Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History, 3rd edition. Oscar Cullman. Translated from German by Floyd V. Filson. SCM Press Ltd., 1962.
This book, by Oscar Cullman, who is also the author of the book The Christology of the New Testament, and a plethora of other books concerning New Testament Interpretation and Theology, seeks to outline how, according to Cullman, the early church interpreted history and time. Seeking to stay as far away from any philosophical influences Cullman wishes to explain what the proper Christian understanding of History is according to scripture. In a sense this book is a contribution to the philosophy of history, but, Cullman does not wish it to be seen this way, rather, he wishes to show how history should be interpreted, in light of the truth of Christianity. This review will begin by explaining the purpose of this book, followed by an outline of the way in which the author accomplishes his purpose. Finally we will speculate concerning the relative utility and worth of this book today.
According to Cullman, the purpose of this book is to show that, “In the first place, salvation is bound to a continuous time process which embraces past, present, and future. Revelation and salvation take place along the course of an ascending time line.” He also seeks to show that “it is characteristic of this estimate of time as the scene of redemptive history that all points of this redemptive line are related to the one historical fact at the mid-point, a fact which precisely in its unrepeatable character, which marks all historical events, is decisive for salvation. This fact is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here we intend to show how the different individual sections of the whole line are constantly determined from this mid-point, but yet have their own significance in time.” Cullman will argue that the Christian view of time, which may be described as linear, is properly described as “redemptive” in the following sense: all history from the beginning of time leads up to the apex of history (the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ), and all history continues on from that Apex towards the end. As such, though time may be described truthfully as linear, it is linear in a special redemptive sense, because every point on the timeline of history finds its importance in how it relates to the redemptive act of Christ on the cross. Cullman says, “An event of the past, the death and resurrection of Christ, is regarded as the decisive mid-point of the entire line of revelation, and in this way the connection of the future with what has previously happened is no longer left vague and undefined; rather now for the first time, on the basis of the fixed orientation to that mid-point in time, the line can be clearly drawn from the beginning on, in its unbroken continuity.”
The book is divided into four main sections, each section is divided into multiple chapters. In the first main section, composed of 8 chapters, Cullman lays out his argument concerning the Christian interpretation of history. In chapter 1 Cullman argues that the New Testament always uses the Greek terms that designate periods of time in relation to the redemptive act of Christ. This is used to support his claim that: "This schematic survey shows that only this simple rectilinear conception of unending time can be considered as the framework for the New Testament history of redemption. " He primarily considers two terms Aeion and Kairos. In chapter 2 Cullman sets out to demonstrate the enormous difference between the Hellenic view of Time and History (circular) and the Christian view of time and History (Linear and Redemptive). It should be noted that when Cullmann refers to Hellenism, or Greek philosophy, his main sparring partner is Platonic philosophy. Almost none of the critiques that he throws at Greek thought apply to Aristotelian thought. Yet one wonders if his comments concerning Greek philosophy and Hellenic thought are not a little overly broad. In chapter 3 Cullman sets out to show that the Christian view of the relationship between time and eternity is drastically different from the Greek view of this same relation (particularly the Platonistic understanding). He argues that the Greeks viewed eternity as "timelessness", whereas Christians viewed eternity as "the endless succession of the ages". In chapter 4 Cullman sets out to show how God is the Lord (ruler) of the ages, of eternity and of time. He provides numerous arguments to prove this point. He also provides numerous arguments to show that in Christ believers share in the Lordship of God over time (though in a limited way of course). The most interesting part of this chapter is his discussion of how the now/not yet schema is portrayed in the NT, the early church, and the individual believer. This schema (now/not yet) will be constantly referred to in the rest of the book and is an integral part of Cullmann’s position. In chapter 5 Cullman compares and Contrasts the Jewish and Christian interpretations of History and Time. He shows that for the Jews, the midpoint of History is still future, and is the dividing line between the present and the coming ages. For the Christian the midpoint of history was the death and resurrection of Christ. As such the midpoint actually took place during the present age (in which we still find ourselves), and the coming age is still future. As such the midpoint is now past, but is the intepretative key for a proper understanding of prior and future history. Chapter 6 is the weakest chapter of the whole book and the most difficult to understand. In Chapter 6 Cullman explores the Christian use of Myth, Saga, and historical fact alongside one another without distinguishing the differences between them. Myth is described as descriptions of "the processes of creation and nature", and Sagas as "things beyond the reach of historical testing." He concludes that "The Primitive Christian understanding of the history of salvation is correctly understood only when we see that in it history and myth are thoroughly and essentially bound together, and that they are both to be brought together, on the one side by the common denominator of prophecy and on the other by the common denominator of development in time." At one point he notes that, in his view, Adam was not a historical person in the same way that Jesus was a historical person. This seems, at first glance, to be a strange claim. Does he mean that Adam is not historical in the sense that we cannot historically verify that he existed (accepting the claims of the Bible by faith), or that he never really existed, but is necessary for the Christian conception of redemptive history? This claim needs to be read in the light of the following statement: “Narratives concerning the origin and the end of the entire process are only prophecy, inasmuch as objectively they are only the object of revelation and subjectively only the object of faith.” With this in mind, all Biblical affirmations about the beginning - creation - and the end - Christ's return, etc., are mythical, or prophetical, in the sense that they cannot be historically verified, and must be accepted by faith. In chapter 7 Cullman will "attempt to give a brief sketch of this Christ-line of redemptive history as it presents itself in chronological sequence,” and to show that the early Christians saw the timeline of history as a "Christ-line". In the final chapter of this section Cullman shows how the principle of the representation (Israel is to represent God to mankind, and mankind to God; the remnant represents Israel; Jesus represents the remnant, etc.)of mankind to God, and the progressive narrowing of the elect representative from the many to the one culminates with Christ, and then, from Christ the movement is from the One to the many who are elect, and made one, in Christ.
In the second main section, composed of 4 chapters, he explains the characteristics of the 4 important periods of history, the midpoint, the past period, the present period and the future period. Chapter 1 of Part 2 is used by Cullman to demonstrate, first of all, the great offense of the Cross. He begins by positioning the reader in the skin of the first century Jews who had known Christ in order to help us understand the scandal of believing. He then points out that the first major Christian heresy (Docetism) was directly related to the scandal of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Chapter 2 of Part 2 situates the past stages of redemptive history on the timeline in their relation to the redemptive act of Christ which serves as the Mid-point. He explains how to properly interpret the OT in light of the NT, and as pointing to Christ. In chapter 3 of part 2 Cullmann considers how the future stages (the coming age) relates to the mid-point on the timeline. He begins by considering how the Jewish notions of eschatology have been changed by the redemptive act of Christ. He continues by noting that all eschatological hope, for the Christian, is based upon the redemptive act of Christ in past history. Chapter 4 of part 2 turns to the question of the present day in its relation to the redemptive act of Christ at the mid-point of all history. The preaching of the Gospel is what gives meaning to this intermediary period. He goes on to show how the canon and tradition relate to the mid-point of the history of the redemption of the world, and provides some interesting thoughts about the Catholic claims concerning the absoluteness of the present church and the apostolic succession of the Pope, as well as the all too strict adherence of Protestantism to the early church.
In the third main section, also composed of 4 chapters, he compares the four important periods of history that were elaborated in the previous section with the general understanding of world history. In chapter 1 of part 3 Cullmann considers the paradox of what he calls the Concentration and the Universality of Christianity. Universal because salvation is offered to all men, and all are responsible for their choice. Concentrated because salvation is only found in the church. In this perspective he discusses the Gentiles and their relation to the Gospel, and considers Romans 1:19-20, 2:14-15 and Acts 17:22ff. His interpretations of these texts are quite debatable. In chapter 2 of the third section Cullman holds in Contrast those verses that "speak of Christ's present Lordship over all things in contrast to those that speak of his Lordship exercised only over that small section which is the Church." In Chapter 3 of section 3 considers the place of the state in the redemptive history, and in relation to the redemptive midpoint which is the act of Christ on the cross, and the angels (good or fallen) that are behind the actions of the state. He expounds some interesting views concerning the relationship of church and state. In chapter 4 of part 3 Cullman considers how the primitive Christians viewed the world. Not world deniers, but declaring the absolute sovereignty of Christ over all things, including the world. Christians live in a now but not yet paradox.
Finally, in the fourth main section, composed of 3 chapters he discusses the relation of the individual person to the past, present and future periods of redemptive history. He argues that everything said in the New Testament concerning the individual man is based upon the structure of redemptive history. In chapter 1 of part 4 he considers how the individual believer is related to the past part of redemption history, first of all as a sinner for whom the redemptive event took place, and secondly as an elect individual. In chapter 2 of part 4 Cullman considers the individual believer in his relation to the present period of redemptive history. The present is marked by the invisible lordship of Christ and the visible presence of the Church (thus baptism and spiritual gifts are discussed) and the individual finds his place in both, such that, "But even the most modest service in the Church of Christ belongs in the redemptive history.” We also see the relationship between theology and ethics, and Cullman expounds what he sees as the foundation and method of Christian ethics. In chapter 3 of part 4 Cullman considers the individual believer in his relation to the future period of redemptive history. Thus he relates the future bodily resurrection of the individual believer to the whole of redemptive history. We are shown the relation of death to the resurrection in light of redemptive history. We are also shown the future aspects of our hope of resurrection. The book terminates with the glorious reminder that “It is in that end time, for the individual believer also, that the redemptive history finds its specifically future completion, when ‘he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by the Spirit’ (Rom. 8: 11).”
This book is a challenging look at what how the New Testament interprets all of time, the entire history of the cosmos. This book challenges the Christian reader to put continue making the same audacious claim of the early church, that all of history gets its meaning from its relation to the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus-Christ. Each moment of the past, the present and the future finds its ultimate meaning in the redemptive act of Christ on the Cross. This book is not properly a philosophy of history, though Christian philosophers of history will need to interact with this book, and be inspired by this book to research and write history with an eye to the cross. This book is not a book that considers the philosophy of time, the author does not worry himself with any philosophical issues concerning time (which is the biggest difficulty with this book), as his main concern is to explain how Christ, the apostles and the early church understood and interpreted history. That being said, philosophers and theologians will certainly find this book interesting as Cullmann makes many interesting claims about time that are interesting on a theological and philosophical level. His view of history is a linear view which entails a definite beginning, and movement towards what might be construed as an ending. His book is a great reminder to all Christians that the most important moment in all of history was that redemptive act of Christ when he died for our sins and rose for our justification.
Oscar Cullman, Christ and Time (London: SCM Press, 1962), 32.
Ibid., 59. Cf. Ibid., 92.
Rom. 4 :25.