SBL Review (2): Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination
Martin de Boer
- In general, it is accepted that apocalyptic is a literary genre (Revelation), but in Revelation, apokalupsis may refer to the content rather than the genre.
- The new order of reality is not the rehabilitation of the old order, partly by human means (prophetic eschatology), but the divinely initiated replacement of the old world age with a new world age (apocalyptic eschatology). “Apocalyptic eschatology involves an ‘already’ and a ‘still more’.”
- But why is this divine intervention necessary? There are two explanations for evil in the world: malevolent creatures, and human beings. Paul sees the former as having been dealt with in victory (cosmological, as in 1 Enoch), and the latter as having been dealt with in a courtroom (forensic, as in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch).
- My contention is, as Schweitzer put it, that Paul is “closer” to 1 Enoch than 4 Ezra or 2 Baruch, and as such preached a gospel that was more cosmological than forensic.
- Middle Judaism, whether writing was in the apocalyptic genre or not, distinguished between this age and the age to come (i.e. this is not uniquely apocalyptic). Contact between heaven and earth was possible; Jews were neither good Stoics not good Epicureans.
- The apocalyptic-prophetic division is a modern invention. (Incidentally, it’s weird that the Jesus Seminar tried to show that Jesus was not an apocalypticist, and now we have people trying to ensure Paul is). Forensic texts have cosmological dimensions, and cosmological ones imagine a final assize; the reason we separate them are because Bultmann and Käsemann disagreed about it.
- My basic point, then, concerns false antitheses.
- Israel’s God is still somehow in covenant with his ancient people, and will fulfil them at the proper time, even if that means a procession of beasts from the sea. So to invoke covenant is not to revoke apocalyptic, but rather to contextualise it. Ancient Jewish apocalyptic was irreducibly covenantal.
- As an illustration: Gal 1:4 and 6:15, with 4:1-6 in the middle, shows the total transformation of the world in covenantal and Exodus terms (the beginning, the middle and the end). This has nothing to do with immanent development or evolution, though. Beware of false antitheses.
Paul is not criticising Judaism per se; he is using one aspect of Judaism to criticise another one. Apocalyptic is not just about the future; it is about recasting the sacred past in such a way as to sustain living in the present, as proleptic manifestations of an eschatological reality (in Jewish apocalyptic in general, not in Paul as such).
Christian theology needs to be grounded in New Testament apocalyptic, and as that happens, the church will be far better equipped to serve the world, rather than retreat from it.
- I want to speak about an apocalyptic new covenant. Paul reworks the theology of the new covenant in light of God’s apocalyptic incursion through Christ and the Spirit.
- Thus Paul is, and wants his churches to be, an apocalypse of the apocalypse.
- Oddly, Martyn and de Boer pick up on the allusions to Ezekiel 36 and Jeremiah 31 in their expositions of Gal 4:1-6, but do not refer to the new covenant. Clearly, Paul is talking about an apocalyptic new covenant.
- The fundamental identity marker of the new covenant community is the Spirit of the Son (reconfigured from the spirit prophesied in Ezekiel and Jeremiah).
Unseen beings pop up in 1 Corinthians an awful lot, especially amidst rebuke. Paul’s spirit is present (5:1-13); we will judge angels (6:1-8); because of the angels (11:2-16); the rulers of the present world crucified the Lord of glory (2:1-16); the apostles are shamed in front of unseen beings (4:8-21). Paul is into mysterious presence, unseen beings, etc, but interestingly he always drops them into discussion, as if the Corinthians know exactly what he’s talking about, rather than explaining what he’s talking about (hence the confusion). The unseen world has already been transported into this world; the immanence of the angelic world is assumed. All of this is relevant to the apocalyptic discussion.
- Is Paul telling the truth when he says that we can’t understand anything without being in Christ (2 Cor 5:16-17), or not? We cannot grasp the truth of revelation by historical reconstruction, because the truth is hidden, weird - and yet right. If we’re in Christ, we know; if we’re not, we don’t. This is an apocalyptic epistemology.
- Apocalypticism is the opposite of Marcionism: God has come, as a Jew, as a historical person.
- We must resist foundationalism. Paul himself doesn’t always get it right: he thinks forwards rather than backwards, in a Christologically problematic way, in three areas (gender, forensic conditionality, and Romans 1).
- We all have to answer the question: what do we do with Romans 1? My answer is: Well, he was obviously in a fierce debate with a Brunnerian.
- So yes: Paul is both an Augustinian and a Barthian.
I wonder: can an apocalyptic reading of Romans be extended to 9-11? Paul’s account of Israel in Romans 9-11 is apocalyptic: it is not from Abraham forwards, but from Christ backwards.
Eight different definitions of apocalyptic have been used this afternoon, and that’s because it’s a label we’ve invented to identify things we regard in a certain way. Well anyway: 1 Corinthians is pretty apocalyptic in many ways (in the sense of resembling apocalyptic Jewish texts), especially in chapters 2 and 15. Sandwiched in between them is 7:25-31, which I read as meaning that the apocalyptic Christ-event has altered the structures of time and existence, and that we therefore live in a special time, “compressed time” (7:29), which means our orientation and loyalty is transformed. The present constraint is the tendency to decay - suffering for the gospel is inevitable - and marriage increases our vulnerability to this, which is why marriage is very much second best if one is currently single. But Paul doesn’t think the world is about to pass away; he thinks the world is already passing away, and there are other things that now require the Corinthians’ investment. Concern with one’s spouse is ta tou kosmou rather than ta tou kuriou, which is hugely challenging. Sometimes antitheses are not false; they are required by the gospel.
If stopping here sounds a bit unsatisfactory - what exactly are they arguing about, and how would they respond to each other, particularly Campbell and Wright? - you might want to come back in a few days, when I summarise Campbell and others’ response to Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God.