Sorting out Apocalyptic Theology

Apocalyptic theology, as an alternative to what is referred to as a Lutheran (a useful misnomer) reading, or a salvation history approach (represented by N. T. Wright and others) to Paul, presents a largely unified front in what it is not. While this departure is key, there has not been as much work done in providing a full coherence to an apocalyptic approach. Beverly Gaventa’s criticism of Douglas Campbell, that in throwing out the tepid bathwater of justification theory or Lutheranism, he seems to have forgotten the baby altogether, is not altogether accurate or fair but the point is well made that in doing the hard work of showing the failings of other theories, a great deal of work still has to be done in describing exactly what sort of force sin, death, and the devil constitute. Is the problem primarily anthropological or does the emphasis fall on the satanic and demonic, and exactly how is it that Christ breaks in and undoes this system?

While apocalyptic theology has a genealogy through Albert Schweitzer and Wilhelm Wrede, which emphasized demonology as the problem and eschatology as the solution, this sort of reduction has mostly been abandoned. There is still an appreciation of the cosmic nature of this focus but there has been a mass departure from reduction of the power to demons and the solution as future. However, the present emphasis on an inaugurated eschatology and a folding of demonology into an animate sin and death, does not mean that there is a unified or clear agreement on the meaning of apocalyptic theology. Disagreements and ambiguities prevail in both descriptions of the problem and solution. What I will suggest in the conclusion is that my work on Romans 6-8 may provide a bridge between disparate descriptions of the problem and solution and how, specifically, the plight of sin is addressed by the death and resurrection of Christ.

Following the format, which I have already criticized, it seems necessary to begin to describe apocalyptic theology by describing its departure from other approaches. The failures and inconsistencies in salvation history, Lutheran theology, and the insufficiencies of the new perspective on Paul, point to the need for something like an apocalyptic understanding.

As Douglas Campbell explains it, an apocalyptic understanding stands in sharp contrast to a contractual or Lutheran theology. (I have explained this in some detail here.) A Lutheran Plan A/Plan B approach is one in which one must travel through Plan A to get to the better plan B. In this understanding, trying to observe the Law teaches one that she is a guilty sinner and so needs to move on to plan B with Jesus. This contractual or Lutheran approach has inherent contradictions (e.g. there is the simultaneous need to rationally recognize one’s failure yet this sin entails rational incapacity), it contradicts Paul (e.g. Paul, as a Pharisee, had a clear conscience and never seems to pass through Plan A), and it seems to entail inherent anti-Semitism (Jews are the prototypical sinners and Judaism is the archetypical failed religious system, and they should be smart enough to realize their sinfulness so they must be the most recalcitrant or most unreflective of people).[1]

The New Perspective on Paul has attempted to mitigate several of these elements in that “works of the Law” are not equated with works righteousness but with boundary markers of being Jewish, such as circumcision and food laws. Wright has attempted to take this insight and apply it to his own version of the problem, in that his Plan A is not about the individual but it pertains to all of Israel. His salvation history project does not so much reject, as expand upon the Lutheran project. For Wright, Plan A is now the story of Israel’s historical and corporate journey to arrival at Plan B, the church. He attempts to fully incorporate the Old and New Testament, intertextually and progressively, making the Old necessary for the New: the church’s story is told in relation to Christ’s story; Christ’s story is told in relation to Israel’s story; Israel’s story is told in relation to Adam’s story. The focus on knowledge of God’s presence and activity within history imagines history must always be read in one direction – from Adam forward till we come to Christ. As Campbell points out, there is no clear explanation as to how a still unstable Plan A, now focused on sociological boundaries in the new perspective, points to belief in Jesus. The Lutheran model, with its relief of guilt from sin etc., at least made sense.

The critique of Wright by other apocalyptic theologians, beyond his overdependence on the particular unfolding of Israel’s history, is that he seems to bypass the need for God to break through the world so as to give his own person as the subject of knowledge. Jesus claims that he is the way, the truth, and the light, yet Wright has collapsed divine self-disclosure into history, identifying that disclosure too simply with the objective consideration of the historical events behind the texts of Scripture. God is known by our “critically realist” knowledge of his historical activity, given to us by the accounts of Scripture, behind which it lies. Scripture records and bears witness to these events, but the question is if its own disclosure and communicative character are obscured?[2] The New Testament, in an apocalyptic understanding, reads history and reality the other way round, from the vantage point of Jesus Christ, who is not explained by history but serves as the interpretive key for history.

In the American context, the work of Louis Martyn has been central in setting up the parameters upon which most apocalyptic theologians will agree. In his work on Galatians, Martyn maintains Paul’s argument is not intended to describe the progress of salvation history but to say you can live in one of two relationships: a relationship with law or a relationship with God. You can be a slave to the law and what is the same thing, to the fundamental principles of the world, or you can be a son or daughter of God (4:6-7). The focus is not on history but on what world a person occupies, and transference from one world to the other depends upon God’s intervention into the first world and delivery to the second.

Though historical or temporal categories are present in Galatians they serve the purpose of illustrating the problem of cosmic bondage. Paul recounts his personal history and alludes both to the history of Israel and to the history of the Galatians to illustrate the problem of slavery in each instance. Paul conflates the history of Israel and the history of the Galatians, as he and his fellow Jews were enslaved under the elementary principles, and he associates these same elements with the Galatians’ former life in idolatry. If the Galatians were to embrace circumcision, it would constitute a return to the very same elements to which they had been enslaved when they were pagans.

Paul was transformed through a direct intervention by God on the road to Damascus, revealing his Son to him, just as the Galatians were transformed as God intervened and gave his Spirit when Christ was portrayed as crucified before their eyes (3:1). Paul’s purpose is not to provide an overview of salvation history, but to explain the nature of the Galatians’ transition from slavery to freedom as they have been transferred to a new world “in Christ.” Paul is not interested in the history of Israel for its own sake, and he is not trying to show how Israel’s salvation history would benefit either Jews or Gentiles. Paul may think Israel was in a different situation than the pagans in that he distinguishes between the child and the slave but this is in no way a description of some sort of intermediate state, as is revealed in his focus on explaining the similarities. All suffered a form of oppression and all in Christ have received adoption as children.[3]

Sigurd Grindheim maintains, time in relation to world history, salvation history, or cosmic history is not interesting to Paul. The Galatians’ history, their move from slavery to freedom is the only history Paul is interested in. Paul’s references to his personal history and to the history of Israel serve to illustrate the nature of this transfer and to describe the two domains that the letter intends to contrast: slavery under the law and adoption to sonship.[4] The Galatians and Paul have been liberated from slavery by God’s direct intervention through Christ’s act of redemption and, by extension, so have all Christians.

To summarize Martyn, in his own words, and the parameters he lays out:

Paul’s view of wrong and right is thoroughly apocalyptic, in the sense that on the landscape of wrong and right there are, in addition to God and human beings, powerful actors that stand opposed to God and that enslave human beings. Setting right what is wrong proves then, to be a drama that involves not only human beings and God, but also those enslaving powers. And since humans are fundamentally slaves, the drama in which wrong is set right does not begin with action on their part. It begins with God’s militant action against all the powers that hold human beings in bondage.[5]

•J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997), 87.

In Campbell’s depiction, “The unconditional, revelatory, transformational, and liberational aspects of this event mean that it is appropriately described as ‘apocalyptic.’”[6]  The world has been taken captive, and Christ is the liberator from this captivity.

In the words of Beverly Gaventa;

Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death).  

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: John Knox, 2007), 80.

Apocalyptic clearly refers to cosmic bondage and liberation but what, exactly, is the identity of the cosmic power that has enslaved? Where Ernst Käsemann assumes Paul means the demonic, in a literal sense, Martinus C. De Boer assumes Paul speaks of sin in this way to make an anthropological point.[7] Though Martyn speaks of “real enemies” and “genuine powers,” Shaw suggests the phrases are ambiguous. As he says, “he identifies the curse of the law as chief among them, which, given his account of the law, can hardly be a demon by another name.”[8] There is an “ontological incompetence,” in Campbell’s words, but its cause is not clear or agreed upon. As Shaw concludes, deploying the words of Colin Gunton, the contemporary apocalyptic interpreters appeal to the demonic for its power of metaphorical characterization “which would otherwise defy expression.”[9]

Demonizing sin may at times serve in place of explanation of both the problem and its solution. The role of faith, for example, and how an individual comes to faith are not clear. As the question was put to  Käsemann, “If God’s intervention on the human stage, exorcising the world of its demons, is 100% of the equation, where is human subjectivity in any recognisable form?”[10] As Gaventa has put it in her critique of Martyn, “Martyn’s avoidance of conversion language and earlier individualistic readings of Galatians has taken us too far here, so that even the function of Paul’s self-reference in the letter’s argument (or re-proclamation) does not become clear.”[11]

As long as the demonic is in view the tendency is to see the solution in terms of a purely future eschatological solution (e.g. Schweitzer, Wrede). Where sin and death are the focus, as in contemporary apocalyptic theology, there is focus on a realized eschatology in the death and resurrection of Christ, but the burden becomes one of saying how the work of Christ defeats these powers and how the individual incorporates or is incorporated into this victory.

There is a near equal divide among the apocalyptic theologians with some suggesting there is an ontological release (e.g. Gaventa) from the powers and the others suggesting it is a revelational epistemological release (e.g. Martyn), but even here the explanation is considered wanting. According to Bruce McCormack, readers “are left with a rich battery of images and concepts. But images and concepts alone, no matter how rhetorically powerful, do not rise to the level of adequate explanation. How is it that the ‘rectification’ of the world is achieved by Christ’s faithful death?”[12] While participation in Christ through the Spirit (e.g. Campbell) and revelation or an epistemological release (e.g. Martyn) are pointers, explanation is left wanting.  

What I would point to in conclusion, is that the role of deception which has certainly been noted in an apocalyptic understanding, can potentially bring together the ontological and epistemological divide. I believe sin as a lie, oriented to death by deception in regard to the law, can also go some way in detailing exactly how Christ’s death is a defeat of the power of sin and death and it can help resolve the continuing question and divide over the law.

In the original debate between Käsemann and Bultmann, part of what was at issue was the role of the body and the corporate or individual implications of embodiment and language. As Käsemann would note, in a very Wittgensteinian mode, communication of the self with the self is rendered possible by an already existing communication with and in the environment (language is an embodied capacity). At the same time, this poses the possibility for a simultaneous disruption within the self and between the self and the environment, where communication is broken through deception. The biblical term “body,” as with Wittgenstein, is inclusive of the linguistic capacity that sets man simultaneously into communication and poses the possibility of confrontation or a split within himself, with others, and with God.

In Paul’s depiction, within deception lies the simultaneous possibility for cosmic and personal alienation and enslavement. The fact that the satanic and demonic are consistently linked with the lie of Genesis, but also the lie of religion (the covenant with death, in Isaiah), and that this lie is equated with sin, points to how Christ’s exposure of this lie is both ontological and epistemological in its cosmological import.

In brief, Paul pictures creation and the Creator as containing an infinite depth of communion and communication that has been displaced by a world of deception. In my next blog I will spell out in detail how this understanding fills in the gaps in contemporary apocalyptic theology.


[1] Campbell spells this out quite brilliantly in Deliverance, but is available in his review of Wrights Volumes on Paul and The Faithfulness of God – https://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/douglas-campbell/

[2] “History, Providence and the Apocalyptic Paul” – https://aura.abdn.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2164/7574/History_2c_Providence_and_Apocalyptic_Paul_SJT.pdf;jsessionid=FA0FD8F9F020B597D401884CE00C1150?sequen

[3] Sigurd Grindheim, “Not Salvation History, but Salvation Territory: The Main Subject Matter of Galatians,” New Test. Stud. 59, pp. 91-108 © Cambridge University Press, 2013, doi:10.1017/S0028688512000264 accessed here – https://www.sigurdgrindheim.com/Salvation%20History.pdf

[4] Ibid, Grindheim

[5] I am here utilizing the fine dissertation by David Anthony Bennet Shaw, The ‘Apocalyptic’ Paul: An Analysis & Critique with Reference to Romans 1-8, Fitzwilliam College.

[6][6] Douglas A. Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 66.

[7] Shaw, 139.

[8] Shaw, 143

[9] Shaw, 144

[10] “A Tribute To Ernst Käsemann and a Theological Testament,” 391. Shaw 145

[11] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Review of Galatians by J. Louis Martyn,” RBL, 2001, Ibid

[12] Bruce L. McCormack, “Can We Still Speak of ‘Justification by Faith’? An In-House Debate with Apocalyptic Readings of Paul,” in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, the Gospel, and Ethics in Paul’s Letter, ed. Mark W. Elliott et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 167. Shaw, 160.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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