Bruno Clifton OP reflects on Israel’s hope for a Saviour in the second of the series of talks ‘Faith for Busy People’
I have a book about the end of the Bronze Age called, ‘1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed’, when a mysterious group, known only as the ‘Sea Peoples’, laid waste to the Near East. The year civilization collapsed… The people of Israel’s Northern Kingdom may have said the same in 722 B.C., when Assyria put an end to that dynasty; or Judah, the Southern Kingdom when it fell to Babylon in 586 B.C.
Many other dates mark a watershed in the human story: A.D. 70 (fall of Jerusalem), 1066 and all that, or 1789, the launch of the French Revolution. And these, simply the first that come to mind, are all times of war, upheaval and conquering: a cycle of empires that rise and fall. (If an example of a watershed that is not a civilisation’s fall is needed, we can mention 507 B.C. – the establishment of a demokratia in Athens by Cleisthenes.) All watersheds, all moments in the light of which it felt like things would never be the same again…
And in all this, we have to locate St Paul’s expression: ‘the fullness of time’. Given the character of historic events, we might expect to ask, when, then, is the fullness of time? But, surely, a more appropriate question, given that many important eras have unfolded and passed away since Paul’s declaration of time’s completeness, is rather, what is the fullness of time?
The remark of Paul from which this theme comes, I suppose, is found in Gal 4, for Paul also uses the expression in Ephesians, in the hymn which opens the letter recalling salvation history. But, for now, let’s stick with Galatians 4:3-5: ‘Thus also us; while we were minors, (nepioi) we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.’
There are a number of things to draw from this. First, the expression, to pleroma tou cronou seems to divide human history into two parts: a before and an after. The before is the time of infancy, like children we are ruled by our passions and earthly needs—but like childhood, time’s inexorable progress leaves behind irresponsibility and we grow up; we become accountable, we become heirs – the after.
We become heirs by means of the fullness. This is the thrust of Paul’s argument in Gal 4:1-7. So, secondly, the fullness of time is not really defining history’s two parts (which are the two parts of a human life: child/adult), but rather it defines the fullness of our story now, each of our stories, their relevance and immediateness. In this way, the watersheds of human history disappear behind the much more pressing moments of our own lives in the world.
Rather than a model of progression, of before and after, we might prefer a pinnacle or a stone dropped in a lake, creating ripples to describe Christ’s coming to save us. It is the fullness of our own growth in accountability as adults with dignity and an inheritance having come-of-age as the beloved heirs of our Father, the Most High God. ‘So, no longer are you a slave but a son: but, if a son also an heir, through (dia» + gen.) God.’ Gal 4:7. Through God. By means of the fullness of time. So, the fullness means the culmination, the zenith, the focus of time – when God enters our story. What happened before time was focused?
But, hang on, maybe this is the wrong perspective, since the eternal has entered the temporal. Maybe we should step outside a model of before and after, and ask rather, what is happening in order for time to be focused?
If the focus of time is about the passage from childhood to coming of age into the inheritance, then we should perhaps consider how the heirs are to grow up: humanity’s adolescence before God.Now, to set a scene, I think it is a common yearning for children to be older, to grow up, to be able to do things that are, for the moment, beyond them, forbidden to them, inappropriate for them. And, much of rebellion and disobedience is that reaction against the impotence, struggling to push time onward. Those who are in a hurry to grow up push against the constraints of time… and overreach…
We could look at last week’s subjects, Adam and Eve, from this point of view. But also go on to mention Israel’s rebellion at Sinai – the Golden Calf; or the adultery of David, who desired someone else’s wife; or the rule of his son, Solomon, who, more subtly, reflects the opposite of what a King should be and do according to God’s law found in Deut 17:14-20. And, he was the last king to rule over a United Kingdom. Their stories are about stretching beyond themselves. Humanity has to be patient, to wait… wait for time’s game to be played out. So, we see Adam and Eve are an archetype for a fundamental model that the Old Testament addresses – humanity’s adolescence.
We have St Paul speaking of our inheritance as heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, who draws upon the image of the whole world’s struggle with time addressed by the Old Testament: ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.’ Rom 8:22-3.
Like children, elements of our impatience rise to the surface of history. We can see it in the quality of events I mentioned at the beginning: epoch-defining moments of time characterized by war, strife and struggle. But, in our lives too, moments of time are marked by rebellion and pain, striving to reach that inheritance for each human being in their context, among their fellows, affected by humanity’s struggle to grow up.
Once again, Paul in the Letter to the Ephesians, locates this struggle in the childish concern for worldly success and favour. Rather, he exhorts people to choose the right way to mature, leaving behind impatience: ‘We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.’ Eph 4:14-5
And, if we now return to the opening of Ephesians, to Paul’s other use of the expression ‘the fullness of time’ (Eph 1:10, the only other use); if we return to this hymn, we see it is the whole of time summed up as the work of God’s redemption: ‘He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world’ (1:4). ‘He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.’ (1:5). ‘According to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.’ (1:9-10)
So, the culmination, the focus of time is the point at which the thread of the earth-shattering events of civilisation and the moments of own individual struggles and joys, our stories, bi-sect. Simply put, God has made all our stories watersheds in the unfolding of time.
If we leave this aspect here for a moment, we can perhaps approach the fullness of time from another angle. There are quite a few physicists at Emmanuel. And I was interested to discover from an Astrophysicist that a) quantum physics and astrophysics are incompatible and b) (and this is my point here) the use of time as a fourth dimension in astrophysics. It was explained to me like this: if two events are occurring at ostensibly the same time but at different locations, it is more accurate to consider these events as two different space-time occurrences. They are not happening at the same time, but at different space-times. In this way, the fullness of time is also the fullness of space.
My response to this, with which the physicist did not disagree, was that it seemed to touch on the theoretical problem we were presented with in Philosophical Anthropology at Blackfriars – why is it now, now? To set it in clear terms, why is it 5 Dec, 2014 and not, well, 1177 B.C. or any of the other points in time, watersheds, I mentioned at the beginning. The reason it is now, now, it would appear is simply that I, the one posing the question, am viewing time from my perspective, making the time now, now. I (we) make time relevant and, bearing in mind Astrophysical relativity, I make space relevant too.
Maybe this is another way of seeing how the fullness of space-time is about God making all our stories relevant, all of them watersheds.
The Old Testament: pushing against time and the unknown; ‘knowing fully just as I have been fully known’
Now, lest you think that this is all very distant from our salvation, irrelevant perhaps to the point at hand, the concept of relativity, space and time is found at the heart of a very important Hebrew term. The word ‘lm is often translated ‘forever’ in context, but in fact expresses an eternity of both time and space. This is reflected in the appropriation of the term in Modern Hebrew, where it simply means ‘world’. ‘lm is thus infinity-eternity: the fullness of space-time. Here is an example of its use
‘At that time, says the LORD, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
Thus says the LORD: The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the LORD appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.’ Jeremiah 31:1-3
It is because the Lord loves us with an everlasting, that is an eternal-infinite (to continue the space-time model), love that he incorporates all our stories into the eternal-infinite salvation he brings.
How do we bring together these interactions? How do we represent the common experience of this growing up, this impatience, this pushing against time, from all the many concerns, frustrations, problems that we each face?
In the Old Testament, we have such a distilling of our growing up; of creation groaning; of the eager longing (Rom 8:19) for fulfilment. The OT, is about pushing against time. It is about waiting: ‘Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the LORD; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.’ Isa 25.9
The OT is, then, a set of stories about people pushing against time, sometimes in a tantrum, all with a unformed, childlike appreciation of who God is. So, for all that, the Old Testament demands robustness. A robustness to encounter what is not clear, what is not known except as waited-for. If we bear this in mind when reading the Old Testament, the motivations and actions of the people contained therein become more accessible and more like ourselves. And in their story of salvation we can begin to see our own.
Nevertheless, as humans our struggles and pain seem to resist resolution. They are embedded in our relationships and our immaturity. Despite the before and after, the human story continues to need growing-up. We can perhaps see the better model in the salvation event itself. For, our coming-of-age is ushered in by the reverse of growth and maturation – the humbling and emptying of the Judge to become an infant, a minor, nepios (adj. m. nom. sg.).
The same Paul who speaks of the fullness of time, acknowledges how the before and after should not be the perspective in which we look at this fullness of Christ’s salvation. ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ 1 Cor 13:12.
The before and the after, the now and the then, are the completion of our salvation and the culmination of the coming Kindgom of God. So, for us, now, by its fullness God renders us foci in the unfolding of time, but by choosing a time and space (a space-time) in which to throw off his eternity and infinity and enter humanity’s world to make every human being’s space-time relevant.
The fullness of time is the incorporation of every human being’s story at every time and place into the story of salvation. We can finish as we began with St Paul: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Rom 8:38). And that includes time and space.