Jamie Davies on the apocalyptic Paul: from Weiss to Martyn

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Jamie Davies’ book The Apocalyptic Paul: Retrospect and Prospect comes in two parts: a look back down the long road that has led to attempts to assimilate the “apocalyptic Paul” into systematic theologies, and a look forward to see where that road might take us next. I’m not sure how far I’ll get but I will try at least to assess the retrospective journey as Davies describes it in his first three chapters. It strikes me as a fair account, and if anyone is looking for a reliable introduction to the subject, this would be a good place to start. But I am not going to check it against the original sources, and we have to assume that Davies has brought his own particular perspective and interests to the task—not least his interest in systematic theology.

In chapter one Davies provides the reader with an efficient overview of the evolution of research into the apocalyptic Paul from Johannes Weiss’ Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God (1892) to J. Louis Martyn’s commentary on Galatians (1997). It will be familiar to many. In chapter two he describes the work of a “school” of more recent interpreters who have carried on the conversation: Martinus de Boer, Leander Keck, Alexandra Brown, Beverly Gaventa, Douglas Campbell, Susan Eastman, and Lisa Bowens. The study of the history of the modern reading of the apocalyptic Paul is completed with an overview of the impact of Martyn’s work on four systematic theologians: Walter Lowe, Nathan Kerr, Philip Ziegler, and Douglas Harink.

In this post I’ll summarise the narrative of chapter one and offer some critical reflections from a narrative-historical perspective.

Johannes Weiss

The view that dominated German liberal Protestant scholarship in the nineteenth century was that the expression “kingdom of God” in Jesus’ teaching had reference to the inward spiritual basis for an expanding and evolving moral society. Against this, Johannes Weiss argued that the kingdom of God was fundamentally a transcendent apocalyptic reality breaking dramatically and abruptly into the world from outside. Davies quotes Weiss’ succinct assertion that in Jesus’ understanding the kingdom was “not a matter for human initiative, but entirely a matter of God’s initiative.”

Weiss recognised, however, that such a foreign view of Jesus was of little use to the modern church. His solution was to allow “kingdom of God” to mean two quite different things, depending on context. In historical study the kingdom of God must retain the eschatological and apocalyptic sense that it originally had for Jesus. But for the purposes of a systematic theology it may be redefined with reference to what was universal rather than contingent in Jesus’ teaching, namely, the “religious and ethical fellowship of the children of God.”

So there is the historical but unusable kingdom of God, which was at the heart of Jesus’ message, and there is the theological kingdom of God, at best an arbitrary and tangential abstraction from Jesus’ teaching, which nevertheless may be put to good use in contemporary dogmatics. This sets the pattern for subsequent research into Paul’s apocalyptic outlook.

Albert Schweitzer

After Weiss, mainstream New Testament scholarship remained wary of apocalyptic, regarding it as ‘an obscure or fantastical feature of “late Judaism,”’ in Davies’ words. Against this background, Albert Schweitzer stands out as an isolated champion of Weiss’ epochal insight in the early twentieth century.

According to Davies, “Schweitzer went with and beyond Weiss in arguing that early Christianity could only be understood against this Jewish apocalyptic background.” To his mind, the whole of Jesus’ ministry was eschatologically shaped—not his teachings only but also his actions. He called it a “thoroughgoing eschatology” (konsequente Eschatologie).

Moreover, the thoroughgoing apocalyptic perspective was shared by Paul, who consistently drew on the subject matter and worldview of the Jewish apocalypses. In The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul Schweitzer wrote: “since Paul lives in the conceptions of the dramatic word-view [Weltanschauung] characteristic of the late-Jewish Eschatology, he is by consequence bound to the logic of that view.”

Davies highlights three defining characteristics of Schweitzer’s reconstruction of Paul’s apocalyptic mysticism.

First, we find in Paul, as in Jesus, a “thoroughgoing eschatology,” at the heart of which is a “commitment to the imminent end of the world and a dualistic contrast of two ages.” Contrary to appearances, the new age had already been inaugurated in the resurrection of Jesus and would be fully realised at the parousia.

Secondly, in Schweitzer’s view, redemption is conceived by Paul cosmologically as a “world-event” in which the believer participates. The present world is subject to angelic and demonic powers, which are the source of sin and death, but since the resurrection of Jesus such powers have been “met by the eschatological arrival of the Messianic kingdom.”

Thirdly, believers participate in this apocalyptic eschatology by their being “in Christ.” In this way they engage, as Davies puts it, in the continuing “cosmic struggle with angelic powers until the imminent eschatological consummation.” The doctrine of righteousness or justification by faith is a secondary consequence of participation in Christ, not the heart of Paul’s thought.

Rudolph Bultmann

Bultmann marks the end of the first phase of interest in a Jewish apocalyptic Jesus and Paul. He agreed with Weiss and Schweitzer that in Jesus’ understanding the kingdom of God was imminent and eschatological not universal and ethical, and that the doctrine had much in common with ideas found in Jewish apocalyptic writings. But what was the modern theologian supposed to do with it all? Bultmann recalls the words of the dogmatician Julius Kaftan: “If Johannes Weiss is right and the conception of the kingdom of God is an eschatological one, then it is impossible to make use of this conception in dogmatics.”

Bultmann’s solution was to demythologise the apocalyptic New Testament content identified by Weiss and Schweitzer. The task of theology was to translate wholesale the mythical worldview of Jesus and Paul into a modern, post-Enlightenment idiom. For Bultmann this meant treating apocalyptic as a way of understanding human existence. So, for example, as Davies puts it, the future eschatology of the New Testament ‘must be transposed into a present eschatology located in the moment of individual responsibility, the urgent existential decision of the “day of salvation” in which “the life of the future has already become present.”’

Ernst Käsemann

In a “bombastic series of essays” published in the 1960s, Davies says, Käsemann took Bultmann to task for preventing the apostle from “speaking on his own terms.” The program of existential demythologisation was grossly misleading. Apocalyptic was not an aberration but—in Käsemann’s famous phrase—“the mother of all Christian theology.” Against Bultmann’s “individualist anthropology” (Davies), he insisted that Paul viewed the world as a place of conflict between cosmic powers. The critical matter was not the personal decision, whether understood soteriologically or existentially, but the question of sovereignty over the world.

Where Käsemann differed from Weiss and Schweitzer was in his insistence on the centrality of the doctrine of justification in Paul’s apocalyptic theology. In his view, the apocalyptic outlook of Jesus and Paul was not a matter of narrow historical interest only; it had an indelible influence on the early development of dogmatics. In Davies’ words, “When located in this cosmological-apocalyptic frame, Käsemann understood justification not as the salvation of the individual but as the militant saving power of God in recapturing the embattled cosmos for himself.” The imminent resolution of the conflict at the parousia constituted the absolute horizon of Paul’s apocalyptic thought.

J. Christiaan Beker

Beker similarly argued that “only a consistent apocalyptic interpretation of Paul’s thought is able to demonstrate its fundamental coherence.” He disagreed, however, with Käsemann’s identification of the theme of the “righteousness of God” as the centre of Paul’s thought; rather, it was Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ which shaped and intensified his apocalyptic vision. In Davies’ view, what basically characterised Beker’s perspective is the idea that what Paul got from Jewish apocalyptic was not any particular theme but the indispensable language or symbolic structure with which he interpreted the Christ-event.

From the work of Vielhauer and Koch, Beker derived an account of the apocalyptic worldview which had three main components: historical dualism, universal cosmic expectation, and a belief in the imminent end of the world.

This worldview is modified by Paul. First, the Christ-event was the “incursion” of the age-to-come into the present evil age. Secondly, Paul’s apocalyptic transcended the “introverted” and nationalist vision of the Old Testament people of God, and was essentially cosmic and universal in its scope. ‘This means that, until all of God’s creation comes to its destiny of glory, neither God himself is vindicated nor the human being completely or fully “saved.”’ Thirdly, for Paul what imminence meant was not that the end would happen soon but that the future would entail “a definitive closure/completion-event in time and space, rather than a continuous, open-ended process.”

J. Louis Martyn

Beker’s study was enthusiastically reviewed by Martyn, who demurred, nevertheless, over Beker’s account of the relation between apocalyptic and salvation history. Martyn thought that there was too much emphasis on historical continuity, at the expense of the abrupt disjunction—the eschatological dualism—that typically characterised apocalyptic thought. But he argued that Paul’s apocalyptic theology was organised not around an imminent parousia but around the theme of invasion. The singular liberating invasion comes not at the chronological end of the “present evil age” but in the middle of it. Paul’s thought presupposes not a linear but a punctiliar perception of time.

Davies then highlights two further aspects of Martyn’s thesis. First, the revelation of Jesus Christ is not only an “eschatological irruption” into the present age, it also triggers an “epistemological crisis.” The point of Paul’s apocalyptic or revelatory vocabulary is that we now have to reckon with two incompatible ways of knowing—according to the flesh and according to the Spirit, which is qualified as “according to the cross” in order to guard against an unhealthy charismatic “enthusiasm.”

Secondly, because salvation is an invasion from outside, there is also a significant cosmological dimension to be reckoned with. The present evil age is subject to hostile cosmic powers; therefore, salvation is a liberation not so much from personal guilt but from “corporate enslavement.”

Some reflections on the “genealogy of the apocalyptic Paul” from a narrative-historical perspective

1. It is correct to say that for Jesus the kingdom was a matter of divine rather than human initiative—a distinction that the church still has trouble grasping today. In his context, however, “human initiative” does not feature in any very marked fashion as the alternative to divine action. His attack is against Jewish complacency and hypocrisy. If the Jews had repented and taken Torah seriously, there would have been no need for dramatic divine intervention. Likewise, I think, for Paul: the problem was not that the Jews were pursuing Law-based righteousness but that they were not.

2. Neither Jesus nor Paul would have understood the idea of the kingdom of God breaking into the world from outside. For Jesus judgment would come in a form painfully familiar to the Jews: foreign invasion and an assault on Jerusalem and the temple. All very mundane. In this way the old régime would be overthrown, space would be created for a new covenant people to emerge, and Jesus and his followers would be publicly vindicated. The intervention would be “abrupt” only in the sense that people are often caught out by dramatic turns of events.

3. Jewish apocalyptic thought does not jump straight to a cosmic transformation, if at all. There is typically a significant political transformation that must come first: restoration of Israel’s fortunes, defeat of the pagan enemy, and a long-term rule of the Hebrews over the nations. The New Testament replicates this pattern but makes the heavenly Jesus the agent of transformation.

4. Weiss’ proposal that systematic theology must transpose Jesus’ concept of the kingdom of God into universal religious and ethical terms merely reinstates the nineteenth century consensus. Bultmann’s existential demythologising is no better. It turns Christian origins into a parable for contemporary religious experience.

5. The bifurcation between history and theology is unnecessary. What connects the evolving apocalyptic vision of Jesus’ and his followers with the outlook of the church today is simply history. The modern church has inherited the consequences of those large-scale historical events which happened in the early centuries and which were predicted by Jesus and the apostles in the language of prophecy and apocalyptic.

6. Schweitzer was right to insist on the “thoroughgoing apocalyptic perspective” of Jesus and Paul but wrong to understand this in anything approaching cosmic terms. In both cases the argument is rather that the cosmic powers have been defeated by Jesus’ defiance of Satan—to the extreme point of death—and therefore cannot prevent the impending historical outcomes. The “ends” in view are principally historical, but in later biblical thought major historical events have a transcendent dimension to them. So, for example, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple will be accompanied by disorder in the heavens (eg. Mk. 13:24-25); and the defeat of pagan Rome by the followers of Jesus will be sealed by the imprisonment of Satan in the abyss (Rev. 20:1-3).

7. The apostolic vision was that Jesus would be established as judge and ruler of the nations from heaven and that his reign at the right hand of God would continue until the last enemy is destroyed, at which point he will give back the authority to rule to the Father (1 Cor. 15:24-28). Both Jewish and Gentile believers participated in the political process not least by embodying in their novel hybrid religious communities the fundamental truth that the God of Israel was also God of the nations (Rom. 3:29-30). There is no suggestion that they also participated in an essentially cosmic process or anticipated the sort of wholesale renewal of heaven and earth described in Revelation 20:21-21:8.

8. I agree with Schweitzer that participation in Christ precedes justification by faith, but the scope of this process is political rather than cosmic. Those who believed in the coming rule of Christ over the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12-13) participated in his experience of suffering out of loyalty to the vision and expected eventually to be vindicated or justified for their faith and faithfulness.

9. With Käsemann the pendulum moves back towards the ancient conception, but again too violently, swinging past the proper historical orientation of the mainstream prophetic-apocalyptic vision. What is at stake is divine sovereignty not over the world in some comprehensive sense but over a critical moment in Israel’s history.

10. For reasons already given, I think that Beker’s three part account of Paul’s apocalyptic worldview is askew. First, the “Christ event” was not the incursion of the age-to-come into the present evil age; it was the anticipation of the rule of Christ over the nations in the age-to-come. Secondly, Paul’s vision did not transcend the historical existence of Israel and was not cosmic in scope: it reached back to the promises made to the patriarchs and it embraced the Greek-Roman world from Jerusalem to Spain by way of Illyricum (Rom. 15:12, 19, 28). He may well have envisaged a final vindication of the creator God, but there was a lot of history, from Israel’s perspective, to happen first. Thirdly, I think that Paul naturally hoped that the revelation of Jesus to the nations and the conversion of the Greek-Roman world would happen within a relevant and foreseeable future. He certainly did not imagine an open-ended process, but he also would probably have been disappointed if someone had told him it would take two hundred and fifty years.

11. I really struggle to understand why Martyn’s take on Paul’s apocalyptic thought has been so popular. His reading of the Jewish material seems blinkered and anachronistic. He strips Paul of the historical perspective that is so apparent especially in Galatians and Romans. Paul was a historical Jew, troubled by the historical circumstances of his people, looking for historical solutions. He misunderstands Paul’s “present evil age” language, which refers not to universal human existence subject to evil powers but to the crisis confronted by first century Israel. And the language of “invasion” is entirely absent from Paul’s writings. It seems to me that Martyn has remythologised Bultmann’s existentialism on a cosmic scale and foisted it on Paul. More on this later, perhaps….