On Knowing the End: Some Questions for David Ford

Lewis Ayres
Candler School of Theology, Emory University

It seems to me that a rather reductive reading of David Ford’s very interesting paper might say that it consists of the evolution of one central strategy for arguing that the text of Ephesians can be read in a “counter-conventional” way (to use David Dawson’s terminology) against Christian supercessionism. That central strategy consists in arguing for the ambiguity (in a general and not, I think, specifically Peircean sense) of Ephesians’ account of the end of all things.

If, David’s strategy goes, this “end” is ambiguous in the sense of non-predictable and incomprehensible to us then the fate of continuing Judaism cannot easily be subject to accounts which place it as superceded by the Church. “Non-predictable” here is the key word: it is key to David’s argument that the hope that Christians have for and in the eschaton should combine, on the one hand, hope that there will be an end in which the Good God will be ultimately salvific and, on the other hand, that the sheer indescribability of this event should render virtually impossible any attempt to describe through the detailed categories of Christian theology or in terms of the various scriptural accounts of its sequence. Well, that is not quite specific enough. For David’s argument to work Christian theologies may shape Christian hope in the sense that they encourage one to hope and believe that there will be a good outcome: but those theologies should not be allowed to characterize our hope too densely. This may be a rather blunt way of putting it, but it seems to me that David’s argument attempts to open a space for rejecting supercessionism largely by resisting any attempt to characterize the eschaton through close attention to the details of the scriptural text! Of course David deploys a number of other tactics in support of his central strategy, some of which are more effective than others. But I shall not comment on these, and focus only on this main strategy that I perceive at the heart of his paper.

The problem with the strategy that David’s paper pursues is two-fold: on the one hand I do not see why it should have the effect that he hopes; on the other hand, I think it involves making a move (seen also in some other contemporary authors) that actually relies on playing down some key aspects of the scriptural text. My first problem may be stated fairly easily. Arguing for an extra degree of ambiguity about the eschaton actually has very little force in refuting supercessionist reading of the emergence of the Church as the “new” Israel. Readings of Romans 9-11, for example, which have a supercessionist tone will not be refuted by re-description of the eschaton . Nor, to give another example, will similar readings of Ephesians 2:12-15 be refuted by the same strategy. Supercessionist readings of such texts are compatible with a variety of different eschatologies: and, vice versa, David’s “ambiguous” eschatology is compatible with a variety of understandings of the relationship between Church and Israel. For example, one might find someone saying “the Church replaces Israel, and continuing Judaism is simply an anachronism, but damn, God’s mercy is all-powerful and in the end we can hope even for the union of Jews and Gentiles.” Against such an account David’s argument has little persuasive force. Thus, in the first case, I don’t think that David’s main strategy is actually relevant to the question at hand.

My second criticism is a little more complex. In common with a number of other theologians—for recent examples I think especially of George Lindbeck and Kendall Soulen—one effect of David’s overarching strategy is to play down any precise Christological reading of the eschaton. The broad reading that David adopts prefers a reading of the eschaton in terms of “kingdom” rather than as union in and through Christ. It is supposedly the case that such a reading emphasises the fundamentally Jewish story with which Christians must grapple and plays down the christological language that seems to be the main alternative to “kingdom” language. While this is a subtle and interesting point, it seems to me that it contravenes the exegesis of some fairly significant New Testament texts, renders them extremely problematic and can only be fully accomplished in ways with which members of a Society for Scriptural Reasoning should be unhappy.

Let me take the example of Patristic exegesis. Patristic readings of the eschaton are deeply Christological and they are rooted in a conception of the Kingdom, but they are so because of their ultimately Trinitarian focus (Were we considering Kendall Soulen’s work I would want to take issue with some of the way he portrays Patristic exegesis; see e.g. Pro Ecclesia 6 (1997), pp. 413-428). Many patristic writers operate with an understanding of the life with God that the just may expect. This understanding is focused around how our union with Christ enables the life of the Just to be a real participation in the divine exchange of love. This is so because, on the one hand, the union of natures in Christ draws us to Christ and, on the other hand, the consubstantiality of Son with the Father and Spirit means that union with the Word in Christ is a union with the life of God. The achievement of the Kingdom is thus the achievement of God’s being “all in all” through our union in Christ. This exegesis is developed through a variety of texts, of which some key examples would be John 17:5 and 21-24, 1Cor.15, 2Cor. 5, Col. 1:15-20 and Eph. 4:4-16.

Some of the most interesting exegesis of 1 Cor. 15 (I think especially of Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa) focus on how the order of the last things intimately reflects the content and goal of God’s salvific activity. The Son exercises the gift of life itself and of being God’s power in drawing humanity into him and leading them, as the head of the body, to the Father. And yet the life of the Father is a continuously being-given and returned life between Father, Son and Spirit: hence for the Son to draw all into this life it is only fitting that at the end the kingdom is returned to the Father (1Cor. 15:28): the end is completed through the just sharing in the Son’s eternal return to the Father. This style of reading emerges in full texture during the fourth and fifth centuries but, I would allege, remains determinative for a period well beyond the Reformation. Most importantly, it is a reading which links together the soteriological action of God with Christology, and sets that linkage firmly in a trinitarian context. However, when I say that it emerges in the fourth and fifth century, much weight should be placed on my adjectival phrase “in full texture”. The elements of this reading appear, it seems to me, within the first century texts that became scriptural for Christians and in commentators on those texts from the earliest times. If ever there was a well-founded persistent pattern of Christian figuration it was this!

This reading often (but not exclusively) does treat a text such as Romans 9-11 in a broadly supercessionist way. However, I would suggest that it is consonant with Christian exegesis that insists on the continuity of God’s promise to and covenant with Israel (while insisting that Christians see themselves as drawn into this covenant). Moreover, this reading embodies some Christological and trinitarian principles about the structure and process of redemption that are central to Christian orthodoxy and which there is no good reason to abandon. Indeed, an attempt to abandon them or to always read the texts on which this position is based in terms of “Fordian ambiguity” seems to result only in an avoidance of something fairly central to scriptural accounts of the eschaton. Of course one may offer an alternative reading of the texts which were used in the development of this synthesis. But, I suggest, the attentive theological exegete will have to do so in part by demonstrating how those same texts maybe read otherwise, not simply by attempting to use the “ambiguity” of the eschaton as a prior interpretative guide.

However, while I think David’s account (along with some other recent patterns of exegesis) may serve to subvert a traditional and fundamental Christological theme, an almost more substantive point needs to be made, and that is to reiterate my very first point. It does not seem to me that there is any necessary connection between Christian anti-semitism and these two readings of the eschaton. I suggest, as I hinted two paragraphs ago, that David’s perfectly laudable anti-supercessionist goal could better be accomplished by attention to those who have begun to read Romans 9-11 in such interesting ways in the past few years. We can indeed say that the basic narrative of history and providence that Christians should tell is a Jewish one. Yet, this assumption goes along with a reading of Romans that emphasises Christian faith in the incorporation of gentiles into Israel through God’s grace. Of course Christian will disagree over this point with many Jews, but that disagreement should not surprise anyone— nor should it lead to supercessionist ways out of the problem. There is here an ambiguity that can be extremely fruitful for discussion between Christians and Jews, and I suggest it is an ambiguity that can also serve as the focus for strong resistance to any form of Christian anti-semitism or supercessionism.

It might seem that these comments take us a long way from the “mysticism” with which we are concerned this year. I think not. During the week in which I was writing this response I spent time in a class on ‘Medieval Theology’ looking at Bernard of Clairvaux’s account of the goal of “mystical” ascent in his series of homilies on the Song of Songs. Two points deserve notice. In the first case Bernard insists that we never directly have the “kiss” of God: we never directly see or know or “kiss” the Father. We may, however, be blessed with the “kiss of his mouth.” By this Bernard refers to the Incarnation and to the union or “kiss” between Son and Father. Christ is the only one who has the “kiss of the mouth” because of the Word’s consubstantiality with the Father. Nevertheless, through our consubstantiality with Christ we may be drawn by grace into the life of God within Christ. The Patristic exegesis to which I referred earlier is thus repeated in the early twelfth century! But we may go a little further: Bernard is clear that no person has known the Father and that the goal of the Christian life is not to be conceived as an experience, in the sense of some inner mental “seeing” of God completely beyond what we are as soul and body. Rather, we can narrate and contemplate that goal only through narrating and contemplating the Word as present in Christ and as consubstantial with the Father in the Spirit. Thus, it is this theological narrative that provides the essential material for the construction of appropriate Christian hope and faith in the eschaton and in the goal of Christian life—and, as Denys Turner has perhaps most recently shown, the resources for resisting a vision of mysticism as either “pure experience” or as indeterminate vagueness. Loss of such language thus might have a range of effects within Christian thought that “scriptural reasoners” should surely resist.