Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Book Write-Up: When the Son of Man Didn't Come

Christopher M. Hays, in collaboration with Brandon Gallaher, Julia S. Konstantinovsky, Richard J. Ounsworth, and C.A. Strine.  When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2016.  See here to purchase the book.

Many Christians have wrestled with the claim that Jesus at his first coming predicted the imminent end of the world and establishment of an eschatological paradise, or at least predicted that these things would occur within decades.  In Matthew 10:23, Jesus tells his disciples that, when they are persecuted in one city, they should flee to another, and they will not have gone over the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes.  In Mark 9:1, Jesus says to his disciples that some among them will not taste death, before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.  In Matthew 16:28, Jesus says some will not taste death before seeing the Son of Man come in his kingdom.  In Mark 13:30, after Jesus talks about calamity that will befall Jerusalem and the coming of the Son of Man, Jesus says that this generation shall not pass away, until all of these things have taken place.

Over two thousand years have passed, and the second coming of Christ has not yet occurred.  Did Jesus err in saying that the coming of the Son of Man was imminent or soon?  Does that show that Christianity is false: that Jesus was merely a man, without a divine identity or a divine message?  In Deuteronomy 18:21-22, a criterion is presented for determining whether a prophet speaks God’s words or not.  The criterion is that, if a prophet speaks in God’s name, and the prophecy fails to come to pass, then the prophecy is not from the LORD.  Does Jesus fail at this prophetic criterion?

When the Son of Man Didn’t Come includes scholarly essays that wrestle with such questions.  In this review, I will comment about each essay, then I will offer a critique, detailing what I believe are the positives and negatives of the book.

Chapter 1: “Introduction: Was Jesus Wrong About the Eschaton?”

In this chapter, Christopher M. Hays lays out the problem.  Against scholars such as N.T. Wright, Hays contends that Jesus indeed did predict an eschaton that was soon.  Hays states that Mark 13 holds that the second coming of Christ would occur soon after the destruction of Jerusalem, which historically occurred in 70 C.E.  That did not happen, however.  Hays also offers an overview of the history of the problem in New Testament scholarship, which includes the tendencies of some scholars to argue that Jesus was originally non-eschatological, but that people later added an eschatological layer to Jesus’ teaching.

Chapter 2: “Prophecy: A History of Failure?”

In this chapter, Hays notes what may be a similar problem in the Hebrew Bible, only this problem concerns the end of the Judahite exile.  Jeremiah prophesied that the Judahite exile would last for seventy years (Jeremiah 25:8-14; 29:10-14).  Yet, seventy years passed, and the grandeur that Jeremiah predicted would accompany the restoration still had not occurred.  Judahites returned to the land of Israel and rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, but they were still ruled by Gentiles, and they were not experiencing peace and prosperity.  There are different views in the Bible about when the exile actually ended, and Daniel in Daniel 9 seems to reinterpret Jeremiah’s seventy years as four-hundred-ninety years.  Some voices in the Hebrew Bible believe that the sins of Israel are hindering the full restoration of the Judahite people.  Second Temple Judaism continued to wrestle with the delayed restoration of Israel.

Chapter 3: “Reconceiving Prophecy: Activation, Not Prognostication.”

In this chapter, C.A. Strine argues that the fulfillment criterion in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 was not the only game in town when it came to prophecy.  In Jeremiah 18:1-10, God states that whether God fulfills prophecies of disaster depends on people’s repentance: if people repent, then God will not send the prophesied disaster.  Strine notes a conditional view of prophecy elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in the Ancient Near East, in rabbinic literature, and in early patristic sources.  Could God have changed God’s mind about the prophesied timing of the Son of Man’s return?

Chapter 4: “The Delay of the Parousia: A Traditional and Historical-Critical Reading of Scripture: Part 1.”

In this chapter, Hays and Richard J. Ounsworth talk about the partial fulfillment of prophecy.  There is some recognition in the Hebrew Bible that the Judahites’ return from exile had been partially fulfilled, and a belief that the delay in its full fulfillment was due to Judahites’ sin.  Similarly, within New Testament Gospels, there is the idea that Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God was partially fulfilled through his ministry and the work of the church.  For Hays and Ounsworth, partial fulfillment of a prophecy does not entail the prophecy’s failure.

Chapter 5: “The Delay of the Parousia: A Traditional and Historical-Critical Reading of Scripture: Part 2.”

In this chapter, Hays contends that Jesus’ prediction of the soon coming of the parousia was a conditional prophecy.  Hays cites passages in the synoptic Gospels in which Jesus gives ethical exhortations to his disciples that accompany his prophecies about the end.  What if Christians failed to heed those exhortations?  Hays states: “Insofar as people did not respond properly (as evidenced by the myriad of ethical rebukes contained in the New Testament epistles and the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3), one might aver that it is not only understandable, but necessary that the end not occur within the prophesied time-frame” (page 100).  Jesus said that the end would come after the Gospel has been proclaimed to the world, but what if the disciples fail to do that (Mark 13:10; Matthew 24:14)?  Would Jesus delay the end?  Hays also argues that there are indications in Jesus’ eschatological teaching that he did not regard the timing of the Son of Man’s return to be a firmly set event: why else would Jesus tell his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom might come (Matthew 6:10), or instruct them to pray that their flight from Jerusalem does not occur in the winter or on the Sabbath day (Matthew 13:18; 24:20)?  Does not that imply that God may base the timing of the end on Christians’ prayers?  Acts 3:19-21 also factors into Hays’ discussion: there, Peter tells the people of Israel that God will send the Messianic restoration if they repent.  Then there is II Peter 3, which talks about how God delays the end to give people an opportunity to repent, while also saying that Christians can hasten the coming of the day of God by their holy lives.  Hays tries to address whether this is a contradiction: should Christians desire the delay of the end so that more people have a chance to repent before God comes in judgment, or should they seek to accelerate the coming of the eschaton through their holy living?  Hays fails to offer a completely satisfactory answer to this question, but this chapter is still the best in the book, in that it offers a biblical case for Hays’ (and the book’s) claims.  In addition, Hays talks about the appearance of such themes (i.e., delayed judgment) in Second Temple literature and patristic sources.  I should also note that, later in the book (page 232), Brandon Galaher and Julia S. Konstantinovsky refer to an additional example: Paul seems to have believed that he could accelerate the second coming by bringing more Gentiles into the people of God (Romans 11).

Chapter 6: “Negating the Fall and Re-Constituting Creation: An Apophatic Account of the Redemption of Time and History in Christ.”

At this point, the book shifts gears and discusses theology.  In this chapter, Julia S. Konstantinovsky talks about such issues as God’s eternity and the limitations in human understanding of God.  Her argument seems to be that God is outside of our time, and that we cannot understand from our limited perspective why exactly God has delayed the second coming.  Her discussion reminded me of Madeleine L’Engle’s distinction between kairos and chronos: kairos is divine time, whereas chronos is human chronological time.  Kairos (as I understand it) includes God’s larger plan and story, and God being above and beyond time, with all people and events before God simultaneously.

Chapter 7: “Divine Possibilities: The Condescension of God and the Restriction of Divine Freedom.”

In this chapter, Brandon Gallaher and Julia S. Konstantinovsky argue that God can pursue different possibilities and still be God: the different possibilities that God chooses are rooted in God’s character as God.  In essence, they are saying that God has the leeway to change God’s plan in response to human behavior, and they maintain that such a view exists throughout the history of Christian thought, from Augustine to Barth.  God can plan for Christ to return immediately after Pentecost in Acts 2, as Peter seems to expect in that chapter, or God can change God’s mind in response to human behavior and delay the second coming.  For Gallaher and Kontantinovsky, God is not flippant, arbitrary, or less divine in pursuing either option.

Chapter 8: “Divine Action in Christ: The Christocentric and Trinitarian Nature of Human Cooperation with God.”

This chapter is by Gallaher and Konstantinovsky.  It discusses the Trinity and the cooperation that exists within it, as the Father begets the Son and the Son allows himself to be begotten.  It also offers practical points of application in reference to eschatology, on such topics as worship, social justice, mission, and contemplation.  On a related note, later in the book, on page 298, Hays refers to the “pro-Chalcedonian dynamics of dyotheletism of the Sixth Ecumenical Council (i.e. the Third Council of Constantinople)” that “the divine will and the human will in Christ cooperate; neither one dominates the other.”  This corresponds with the book’s claim that God works with a freely-acting humanity, which the book believes offers some explanation for the delay of the second coming.

Chapter 9, by Strine, Ounsworth, and Gallaher, is about the festivals in the Hebrew Bible, typology, the circularity and linearity of history (i.e., salvation history), and liturgy’s role in celebrating God’s past, present, and future activity.  Chapter 10, by Hays and Strine, discusses the method of the book’s composition and points of practical application.  Chapter 11, by Hays, provides the conclusion.

The book effectively made the case that the timing of the second coming is flexible and contingent, at least in some passages of Scripture.  Perhaps the authors are correct that God has delayed the parousia to give people the opportunity to repent.  The book also is a helpful guide to the history of biblical interpretation regarding the timing of the parousia and contingent prophecy.  Those interested in theology will probably find Kontantinovsky’s contributions informative.  Kontantinovsky and Gallaher make an important point when it comes to debates about libertarianism, compatibilism, and determinism: that God can pursue different options, while still being true to God’s nature.  For Kontantinovsky, I gather, God is not limited to one righteous option, for there may be a variety of righteous options.  While detractors can respond that God would inevitably choose the best option, and there is only one best option, perhaps Kontantinovsky can retort that God considers being flexible in response to human free will to be the best option.  (I do not recall her making that retort, but it is a retort that she could make.)

While the book had positives, its negative is that so many significant questions were left unanswered.  Why exactly did Jesus predict that the parousia would be imminent, or at least soon, and what specifically did Israel and the church do, or not do, that influenced God to delay the second coming?  To say that God delayed the second coming because Israel failed to repent may be faithful to Acts 3:19-21, but it is a problematic solution when other biblical passages are considered.  For instance, Mark 13 and parallels depict Jesus coming back after the destruction of Jerusalem, which presumes that Israel does not repent.  Matthew 10:23 holds that the Son of Man will return when Christians are being persecuted in Israelite cities, which, too, presumes non-repentance on the part of much of Israel when Christ returns.  Non-repentance of Israel, in these passages at least, is not enough to delay the second coming.

Did the church do, or fail to do, something and thereby delay the parousia?  Did it fail to spread the Gospel to the world, and thus violate the condition for Christ’s return set forth in Mark 13:10 and Matthew 24:14?  But Romans 10:18 and Colossians 1:23 appear to imply that the Gospel had gone to all the world in the first century C.E.  Was the church too sinful for Christ to return in the first century?  But there are many parables in the synoptic Gospels in which Jesus talks about the Son of Man returning in a time when certain Christians are not ready, or when some Christians are sinful (i.e., Matthew 25).  Christ does not appear to be waiting for the church to be perfect, before he returns!  The book should have interacted with such questions; otherwise, it seems to be appealing to the conditionality of prophecy in an attempt to find a loophole, rather than exploring the implications of its arguments.

The same can be said about the prophecies in the Hebrew Bible about Israel’s restoration from exile.  God does not fully restore Israel because she is still sinful?  But the prophecies say that God will take care of this problem when God restores Israel: God will punish the wicked Israelites and transform the Israelites so that their hearts are yielded to God’s righteous ways (see, for example, Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 11:19; 18:1; 20:33-38; 36:26; Zechariah 14:8-9).  In this case, non-repentance does not delay the eschaton.

There is also the question of what exactly the faithful should do with Deuteronomy 18:21-22, which says that non-fulfillment of a prophecy disqualifies a prophet.  Strine argues that this scenario is not the only game in town, and, yes, focusing on the conditionality of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible may be more useful in terms of the book’s thesis.  But what should be done with Deuteronomy 18:21-22?  Does appealing to the conditionality of prophecy invalidate Deuteronomy 18:21-22?  After all, if prophecy is contingent on people’s ethical or religious behavior, could not any non-fulfillment of prophecy be explained away?  One can always note some moral flaws or imperfections in people, or something that they are doing right.

The book should have explored more fully the question of why God says that God will do things, that God does not do.  Unless we can see clearly that people repent, and this influences God to change God’s mind (i.e., Jonah), then a change in mind on God’s part appears somewhat flippant (not that I want to judge God, but this is a theological issue that should be addressed).  Why would God threaten evildoers in explicit and specific terms, then delay the punishment to give them time to repent?  Does that not cheapen the initial threat?  What was the purpose of the initial threat?  In my opinion, there is a place for divine flexibility in response to human behavior, but, unless we can see specifically how that comes into play when it comes to the second coming or any prophecies, God appears to be making threats or promises and not carrying them through.  Perhaps the authors could respond that God makes these threats and promises in an educational sense, or to influence human behavior.  While that may be a good answer, there should be more wrestling with how God can go back on what God said, without appearing flippant.  Does God say things that God does not really mean?

There is also the question of whether the contingencies related to the second coming are inconsistent.  If people repent, then God will not send disaster; yet, disaster accompanies the second coming because it is a time of divine wrath, so will God delay the second coming if people repent?  Yet, God delays the second coming when people do not repent, to give them more time to repent!  The book’s authors could perhaps respond that they are not presenting an exact science.  Fair enough, but when does it get to the point when God’s words appear meaningless, under this book’s model, or explanations of the non-fulfillment of prophecy become special pleading?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss.  My review is honest.

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