I’m currently reading J. Christaan Beker’s Paul’s Apocalyptic Gospel in an effort to go deeper into exploring the apocalyptic nature of the New Testament. So far it promises to be a pretty good summary the way in which Paul’s theology is shaped by an apocalyptic vision of God’s invasion of the cosmos in Christ’s death and resurrection, a reality which is at once politically and metaphysically subversive to the stable givens of the world. However, I must register an initial concern with the way in which Beker is approaching the matter. It’s not that anything he’s said is outright wrong, it is rather that “apocalyptic” seems to be functioning for him as a sort of conceptual cipher. He states things like “apocalyptic is the product of a severe contradiction between legitimate expectations and reality.” He goes on to contrast an existential and an apocalyptic life-view, which each “arise from different perspectives on life.”
The problem I see hovering behind all this is that it reduces “apocalyptic” to a sort of type, a stable notion which Paul’s story of Jesus typifies. It reders apocalyptic as a literary form, or a cultural sensibility that is stable and definable in nature. However, the whole essence of the apocalypse of Jesus is precisely that it intrudes, disrupts, and subverts the stable givens of the hegemonic reality of the world. Apocalyptic may be a “view” of the world that derives from situations of extreme contradiction, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything about the apocalypse of Jesus.
The point, both for theologians and biblical scholars is not to be taken with the notion of apocalyptic, but rather to explore, in conversation with all the relevant biblical and theological sources and authorities, the nature of Christ’s apocalypse in its radical singularity as the Trinitarian epiphany of God’s love invading the cosmos. What is needed is not to posit apocalyptic as a sort of hermeneutic through which we understand Jesus; rather we must allow our hermeneutics to be disrupted by the actuality of the Messianic event which does not merely conform to an apocalyptic genre, but subverts it along with all other genres, or explanatory schemes. What we need is not a stable hermeneutic of apocalypse which will then make Jesus intelligible. Rather we require a posture of constant openness, constant contemplation of the invading mystery of God in Jesus which always exceeds such conceptual schemes. What we need is not apocalyptic, but the actuality of Jesus, who goes on ahead of us, appearing and disappearing at will, always lying just beyond our reach, never assimilable, always and ever new.