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Paul’s apocalyptic gospel: vindication, non-universalism and imminence

I got so depressed watching England lose to Uruguay last night that I started reading the chapter on the “Apocalyptic Character of Paul’s Gospel” in J. Christiaan Beker’s celebrated book Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel: The Coming Triumph of God. OK, it wasn’t technically the end of the world, but the book provided some welcome distraction.

In the chapter Beker discusses what he considers to be the four basic components of Paul’s apocalyptic thought. They are derived from Jewish apocalyptic, but Paul has radically modified them on the basis of his encounter with Christ and the Christian tradition. The motifs are vindication, universalism, dualism and imminence. My argument here will be that Beker gets vindication right, misconstrues Paul’s “universalism”, and so gets into difficulties over imminence. The dualism motif doesn’t greatly affect the picture.

Beker gets vindication right…

The core argument about Paul’s gospel and the vindication of God is well stated: “The faithfulness of God has been inaugurated in Jesus Christ, and therefore God’s public self-vindication as the climax of his faithfulness to himself and his world is imminent.” Paul’s apocalyptic gospel has to do with the imminent vindication or justification of Israel’s God because of what Jesus did. In simple terms, Paul’s gospel is this: The day is approaching when the God of Israel will be shown to be in the right. Beker’s use of the word “public” is worth noting. I’ll come back to it.

But misconstrues Paul’s “universalism”…

The negative part of Beker’s account here is right. The demonstration of God’s righteousness through the faithfulness of Jesus—that is, God’s self-vindication—must contradict Jewish, Torah-based nationalistic presumption. Israel’s thinking “remains introverted rather than extroverted”; the correlation of “apocalyptic vindication and nationhood marks Israel as a basically nonmissionary religion” (35). YHWH will not be vindicated that way.

But I think Beker is wrong to argue that “God’s intervention in Christ” shifts vindication from the nationalistic level straight to the universal and cosmic level: “The death of the Christ signifies the apocalyptic judgment on all humankind, whereas the resurrection signifies the free gift of new life in Christ for all.” The problem with the “cosmic extension” becomes apparent here:

Although this radicalization of the human condition in the cross of God’s Messiah logically seems to lead to a conception of universal salvation, Paul refrains from any unequivocal assertion of this point. The time between the cross and the end-time is a time for commitment, decision, mission, and endurance.

The logic is that if Jesus’ death was the “focal point of God’s universal wrath and judgment”, then, yes, there can be “no favourite-nation clause or claim to privilege”, but it would also appear, in principle, to mean that all humanity is “saved”. Beker thinks that Paul counter-balances the thrust towards universal salvation “by an emphasis on responsibility and obedience for those who have heard the gospel”. I’m not sure that solves the proble, but in any case I would suggest that the problem arises only because Beker has overstated the character and function of the universal in the first place.

First, I would say that for Paul Christ’s death is a death not for the sins of humanity but for the sins of God’s people. Christ’s death saves the family of Abraham from destruction. There is a universal component only insofar as increasing numbers of pagans are saved from God’s impending wrath against the idolatrous nations by their belief that God raised his Son from the dead. But it is still, in principle, not any individual, not all humanity, but God’s people as a historical entity that is saved by the death of the Christ. Obviously, the point needs defending—see a couple of posts listed below and my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom

Secondly, the time between the cross and the envisaged “end” is a time for “commitment, decision, mission, and endurance” because this is what was demanded of the early church if it was to remain faithful through to the victory of YHWH over the pagan nations and the ending of persecution. This is not a universal scenario. It is a limited historical scenario, which is why I think that the word “public” is so important. Paul’s apocalyptic gospel has to do with the vindication of YHWH not universally or cosmically but publicly and politically, in the eyes of the pagan nations which had opposed him and his people for so long.

The “rejection of any elitism” and the ethical implications that Beker emphasizes are not compromised by this reduction of the scope of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel. This is still a people of grace rather than of presumption. But it is a non-elite, called to obedience, comprising not only Jews but also Gentiles as a sign to the world that YHWH will show himself in time to be God of the nations.

Beker thinks that “Paul’s cosmic anthropology enables him to overcome a bifurcation between the personal and social aspects of the gospel” (37). But “cosmic” and “universal” do not describe social forms of human existence. They are too big, too abstract. Universal humanity is just a seething mass of individuals. Social existence happens in societies, and societies are subject to the rules of history. By transcending the national and redefining salvation in terms of a cosmic anthropology Beker leaves the people of God without anywhere to be social.

As it turned out, of course, the church went and built an international society for itself in the context of an empire that confessed Jesus as Lord to the glory of God the Father. It was a very imperfect arrangement, but I think the concrete outcome was closer to Paul’s apocalyptic vision than Beker’s universalism. Cosmic transformation (as implied, for example, in Rom. 8:20-22) is at most the background to Paul’s apocalyptic gospel; it is not the foreground.

And so gets into difficulties over imminence

If we suppose that there is a defining universal or cosmic component to Paul’s apocalyptic gospel, then we inevitably have a problem with the motif of imminence. Beker recognizes this:

After all, how can we maintain an attitude of hope in an imminent arrival of the kingdom of God in the face of the sheer continuation of chronological time? Has Paul’s expectation of the impending nearness of the kingdom of God not been refuted by the historical process itself, and does not continuing adherence to such an expectation simply mean a false hope? (44-45)

Beker stresses that the expectation of an imminent parousia is for Paul “not an apocalyptic oddity but the climax of his theological fabric”, but since the timing of the end cannot be calculated, the “delay of the parousia is not a theological concern for Paul” (49). I’ve compressed the argument rather too much, but it appears that Beker is trying to have his cake and eat it. His answer is that he regards the imminence motif as apocalyptic “only in the sense that… Paul expects the future to entail a definitive closure/completion-event in time and space, rather than simply a continuous, open-ended process”. In other words, imminence is not imminence. It is termination, and it can take as long as it likes.

But if we do not make the leap from Israel to all humanity, from nation to cosmos, but move from nation to oikoumenē, from YHWH as God of Israel to YHWH worshipped by the nations that made up the formerly pagan empire (as I argue in The Future of the People of God), then we are not bound to interpret the parousia as an absolute, final event, and the imminence of Paul’s expectation ceases to be a problem. Three hundred years is, admittedly, still a long time, but in historical terms that’s beside the point. The ending of persecution and the conversion of the empire were realistic and foreseeable prospects for Paul’s churches.