Whose Jesus? Which eschatology?

(With apologies to Alasdair MacIntyre.)

I’m still reading Marcus Borg’s Jesus. In the scholarly arena, Borg is probably best known as a proponent of the “non-eschatological” or “non-apocalyptic” Jesus, and he addresses this controversy in chapter 9 of this book.

In Jesus, Borg offers a refinement of terminology. Instead of “non-eschatological” or “non-apocalyptic,” he now prefers to talk about “imminent eschatology” versus “participatory eschatology.”

Imminent eschatology refers to the perspective–pioneered by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer in the 20th century and long considered orthodoxy in Jesus studies–that Jesus’ central message was one of apocalyptic expectation. That is, he believed that God was about to act decisively to usher in the Kingdom in its fullness by means of a supernatural intervention (with Jesus himself as, in some sense, God’s instrument). The unavoidable implication of this view is that Jesus was wrong, since the Kingdom manifestly didn’t appear in 33 A.D.

Borg, in contrast, argues for participatory eschatology. That is, the Kingdom is what the world would look like if God’s will really had its way–the poor would be fed, the naked would be clothed, nation would no longer war against nation, and people’s hearts would be centered on God.

[The Kingdom] is God’s dream, God’s passion, God’s will, God’s promise, God’s intention for the earth. God’s utopia–the blessed place, the ideal state of affairs. (p. 252)

In Borg’s view, for Jesus the Kingdom was something that people were to participate in here and now by turning to God and being converted to the ways of compassion and resistance to injustice–ways that are at odds with much of the conventional wisdom of the world. “Participatory eschatology…means that Jesus called people to respond and participate in the coming of the kingdom” (p. 259). Applying the categories of Calvinist-Arminian debate, we might say that Borg’s view is a synergistic one, as opposed to the monergistic one of the apocalyptic school. Borg sees the Kingdom as a reality that is, in some sense, already present and which we are invited to participate in.

Borg’s main argument for this position has both a negative and a positive aspect:

– First, he doubts that the more apocalyptic statements attributed to Jesus actually go back to him; instead he thinks it more likely that they refer to the early church’s expectation of Jesus’ second coming–expectations that were stoked by the Resurrection.

– Second, he argues that a participatory eschatology makes better sense of a larger swath of the gospel material; specifically, much of what Borg characterizes as Jesus’ “wisdom teaching” seems irrelevant if he thought the end was imminent.

Obviously I’m in no position to judge the details of the historical argument–which Borg only summarizes in any event. However, I do wonder if there is a religious reason for preferring one view over the other.

On the one hand, many Christians would be uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus was mistaken about the coming of the Kingdom–particularly if it was as central to his vision and mission as the proponents of imminent eschatology would have it. Orthodoxy can live with a fallible Jesus (he is fully human, after all), but can it live with a Jesus who fundamentally missed the boat with regard to the central theme of his ministry?

On the other hand, a view like Borg’s implies–at least to the extent that the early church entertained apocalyptic expectations–that the early Christian community was mistaken about what Jesus meant. This implication can maybe be softened a bit by arguing (as Borg does) that it was the Resurrection experiences that created, or at least intensified, this expectation (not unreasonably if the general resurrection was associated with “end-times” thinking in Judaism). Nevertheless, there is a potentially embarassing Jesus-versus-the-church conclusion looming at the end of this train of thought.

I guess to the extent that we think the “historical Jesus” is important for the life of faith–and not all Christians are agreed about this–Borg’s Jesus and his participatory eschatology seems to have the greater relevance. However, I’m also left less than fully satisfied by his sketch of eschatology. While he insists that it is God’s dream for the earth that human beings participate in or collaborate with, he doesn’t seem to leave much room for God’s action outside of human effort. In particular, the Kingdom of God has usually been taken to entail not just a perfectly just society, but a transformed created order where not only injustice, but suffering, sickness, and death are no more. Can Borg’s participatory model make sense of this?

UPDATE: This post seems relevant.


8 thoughts on “Whose Jesus? Which eschatology?

  1. Chip Frontz

    Your questions are well stated, Lee. Without the promise (whenever it is realized) of imminent eschatology, it would seem that participatory eschatology has no option but to attempt to bring in the Kingdom it promises by its own strength and means. Could one not argue that Marxist thought, for example, is a secular apocalyptic that calls all to participate in the “Last Days” and is ultimately more bloodthirsty than the book of Revelation?

    I don’t know that orthodoxy can accept a “fallible” Jesus as much as a Jesus who intuitively understands the ways of his Father, but whose knowledge of the details of the future is limited by his humanity (or even by the personhood of the Son.) The New Testament seems to present an imminent eschatology that is delayed by God’s mercy, and in the meantime the apostles and their followers are to be participatory witnesses of the present-yet-coming Kingdom.

    Personally, if my participation or the world’s participation in the Kingdom were not founded on the hope of God realizing that Kingdom (whenever that might be) I would not be very sanguine about the chances for that Kingdom to come. That might be the Lutheran view, and it seems that you have not fully abandoned it either. 🙂

  2. Hi Chip – good to hear from you!

    I like your suggestion of an “imminent-participatory” polarity (similar, I think to the idea in the post linked to in my update).

  3. I think this depends on what is meant by participatory. In Hooker’s understanding, this is participation in God’s own life, which is by grace. Participation itself is something first received and out of which we are invited to live. It is gift. As an Anglican, that has often looked like acting as if (the subjunctive) the Consummation is already. But we do not bring in the Kingdom in such a way of thinking, but live out of the reality that God’s reign is present to us in Christ by the Spirit, and we are called to live out the consequences, and that its fulfillment/completion is God’s work only.

    1. Christopher, I like that way of putting it. My concern about Borg is that the consummation (if there is ever to be one) is entirely a result of human effort. Even though he would say that our efforts are empowered by God’s Spirit.

  4. “The unavoidable implication of this view is that Jesus was wrong, since the Kingdom manifestly didn’t appear in 33 A.D.”

    I would want to know the texts that are used to frame this as a disappointment.

    The one that I am most familiar with is Matthew 24:34 “”Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”

    I have heard this handled various ways. One way would be to take the word “generation” according to one of its other meanings. One definition is that a generation is all the offspring of a common ancestor. On the other side, there are many passages where the more common definition of the people alive at the same time together seems to be in view.

    I once read a book coming from what is called the 70AD Preterist position that argued that all these things DID take place. This argued for a second coming of Christ in 70AD. (Leaving us waiting for the Third Coming.)

    This kind of reading was unsettling at first. But I did find that various of these passages do have alternate readings possible. My current strategy is more to hold many of the passages loosely, and only firm up my understanding when someone presents a really solid case I can lock onto. The more careful exegetical work I had to do in a class on the Book of Revelation showed me that most of us don’t know how to read this kind of literature. So many of the conclusions people arrive at are rather hasty. (And perhaps there is a temptation to read hastily when we think we have little time before us? Someone who thinks the world will end next summer won’t start a long course of reading apocalyptic literature!)

    Whether or not I agree with Borg, I appreciate posts like this as they remind us of alternatives.

  5. Yes, thanks for that. I didn’t mean to imply that there are only two possible views (apocalyptic vs. non-apocalyptic).

    Dale Allison has a list of passages in his book The Historical Jesus and the Theological Christ that, in his view, give the impression of imminent eschatological expectation. I won’t try and reproduce them, but they’re on pages 92-95. (At least some of these pages are viewable on Google Books; but I would highly recommend Allison’s book.) In any event, Allison is convinced, contra Borg and others, that Jesus was a millenialist prophet.

    Allison suggests that, even if Jesus (or his followers, or the gospel writers) took the eschatological imagery literally as referring to an imminent historical event, it’s still possible for us to see them as mythic imagery pointing to a trans-historical truth, much as one might see the opening chapters of Genesis.

  6. Pingback: Jesus and the end: what if he was “wrong”? « A Thinking Reed

  7. Lee, having recently read Borg and Crossan’s work on Paul, I concur with you that something of God’s final in-gathering, if you will, goes absent. That things are read from a this earthly view point to the seeming downplay that finally it is God only who assures all things, and does so, because in Christ, all things have already .

    I find the notion of share community useful and the notion that Christianity is about this life useful. What I don’t find useful is a tearing asunder of the communion of saints both those gone before and ourselves and a divorcing of eternal life in such a way that suggests that it is purely about this life rather than about God holding us always, meaning death is overcome and we shall remain in relationship with God beyond death (and this is promise to the whole of creation in my view).

    What I want to avoid is having a phrase like participatory eschatology be completely tied to Borg’s reading of things, which tends to downplay these two matters as I understand them: Life-after-life (communion of saints) and the Consummation.

    My own sense of a “eucharistic eschatology” is a participatory one, and as A.M. Allchin, that fine Anglican scholar points out, Anglican soteriology is also a participatory one, meaning that we are invited into and participate in God’s own life by Christ in the Spirit as pure gift. The key is that it is gift. By grace. the other key is relationship, and hence, eternal life is not something only about life after life, but about this life. But it is also about life beyond death. Both/and.

    Just as is our creation, our existence at all is a gift. Having a gift or dependent ontology, if you will, always and everywhere in no wise diminishes our existence, but rather, should assure us that Christ’s promise that “all shall be well,” despite all appearances to the contrary. Otherwise, Julian’s famed phrase is rather naive.

    From an Anglican perspective, God’s is a Great Giveaway whose very self-gift is very grounds for our response and life.

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