Barth on Eschatology in the New Testament

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In CD III/2 Barth addresses eschatology and time in the New Testament. He has two major opponents he wishes to attack. First, we have those whose views underestimate “the majesty of Jesus in this intervening time in consequence of an underestimation of the origin of the community in His resurrection” (CD III/2 509) by advancing the idea that the early apocalyptic hope of the first church quickly faded away. That is to say many scholars believe that Jesus and Paul were apocalypticists preaching God’s imminent arrival on earth to establish his Kingdom but soon the early church recognized the inaccuracy of such opinions. In fact, this generation would not pass away before all these signs would come true. Unfortunately, that generation did start dying out and second return was in sight. Hence, this “view is thus adopted that early hopes quickly gave way to disappointment and disillusion; that a lofty but impractical expectation was replaced by a clever adaption to realities” (CD III/2, 509). According to Barth, this view is mistaken because it “fails to take account of the Holy Spirit as the driving force behind the community in the time between the resurrection and the parousia” (CD III/2, 509). Barth goes on to admit that the expectation of the parousia is undoubtedly part of the early church, but he denies that there was any such anxiety for the early believers worrying when Christ would return. He argues against this view and ultimately asserts that to find this view, the theory must be read back into the New Testament to substantiate the position. If we let the New Testament speak for itself we find this view is directly challenged again and again (although, I think the evidence he advances is somewhat weak, e.g. 2 Peter 3:8 – with the Lord a day is like a thousand years).

Barth is even more critical of the second position that argues for a realized eschatology. From this position, there is a “failure to recognize the criticism of the Holy Spirit, whose work keeps the community towards its Lord in dissatisfaction with its present condition, preventing it from regarding its conditions as absolute” (CD III/2, 510). This strong ecclesiology fails to recognize the Christian hope for the parousia by setting up an institution that continually asserts itself as the true, sole witness to Jesus, “instead of bearing witness to the authority of Jesus, it invests itself with His authority” (510). From Barth’s perspective, “there can be no place for a Judge who will control the Church itself in sovereignty and whom it is bound to fear” (511). Since the church is such a self-satisfied, well-run organization does it really even need Jesus’ return? Wouldn’t it be better off continuing business as usual without an expectation of the Son of Man returning to judge the living and the dead? (I wanted to make a quick side note. He spends the majority of this section ridiculing the Roman Catholic Church, although he makes the concession that it can also be found in some Protestants and Anglicans. His critique reminded me of the Grand Inquisitor)

At the end, the first view is problematical because Christ “is absent because there is no recognition of the consoling power of His resurrection for the present life of the community” (CD III/2, 511). The realized eschatology position falters because Christ “is absent because no serious account is taken of His future and its critical power for the present life of the community” (CD III/2, 511). The first view errs insofar as Christ’s presence is denied in the community whereas the second view fails to take seriously the future of Christ and its effect on the community. To stay true to the witness of the New Testament, Barth believes we must resist both tempting errors.

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