Wednesday, September 24, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part Three)

Having sketched the cosmic context of God's future plan, N. T. Wright turns his attention to the central role of Jesus in this plan. He dedicates three chapters to Jesus as the central figure of new creation: the first on his ascension into heaven (ch. 7), the second on his return (ch. 8), and the third on his role as judge (ch. 9). In this post I will focus on Wright's understanding of the parousia of Jesus Christ, which comes to the fore in chapter 8. However, we will consider chapter 7 as well, because, as we shall see, his understanding of the parousia relates to his understanding of the ascension. I'll say at the start that while I agree with Wright's main point that Jesus returns to stay not to take us away, his understanding of the parousia is inadequate. Specifically, his view defines Christ's parousia in exclusively future terms and consequently construes Christ's ascension in terms of absence. By way of contrast to Wright's view, I'll briefly present an alternative construction of the parousia drawn from the later theology of Karl Barth. But first, let's get Wright's position before us.

How does N. T. Wright define the New Testament concept of parousia? Although this one Greek term does not carry all the conceptual freight that some think it does, parousia is a key term for describing the future of Jesus Christ. This technical term "is usually translated 'coming,' but literally it means 'presence'--that is, presence as opposed to absence" (128). The term had two major uses in Greco-Roman culture: (1) supernatural presence, such as "the mysterious presence of a god or divinity," and (2) royal presence, such as "when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject" (pg. 129). Early Christian expectation of the paraousia of Jesus revolted against Greco-Roman imperial presumption. By so co-opting the concept of parousia, the early Christians give us a glimpse into the character of Jesus' return: namely, that he will come again not to take us away but to stay, transforming us and reigning with us forever in his transformed world. And so the parousia of Jesus, in conjunction with the other terms often found in its close proximity, refers to the royal appearance of Jesus when he comes again to stay.

Now the general trend of this position is right. It counters the world-denying mistakes of rapture theology without abandoning the personal return of Jesus Christ. And it keeps in view the crucially future dimension of the parousia of Jesus Christ. However, Wright so exclusively links the concept of parousia with this future dimension that he construes the meantime in terms of absence. His use of the language of "absence" is not just to explain the basic terminological sense of parousia (as quoted above). He is making a theological claim: "When we put together that big picture [ch. 6] with what we've said in the previous chapter about the ascension of Jesus [ch. 7], what do we get? Why, of course, the personal presence of Jesus, as opposed to his current absence" (123, emphasis original). According to Wright, if Jesus's future relation with us is one of presence, then Jesus's present relation with us must be one of absence. It is not a coincidence that he refers to his chapter on the ascension here, which, despite its helpful insights regarding heaven as the "control-room" of earth, ultimately defines Jesus's ascension in terms of his absence from the church and the world. Now surely there is some sense in which Jesus is absent from us in the time between the times. But in my view there must be a way of understanding the future parousia of Jesus that does view Jesus as strictly absent from the church and the world in the present. Fortunately, such an alternative can be found in the later theology of Karl Barth.

In a sub-section entitled "The Promise of the Spirit" (Church Dogmatics, Volume 4, Part 3, §69.4), Karl Barth explores what he calls the threefold parousia of Jesus Christ. The context of these reflections is important to note: Barth is arguing that Jesus Christ in his resurrection supplies his own transition from his atoning and revealing life-history to its effects and consequences in our sphere. The central claim in this argument is that universal revelation is objectively accomplished in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Barth is aware that such a claim is audacious, and makes one wonder why the world doesn't simply comes to its end on Easter morning. In order to answer this question, Barth appeals to the three forms of the parousia that he argues makes sense of the complex temporal dynamics of the New Testament.

Parousia in its most basic sense means effectual presence, used to speak of the visitation of God to his people in judgment and grace. When predicated of Jesus Christ, it refers to the coming again of the one who came before. The first coming again of Jesus is quite obviously his being raised from the dead. And so Easter is the first form of the parousia. It is the primal and basic form of Christ's effectual presence. But it is only the first form. For it points forward to the final return of Christ, the final or "third" form of the parousia. Between the primal and final forms of the parousia, we find not empty space-and-time but the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which is the second or intermediary form of the parousia. Jesus Christ wills that there will be a time between the times, not as a delay of his parousia but to give time and space for his people to go to the ends of the earth, working alongside him as bearers of the promise of the Spirit. So there are three forms of the one parousia of Jesus Christ: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the outpouring of the Spirit, and the final return of Christ.

The point of all this for our purposes here is that none of these forms should be seen as less than the others. Each form of the parousia has the same content: the personal and powerful presence of Jesus Christ. And so the time between the times, the missional space opened up between the dawn of new creation on Easter morning and the consummation of all things at the final return of Jesus Christ, must not be construed as a time of absence. Such an absence too quickly invites the church or some other human venture to fill in the gap left by Jesus. Wright is right to not strictly identify the risen Jesus with the church, but such a proper distinction between Head and Body can be maintained without appeal to the absence of Jesus. Jesus is present with his church in the outpouring of the Spirit. This is the second or intermediate form of his parousia. It cannot be collapsed into the first form, for we do not walk with Jesus now the same way as the apostles did during the 40 days. Nor can it be equated with the final form, for we are not yet like him for we do not see him as he truly is. But in all its distinction, the form of his parousia with us today is real, personal, and, most importantly, sufficient for the gift and task of Christian mission to which we are called.

Any thoughts?
  • How do you understand the parousia of Jesus?
  • Is Wright's general point (that Jesus comes not to take us away but to stay) a helpful one?
  • Does my critique of Wright hit a nerve, or miss the point?
  • What do you think of Barth's threefold parousia? Does it account for the temporal dynamics of the New Testament as he claims? What problems are there in his position?
  • In what sense does the ascension of Jesus entail his absence? In what sense does it commence a different kind of presence?
  • Just for fun: What was Jesus' relation to his apostolic community in the ten days between the ascension and pentecost? [This is a speculative but perhaps revealing question]

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