Jamie Davies on the apocalyptic Paul: from interpretation to theology

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Jamie Davies makes J. Louis Martyn the pivot point of his retrospective summary of the history of modern investigations into the thought of the “apocalyptic Paul.” Martyn is the terminus ad quem of the longer history of research going back to Johannes Weiss and the terminus a quo of two more recent developments: a loosely defined school of Pauline interpreters and an endeavour to work out the implications of the New Testament research for systematic theology, which is the subject of the third chapter of Davies’ book The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect.

It is one of the more “stimulating aspects” of recent exploration into Paul’s apocalyptic thought,” Davies says, that it has evolved into a conversation between New Testament scholars and systematic theologians. To illustrate the point, he has selected the work of Walter Lowe, Nathan Kerr, Philip Ziegler, and Douglas Harink. Again I issue the caveat that this is a very skimpy summary of a summary of their thought.

Apocalyptic as deconstruction

In Walter Lowe’s view the sort of apocalyptic outlook described by Martyn—and anticipated by Karl Barth—should be determinative for a postmodern Christian theology. New Testament eschatology is characterised by an intense urgency—the expectation of the imminent return of Christ. The indefinite delay of this hope means that Christian thought is never able to settle in history. It remains essentially apocalyptic, which makes it, in Davies’ words, a persistent “challenge to historical continuity and the myth of progress” (102). Apocalyptic theology, therefore, does what postmodern philosophy does: it critiques the hegemony of metanarratives. The central insight, as Davies puts it, is that “the gospel contextualizes history, not the other way around” (104).

Against immanentist historicism

Nathan Kerr is also expressly indebted to Martyn’s account of the apocalyptic Paul. He sets out from the—again also Barthian—position that theology must begin with the invasive action of a radically other God into a world that is always passing away. He thinks that this draws on a conceptual framework derived from Jewish apocalyptic. God’s invasive action, secondly, is discovered in the singular Christ-event; and no account of history is valid if it does not acknowledge this. Thirdly, the invasive action of God in Christ is both cosmic and historical in scope. What does he mean by “historical” here? Only that the creation of “a new cosmos, delivered from slavery to the powers of this present evil age” is, as Davies puts it, “unintelligible apart from the concrete act of God in Christ” (106).

What scripture leads us to expect is not smug deconstruction of the metanarratives but the eventual action of the God of history in history to judge a decadent or violent order and inaugurate a new age.

Kerr then develops an apocalyptic theology of politics and mission. The church participates in the “contingencies of history”—Davies’ expression—on the basis and after the pattern of the invasive action of God in the Christ-event. The church has been liberated from the enslaving cosmic powers and engages in mission “as a witness and sign” of God’s in-breaking reign.

Kerr’s programme is conceived as “a sustained response to the crisis of modern immanentist historicism” (107). An “immanentist historicism” gives an account of history without reference to God, and politics and mission done on that basis are also likely to be immanentist. Kerr aims instead at an “apocalyptic historicism” that does not efface the historical reality and significance of the Christ-event.

Towards a systematic apocalyptic theology

Philip Ziegler recognises that a key strand of New Testament scholarship has demonstrated the centrality of apocalyptic thought and language to the witness to salvation in Christ; like Lowe and Kerr he also stresses the importance of Barth’s early work on Romans. He then asks how this insight might change the shape of systematic theology. According to Davies, Ziegler outlines “six programmatic theses for an apocalyptic theology.”

  1. Apocalyptic language captures the cosmological and anthropological scope of the gospel.
  2. It provides Christian dogmatics with a discourse that is “irreducibly christological in its focus” (110).
  3. The language of “irruption” and “disjunction” presents a powerful way to speak about the radical newness and otherness of the gospel.
  4. Apocalyptic theology reintroduces the agency of the powers of evil into the drama of salvation.
  5. Divine deliverance or salvation, therefore, may be conceived in cosmic terms, not with reference only to the church or even humanity.
  6. The mission of the church must be shaped by the “eschatological tension” between this age and the age that is always imminently expected. The church can never be at home in the present world; it is always “looking to the horizon for God’s coming kingdom” (112).

The apocalyptic Paul and political theology

Douglas Harink also starts with the basic idea that in the New Testament the “revelation” signified by “apocalypse” is, in Davies’ words, “the invasive divine action in Christ to liberate an enslaved cosmos and bring about new creation” (113). In the case of Paul, his gospel is an “apocalypse” not only because it unveils the mystery of the Christ-event but more importantly because it speaks of the power of God to destroy and remake the world. This includes the revelation of God’s justice against human sin.

The emphasis on divine justice is central to Harink’s apocalyptic theology. Like Ziegler, he makes use of Martyn’s model of a “three-actor moral drama,” which has the consequence that there is no “neutral ground” on which a person may stand when making moral or political decisions: humanity is always enslaved to anti-God powers.

A political theology becomes necessary at this point because the gospel not only transforms individual agency but also because it generates a new corporate order, which requires a new political agency. This political orientation cannot be aligned with any particular form of rule, with either side of the current conservative-progressive binary, or with revolutionary politics. Such forms all belong to the present evil age, which is passing away. ‘Rather, this political reality arrives,’ Davies explains, ‘by participation in the divine apocalypse, as the invasive act of God into this world as a “hidden but politically explosive divine power”’ (115).

Again, too, we have the idea that the gospel determines history, not the other way round. An apocalyptic theology fiercely resists linear or progressive views of history. This includes the history of Israel. The gospel does not emerge out of the story of Israel; rather it “conditions and reconstitutes” it—whatever that means. The most that we can say about the story of Israel is that it is “the locus of the divine promise” (116). In this respect, Harink takes issue especially with N.T. Wright’s progressivist redemptive-historical view, which he regards as motivated largely by a desire not to attribute an anti-Jewish supersessionism to Paul.

Some reflections on the apocalyptic Paul and systematic theology

Davies does a very good job in the “retrospective” part of his book of summarising the development of the “apocalyptic Paul” thesis and its incursion into the field of systematic theology. I should point out that in later chapters he offers his own assessment of the enterprise and where it is going, but I have not taken this into account.

1. The postmodern-apocalyptic theological model is one way to sabotage the modern myth of progress, but it presents no constructive approach for dealing with either the opportunities or the challenges presented by history. Almost all the way through the Bible the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative interprets the difficult historical experience of the people of God: invasion and deportation by the Mesopotamian powers, invasion and oppression by the European powers. The paramount eschaton or end in view in the New Testament is not indefinitely suspended. It is presented with dramatic and poignant clarity in the fall of Babylon the great (Rev. 18), which must be understood, I think, as the overthrow of corrupt and corrupting pagan Rome.

But equally, such an apocalyptic theology provides no basis for understanding or responding to the particular historical crises of our own time—the collapse of the Christian worldview, the emergence of a robustly secular anthropology, and the catastrophic arrival of the Anthropocene. What scripture leads us to expect is not smug deconstruction of the metanarratives but the eventual action of the God of history in history to judge a decadent or violent order and inaugurate a new age.

So I disagree that the gospel contextualises history. I think it is precisely the other way around. Good news needs to be heard because of history, in the course of history—because God is about to lead his people back to Jerusalem, because Israel is on a broad road leading to the destruction of the unwinnable war against Rome, because God will soon judge the old pagan world by a man whom he has appointed, and so on.

2. A properly biblical correction of immanentist historicism, I think, would extend the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative of divine action in history, through the events associated with Jesus, and on into our own historical context. The death and resurrection of Jesus have absolute meaning insofar as they triggered a far-reaching transformation in the government of God’s people: Jesus has been made Lord over them until the last enemy is destroyed. But even this transcendent coup d’état is bound up in the contingencies—the slow processes—of history. For a long while, the lordship of Jesus was confessed not only by the church but also by the nations of Europe. That is no longer the case. History has impinged massively on apocalyptic. Let’s be realistic about this.

3. The whole apocalyptic-theological argument about history seems to me muddled. History does not have to be “going somewhere” in order to be theologically significant or to throw serious obstacles in the way of divine action. The Bible deals with history not by saying that it’s going nowhere, that it doesn’t add up to anything. On the contrary, the Bible says that history is the stage on which the living God acts; he is the God not of creation only but also of history—arguably more so.

4. Harink’s objection to N.T. Wright’s redemptive history approach is to say that it falls into a “progressivist trap.” He’s right. History is not moving in a godly or redemptive direction. But history does not have to be progressive in order to register on biblical apocalyptic timelines. Nations come and go; empires and civilisations rise and fall—including Christian civilisations. It is very difficult theologically to accept the contingency and impermanence of key New Testament hopes, but we look back from a position beyond the natural cycles of history, and we have to factor into our telling of the story the coming and going of the historical transformations that dominated the prophetic-apocalyptic imagination of the apostles and the early church communities.

5. We are not bound to revert from redemption history to an a-historical singularity that is merely presaged in the Old Testament. The Christ-event happens not in cosmic time but in Jewish time. When Paul speaks about a “present evil age” that is “passing away,” he does not mean all human or cosmic history. He means the present evil age of his people’s subjection to a Hellenistic-Roman pagan order.

6. Ziegler’s claim that apocalyptic language captures the cosmological and anthropological scope of the gospel illustrates a problem with a good deal of modern theological interpretation of scripture. I maintain that what the prophetic-apocalyptic language of scripture and of the literature of second temple Judaism brings into focus is the political dimension of the biblical witness. Political level events—including the crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus—have both cosmological and anthropological ramifications. But the shaking of the heavens or the justification of individual Jews and Greeks are secondary matters, outworkings of the central and primary story of the historical experience of the people of God.

7. Harink’s apocalyptic “political theology” looks more like an apolitical theology, at least as far as Davies has described it. It gives no basis on which concrete action may be taken in the new corporate order. Nor does it provide any reason to think that God will act in history to deal with actual crises.

8. The people of God is often out of place, not at home, because in times of crisis and transition it is called to embody in the present a different future. That mode of being dominates the New Testament. But there is another more fundamental and non-eschatological dimension to the church’s “otherness”: it has been chosen to be an obedient priestly people, whose otherness must be determined by its holiness.

Thanks very much Andrew for this series. This is seriously fascinating territory which I’m in no way up on, so I’m just letting it wash over me without trying to grasp all the ins and outs of it.

Something I’m wondering is: history may not be progressive, but to what extent is it linear? Powers and principalities come and go as they engage in tower-building; God successively judges them and they pass away, and so one age passes into another. But a potential implication of a narrative-historical approach might be that, as ultimate as the Christ-event is, it hasn’t (yet?) spelled an end to these comings and goings of babylonic powers (of which Christendom itself became one). All of which makes me wonder if plotting this visually would involve less bell curves and staggered lines, and more spirals and cycles (perhaps still with a through-line of divine new creation activity; the people of Jesus having seen—even today, we hope—how to live beyond/behind/through empire…).

@Arthur Davis:

I agree that history repeats itself in certain respects—even the bell curves demonstrate that. Presumably there is something cyclical, and therefore predictable, about the rise and fall of empires and civilisations. The divine new creation activity is recurrent for this reason, and yes, it’s what sustains us.

My view is that the “Christ event” was never meant to bring the comings and goings of powers to an end, which seems to be your point. It was rather a different way of handling the ups and downs, the ins and outs, the comings and goings of history. It’s just that there was no point in the first century trying to imagine—even in the Spirit—how long the coming Christ-honouring civilisation would last, how it would decline, or what would succeed it.