The Last Things: A New Approach

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A set of Study Notes accompany this review.

Recently when I attended an excellent one-day Seminar on "Preaching Paul", I was struck by the disastrous extent to which participants started the hermeneutical process from their own individual theological standpoint instead of starting with the text. At the 'liberal' end of the spectrum this meant wishing away inconvenient readings in favour of open-ended formulations which could mean more or less anything to anyone; while at the 'evangelical' end of the spectrum the meaning of the text was violated in order to derive formulations that were too narrow and definite, assigning a disproportionate degree of certainty as to 'how' a state of affairs might exist or come about rather than confining conclusions to 'what' might be or come to be.

The best possible conclusions are those which can be realised in a definite way from a rigorous reading of the key texts and it is this admirable approach which characterises Thiselton's hermeneutics. He is clear where he is definite and clear where he is not and my only major difference with him is over his understanding of justification in Paul where I am inclined, on the evidence, to accept much of Douglas J. Campbell's recent work on Romans.

Thiselton methodically works his way through the nature of the "four last things" - heaven, hell, death and judgment - showing how Scripture in general and Paul in particular gives us a certain hope of a post resurrection state where are 'souls' will not, as Gnostics and Buddhists believe, be enfolded back into some divine maw but, rather, the individuality with which we were created as creatures of both body and spirit, will retain our identity in our dynamic, Spirit-driven relationship with each other and God in our final state..

We cannot be sure precisely what this state will be, any more than the Apostles were able to analyse the continuity and difference between the pre and post Resurrection Jesus but there is no room for doubt in Paul and in the promises of Jesus that resurrected we will be, in some way in our bodies.

The key areas of uncertainty concern: whether we will be united with Christ directly after death or only after a final judgment at the end of time (both understandings are Biblically supported); whether we will all be saved or whether some will in some way be cut off from God because of their earthly conduct; and what the nature of that retribution, if any, might be.

Those familiar with Thiselton will recognise his basic, hermeneutic technique, bolstered by a contemporary understanding of linguistic philosophy based primarily on Wittgenstein and supported by a sparkling array of contemporary theologians, notably Moltmann and Panenberg; it's a quibble, I admit, but I could have done with a little more von Balthazar.

I turned to Thiselton after a disappointing experience with Paula Gooder's Heaven and found myself much better satisfied. The challenge I faced was the strange reluctance of my theology group to be as committed to the last clauses of the Creed as to the first: after all, if you believe in God, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come are pieces of cake!

I suspect that the problem underlying our understanding of the last things relates to Christianity's serious neo-Platonic, gnostic infection - some would say heresy - which accepts the immortality of the soul but not the body and therefore fails to take account of the essentially earthly nature of humanity in creation; such misunderstanding also infects the fullness of our appreciation of the Incarnation: if flesh is corrupt, after all, why did God take the form of a human being in Jesus?

At first sight, Thiselton's exposition appears to be difficult and somewhat technical, more for the seminar room than a front room, but in fact he is simply methodical and wonderfully constructive, with each piece of evidence in its appropriate place so that the conclusions are in no way forced.

An excellent book which everybody should read who wants to take the final clauses of the Creeds seriously.

A set of Study Notes accompany this review.