Monday, 2 May 2011

Judgment, resurrection and reconciliation

‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.’

‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.‘ (Nicene Creed)

These two eschatological clauses of the Nicene Creed name the two traditional dimensions of the transition from ‘this world’ to ‘the world to come’: ‘the last judgment’, and ‘the resurrection of the dead’. Miroslav Volf, in a carefully argued article, claims that these two — at least as traditionally conceived — are necessary but not sufficient to transform ‘the existing world of enmity into [in Jonathan Edwards’ phrase] a world of love’.[1]

Volf’s argument begins with Augustine’s conception of the ‘peace’ of the world to come (distilling the eschatological visions of both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures) as being the ‘perfectly ordered and harmonious enjoyment of God and of one another in God’.[2] If, for Augustine, ‘the last judgment’ is about separating ‘the good’ from ‘the bad’, and ‘the resurrection’ about ‘clothing’ weak flesh in immortality, then, Volf argues, ‘either only those who are already fully reconciled in this world could be admitted into the coming world’, or a third dimension to the ‘eschatological transition’ is needed: ‘reconciliation’. The first option, he suggests, is excluded by Augustine’s belief that complete peace is impossible in this life, and so it is the second (not explored by Augustine) which needs developing.[3]

Turning to Luther, who integrates ‘judgment according to works’ into the wider, ‘overarching judgment of grace’, Volf argues that, while ‘the final justification of the ungodly’ would, on its own, ensure that we would meet in the world to come even those whom we have not considered particularly lovable in the present one’, it would not, on its own, mean that we loved them. For that to happen, we would also, in some ‘carefully specified sense’, ‘need to receive ... “justification” from each other’, and more than that, we would ‘need to want to be in communion with one another’. In other words, ‘[t]o usher in a world of love, the eschatological transition would need to be understood not only as a divine act toward human beings but also as a social event between human beings; more precisely, a divine act toward human beings which is also a social event between them.’[4] This Volf terms ‘the final social reconciliation’: ‘the Holy Spirit’s perfecting of the inter-human reconciliation which God has accomplished in Christ and in which human beings have been involved all along in response to God’s call’.[5]

[1]M. Volf, ‘The final reconciliation: reflections on a social dimension of the eschatological transition’, Modern Theology 16:1 (January 2000), 92.

[2]Augustine, The City of God, XIX 17 (quoted in Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 92)

[3]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 92-3

[4]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 93 (my emphasis)

[5]Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 106. Volf’s work of ‘careful specification’ is worth spelling out in a little more detail here. ‘The divine judgment,’ he says, ‘will reach its goal when, by the power of the Spirit, all eschew attempts at self-justification, acknowledge their own sin in its full magnitude, experience liberation from guilt and the power of sin, and, finally, when each recognizes that all others have done precisely that... Having recognized that others have changed — that they have been given their true identity by being freed from sin — one will no longer condemn others but offer them the grace of forgiveness.’ Reconciliation will have finally been achieved when ‘one has moved toward one’s former enemies and embraced them as belonging to the same communion of love.’ (Volf, ‘Final reconciliation’, 103; 104, original emphasis)

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