Apocalyptic theology has had at least a century-long history, explains Joshua Davis in the introduction to Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and Beyond J. Louis Martyn (Cascade, 2012). Since 1914, we have seen “young, brilliant, brash, and no doubt highly ambitious” theologians with “exceedingly paradoxical” theologies brandishing apocalyptic to purge the ills of modern culture and theology: “Developing the critique of bourgeois, liberal religion in Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Overbeck, they transformed the Protestant rejection of the theologia gloriae into a virtual mysticism, profoundly resistant to every positive objectification of God” (3). Some of the biggest names of twentieth century theology are on the list, especially Bultmann and Barth.
Apocalyptic theology is today enjoying a resurgence, and for some of the same reasons. Apocalyptic theology disturbs settled opinion, resists fixities of all sorts, demands existential response. It’s an enemy of accommodation, a friend to radical critique. And apocalyptic theology has been helped along by recent philosophical excursions into theology – those of Alain Badiou and Agamben, for instance.
But while one knows apocalyptic theology when one sees it, it is not clearly defined. At times, it seems to be little more than stylistics. The contributors to those volume, edited by Davis and Douglas Harinck, contend that apocalyptic is more than a style, or method: “most of the contributors to this volume are looking specifically to the New Testament to recover a distinctively apocalyptic theology” (5).
The book’s focus is on the work of J. Louis Martyn whose work on Paul, Davis argues, has been critical to the working-out of a more thoroughgoing apocalyptic theology. Davis isolates a number of important features of Martyn’s work:
First, Martyn provides a thoroughly apocalyptic interpretation of Paul’s notion of justification, rendered in Martyn’s work as “rectification.” Rectification is not merely a change in the subjective experience or status of a person, but an objective “transformation of conditions of existence under creation’s true kurios.” The world is dominated by Sin and Sin’s associates, and “rectification is an invasion of these hostile forces to liberate their prisoners and end their insurrection” (38). Second, following Richard Hays, Martyn takes the phrase pistis tou christou consistently as a subjective genitive, with the result that he sees “God’s agency in overcoming Sin and the Flesh, the very character of God’s invasion, simply is the faith of Jesus” (40). This means, third, that redemption is not just a continuation of the past but a “fissure” in time created by God’s intervention in the cross. And finally, and most practically, this fissure does away with the binary antinomies that once structured human life (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female). These dualities constitute the “elementary principles of the world” that Paul says are abolished by the faith of Jesus.
It’s good to see Martyn getting this kind of serious attention. His work is worth at least as much time as the New Perspective, and in some ways it poses a more fundamental challenge to traditional interpretations of Paul than Dunn’s or Wright’s. I’ve learned a great deal from Martyn, and think he’s on the right track at crucial points, though I have found some of his claims (e.g., the notion that Paul thinks the law quasi-demonic) dangerously absurd.
At the same time, I find myself in amused agreement with the substance of Robert Jenson’s contribution to the volume, a deft little essay written with the quiet, wry authority that only a seasoned octogenarian can command. He’s seen many theological fads, and he’s worked through many of the issues raised by the recent apocalyptic trend. He admits to being “entranced” by Barth’s Romans commentary, a book that reinforced his midwestern Lutheran attachment to Kierkegaard. But he notes that the apocalyptic critique of “Greek metaphysics” and its terminology and conceptual apparatus doubled back into a critique of apocalypticism itself: “It dawned on me that the late modern discourse of tangents and perpendictulars and incommensurabilities in general was just Platonism stripped to its geometry” (160). Instead of denying metaphysics, or polarizing Greek philosophy and Hebrew theology, we should recognize that the Greek and Hebrew traditions present rival theologies, and the emphasis is equally on “rival” and “theology.”
Jenson argues that “The two theologies are contrary; the debate between them has been greatly fruitful, but it is a debate. The one is wisdom about a God whose eternity is perpendicular to time and the other is wisdom about a God whose eternity both embraces and is involved in time” (161). If that’s true, then whatever the fruits of apocalyptic theology, it cannot be all that we can or should say about God, for the Christian God’s “interventions” are always entries into a world that already lives, moves, and has its being in Him.