Jesus and his coming

Written by John A. T. Robinson Reviewed By Richard Bauckham

This is the second edition of a book first published in 1957, now reissued unaltered except for the addition of a brief new preface. Whether this is a particularly useful procedure, when so much relevant material has been published in the meantime, I rather doubt.

The book’s thesis can be summarized as follows:

(1)  The parousia idea has two elements: vindication and visitation. Both elements belonged to Jesus’ expectation of the future, but he did not understand them in terms of a second messianic event, his coming from heaven to earth in glory. Rather he expected them as the culmination of his life and ministry.

(2)  This expectation of Jesus was fulfilled in his resurrection-exaltation (his vindication) and in the fall of Jerusalem (as the historical outworking of the judgment which came to Israel in Jesus’ ministry).

(3)  Authentic New Testament eschatology is therefore (not fully realized, but) inaugurated eschatology. It is not that there is no future dimension, no ‘not yet’, but there is no second messianic event to be expected. In the death and resurrection of Jesus ‘all is inaugurated, yet only inaugurated. From then on that through which in the end the world must be saved or condemned comes finally into history: thenceforward men are in the presence of the eschatological event and the eschatological community’ (p. 101).

(4)  This eschatology (which has no place for the parousia) is represented by the early speeches in Acts (except Acts 3), where the climax of the messianic event has already occurred: by virtue of the fact that Jesus is now king, and reigns until all his foes submit. The same perspective can be uncovered in the earlier Synoptic traditions, and receives its finest exposition in the Fourth Gospel.

(5)  But there was another strand of early Christian expectation, of which the sermon in Acts 3, perhaps the ‘earliest Christology of all’, is evidence: here the messianic event was still, as in Judaism, expected in the future. Jesus (not yet the Messiah) is identified as the one who is to return as Messiah in the future.

(6)  The common New Testament position (decisive messianic event in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but also an imminent future parousia) is a compromise between (4) and (5). From this compromise results the concept of two stages of eschatological fulfilment, two comings of Christ. Now the church proclaimed ‘notthat all was inaugurated, but that while some elements in it were now fulfilled, others still lay purely in the future’ (p. 102).

This thesis is open to criticism of various kinds. The exegesis and the historical reconstruction, while illuminating at some points, have not convinced many scholars of the thesis as a whole. Perhaps the strongest prima facie difficulty in Robinson’s case, as he admits, is that the document which, on most reckonings, constitutes our earliest evidence of Christian belief (1 Thessalonians) witnesses to a strong expectation of the parousia. Whether the speeches in Acts can count against this, and whether the parousia material in the Gospels can really be shown to belong to a late stage of the tradition, remain questionable points.

There also seems to me to be one rather odd inconsistency in the argument. Robinson is at pains to disown the idea of a completely realized eschatology (for which he has nevertheless frequently been reproached): his inaugurated eschatology, with no parousia, includes a real element of ‘not yet’. In the early part of the book he explains that both Jesus and all early Christians shared the common Jewish expectation of an end of history: the final consummation of God’s purposes, the last judgment, the general resurrection, the gathering of the elect. These expectations would have remained ‘even had they not come to be associated with the expectation of the Christ’s return. For clearly they had not yet been fulfilled’ (p. 23). Moreover, both Jesus and the early church put this common Jewish hope into Christological terms: ‘all things were to be consummated in Christ’ (p. 23, cf. p. 38). They did this even altogether apart from the question of the parousia.

Now the hope of the parousia might seem to be simply the expression of this expectation of the end of history, Christologically interpreted. But Robinson’s argument assumes the parousia to be something more than this, an additional element, misleadingly introduced into the eschatological picture. Yet he never succeeds in explaining what is misleading about the parousia, in terms which do not make the general expectation of the End equally misleading. He seems to have two real theological objections to the idea of the parousia: (1) Instead of the belief that all of the eschatological hope has been inaugurated in Jesus’ death and resurrection, it holds that some aspects of fulfilment remain purely future. Yet Robinson himself has said that the first Christians rightly retained the traditional expectation of the end of history because it was ‘evident that the ingathering of the elect, the general resurrection, the last judgment, and the end of this present world-order had all still to take place’ (p. 23). Were these aspects of eschatology already inaugurated in Jesus’ cross and resurrection? In a certain sense, perhaps yes. But if the early Christians were right to expect their fulfilment at the End, why were they wrong to expect the parousia of Jesus Christ to accomplish their fulfilment? The idea of the parousia does not introduce extra elements into the eschatological hope; rather it defines the whole of the eschatological hope Christologically. It makes it clear that it is from Jesus Christ, who has already inaugurated the Kingdom, that the final fulfilment of the Kingdom is to be expected. The parousia is not a second coming unrelated to the first. Rather the parousia is expected because the achievement of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection still awaits its final climax: when he will be vindicated unambiguously on the open stage of universal history, and when his now hidden reign will become universally manifested and effective, no longer challenged by evil. Vindication and visitation are, as Robinson insists, the culmination of Jesus’ historical life and ministry, but that is precisely what the parousia will be.

(2) In his final reflections it emerges that Robinson objects to the idea of the parousia because it puts the ‘not yet’ into the form of an event. For Robinson, the ‘not yet’ is not a still future eschatological event, but the continuing effect in history of what happened in Christ’s death and resurrection. But this is an objection which again applies to the whole Jewish and early Christian expectation of the End, no less than to the parousia. Even without the parousia, Jesus and early Christians would have (according to Robinson, did) expect the End as future event. Robinson demythologizes the End, as a myth about the present; but if he can demythologize the End, then so can he demythologize the parousia. (In fact he recognizes this point, p. 182.) Whether either should be demythologized is another question (which Robinson discusses more fully in his In the End God).

It is difficult not to suspect that Robinson’s dogmatic presuppositions about eschatology had some influence on his attempt to characterize the parousia as a secondary, inferior form of Christian hope. But if so, he mistook his target. He should have been attacking the general expectation of the End as final event.

Richard Bauckham

Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews