Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Where "Eschatology" Comes From

I made an earth shaking discovery yesterday--at least, it rocked my world.

Let me begin with this (and this isn't the discovery!): Has anybody ever noticed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church never uses the term "the last things" or "eschatology" (though "eschatological" is used a number of times)?

Theologians recognize many different disciplines within theology: Christology (the study of the person and work of Christ), Pneumatology (the study of the person and work of the Holy Spirit), Ecclesiology (the study of the Church), sacramental theology (I think you can figure that one out!), etc. "Eschatology" (from the Greek, eschatos = "last") is the term typically used to discuss the "last things", typically described as the "four last things": (1) death, (2) judgment, (3) heaven, and (4) hell.

Brant has a wonderful series called Life After Death: The Seven Last Things (click the link and you'll find an outline and an audio excerpt where Brant looks at Mark 9:42ff.). He points out that a close inspection of the Catechism reveals three other elements in Catholic doctrine often neglected by Catholics: (5) purgatory, (6) the resurrection of the dead, (7) the new creation (as in the Apostles' Creed: "the life of the world to come"). Thus Brant speaks of the seven last things.

I think Brant has made an important contribution here. In fact, this is a great series.

But the matter is yet still more complicated. For most people eschatology is about something in the future. However, for years now, scholars have recognized that the New Testament often speaks of ways in which eschatology is "realized" in the present. Jesus proclaims, "The Kingdom of God is at hand" (e.g., Matt 4:17). He also stated, "Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory... Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place" (Matt 24:30, 34).

So much could be said here--I would love to discuss the so-called "delay" of the Lord, but I just can't. Suffice it to say, it has been a challenge to figure out how passages such as those mentioned above fit into Christian "eschatology". In fact, today many speak of "Jewish eschatology" or "Old Testament eschatology" because it is widely believed that Jewish hopes consisted of something different than that found in Christian eschatology. Again, much more could be said about that, but I've got to move on.

Here's what I what I discovered. After searching through Church fathers and doctors, such as Thomas Aquinas, I was stunned to find that they never use the term "eschatology". Upon further investigation I learned that "eschatology" is apparently a modern term. Arland J. Hultgren writes,

The word ["eschatology"] was apparently coined in the seventeenth century, when the Lutheran dogmatician Abraham Calovius (1612-86) of Wittenberg used the term "Eschatologia Sacra" as a general heading at the end of his twelve-volume dogmatics published in 1677. Under that heading he dealt with topics of death, resurrection, judgment and consumamation. But the term did not catch on and gain widespread use in German theology until well into the nineteenth century. eVEN Friedrich Schliermacher (1768-1834), in his work on The Christian Fath published in the early 1820s, remarked on it as a strange term. The word does not appear in English usage until the middle of the nineteenth century." ["Eschatology in the New Testament: The Current Debate", in The Last Things: Biblical & Theological Perspectives on Eschatology (C. E. Braaten and R. W. Jeson, eds.; Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 68.]
Could it be that contemporary discussion of "eschatology" has been more influenced by the categories attached to the term by a 17th century Lutheran minister than Scripture?

Pictured: Abraham Calovius


Anonymous said...

Kallistos Ware once mentioned in an aside in a Patristics lecture I attended that, in his view, the word eschatology should not be used as it was never used by the Fathers. (I wondered when similar word formations such as Christology were first coined. On first glance, it too seems to be a seventeenth century neologism at least according to the OED. Does Christology (as a word) appear in the Fathers?)


Brant Pitre said...


This is a fascinating insight! I'm not quite sure what to make of its implications just yet; I'll have to ponder it more. But the basic point that it is not a biblical concept is intriguiing, to say the least. Perhaps the old debate over "future" vs. "realized" eschatology may in some way emerge from couching the debate in terms of a concept that the Bible itself does not utilize. Perhaps we should first stick to the biblical categories of "kingdom of God," "new heaven and new earth," "resurrection" of the dead, and, of course, Parousia.

On the other hand, this might put me out of business, as I plan on writing several books about biblical eschatology. What on earth (or in heaven) will I call them?

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael! Thank you for sharing your discovery. The author of "The Christian Faith" is correctly spelled that way: Friedrich Schleiermacher. The family name is a combination of the two German words: "der Schleier" = "curtain" and "der Macher" = "producer" or "maker". Ben