CHRIST AND TIME
A. G. E. Blake
Systematics Vol 3 No. 4 March 1966
Christ and Time by Oscar Cullman, translated by F. V. Filson. 3rd edition 1962, S.C.M. Press
This book consists of four parts with the titles: "The Continuous Redemptive Line"; "The Unique Character of the Redemptive Epochs"; "Redemptive History and the General Course of World Events"; and "Redemptive History and the Individual Man". The Introduction concerns itself with Cullman's defence of his position against critics who have responded to his book since its first publication in 1946.
The book is not intended as a discourse on time. Nevertheless, it makes available insights into the depths of temporality that are almost impossible to come by except from religious sources. Our understanding of time implies far more than grasping a concept. It involves how we are able to do things and how significant changes can be brought about. Time is at least as important in business as it is in physics—but in a quite different way. The Bible can be directly interpreted as an account of a very practical undertaking: the transformation of mankind. Here, time is at the centre but shows itself in a radically different way to how it appears in science.
For a practical understanding of time—that is, an understanding which affects the way in which we live—all partial insights have to be brought together in order to reveal the underlying structure. Religion and science, art and technology, dreaming and waking states, chronology and history and many other sources all have a contribution to make. In order to do justice to the book under review, I shall speak from the perspective of a Christian commitment. From a secular point of view the material assembled in Christ and Time may seem at first glance unintelligible. Nevertheless, it offers an unparalleled challenge to our ordinary views on time and human history and for that we should all be grateful. There is a great need for us all to progress from our present condition of using in a haphazard way mixed concepts under a single name to a clarification of the structures which underlie the aggregations of partial insights.
I shall not attempt to reflect the form in which the book is written in what follows, but endeavour to concentrate on the central problem of the "time of Christ" as it is illuminated by what Cullman has brought forward. People expect from the Scriptures what conforms to the pattern of their habitual philosophical perspectives. But what is required is not an analysis of the texts, using conceptual tools picked up from classical sources, but a clear receptivity to what is being said. Cullman has written a series of books devoted to this work of becoming clear. This one contains some astonishing material and its importance is not in any one insight, but in the assembly of interrelated insights which are left without any theoretical dressing or spurious attempt at putting it all together— save, of course, in strict terms of Christian commitment. Cullman insists that the notion of time which he uses is unphilosophical or phenomeno logical time. It is in fact, however, not time in general of which he is speaking -not, for example, the everyday time of people under ordinary conditions. He is speaking of an "objective time" which is the extension of redemptive history. Though this contains, in some way, all other time, we cannot extend our ordinary sense of time to that central history concerned with the salvation of the world and the working out of the Divine Purpose.
It is unfortunate that Cullman has not made this clear. The writers of the New Testament were connected with that objective time and the time they speak of refers to that—not to the successiveness which permeates our daily affairs. In the difference between lies a central feature of the mystery and significance of the "time of Christ".
When Cullman speaks of the Ministry of Christ as the "decisive incision into time" there is an ambiguity. We have the, so to say, "flat time" of the natural order, which is time thought about, projected as the dimension of succession of material events. This is the "backcloth of linear time" to our lives and all human affairs—a backcloth precisely on account of its indifference to what is erected before it. The "incision into time" can be projected onto that backcloth, but is an "incision" and "decisive" only on account of the structure of events in the "objective time". Linear time and the structured time of redemptive or centred history are opposite poles which establish the field of historical awareness in the human mind (which includes the ideas of civilizations concerning the place of mankind in the total stream of time).
The tension between the two poles is of a different kind to that expressed by the notion of the tension between "this temporal world" and "that eternal world". Cullman (p. 32) distinguishes between the Greek notion of "salvation in the beyond" and the Christian sense of the significant differences between "Formerly and Now and Then". But the difference between the historical perspective and the gnostic is not so much that the former is concerned with past, present and future: but that there are different kinds of time and that what matters is to enter the time that is correlative with the structure of significant events. Time that is correlative with structure must itself be structured and this cannot be said of a one-dimensional continuum such as physical science takes time to be. There are weighty reasons for supposing that structured time is "real" time and linear lime an abstraction valid only in a restricted context. It is only in "structured time" that past, present and future are significantly different, as the past, present and future of linear time cannot be and, at the same time, that they are significant together and not simply in the distinction of vanished past giving way to future.
I should again make it clear that Cullman nowhere makes explicit a distinction in kinds of time and expressly avows an indifference to the problem of time altogether. His findings are for that, perhaps, all the more significant; for they bring home to the reader that those concerned in the events of the Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ and with the action of the primitive church were living in a kind of temporality which for most of us can only be a conception. At the same time, the message of the New Testament also affirms that mankind as a whole entered into a new structure of time with the Incarnation and by that we have hope of participating in the total redemptive history. The time before Christ and the time after can be distinguished, as far as human experience goes, in terms of the kind of historical tension. Considering the Israelites, who were chosen by God to be the receptacle of the Incarnation, we see the tension between man's fallen condition and his ultimate salvation. This was expressed in terms of past and future: between the sin incurred at the Fall and the coming of the Messiah. It was, of course, also projected into terms concerning the particular destiny of the Jewish people. The "turning point" in time— the advent of the Messiah—was "yet to come". In the early Church, the "decisive battle" had been fought: the "mid-point" of time was "past". The tension was between the "already accomplished" and the "not yet fulfilled". These phrases, once we look beyond their form which seems to refer to a linear succession, lead us to a new perspective on time. One can only talk of the mid-point of a duration whereas physical time lacks boundaries. The simplest way of representing temporality with a mid point is as a cycle, where an intensity goes through a complete oscillation. In ordinary time, however, the cycle is recurrent and without inner connections. The emphasis in the New Testament is on the irreversibility of the process under way. Also, what is "future" and "to come" can be "now" and "being accomplished". In this context, the linearity of time represents a lower limit to a structured time which is bounded and rich with inner connections. The structured time cannot be seen as if from outside, for that is to freeze it into a space-like form. It must be con sidered as the dimension "along which" events are realized in the total process of redemption—as it appears from within the events themselves. We think of time either as a stream of change or as an extension along which “things happening" exist. But we forget that this could not be thought of if there were no banks to contain the stream and no experience extending over the line of time to enable an ordered series to arise. The containment and the extension are features of the human mind, features which do not belong to ordinary linear time.
From within our minds arises the perspective which gives us the notion of linear time. But there is evidence of deeper levels of experience which are correlative with the perception of structured time. The core of significant events is of a kind with these deeper levels of mind. And in both, the temporal perspective is from within.
Structure is relative, but in a total way: i.e., all structures have a particular place in the totality which gives them a certain independence of meaning. In the Christ-event, Cullman is saying that many orders of structure were involved, ranging from the individuals involved, to the whole of humanity and even to all existence. Each of these has a certain withinness from which a corresponding temporality arises. Temporality is the perspective of "passage" of events: but there is passing away into the formless stream of happening and passing into the imperishable struc ture distilled from historical action. Man is the bridge between these two modes of passage.
The astonishing teaching of the New Testament includes the avowal that we live in a different position in the total structure of time than those who lived "before" the advent of Christ into human history. Thus, we live in the "last days" and await the tangible manifestation of the Lordship of Christ over all the world. The eschatology of the early Church is not that of the Israelites who lived in hope: the Church anticipates the final victory.
The purity of that vision and its accompanying commitment did not remain for long. Anticipations of the "end of time" were expressed in terms of ordinary human perspectives, which hardly extend beyond generations. The sayings of Jesus "I say that some among you will not taste death before the Kingdom of Heaven comes" (and the writings of Paul often suggest the same thing)—were always in a particular concrete context concerning the destiny of individuals and cannot be assumed to represent general indications. The resulting disappointment of the Church created a subjective problem of interpreting New Testament eschatology. In our own time, this has led to the various attempts to construct a "consistent eschatology". Cullman rejects all of these as contrary to the New Testament teachings—artificial attempts to graft philosophical theories on to a compromise. Eschatology, he says, cannot be reduced to a question of a "timeless decision" of the individual to enter the eternal as opposed to the temporal. Such a view is accompanied by an endeavour to "de-mythologise" the Bible- -which implies that the historical significance of the New Testament is taken to be void or inessential.
The notion of Kierkegaard (p. 145) that, at any moment, we can project ourselves into the moment of the time of Christ and be contemporaneous with Christ—is not essentially opposed to the historical perspective as Cullman suggests. With Kierkegaard, all significance is concentrated in the "time of Christ" and our lives can have meaning only by entry into that moment. The basic distinction of past, present and future is lost. Cullman is most clear about one thing: the "time of Christ" involves all time so that the present phase—the millennium after Christ—has been given a particular significance different from other periods: indeed, each significant moment ultimately derives its uniqueness from the central uniqueness of the Incarnation. But Kierke gaard, as in many other respects, does us a service by the extremism of his perspectives on the "time of Christ".
Certainly, he is far from the errors of Gnosticism (p. 121) which projects God into the "other", "eternal world"; or those associated with certain branches of existentialist theology today, which make God to be only the "ground of Being", in a framework of thought which leaves no place for the significance of time.
"Objective time" is a structure of significant moments which is upheld by God's action in the world. According to Cullman, the Word is God in action (p. 24): in the cosmos and in revelation and human history. According to ordinary perspectives, every period, allowing for the con ditioning of "historical factors", is the same in terms of human choices and human responsibility. Here, again, Cullman is categorical: God is Master over Time; only He can determine the crucial moments which change the significance of human existence.
No single notion could be more of an "offence" to modern attitudes than this, for the centre of gravity of our thinking is located in human perspectives, in accordance with the scale and quality of human actions, and any "sacred phenomena" are expected to be demonstrable within the limits of those perspectives. It is precisely that which cannot be done. Let us suggest that in the structuring of time there is an hierarchic order so that superordinate histories are worked out beyond the limitations of those subordinate. This working would be invisible in the perspective of subordinate histories. We can further find a crucial discriminating factor: which can be called the time-span of the corresponding units of action. As I have said, the perspectives of the ordinary human actions are confined within durations which are a matter of years or months. With Redemptive History we must consider not just centuries, hut whole millennia and even the whole span of human existence on the Earth. And as Cullman insists, that history is integral with the time of all existence, for Redemption is a Cosmic Action.
The hierarchic notion gives one aspect of the structuring of time. I should add that there is much to be considered—and we shall touch upon this again later—concerning the different kinds of action which go forward in the different orders of history. Only through some clear perspective on this can we appreciate the assertion that God can work in human history in ways which quite elude the ordinary human mind. There is another important aspect of the structuring of time which is even more elusive: that is, the integration of all histories into the progressive realization of a Purpose which originates from beyond the confines of the existing world (not in eternity but in a realm where time and eternity cannot be distinguished). From this perspective, considerations of scale become secondary. Though the "time-span" of a moment be infinitesimal in regard to the vast actions of a higher order of history, it yet can assume a unique significance in the total structure. It is here that He can speak both of "intervention" and of "participation": God can intervene in human life and individuals can by their own act enter into a participation in the total scheme and, thereby, imperishable meaning arises in the world.
All this is elusive because it cannot be abstracted from the concrete particular occasion. But on this score, Cullman, again, has brought forward important material for our understanding. He extracts a recurrent Greek word for time which resonates with these implications—kairos. Kairos means in general the "propitious moment" or "crucial moment"; but in the New Testament it means, rather, the time chosen by God. Thus, Christ says, "My kairos is near" and, as man goes forward to that moment chosen by Himself as God. The sense of the kairoi prevailed amongst those near to Jesus Christ and we find it also, to some extent, in Paul and made explicit in Revelations. The importance of this sense of the kairoi is nowhere stressed so strongly as by the terrible failure of the disciples at Gethsemane: "What, could you not watch with me one hour?"
There is a great enigma concerning the kairoi. Astrology and divina tion have also concerned themselves with "interpreting the times" but here, at least in the former case, associated them with cycles of influence and moments of conjunction so that they become predictable. Yet Cullman insists that the kairoi cannot be predicted by the human mind, being chosen by God and thereby free of any limitation. The two attitudes are not exclusive if we can accept that the world—as a totality as in the particular elements which are human beings—has a will independent of God and that the kairoi are moments of encounter between the greater and the lesser will which give the moment its imperishable significance.
If the world did not have a meaning independent of God then (God's will would have the same authority in every moment and hence all time would be coalesced into a single action allowing no significance to human decision. That doctrine of the "nullity" of the meaning of the world apart from God is just that of Maya in Hindu thought and can only by extreme modification be made compatible with the teaching of the Christian scriptures: "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John, III, 16.)
If we allow the world its independence of meaning then it makes sense that it should matter whether or not men realize the advent of the kairoi. In fact, it renders this one of the most important factors in human life for it is the key to the way in which men participate in Redemption and attain their own salvation. From the cosmic perspective, the kairoi are moments whereby meaning is created ex nihilo through the co-operation of the world with God in the realization of His purpose. The doctrine of co-operation, or synergia, is implicit in all of Cullman's findings; but we all too often look in vain for an adequate formulation, since it is, at heart, a practical question concerning how we ourselves must now act.
The notion of the kairoi enables us to appreciate that God's work must be concentrated in historical time. This work cannot be done as a homogeneous continuing process in linear time: it belongs to structural time and is, indeed, its very essence, for structure is a matter of meanings not of existential linkages. In the Old Testament, the working of God in the history of the people of Israel is revealed by prophecy. Prophecy reveals the meaning of the significant past, the kairoi, and what is predestined and fore-ordained. In the New Testament prophecy is made one whole with the progress of events and this reveals, again, how in Christ structural time is pivoted.
The pivoting of structural time must concern the creation and regu lation of patterns of decision. This implies a working which "takes place" in an "objective time". It is difficult to conceive of a "passage" without the actualization which is a passing away. It is even beyond the "passing into" the web of imperishable structures of meaning.
The Old Testament prophet was one able to enter into the depths of structural time. With the New Testament it is affirmed that all mankind has entered into a closer relationship with these depths. That is why the individual can now find a place in the total working of Redemp tion independently of the mediation of special human beings such as the Moses portrayed in the Old Testament. But this does not mean that, in practice, help is no longer needed; indeed, the Church itself is a demonstra tion of this. The point is that human individuals in general now stand differently in the structure of time than those "before Christ" and that this arises from the new condition under which humanity as a whole exists. The aspect under which we speak simply of a succession in linear time is but one of many components. We have, for example, to remember the prophetic connection of men of the Old Testament with the "time of Christ" and with the "last days" and all the significance of the "future". Central is the whole doctrine of salvation whereby in Christ's action we have been saved from the consequences of the Fall. Can we say when the Fall was redeemed? On the Cross "all time" is present. These are not eternal connections but the connections of a structured time organized by a deepening of meaning.
The agent of the transition in structured time was the Love of God or the Holy Ghost. It is by the Holy Ghost that men have learnt of the mysteries of the Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ and it is by this also that the "Church" was able to do its work. The descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost gives the "first-fruits" (p.72), that is, an anticipation of the "last days" when Christ shall come again in Glory. The individual is what he shall become (with Christ) through the Holy Ghost and by his faith (p. 75). Thus, it is this Divine Love which brings mankind into connection with the "mysteries of the future" and the whole scheme of Redemption; and by His Love also, individuals are given a place in the total eschatological drama (p. 66). And the New Testament affirms it was through the drama of Christ that the Holy Ghost could enter into the time of mankind.
The "tune of mankind" is aligned to the span over which human experience as a whole maintains a degree of unity. It is perhaps measurable by the duration of the prevalent attitude to the human will. It undergoes transformation in the structuring of time and the place of this as a whole in the totality is "moved" or more wholly connected by the Redemptive action—this is a total "passing into". The "present phase" which Cullman speaks of is the Redemptive Present, permeated with the Holy Ghost. Through this permeation human experience has been infused with the qualities of Love. A great offence to the secular mind is that human virtue cannot surpass the qualities given to the "time of mankind"—or the human present—by the grace of God. "Before Christ", Love was not available, save by connection with the then future state, as in the action of true prophecy.
The human present can be regarded as the "location" and "region" of the human will. Since salvation concerns the purification of the Will— contaminated in all its acts by Original Sin—the action of Redemption must bear on that location and act in that region.
The Redemptive present is permeated by the Holy Ghost but is not the location "yet" of the Will of Christ: this is a way of expressing the "present phase". Culmun says that now Christ already rules (p. 151) and that is the "laying hold of the flesh by the Spirit" that is "not yet fulfilled". But this renders the rule of Christ empty since, it seems, that very act of the Spirit is for Him to direct. Christ comes and by Him the Holy Ghost enters into the time of mankind. Thereafter lies the interim phase in which something is set to be accomplished and, only after this, does Christ rule in Glory.
Cullman has much to say concerning this work to be done in the interim phase between the "already accomplished" and the "not yet fulfilled". His main sources are the writing of Paul, especially those concerning the mission of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles.
The Gentiles, who have not received the Law, nor heard of the revelation concerning the state of human sin and the promise of the Saviour, must receive knowledge of Christ in order that they, like the Jews, may enter the arena of human decision concerning acceptance of Salvation and the Way of righteousness (pp. 180-184). It is this missionary preaching of the Church which gives to the present phase its meaning (p. 157). Here we have the Church, in its original primitive mode, playing a crucial role in connecting all mankind with the "time of Christ": both in the sense of connection with the moment of concentration of God's work and in the sense of entering into the depths of structured time. The transmission effected from the individuals directly connected with Christ in His Life and Resurrection to the whole of mankind, though a human responsibility, is "powered" by the Holy Ghost. Cullman does not consider the mysteries of this transmission in its earliest phases, but concentrates upon the earliest Church around the time when the Scriptures were gathered together and made one with the central event (p. 171).
I mention this because a crucial problem for Christianity is presented by the "last revelation" of Muhammed and, in the same light, by the earlier revelations associated with Buddha and Zoroaster, the three themselves being historical figures. The enigma of the events before the foundation of the Church is akin to that of the relevance of these exceptional beings to the work accomplished by Christ. In a connected sphere, I can draw attention to Cullman's treatment of the "invisible powers" which, in the terms of the New Testament writings are treated both as "enemies" and as "ministers", also as the powers behind the state (pp. 192-210). Cullman's insistence on the importance of the work of super-human intelligences is to be welcomed as a corrective to modern tendencies to treat beliefs in "higher powers" as phantasy. He is right to speak of them as under the taint of evil but hardly takes account of their integral role in the whole working of Redemptive history. If the human present is to be measured in millennia, then the angelic present must he measured in terms of tens or even hundreds of millennia - for such would correspond to their order of history.
All these factors: the mission of the Church, other revelations and the invisible powers have mutually related roles in the fulfilment of the Divine Plan. Cullman's proposition that the unity is to be found in the "Central event" stands, but we have barely the glimmerings of a perspec tive on the structuring of time involved. For example, the mutual rele vance of the revelations is a central demonstration of the structure of the kairoi and must be contemplated in order to understand the great structure of redemption in which we now stand. However, it remains that the whole intermediate phase is unified and inspired by the Holy Ghost. The work of communicating with men's minds which was the task of the Church was in "correspondence", in terms of mental history, to the working of the Holy Ghost. Other influences entered mental history— including, for example, those which led to the development of modern science, social organizations and sense of individual worth. This secular history, too, has a place in the total structure of time and part of the Christian commitment is a concern with these elements.
Man has been confronted with the need to accept Christ as his Saviour: the human present and the time of Christ are connected by the agency of Love. The human present remains an independent concentra tion of experience which is the "location" and "region" of the human Will and the Redemptive Present constitutes the structuring of time that can give the "encounter of co-operation" between the Will of God and the Will of Man. It is that co-operation which is "yet to come", hidden in the depths of the structure of time, but not in the linear future projected by the human mind from constructions based on memories derived from a purely secular history.
The reality is that man has failed to accept his salvation: he is not able to do so. Hence we hope for the Parousia as the "future time" when Christ is to return to influence the very will of man. For that, we expect a radical change to come in the mode of human understanding—for only by a transformation of understanding can men be able to accept and so fulfil what has been ordained, but not determined, by the Will of God.
We look to the Book of Revelations for an indication of the changes to be wrought in the time of mankind. Cullman does not attempt to explicate the total scheme of this unique prophecy but refers to it many times—implicitly or explicitly—for the most direct statements concerning time and Christ. In Revelations, God is not detached in an eternal realm but is now. "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come" (Ch. 4). Eternity is not now, nor for ever: it is totally out of time; the unchanging, actionless and still dimension. But God is endless and always- now: hence He was before the Creation and will be after the "last days"; He is present in the human past and present in the human future. How little we realize that our past and future arc joined to the perspectives of the "time of mind" and are not an absolute condition! The human future corresponds to the "time of mankind" and the struc ture of that, while the Higher Powers work in a deeper structure where what is "future" to mankind is "now". This is at the root of the enigmas of all prophecy, for they deal with a future not determined by an absolute decree, or by the workings out of natural law, but one made possible by the action of the Higher Powers. Such a future will be fulfilled, but part of its fulfilment is allotted to mankind and so the total meaning cannot be assured even by the Will of God.
Thus the early Church looked to such a future. In the invocation (p. 75) Maranatha—"Our Lord, Come! "—the Church was following the prophecy of John the Divine: "And the Spirit and the bride say, 'Come'. And let him that heareth say, 'Come'." ( Ch. 22.)
Cullman does not bring forward the two sides, the two movements of the will involved: that from Christ calling to His flock, and that from Man calling to his Saviour. Here Christ is in the prophetic future, but in that realm He rules and works in the total depth of time. Thus we have the ritual of the Last Supper: "Do this in remembrance of me." Christ rules over the depths of the human past as well as over the depths of the human future. This, too, He rules now. But this "now" is not the ordinary present of the Human mind, it is that Redemptive Present per meated with the Holy Ghost—from which men can exclude themselves by turning away from God into the ways of darkness: "God is light, and in him is no darkness at all" (The First Epistle General of John, ch. I).
In ordinary time, all that comes to pass falls away into nothingness. Only in the structural time is meaning to be found and it is into that time that man can ultimately penetrate through the Work of Christ—the Word. When, in Revelations, John speaks of the thousand-year Kingdom of the rule of Christ and His followers, what can this mean? How are we to even envisage the substance of such a time? Cullman does not brave this problem which has led the Orthodox Church to consider the whole assertion "symbolic", that is, not to be a concrete statement. Align ing ourselves with Cullman's intention, however, we can at least affirm that here is no poetic expression but an expression of a great reality for the time of mankind. The reference must, indeed, refer to a specific-duration, as well as to an alignment of the structuring of time, since this is central to the perspectives of the human present. If Christ rules, then this is for a duration: and yet, this duration cannot simply be ascribed to a segment of linear time. It may well be good if we combine the notion of the millennium with that of the Redemptive Present by considering a transition from the phase of permeation by the Holy Ghost to the coalescence of the human present by the Will of Christ: i.e., the Parousia is that "time" wherein the Will of Christ is Master. From ordinary human perspectives, this occurs at some moment in human history—"the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth" (First Epistle General of John, ch. ii). The now in this context is the "super-creative present" of the working of Christ which is grounded in the human present. If the assertion of John be accepted, then we should look forward to a transformation of the human consciousness of time—remembering that in transformation we have a high quality of action belonging to the highest reaches of the hierarchy of history.
This cannot mean that men are brought ipso facto into this condition: the core of the structuring of time is the war between Good and Evil, and that cannot cease until the "end of time". Moreover, all this applies to the dead as well as to the living: those who are dead can also participate in the Redemptive working. Man and all men have yet to face the advent of "the wrath of God" and the final judgment.
I hope that I have succeeded in conveying the importance of this book not only for theologians but for all who are searching for a better understanding of time. Probably the only hope of reaching more adequate notions of space and time than now prevail is in the combined operation of the scientific and religious insights both issuing in the practical under standing of what to do and how to live that is expressed in the Quranic supplication: "ihdina alsiraat al mustakeem", "show us the sound way" (Fatiha, v. 5).