Time Terminology in the New Testament

Of the New Testament terms for time—aion, kairos, chronos, and hdra —aion and its derived adjective aionios occur most frequently.104 The term occurs primarily in prepositional phrases, but also as an independent noun both in the singular and the plural.105 Only from the particular context can one decide whether aion means "eternity" or only "distant, long, uninterrupted time." Basically, eon means a long time, limited or unlimited, which actually leads to the contradictory expression chronoi aidnioi (Rom. 16:25, etc.). However, its meaning can also be extended in the direction of "world time," so that the same word is used for two profoundly contrasting meanings, namely, for the eternity of God and for the time of the world. Under the influence of apocalypticism, aidn can even designate the world in the spatial sense.106 Aion does not describe a uniformly endless sequence of events, but instead marks courses of time in a structured history that can be restructured again and again. Along with the preposition eis, aioon can mean both the inner-temporal and the post-temporal future. The most graphic depiction of eons is found in Matthew, who distinguishes between two successive periods of world time, the present one and the future one. A doctrine of eons, however, such as one can find in Gnosticism,107 is not developed in the New Testament. In Paul, "this eon" is the sin-determined course of the world without Christ. In the Synoptics, eternal life, zoe aionios, as the life belonging to God, is also the life that is expected within the framework of a future resurrection of the dead. In John, by contrast, belonging to Christ in faith is the eternal life, which is therefore already possessed by those who have entered into communion with Christ.

In general, the future is mentioned only with a certain reservation; it is the present that is of primary concern. Eternity is described mainly in temporal categories. It is neither understood as pure timelessness nor in terms of a dualism between time and eternity. Answering the question of whether eternity is to be understood as everlasting time or as timelessness is not the subject of the New Testament. This assessment is important because it prevents us from reading the New Testament through the glasses of the Greek philosophy of time. It also provides the explanation of why Cullmann is wrong, even though his theory in Christ and Time, namely, that the New Testament does not contain any notion of a timeless eternity, is correct in principle.108 The New Testament does not know of any timeless eternity because it is not concerned with the nature of eternity. When the New Testa ment deals with time and eternity, it deals instead with the relationship of the spheres of the eternal and the temporal.

Kairos is the second most frequently used term referring to time. The advent of Jesus marks the fulfillment of the kairos (also the kairoi), when the reign of God is coming near (Mark 1:15). Based on this, kerygmatic interpretation emphasizes the present and presence of Jesus' kairos: The now of Jesus Christ's having-already-come corresponds to the now of the proclamation of the Word as the now in which the decision between death and life is made. The kairos of decision is followed by a time of struggle and of proving oneself, until salvation is revealed en kairo eschato. It is not possible to distinguish aion and kairos consistently. The term aion in fact never means "moment/point in time," whereas in some passages, kairos takes on the meaning of "period of time."109

Chronos, as a designation for a period of time and also occasionally for a point in time, occurs most frequently in the writings of Luke. In terms of content, the concept is construed from the Jesus event. Chronos is not an absolute entity, but rather the space and visual form for the historical action of God and the time-structuring response of the believer. Against the backdrop of apocalyptic messianic expectations, the Jesus event can, on the one hand, be regarded as the end of time or of the old eon; on the other hand, however, it can be understood, in terms of Luke, as the center of time. This creates an ambiguity very much like the one we encountered in the examination of the hymns on pp. 47—51. The New Testament does not distinguish between kairos and chronos nearly as rigorously as one would like to assume. In some passages, the two terms are directly interchangeable.110

The word hora is found primarily in the Gospels, sometimes providing more or less exact information about time and, in other places, as a description of limited, measurable periods of time. The term also serves to give emphasis to special events, such as, e.g., the hour of glorification (John i2:27f.).

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