The Last Things
CONTOURS OF CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY
(Author’s disclosure: David Höhne is presently supervising my M.Th.)
The Last Things are generally presented as four in number, being death, judgement, heaven and hell. In this volume David Höhne gives us six last things, taken from what may seem an unexpected source, namely the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. As soon as you think about it though, expounding eschatology using the framework of this prayer makes a lot of sense. The first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are big petitions, oriented towards God’s original and ultimate purposes for his creation. They set out a vision for our faith and hope and, as they are given to us to pray by Jesus Christ, we may expect that they do express the will and plan of God. To organise the teaching of Scripture about the last things under the heading of God’s name being hallowed, God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done seems like a sane and sound approach to eschatology. The last three petitions also lend themselves to being expounded with reference to ultimate things: daily bread is about the sustenance of life—will God sustain our lives despite death? Forgiveness of sins counts most of all at the last judgement, and deliverance from temptation and evil is the hope of the new creation.
Apart from the use of the Lord’s Prayer as an organising framework, another distinctive of this work is that it seeks to say what can be said about the End from our current situation, living in what Höhne call ‘the Middle’. The Middle is the period between the resurrection and the return of Jesus. Höhne wants to describe the experience of Christian hope in this situation theologically. In the Middle we have the gospel, which is a promise from the past, for the future. In the Middle we do not see the Beginning or the End, but we have these promises, which are the means by which God gives himself to us. God is with us, the people whom he is perfecting, through his word of promise and by his Spirit. Life in the Middle is the life of prayer, the church calling upon God to fulfill the promises he has made, and trusting that he will. This is an experience of faith and hope expressed in prayer.
A third feature of this work is that it engages pretty seriously with both Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann. This makes it a stretching read. Höhne aims to construct his eschatology using the resources of Scripture, organised by the Lord’s Prayer, drawing on the methods of Biblical theology that Moore College is well known for developing, leaning also on Calvin for theological method, and sifting Barth and Moltmann so as to integrate their best insights and critique their inadequacies. The Contours in Theology series is a set of ’ ‘concise introductory textbooks’, but this is not an introduction to a first year theology course’s section on eschatology. It is more at the level of an introductory textbook for a later specialist course in eschatology. Just so you know.
The chapters on the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer come in two sets. To give you an indication of the guts of the book, let me describe the first of these sets of three chapters. The first set focusses on the hope that God’s heavenly fatherhood will be perfected on earth. This is traced first through the theme of the hallowing of God’s name. Philippians 2:9-11 is the touchstone promise, that ‘in honour of the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’. Höhne traces the theme of the hallowing of God’s name from Moses and the Temple through the Exile and to the Word made flesh who is given the Name above every name, through whom God’s Name is and will be hallowed on earth as in heaven. The next chapter traces the theme of God’s fatherhood perfected on earth by the coming of his kingdom. 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 is the touchstone promise. There we learn that after the destruction of the enemies of the Messiah, finishing with death, he will hand the Kingdom over to God the Father, and God will be all in all. The chapter expounds the biblical development of the Spirit-empowered Son of God, chosen from the people to deliver the people. Jesus is that Messiah, ‘mighty over sin, death and evil’ (p. 113). He is not only king but rather king-priest, establishing right worship and leading the people in it. These things he does through the shedding of his blood, and sending his Spirit to gather his church. This church lives by God’s promise of the defeat of death in the resurrection of the dead, and the consequent entire advent of his kingdom on earth as in heaven. The next chapter is on the doing of God’s will on earth as in heaven. The touchstone promise is Ephesians 1:3-10 where we learn that the mystery of God’s will is that he intends to sum up all things in the Messiah. This chapter traces the planned and mysterious choices of God in bringing this will to pass. God plans ‘to bring blessing to the many by the choice of the one/few’ (p. 168). Jesus is the focus of God’s plan for creation, and in this life he is the interpreter and executor of God’s will, the one through whom the will of God is known and done on earth as in heaven. Through him the will of God in blessing and the curse will be perfectly realised.
I hope you get the idea, that this is not a book narrowly focused on what will happen in the End. It is a book about the whole plan of God from the beginning, through the middle and to the end. The End is known through promises received and believed in the Middle. These promises must be carefully considered and their various strands thoughtfully integrated. These promises are rooted in God himself, and contain the hidden fullness of what they offer even from the beginning. These promises all find their ‘Yes’ in Jesus Christ. So if you work through this book you will get a whole theology, really, not simply eschatology. There are discussions of the four last things to be found here: death (and resurrection), judgement (and forgiveness of sins), heaven (and the new earth) and hell. There’s the millennium, the beatific vision and other topics too. But Höhne wants the book to ground eschatology in our ordinary Christian lives, so he repeatedly asks, ‘What can we know?’, ‘‘What should we do?’ and ‘What can we hope for?’ in the here and now, in the Middle that precedes the End. He wants to include our current eschatological experiences of prayer and church in his account of the last things.
This is, then, rather an ambitious book, and will ask readers to do some work. This is its biggest weakness for a general readership. I did not skip easily from page to page, but I am glad to have made the effort. Its best strengths are firstly its creative and useful way of framing eschatology through the Lord’s Prayer. (I’m tempted to try a topical sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer after reading this book.) A second strength is that its account of the End is consciously and explicitly drawn from the beginning and addressed to us where we really are: in the Middle. Another way of saying this is that it is evangelical, founded on the gospel. The last strength I will mentions is its many stranded approach: using biblical-theological methods, grounded in lots of exegesis, but also reading theologians, most obviously Calvin, Barth and Moltmann, and allowing them to extend and refine this eschatology where their insights seem valuable.