Rambling thoughts about the Church Fathers and Last Things

The tradition I come from was called restorationism because people like Alexander Campbell thought you could achieve church unity by going back (restoring) what the New Testament taught while ignoring the human traditions that arose in the next centuries.

Restorationism was clearly wrong on a practical level.  People are not going to agree on what the New Testament taught enough to actually unite into one church.  Also, it seems to me you have to be pretty insensitive not to see beauty and truth in many of the teachings of church fathers and practices that arose after the New Testament.

And yet the response to gnostic heresy induced (perhaps understandably) an unfortunate authoritarianism in church government and dogmatism in theology that did not exist in the first century.  Furthermore, the attitude toward Judaism became hardened in a new way.

Another example of the church after the first century becoming sort of messed up has to do with the role of women.  I know the proof texts that helped justify later prohibitions on female leadership.  But there are, especially in Paul’s letters, many texts that show more flexibility on this than the church in the next centuries allowed.

So I think we would do well to restore some things about the New Testament church. I can’t affirm the authority of the church fathers as unquestionable or fully binding on the later church.

However, knowing the church fathers has its uses.  (By the way Alexander Campbell was  himself something of a patristics scholar.)

I was thinking about this as I mulled over the fulfilled eschatology position advocated by G. K. Beale.  As best I understand him, he sees the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible, the prophecies of Jesus, and even the prophecies of the Book of Revelation as fulfilled in the the events of 70 CE and the ascendancy of the church.

But did any church father look back on 70 CE and the fall of the temple as the fulfillment of the coming of a new heaven and a new earth?  Did they not all in various ways still look forward to the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment as future events?  See the argument here.

Although I wouldn’t say the church fathers were necessarily right.  The fulfilled eschatology perspective of absolute preterism seems to be a modern innovation.

I do understand that the the delay for thousands of years of the coming of Christ  was not something anyone in the early church expected.  The delay of the parousia does pose problems for people who want to see precise fulfillment of biblical prophecies.  So, as much as I am completely out of touch with the popular understanding of prophecy (the Left Behind novels for instance), I really don’t find the fulfilled eschatology perspective convincing.

Practically, we all do live under the pressure of the approaching end.  It is just that the end is individual for us.  It is concrete in our deaths.  But to speak of the last things as having already happened seems to undercut the urgency of getting our lives right before it is too late.  And I still think it is likely true that, just as our lives move on a time line from birth to death, so the cosmos is on a time line that runs for an unimaginable beginning to an unimaginable end.


About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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