Generous Orthodoxy  

Friday, October 30, 2009

A modest proposal: Apocalyptic theology

In 1997, when I was in residence at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, David Tracy proposed to me, quite seriously, that the term “Union School of apocalyptic” be used to identify an increasingly visible and vocal group of theologians and biblical scholars who taught, were trained in, or were strongly influenced by apocalyptic theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York in the 70s and 80s. (The “school” is in diaspora now; Union today reflects little of this influence.)

I have been reflecting about Tracy’s suggestion for twelve years. About a year ago I started floating the idea to some of those on this list. I’ve learned that there have already been some moves along this line, identifying the movement and the prominent figures, if not a “school.” I have not received any cease-and-desist notices, so here is my offering.

[I include myself, even though I am not an academic like the others, because my preaching and teaching was formed at Union and continues to be thoroughly shaped by this way of reading the New Testament.]

The “Union School” of apocalyptic theology:

Great-grandfathers (sort of)
J. C. Blumhardt and Christoph Blumhardt

Karl Barth
Ernst Käsemann (Tübigen)

Fathers and children directly connected to Union, as either faculty or students
J. Louis Martyn
Paul Louis Lehmann
Raymond E. Brown (Brown began teaching New Testament apocalyptic at Union in the 70s and it strongly influenced his last work, The Death of the Messiah)
Christopher Morse
James F. Kay
Martinus C. de Boer
Beverly Gaventa
Joel Marcus
Nancy Duff
Alexandra R. Brown
Fleming Rutledge

Non-Union affiliates
Paul Minear (Yale)
J. Christiaan Beker (Princeton)
John Howard Yoder (Notre Dame)
James Y. Holloway (Yale)
Paul W. Meyer (Princeton)
Brevard Childs (Yale)
Charles Cousar (Emory)
Gerhard Sauter (Bonn)
Jürgen Moltmann (Tübigen)

Douglas Harink (Kings, Edmonton, Alberta)
John Barclay (Durham)
Philip Ziegler (Aberdeen)
Joseph Mangina (Wycliffe, Toronto)
Francis Watson (Durham)
Simon Gathercole (Cambridge)
Douglas Campbell (Duke)

Will Campbell
William Stringfellow
Bill Wylie-Kellerman
Vernard Eller
Jacques Ellul
William H. Willimon
Kenneth Leech

What is apocalyptic theology?

Here is a short summary by Douglas Harink, followed by a much longer description by me.

"Most simply stated, 'apocalypse' is shorthand for Jesus Christ. In the New Testament… all apocalyptic reflection and hope comes to this, that God has acted critically, decisively, and finally for Israel, all the peoples of the earth, and the entire cosmos, in the life, death, resurrection, and coming again of Jesus, in such a way that God’s purpose for Israel, all humanity, and all creation is critically, decisively, and finally disclosed and effected in the history of Jesus Christ."[1]

Some central affirmations of apocalyptic theology (F. Rutledge)

--Divine agency is central— “God is up to something in the world” (Paul Lehmann).
--Sin and Death are Powers who have invaded the world and established their dominion.
--The human condition is genuinely tragic because humanly speaking, there is no escape from bondage to the Powers.
--The earthly human world is subject to incursion from the divine world—“cosmic breaking and entering” (Martyn)—in Jesus Christ, the end of the ages has come upon us (I Corinthians 10:11).
--The divine apocalypse is less a disclosure than it is an invasion (“O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”—Isaiah).
--Justification (dikaiosune) is understood less as individual salvation, more as rectification constituting a new world (it should go without saying that the individual's "blessed assurance" is guaranteed also).
--There are three parties in the apocalyptic drama, not two: God, enslaved humanity, and the Powers of Sin and Death. The incarnate Son did not arrive in neutral territory. His entrance called out the demonic forces.
--Jesus Christ waged apocalyptic warfare against these demonic forces (see R. E. Brown on Gethsemane).
--The apocalypse of Jesus Christ means the end of conventional warfare, because the line between good and evil runs through each person (as attested by Vaclav Havel, A. Solzhenitsyn, Primo Levi and many others).
--Apocalyptic metaphor is God’s poetry (Martyn), telling us the truth about our condition and our hope.
--The New Creation dawns even now, in the Church’s participation in the Cross and Resurrection.
--Cruciform Christian witness is anchored by secure confidence in God’s triumph at the ultimate End, the Last Day when God puts an end to Sin, Death, and the devil, establishing the Kingdom of God in its eternal, victorious completeness.


In the light of the impending eschaton all present arrangements are provisional. The Christian lives according to the lights of the Age to Come. The new state of affairs set in motion by the crucifixion and resurrection evokes a response from us. Our response will be based on the new reality, a witness undermining everything that used to make sense in the old kosmos. “Be not conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (II Corinthians 5:17); “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober” (I Thessalonians 5:8); “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).

When the cross is understood as apocalyptic sign, the Christian community understands that its location is at the frontier of what God is doing in the world, and that the household of God is first to stand before the judgment seat (I Peter 4:17) on behalf of the world. The sign of victory on this frontier is not victory as this world understands victory. The sign of the cross is the “powerful weakness” of Christ; “the new creation is the community of those who…are conformed to the crucified one for the sake of others.”

What does it mean to define the Cross as apocalyptic sign?
Here is a summary:
--The cross signifies the turn of the ages.
--The Old Age of Sin and Death received its predestined, mortal blow when the incarnate Son “was delivered up for our offences and was raised for our rectification.”[2]
--The Age to Come has been inaugurated.[3]
--The distinctive, indeed unique mark of the Age to Come is self-giving love, which plants itself in “this present evil age” as the power of powerlessness.[4]

[1] Harink, Paul Among the Postliberals, 68.
[2] This is my translation of Romans 4:25. Paradidomai (to deliver up, to hand over) has a distinct theological meaning throughout the New Testament. It strongly conveys intentionality and divine direction—see for example Mark 14:41. As for “rectification” (dikaiosune) instead of “justification,” this has been proposed by Martyn among others, and is beginning to gain currency.
[3] “The Kingdom of God has come upon you,” common to the Synoptic Gospels, is another way of saying the same thing. In John’s Gospel, the atmosphere of the turning of the ages is pervasive (“Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out”). This is none the less true on account of that gospel’s so-called “realized eschatology.”
[4] Vaclav Havel used this phrase, “the power of powerlessness,” to describe the continuing hold that Aung San Suu Kyi has on the Burmese people even though she has been under house arrest for 17 years. Think also of the “power of powerlessness” in the case of Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years and emerged as the father of his country.

Friday, October 23, 2009

R. Crumb illustrates the book of Genesis

Just as I am finishing up a (small) series of sermons on Genesis, here comes R. Crumb who received an advance of $200,000 from Norton for his just-released illustrated (large) version of that book. Mr. Crumb, famous limner of gross-looking people, has undoubtedly produced a fascinating piece of work, even for those who wonder why such a good draftsman loves to draw ugliness. Even he admits that he has a hard time drawing attractive women.

Some of his comments in an interview for The New York Times are entertaining: the patriarchs “all get pushed around by their wives”; and the picture of the gate of the city of Sodom is quite stunning (so far I have only seen excerpts). His depiction of Abraham’s “deep dark dread” in chapter 15 is certainly compelling; Abraham is having a vision of the Holocaust. The fact that the passage is about something else altogether does not entirely negate the power of the challenge to the whole concept of the covenant.

Mr. Crumb’s version of Genesis is described elsewhere as “humanist.” Indeed, Genesis does show us humanity in its most fundamental condition, more so than any other biblical book, since after all the Creation story is immediately followed by the story of the primordial catastrophe that has caused—as Genesis shows—all subsequent catastrophes among human beings and the rest of the created order. The stories of the patriarchs give us ample illustration of these subsequent catastrophes and failures.

But here’s what Christians who teach, preach, and bear witness need to think about. Genesis is only secondarily about human beings. It is primarily about God, and that’s what a great many people both inside and outside the churches just don’t realize. Genesis just can’t be read as a “humanist” document. Or, rather, it can be read that way, I suppose, just as King Lear can be read as a study of old age, but that would be a pathetically reductive reading. Even if we do not believe in the God of Genesis, it seems to me that we must acknowledge (and teach) that it demands to be interpreted on its own terms, namely, as a story about the God who, Genesis proclaims, is there before human beings can imagine him. This is the God whose Word summons into existence the things that do not exist (Romans 4:17). So no “humanist” version of Genesis can really get at the true purpose of the text. Focusing on Genesis’ reworking of old myths (as Crumb would have it) is roughly analogous to interpreting Shakespeare’s plays as reworkings of old plots.

Here’s what Crumb said to The New York Times (and to NPR, and presumably to everyone else who asks): “The fact that people can persist in the information age to take this as a fundamental word of God, words to live by, rules to live by, that’s really crazy to me.”

My, my. This "information age." What empirical evidence under heaven do we have for this "age" being any less deluded and depraved than any other age? What "information" do we have that gives us "words to live by" that will rescue us from yet more schemes and frauds, drug cartels and billionaire gangsters, environmental degradation, war-criminality, and genocide?

It’s a certainty that R. Crumb will now receive hundreds of hate letters for saying what he did about the Bible, which, alas, which will convince him even more that Bible-believers are crazy.

(A corrective: When we say that the Bible is about God, that's necessary to say first. Only then can we rightly say that the Bible is about God and his people.)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More about Karen Armstrong

This is more self-indulgent than I generally want to be, but I wrote it while pulled off the side of the road while listening to NPR on the radio (and check Tips for more on this subject by someone other than me, and a critique by Harvey Cox):

I have the telephone number of my local NPR station (WNYC) programmed into my cell phone so I can pull over to the side of the road and argue with the person uttering absurdities about Christianity (it happens often)--but I never, ever actually get on the air. So here is what I want to say about Karen Armstrong, who was interviewed for the umpteenth time on the Brian Lehrer show (I am not at all interested in reading her books, for reasons that will be clear):

No one working from within the Christian tradition would recognize the Jesus that she talked about this morning. It is not responsible to speak about a religious tradition without working to acknowledging its own understanding of itself. Yeah, I know she was a nun, but it didn't take. Calling Jesus an "axial sage," a "towering religious genius" (among other TRGs, of course) or a "paradigmatic human being" (among other PHBs) misses the point entirely.

Ms. Armstrong has forced Jesus into a framework that serves her own theories about "religion," but no reputable New Testament theologian would agree with her depiction of him as one of several "axial sages" who, turning away from Iron Age violence, sought to nurture "transcendence within the self." What Jesus actually did (at the very least) was to announce the arrival of the Kingdom of God in his own person.

Moreover, comparing Jesus to Mohammed (or Buddha, for that matter) as though they were essentially the same is intellectually (not to mention religiously) irresponsible. All these people who talk about Jesus as a "sage" forget, or overlook to the point of perversity, that the faith proclaims him as the crucified One who was raised by God from the dead. Without that, the Christian faith is nothing.

If the Karen Armstrongs of the world want to renounce the Christian confession, they can and should do that, but leaders in the church should make it clear that such people (and they are legion, though few are so articulate as Armstrong) twist the Christian confession out of all recognition and then present it in such a way as to support their own history-of-religion theories.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

And God said…

Well, here goes The Wall Street Journal (new Murdoch version) again. I have always looked forward to its weekly “Houses of Worship” column. Today (October 2), this week’s author, Stephen Prothero, begins this way:

“Any claim of revelation is preposterous. It presumes that God exists, that God speaks, and that all is not lost when human beings translate that speech into ordinary language.”

It is tempting to think that the whole column is a joke, though I suspect not. The rest of it is devoted to a (boring) discussion of a project to recover the “original text” of the Book of Mormon, alleged to have been transcribed in the 1820s by Joseph Smith from golden plates which, conveniently, "disappeared" long ago. This endeavor has just been published by the Yale University Press. Dr. Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University. Never underestimate the capacity of religion departments to get Christianity wrong. Except this time, possibly without realizing it (?), Dr. Prothero has it exactly right. The Holy Scriptures of the Christian church do indeed “presume that God exists, that God speaks, and that all is not lost when human beings translate that speech into ordinary language.” Exactly. Couldn’t have said it better.

Now, let’s move off Dr. Prothero’s radar screen altogether, to observe that the trouble arises when the Christian church does not believe this foundational premise of its own Scriptures. That’s what’s at stake, not the debate about homosexuality (although that is admittedly important and needs to be much more serious). The more crucial question is, “Has God said anything to us?” My friend Will Willimon says that everything hangs on these three words from the first chapter of Genesis: “And God said….”

If we had more preachers in the mainline churches who were willing to take a stand on those three words, I believe we would see a renewal of the faith. Does this mean “fundamentalism,” that all-purpose word that the mainline churches’ ruling classes like to attach to those of us who still believe in revelation? Absolutely not. That’s why the third part of Dr. Prothro’s dictum is so perfectly tuned: a lot is lost in the transition from the divine speech to human speech, otherwise we could not bear to hear it in our present condition—but not all is lost. It is the gracious will of God that human beings should be attuned, anew in every generation, to his living voice—the Word in the words.