Benedict XVI’s Eschatology & the Problem of the Parousia

After examining Pope Benedict’s thought on the parousia in his catechesis on St. Paul, today we’ll look at the problem of an imminent Second Coming as treated in Benedict’s work Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, published before he became pope. This work is pivotal because its central purpose is to treat the “Last Things” or End Times (Greek eschaton).

It is revealing–and perhaps startling–to read the very first sentence of the book’s section entitled “The Expectation of an Imminent End.” Benedict plainly states, “Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the New Testament does contain unmistakable traces of an expectation that the world will end soon. Where do these traces come from? Do they go back to Jesus?” In this way he sets up the problem we began discussing in my first post on problematic biblical texts that apparently got it wrong with regard to their expectations concerning the time of Christ’s Second Coming.

In the ensuing discussion, Benedict flexes his historical-critical muscles as he explores hypotheses that attempt to date the various New Testament texts that deal with the topic of the parousia. The standard maxim, he relates, is “the greater the stress on expectation of an imminent end, the older a text must be.” As evidence for this, he observes that Matthew and Luke, composed (according to the view of Benedict and most modern scholars) later than Mark, speak of a “delay of the arrival” of the Bridegroom whereas Mark does not. Benedict tells us, “In such texts the waiting Church retrojects its own experience of the “˜delay’ of the parousia into the earlier sayings of Jesus.”

Next Benedict turns his attention to 2 Peter, a later text than the foregoing. He observes, “In this epistle, one sees even more clearly how a later period reached a compromise between imminence and remoteness, and explained the parosuia’s delay in theological fashion.” 2 Pet 3:4 confronts the argument of those would scoff and ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?” To this Peter responds, “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up” (2 Pet 3:8-10). Peter emphasizes that we cannot know the precise day or hour, and so Christians are to “be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Pet 3:14).

At this point, however, Benedict critiques and tweaks the preceding argument. “In themselves the examples given are doubtless cogent evidence for the thesis [that the older the biblical text, the greater the stress on an imminent end to the world]. Nevertheless, it is open to question whether one can infer from this anything like a general chronological principle whereby Christian origins are marked by an eschatology of radical imminence which would then be gradually toned down until one finally arrives at John, where, for Bultmann at least, temporal eschatology has been wholly eliminated in favor of its existential counterpart.”

If you read enough of Benedict’s writings on the topic of historical-critical scholarship (especially as exemplified in his work Jesus of Nazareth), you’ll frequently see that he at once gives great respect to its findings and at the same time soberly acknowledges its limitations–in this case our inability to claim we have offered a strict chronology of biblical texts dealing with the parousia. Not without a touch of irony does Benedict thus state, “Naturally, [the person who believes that later texts are more accurate with regard to the timing of the parousia] has to claim that John understood Jesus better than Jesus understood himself.”

Adducing evidence contrary to the idea the later means less imminent when it comes to the early Church’s expectations of the parousia, Benedict writes that one commentator “has shown that the gospel Matthew, composed contemporaneously with Luke’s (or perhaps even later) contains an undiminished imminent eschatology which may even be described as heightened in comparison with Mark.” How is this to be explained? “In some circumstances, an extreme form of temporal expectation might well be the product of a re-Judaizing process. The Judaism of Jesus’ day had an overwhelming expectation of the imminent end. Such an expectation cannot be regarded, then, as something peculiarly characteristic of Jesus. The schema of linear development simply does not correspond to the facts.”

What Benedict achieves here both helps our cause and simultaneously makes it more difficult. On the one hand, he makes it pretty clear that the New Testament does contain an “imminent eschatology” at various points and does not merely appear to do so. On the other hand, he hasn’t yet offered an explanation for how such an admission does not violate the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In other words, if we can’t respond to problematic texts by saying, “You’re reading it wrong–the apostles didn’t really think that the world was about to end,” then how are we supposed to respond to this challenge? Benedict’s thought also introduces a new problem: that not only the early Church, but Jesus himself, apparently expected the consummation of the world to be at hand in his day.

And thus we must keep marching towards a resolution to our problem as we continue our exploration of Benedict’s work Eschatology next time before turning to his discussion of the topic in volume 2 of his more recent Jesus of Nazareth.


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