On the Understanding of Time in the New Testament

In the following sections I will discuss how thought about time unfolds in the New Testament. Gerhard Delling's study from 1940, with the very promising title Das Zeitverstandnis des Neuen Testaments (The Understanding of Time in the New Testament), can be consulted only with reservations, however.89 I will instead refer to a later essay90 by the same author.

Delling starts from the basic concept of time as a natural condition. Along with Oscar Cullmann, he sees New Testament time completely in light of the Christ event. "Initially, time runs toward the Christ event. This is the absolute center of meaning and core of time."91 Accordingly, a distinction is made between the time that moves toward Christ and the time that comes from the Christ event. But this differentiation does not result in a true division of time, for, even if the Christ event is final, unique, and an es-chatological fulfillment of time,92 it is true that: "The saving action of God is one in past, present, and future, in anticipation, fulfillment, and consummation."93 For the primitive Church, the Christ event does not become an event in the past, but rather remains present, a "now event" in which the Church participates.94 This does not prevent the Church from portraying the Jesus event as a historical event in time and space, however. In the end, it is the identity of the Crucified and Exalted One that does not make the present time of Christians "the time 'after Christ' in the chronological sense, but rather the time of Christ, the time that is conditioned by the crucified and exalted Christ."95 The time of Christ is the End Time. Between Easter and the final consummation, however, time is characterized, particularly in Pauline thought, by "a factually grounded simultaneity"96 of the "already" and the "not-yet." Christians have already been liberated from the power of sin, but they still stand "in the struggle between self-will and the Holy Spirit."97 Even in the realized eschatology of the Gospel of John, the difference between the present time of grace and the future time of consummation is preserved.98 Life that is lived in the not-yet of final consummation is at the same time marked by the certainty of the already of God's unique and final act of salvation. If this is a correct portrayal of Christian life, waiting for the parousia does not pose a problem. Martin Werner's theory that the delay of the parousia was the cause for the development of dogmas in the early church can therefore be criticized.99

In the New Testament, time is set teleologically by God. God is the One acting in time; a timeless essence is not ascribed to God. For Christ, an eternal being in God prior to his becoming human is suggested. Again, following Cullmann, Delling does not consider the New Testament's notion of eternity to have been pondered philosophically, but rather describes it as based upon linear, unlimited time.100 Nevertheless, God is conceived as the one who is superior to time and who controls it.101 For the person who is drawn into the salvation event, time is the possibility granted by God for the purpose of realizing a new existence based on salvation.102 A constitutive mark of New Testament time is its eschatologically determined "openness to the future."103 As in the Old Testament, time is considered less in the formal sense than with regard to its content.

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