In this post we’ll continue and conclude our discussion of the parousia with a few more words on the second volume of Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth. As we saw last time, the Holy Father described Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse as “perhaps the most difficult text in the whole of the Gospels.” On this subject we explored Benedict’s distinction between the “images” Jesus employed and the “realities” that comprise the “essential content” or “nucleus” of his teaching on the end times. Benedict argued that the intention of the Evangelists did not lie in describing the physical but rather the theological demise of the Temple. As to whether the sacred authors of Scripture thought the Second Coming would occur in their day, in some places he indicates that this was the case. Ultimately, however, he left the question open and deemed it a non-essential issue.
Today I would like to turn our attention to Benedict’s ensuing discussion which adds nuance to the foregoing argument. Immediately after elucidating what he considers to be the “nucleus” of Jesus’ eschatological discourse, he adds that “the nucleus of Jesus’ eschatological message includes the proclamation of an age of the nations.” This age is the time of the Church, which the Bible portrays as the intervening period following the time of Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage and preceding his return in glory.
For Benedict this point is relevant because it reveals that there is not merely one voice in the New Testament when it comes to the time of Jesus’ return. The Bible is like a stained-glass window with many different pieces that only make sense when looked at as a whole. It is therefore not as if the entire Church lay in a state of confusion and error in thinking the parousia was imminent. The pope writes, “It seems obvious to me that several of Jesus’ parables speak of this time of the Church; from the perspective of a purely imminent eschatology, they would make no sense.” He goes on to state, “From the content, it is clear that all three Synoptic Gospels recognize a time of the Gentiles: the end of the world can come only when the Gospel has been brought to all peoples.”
To be sure, the Holy Father reminds us that certain passages explicitly state that “this generation will not pass away” before the end (Matt 24:34). Other texts, however, affirm what he said above–namely that the parousia will not occur “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24) and that “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” (Mark 13:10; cf. Matt 24:14). To this he further adds, “Paul, too, recognizes an age of the Gentiles, which is the present and which must be fulfilled if God’s plan is to attain its goal.” In this way, one can see that drawing a one-to-one correspondence between Jesus’ use of eschatological imagery and his thought concerning the chronological end of the world would constitute a “superficial reading” of the Gospels.
Granted that the Gospels witness to a time of the Gentiles that must precede the parousia, we remain faced with a stumbling block–the perception that certain early Christians thought the Gospel had in fact already reached all the nations. As we read from Benedict’s Eschatology in a previous post, “Even in his own age, Paul believed that he had in fact offered the Gospel to the whole inhabited world. The demand that the Gospel would be preached to all the world seemed thus already fulfilled in the generation of the apostles, what the Markan Jesus calls “this generation.”
How are we to square such an observation with our discussion up to this point? The reality is that certain biblical authors may have assumed that the Gospel had reached unto the ends of the earth and that Jesus was about to return in glory in their day. We cannot prove this beyond the shadow of a doubt, but neither can we disprove it simply by saying that they could not have thought this way since it would be tantamount to admitting the presence of an error in Scripture. Pope Benedict’s approach is much more refined–and thereby challenging–than this. Rather than coming down on one side or another on this question, he shows that the very issue is peripheral and could go either way:
The fact that the early Church was unable to assess the chronological duration of these kairoi (“times”) of the Gentiles and that it was generally assumed they would be fairly short is ultimately a secondary consideration. The essential point is that these times were both asserted and foretold and that, above all else and prior to any calculation of their duration, they had to be understood and were understood by the disciples in terms of a mission.
The bottom line is that the Bible does not formally assert the precise time of the Second Coming. Although we find indications of what individual apostles thought concerning the matter, Benedict understands that for them this was “ultimately a secondary consideration.” Whether they thought the world was going to end within a day or a year or a decade, he tells us that the “essential point” they were asserting concerned the need for spiritual preparation, for mission, and for endurance in the face of persecution. It turns out that these are realities that must govern Christians’ lives regardless of the epoch in which they live and how much time remains in their earthly pilgrimage. They are the core message, the true key, to understanding the Bible’s parousia passages. I am sure we could add to this, but this is as much as Benedict says here.
And thus our ongoing discussion of the parousia draws to a close. What we have seen in the preceding posts is Benedict XVI offering a serious, thoughtful answer to the observation that the early Church apparently got it wrong in expecting the Second Coming to occur in the first century. Benedict follows many of his modern counterparts in acknowledging evidence to this effect, but he also is careful to note that it was not a universally-held belief among the authors of Scripture. Careful to safeguard the integrity of Scripture, he furthermore shows that the core messages affirmed therein remain intact regardless of whether or not the apostles had an accurate idea of when the parousia would take place. Not every word in Scripture is asserted or taught for its own sake, and it in no way violates the doctrine of biblical inerrancy if biblical authors at times hold less than exact ideas about issues that are of secondary importance and not being asserted as such.
The above understanding of biblical inerrancy may catch some Christians off guard, but that is because many are accustomed to reading Scripture as if every last sentence was dictated by God and making an infallible claim. To be sure, it is easy to swing too far in one direction and fail to bear in mind the inspiration, inerrancy, and divine authorship of the Bible. However, Pope Benedict’s treatment of the parousia reveals that we can only do justice to thorny Scripture texts if we also give due respect to the real claims made by their human authors. The brilliance of this balanced approach may not immediately click with everyone who is new to reading Benedict and these posts, but one of the main goals I aim to achieve in my writing is to continue presenting Benedict’s exegetical method anew in accordance with the myriad ways he has instantiated it over the years. You’ll thus be hearing a lot from me on other topics that deal with similar questions using similar methods.
Next time you hear from me, however, it will probably be a very different kind of post as I’ll be reporting from Greece and Turkey on a pilgrimage-class I am leading for Benedictine College.