Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Aelfric on a New Heaven and a New Earth

As my circle of churchly friends has broadened in recent years, I’ve become more aware of the view that at the end of the world as we know it, the Earth will not be destroyed but renewed.  And, yes, I’ve heard this view from robustly orthodox and learned gentlemen.

When I came across this view, I did not necessarily disagree with it.  But it did seem a bit modern to me – and you know how ill disposed I can be toward modern things.  The fire and brimstone and destruction of the world from my pre-Anglican dispensationalist days seemed more traditional and (at least literally) biblical to me.

But I have just discovered that is not such a modern view at all.  The other night, I was reading a sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent from The Sermones Catholici, commonly known as the Homilies of Aelfric and was surprised by this passage:

Jesus concluded this gospel with these words: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall never pass away." Heaven and earth will not turn to naught, but they will be changed from the form in which they now exist to a better form, as John the Evangelist said, "Then there shall be a new heaven and a new earth." There will not indeed be others created, but these will be renewed. Heaven and earth will pass away, but will, nevertheless, continue, for they will be cleansed by fire from the form which they now have, and will yet stand ever in their own nature. Then will the sun be sevenfold brighter than it now is, and the moon will have the light of the sun.

Now this was written in England about a thousand years ago.  So that long ago and likely well beforehand, the expectation that the earth would not be utterly and completely destroyed but instead be wonderfully renewed was accepted and well within orthodoxy.

Again, this surprised me and not just because of my fire and brimstone background.  I am somewhat familiar with medieval depictions of the end times in illuminated manuscripts, stained glass and other church art.  And they are scary and surely intended to be so.  They, at least as a whole, do not emphasize “I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)  One would not expect a renewal eschatology to be much accepted in those times.  Or at least I wouldn’t.

Yet another area for further study . . .

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