Jamie Davies on the apocalyptic Paul: the J. Louis Martyn school

Read time: 11 minutes

In the second chapter of The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect, Jamie Davies introduces what is effectively a “school” of modern interpreters who have built on J. Louis Martyn’s account of Paul’s apocalyptic thought: Martinus de Boer, Leander Keck, Alexandra Brown, Beverly Gaventa, Douglas Campbell, Susan Eastman, and Lisa Bowens. I will take a similar approach to the previous post, summarising and passing judgment on the work of these scholars as Davies presents it. But I will mark the material in a more thematic fashion to highlight differences of emphasis among these siblings in the J. Louis Martyn family. Bear in mind that this is me saying what Davies says about what these various scholars say about Paul. It may get a little confusing.

The two ages are not really two ages

Martinus De Boer’s most significant contribution, in Davies’ view, has been to differentiate between two eschatological “tracks”—one “forensic,” the other “cosmological.” A forensic apocalyptic eschatology is essentially linear: the present evil age of human transgression against God’s law, resulting in death, will end with a final judgment, followed by the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. In the cosmological paradigm the two ages are not sequential but synchronous. They constitute two radically opposed “spheres” or “orbs of power,” which in Davies’ words “have rival claims for sovereignty over the world” (65).

The two tracks are not mutually exclusive but intersect. For example, the language of Romans 1-4 is predominantly forensic; Romans 6-8 has a cosmological orientation; and Romans 5 ‘represents for de Boer a location where the two soteriological narratives interpenetrate, or even are… “contested territory” within the argumentative flow of the letter’ (66). Nevertheless, in Paul’s thought the cosmological “decisively circumscribes” the forensic.

De Boer’s preference for the cosmological understanding of Paul’s apocalyptic is characteristic of the school. The Christ-event marks a clean break from the past, but the resulting eschatological dualism must be expressed in the present liberation of the believer from the enslaving evil cosmic powers, not as the expectation of an imminent temporal end to the age.

There is no end in view

Leander Keck also insists that Paul’s apocalyptic thought draws on the Jewish “two ages” tradition. Since the new age was launched by the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, there is in Paul, in Keck’s words, “an irreducible tension between the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet,’ which is generally absent from apocalyptic theology” (69).

This has certain consequences. First, because the decisive event lies in the past, we must reject the “salvation historical” idea that history is moving towards a final consummation. Secondly, the Christ event exposes the human condition for what it really is. In other words, Paul’s thought goes from solution to plight. Thirdly, the in-breaking new age in Christ is fundamentally discontinuous with the old age: the new can only be a “radical, invasive alternative” to the present age, it cannot improve it.

So again, Paul’s apocalyptic thought is oriented away from the end of time to the middle of time. As Davies puts it, “For Keck’s Paul, Jesus’s resurrection is not the end of history but the end in history” (70).

The power of sin

It is a further consequence of this way of understanding Paul that believers are saved not, in the first place, from their own personal transgressions but from “sin” as a power or cosmic opponent. Humans are first victims of cosmic oppression and need to be liberated from the power of sin; they are only secondarily responsible agents who face judgment for the sins that they have committed. The logic can again be illustrated from Romans. According to Keck, Paul’s apocalyptic soteriology begins with the human dilemma in Romans 1:18-5:11 and develops a doctrine of salvation in forensic terms. He then deals with the underlying cause in cosmic terms in Romans 5:12-8:30 and presents salvation in liberative and participatory terms.

It’s all in the mind, you know

According to Davies’ overview, what Alexandra Brown has particularly contributed to the post-Martyn conversation about the apocalyptic Paul is a focus on epistemology rather than eschatology. Paul has taken the “two ages” structure of Jewish eschatology and bent it around the Christ-event in such a way that the age to come is now the age that has come. But Brown then highlights the role of Hellenistic-Jewish wisdom traditions in the development of Paul’s apocalyptic thought, notably in 1 Corinthians.

The argument seems to be basically that what has been revealed in Christ is an “apocalyptic wisdom” that is quite antithetical to the human wisdom of the present age. The arena of apocalyptic conflict at Corinth, therefore, was the “realm of human perception.” Davies summarises her argument: “The revelatory word of the cross has invaded the epistemological landscape with the power to transform the Corinthian perception of the world and thus their way of being in it” (75). As a result, believers have the “mind of Christ” (cf. 1 Cor. 2:16); they think differently and they behave differently, which means that we now also have an apocalyptic ethics.

The mother of all maternal metaphors

What Beverley Gaventa adds to a cosmic soteriology and an apocalyptic epistemology is an appreciation for the function of maternal metaphors in Paul’s thought. When Paul writes to the Galatians that he is “in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19), he expresses an apocalyptic anguish that prefigures the larger idea that the whole world is going through the pains of childbirth as it awaits the apocalypse of Jesus Christ.

But although the whole of creation is going through the pains of labour, the world is subject to futility and cannot itself generate the new age. ‘The birthing of the new creation remains wholly God’s unilateral act in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and for Gaventa this christocentric and irruptive logic is indispensable to Paul’s apocalyptic theology, arguing against any possible “evolutionary” continuity in his eschatology’ (80). Again we see the consistent emphasis on discontinuity between the two ages and the disjunction between Paul’s apocalyptic gospel and the history of Israel.

Against foundationalism

Douglas Campbell is of a similar mind. In his view “apocalyptic” signifies only the revelatory character of Paul’s gospel; it has nothing to do with the Jewish apocalyptic texts or with Jewish history. But what Davies especially highlights is Campbell’s insistence on the “retrospective” direction of Paul’s thought, an emphasis which he shares with Keck and Brown, but which he derives ultimately from Karl Barth.

For Campbell, the fundamental dualism is not between two ages but between two epistemologies. On one side, there is the “deadly methodological heresy” of foundationalism, exemplified not only by natural theology but also by what he calls Justification Theory. Like other scholars in this school, he argues that Pauline soteriology is participatory and liberative, not individualistic and forensic. On the other side, there is Paul’s retrospective “apocalyptic” epistemology, which insists that knowledge of God must begin with the revelation of Christ.

A not so radical discontinuity

Maternal metaphors are also the focus of Susan Eastman’s work on Paul’s apocalyptic thought, but she takes a less rigorous—and, therefore, perhaps less coherent—approach to the background material. She affirms the singularity of the invasive, liberating apocalyptic gospel, but she also recognises that the background to the maternal metaphors is to be found in the biblical prophets.

Davies notes a couple of other ways in which she explores the tension between continuity and discontinuity. Paul frames his apostolic vocation in continuity with the prophetic tradition. Eastman accepts Martyn’s argument about the radical “anthropological discontinuity” of the invasive gospel and the “theological continuity” of God’s faithfulness to Abraham, but notes that, as Davies puts it, this “becomes problematic once we start speaking of the actual concrete history of the Pauline churches” (86). Finally, she thinks that Martyn’s emphasis on the cross as the decisive revelatory (i.e., apocalyptic) event marginalises the thought of incarnation and of Christ’s identification with humanity. Davies sums up:

To put it briefly, there is a temporal continuity in the history created by the gospel, not in an endorsement of a continuous forward progression, but in an affirmation of divine call, mediated through participation in Christ and displayed in the communities and individuals formed by the gospel. (88)

Let (mental) battle commence

Lisa Bowens’ interest lies in the “cosmic warfare” aspect of Paul’s apocalyptic thought. The term “apocalyptic” determines not his eschatology so much as the problem of human and cosmic beings “sharing social space.” The theme is easy enough to illustrate not only from Paul but also from a number of Jewish apocalyptic texts, including a couple from Qumran. Whether or not Paul was directly influenced by such writings, they are part of his “conceptual environment.” So the account of a heavenly ascent in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, Davies says, “serves to locate Paul’s ministry, and the lives of his Corinthian audience, within a cosmic-apocalyptic frame of reference” (92). The conflict, however, is essentially epistemological, fought out in the human mind between deception and an authentic knowledge of God grounded in the revelation of Christ.

Finally, Bowens suggests that it would be appropriate to assimilate liberation theologies into an account of Paul’s apocalyptic gospel as liberation from the cosmic powers of systemic sin and injustice. Davies says:

This intersection of cosmological warfare and anthropological resistance to the “powers” is a theme that has been particularly emphasised in African American reception of Paul, which Bowens has recently surveyed and to which she has already made a significant contribution. (93-94)

Some reflections on the apocalyptic Paul in contemporary scholarship

1. The J. Louis Martyn school of apocalyptic interpretation is uncomfortable—sometimes very uncomfortable—with the idea that Paul was interested in temporal developments or historical outcomes. The linear structure of Jewish apocalyptic has been abandoned presumably because modern interpreters find it incompatible with secular eschatologies. It’s not just that an imminent end-of-the-world didn’t happen; we find it impossible to believe that it ever will happen. The problem pretty much goes away, in my view, if we take seriously the historical outlook of Paul and the early churches.

2. These interpreters clearly have difficulty accounting for the linear elements in Paul’s thought, as evidenced, for example, by Campbell’s outlandish attempt to attribute the forensic motifs in the early chapters of Romans to an opponent of Paul by way of a theory of prosōpopoeia or speech-in-character (84-85).

3. The retention of the “two ages” language of Jewish apocalyptic is disingenuous if the vast sweeping open spaces of the prophetic-apocalyptic narrative are collapsed into the unchanging singularity of the Christ-event. I rather suspect that the Martyn approach has more in common with Gnosticism than with Paul.

4. The language of “invasion” or “irruption” is not found in Paul, but he has plenty to say about such future events as the arrival of the kingdom of God, a day of wrath, the parousia of Jesus, the revelation of Jesus for which people now wait, the resurrection of the dead in Christ, the defeat of a “man of lawlessness” who will be destroyed by the appearance of the Lord Jesus, the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations, the final defeat of death, and the handing back of the authority to rule to the Father.

5. The “already” and “not yet” part was simply that Jesus had already been exalted to the right hand of God but his rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world had not yet been realised.

6. What people are saved from, I would argue, is neither personal sins nor cosmic sin but their participation in the sinfulness of a people or civilisation. Jews who acknowledge Jesus as messiah and Lord are saved from the rebellion of Israel that will lead to destruction. Greeks who believe are saved from the corrupting idolatry described in Romans 1:18-32, which Paul believes is now under the judgment of God—meaning that it is passing away.

7. Brown is right to emphasise the place of wisdom in Paul’s apocalyptic thought, but Paul has a rather narrow and contingent understanding of the role of wisdom in the eschatological process. He has come to believe that the desired future outcome—the collapse of Greek-Roman paganism and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations—will only be achieved through the Christ-like suffering of the apostles and the churches. It is in this counter-intuitive modus operandi that the eschatological wisdom of God is to be found; and it is this which shapes his apocalyptic ethics.

8. Here’s how participation and justification worked: Jews and Gentiles believed in the future rule of Christ over the nations; they participated in the suffering of Jesus as the critical means by which the future outcome would be reached; and when that day came, they would find themselves fully justified for their faith and faithfulness.

9. The figure of the pains of childbirth belongs to a linear eschatology: what is brought into being is a new historical era. Judah was in labour but brought forth no national deliverance (Is. 26:17-18). Zion was in the pains of labour and brought forth children in one day because of the return of the exiles (Is. 66:7-9). The early stages of the Jewish revolt are the “beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:8; Mk. 13:6) that will bring forth the new age of the post-war existence of the people of God. The whole creation is “groaning together in the pains of childbirth” in hope of seeing the dawn of a new Christ-honouring civilisation (Rom. 8:22). The day of the Lord will come upon the Jews, perhaps also on the Greeks, “as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman” (1 Thess. 5:3).

10. The stream of apocalyptic thought that we find in Paul and elsewhere in the New Testament has its source probably in Daniel. It is a body of literature that developed in response to the crisis of the clash with pagan Greek-Roman power, from Antiochus Epiphanes’ attempt to suppress Jewish religious practice to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome. It addresses, clearly, not an anthropological or existential crisis but a historical crisis, and it looks for historical solutions that will come in the course of time.

Mark Mathur | Mon, 11/07/2022 - 06:09 | Permalink

Thanks for your ten points at the end! They gave me an acceptable apocalyptic slant of “traditional” pauline interpretation.