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Possibilities and Problems of New Testament Apocalyptic

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.

18 Comments

  1. Dave Belcher wrote:

    For the way in which apocalyptic can reduce to “type,” you should check out Daniel Patte’s methodology…his book on Romans (ed. with Monya Stubbs I believe) sets forth this threefold “typology,” if you will (and he doesn’t call them either types or models), himself espousing the “apocalyptic,” and following closely Christiaan Beker (I took a class from him using this methodology on Romans — it was interesting…we had to “select” one “bias” each week through which to read the text in question). I don’t remember off the top of my head if he uses a particular term to describe these (and the three, by the way, are “forensic,” “new covenant” and “apocalyptic” — in relation specifically to Romans), but I believe he would say they are contextually constructed biases — each of them legitimate interpretations in their own right based on the context in which they are constructed. Recall that Patte is a structuralist.

    Thought that might be interesting to your comments for further research. Peace.

    Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 2:35 pm | Permalink
  2. Ben Myers wrote:

    Excellent post, Halden — and I think Martyn’s work improves on Beker’s in exactly this way.

    Dave: “we had to ‘select’ one ‘bias’ each week through which to read the text in question”. Since reading this, I seem to have been overcome by an uncontrollable fit of shuddering.

    Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 3:36 pm | Permalink
  3. Andy wrote:

    Halden,

    I’m glad you’ve picked up Beker, but let me press you. You think Beker is wrong to see apocalyptic as a kind of hermeneutic or perspective through which one sees the world, favoring instead to define apocalyptic as irruption or disruption, particularly that of Christ.

    The obvious question is how your definition is superior to Beker’s. In fact, is not your own definition as arbitrary as his? Especially considering the etymology of the word in no way implies catastrophe or disruption. If the point is Christ’s coming and its significance, why introduce the language of “apocalyptic” at all, unless it is tied to a certain hermeneutic or explanatory tradition?

    Andy

    Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 5:11 pm | Permalink
  4. WTM wrote:

    And, to be sure, ‘apocalyptic’ is a “type” or a “literary form” that “is stable and definable in nature.” That’s just about as textbook a definition of ‘genre’ as one could want, and apocalyptic is certainly a genre.

    Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  5. Ben Myers wrote:

    Hi Andy. I’m not sure it’s quite that simple, since neither Beker nor Martyn is interested in the etymology of “apocalypse”. Instead (and appropriately), their approach is much more Wittgensteinian: they want to understand what Paul means by “apocalypse”, and they try to answer this question by looking at the way Paul uses the term. So both Beker and Martyn agree in their refusal to import “apocalyptic” as a general interpretive category.

    Their disagreements arise from the way they approach Paul’s texts. As Martyn himself observes in his review of Beker (reprinted as an appendix in Martyn’s Theological Issues), Beker is more interested in biblical theology, so he tends to move from the specific contingencies of Paul’s texts to the greater “coherence” of Paul’s whole theology. Whereas Martyn tends to move in the opposite direction, foregrounding the specificities and contingencies. Thus Martyn’s own concept of “apocalyptic” is essentially drawn from Galatians — and Martyn is quite comfortable about admitting that this (radically anti-heilsgeschichtlich) concept of apocalyptic does not cohere easily with the theology of Romans. (Indeed, he seems to view parts of Romans as an unfortunate retreat from the radicalism of Galatians.) Whereas Beker’s category of apocalyptic is much broader, more generic, more inclusive of salvation-history, etc — and thus perhaps more like a “general hermeneutic scheme”, as Halden is arguing here.

    In any case, I think the real questions here are complex ones concerning the interpretation of Paul, and the relation between Paul’s specific letters and his coherent “theology”. But I don’t think it’s simply a matter of importing a “hermeneutic or explanatory tradition” from outside Paul’s texts, as you suggest.

    That’s how I see it, anyway — I may very well be on the wrong track though!

    Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 6:42 pm | Permalink
  6. Ben Myers wrote:

    Oh, I just saw WTM’s comment as well: I’d respond to this just as I’ve responded to Andy’s query. Scholars like Beker and Martyn have no real interest in this “stable literary genre” of “apocalyptic”. Their whole question is how Paul uses the term “apocalypse”.

    Saturday, July 26, 2008 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  7. Terry wrote:

    Doesn’t there come a point, though, when all you end up discussing is Beker or Martyn’s view of how Paul uses the term? Jesus’s irruptions aside, I can’t help but think in all these discussions that the weight ‘apocalyptic’ is forced to bear is too great.

    Monday, July 28, 2008 at 2:33 am | Permalink
  8. Andy wrote:

    Ben,

    Thanks for the response. I’m aware of the more Wittgensteinian method of Beker and Martyn. But the reason I asked about etymology really has little to do with etymology. I agree, to a point, with Terry and disagree, to a point, with WTM. I think the genre “apocalypse” is far from settled, but I also think a bit too much is being heaped onto apocalyptic (if you knew my work you’d probably never expect to hear that).

    The point: my initial question was never answered. Why this definition? Why a definition, shall we say, so violent? I worry that the idea of apocalyptic as somehow irruptive or catastrophic has more to do with everyday parlance of the term or its associations in “post-apocalyptic” film. I’m not above keeping the pop culture horizon in view, but let’s not define our theological categories by it. My guess is you would respond that that is how Paul uses the term–an assertion which is far from clear. But even if it were clear, we must ask the further question of why only Paul is our authority here. In fact, should we not rather consult the canonical Apocalyse to discover what apocalyptic is? I’m afraid I may really be trying your patience now since the canonical Apocalypse may seem clearly to be violent and irruptive. I would only suggest that the mythological form (not a pejorative term) of the Apocalypse in fact offers a way of seeing the world–a kind of type or hermeneutic. In addition, I would suggest that that hermeneutic does not really suppose violent irruption as its core, but rather something much closer to the root of the word–unveiling, revelation. The violence and blood that runs through the Apocalypse, then, is not so much irruption as…rectification? Or maybe recapitulation?

    Best,
    Andy

    Monday, July 28, 2008 at 6:30 am | Permalink
  9. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Halden:

    If I am hearing you correctly, one of the implications of what you are saying is this: The apocalypse of Jesus Christ is not so much about “the world,” as such, so much as it is about God and about the radically singular and independent nature of God’s action — the action by which God’s glory, God’s holiness, is unveiled. If “apocalyptic” is thus helpful at all as a way of speaking Christianly (which I am convinced it is), it is precisely because apocalyptic is a way of speaking about God that can not settle with simple metaphysical (analogical) or hermeneutical (narrative-discriptive) accounts of the “being” of God, but is a mode of speaking in which our words give way to doxology. Thus, the point of apocalyptic is doxological, doxology itself being the space opened up by the singular action of God by which alone we are given to live and to participate in Christ. This is why I think apocalyptic is so helpful in thinking about the relation of the church to Israel and of Jewishness of Christianity, because it turns the question of this relation into the question irreducibly about the reality one God of Israel who is in Christ. And as such, apocalyptic may be a way of speaking whereby our words themselves do not “fixate” upon anything (not even upon the concept of “apocalyptic” as such), but always give way to the glory of this one God. In this way, apocalyptic does not really bear any conceptual “weight” at all, because the whole point of apocalyptic is to speak of the way in which our words and concepts and actions lose themselves under the weight of the glory (kabod) of God.

    All of this, of course, is simply a way of re-affirming and re-stating much of what your post is already saying. But I think if we stress that what this is really all about is doxology, then it exposes to some extent the way in which the objections of Terry and Andy are somewhat misdirected, as they do not really get at the real theological upshot of what you’re saying here.

    Monday, July 28, 2008 at 4:18 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Thank you, Nate. You have put the matter in exactly the right key. This is a far more articulate answer than what I likely would have come up with; though it is exactly what I would have wanted to say.

    Monday, July 28, 2008 at 4:37 pm | Permalink
  11. Terry wrote:

    Nate, it’s presumptuous of you to suppose that Andy and myself don’t really get at the real theological upshot of Halden’s comments here. We might, though for different reasons, simply disagree with them. And so we might also be probing for further exposition fully to appreciate Halden’s points and to open ourselves up to persuasion.

    So in consideration of what you posted: If the point of ‘apocalyptic’ is doxological, why is there a need to introduce the concept of ‘apocalyptic’? Why not start with a discussion of the transforming effects of doxology?

    Also, you have asserted that ‘apocalyptic’ is helpful in thinking of the relation of the Church to Israel and the Jewishness of Christianity, because it turns this relation into the reality of Israel’s one God in Christ; but I don’t see that you’ve really explained how or why it is helpful.

    Overall, given that for many the term ‘apocalyptic’ refers to a literary genre with certain features, I can’t help but think that especial care is needed when discussing apocalyptic in the sense that Halden, Ben and others use, to avoid confusion. I would certainly agree that the resurrection of Christ disrupts things, but I also think that Paul argues in Galatians that this disruption is more a disruption of previous assumptions about God and his relation to the world than it is of the ‘apocalyptic’ irruptions spoken of here. If I’m right in this, then ‘apocalyptic’ here would be more akin to the traditional understanding of ‘apocalupsis’ as ‘unveiling’.

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 1:01 am | Permalink
  12. Terry wrote:

    By the way, let me say that I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now, Halden. Your posts are always stimulating.

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 1:44 am | Permalink
  13. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Terry:

    Fair enough. And I apologize for the presumptious tone which may have come through in the last part of my comment. You are right also that my comment about the relationship of the Church to Israel and the Jewishness of Christianity requires more argumentation. Unfortunately the nature of comment boxes is not such as to allow such extended argumentation, in my opinion. I have made begun to make this argument in my book Christ, History, and Apocalyptic, though.

    Nevertheless, perhaps another (maybe less snarky) way of saying what I said earlier is to say that I think Halden has already accounted (if only implicitly at points) for the objections you and Andy are raising. He has done so in the way in which he considers the apocalypse of Jesus Christ as a subversion of the very idea of “apocalyptic” as a mere genre or concept. Surely a fuller exposition of his point would involve an account of how this is the case. But in brief his point seems to be that the apocalypse of Jesus Christ is in fact an unveiling of the action of trinitarian God. It is precisely this apocalypse that is the locus of understanding the relation of the church to Israel because the point of that relation lies not now in some conceptual scaffold — religious, hermeneutical, etc. — but in the ongoing revelatory action one God of Israel and the church. The point is that Christic apocalyptic is about the revelatory act of God — and it is precisely as this act of unveiling that it is irruptive, subversive, and transformative of what Paul and John and others call “the world,” and of what we presume “to be.”

    The point about apocalyptic and doxology is this: The apocalypse of God in Christ is the point at which our speech gives way to doxology. We cannot jump straightaway to the doxological because our human speech itself is never straightforwardly doxological. It is made to be doxological as it is made to participate in the doxa of God. But this means that doxology is the point precisely at which our speech is dispossesed and unhanded to the unveiling action of that God whose coming we can never control. Apocalyptic becomes the focal point as such because the apocalypse of Jesus Christ is the very act of God by which our speech and our lives are so dispossessed and unhanded to the ever-greater glory of God. In other words, the centrality of apocalyptic has to do not with the fact that “apocalyptic is everything,” but rather with the fact that it is in terms of the apocalypse of Jesus Christ alone that we are given to see that, really, it is all about God.

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  14. Tim F. wrote:

    Hi, Nate (and everyone)

    I hope you don’t mind my “jumping in” here.

    I find your clarifications regarding Apocalypse very helpful in unveiling, if you will, what’s going on many of these conversations.

    Here’s my question, though and it revolves around the grammar of “dispossesion.” How does one judge when/where human speech ends and doxology begins? Why can trees sing and fields exalt God (Ps. 96) “in themselves” but humans not?

    My concern here is that God’s revelation not be fickle or arbitrary. There is a huge difference between saying humans can’t control God (I think all agree here) and affirming that God’s activity/revelation doesn’t have a real and discernable form that we can actually know.

    Blessings,

    Tim

    Tuesday, July 29, 2008 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  15. Terry wrote:

    Thanks for your elucidation, Nate; it helps. And I’ll be sure to check out your book once it’s published here in the UK (I don’t know if it’s already out elsewhere).

    I suppose I still don’t see the need to talk about things in terms of ‘apocalyptic’ at this point. I’ve argued similarly about Jesus in my own research on providence, yet without using the term. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s not the theology I have a problem with, but its expression – though to say I have a ‘problem’ sounds harsher than what I actually mean! Each to their own! :)

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 2:11 am | Permalink
  16. Nate Kerr wrote:

    Tim:

    Please forgive my delay in responding. The last two days have been crazy around here (and even now I am afraid I must be brief). Let me address your question about creation: I’m not really sure that the trees sing and the fields exalt God as they do in Ps. 96, “in themselves,” at least not in any sense of the term. That is to say, I don’t think there is an “in itself” to creation at all: I think this is the epitome of sin — to covet creation apart from grace, to make a gift a possession, to serve the creature as if it is something “in itself” apart from the Creator. What I hear the Psalmist saying when I hear him exhort creation to such praise are two things. First, I hear him speaking against the very idolatry which would make of creation something “in itself.” And secondly, I hear him speaking to a glory that is coming. I hear him speaking of newness everyday, I hear him speaking of a judgment that is coming. In this respect, I think we might say that creation is exhorted to praise God not for what it “is” in-itself, but for what it will be in the grace of God’s promised coming. The sign of which is given sacramentally in the everyday newness of the world-as-gift. And so, the earth is actually giving praise and the trees are singing precisely because they are witnessing to the fact that creation is being “dispossessed,” it is being dis-possessed from the hands of grasping and covetous idolaters, and given over to that for which it was created: its transformation into newness with God’s coming glory. (And so, I would tend to read such a text intertextuality as in relation to something like the “groaning” of creation for its redemption which Paul speaks of.) With respect to this, I think Halden’s previous post on “the prevenience of apocalypse” and his recent post on “apocalypse and glory” are helpful. Also, I would say that my own work on apocalyptic hasn’t really addressed that issue. It is being addressed in the groundbreaking research that my good friend at Vanderbilt Josh Davis is doing on creation and grace. All that said, the work of others helps us here — and I think your inquiry is a fair one and an important one, which points up precisely the right questions.

    Terry:

    My book will be released in the UK and US at the end of October by SCM Press. I’ll truly be interested in your thoughts regarding what I do with apocalyptic, especially in relation to Jesus and Christology. The only thing I would say at this point is that: For me, it is all about apocalyptic precisely because in the end it is not all about apocalyptic. For me, apocalyptic is about speaking of the ultimate penultimately (to use Bonhoeffer’s terminology), which is what allows us to speak otherwise, and about other things, sacramentally. Apocalyptic does not allow us to fixate; apocalyptic is a mode of indirection. Which means, of course, that apocalyptic is all about Jesus. This is not to say that there is nothing besides or outside of apocalyptic; but it is to say that apocalyptic is a way of reminding us that there is no way of speaking truly about anything else than in a way that points us away from ourselves and to Jesus and his glory, whose very glory — as the glory of the cross — is our way into the triune God, our deification. Your objection is right on if the point of all this talk of apocalyptic is simply “apocalyptic” as such. There is a case to be made (and one that is being made, I think) that all this talk about apocalyptic is about something more: the giving way of all that we are to the glory of God’s coming Kingdom, the new creation, in which there shall no longer be any need to speak of the old and the new, of the penultimate and the ultimate, for God will be all in all. Apocalyptic at least reminds us that our speech still yet issues forth from the time before that; we still yet stutter and stumble along in the time of sin. Which means that our words and our bodies must still yet undergo anew that radical transformation by which alone we now are in Christ: a death and resurrection.

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 9:24 pm | Permalink
  17. Tim F. wrote:

    Thanks, Nate, for your response.

    Likewise, I don’t affirm an “in itself” which is why I used the scare quotes. I was trying to better understand what you meant by it, which you clearly articulated. I really don’t have any objections to what you’ve said.

    As a side note, I thought of the singing trees because I recently preached a sermon entitled: “the beauty of creation, old and new” and this Psalm was one of my texts; the other was Colossians 3 and all things holding together in Christ. It was an attempt in everyday language to get people to see the world as “enchanted” once again.

    Blessings,

    Tim F.

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 8:02 pm | Permalink
  18. Tim F. wrote:

    Oops! That’s Colossians 1, not 3.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 10:52 am | Permalink

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