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.

Apocalyptic Epistemology

The power of faith, as Paul presents it in Galatians, is evoked by the gospel and does not depend upon something one might already have in mind or on powerful rhetorical arguments. The gospel evokes its own order of understanding as it deconstructs or breaks into the old-world order. Paul’s depiction of his death to the cosmic order so as to enter the new creation of Christ sets up a new set of opposed pairs (between enslavement and liberation or flesh and Spirit), not as in the cosmic dualisms in which the warfare was within the cosmos, but such that new creation is displacing the old cosmic order. This means law, tradition, fine sounding arguments, religion, and even ethics of the old order are finished.

The encounter with Christ is not an improvement on the present human situation. It is not simply the attainment of forgiveness or relief from guilt, nor is Christ’s death a vicarious payment for sin. In this understanding the law, the cosmos, or the old order provide an entry point into the new creation. Paul is arguing that no one has any ground left to stand on. In fact, all of these explanations of Christ, in Galatians, could be framed as part of the false gospel being taught by the teachers Paul is opposing. They want to make of the gospel a covenantal nomism, in which Christ has met the requirements of the law, so now righteousness has been obtained on the basis of keeping covenant through the law. Paul’s gospel opposes this partial gospel with the pronouncement that the malevolent grasp of the old-world order is finished. Christ has liberated from slavery through his cross. The lie is displaced by the truth as by the cross the cosmos has been crucified to me and I have been crucified to the cosmos (Gal. 2:19; 5:24; 6:14). Circumcision is nothing, Jewishness is nothing, Gentileness is nothing, gender is nothing, ethnicity is nothing, philosophy is nothing, as what is taking place is on the order of creation from nothing, but the nothing is exposed in light of the new creation: “For neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision anything. What is something is the new creation” (6:14–15; Anchor Bible translation slightly modified).

This is not a dialectic between something and nothing in which the nothing gives forth to something, but it is on the order of creation ex nihilo. The nothing of circumcision, the law, and Jewishness, was formerly a basis for boasting, but now these are excluded as a basis for boasting. This cosmic order “has been crucified.” As Louis Martyn has put it, “We have in this paragraph a stunning declaration from which the word “should” is altogether absent. Paul speaks about what does and does not exist, not about what should and should not exist.”[1] The cross has rendered one world dead and buried as the new world is now commenced.

This new world order contains a new epistemology, which both in Galatians and Corinthians, is contrasted with a fleshly way of knowing: “Therefore from now on we recognize no one by the flesh; even though we have known Christ by the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, this person is a new creation; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2 Corinthians 5:16-17).[2]

The dead and buried fleshly epistemology might have included something like that proposed by Alexander Aphrodisiensis, which presumed that the flesh or something within it provided for the power of perception. The demand for circumcision, by the false teachers of Galatia, is clearly a dependence upon the power of the flesh. Knowing Christ by the flesh and knowing in the new creation seems to describe an all-inclusive shift, which is already counted into every possibility Paul covers on either side of circumcision and law-keeping. Law observance or non-Law observance counts for nothing in this new epistemological order. Neither counts as anything actually existing, but simply constitutes a dialectic on the order of the knowledge of good and evil. There is no end to the dialectic pairs (light/dark, good/evil, life/death) but the point is that this sort of dualism is characteristic of “the present evil age” (Gal. 1:4).

The widespread notion in the ancient world, which Paul is clearly opposing in 6:15, is that the origins or the fundamental building blocks of the universe are based on opposed pairs. As Martyn notes, “He is denying real existence to an antinomy in order to show what it means to say that the old cosmos has suffered its death. He says in effect that the foundation of the cosmos has been subjected to a volcanic explosion that has scattered the pieces into new and confusing patterns.” The cosmos founded on opposed pairs (which for Paul was universal), no longer exists. “For when all of you were baptized into Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for all of you are One in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28). Those in Christ, in rightly recognizing the condition, have suffered the loss of the cosmos for the unity (the new cosmic order) found in Christ.

Of course, what is lost is not God’s good creation but an order of understanding and experience that would constitute itself in unreality and which would obscure reality. The work of the cross breaks the captive power of the old age (which might be characterized as the age in which death and law reigned). Just as creation is portrayed as a speech act in Genesis and John, the gospel of Christ is an act of that same order. This Word spoken into the world liberates in a continual movement of revelation or an ongoing speech-act. The power of darkness and death or the power of futility or a lie is defeated by the light and truth unleashed in the gospel. This is no mere encounter with new information or additional propositions layered on top of the old understanding. The power of the presence of God is unleashed, on the order of “let there be light,” as the good news of new creation (creation from nothing or resurrection) has broken into the cosmic order. The old order is exposed as a mirage, a play of shadows, and to imagine that it is approached through law, reason, or the old order, is to miss the unifying element at its center. God is calling into existence from out of that which does not exist, as in the original creation event. It is not a rescue attempt or an effort at repair. It might be thought of as completion but it is a completion that replaces an order fixed upon the immanent frame of the incomplete.

Part of recognizing the nature of the power of this word involves following Paul’s argument as to how he received it. Paul’s gospel does not depend upon anything else. It does not come by way of tradition or even by way of the apostles in Jerusalem. As Paul presents it, this gospel is counter to religion, law, human wisdom, or any precursor, and this is made evident in the manner in which it was given to him. “For I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not of human invention. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11-12). This is important, as the false teachers want to put the gospel on a foundation of law, but Paul’s point is that the gospel is an encounter with God. To set it on another foundation is to abandon its liberating power from the forces which enslave: religion, tradition, law, ethnicity, or the orders of the cosmos.

Paul is repeating in his own words the Johannine picture: the gospel is with God and is God manifest. Paul’s gospel is not an objective report of what happened in the past; rather his gospel unleashes the Christ-event in the present. What happened in Jerusalem happened to Paul and it happened to the Galatians: “before your eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1 – NASB amended from a question to a statement).  “God confronts you in the gospel,” Paul pleads, “so why would you so easily abandon it for an imitation.” The point is that Paul’s conversion and reception of the gospel is repeated wherever the gospel is preached. The encounter with the risen Christ is an experience contemporaneous with the proclamation of the gospel. That is, the Jerusalem experience is the Pauline experience is the Galatian experience. The gospel is not history, or an objective report of the past, but it is the present and continuing action of God in Christ.[3]

Hearing in faith is to pass into this effective present. It is to pass from the epistemology of the flesh (locked out of the presence/present) to the understanding of the Spirit. Paul wants to secure the Galatians in the epistemology of the Spirit: “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? (3:2). He does not want them to be persuaded by mere rhetoric but by the very power of God, which they have known and experienced. In Martyn’s translation, Paul asks “Am I now engaged in rhetorical arguments designed to sway the crowds” (1:10). His answer is that this gospel is not normally the good news human beings have in mind, “For I did not receive it from another human being, nor was I taught it; it came to me by God’s apocalyptic revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:12). The argument of Galatians is, the gospel by definition is this sui generis apocalyptic revelation of Christ.


[1] Louis Martyn, “The Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians” (Interpretation 54, no. 3 (2000): 246–66). A portion of it is quoted here: https://jasongoroncy.com/2012/07/10/j-louis-martyn-on-life-after-the-invasion/

[2] From Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, Chapter 6 is “Epistemology at the Turn of the Ages” and deals with this passage in Corinthians.

[3] Thank you, Tim, for gifting me Martyn’s commentary on Galatians. You keep providing me with and pointing me to the profoundest of materials. A nice summary and review of the commentary is available at https://www.faith-theology.com/2009/11/apocalyptic-gospel-j-louis-martyn-on.html