A More Responsible Way to Think About Biblical Eschatology: Engaging with Karl Heim Through TF Torrance

In North American evangelical circles when you hear the word eschatology your mind typically races to The Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series. Or, if you’re old enough, you might even think about all the artistic charts providing a linear timeline for biblical prophecy and eschatological events. But when we engage with this word from a more historical and Christian Dogmatic frame of reference, indeed, if we engage with this word and its conceptual matter from the New Testament itself (by engaging with its inner theo-logic) a different sense emerges. The ‘end’ is certainly in view, but the way that transposes with the now supplies us with a very different frame for thinking things eschatological. Clearly, for the Christian our hope is that Jesus Christ will return bodily (just as he ascended Acts 1.8), and usher in the new creation in consummate form unending; this is indeed the eschatological hope. What this ought to do for us though, in a broader less idiosyncratic frame, is cause us to ponder the relationship between time and eternity; and maybe wonder what the latter has to do with the former.

This is sort of pondering actually didn’t happen in earnest until the modern period; or at least the modern developments re-ignited a focus on the biblical understanding of the eschaton that was certainly present in the Patristic period. But what happened in the modern period under the pioneering work of someone like Albert Schweitzer and his Jesus Quest was to recognize just how central eschatological thinking was to the whole of the New Testament. It was in fact the rise of historic-critical tools that developed as a result of Enlightenment forces, that caused this focused engagement with the text of the New Testament that made its critics, Schweitzer among them, recognize the lacuna of previous scholarship in understanding just how central the eschatological was to the New Testament project. While Schweitzer was unable to follow through with his identification of the eschatological as the inner reality of the New Testament witness, vis-à-vis the apocalyptic, it was his work along with some others that brought the need to re-examine the New Testament witness in the light of eschatological reality.

Thomas Torrance offers some important delineation of the impact of this re-focused emphasis on eschatology as he surveys the work of theologians following this sort of New Testament studies revolution. He first identifies the early Barth and his commentary on Romans as taking Schweitzer’s insights to their theological conclusion; taking Schweitzer where Schweitzer himself failed to go. TFT then notes how Barth later corrected some of his early thinking as he matured into the Barth of the Church Dogmatics. But I don’t want to focus on TF’s survey on Barth; instead I want to highlight his sketch of Karl Heim’s work. I find the analogy that emerges in Heim’s thinking to be quite compelling in regard to the way we might think of time’s relationship to eternity in a christological frame. Torrance writes (once again at length):

Even more significant that the work of Althaus, however, has been the work of Karl Heim. On the one hand, his significance lies in the fact that he stands in a closer relation to the biblical message, working out an eschatology in terms of justification and forgiveness, and bringing into history the acute tension manifest in the death of Christ in the contradiction between the powers of evil and the holy love of God. On the other hand, Heim’s significance lies in his efforts to break with the idealist conception of time that has for so long done violence to our understanding of the biblical message. For help in his interpretation, Heim turns partly to Bergson and partly to the changes in modern notions of time due to the new physics, and certainly he manages to introduce into his views something of a Heraclitean tension.

Critics argue that this is only to understand primitive mythology in terms of modern mythology, but although it is not always easy to understand or agree with Heim’s notions of time, particularly when they are influenced by transient scientific theories, he has done us great service both in thinking eschatology and soteriology into each other, and in overthrowing what he calls a static (stabil) view of time in favour of a dynamic (labil) view as the time-form of the Ego. The latter means that he works out a view of eschatology in close association with the life of the church, for our Christian view of time must inevitably be bound up with God’s action in history through the church as the place where eternity is so to speak within time. Eternity does not stand forth only at the end of time but is the frontier of time all along the line. It is the other side of time and beyond time, the final reality that bears upon time. That reality is supremely manifest in the incarnation, and through the death of Christ and through the church in her proclamation of the gospel, it gets to grip with time in the matter of guilt. Thus history, particularly history in relation to the church, is read in terms of the contradiction of sinners against the man of Calvary, and the whole panorama of time has its meaning unfolded there in terms of a dynamic tension so acute that every time is seen to be the last time. Heim does not think in terms of alternatives such as realised eschatology or a future coming of the kingdom at the end of time, but in terms of both.

It is characteristic of Heim that he speaks of these difficult matters again and again through illustrations. Thus he likens the church of the New Testament to a vast iron bridge which spans the torrent of time with a single arch supported by only two pillars, the cross of Christ which stands on this side of time and the coming of Christ in power which stands on the other side of time. The church of Christ in history is maintained from age to age by these two supports and its very being is bound up with the essential unity of these two events, the perfected event of the death and resurrection of Christ and the future event of the parousia. It is because the very being of the church is proleptically conditioned by a new creation to be revealed at the parousia, the return of Christ, that she lives in dynamic tension here and now at the very frontiers of eternity.

This tension is through the tension that lies at the heart of justification, the relation that exists in the conflict between guilt and the power of evil (in which Heim sees behind the outward façade of world history the embattled array of Satanic forces) and the redeeming purpose of God. It is because that struggle was supremely concentrated in the cross, and because Jesus Christ emerged there as absolute victor over all evil that God confronts time through Jesus Christ by whom at last the world will be judged and all history brought to its great consummation. But because it is through Jesus Christ that God confronts the world in its history, history will inevitably repeat on the full scale of humanity the conflict of the cross, but it will be a conflict or cataclysm in which Jesus Christ will emerge triumphant with his new creation of heaven and earth. Because we are concerned through all of this with a dynamic or fluid (labil) view of time we cannot think of the consummation by a lengthening of time but in terms only of God’s moment fulfilling and ending our time. Hence we cannot say in what day or hour the parousia will take place. All we know is that we are confronted now through the gospel with God’s will and with eternity as though this were the last time.[1]

The illustration Torrance shares from Heim is instructive in regard to the hangars of time; hangars that pivot on the first and second advents of Jesus Christ. Biblical eschatology in this approach starts with the res (reality) of Scripture, with Jesus Christ; as if there is a cosmic battle taking place, but one that has been won by the risen Christ. The way the eschaton conditions time and our daily nows is through the proclamation of the Gospel by the witness of the church. It is the reality of new creation known by faith, and given power by the resurrection that the church serves as the witness to the mediator between time and eternity in the hypostatic union of God and man in Jesus Christ. There is a great conflagration inhering in the Christian’s life, of an eschatological vector, as the Christian lives in and from the Omega of God’s eternal life as that implicates the Alpha made present in our daily lives in this mundane world as the Christ’s church.

What we see presented in Heim’s thought, according to Torrance, is a better and more biblical-theological way to think about eschatology. The Bible does not lay out a line of biblical prophetic events that must take place in a domino sort of fashion; it does not give us a code waiting to be decoding by the newspapers, per se. Instead, a biblically rich understanding of the eschatological is to think it in the sort of terms that Heim does; to think it in and from the terms laid out by the incarnation of God, and the obedience of that reality in Jesus Christ as he made a public spectacle of the devil and his demons at the cross. The church, as she bears witness to this powerful reality, in union with Christ by the Spirit, is involved in living the eschatological life that is God’s life in confrontation and destruction of the principalities and powers at work in this ‘world system.’ This is what the eschatological entails; not charts.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, edited by Robert T. Walker (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2008), 312-14.

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