From the beginning, the search for the historical Jesus has yielded one consistently agreed-upon conclusion: the Kingdom of God was central in Jesus’ teaching. Curiously enough, however, scholars have never been able to agree on what Jesus meant by this expression. As a result, a hermeneutical debate exists that has offered many meanings for the Kingdom of God.
During the last century two theories concerning the nature of the Kingdom of God have dominated biblical scholarship. The first theory, consistent eschatology, is associated with the work of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer. This view argues that Jesus’ pronouncements concerning the Kingdom of God should be interpreted against a background of Jewish apocalyptic-eschatological expectations. Consistent eschatology created an unsettling impasse, particularly among Anglo-American scholars, because of its conclusion that Jesus was a mistaken prophet; he proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was about to appear on earth and it did not come.
Within this context C. H. Dodd’s Parables of the Kingdom was published in 1935. In this work, Dodd advanced in their most persuasive form the theological hypotheses of realized eschatology. Dodd argued that the Kingdom of God was “realized” – or actualized --- in Jesus’ ministry. In recent years a mediating perspective has developed that combines realized and consistent eschatology.
Sullivan argues that Dodd used the Two-Document Hypothesis extensively in the working out of his theory of realized eschatology. He reasons that “a major task confronting New Testament studies is a rethinking of theological structures which are based on the Two-Document Hypothesis.” This book “rethinks” realized eschatology by considering the erosion of confidence in the Two-Document Hypothesis.
In addition, Sullivan brings into focus two versions of realized eschatology that appear in Dodd’s writings: the Kingdom version and the Christological version. The Kingdom version contends that the Kingdom of God was actualized in Jesus’ career. In works published after 1935, Dodd advanced a Christological version of realized eschatology. This version, patterned after R. G. Collingwood’s philosophy of history, contends that the Christ event possesses ultimate religious meaning (significance).
Sullivan asserts that these two different versions have been fused in the minds of many contemporary scholars. In light of all the synoptic passages concerning the Kingdom of God, Sullivan argues that Dodd’s Kingdom version of realized eschatology is a hermeneutical failure. He asserts that the majority of statements concerning the kingdom of God in the synoptic Gospels present the Kingdom as a future hope, not a present reality. Dodd’s Christological version of realized eschatology has potential as a contemporary Christian apologetic, if modified.
In his conclusion Sullivan write, “The Christological version of realized eschatology could be made more convincing, I suggest, if the concept of person was utilized instead of the concept of event. The eschaton (that which is ultimate in religious significance) has been realized in a person. Realized eschatology, so modified, is a Person and a life, not a dogmatic system or an ethical code.