Christian Understandings of the Future

The Historical Trajectory

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Amy Frykholm
Christian Understandings
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Augsburg Fortress
    , October
     2016.
     376 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781451484571.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This volume offers a highly readable overview of Christian thinking about the future, beginning with the Hebrew Bible and ending with the efforts of contemporary theologians to wrestle with quantum physics and current threats to environmental sustainability. To say the book is primarily a work of synthesis is not to downplay the breadth of research involved in writing it. Christian Understandings of the Future covers considerably more ground than the title might suggest, including eschatology and apocalypticism (carefully distinguished); various forms of millennial speculation; death and judgement; conceptions of the afterlife; the topography of heaven, hell and purgatory; the way in which time and history have variously been said to unfold within God’s overall plan for creation; and the implications of all of this for life here and now. This constitutes potentially complex territory, since these interlocking aspects of “the future” have been interwoven in different ways in different times and contexts. However, Amy Frykholm is an engaging writer and has produced a very accessible overview.

Achieving satisfactory comprehensiveness within a single volume is incredibly difficult. Instead of opting for a thematic treatment covering broad periods of history, the book instead unfolds as a chronological series of pen-portraits of key theological and spiritual writers, as if one is being taken on a gallery tour of apocalyptic and eschatological literature. Inevitably, there are strengths and weaknesses with either approach. The chief advantage of Frykholm’s chosen structure is in the depth of coverage given to key writers and thinkers, both in their key works and in the context of their times. Well known theological figures such as Augustine, Origen, and Joachim of Fiore are present, but there are also some surprises. For example, most Westerners will be familiar with Christopher Columbus’s desire to chart a new route to the Indies, but fewer may realize that his appetite for exploration was significantly influenced by his immersion in esoteric eschatological writing and an obsession with “the idea that his role in the end of time was to bring every tribe and nation to Christianity” (206). A further strength of the book is its relatively even-handed chronology: while some general surveys of Christian history focus disproportionately on the post-Reformation period, Frykholm also does a thorough job of including the classical, late antique, and medieval periods. The first third of the book gives welcome attention to Eastern as well as Western Christian thought, and to both pioneering movements as well as key church leaders and theologians.

While acknowledging that complete comprehensiveness is impossible, there are nevertheless weaknesses and some potentially significant omissions. From the Reformation period onwards, the focus narrows, and the final third of the book is largely concerned with Western Protestant thought, making only occasional excursions into the histories of Roman Catholicism, or of Christianity in Africa and Latin America. Not every historian will find their own favored historical period or movement covered and it would be unreasonable to expect otherwise. Nevertheless, there were several notable gaps: Eastern (Orthodox and Syriac) Christianity receives little mention after the discussion of Pseudo-Methodius (7th century) in chapter 9. There is no consideration of the more important heretical movements in the medieval West (the Cathars for example), even though such movements often gave starkly different accounts of the fate of the soul after death and the future of the material world. Anabaptism and its variants might also have been more fully considered, not least since classical sociologists have often seen such movements as paradigmatic of a more radical or revolutionary approach to eschatology which seeks to bring the future directly into the present through a sudden rupture in the flow of history. Finally, although the “pen-portrait” structure makes this a highly readable book, I felt that the addition of a substantial concluding chapter could have helped draw together the many different threads of Christian understandings of “the future” by highlighting some key contours of thought or relationships between important ideas. Purist historians may struggle with the switch to a more theologically reflective mode in the final chapters of the book. However, as someone whose research interests straddle history and theology, I found Frykholm’s closing challenge to discover a new kind of eschatology in which humankind cooperates with God for the sake of the planet highly thought-provoking.

Despite some reservations, then, this is a worthwhile, scholarly yet accessible book which should be useful to students of Christian theology and the history of Christianity. It should be particularly useful to help contextualize studies of particular periods, movements, or thinkers within the bigger picture of Christian thinking about the future. Christian church leaders may also find this study a helpful addition to their bookshelves—not least to resource deeper reflection on the interplay between future hope and current challenges.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Jones is Director of St. Peter's Saltly Turst, Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Education at the University of Worchester, and Honorary Research Fellow at the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological Education.

Date of Review: 
March 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Amy Frykholm is author of Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography (2010) and Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (2004). She works as a writer and editor for The Christian Century and lives in Colorado.

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