On and off I’m giving accounts of how various commentators understand eschatology in the Corinthian church – were they marked by ‘over-realised eschatology’? Under realised eschatology? Something else? You can find my brief comments on Collins here and my longer comments on Thiselton here. In this post I’ll be focusing on Richard Hays’ article ‘The Conversion of the Imagination: Scripture and Eschatology in 1 Corinthians’ NTS 45 (1999) 391-412. Hays comes to what he thinks is the opposite conclusion to Thiselton – i.e., there is no ‘over-realised eschatology’ in the Corinthian church.
The negative point about over-realised eschatology is a sub-point of the article, which is more focused on the positive argument that Paul is advocating for a scripturally informed eschatological mindset… but this, Hays says, is in response to a church that is marked by a lack of eschatology, rather than over-realised eschatology.
It is important to note what ‘over realised eschatology’ is, according to Hays. Hays thinks that this description of the Corinthians:
- arises from a view of the Corinthian church as proto-Gnostic
- refers to a doctrinal problem, in which Jewish-Christian eschatological categories are too fully brought forward in the thinking of the Corinthians
- is a hypothesis that emerged in the early twentieth century
It is this conception that Hays argues against. He says that the features of 1 Corinthians that sound like the church does have an over-realised eschatology (e.g. ‘Already you have become rich!’) in fact arise from the (non-eschatological) influences of Stoicism, Cynicism, and charismatic spiritualism. The problem, Hays thinks, is not that the Corinthians have too much eschatological excitement, but that they don’t have enough. Paul’s arguments throughout the letter aim to oppose the cultural influences mentioned above, and invite the Corinthians into an imaginitive reading of the OT Scriptures – which Hays thinks they know well – such that they gain an appreciation of their place in the God of Israel’s eschatological drama.
Hays makes a number of great points in this article, though to my mind it is let down in two ways: first, it operates with an unhelpful understanding of what ‘over realised eschatology’ actually is; and second, it presents a reconstructed Corinthian church that is very hard to imagine as possible. Let me unpack these two things…
Defining over realised eschatology
I have listed three bullet points above, which attempt to outline Hays’ conception of over realised eschatology. But I would dispute all three of them:
- Although Hays thinks this description arises from a view of the Corinthian church as proto-Gnostic, Thiselton’s whole 1978 article (with which Hays interacts only very briefly, in one footnote) aims to show that the ‘over-realised eschatology’ hypothesis is a valid alternative to the Gnostic hypothesis
- Although Hays thinks this description refers to a doctrinal issue, again, Thiselton makes clear in the opening of his 1978 article that he is interested in the behaviour of the Corinthians, not just their beliefs. In other words, ‘over-realised eschatology’ may refer to a way of being that is unwittingly betrayed in behaviour, even if not fully worked out in doctrine. Surely all theology should be viewed in this way – as not merely a matter of cognitive affirmations, but embracing ritual, action, etc
- Although Hays suggests that this hypothesis emerged in the early 20th century, I have argued elsewhere that John Chrysostom holds the Corinthian church to be wrongly and wilfully ‘present-obsessed,’ which is effectively the same idea
A hard-to-imagine Corinthian church
Hays wants to suggest that the Corinthian church, though overwhelmingly Gentile new believers, was well versed in the Old Testament Scriptures, because they had been well taught by Paul and others. This much I don’t dispute. But, at the same time, Hays seems to think that the Corinthians had been taught almost nothing about the gospel and its eschatological implications. It had never struck them, he thinks, that claims of present spiritual manifestation or status had any eschatological overtones. Is it really conceivable that these people, who aligned themselves emphatically with their mentors Paul and/or Apollos, had no concept of eschatology? I actually agree with Hays that there were strong cultural influences at work in their boasting and status games… but I find it hard to believe that these Christians would have detected no eschatological significance at all in their claims. Why then is Paul so insistent in chapter 15 that spiritual glory is a future reality, which cannot be grasped or claimed in the present? To claim to be ‘spiritual’ is inevitably some sort of eschatological claim for a Christian.
To close, I will admit that I don’t actually use the term ‘over realised eschatology’ myself, because I think it is too easily misunderstood as being barely doctrinal. But I do think that the Corinthians were marked by premature triumphalism.