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Early Church Dynamics: Disappointed Enthusiasm or Missional Vigour?

Was there a crisis over a supposed ‘delay’ of Christ’s reappearing—His Second Coming—in the early Church?  Did the early Church set itself up one way only to have to reorient itself later in the 1st century when believers’ initial enthusiasm about an imminent return of Christ was thwarted?  The purpose of this essay is to challenge the thesis that (1) there was a ‘delay’ in the Church’s thinking about Christ’s return; (2) that this was the catalyst for the development of the Church from a non-eschatological/apocalyptic version of Christianity into a different version, ‘early Catholicism’; and (3) that the early Church maintained views, such as its understanding of Christian teaching (theology and ethics) or its ecclesial structure, that were not compatible with a focus on the question of Jesus’ imminent return.  This discussion is of particular concern for missions, as will be shown.  It offers a developmental view of the Church in the 1st century that finds disappointed enthusiasm at the center, and it is incongruous with the version of history we gain from Biblical texts themselves, which present the Church as active in missional vigour, not disappointed from misdirected, apocalyptic enthusiasm.

Why address this?  First, the paradigms of ‘delay of the Parousia’ and ‘early Catholicism’ dominated 20th century, New Testament scholarship, reaching the near sacrosanct status of ‘consensus’.  The paradigms were not innocuous, as though one might simply shrug and say, ‘Well, it was really anyone’s guess when Jesus may return, so only initial enthusiasm died down—otherwise, no harm was done.’  Instead, academic perspectives on theology, ethics, and ecclesiology were shaped by this construction of what took place in the 1st century.  Second, these paradigms fly in the face of missions—the mission history of the early Church.  Third, one has to read against the text to defend these paradigms, claiming that what Scripture says was only a later, revisionist depiction of what, thanks to scholarly insights, really happened.  If the twentieth century was anything, it was the last bluster of Modernity, a shameless elevation of the scientist’s explanation of nature over nature itself (or the hsitorian’s explanation over nature itself, or the theologian’s theology over truth itself).  Fourth, this brief study leads us back to some thoughts about the Church and its mission in our day.

The So-Called ‘Delay of the Parousia’

A large number of New Testament and early Church scholars have answered ‘Yes’: there was, they say, a need for the Church to reorient themselves due to a ‘delay of the Parousia’.  They believed, furthermore, that key parts of the New Testament were predicated on a belief in the soon return of Jesus Christ and, of course, since Jesus did not return, these parts of Scripture lost their relevance and authority.  We might be able to live with an uncertain surmise that Jesus might return soon, but if key beliefs are predicated on such a belief, we have a crisis in canonical authority.

For example, Albert Schweitzer famously argued that the reason that Jesus taught such high ideals in the Sermon on the Mount was that he believed that the end of this age would happen in his own lifetime (so-called ‘imminent eschatology’).[1]  Others thought that they could find this imminent eschatology in the rest of the New Testament such that much of the early Church’s ethics became irrelevant.[2] This construct in scholarship, then, mounts a significant challenge to an orthodox Christianity that takes the Bible as authoritative for the life of the Church.  Others found in the New Testament writings a diversity of views under development during the first century.  I will reply to such arguments after expanding the perspective with another academic construct: early Catholicism.

The Notion of the Evolution of an ‘Early Catholicism’ in the New Testament

One scholar of note interpreting New Testament eschatology and related teachings through the lens of a ‘delay of the Parousia’ was James D. G. Dunn.  His Unity of the New Testament suggested that there were four paradigms in the first century Church (and therefore in the New Testament): a Jewish Christianity, a Hellenistic Christianity, an Apocalyptic Christianity, and an Early Catholic Christianity.[3]  Having outlined the distinctions between these supposed forms of early Christianity (and there have subsequently been much more radical proposals), Dunn proceeded to look for the unity between these four perspectives.  He suggests that there is one unifying factor amidst all the diversity within the New Testament: the person, Jesus.[4]  The underlying assumption in this argument is that orthodox Christianity can exist within diverse forms, given a unifying essence.[5]

One problem with this approach for orthodoxy, however, is that it legitimates a ‘picking and choosing’ hermeneutic for the Bible for everything outside the core of the Gospel.  There is, however, no such approach in the early Church to the Christian faith: believers were not delimiting their use of holy writings in favour of some essential core, whether a message (the ‘Gospel’), a principle (‘love’), a person (Jesus), or a doctrine (‘justification by faith’)—although all such examples of essentialism are evident in the past century of Biblical interpretation.  Instead, the early Church held to an authoritative canon of Scripture believed to be inspired by the Spirit of God (with ‘Scripture’ meaning the Old Testament to the New Testament authors and both testaments to early Church writers from the mid-second century).  Thus, ‘all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work’ (2 Timothy 3.15-16, ESV).  One cannot advocate the approach to the use of the Scripture in 2 Tim. 3.15-16 and hold to an ‘essential core’ at the same time: it is one or the other.  It may be worth noting, nonetheless, that to identify the core of the New Testament as Jesus is rather like describing an onion in reference to its inner ring: the ‘onionness’ of an onion, like Christ in the New Testament, permeates every part.  It is not one thing alongside other things.

The ‘delay and the Parousia’ led to an ‘early Catholic’ version of Christianity, according to the scholarly construct under review.  Dunn’s idea about the early Catholic paradigm had three parts.  I will offer my own labelling of each of these purported developments to capture the point succinctly:

  1. From Apocalyptic Enthusiasm to Religion: The early Church first believed in the imminent return of Christ and, when this did not happen, an adjustment was needed in terms of what was believed and how the Church was structured.
  2. From Believing Faith to Dogmatic Faith: The early Church initially held to a simple faith, believing in Jesus Christ.  A more settled Christianity had to decide on the content of faith: what they believed.  This was a move from discipleship to established institution.
  3. From Charismatic Community to Church Offices: The early Church’s ecclesiology initially emphasized the gifting and ministry of every believer in the organic body of Christian community (cf. 1 Cor. 12).  A more settled Christianity had to establish offices of leadership in the community in the form of bishops, elders, and deacons.

Thus, the earliest version of Christianity assumed Jesus would return forthwith, in the space of a generation.  They were simply disciples of Jesus with little need for dogma or for communal authority and order.

On reflection, however, each of these three parts to the early Catholic concept stretches credulity.  The New Testament itself represents quite a different focus: missional expansion of Christian communities from region to region in the known world.  The early Church looked back to Jesus for the Gospel it would proclaim.  This involved, to be sure, the conviction that Jesus would appear again in the last day, but what was critical was calling people to faith in him and the salvation that he had accomplished.  That accomplishment was the arrival of God’s reign and the inauguration of the restoration of Israel from exile, and therefore the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God—as the prophets had foretold.  This immense task was inaugurated at Pentecost and continued throughout each decade of the first century and then from century to century ever since.  The mission of the Church, not a delay of the Parousia, was the focus of the Church.

Moreover, the idea that the earliest Church was nonchalant about theology lacks credulity.  This is not to say that they had or needed a system of theology.  Yet their believing could not be differentiated from dogmatically held convictions.  What people believed mattered, and it mattered greatly.  There are several reasons for this.  First, and most obviously, ‘belief’ cannot be separated from what is believed.  Also, every area of theology is related to belief in Jesus: belief in Jesus is the basis of and beginning for extensive theological convictions about the Triune God, salvation, eschatology, ecclesiology, etc.  Third, the existence of a Biblical text—the canon of Scripture—provided the early Church with a means of doing theology that was not simply about believing but also about interpretation and argument. This was also true of Judaism for the same reason.  Paul the Pharisee turned Christian did not change his way of doing theology.  For him, theology was far more than making dogmatic statements on every variety of theological topic: it was also Paul’s exegetical interpretation of the Scriptures to prove this theological content to belief.  Fourth, there is clear evidence in the earliest New Testament author, Paul, that there was content to Christian faith.  This is everywhere apparent, since Paul’s letters are articulations of this theology, arguments against false teaching, and explanations about why theology mattered.  If we try to push this point earlier still, we would find Jesus’ teaching to be grounded in an interpretation of the Scriptures in light of the inbreaking Kingdom of God.  Faith was, to be sure, to directed towards Jesus, but it was a faith informed by a rich theological heritage and discussion with which Jesus interacted.  Fifth, right belief is in part defined more carefully because there are those who propagate false belief.  This reality predates Paul, as Jesus’ own ministry was over against the false teaching of others, particularly the scribes and Pharisees.  Thus, the existence of a content to faith was, from the very beginning, part of the Christian movement and developed in part because earlier convictions needed further definition due to the rise of false teaching—not because of the delay of the Parousia.

The third part of the ‘early Catholicism’ construct makes the unlikely assumption that a charismatic ecclesiology is distinct from a highly structured, authoritative ecclesiology.  A number of Pentecostal and charismatic versions of the Church today might be the place to begin to pick that idea apart.  Several of them are led by single leaders or a team of leaders exercising great authority.  In fact, some groups have had elders try to control people’s personal lives.  This is not at all to say that this was the case in the first century, but it is to dispel the myth that charismatic communities cannot have highly authoritative structures.

More importantly than theoretical constructs is the fact that the assumption falls apart Biblically.  First, the initial structure of Christian communities owed something to the synagogue, which also had elders.  Second, the Pauline churches—which were supposed to represent the non-Catholic version of early Christianity—had elders.  In his (undisputed) letter to the Philippian church, Paul greets the ‘overseers’ (episkopoi) and ‘deacons’ (diakonoi) (Phil. 1.1).  (Since ‘overseers’ and ‘elders’ both appear in the pastoral epistles but not together, it is likely that they were not two different groups but the same group with different epithets.  The second century would see a development of the episkopoi as overseers/elders to episkopoi as regional bishops over several churches in a region.)  The use of these terms in Philippians means that those scholars suggesting that Luke in Acts reads back a later (early Catholic) version of the Church into the telling of the early history of the Pauline churches is wrong.  When Luke says that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church on the first missionary journey (Acts 14.23), there is, frankly, no reason to believe otherwise.  Yet some scholars will say just that, unable to free themselves from their own assumptions about the evolution of early Catholicism.  Nor is the corroborating evidence of 1 Timothy 3 or Titus 1 (about overseers and deacons) to be dismissed as un-Pauline. (These letters have been taken as post-Pauline for various reasons, including this erroneous approach to interpretation here under review.  Give up the theory, and Paul’s authorship becomes more believable).  Thus, the charismatic gifting of the local church was compatible with some structuring of the church.  The existence of overseers or elders in the church does not require a hierarchical ecclesiology, as we find in the second century (e.g., already in Ignatius).  Overseers, e.g., may be understood in terms of their roles and responsibilities rather than offices and authorities.  The overseers in the early Church may have become bishops at a later time (the same Greek word was used), but their initial appointment was not due to a delay of the Parousia.  What would a better suggestion be for such a development?  Most likely it was twofold: the expansion of responsibilities due to the growth of the churches in a certain region, and the need to respond authoritatively to false teaching.

Examining the Arguments

An established paradigm for understanding the data—the texts—of the early Church, especially a paradigm that has lasted over a century—will not quickly be overturned.  It is, however, in the details of the arguments that the thesis of a delay of the Parousia leading to an early Catholicism unravels.  Here are several of these arguments with reference to New Testament texts.

Texts Indicating Christ’s Imminent Return: the Gospels

The argument involves two contexts: Jesus’ own beliefs about the coming of the Kingdom and Paul’s earlier letters.  In terms of Jesus’ own beliefs, Albert Schweitzer set up the (false) argument in stark and rhetorically potent terms in his Quest for the Historical Jesus.  He suggested that Jesus believed that the Kingdom—the Age to Come—would be ushered in by God within His own lifetime.  Schweitzer saw two steps in Jesus’ belief.  First, he believed that the age to come would be ushered in through his and his disciples’ ministry of proclamation and of miracles, as indicated in Matthew 10’s so-called ‘Missionary Discourse.’  In Matthew 10.23, Jesus says, ‘When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.’  Schweitzer believed that Jesus was surprised when his disciples concluded this ministry and the end had not come.  Instead of giving up his apocalyptic views, however, Jesus (on Schweitzer’s view) now understood that he would have to take upon himself the sufferings of the righteous at the end of this age in order to usher in the age to come.  This he did by knowingly and willingly going to the cross, thrusting himself on the wheels of history, as Schweitzer put it.  Jesus believed that God would come to his rescue but, as Schweitzer says, the wheels turned and, instead of ushering in the new age, they crushed him.[6]

What is remarkable about this interpretation of the Gospel narratives is that no Gospel author felt a need to correct things (by altering the record or explaining things differently) when, the theory says, a correction was strongly needed.  Why would a Gospel writer leave statements like Matthew 10.23 or 24.34 (‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place’), on Schweitzer’s view, without explanation?  Apparently, the Gospel writer did not see the statements as problematic, and so a different explanation of what they meant needs to be found.

C. H. Dodd countered Schweitzer by saying that Jesus was not proclaiming the imminent end but the present arrival of the Kingdom of God (‘realized eschatology’),[7] although he understood this not in eschatological terms (the arrival of the Age to Come) but in Platonic terms (the eternal breaking into the present).[8]  This, too, would not explain texts about the coming of the Son of Man in the time of Jesus’ audience.  Something definitive was believed to be taking place.

Post-Schweitzer and Dodd, many interpreters have explained that the early Church thought more in terms of an overlapping of this age and the age to come—often described as an ‘already/not yet’ eschatology.[9]  This is the key to the right answer.  It may be that, in various passages, Jesus had different aspects of the coming of the Kingdom, the coming of the Son of Man, or the fulfillment of apocalyptic events in view, but they all involve an inbreaking of the age to come into the present age—an overlapping of the ages.  On this understanding, Jesus’ sayings involving imminence arise, like the summary of his message itself (The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,’ Mark 1.15), from a belief in the present inbreaking of God’s rule.

Texts Indicating Christ’s Imminent Return: Paul

The notion of some scholars that Paul expected an imminent return of Christ begins with a discussion of one of Paul’s earliest epistles.  In 1 Thessalonians 4.17, he seems to think—the interpretation goes—that he is going to be alive when Christ returns, saying, 'Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air….'  (I would suggest the more obvious meaning of this passage is that Paul says ‘we’ because he is alive, not because he expects to be alive when Christ returns.)  Then, given his near martyrdom in Ephesus, Paul allegedly changes his tune and entertains the thought that he might die before this happens (2 Corinthians 1.8).  I am always astounded at how many scholars think this is a good argument.  Even in 1 Thessalonians (5.3-4), Paul speaks of the end coming as a surprise—suddenness is not imminence.  The imagery he uses of a thief coming in the night most likely echoes Jesus' similar saying in Mt. 24.36ff, which is also an affirmation that nobody knows when the Son of Man will come.  Also, Paul’s eschatological perspective on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 (‘the appointed time has grown very short [wrapping up]’) is not a statement of urgency in light of an imminent end but of how the present age is already passing away (v. 31).

In sum, what I find in both Jesus and Paul is the belief that the age to come was inaugurated through the coming of Jesus.  The result was the overlap of this age with the age to come.  This called for everyone to ‘be ready’ as the end of this age and coming of the Son of Man is unknown (this is the thrust of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse, Matthew 24-25).  The uncertainty, not the belief in imminence, called for changing how people should live.

There are texts that address wrong views some had about the end times.  The error was not a belief in imminence that had to be altered by early Catholicism.  It was an error that arose from thinking that the inbreaking of the age to come into the present meant that this inbreaking was complete.  The first indication of this incorrect interpretation comes in 2 Thessalonians 2.  A false letter purportedly from Paul had misled some believers to think that the day of the Lord had already come.  Paul responds to this with a brief explanation that, preceding the end, an intensification of lawlessness (rebelliousness to God’s law) with the coming of the ‘man of lawlessness,’ who would make claims to be a god in the temple (2.4) would occur.  Since, as Tacitus (Annals) says, certain emperors since Julius Caesar were either considered divine or themselves claimed to be divine, Paul’s statement is not about the Roman emperors, blasphemous as they were.  It is rather the view that a king ‘bent on doing evil’ (Daniel 12.27) who sets himself ‘against the holy covenant’ (Daniel 12.28) will ‘profane the temple’ and ‘set up the abomination that makes desolate’ (Daniel 12.30).  He will ‘exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and shall speak astonishing things against the God of gods’ (Daniel 12.26). The events of Daniel 12 have to do with Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the 2nd c. BC.  Paul turns to Daniel 12 to explain that, despite the inbreaking of the kingdom through Jesus, the end of this age is still future.  There is not just some imminent day of the Lord in his thinking: there is still the increase of lawlessness that precedes Jesus’ return.

Some of the Corinthian believers also held to an erroneous view about the end times.  The error was similar to the false letter received by the Thessalonians.  These Corinthian Christians concluded that, if the age to come was now present, there was no future to await.  Paul says, ‘Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!’ (1 Corinthians 4.8). He also corrects their view that, while Christ has risen from the dead, there is no future resurrection to take place (1 Corinthians 15.12).  This view is understandable, but it is erroneous.  The coming of the age to come does not mean the end of the present age.

Texts Indicating Christ’s Imminent Return: 2 Peter

In 2 Peter, a different eschatological error is addressed.  In this case, certain ‘scoffers’ mock the idea of God’s judgement and give reign to their sinful desires (3.3).  The challenge is phrased partly in regard to Jesus’ Parousia: ‘They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming?”’ (3.4).  Yet the problem in view is not about well-meaning believers who are in a crisis over Jesus’ not returning as soon as they had imagined; the problem in view is that in the last days scoffers have come who live according to their sinful desires because they do not believe God will judge the world.  Peter likens them to the scoffers in the days of Noah.  Their scoffing at the belief that Jesus would return is, more significantly, a rejection of the idea that God will judge their actions.  They are not believers in a crisis but sinners arguing that they might as well pursue their own sinful desires.


This essay has taken on two popular arguments in scholarship from the 20th century: the delay of the Parousia and the evolution of early Catholicism in the 1st century.  The notion that the early Church evolved from an enthusiastic, charismatic, and apocalyptic form of Christ-followers into an established, hierarchical, institution, and that it did so due to a crisis of faith because of the delay (non-appearing) of Christ’s appearing has been challenged in various ways.

In conclusion, what needs to be pointed out clearly is that this interpretation of the early Church stands over against a missionary understanding of the Church.  If, as New Testament authors strive to make clear, Jesus inaugurated a mission, the focus of the early Church was on the task of that mission, not on waiting around for Christ to reappear.  To be sure, they prayed ‘Maranatha’ for the return of the Lord.  They may have even supposed that they could, by their holiness and godliness, hasten the coming of the day of God (2 Peter 3.12).  But they focussed their thoughts not on guessing the timing or being disappointed by it not occurring; they focussed their thoughts on being ready and on getting about the missionary task inaugurated by Jesus.  Paul’s assessment of this mission claimed great strides in just a few decades, but he held out that further work needed to be done (Romans 15.18-24).

This has implications for the Church today.  We see many churches that have lost concern for Jesus’ reappearing, or that live without much thought about it.  The prayer, ‘Maranatha,’ needs to return to our lips.  Yet this is not to whip ourselves up to an apocalyptic enthusiasm that may or may not be disappointed; it is to remind us to be ready for Christ’s sudden appearing in the good timing of God.  Also, the Church today needs to be reminded that it exists as a people Christ established for mission—evangelical mission.

Jesus did not come to offer a new theology—a new philosophy.  The philosophies of the Greeks and Romans did not produce communities, did not produce churches.  Individuals took up the teachings of prominent thinkers and tried to improve their lives accordingly.  But Jesus gathered a people.  He, like John the Baptist, founded his mission in the prophetic vision of a restoration of Israel from captivity in their sins. That mission included a mission to the Gentiles as well. The restoration of a people was, therefore, both ecclesial (the regathering of a community belonging to God) and missional (God’s own restoration of this people from captivity in their sins). 

The Church today, likewise, exists not simply to provide attractive worship experiences or deliver interesting sermons—though these can be helpful.  Nor is Christianity a philosophy, despite its relevance to all philosophical thought.  Christians belong to the Church, and the Church exists to be a redeemed and holy society, the assembly of God, a people who witness to the world what it means to be God’s own people.  Christians orient their lives not around some expectation of the imminent return of Christ—only to be dashed when this does not take place—but around the concern to be ready when Christ returns.  A Church not experiencing very much persecution and dwelling in comfortable times can easily define itself without much thought of Christ’s return.  It can pray its prayers and never add, ‘Maranatha’, ‘Oh Lord, Come!’ It can throw itself into doing good works, and it can define ‘mission’ so much in terms of the Golden Rule to do to others as we would they do unto us, that the missional urgency of salvation, the Great Commission, gets lost in the fog of missions as everything the Church does.  However, even as the Church exists to show the world the justice and love of God’s own people, its missional purpose is to proclaim the glory of God in the saving power of the cross of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth.

[1] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (Suzeteo Enterprises, 2011; orig. pub. In German, 1906).
[2] This was the sad conclusion of Jack Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament (Hymns Ancient and Modern, 2012; orig., 1975).
[3] James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (Louisville, KY: Westminster, 1977).
[4] Ibid., p. 369.
[5] He goes so far as to say that ‘the biggest heresy of all is the insistence that there is only one ecclesiastical obedience, only one orthodoxy.’  See Ibid., p. 366.  This is not, in my view, a statement about the New Testament evidence but about Dunn’s own presuppositions.  It is rightly and effectively criticised by David Wenham in the ‘Appendix: Unity and Diversity in the New Testament,’ in George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993).
[6][6][6] The idea that Jesus was surprised not to be rescued on the cross stems from misunderstanding Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 22.1 as he was dying: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  The Passion Narrative of Jesus in both the Synoptic Gospels and in John is full of Old Testament references to help readers understand what was taking place and that it was in fulfillment of the Scriptures.  This is another of those psalms being fulfilled: the righteous sufferer drinking from the cup of God’s wrath.  These psalms of the righteous sufferer progress from the cry of dereliction to the assurance of God’s salvation—the very theology of cross and resurrection that we find in the Gospels.  Psalm 22 goes on to say, e.g., that those who fear the LORD should praise Him ‘For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him’ (v. 24).  This psalm contains more that pertains to Jesus’ crucifixion, not just v. 1: we have to read on, and Jesus’ recitation of the first verse indicates that he understood the whole psalm to be relevant to his death on the cross.
[7] C. H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom, rev. ed. (New York: Charles Scribners, 1961).
[8] George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 9.
[9] Cf. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the NT.