Kingdom Come:
the Catholic Faith and Millennial Hopes

Gresham Kirkby

Gresham Kirkby

From: Essays Catholic and radical : a jubilee group symposium for the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Oxford Movement 1833-1983, ed. by Kenneth Leech and Rowan Williams. (London, Bowerdean Press, 1983) Many thanks to Fr. Kirkby for permission to reproduce it here, and to Fr. John Rowe for the photograph.

'Will the Catholic Revival go all the way?' This was the sub-title of a tractpublished by the Catholic Crusade for the Oxford Movement centenary in 1933 . 1 The Crusade was a group of Anglican radicals which gathered round Conrad Noel at Thaxted in the period 1918-36. As its name implied, the Crusade stood for an uncompromising, if somewhat esoteric, brand of Catholicism. Nevertheless, it has a significance for today because it anticipated what is now called 'liberation theology'. The Crusade's 'theology' was done in a particular situation, that of the grim years between the two World Wars, and for a particular puropose, namely to explain and justify the new revolutionary socialism manifested in the Russian Revolution of 1917. It sought to recover what it considered 'the whole Catholic Faith', and by this it meant, first and foremost, belief in 'the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth', the fulfilment of the biblical hope. In this it claimed to carry on and develop the tradition derived from F D Maurice who, in the mid-19th century, in response to the challenge of Chartism, declared: 'To me, the Kingdom of Heaven is the great existing reality which is to renew the earth'. 2 Nor were Noel and the Crusade alone in this. From 1922 onwards the League of the Kingdom of God, under the inspiration of Percy Widdrington, was calling no less vigorously for the recovery of the Kingdom of God as 'the regulative principle of theology'. 3 If Anglican Catholics did not readily respond to 'the challenge of the Catholic Crusade', the League was offered recognition as expressing the social outlook of the Catholic movement.

Maurician theology, with its Johannine and incarnational emphasis, had a considerable influence on Anglican thinking, and, through Stewart Headlam and the Guild of St. Matthew, on Anglican Catholicism -- Frank Weston, the revered leader of the movement in the 1920s, was a member of the Guild. The weakness of this theology was that it was Platonist and 'idealist', it neglected eschatology, the doctrine of'the End'. Nevertheless, its understanding of the Kingdom seemed closer to the Bible than the view implied in the Anglican burial rite: 'that it may please Thee shortly to accomplish the number of Thine elect, and to hasten Thy Kingdom'. Some form of socialism was now attracting many Christians, generally on a liberal basis. Some notable Catholic clergy were members of the Church Socialist League (1906-22). Socialism was seen as the modern counterpart to feudalism and as being preferable to laissez-faire capitalism. If the Church of England was still, by and large, 'the Tory Party at prayer', a significant part of it looked like becoming 'the socialists at Mass'. However, socialism in this period was developing on collectivist lines, and this did not greatly appeal to the disciples of Headlam. So it was that Noel and Widdrington, in their different ways, looked for a more vigorous and distinctively 'Catholic' socialism, resting on a better theological foundation.

The 'Call to Action by the Servants of the Catholic Crusade' -- which was not in fact composed by Noel 4 -- presented a rosy picture of the 'Ages of Faith', together with a naive criticism of Protestantism as the major source of social evils. So far it was likely to appeal to Anglican Catholics: not so its apparently uncritical support for the Russian Revolution. However, its main contention was: The central belief of the Church of the first three centuries was the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth'. 5 In fact this was a very doubtful claim. A more generally accepted view was that expressed by Dr. Edwyn Bevan: 'The Christians thought the end was very near. They expected any day to see Jesus return on the clouds, and all the imperial strength and splendour of the pagan world melt to nothing at his glance.' 6

Nevertheless, radical Christians have continued to repeat the Crusade's simplistic view. Further, it is often claimed that the change came with the conversion of Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century when (it is alleged) the church compromised with the world, and the necessary theological adjustment was made by Augustine, who transferred the hope of the Kingdom to the 'next world'. At this stage, then, it will be valuable to look in more detail at these historical questions, before returning to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century developments of the theology of the Kingdom.

The millennial hope

Augustine has been criticised both by millennialists, who look for the return of Christ to the earth to establish his thousand-year reign (as in Revelation 20), and by radical Christians, who ascribe a somewhat different belief to the 'first Christians'. We need, however, to ask: who are meant by 'first Christians'? Those of New Testament times, or those belonging to the first three centuries? There is another theory, that the New Testament Christians became disillusioned when the expected denouement did not occur, and that the fourth gospel was written to compensate for this. (It has also been suggested that Paul turned towards 'mysticism' for similar reasons.) The theory fails to explain why millennial beliefs were so widely held from the second century onwards. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Lactantius, were all millennialists -- even Augustine was at first. Since by the fifth century the expected return had not taken place, Augustine attempted to deal with the problem. He reinterpreted the millennium as the whole interval from the first advent to the last conflict, the 'reign of the saints' representing the church's entire course as the Kingdom of God on earth. He transferred the 'parousia', understood as the (second) 'coming' or 'return', so that it became the prelude to the 'heavenly Kingdom'. Its primary purpose now was judgment. By spiritualising the millennium, Augustine brought it into the present, which meant that the Church became vitally concerned with the world: but its function now was to sacralise the established order. The overall effect was to 'transfer the New Testament emphasis upon a present and future Kingdom of God on earth to a present church on earth and a distinctly remote future Kingdom in heaven'.7 However, if it is Augustine who is ultimately responsible for the slang expression 'Kingdom come', a contingency too remote to merit consideration, his critics have generally failed to account for the 'deferred and distant parousia'.

Belief in the earthly paradise did not fade out with Augustine's 'reinterpretation'. The Donatists of his day, anticipated by the Montanists of the second century, looked for a Third Age of the Spirit. This theme was developed by Joachim of Fiore in the 12th century, whose teaching provided another strand of millennialism of lasting significance. Joachim's visionary mysticism attempted to give history a meaning and a future. It differed from the older millennial beliefs in that it placed the parousia at the end of the Third Age' which would be the work of the Holy Spirit. Belief in Christ's imminent return was revived by popular preachers and prophets at a time of great social unrest in the 13th century, and other early doctrines of Byzantine provenance concerning the last World Emperor and the coming of Antichrist began to merge with Joachimism. Norman Cohn's study The Pursuit of the Millennium 8 describes the messianic movements which spread through Europe, and which, in secularised forms, are still with us. The various strands of millennialism continued to develop and interweave, one with another, to produce widely differing movements. The Reformation and the 'open Bible' encouraged this, while the works of Joachim and his imitators continued to be read, and the writings of the Silesian mystic Jakob Boehme (1575-624) nourished Protestant dissent for the next two centuries. In spite of Cranmer's original 42 Articles, which condemned it as 'Jewish dotage', millennialism was the generally held belief of educated people up to at least the late 17th century. The only question was how soon Christ's return would occur, and dates were calculated. 'Nothing was too fatuous for the prevailing taste'. 9Wesley popularised a wildly millennialist book by the German Bengel which had great influence on the most religious men of the time, so that millennialism existed at least on the fringe of Methodism. The term 'millenarian' is sometimes used to describe the even more bizarre sects which developed in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Reincarnation provided a new mode for Christ's return -- and in female form! Similar patterns emerged in all these movements from the 13th century onwards, and in them are found the seedbeds of radicalism. The process of secularisation, the separation of radicalism from strange religious beliefs, was one of the gains of the 19th century, even if it left radicalism with little foundation. Radicalism in England may owe more to Methodism than to Marx, but that is not necessarily to its advantage. Religious revivals in this period aroused false hopes of an immediate return of Christ, which probably weakened belief, yet strange beliefs and cults continued to develop, Of interest to Anglicans is the Guild of Prayer for the Return of Our Lord, founded in 1891, and distinctly 'Catholic' in tone, but holding some strange views. What is significant for our purpose is the persistence of the millennial hope, and its propensity for even further development.

However, the late 17th and early 18th centuries were also affected by the new spirit of 'rationalism', aided by a weariness of Puritan 'enthusiasm'. Millennialism again became a problem for thoughtful people as it had done in Augustine's time, but a more 'liberal' solution was at hand which, in a sense, had been anticipated by Augustine and by Joachim. The millennium, understood as a restored earth, now became the prelude to the parousia, the new form of the belief being generally known as 'post- millennialism'. It is perhaps not surprising that this development owed a lot to an Anglican clergyman in Salisbury, Daniel Whitby (1638-76), who held Unitarian views, and the new outlook is reflected in the hymns of Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and Philip Doddridge (1702-51). Those who adhered to this view held that the Kingdom had come in our Lord's time, and the righteous would enter it -- to that extent it was 'realised eschatology' -- but they looked for a future earthly manifestation: it would come in a sense not yet present. Theirs was an essentially 'evolutionary' outlook, and it is here that we find the seeds of that 'liberal' progressivism' which was, and is, a constituent element of much 'Christian Socialism'. For liberalism even more than for Catholicism the parousia is an awkward appendage.

The challenge to liberalism

The liberal interpretation of New Testament eschatology (the term came into use in the 19th century) was seriously challenged first by the work of Johannes Weiss, but more especially by the publication in England of Albert Schweitzer's The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1910). The importance of Jesus' eschatological teaching was emphasised. According to Schweitzer, Jesus had expected an imminent 'coming in his Kingdom', either in his own lifetime or as a 'return from heaven' in the lifetime of some of his hearers. Since this had proved to be a non-event, the message of Jesus could have only an existentialist value. However exaggerated the theory, it drew attention to a neglected element in the gospels and in the New Testament generally, as well as in its Jewish background: the doctrine of 'the End' and the apocalyptic language in which the doctrine was clothed. Here too was exposed the weakness of the theology of Maurice, of Headlam and the Guild of St Matthew, and of what might be termed the 'Social Gospel' movement. It lay in the problem of the parousia. Seemingly the options were to ignore the matter, as some did, or to discard the whole apocalyptic apparatus.

If the Schweitzerian theory presented a challenge to those Christian radicals who looked for the Kingdom conceived as an earthly millennium, Noel dealt with it in a characteristically daring manner. Taking the idea of an imminent parousia as a 'myth', he reinterpreted the myth as a description of what was happening in the 'last times', and saw the dawning of the Kingdom in the Russian Revolution. Not surprisingly, this was something which Anglican Catholics, however sympathetic to Maurician theology and Fabian socialism, were unable to accept. I want to suggest, however, that Noel's 'heresy' was a step towards discovering the truth of the matter (there is a sense in which every heresy witnesses to neglected truth). It could even be seen as a recovery of the Old Testament idea of God Himself coming to judgment, a conception which lies behind the Battle Hymn of the American Civil War:

'Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
  Our God is marching on.'

At this point it is important to note the striking parallel between the Christian hope and the Marxist hope as set out by Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy (1946). 10 'To understand Marx psychologically', Russell says, 'one should use the following dictionary:

Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism
The Messiah = Marx
The Elect = The Proletariat
The Church = The Communist Party
The Second Coming = The Revolution
Hell = Punishment of the Capitalists
The Millennium = The Communist Commonwealth.'

'The terms on the left hand [says Russell] give the emotional content of the terms on the right hand, and it is this emotional content, familiar to those with a Christian or Jewish upbringing, which makes Marx's eschatology credible.' There is something exciting about this which Noel would have understood, but it would have been incomprehensible to Anglican Catholics who, for the most part, were content to follow Augustine and identify the Kingdom with the Church. (So the party becomes the substitute for the commonwealth, as in fact has also happened in Marxism.) Now I want to suggest that the terms on the right hand might help us to understand better the terms on the left hand. One might also add to Russell's list:

The Reign of the Saints = The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
The Final Consummation = The Withering Away of the State

I shall refer again to parts of this dictionary. It would seem that Marx (and Conrad Noel) unconsciously took the Second Coming and the millennium as myths, and reinterpreted them. I shall suggest that there has been a serious misunderstanding of the 'Second Coming' (not a biblical term) and of the millennium. This would indicate both a flaw in the psychological background of Marxism, and also a need to re-examine the Christian terms. However, it seems true to add that Noel was only saying (with less obscurity) what some avant-garde Catholics are saying today: that the coming of Christ in his Kingdom needs to be reinterpreted as 'the future of man'. Noel certainly suggested that the Second Coming would be fulfilled in Christ's appearance in 'a glorified humanity of which he was the first-fruits', though he also admits the possibility that 'we shall see him with our bodily eyes among the great company of the redeemed'. 11 Noel was a visionary, but if he was starry-eyed about Marxism-Leninism, he was also too much of a libertarian to stomach Stalinism.

There were certainly differences of outlook between Noel's movement and Widdrington's. The transformation of the Church Socialist League into the League of the Kingdom of God was heralded by the publication of a volume of essays. The Return of Christendom (1922). Widdrington contributed the chapter entitled 'The Return of the Kingdom of God', which was intended to establish the essential theological foundation of the new body. He argued that in the Bible and the Fathers. the Kingdom of God was a hope for this world, a hope which was lost in the fifth century, mainly due to the influence of Augustine. 'The abandoning of the Kingdom of God as a hope for this world', he declared, 'was the greatest act of apostasy which a religion has ever known.' This view was quoted from a liberal scholar, Dr. Bethune-Baker. Widdrington argued against the view which regarded the Church as the Kingdom of God on earth -- the lie on which medieval Catholicism was founded. He opposed those who would confine its meaning to 'the reign, or sovereignty of God', maintaining that 'although such was the root meaning of the term, everywhere in the Bible it included the sphere in which this reign is actualised'. 12 It is this world which is to be the scene of a 'divine order'. Widdrington's outlook was, and remained, strongly Maurician. Though his essay has been described as 'magisterial', its argument was regarded by some as unconvincing. Critics felt that in some respects it appeared to controvert a more 'rounded' statement of 'The Necessity of Catholic Dogma' by Fr Lionel Thornton, CR. 13 In citing the chiliastic (millennialist) opinions of the Fathers in support of his argument, Widdrington glossed over the point that what they looked for was an imminent return of Christ to inaugurate the millennium. If, unlike Noel, he did not re-interpret the parousia myth, he certainly put it into the background. To this extent, he was unconsciously adopting the more liberal outlook of the post-millennialists, though it was allied with a strong sense of Catholic churchmanship. It was this weakness in its theological foundation which caused the League, and the Christendom Group which grew out of it, to lose the vision of its founder.

Anglican Catholicism

If Schweitzer's theory was a challenge to liberals, it was no less a challenge to Catholics, and they too were unable or unwilling to face it. Some even welcomed it as a blow to liberalism. The period we are looking at, 1918-33, was also the period of Anglican Catholic 'triumphalism'. The movement, long persecuted in the parishes, now went in triumph to the Albert Hall. The Anglo-Catholic Congresses had begun. The opening paper at the first Congress of 1920, by Professor Cuthbert Turner, had as its subject The Faith and Modern Criticism'. He alluded briefly to the issues raised in The Quest for the Historical Jesus, but, he said, 'We are on holy ground, it is enough to have said so much when fewest words are best'. 14 The time had not yet come when Catholics might suggest either that the disciples had misunderstood the sayings of Jesus (and conceivably attributed to him words derived from their own apocalyptic imaginings) or even that Jesus himself might have been mistaken. Father Thornton contributed a paper on The Kingdom of God'. As the Kingdom had been embodied in the old Israel, and in the Cliurch, and, however imperfectly, in the Christian past, so, he maintained, it needed to be bom again in a new civilisation. However, he did not move far from the Augustinian position, and ended on a note of uncertainty. 15 Catholics have never taken up a wholly escapist attitude to the world: they have continued to look back to the past, to the 'Christendom' that was, and to hope for a 'New Christendom' which, in Maritain's phrase, would be a 'refraction' of the Kingdom and of the world of grace. 16 It would not be feudalism, but it would be a system which upheld 'Catholic order'. The dominant 'Catholic' view throughout this period was that the Church was the only Kingdom of God one could hope for on earth. Dr N P Williams' final paper at the Second Anglo- Catholic Congress in 1923, on 'The End of Time', could only have con- firmed his hearers in what they already believed. 17 Aubrey de Vere's paean 'Who is she that stands trumphant?' sums it up:

'Hers the Kingdom, hers the sceptre,
Fall, ye nations, at her feet!'

This is the logical conclusion of Augustinianism - the deification of the Church. And meanwhile an anti-liberal rival to Marxism, prepared to accommodate a quiescent Church, was already on the horizon in the shape of Fascism.

Bishop Gore, in Christ and Society (1927), recognised, but failed to answer, the problems raised by Schweitzer. He too insisted that the Kingdom is not merely the reign of God 'as some moderns have led us to suppose'. 'It is always', he wrote, 'the reign or sovereignty of God as embodied in Israel. It is not an abstract idea, but an embodied ideal.' 18 Yet even for him it is the Church which is the visible organisation of the Kingdom of God on earth. At the same time. Gore held that this earth, purged and regenerated, was to be the scene of the divine order; it was to become part of the eternal Kingdom. He rejected the false distinction between heaven and earth, and the view based on a literal interpretation of one New Testament saying (2 Peter 3:10) that this earth would be destroyed. Nevertheless, he maintained that the Christian hope for the world is centred on a future 'end' which is in no real sense either present or imminent. Gore's view was to triumph in Vatican 2. Only Marx and Noel had succeeded in giving some relevance to 'the end', even if it was 'Christian apocalyptic in secular dress'. But meanwhile Adolf Hitler was dreaming of a 'Third Reich', a great synthesis of Teutonic imperialism and 'the twilight of the gods', to last a thousand years.

After the centenary

It is significant that not long after the centenary of the Oxford Movement the Catholic Crusade began to fall apart over the Stalin-Trotsky argument. Some of its keenest members had been driven out in 1932 for refusing to take the 'party line'. The Crusade was disbanded in 1936, though the Order of the Church Militant continued until Noel's death in 1942. Nor did the League of the Kingdom of God fare much better. In the early 1930s it was put into cold storage -- from which it never emerged -- and was effectively replaced by the Christendom Group. Widdrington's younger disciples rejected his Maurician theology and preferred instead to identify the Kingdom of God with the Church. Today's radical Catholics are nearer in outlook to Noel and the Crusade. Sir Henry Slessor, a founder member of the League, was a prominent Anglican Catholic who, towards the end of his life, transferred his allegiance to the Roman Church. From this position he accused the League of heresy for its refusal to identify the Kingdom with the Church. It would be interesting, were he alive today, to have his thoughts on the new radical Catholicism.

In retrospect, the differences and similarities between the Crusade and the League are of some interest. While the Crusade looked to the Russian Revolution for its inspiration, the League looked back to 'Christendom'. Yet the Crusade also cherished libertarian ideals derived from John Ball through William Morris, and older members of the League acknowledged their attachment to Guild Socialism and their debt to Kropotkin. Both movements made mistakes, and if the mistakes of the Crusade were more obvious to Anglican Catholics, there were those on the fringe of the League who rightly warned of the 'servile state' but failed to recognise it when it appeared in the shape of Fascism. Noel and Widdrington were both unhappy with the attitudes of some of their disciples. It is tempting to ask how far the failure of the Catholic sodal movement was related to the obvious decline of the Catholic movement itself in the years following the centenary.

Some new thinking

It is my contention that Anglican Catholics have made the most significant contributions to the 'recovery of the Kingdom of God', and that even in their mistakes they have only anticipated the mistakes of those who have come after them. Before turning to two scholars who, in my view, have pointed away to a solution of the parousia problem -- and, by implication, to an understanding of the millennium -- I want to look briefly at some interpretations which have developed during the last half-century. First, there was 'realised eschatology', associated particularly with the late C H Dodd. According to this theory, the Kingdom was already present, and had come in the ministry of Jesus. However, this interpretation required a minimising, if not excising, of the apocalyptic sayings attributed to him. It 'saves' Jesus at the expense of the early church. The view that the Kingdom has already come also tends to limit its meaning to the 'rule of God in the hearts of individuals'. This fails to do justice to the Bible as a whole, and robs history of any real significance. On the other hand Bultmann, a decade later, preserved the apocalyptic sayings of Jesus, but reinterpreted them in an existentialist sense. For modern man, the futurist eschatology must be regarded as a 'myth' which needs to be demythologised. The meaning of history lies always in the present, in every moment slumbers the possibility of being the eschatological moment.' 19 If Dodd's view might conceivably have some 'implications' for history, Bultmann's is entirely individualistic. Throughout this period there were others, including Anglicans, who sought to explain the parousia as fulfilled in Pentecost. There is undoubtedly an element of truth in this, deriving not only from the fourth gospel. The Old Testament idea of God himself coming in judgment was regarded as a second coming -- Sinai being the first. Keble upheld a sound Catholic tradition when he wrote:

When God of old came down from heaven,
In power and wrath he came ...

But when he came the second time,
He came in power and love.

But to suppose that parousia equals Pentecost is Platonism, the 'fudge' in which many Anglicans delight.

A different note, however, was sounded in the early 1950s by John A T Robinson. In his In the End, God ... 20 Robinson argued that the theological issue before the church was as much the problem of 'the End' as, one hundred years earlier, it was the problem of the beginning. Robinson also contributed a brilliant essay on 'The Christian Hope' to a symposium Christian Faith and Communist Faith (1953), 21 the result of a series of discussions concerning the Anglican attitude to Communism initiated by Bishop Bell of Chichester. This was a period when a mood of pessimism went hand in hand with a kind of inverted theology, and 'ecumenism' was seen as part of the Cold War against Communism. Robinson wrote:

'For the New Testament writers, the point upon which every hope was concentrated was the restitution of all things in the return and reign of Jesus Christ with all his saints, and the consummation of history in a new heaven and a new earth. The New Testament Gospel without the parousia or (Second) Coming would be as impossible as Marxism without the classless society'. That this hope was replaced by 'a very different expectation fixed on the moment of death and the prospects for the individual beyond it' he attributed to 'the original absorption of the biblical faith to a Hellenistic civilisation whose doctrine of the soul was as individualist as its conception of reality was unhistorical'. 22 This at least was an alternative explanation of what had gone wrong at some stage in the early Church. Yet Robinson leaves the reader with the impression that the parousia is a myth to be interpreted as what is happening all the time -- the coming of Christ into everything. Although superficially attractive, it suggests an evolutionary 'coming', and the phrase 'Coming One' suggests an Oxbridge don. Once more it is Anglican Platonism, the Maurician outlook arrived at by a different route, and one less satisfactory than the revolutionary vision of Noel - or of Marx!

The Second Vatican Council led to a new understanding of the relationship of the Church to the world. The Council Fathers were ambiguous, but the sharp distinction between heaven and earth disappeared. Though the Kingdom remained on the further side of the parousia, this earth was seen as being included in the 'restoration of all things'. The Augustinian notion of a spiritualised millennium was apparently abandoned, though the Church was still in some sense the Kingdom ot God in the making. However, some Catholic theologians have adopted a more adventurous approach to the parousia doctrine, and the way was set by the German Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann in The Theology of Hope (1969). 23 In much of the new Catholic thinking, as in liberation theology, we arrive again at Noel's position, that 'the future of Christ' is revealed in the 'new humanity', and in some sense, though not as clearly as it appeared fifty years ago, this is related to Marxism.

Evangelical writers have also taken up the theme of the Kingdom of God, with careful examination of the Scriptures and an openness to new understandings. The emphasis is on the Kingdom as the 'dynamic reign of God'. It has come in Christ, it can be accepted by individuals, it is a realm into which we may enter now, but it is also a coming Kingdom. George Eldon Ladd, in The Gospel of the Kingdom (1958), strongly upheld the millennial reign of Christ, inaugurated by a future parousia, and also a final consummation in a new heaven and a new earth. Strangely, however, in his most recent work The Presence of the Future (1974), he does not once mention the millenium. 24 Stephen Travis, in I Believe in the Second Coming (1982), 25 explicitly rejects it, but sees the final consummation as including a regenerated earth. What does not seem to be questioned by these writers is the meaning of 'parousia', or the view that Jesus foretold his own second coming. The appeal to the Bible is made with preconceived ideas. Yet the new Evangelical outlook is close to that of Vatican 2. It has acquired a 'high' doctrine of the Church, but it is equally ambiguous.

One of the most informative books to appear in recent years is Rosemary Ruether's The Radical Kingdom (1970). 26 This is a study of'the Western experience of Messianic hope', and the introductory chapter is entitled 'The Theology of Revolution and Social Change: the basic motifs'. In a few lines, she draws attention to the old doctrine of the millennium, which, as she makes clear in subsequent chapters, lies at the root of all movements for social change. The opening chapter contains some interesting observations. Originally the Messianic Kingdom was for this earth: it would be a time of great prosperity, and people would enjoy long life. The Messiah was human and would die like everyone else, and so when belief in the resurrection of the dead first arose it was seen as a temporary resurrection. In the second century BC the apocalyptists developed the idea of a transcendent Kingdom, a new heaven and a new earth, with an eternal resurrection. So, as Ruether puts it, in the first century BC these two alternative models of the New Age were 'stitched together'. Here, she points out, we find the origin of some later complications -- two resurrections, two cosmic battles, and two judgments, one at the beginning of the temporal Kingdom, the other at the beginning of the transcendent King- dom. 27 This is important when we come to consider New Testament eschatology: we should expect to find some confusion, and also the possibility of further development. This is, I suggest, what we do find. What the 'first Christians' really believed is not easy to determine -- there were as confused as we are!

Two Anglican scholars

I want now to turn to the two Anglican scholars referred to earlier who belonged to the decade after 1933. I want to draw attention first to some paragraphs on eschatology in Dom Gregory Dix's The Shape of the Liturgy (1945) in the chapter on The meaning of the Eucharist'. 28 Dix observes that the primitive understanding of the Eucharist

'brings us close to a whole habit of mind and thought about the relation of this world and things in this world to the "world to come" which is almost entirely foreign to our ideas, but which is of the very substance of early Christian thinking and of the New Testament documents ... Its exploration takes us afield, back beyond the Gospels into the Old Testament and the world of Jewish thought from which our Lord and his apostles and the Gospel came.' 29

Dix acknowledged his indebtedness to the work of C H Dodd, though he adds: 'I do not fully subscribe to his theory of realised eschatology'. He goes on to suggest that the 'Day of the Lord' and the ideas connected with 'the End' are at once within history and beyond it, the consummation of time and its transmutation into what is beyond time, the 'Age to Come'. 30 Thus the prophets both foresaw 'the End' as a definite event, and yet were forced to describe it in the fantastic language of myth. For primitive Jewish Christianity, says Dix, ' "the End" had come in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus ... and yet history continued!' However, he adds that 'for pre-Christian Jewish thought, the eschaton had a double significance: (1) it manifested the purpose of history, and (2) it also concluded it. But even in Jewish thought these two aspects were not regarded as necessarily coincident in time.' 31 This bare summary is sufficient to indicate the stupendous questions which faced the disciples after the Lord's ascension.

Further, in a lengthy footnote, Dix pays generous tribute to another Anglican Catholic scholar of the period, and because of its importance I quote it in full:

'I would like to draw attention to an essay by Dr W K Lowther Clarke on The Clouds of Heaven ... of which unsufficient notice seems to have been taken in England. In his own words his thesis is that "When our Lord said: 'Ye shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power and coming in the clouds of heaven', he referred to his Ascension, not to a Descent, to his vindication by the Father and only indirectly to a judgment of this world. The true meaning of his words was gradually lost until in the second century they were taken to mean a coming from heaven." So far as I have any means of judging, the materials assembled by Dr Clarke entirely bear out his contention, which seems to me in line with much in the Jewish prehistory of Christian eschatology. But such a view calls for a drastic revision of current theories about primitive Christian messianism and eschatology generally, and in particular of the relation of the 'second coming' (parousia) to the paschal sacrifice of Christ in his death, resurrection and ascension together .' 32

If Dr Clarke's thesis is substantially correct, and if it does call for 'a drastic revision of current theories', as Dix suggests, the consequences are considerable, though neither had fully worked them out. We must first, however, look at possible objections. Dr Clarke might seem to imply that parousia equals ascension, though he does also emphasise a 'coming in the Spirit' and, somewhat vaguely, a final coming. Archbishop Temple, in his Readings in St John's Gospel (1939), interprets Jesus' references to 'the Coming of the Son of Man' primarily in relation to the Cross and resurrection, in terms which certainly minimise the apocalyptic elements. Dix is more positive in declaring: 'When Jesus passed through death to life, and so by his ascension into the "glory" (shechinah) of God, in his person the "Age to come" has been inaugurated.' 33 The crucial saying, in its earliest form, is Mark 14: 62 where, in reply to the high priest's question, Jesus declared: 'You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven'. Here, for the only time, he claimed to be the Davidic King (of Psalm 110) and the Son of Man (cf Daniel 7: 13-14). The latter saying describes 'one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days'. It is neither an ascension nor a descent; the scene is laid entirely in heaven. What Jesus believed about himself and his mission was derived from'the Prophets and the Psalms', and there was nothing there to suggest a return to this earth. That Jesus was acquainted with sayings from the Book of Enoch (100 BC onwards) we may well suppose. Here the Son of Man judges in heaven on 'the throne of his glory', and descends to earth only after heaven and earth have been transformed. There is thus a hint of a final coming, or revelation (apocalypse), of the Son of Man in a transcendent Kingdom, but nothing to suggest to Jesus an imminent 'return' to this earth to accomplish what he had failed to do the first time. As Dr Clarke puts it: 'Rather he believed he would fulfil what was written concerning himself -- and this was the movement of thought which changed the world -- only through suffering culminating in death would he achieve world dominion. Vindication by the Father at his own time and in his own way was the faith which filled the mind of Jesus'. 34

The meaning of parousia

Now we will turn to the disciples and the New Testament. The word 'parousia' does not occur in the Gospels, except in Matthew 24, which is a later version of Mark 13. It does not mean 'second coming' (which is not a New Testament term at all) nor 'return': it means 'presence' or 'coming'. The Gospel sayings use the participle of the verb erchomai, to come, to go, or to pass by (as in the phrase in Bishop Walsham How's well-known hymn 'The King of Glory passes on his way'). 'Parousia' is used in the earlier New Testament letters to refer to a future coming, but not, it seems, to a return to this earth. When Matthew's Gospel was written, it could have been understood as referring to a future coming, but in the unlikely use of the word by the disciples and Jesus it would have meant the moment when Jesus would assume the Messianic role. If he had ridden into Jerusalem on a war horse, this would have been the sign of his 'parousia'. 35 Already, in Jewish thought, the earthly messiah was being regarded as the heaven-sent deliverer. Two fundamentally irreconcilable views of eschatology were being crudely combined. Strange messianic ideas were held then, as they have been since, and as they are held today.

The ascension was the sign to the disciples of Jesus' entry into glory. This is the meaning of 'the cloud' as at the transfiguration, the sign of God's presence. The notion that Jesus would return to earth 'on the clouds' is based on a misreading of the ascension story, on a misunderstanding of its meaning, and on a confusion of symbols. 'The clouds' are a symbol of judgment and blessing -- God 'rides on the clouds' -- and such symbolism can be applied to the Coming from the ascension onwards. Bishop Christopher Wordsworth put it thus:

'See the Conqueror mounts in triumph,
See the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds his chariot
To his heavenly palace gate ...

See him, who with sound of trumpet
And with his angelic train,
Summoning the world to judgment
On the clouds will come again.

Up the the moment of the ascension, the disciples expected Jesus to fulfil the role of the earthly Messiah and restore the Kingdom to Israel. From that moment he would be regarded as the heavenly Son of Man, and they would expect him to come in glory -- a future but imminent parousia -- in the sense of a revelation (apocalypse) when they would be caught up to heaven to reign with him in a transcendent Kingdom. This appears to be the earliest view, reflected in 1 Thessalonians 4: 16-17, which does not imply a return to this earth. Since the idea of a return from heaven to earth to inaugurate the millennium was firmly established by the middle of the second century, we might expect to find traces of it in the New Testament. The remarkable thing is the absence of such evidence, and even Revelation 20 is ambiguous. From Paul's letters we gather that some strange beliefs were current. He had to warn against a forged letter 'to the effect that the Day of the Lord has come' (2 Thessalonians 2: 12) -- a completely realised eschatology -- and against those who held that 'the resurrection is past already' (2 Timothy 2: 17) -- they held the Greek view of immortality.

Pentecost brought a new understanding, as Peter perceived in his use of Joel's prophecy (Acts 2: 17 ff): the gift of the Spirit was a sign that the 'Age to Come' had dawned. The fourth gospel, so far from being a consolation for disappointed hopes (of which there is no real evidence), is a development of what had been there from the beginning. The 'scoffers' of 2 Peter 3: 3-4 are more likely to have been ardent 'charismatics', early Montanists who had so exaggerated the Johannine teaching as to see no need for a future coming. There is considerable development within the New Testament, so that the later Paul comes close to John. The sense that 'the End' had come gave meaning to time and history; the Lord was seen as exercising judgment in heaven where his throne was set, and banishing evil from his face (cf 1 Corinthians 15: 24-5). The true meaning of the ascension is given in Ephesians 4: 10 'he ascended above all heavens to fill all things'. The parousia had come to be understood as presence as well as coming, and this suggested the possibility of a 'restoration of all things' as implicitly in certain passages of Paul. The idea of an earthly millennium seems to underly Acts 3: 20-1 and 1 Corinthians, and with Revelation, in which a new heaven and a new earth precede the final coming of Christ, The likelihood is that these ideas were not completely worked out. So the predominantly Gentile church of the second century took over the view apparently found in Revelation 20 because it was unable to understand Jewish apocalyptic. The first Christians certainly developed the conviction of a final coming at the consummation of time and history, an 'epiphany of his presence' (2 Thessalonians 2: 8) in the transcendent world of the resurrection. What was insecurely grasped, and eventually lost, was an understanding of parousia as presence -- and this was something which Joachim of Fiore did not perceive.

The Coming of Christ in his Kingdom

If the parousia is the consequence of the paschal sacrifice, and Pentecost its first sign, what then do we mean when we say: 'He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, whose Kingdom shall have no end'? Or when we proclaim: 'Christ will come again!'? We affirm that this is happening now, that the parousia is a process which is both present, and also moving towards its final consummation. This consummation is the essential transcendent element without which the process is meangingless. (Marxism also has a sense of transcendence which it has lost sight of -- the withering away of the state.) If the parousia is already dynamically present, we can restate the Maurician dictum thus: 'The Coming of Christ in his Kingdom is the great existing reality which is renewing the earth'. And this involves a revolutionary transformation of which the millennium is the powerful symbol. It is this ancient Jewish-Christian conception which the important insights of Dix and Lowther Clarke need to give them substance, and John XXIII's vision of a 'new Pentecost' has its place in it. Conrad Noel caught the vision of the earthly Paradise because he took the apocalyptic dreams seriously, and so the Manifesto of the Catholic Crusade (1919) has a message for today. Noel would still be challenging the Catholic Revival to 'go all the way'. Hating what he called 'the safeties of central churchmanship', he would be among those who describe the Church of England today as 'the SDP at the Parish Communion'. Nor should Widdrington's passionate plea for the recovery of the Kingdom of God as the regulative principle of theology go unheeded. It was necessary, he argued, for the defence of the Catholic Faith, to purge it of what was false and to re-establish it on its true foundation. This would 'involve a Reformation in comparison with which the Reformation of the sixteenth century will seem a small thing.' 36 And if he sounded expansive in claiming that the fate of civilisation depended on its effective proclamation, the time seems only to have proved him right. 'Kingdom Come' sums up the caricature of the gospel and the Lord's Prayer which we have presented in place of the biblical hope for the earth. Is the movement of Catholic Renewal now ready, fifty years on, to respond to the challenge of the past, and to recover the vision of the Coming of Christ in his Kingdom?

'Write the vision: make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time: it hastens to the end -- it will not lie;(Habakkuk2:2-3)


1 The Oxford Movement. Will the Catholic Revival go all the way? By Servants of the Catholic Crusade, 1933.
2 cited in M B Reckitt, PET Widdrington: a study in vocation and versatility (SPCK,1961),p83.
3 PET Widdrington in The Return of Christendom (George Allen and Unwin, 1922), p 108. See also Reckitt, op cit, pp 71-85.
4 According to Reg Groves, The Catholic Crusade 1918-36 (Archive One, 1970), p 24, the author was Jim Wilson.
5 The Oxford Movement, op cit, p 3.
6 cited in W K Lowther Clarke, Divine Humanity: doctrinal essays on New Testament problems (SPCK, 1936), p 9.
7 J E Fison, The Christian Hope (Longman, 1954), p 40.
8 Mercury Books, 1962 edn.
9 R H Charles, Studies in the Apocalypse (Edinburgh, T and T Clark, 1913), p43.
10 Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (George Allen and Unwin, 1946), p383.
11 Conrad Noel, The Life of Jesus (Dent, 1937) pp 529-30.
12 PET Widdrington, The return of "the Kingdom of God" ', in The Return of Christendom, op cit, pp 91-113.
13 in ibid,pp65-86.
14 Report of the 1st Anglo-Catholic Congress, London 1920 (SPCK, 1920), p 30. For the whole paper see pp 20-33.
15 ibid.pp 53-61.
16 Jacques Maritain, True Humanism (Bles, 1938), pp 101,105. On the Kingdom of God see pp 91-104, on the theme of a 'New Christendom' see pp 205-50.
17 Report of the Anglo-Catholic Congress, London, July 1923 (Society of SS Peter and Paul, 1923), pp 167-178.
18 Charles Gore, Christ and Society (George Allen and Unwin, 1928), p 33.
19 Rudolph Bultmann, History and Eschatology (Edinburgh, 1957), p 155.
20 John A T Robinson, In the End, God.. . (James Clarke, 1950), pp 15 ff.
21 DM Mackinnon (ed), Christian Faith and Communist Faith (Macmillan, 1953).
22 ibid, p 210.
23 Jurgen Moltmann, The Theology of Hope(SCM Press, 1967).
24 George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Paternoster Press, 1977 edn);
The Presence of the Future (SPCK, 1980 edn).
25 Stephen H Travis, I believe in the Second Coming of Jesus (Hodder, 1982).
26 Rosemary Ruether, The Radical Kingdom (Harper and Row, 1970).
27 ibid,pp7-80.
28 Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (Dacre, 1946 edn), pp 256-63).
29 ibid,p256.
30 ibid, pp 256-7.
31 ibid,p261.
32 ibid, p 262 n 1. For Lowther Clarke's essay see Divine Humanity, op at, pp9-40.
33 William Temple, Readings in St John's Gospel (Macmillan, 1959 ed).
34 Clarke.op cit,p 37.
35 See the interesting suggestion in Dorothy Sayers, The Man Born to be King (Gollancz, 1943), p 213.
36 The Return of Christendom op cit, pp 108-9. This is where contemporary ecumenical discussion ought to begin.

Home Traditional Values The Heritage Friends and Companions Liturgical Ramblings Something of William Morris Some Good Reading Some Links The Jubilee Group