Adams, Wright, Barth, theology, history, time, eternity, and Paul’s letter to the Romans

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.

I suggest that the phrase “Christ event” should be consigned to the dustbin of a-history.

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.

Couldn’t agree more.

Although assuming that God is God seems like a mere tautology, we know it really isn’t. It could probably be restated as, “The being we call God is equivalent to my definition of God, and this needs to be our controlling assumption as we read the text.” It’s putting a theological control on the reading.

It reminds me of how this happens in more innocuous ways by people way less thoughtful than Barth. When our Sunday School class was going through James, someone heavily influenced by John MacArthur said that James was about “Christian maturity,” which seems relatively harmless on the surface, but when it gets to be the controlling factor in how you interpret James, you can end up in places the author never dreamed of as well as cutting free some very important things to the author.

Thanks, Phil. “God is God” as a hermeneutical principle in the first century context is fine. “God is God” as a basis for interpreting our own situation is fine. But when Adams, by way of Torrance and Barth, asserts “God is God” as an absolute a priori, revealed in the Christ event, we hardly have any need for scripture. Exegesis goes by the board.

Hi Andrew,
Thanks for posting your reflection.
At the risk of demonstrating my ignorance, I have a few questions:

1. Is it either/or? Is it binary? Or is there a continuum between the two hermeneutics? Is it possible to sit somewhere in between, and take a little of each hermeneutic?

2. In the historical hermeneutic, is it possible to read too much history into the text? It is certainly possible to read to little into it, as you have well-demonstrated. But can one slide too far down the scale? I could imagine a situation where an attempt is made to interpret every text in light of what we know now of first century Judaism and Palestine. Is it possible some texts have a more universal meaning? We are, after all 2000 years removed from the actual events and penning of the text. It sometimes seems to me that in the historical hermeneutic we have become very dependant on historical experts to tell us about events the common person knows nothing of, to make any sense of the text.

3. Is it fair to say that, up until recently, most theological writers throughout history proposed an understanding of scripture in which there was little consideration for the local/historical context, and where most attention went to the universal, more abstract significance?

Hi Rogier, very nice to hear from you. As always, excellent questions!

1. At the moment I’m inclined to think that it has to be one or the other. Adams thinks that Wright’s historical hermeneutic does not allow for the epistemological priority of God; but I’m not convinced that the theological approach, however, constructed, is willing or able to let the texts speak for themselves. Personally, I tend to contextualise the theological model—it makes sense within certain worldviews. I don’t think it makes much sense within the Jewish worldview(s) of the New Testament. So I subsume theology, even in its more absolute and universalising forms, under history.

2. We appear to be heavily reliant on historians because the dominant paradigm is the theological one. If the church had instead an instinctive, deep-seated narrative-historical mindset, then this way of thinking would come quite naturally to us. I assume, perhaps too easily, that ordinary Jews in the first century had no difficulty thinking of themselves—their identity, purpose, their relationship to God etc.—in terms of a narrative. For them to give epistemological priority to God meant reckoning with a particular historical narrative, with its past, present and variously conceived futures.

Some texts certainly are, as texts, less historically circumscribed—Wisdom literature, for example. But even then, that impression depends somewhat on the fact that we have—unavoidably—taken their texts out of their setting; and also we should not overlook the fact that “Wisdom” could be conceived very much in terms of the covenant narrative.

3. Yes. My view is that once the early church felt secure in the Greek-Roman world, it lost interest in the historical narrative about kingdom, effectively because kingdom—as cultural, political and religious dominance—had been attained. It took the Enlightenment to generate a critical interest in history among biblical scholars, which initially took a very negative course and only quite recently has found more constructive ways of thinking about the New Testament as a historical text.

Larry Siegle | Thu, 04/28/2016 - 21:52 | Permalink

What is your perspective of the approach taken to the book of Romans by writers such as Tom Holland who sees a more “corporate” aspect in Pauline theology? While I do not agree with his comments on every verse or section, I did find his approach to be refreshing. Also, having listened to N.T. Wright and his lectures through the book of Romans, with few exceptions he seems to capture the essence of the focal point of Paul in the understanding that the “righteousness of God” pertains to God’s “covenant faithfulness” in keeping the “promises made to the fathers” (Rom. 15:8).

The approach that was taken by the Reformers in the emphasis of “justification by faith” certainly has merit, but in the actual context it seems that Paul was dealing with communities in conflict, between Jews/Gentiles and a growing problem of Gentile separatism that was addressed as the book reaches the grand crescendo in Romans 9-11 where Paul brings the previous 8 chapters all together. Just a thought

Larry, I fully agree that Paul’s “theology” in Romans presupposes a corporate framework. So, justification by faith has to do with how Jews, on the one hand, and Gentiles, on the other, engaged in the story of what God was doing in and through and for the sake of his people, etc. I don’t think, however, that the argument is driven by the Jew-Gentile problem at the community level so much as by an eschatological outlook that expected first Israel and then the classical pagan world to come under God’s wrath.

Samuel Adams | Fri, 04/29/2016 - 03:24 | Permalink

While I appreciate the review—one I trust is in process—I must object to the characterization of my approach. I am not rejecting the contextual readng of Romans or any other text, rather I am contesting the reduction of theological epistemology to historical method. That God is God means, at least in this context, that God reveals God’s self. Paul, after all, would always insist that the living and active God is the very heart of the church’s reading of scripture.

Samuel, thanks for the response. It’s always good to be reminded that author’s are real people out there and not just labels attached to arguments.

Yes, it’s a work-in-progress and it may just be a matter of picking up on a few more bits and pieces rather than a comprehensive review. In case you didn’t see it, I started out with a summary of your excellent presentation of Wright’s methodology in chapter 1. I have struggled for a long time with the hermeneutical division between theology and history, and your book has helped to clarify things. I don’t agree with your approach—in fact, I’m of the view that Wright is inconsistent in his methodology, not historical enough—but it’s a very good book.

I appreciate the fact that you assert at a number of points that you are not rejecting the contextual reading of New Testament texts, and it’s an impressive feature of the book that you keep coming back, with some candour, to the historical critique of the theological position. My problem is that the theological reading still doesn’t seem to connect very well with the historical reading, tends to be reductive, and has a propensity to distort meanings—today’s post on “God with us” and the hypostatic union is an example, albeit a controversial one.

I think it’s telling, by the way, that your scripture index has 22 references to John’s Gospel and only 5 to the three Synoptic Gospels. To my mind, that’s the problem of theological readings in a nutshell.

So while you may be right to highlight the theological limitations of Wright’s critical realism in formal terms, I’m not sure I see the value in safe-guarding the theoretical priority of God at the expense of the text. I rather think, in fact, that history can do a better job of this, and in inherently biblical terms, by retelling the story of the creator who chooses a people for himself and persistently demonstrates his righteousness/faithfulness by managing their problematic existence in the world.

All that said, I have more to read and will re-read sections. It’s very easy to jump to conclusions, and your book deserves careful reading.