The fault line between theology and history is pervasive, persistent and profound. Samuel Adams argues in The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N.T. Wright for a theological hermeneutics at the heart of which is the “apocalyptic event” of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ (122). This event is “historical” only in the general and abstract sense that it happened in time and space; it has very little to do with the particular history of Israel under the political-religious conditions of the late second temple period. I suggest, in fact, that the phrase “Christ event” should be consigned to the dustbin of a-history.
Astonishingly, Adams insists that an apocalyptic theology, if it is to be consistent, must reject “the very contextualization that the academic study of apocalyptic literature assumes” (119). “Apocalyptic literature does not give us the proper worldview within which to understand the apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” I think that is profoundly wrong. Well, unhelpful at least.
Adams invokes the second edition of Barth’s commentary on Romans to explain his proposed theological-apocalyptic hermeneutics. The letter, Barth argues, must be understood on the assumption that “God is God”. Seems innocuous enough, but it leads directly to the subordination of biblical studies and historiography to a “determining methodological factor” that has no respect for the reality of either texts or history.
So we find that for Barth the subject matter of Romans is the “permanent KRISIS of the relationship between time and eternity”—a “KRISIS” which is given in the formula “God is God” (123). Whether Adams’ summary does justice to Barth’s commentary is another matter, but it is clear that this way of stating things firmly discourages the historical contextualisation of Paul’s argument in Romans.
A historical reading of the text, I suggest, would foreground the immediate implications of the resurrection of Jesus—not the revelation of God—first for Israel, then for the nations, in terms of both wrath and political-religious salvation; and the challenges faced by the believing community as it lives through this “eschatological” transition. See my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Western Christendom.
Such a reading is not “merely” historical or exegetical. It is solidly theological—but it is Paul’s theology, not ours, not Everyman’s. It is theological in the context of a historical narrative, and it is on that basis that it is meaningful to us two thousand years later. It makes the simple, commonsense assumption that he was thinking, believing and writing about what the God of Israel was doing for and against the historical community of his people in the first century. The “crisis” would have far-reaching implications, but it was not permanent; and it had to do with much more serious matters than the relationship between time and eternity.