BNTC Part 2: Responses to the Apocalyptic School image

BNTC Part 2: Responses to the Apocalyptic School

Biblical Studies conferences frequently involve some slightly implausible proposals, put forward by junior scholars seeking to turn the research world upside down, which get shot down in flames before the session ends. It's happened to many, and it will probably happen to me. But they also involve some wonderful papers, full of clarity and insight, which resolve problems you've been wrestling with for a while and make you very pleased that you bothered coming. Here are a few things which I found particularly helpful.

I’ve talked here before about Doug Campbell and his ‘Athanasian’ reading of Paul, which would generally be referred to as an ‘apocalyptic’ reading. In a nutshell, an ‘apocalyptic’ view of Paul involves seeing the gospel as primarily being about God’s invasion of the cosmos to liberate people through the Christ-event, rather than about God judging sin, forgiving people and keeping his promises to Israel (which would be the “covenantal” view). For scholars like Lou Martyn, Martin De Boer and Campbell, in fact, Paul is directly opposing people who teach the covenantal view. For them, the false teachers in Galatia (and Rome?) are preaching that forgiveness of sins is now available and that the law can be written on believers’ hearts, and are operating within a fundamentally forensic and retributive framework: God is a judge and a justifier, the problem is Adam and Eve’s transgression, the result is liability to judgment, the means of rescue is repentance and obedience to Torah, and the pictorial world is that of a law court. Paul, in contrast, preaches an apocalyptic gospel from within a cosmological framework: God is a warrior and liberator, the problem is the fall of the angels into slavery at the time of Noah, the result is slavery to evil angelic powers, the means of rescue is a unilateral divine strike against the powers, and the picture is that of a battlefield. In its more developed (extreme?) form, Paul opposes all human activity, does not see faith as a condition of anything, and believes salvation is totally unconditional and therefore necessarily universal: “we are all in Christ, so wake up and smell the coffee”, as I have quoted previously. Admittedly, that’s a tightly packed nutshell, but to fit anything inside a nutshell requires it to be compressed somewhat.

Well, the push back is on. The challenges to Campbell’s view in particular are numerous - a recent review in the Expository Times compared it to solving a puzzle by sweeping half the pieces off the table - particularly with respect to his highly contentious reading of Romans 1-3 (an excellent brief rebuttal of which, by the man with the best upper class English accent in the world, can be heard here.) But two papers at the BNTC contended that the apocalyptic anti-covenantal reading is not even the best interpretation of its most central texts, namely Galatians and Romans 5-8. John Anthony Dunne, from St Andrews, argued that a truly apocalyptic reading of Galatians would necessarily be a covenantal one. The split between these two categories owes more to Karl Barth than to first century Jewish apocalyptic literature, he explained: the language of “invading the cosmos” implies an almost deistic conception of divinity which first century Jews would not have shared, and if Galatians is set against a background of suffering, then apocalyptic is precisely the way in which we would expect covenantal hope to be expressed. (I found this second point interesting, but I am not completely convinced about the background of suffering in Galatia, and I am unpersuaded that the cry of “Abba Father” in 4:6 is a cry for assurance in the midst of trouble.) If Dunne is right, though, the apocalyptic versus covenantal split is a false antinomy, set up by Martyn and followed by Campbell and others, and should be abandoned by serious students of Galatians.

An even more telling critique, in my view, came from David Shaw, who is working at Cambridge with Simon Gathercole. Shaw sees three encouraging trends in the apocalyptic school, which he thinks point to an increasing harmony between apocalyptic and covenantal readings. Firstly, there is an anthropological pessimism to the apocalyptic school which is replacing the heavy emphasis on angels and demons which characterised Wrede and Schweitzer, and this makes covenantalism more persuasive: if humans are in bondage to sin, the flesh, death and the law, and therefore need divine deliverance (as Martyn and others believe), then aren’t we faced with the very same problem that the new covenant promises of Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, not to mention Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3, are intended to address? Secondly, the stress on pneumatological participation in Campbell’s work (Martyn talked more about the Son) makes covenantal readings more plausible, since the new covenant texts are so concerned with the Spirit - although, Shaw admits, Campbell has not read the pneumatological dimension covenantally, as Schweitzer did. Thirdly, epistemology and ethics leave the covenantal door open - how do we know, and how do we live? - with passages like 2 Corinthians 3 addressing these issues, but giving heavily covenantal content in very apocalyptic imagery. So several developments within the apocalyptic school indicate that the chasm is not as wide as it sometimes appears.

So why do people argue for apocalyptic as opposed to covenantal? Well, Shaw says, it rests on two foundations: Martin De Boer’s antinomy between Paul as cosmological and his opponents as forensic - which he argues is misplaced, quite rightly - and the apocalyptic heartland of Rom 5-8. But even Romans 5-8 is more covenantal and forensic than the apocalypticists allow. Doug Campbell makes much of the fact that the word krima (judgment) is not used in Romans 6-8, but as Shaw points out, this both rather arbitrarily excludes 5:16-18 from the picture, and crucially neglects the use of katakrima (condemnation) in 8:1-4. Not only that, but 8:3 talks sacrificially, and the climactic 8:4 concludes, not with “that we may be free” or equivalent, but with “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled.” (In the discussion which followed Shaw’s paper, Wright threw in 8:34 as a further example, before letting off steam about Campbell’s three hundred page, largely unsourced rant about Justification Theory being necessarily contractual.) So to present chapters 5-8 as apocalyptic to the exclusion of covenantal categories owes more to a recently invented, neo-Barthian polarity than to what Paul actually says.

What is really going on here, then? If Campbell’s reading doesn’t emerge clearly from Galatians or Romans 5-8, let alone from Romans 1-4 or 1 Corinthians, then where does it come from, and why is it being advocated so forcefully in some quarters? The discussion on this question was left to the lunch table, since it is of course not an exegetical issue, but the general feeling was that the target of the apocalyptic reading, and Campbell’s work in particular, is American evangelicalism (unsurprisingly, American evangelicals were also the foil for the Jesus Seminar in the 1980s - although it’s interesting that the Jesus Seminar found them too apocalyptic, rather than not apocalyptic enough!) If the covenantal reading can be marginalised, then a whole raft of its corollaries can as well, including modern betes noires like God’s wrath, the necessity of faith for salvation, judgment for sin and Jewish sexual ethics. Far more appealing then, in certain circles, to have a unilateral intervention by God with universalist ramifications, particularly if Romans 1:26-27 can be written out as non-Pauline in the process.

I doubt many readers have got this far, and of those that have, I doubt many will intuitively support Campbell’s interpretation anyway. But he does have a number of followers, and although I think he is wrong, he is both very intelligent and very forceful. Fortunately, a new generation of bright young scholars is picking up his challenge, and critiquing him on his own terms. It’s a fascinating discussion.

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