Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Is the Second Coming a Pauline Innovation?

I finished N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope yesterday. As are all his books, it is excellent.
I'm really excited, also, because some of the Element peeps and I are attending this event tonight.

Wright's writing is always enlightening and provocative, but the most interesting thing I encountered in Surprised by Hope is his contention that Jesus never taught his second coming. Wright reads the Olivet Discourse, for instance, as referring to Christ's coming in glory and judgment in the resurrection, and a bit to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
Now, this perspective is not new to me. It is a sort of preterism I am familiar with and find valid, despite disagreeing with it. The interesting part here is that Wright does not deny the future second coming of Jesus; he just says Jesus himself doesn't refer to it, that he was concerned with other things.

This view, as far as I can tell, makes Paul the "inventor" of the second coming. Now, I don't have a problem per se with doctrines originating with Paul, as I believe his canonical epistles are the revelation of God, inspired by God from beginning to end. So even if we encounter a New Testament viewpoint for the first time in Paul, it doesn't mean it came wholly from Paul's imagination. But my understanding is typically guided by the notion that Paul expands/extrapolates/applies the teaching and work of Jesus. Jesus provided the sheet music for a beautiful symphony, and Paul is concerned with teaching the Church how to play it.
That is an illustration I got straight from Wright, actually, in the first book of his I ever read, The Challenge of Jesus.

I guess I just see glaring parallel ideas between the Olivet Discourse and Paul's eschatology in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. He even appeals to "the Lord's own word" in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 and uses the "thief in the night" metaphor from the Discourse in 1 Thessalonians 5:2. And the stuff in 2 Thessalonians 2 seems to draw from stuff in the Discourse.

Anybody got any thoughts on this? Did Paul innovate the second coming and just happened to use the same language Jesus used to refer to something else?


Rob said...

I'm quite sure that isn't a Pauline innovation. Wright's very good on the gospels in most respects, but he has a few wonky spots in his thinking; this I believe is one of them. (There's a commonality to them, I'm sure, but I haven't had the time to sit down and try to figure out what. There's just something he's trying to do that skews him every now and again.) Not only is that interpretation exegetically dubious, I can't think of any indication that anyone in the early church understood Jesus' words that way.

brandonmilan said...

I should have read this post first, then I would have known that you had read The Challenge of Jesus. I've been wanting to read "Surprised by Hope," but I don't really have the money to put into books right now. And Northern Canada has little to offer in the way of bookstores, much less Christian bookstores. But I found out yesterday that I have a $300 book fund. Thats a luxury I'm not used to. I'll be buying that book soon, though.

gavin richardson said...

i am fencing it on the pauline innovation of second coming. that is going to take a number of years to deconstruct. but i can easily come to recognize that jesus, mary, john the baptist, and/or zechariah did not talk about a second coming and their understanding of the role, a what, of jesus's presence is far from that concept.

look forward to meeting up tonight
shalom, -gav

brandonmilan said...

I'm interested in this idea, though. I find that I tend towards Wright most of the time. (In as much as I have read his work, anyway). I read What Saint Paul Really Said and I found it made quite a bit of sense. On that QandA with John Piper and Matt Chandler that you mentioned in another post, one of the questions was about "false gospels." I appreciate that Piper was quick to say that Wright was teaching a false gospel, but his statement about Wright teaching a "confusing gospel," well, confused me.

But anyway, with that said, I'm looking forward to having the church buy this book for me.

Jared said...

Brandon, Piper said that Wright was not teaching a false gospel. He just said that he thought it was a confusing one. But remember he said that for him "false" means "damnable," and that in his view Wright does not fall into that category.

He also said some good things about his correspondence with Wright after his book on Wright's view of the atonement.

brandonmilan said...

yeah... i left out an important "n't" at the end of that "was" in my prior post... i should've read through it more closely, i guess...

What I meant to say:
I appreciate that Piper was quick to point out that Wright wasn't teaching a false gospel.

That reminds me of the lyrics on the screen at church this Sunday when my wife and I were leading worship:

Instead of "everyone sing," it read "everyone sin."

And another song spoke of God's "ending love."

I guess God's love for me ended because I told everyone to sin.

Jared said...

Instead of "everyone sing," it read "everyone sin."

Oh my. That is awesome! :-)

Anonymous said...

Wasn't Thessalonians written before the gospels?

I think it even pre-dates Mark.

(BTW, I tend to find Piper more confusing than Wright.)

But I don't know *how* to think about this kind of thing. In a real sense, we have a record of Jesus's teaching that Paul didn't. Can we process Paul through a lens that wasn't available to him?

I'm no theologian, but I wonder about this stuff.

Thanks for your blog, Jared!


Jared said...

Yes, Paul's writing predates the Gospels' writing. But I'm assuming, of course, that the Gospels accurately record Jesus' words and teaching, which obviously occurred before Paul's conversion and formulation of Christian doctrine.

Can we process Paul through a lens that wasn't available to him?

Perhaps not the textual lens.
But I think most assume that Paul's teaching is drawn from the oral record or perhaps earlier written records the Gospels draw from too. Proto-gospels, perhaps? I don't know.
The idea that he just made it up and by inspiration it "matches" is intriguing and possible, probably appealing in some ways, but I think unlikely.

I see what you're saying, though.
The imagery and the parallel wording just seems too strong for me to not think they're linked, particularly since they're both talking about "end things."

Brant, thanks for the comment/questions and the compliment!

brandonmilan said...

Proto-gospels?? The Gospel of Q is what those liberal scholars call it... according to my conservative professors back in college.

Jared said...

Yeah, I just meant earlier written versions of the stuff we have in the gospels. Q would be one of those.

I don't have a firm stance either way on if Q or other pre/proto Gospels existed, but I don't think it makes somebody a liberal if he does. :-)

The synoptics could sound alike because they're talking about the same stuff, right? :-)

brandonmilan said...

the problem with written/typed communication is that sarcasm is hard to discern... the whole proto-gospel thing makes sense to me... in fact, if anything, it would just add that much more trustworthiness to the bible, in my opinion, anyway...

Jason said...

Wasn't the Second Coming "invented" by the OT prophets? Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah clearly wrote of Christ's suffering and death. They also wrote of His Kingdom being set up afterwards. That would imply a resurrection and a 2nd Coming.

The problem is that most Jews either ignored the suffering verses, or thought it spoke of 2 Messiahs. That is still a popular teaching today among Rabbi's. Paul just took that info (he sprinkled OT throughout his Epistles) and applied it. Just my 2 cents.

Jared said...

Jason, good points. When I ask about Paul inventing it I mean the details particular to Jesus of Nazareth being the returning king, etc.
Thanks for prompting me to clarify.

However, I do think that much of what is commonly thought of as referring to the second coming in the OT is referring to the first coming.

But in any event it opens up the compounded oddity that the prophets mentioned the second coming and Paul mentioned the second coming but Jesus did not. And as Jesus, in my view at least, served as the fulfillment and climax and expounder of the OT expectation, it seems weird he'd leave that really important bit about the consummation of eschatology out.

must_decrease said...

Don't forget that for many OT prophets, their messages have a dual fulfillment as well, both immediate and in the future. They were in bondage and cried out for deliverance, which came, but also pointed toward a future and unending deliverance. This teaching style was also modeled by Jesus (see the Beatitudes and His conversations with both the disciples, and Pharisees).

Just some thoughts

steve said...

Here's the link to West End's recording of Wright's lecture.