Coda on the Kingdom: Beginning at the Ending with Weiss' Eschatology

Johannes Weiss is justly famous for his role in bringing and end to the naivete of 19th century historical Jesus research. He constructed a plausible and compelling portrait of Jesus as an uncanny apocalyptic prophet that contrasted sharply with the Jesus of the liberal Protestant Zeitgeist -- that is, the popular image of the Nazarene as a conveyor of timeless wisdom and an enlightened ethical ideal based on the fatherhood of God and the siblinghood of all people (so Harnack).

Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom by Johannes Weiss. Ed. R. Hiers & L. Holland (Fortress, 1971).

In his conclusion, Weiss conveniently sumarizes his findings (pp. 129-131).
Johannes Weiss, with a child (Heidelberg, 1914)
(Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
My interest here is not to analyze his historical argument in detail, but a brief summary will help sharpen the constructive theological challenge his short work poses: According to Weiss, Jesus believed that the messianic end-time was imminent, and the signs of the future-yet-inbreaking Kingdom were manifest in supernatural victories against the realm of Satan. Against many interpreters before him and after him, Weiss insists that kingdom is not present -- say, in the faith of believers -- but is yet to come (in NT jargon, this position is called "consistent eschatology"). Jesus cannot bring in the kingdom; only God can do so. After a great cosmic conflagration that brings history as we know it to an end, God will establish Jesus as the "Son of Man" predicted in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel. Jesus eschewed any speculations that would fix the date of the end, but he remained convinced it will occur within the lifetime of most of his hearers. The disciples will become the viceroys of the new kingdom, ruling even the angelic spirits. At the end will come a great and terrible day of judgment, in which the dead will be raised to new life and God will separate the righteous from the unrighteous (recall Matthew 25). A restored Palestine will be the seat of divine rule over the nations, divided under the restored 12 tribes. Peace and justice will trump all sin and sorrow, under the Lordship of God, through his exalted Messiah.

Weiss' conception of the apocalyptic kergyma of the historical Jesus was incongruous with the ruling paradigm of the liberal Protestant world. Forged in the interface between Scheleiermacher's pietism and Kant's ethical idealism, theologians in the school of Albrecht Ritschl (who happened to be Weiss' faither-in-law), conceived the Kingdom as a commonwealth of peace and justice ensuing from the inner personal transformatoin of believers. The Kingdom of the great liberal heritage was seen and an ideal and project that humans would realize in this world, whereas Weiss presented Jesus' original preaching as imbued with ineluctable mystery, cataclysmic supernatural and natural events and absolute divine transcendent sovereignty.

Curiously, although he broke from the regnant interpretation of Christian origins, Weiss maintained his liberal, Ritschlian credentials in the realm of constructive theology. The end result is fairly negative, at least in terms of the normativity of Jesus' messianic consciousness and guiding worldview: Jesus' Kingdom vision, in the setting of its ancient worldview, cannot be retrieved -- at least not directly. The modern believer inevitably must need part with the Savior over the meaning of the Kingdom. The modern Protestant worldview cannot accommodate the eschatology of primitive Christianity:

We no longer pray, "May grace come and the world pass away," but we pass our lives in the joyful confidence that this world will evermore become the showplace of the people of God" (p. 135).

Eschatology becomes personalized, for Weiss, and the apocalypse is transposed into an expectation (or hope) for unending life beyond this world.

The world will further endure, but we, as individuals, will soon leave it. Thereby, we will at least approximate Jesus' attitude in a different sense, is we make the basis of our life the precept spoken by a wise man or our day: "Live as if you were dying" (p. 136)
Thus, Weiss, argues, we may no longer hope for a kingdom that brings a literal and dramatic close to this present evil age, but we can hope to be united in love with the faithful throughout eternity.

Unsurprisingly, Weiss' conclusions did not prove satisfying for everyone. It became apparent (to some thinkers) that he had not gone far enough. Albert Schweitzer, himself also cut from the cloth of Kantian idealism, stressed the discontinuties between Jesus and the liberal theologians in even more striking terms. Some would offer an even more radical critique and retrieval of eschatology -- a view that perserved the alterity of divine transcendence while refusing to historicize eschatology in terms of concrete, literal, supernatural events. Thus the "theology of crisis was" born, and the dead end posited by Weiss became, for some, the occasion for a new beginning.



Among my early wrestling with NT theology (the 70s), was with the eschatological message of Jesus and much of the NT. I knew I did not live my life that way, expecting the end soon. I had no desire to do so. I was attracted to the way Weiss saw the matter. You have reminded me of how much it still tugs at my heart and mind. It seems as if we can look at Jesus and the authentic letters of Paul as directing us toward an apocalyptic worldview. However, it also seems like Ephesians, Colossians, but especially the writings of John, start leading us down a different path. Then, when I read the post-apostolic writings and other writings in the first-third centuries, Christianity found a way to set aside the soon-coming end and pushed it back to a hope for final redemption. It seems to me that is a good thing. In any case, thank you for the post.
Evan said…
Do you think that post-Kant/Schleiermacher liberal theology actually failed to preserve "the alterity of divine transcendence"? I know this is the typical narrative, but my sense is that it is largely drawn from the historiography of the theology of crisis rather than a more charitable reading of proposals that were made by liberal theologians.
Thanks. It's a good question. I'm a little reluctant to make any kind of blanket assessments of 19th century-early 20th century theology without looking more closely at specific theologians and texts -- say, those of Ritschl, Harnack, Hermann or Troeltsch.

That said, I think it's complicated. To me the "domestication of transcendence" type of argument is something of a blunt instrument. To the extent that liberal proposals hew closely to Kant's and Schleiermacher's own views, I think such proposals can plausibly claim a way of affirming divine transcendence. (Recall Barth's gripe -- sorry, I can't recall chapter and verse -- that Schleiermacher's God was *too* aloof from human experience).

Where the critique from the crisis theologians is sharpest and hits closest to the mark, it seems to me, is in offering a stark rejoinder to cultural-Protestant theologies as reifying particular cultures -- say, the Volksgeist of the German people and their imperial leaders -- as spiritually superior and as bearing special marks from God's stamp of approval. David Congdon analyses this aspect of dialectical theology very acutely in his *Mission of Demythologizing.*

How does that seem to you?

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