own nature remain provisional.[5] In the words of Stanley Grenz,

“Truth is what shows itself throughout the movement of time climaxing in the end event, which is anticipated in the present.”[6]

Therefore, Pannenberg’s theology is eschatological out of necessity. The present can only properly be understood from the future, and all theology has to be done from this eschatological perspective.
In Chapters 1-4 of his Systematic Theology, Pannenberg thus gives a theological and philosophical foundation for Moltmann’s assertion that God’s salvation is revealed through his acts throughout history, continuing until the end event.

At this point it must be critically noted, that Pannenberg’s thinking – like Moltmann’s – is strongly conditioned by his reading of German idealism, e.g. Fichte, Schelling and mostly Hegel.[7] Critics who read Pannenberg in this light, might very well argue that Pannenberg’s theology has to be eschatological because history as God’s self-revelation is actually God’s self-realization in history and God’s “truth” awaits its future realization. Pannenberg acknowledges that “many statements” in his programmatic Revelation as History gave rise to the “misunderstanding” that he proposes some sort of “theological Hegelianism”, but he refutes this.
Benevolent Reformed and Evangelical readers might very well point to one essential divergence from Hegel’s concept of history as an unfolding process, namely Pannenberg’s insistence that the “outcome” of this unfolding of history – God’s eschatological future and truth – has proleptically been revealed and made present in Jesus Christ, and specifically so in his resurrection as a historical event.[8] God and his truth, read in this perspective, are not to be “realized” but “vindicated”, as the truth about “the One God who is the world’s Creator, Reconciler, and Redeemer is open to future verification in history.”[9]

By extension of the above, Pannenberg makes some important corrections on Moltmann too. For our present study, the key issue is his fundamental critique on grounding eschatology in the concept of promise, as Moltmann does (drawing from Bloch’s utopian philosophy).[10] It is correct, inasmuch as eschatological hope can rest only on God himself, Pannenberg agrees. But the concept of promise is too weak to assure us of the future salvation of God, since it rests on a claim of faith, which remains debatable. That is not enough, Pannenberg argues.
In Moltmann’s theology, salvation is yet to come, meanwhile remaining ambiguous and being only present as a promise (again, this must be understood from Moltmann’s view of God’s self-realization in history, drawing from Hegel). Therefore, Pannenberg argues, Moltmann’s concept of promise separates the present reality from salvation.

Over against this concept of promise, Pannenberg applies the concept of incarnation, stressing the proleptic presence of salvation in Jesus Christ. Instead of merely extrapolating our hope for wholeness to the future, the future salvation has encountered us in Jesus Christ in a “ reverse movement” in history - from God’s future towards our history.
In the work and person of Jesus we didn’t merely receive a “promise” for a future salvation, but in the work of Jesus “the future of the kingdom is already present” and “the consummation that has come in Jesus Christ is present to his community in recollection of its Lord.”[11] Therefore, although the world must be understood as “going somewhere” indeed, Christology and soteriology should not be “nach vorn”, pointing forwards, but - reversely - from God’s future towards us.



[1] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, New York 1967, 16, translation of Theologie der Hoffnung (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1964).

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (London: SCM, 1995), translation of Das Kommen Gottes.Christliche Eschatologie (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1995).
[2] Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz,The Kingdom and the Power. The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 44.
[3] Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology Vol. II (London: Oliver and Boyd, 1975), vii.
[4] Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 75.
[5] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 96.
[6] Moltmann, The Coming of God, 22-26.
[7] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ. Christology in Messianic Dimensions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), translation of Der Weg Jesu Christi. Christologie in messianischen Dimensionen (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1989), and Moltmann, The Crucified God. The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (London: SCM Press, 1974), translation of Der gekreuzigte Gott. Das Kreuz Christi als Grund und Kritik christlicher Theologie (München: Kaiser Verlag, 1972).
[8] Richard Bauckham, ‘Jurgen Moltmann’, in: Ford and Muers (eds.), The Modern Theologians, 147-162 (158).
[9] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 314.
[10] Müller-Fahrenholz, The Kingdom and the Power, 167.
[11] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, xiiv, xiv.
[12] Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 3, 69.
[13] See G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), translation of Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807).
[14] Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung (Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1954-1959); see Stanley J. Grenz and Roger E. Olson, 20th Century Theology. God & the World in a Transitional Age (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1992), 174-175.

[1] Pannenberg, ST I, 42, 126.
[2] Pannenberg, ST I, 44, 127, 235.
[3] Stanley J. Grenz, Reason for Hope. The Systematic Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 8.
[4] Christoph Schwöbel, ‘Wolfhart Pannenberg’, 130. More on the doctrine of God as being the point of departure for all theology, according to Pannenberg, in our next chapter on salvation and the triune God.
[5] Grenz, Reason for Hope, 14.
[6] Grenz, Reason for Hope, 19. See, for instance, Pannenberg, ST I, 186, 332.
[7] For instance (in the context of Pannenberg’s understanding of revelation), ST I, 220-225. See also Christiaan Mostert, God and the Future, 75-79
[8] See Pannenberg, ST I, 228-229, 246-249, 257 (on prolepsis); also ST II, 343-363 (on the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ).
[9] Pannenberg, ST I, 257.
[10] Pannenberg, ST III, 537-545.
[11] Pannenberg, ST III, 545. More on this “presence of the kingdom” in Part II of my dissertation.
[12] Grenz and Olson, ‘The Transcendence of the Future’, in: Grenz and Olson, 20th Century Theology, 170-199.
[13] Pannenberg, ST III, 455-457, 523.

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