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Realized Eschatology

Article contributed by www.walvoord.com

[John F. Walvoord, President, Dallas Theological Seminary, Editor, Bibliotheca Sacra.]

Higher criticism during the last century has been marked by an unrelenting attack on any form of literal eschatology. The concept that the Bible can actually prophesy future events in detail with accuracy is abhorrent to the liberal mind. Every effort accordingly is made to date prophetic utterances after the event prophesied as illustrated in the dating of Daniel in the second century B.C. The premise is that detailed prophecy of the future is impossible for either God or man. Although it is often couched in terms of objective scholarship, it is obvious that such a premise is extremely subjective and prejudicial to any calm evaluation of the data. It is built on a thesis that God is not sovereign, is not omniscient, and is not omnipotent. Further, it involves a theory of revelation which renders impossible communication of details to man beyond his natural wisdom. Such higher criticism spares no fundamental of orthodoxy and is free to revise its theology as well as the statements of Scripture to harmonize with the thesis involved. The concept of realized theology must be understood as an outgrowth of this approach to prophecy.

The place of eschatology in liberal theology has undergone in the last generation a dramatic change. The extreme skepticism expressed by Harnack1 which regarded eschatology in Scripture contemptuously has been replaced by a new study of the eschatological aspects of Scripture largely due to the influence of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus.

This trend toward eschatology has been analyzed by Suggs as follows: “…during the years since World War I there has been a growing appreciation of the breadth, depth, and complexity of eschatological thought in the Bible. We have come a long way since Harnack spoke of eschatology as the ‘husk’ rather than the ‘kernel’ of Jesus’ teaching, with the result that Christianity became the delineation of an ideal ethic rather than the proclamation of judgment and salvation.”2

Suggs goes on to explain the role of Schweitzer in this renewed analysis of eschatology: “We work now with a more positive appraisal of the centrality of eschatology to the early preaching…. The literary roots of this revival actually extend beyond the turn of the century to the work of J. Weiss on the kingdom of God in the gospels. But it was Albert Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus (German edition, 1906), which issued an inescapable challenge to the nineteenth century understanding of the New Testament message by setting the eschatological concern at the very center of Jesus’ teaching. From that day, the problem of biblical eschatology became a major interest of historical study,…”3

Schweitzer, however, had ended up with the conclusion that Jesus’ eschatological hope was not fulfilled, suggesting that Jesus was mistaken. As Suggs expresses it: “Schweitzer’s own answer to that question [of the relevancy of the eschatological proclamation] was a simple religious commitment inspired by his mistaken hero [Jesus] and the development of a philosophy of reverence for life which has only tenuous connections with the historical faith.”4

Even liberal scholarship, however, has not followed Schweitzer, although they are probably in agreement that Jesus was mistaken. To leave Christian faith in such an impasse is not satisfactory even to a liberal. It is in this context that another point of view, that of realized eschatology, was advanced by C. H. Dodd in the aftermath of World War I, aided somewhat by Rudolf Otto. A third point of view relative to eschatology is that of a mediating school attempting to harmonize Schweitzer and Dodd.

C. K. Barrett observes that in relation to “the eschatological material in the gospels” there are “no more than three fairly well defined groups.”5 Barret finds that the first group headed by Schweitzer are those who held that “the thought and activity of Jesus were alike radically eschatological, determined by the prospect of an imminent coming of the kingdom of God which would be heralded by the woes of the elect. It was to secure the coming of the Age to Come that Jesus died. It follows that Jesus was mistaken, since He died and the kingdom did not come.”6

The second group is represented, according to Barrett, by von Dobschutz, R. Otto, C. H. Dodd, and others, who offered the viewpoint of realized eschatology.7

A third view is a mediating position between Schweitzer .and Dodd which is neither futurist eschatology after Schweitzer nor realized eschatology after Dodd.8

The discussion concerning eschatology, however, has to be seen in the larger context of the rise of neoorthodoxy which tended to limit the effect of Dodd’s influence on liberal theology as a whole. Suggs has summarized this as follows: “The fact that the church at large was not driven to Schweitzer’s position is traceable to a number of factors, only some of which are academic. First, there was the discovery of R. Otto and C. H. Dodd of the element in primitive Christian eschatology which is usually spoken of as ‘realized.’ Secondly, there was the appearance of a new historical skepticism in European scholarship which focused attention on the Christ of faith rather than upon the embarrassingly Jewish Jesus of history. Thirdly, there was the rise of a new theology which formed a more positive place for eschatology because of a negative anthropology which demanded a transcendent rather than an immanent hope.”9

Dodd, however, has unquestionably influenced the attitude of liberal scholarship toward eschatology and an understanding of his position is essential in approaching liberal theological concepts of the twentieth century. Three major areas of Dodd’s contribution need to be examined: (1) Dodd’s concept of eschaton in relation to history and time, (2) the nature and content of the kerygma, and (3) the resulting theological concept related to realized eschatology.

The Concept of Eschaton in Relation to History

Although C. H. Dodd recognizes that Christianity is a faith based upon historical facts, his view of past as well as future history is different than that usually adopted in orthodoxy. Concerning history he writes: “Christianity…is an historical religion. Some religions can be indifferent to historical fact, and move entirely upon a plane of timeless truth. Christianity cannot. It rests upon the affirmation that a series of events happened, in which God revealed Himself in action, for the salvation of men.”10

As far as past history is concerned, however, he feels that history should be considered in its religious sense. Hence, he writes: “This principle of the universality of the divine meaning in history is symbolically expressed in Christian theology by placing the history of the Old and New Testaments within a mythological scheme which includes a real beginning and a real end…. I have described this as mythological, and as such it must, I think, be understood. Creation and Last Judgment are symbolical statements of the truth that all history is teleological, working out one universal divine purpose. The story of Creation is not to be taken as a literal, scientific statement that the time series had a beginning—an idea as inconceivable as its opposite, that time had no beginning. Nor must the story of the Fall, which is the necessary complement of the creation-story, be taken as a literal, historical statement that there was a moment when man first began to set himself against the will of God. The story of creation and the fall is a symbolic summing-up of everything in secular empirical history which is preparatory to the process of redemption and revelation.”11

Dodd’s view of history, therefore, determines his view of eschatology, holding as he does that neither history nor eschatology should be considered literally as a series of events. The Bible fundamentally is a religious document rather than a historical one according to Dodd. Hence, prophecy does not need to be taken any more literally than the doctrine of creation. Dodd thus finds a supra-historical factor in history which is its real significance.12

This leads to his view of eschaton, that history as well as eschatology is realized in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Accordingly, eschatology is now rather than future and hence, “realized.” Dodd equates eschaton with “the day of the Lord” which to him is the summation of all the eschatological purposes. Eschatology is, therefore, already fulfilled in the sense that God’s purpose has been completely realized. Dodd writes: “The real, inward, and eternal meaning, striving for expression in the course of history, is completely expressed in the eschaton, which is therefore organically related to history. Nevertheless, it is unique and unlike any other event, because it is final. It is not as though the Creator had arbitrarily fixed a certain date as the ‘zero hour’ of his world, so that events which might conceivably have followed it are not permitted to happen. It is such that nothing more could happen in history, because the eternal meaning which gives reality to history is now exhausted. To conceive any further event on the plane of history would be like drawing a check on a closed account.”13

In support of his view of eschatology now, in Dodd’s Parables of the Kingdom which introduced the term “realized eschatology” in 1935, Dodd held that the predicted kingdom of God on earth had already arrived. The key to his interpretation was found in two Greek words, ephthasen, translated “is come” in the statement found in Matthew 12:28, “Then the kingdom of God is come unto you,” and eggiken, translated “at hand” in the expression in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” Dodd holds that both of these terms indicate absolute arrival instead of nearness as is normally held. The pros and cons of this have been argued by Robert F. Berkey who points out that while the Matthew 12:28 passage could conceivably be construed as the kingdom of God being present, the Mark 1:15 passage implies only nearness.14, ΦΘΑΝΕΙΝ, and Realized Eschatology “ Journal of Biblical Literature, LXXII (June, 1963), 177-87.

Orthodox scholars have tended to regard both concepts as true: that is, that a spiritual kingdom was indeed introduced by Jesus Christ in His first coming, but that a literal kingdom was still a future eschatological event, and hence was near in the sense that the King was present but that the kingdom promises were not fulfilled.

Donald Selby states concerning Dodd: “The fundamental difficulty that appears in the hypothesis of ‘realized eschatology’ lies in Dodd’s failure to distinguish between the anticipated events and the eschaton itself. Is it not possible to understand the high pitch of expectance and hope that were admittedly present during the ministry of Jesus to mean that the guarantee of the eschaton was with them? That is to say, the preliminary events had begun to appear. But there seems to be no warrant for saying that the disciples believed that the ‘event’ itself had yet arrived…. The point is, there must be a distinction made between the eschatological Man and the eschatologieal Event.”15

In order to accomplish his purpose, Dodd tends to emphasize passages which support his position, and spiritualize or ignore passages which contradict it. It is rather obvious that his treatment is subjective and selective and does not provide in any sense a literal fulfillment of either the Old Testament prophecies relating to the kingdom nor of Christ’s statements concerning it as in Matthew 24—25 . Dodd’s point of view, of course, fits an existential age in which the present is emphasized at the expense of history and the future.

The Nature and Content of the Kerygma

Dodd uses the term kerygma as the proclaimed message of the early church. While he does not go as far as Bultmann in distinguishing between the kerygma and the actual message of Christ when He was on earth, he attempts to show that his concept of realized eschatology was the view of the early church. According to Dodd, the early church believed that the kingdom was here and now.

Even liberal scholars have difficulty in following Dodd at this point as the New Testament very clearly predicts future aspects to the kingdom such as in Matthew 24 and the question of the disciples concerning the coming of the kingdom in Acts 1:6. While they recognized a spiritual kingdom on earth as in Romans 14:17, they also expected future fulfillment of such passages as Luke 22:29-30 which prophesied a future kingdom in which the disciples would sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. All such passages, however, are dismissed as not worthy of literal interpretation.

Dodd traces a change in the point of view of the writers of Scripture and of the church from the earlier Jewish apocalyptic to his concept of realized eschatology. He writes, “Now Jewish apocalyptic has some very noble elements, but from a psychological point of view it must be described as a form of compensation in fantasy for the sense of futility and defeat. Historically it was bred of the despair of the world which fell on the Jews under acute and prolonged oppression. It is in fact one way of dealing with the problem of evil when it presents itself in an emotionally overwhelming form.”16

Dodd goes on to state: “There is another way of confronting the problem of evil. It is to believe that although there is evil in the world, yet it is God’s world, and the sphere of His Kingdom. His purpose is becoming effective in every part of it, though with varying degrees of intensity. Its inhabitants are all His children, and it is His will to save them all.”17

Dodd further claims that Paul swung around to this position. He states: “In principle, Paul was committed to the second position from his conversion…. He still made personal claims on life for power, satisfaction, and vindication. He still resented humiliation, suffering, and defeat. But in the inward crisis represented by 2 Corinthians he seems finally to have come to terms with life. It is no accident that from this time also we find in his epistles a revised eschatology combined with a generous recognition of the natural goodness of man and of human institutions, a willingness to claim all sides of human life as potentially Christian, and a larger hope for mankind and the whole universe.”18 Dodd’s interpretation of Paul on this point, however, is mostly wishful thinking, and it is interesting that he cites no specific Scriptures in support of his conclusion.

In expounding his point of view concerning realized eschatology, Dodd faces the fact that a number of passages seem to indicate a future kingdom rather than one already realized. He writes: “So we seem to be left with several groups of sayings which on the face of them point in different directions. Sometimes, it seems, they associate the coming of the Son of Man in glory, the kingdom of God, and the Last Judgment, with the historical ministry of Jesus Christ; sometimes they associate it with historical crisis yet to come; and sometimes with that which lies beyond all history, in another world than this. I put it to you that He meant all these, and all at once. Does that sound far-fetched? Let me remind you that poets very often used language with just such a double meaning; one meaning on the surface, another beneath the surface. This doubleness of meaning is not ambiguity or confusion of thought. That is the way poets see life; …The human mind of Jesus Christ was a poet’s mind…. He saw the great Day of the Lord; not only saw it, but acted it out. He saw that Day come, in the brief spell when He worked and suffered in Palestine. He saw it extended into history yet to be. He saw it extended into the world beyond history, where alone the kingdom of God can be perfectly revealed. And yet it was there, really and actually. The Day had come.”19

Dodd goes on to argue that the apostles also had a similar point of view and that his interpretation was the interpretation of the early church. He holds that the concept of “futuristic eschatology” was something that came later as a corruption of the early purity of the truth. When it became apparent that Christ might not immediately come, he states: “The church therefore proceeded to reconstruct on a modified plan the traditional scheme of Jewish eschatology which had been broken up by the declaration that the kingdom of God had already come.”20 Dodd further claims that the source for this revision was the apocalyptic literature of the day. He explains 2 Thessalonians in this way: “The eschatological passage in the first chapter of that epistle (7-10 ), which most critics have noted as being in style unlike that of Paul, is best understood as a virtual quotation of some current apocalypse, whether Jewish or Jewish-Christian. There is nothing distinctly Christian either in its contents or in its general tone, apart from the fact that the figure of Messiah is identified with Jesus.”21

This type of proof, of course, well illustrates Dodd’s method. When Scripture seems to support his case, he will build upon a single word. When whole chapters disagree with him, he finds them unreliable. The subjective nature of such interpretation has been recognized even by liberals who for the most part have not followed Dodd. The New Testament taken as a normal, reliable, and authoritative document does not support his concept of the kerygma as being synonymous with realized eschatology.

Doctrinal Concepts of Realized Eschatology

It is not maligning Dodd to say that he has a low view of inspiration and revelation. Following most of the normal conclusions of higher criticisms he deals with a text subjectively, quoting it when it agrees with him and denying it when it disagrees with his thesis. He rejects as authoritative a number of the Pauline epistles and follows the usual documentary theories of the Gospels.

Dodd has a low view of the person of Christ, specifically denying the hypostatic union. He sees, therefore, no union of God and man in Christ. Dodd states: “The question in Paul’s mind is not a question of the scarcely thinkable combination in one person of the contradictory attributes of transcendent Deity on the one hand and of the purely ‘natural’ and nondivine humanity on the other. Humanity itself means Christ, and has no proper meaning without Him. Unless a man is a ‘son of God,’ he is so far less than man.”22

It is also quite clear that Dodd rejects the normal orthodox interpretation of the atonement, holding that Christ was merely a moral example in His death and in no sense a satisfaction of God’s righteousness. He states: “The Jerusalem kerygma does not assert that Christ died for our sins. The result of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is forgiveness of sins, but this forgiveness is not specifically connected with his death.”23

Dodd denies any kind of penal offering on the part of Christ. He writes: “The interpretation of the saving efficacy of the death of Christ is a task which Christian theology has never yet brought to a completely satisfactory conclusion. Already within the New Testament there are pointers to various lines of interpretation. But that in thus dying He showed, not only a martyr’s devotion to a cause, but also a divine charity toward men who had sinned deeply against Him and against God, is a point upon which there is substantial agreement among New Testament writers who otherwise differ considerably in outlook.”24

It may be concluded that in the concept of the person and work of Christ Dodd is seriously divergent from traditional orthodoxy. In his concept of God he follows the liberal tendency to emphasize the love and goodness of God without proper respect to God’s righteousness and holiness, and does this to the extent of rejecting Scripture which seems to teach contrary to his point of view.

In his overall treatment of Scripture, Dodd is hopelessly subjective. He belabors a point literally if it supports his case; rejects it as nonliteral or in error if it contradicts his point of view. His selection of Scripture proof texts is obviously motivated by the desire to make a case for his theology, but in the process he ignores many Scriptures which contradict it. Nowhere is Dodd’s theology more bankrupt than in his concept of the future. While he recognizes that there has to be an ultimate end of human history and some sort of a final last judgment, he finds no content in Scripture to help him, and he refers to the last judgment as “a terrifying prospect.”25

Strange to say, both liberals and conservatives have tended to reject Dodd’s teachings on the same broad principle, namely, that while there are obviously some present forms of the kingdom of God operating spiritually in the world, these do not exhaust the prophecies that relate to future consummation.

Roderic Dunkerley in his essay on “Unrealized Eschatology,” strongly opposes C. H. Dodd’s realized eschatology. After stating the extent to which Jesus did not achieve His mission, he writes: “In view of all this, must we not say that the term ‘realized eschatology,’ of which we have heard so much in recent years, is a most unfortunate misnomer?” It is, of course, obvious that the kingdom was in a sense present wherever Jesus spoke and acted in the name and power of God—to that extent ‘the kingdom of God has come’ is a statement that may be allowed. The long-hoped-for advent of the Messiah had taken place. But the hopes and promises and expectations associated with his coming did not take place—the eschatology which included them was not realized. ‘Something more than this was promised, something more has kept the advent hope living in the hearts of men.’ I suggest that the time has come when we should speak rather of ‘unrealized eschatology.’“26 In the last analysis, eschatology has not been fully realized and awaits a literal coming of Christ and a future kingdom.

* * *

A. H. Dewey Duncan in his office as Secretary of the President since 1933 has also served as manuscript editor for many years. From the beginning of publication of Bibliotheca Sacra by Dallas Theological Seminary in 1934, he edited the early contributions of Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer and others, and in recent years has been the manuscript editor of the entire publication. His retirement on September 30 brings to a close a long and faithful service both to the Seminary and to Bibliotheca Sacra.


This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.


1 Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity?

2 M. Jack Suggs, “Biblical Eschatology and the Message of the Church,” Encounter, XXIV (Winter, 1963) 4-5, cf. Adolf Harnack, What Is Christianity? p. 55.

3 Suggs, ibid., p. 5.

4 Ibid.

5 C. K. Barrett, “New Testament Eschatology,” Scottish Journal of Theology (June, 1953), 151-52.

6 Ibid., p. 153.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., pp. 153-55.

9 Suggs, op. cit., p. 5.

10 C. H. Dodd, History and the Gospel, p. 15.

11 Ibid., pp. 168-69.

12 Ibid., p. 170.

13 Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching, p. 144.

14 Robert F. Berkey, “ΕΓΓΙΖΕΙΝ

15 Donald Joseph Selby, “Changing Ideas in New Testament Eschatology,” Harvard Theological Review, L (Jan., 1957), 23.

16 C. H. Dodd, New Testament Studies, p. 126.

17 Ibid., p. 127.

18 Ibid., pp. 127-28.

19 Dodd, The Coming of Christ, pp. 20-21.

20 Dodd, Apostolic Preaching, p. 55.

21 Ibid., p. 56.

22 Dodd, The Meaning of Paul for Today, p. 89.

23 Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching, p. 32.

24 Dodd, The Johannine Epistles, p. 84.

25 Ibid., p. 121.

26 Roderic Dunkerley, “Unrealized Eschatology,” The London Quarterly and Holborn Review, CLXXXVI (July, 1961), 54.